Dan Dare, the classic British hero and the toys inspired by his adventures.
Although the world is currently going crazy for the adventures of Luke Skywalker again in the new Star Wars film; the UK’s love for science fiction dates much further back. In some ways you could trace it all the way to H. G. Wells’ fantastic War of the Worlds in 1897, when Earth fought against invaders from the planet Mars. However, Britain really turned its attentions to the stars in 1950 when Frank Hampson and Rev. Marcus Morris launched a brand new comic: the Eagle.
Taking centre stage on the cover of the first Eagle comic way back in April 1950, was a character called Dan Dare, chief pilot of the Interplanet Space Fleet. While American boys had been reading about the exciting action-packed science fiction journeys of Buck Rogers since 1929, the UK had remained steadfastly focused on war stories featuring the likes of Biggles. As a result, Dan Dare was something of a cultural revolution and almost instantly propelled Eagle to the stars, so to speak. The first issue sold a whopping 900,000 copies and throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, it regularly sold more than half a million copies each week.
Although set in space during the (then far off) 1990s, Dan himself had a back story that wouldn’t have looked out of place in more typical war stories. Born in Manchester in 1967, Dan was an amazing pilot who wore a familiar army-style uniform and a chin so square you could use it as a ruler. This realistic theme continued throughout the stories too and although Dan’s daring adventures regularly involved aliens, spaceships and laser blasters, a huge amount of detail was paid to ensuring the vehicles had a measure of scientific plausibility – so much so that a young Arthur C. Clarke was brought on board as scientific adviser. The Eagle regularly featured detailed diagrams of the spaceships, which added to the realism and helped fire the imagination of young boys.
Dan Dare’s popularity ensured a merchandising campaign that wouldn’t have looked out of place in today’s marketing-obsessed world, with dozens of items (toys, lunch boxes, watches, clothing, etc.) all bearing his square-chinned visage. Covering them all would involve an entire book, so we’ll just review a few here before potentially returning to the adventures of Dan Dare in a future issue.
CORGI DAN DARE CAR
Before going on to the toys that were released, it’s worth mentioning a ‘never was’ from Corgi. In 1981, the Corgi catalogue proudly announced the No. 278 Dan Dare Car with “independently operating radiation shield and cock-pit hood. Retractable wings and rotating radiator grill”. Finished in red with white flip-out wings, the interesting thing about the car was that “radiation shield’, which could be retracted to reveal a bright yellow cockpit.
The car was actually based around a proposed television series to be shown on ITV and with actors James Fox or Gareth Hunt set to take on the role of Dan Dare, while Rodney Bewes form The Likely Lads would become Digby, according to website Down The Tubes. But despite the success of sci-fi shows like Doctor Who and the continued popularity of Star Wars in the 1980s, the Dan Dare reboot never got off the ground, leaving Corgi to shelve the project and reprint its 1981 catalogue to remove any reference to the Dan Dare Car, although plenty have survived.
Despite this, because the project was so far along by the time the plugged was eventually pulled, several prototypes have since surfaced and one pre-production example was sold at Vectis Auctions in 2014 for £4,000.
METTOY EARTH-MARS-VENUS EXPRESS
Although Corgi’s Dan Dare merchandise never made it to market, Corgi’s parent company Mettoy did release a Dan Dare-themed toy around 1955. The Earth-Mars-Venus Express (basically a futuristic bus) was a tinplate toy that had a friction drive, with a red plastic window on the top and small painted windows running down the side of the ship. Measuring 22cm long the Express spaceship occasionally crops up for sale and typically costs around the £80 mark.
One of the more prolific Dan Dare merchandise producers was Merit Toys, a division of J&L Randall (which typically made model railway items). Merit’s Dan Dare offerings covered ‘futuristic’ weapons and communications equipment. One of the more impressive-looking toys was the Dan Dare Radio Station, which was actually a glorified tin can and strings set. The ‘Interplanetary Transmitter’ had two communicators attached by a huge length of wire (the box claimed it stretched up to half a mile), while the Space Tele-buzzer was actually used for sending Morse code messages. Merit also released the Interplanetary Transmitters separately as a Walkie Talkie Set (Merit No. 3100).
Just in case you accidentally communicated with alien invaders, Merit also created several weapons for when things turned nasty. The Merit Dan Dare Planet Gun came with three multicoloured plastic spinners (Shockproof Spinning Missiles) that could be shot into the air helicopter-style before falling back down to earth. Meanwhile the Rocket Gun featured more conventional bullets with a ‘sucker’ to stick to windows but there was a hidden surprise inside. You see, the ammo could be opened up to reveal a secret message chamber so you could include a piece of paper asking auntie for cucumber sandwiches.
Finally, Merit also offered wannabe astronauts the Space Pilot Three Colour Super-sonic Ray Gun, which was more like a colourful torch than a deadly weapon. However, the instructions certainly tried their best to make it sound exciting: “The Space Pilot squeezes the Energy Ray Release Trigger. This releases electrons from the Energy Condenser Chamber into the Atomic Power Chamber where the atom splitting takes place under enormous pressure…” A novel way of saying “press the trigger and the torch comes on”.
PALITOY DAN DARE COSMIC RAY GUN
A more impressive weapon came from Palitoy in the form of the Cosmic Ray Gun, originally made in 1954. This was the Swiss Army Knife of guns and came with a torch that could be ‘fired’ in three different colours (red, green and white), two secret message compartments in the hilt, Cooling Pins, Static Condensers, Recoil Chamber, Telescopic Sight, Spot Sight, Atomic Charging Point and Sonic Transmitter… although most of these sadly didn’t work but were noted on an insert in the box.