THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. COLLECTIBLES / AUTHOR: JOHN BUSS / PUBLISHER: AMBERLEY / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
The adventures of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. - the suave, two-fisted Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) along with his heartthrob sidekick Ilya Kuryakin (David McCallum) – are arguably as important a landmark in the cultural history of the 1960s as James Bond, Batman, The Beatles and flower power. But the series, broadly speaking a larger-than-life comic strip spin on the ‘spy fiction’ craze which erupted in the wake of the success of 007, has faded into history (despite a failed revival attempt in Guy Richie’s missing-the-point 2015 feature film) where its contemporaries have thrived thanks to thoughtful, considered reinventions and reimaginings. But the 1960s series was an undeniable – if short-lived - phenomenon and its success inevitably spawned a plethora of spin-off merchandise from toys, games, books, comics and all the usual assorted ephemera associated with any popular multimedia creative endeavour.
If the series has indeed faded into the mists of time then the same must certainly be true of much of its merchandising, so the show’s ageing fans are sure to welcome this opportunity to revisit not only their youth but also their long-forgotten toy boxes.
What a shame then, that John Buss’ busy, generously-illustrated slimline volume, split into chapters devoted to specific manufacturers, misses the mark in properly commemorating the best of the 60s tie-in tat linked to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. The focus here is very much on guns and gadgets, with page after page filled with images of toy guns and rifles (including the classic Luger pistol often brandished by Solo), concentrating on repackaged items (many of which surely never crossed the Atlantic to British shores), attache case sets and cap guns. Buss is scrupulous in detailing slight variations in packaging and the tenuous or generic nature of much of the mass-produced material churned out to meet the demand created by this new pop culture hit, but later sections focussing on toy cars, crude action figures and board and bagatelle games are of more interest than endless pages filled with pictures of near-identical toy rifles and pistols.
Fortunately there are a few more familiar items pictured here and there; many will remember the plastic U.N.C.L.E. badges issued on backing card by Lone Star (page 30), the U.N.C.L.E. Invisible ink writing set (page 45) and the Corgi THRUSHbuster Oldsmobile toy car (page 71) which was as essential a possession as any toy Thunderbird or Captain Scarlet vehicle.
Towards the end of the book, Buss reminds us of colourful Man From U.N.C.L.E. jigsaws and card games and, while he explains that their omission is purely down to lack of space, the absence of any of the more readily-available and better-remembered books, comics and colouring books (and even material issued to support spin-off show The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.) is sorely felt.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Collectibles is a quick and fun nostalgia fix but, with its perfunctory text and its focus on the show’s hardware, it can’t help but feel like unfinished business. We wouldn’t object to a second volume filling in the blanks and reminding us of the books, comics and annuals which fired up our imaginations far more vividly than any number of toy guns or model cars.