The Busy Bee Instant Picture Packs were Letraset's very first children's product, available before the Panoramas — probably in 1964.
(UPDATE: see the bottom of the page for a dramatic revelation!)
Busy Bees were fold-out sheets of six detachable panels (although I don't suppose many people tore them off), with the other side of the card left blank. The exception is that the international editions had instructions in several different languages printed on the reverse; you can see an example with the Bible Picture Stories set.
"The toys that our staff had developed were a range of concertina folded cards on which were printed simple stories or lessons for very young children who completed them by rubbing down the appropriate picture from a transfer sheet included in the pack. They were limited by the fact that all our production equipment was geared to single colour printing but there was no doubting the excitement and interest shown by the children on whom we tried out the idea."
Letraset, a Lesson in Growth. pp26-27
By John A Chudley
Published by Business Books Limited, London. 1974.
Patrick Tilley was directly & personally responsible for the whole concept of Instant Pictures, without which (perhaps needless to say) Action Transfers would never have existed. He got in touch:
You might like to know that I was the creator of the Busy Bee range which we followed up with Panoramas — both the concept, names and packaging were created by me and my design group. The rub-down figures were drawn by Frank Wheeler who was working for me at the time. I was working directly with Dai Davies who was looking to expand his business at the time and produced other items for them.
Before his hugely successful career as a screenwriter & science fiction author, Patrick Tilley was probably best known as a designer of posters for the Sunday Times, & for this particularly widespread example for the Milk Marketing Board:
When I pointed out to him that John Chudley had rather disingenuously referred to Patrick Tilley Associates as "our staff" (see quotation above), Patrick Tilley replied:
Regarding Chudleigh's definition of us as "staff" — it would be fair to say that I acted as DESIGN CONSULTANT to Dai Davies and that PATRICK TILLEY ASSOCIATES created and produced all the artwork for the initial series of Instant Pictures.
That seems fair indeed, since his business lunches with Dai Davies kickstarted the whole association of Letraset with children's transfers for the next thirty years.
As well as the later five original Panoramas, Patrick Tilley Associates were responsible for the first twelve Busy Bee Instant Picture Packs, which came out in 1964-1965; most of the artwork was provided by Patrick Tilley himself, with some transfer sheets drawn by Frank Wheeler, lettering by Bill Harmer, & three sets commissioned from a mysterious freelancer now known only by the initials "PB".
Specific details, where known, appear on each set's individual page.
See also: the Panoramas Page.
The first six Busy Bees have a simple header strapline:
"Exciting NEW Instant Pictures!"
The next six move the line:
"Busy Bee Pack No.[x] for children from [y] years"
…from the bottom to the top.
As noted elsewhere, John Waddington took over distribution from 1st January 1966, and the remaining six titles replace "Exciting NEW Instant Pictures!" with:
"WADDINGTON/LETRASET Instant Pictures".
Although Busy Bees may have stayed in production as late as 1974, they weren't as popular as the Panoramas, probably for the simple reason that although they were very beautiful (the earlier ones, at any rate), by the time children had the necessary skills to rub down transfers they would prefer something a bit more ambitious. And of course they were always monochrome, whereas Panoramas switched to colour.
These last six Busy Bees were produced after Patrick Tilley Associates had disbanded. We don't know who designed them, although Frank Wheeler may have been responsible for the transfers for "British Birds" & possibly others; this could have been utilising work done for the first twelve sets, but hitherto unused.
Here's a handy sticker which came inside a copy of Busy Bee No.1:
"FOR BEST RESULTS"
1. Press down each picture hard with your finger so that the sheet does not move.
2. When shading over the picture with a ball point pen or soft lead pencil, use only moderate pressure and hold the picture sheet perfectly still.
Busy Bees were distributed in the US by Creative Playthings at one point:
Junior Panoramas were Busy Bees rebranded, the only difference being that they were put in an oversized envelope along with a rub-down wand. This was probably done in order to capitalise on the success of the Panoramas in the US market.
Many thanks to Patrick Tilley for generously providing all the remaining images in this article, despite my efforts to thwart him. He says:
I also have some photos featuring Bruno and his younger sister Sophie used in advertising for Busy Bee packs. She is now a writer and illustrator of children books.
This is a contact sheet from the photoshoot for the Busy Bee packs. That is me leaning over Bruno — adjusting his grip on the stylus. I am not going bald — I was sporting a crew-cut at the time. I made the card in the left-hand column so that is probably my hand.
Bruno is now 54 and Sophie is 51 and mother of three. Tempus fugit… One of them works as a graphic designer in London — the artistic gene has been carried through to another generation.
(Attentive readers may recognise Bruno from the back panel of each of the Panoramas, holding up the backgrounds. Also please note that these are not actual Busy Bee Packs in the contacts, suggesting that these photos were taken before production.)
I also unearthed the finished photograph with the happy parents in the background. Like the contacts it was taken by Adrian Flowers.
When I spoke to Sophie about the contact with you she reminded me that besides the still photograph, she has appeared with Bruno on a TV commercial for Busy Bee with the same two photo models and got rather upset when they were referred to as "her mummy and daddy" and insisted that they were "not my parents".
Now we know what that photograph of Bruno and Sophie was for and why there was only a mock-up of a Busy Bee pack. It wasn't for an advertisement but for a counter display.
And we made not only one but TWO!
The text under the "try it out pad" reads REMOVE THE BACKING SHEET BEFORE USE
(The sheet shown is "Samson in the Temple" from Busy Bee No.10. Interestingly, the first photo mentions "6 packs graded by ages", confirming that there was an appreciable break between the first six & the rest of the dozen.)
Hold onto your hats, because there may be another treat in store for later:
Still remaining are a few bits of colour artwork and the basic black and line work for some of the covers and rub-down images, including Learn to Tell the Time — a pack which never made it. Also have colour rough and the finished line-work for the cover and clock faces.
(Perhaps when our own SPLAT transfer sets get off the ground, we can publish this Busy Bee for the very first time!)
I also found the prototype images for the third rub-down product I designed for Letraset.
This is one of three experimental images — projected for the Instant Picture range — producing a stained glass window effect. The solid colour shapes were rubbed down on an acetate sheet overlaid with black leaving clear areas for the colours. The pack could be folded to make a picture frame and the finished picture could be displayed taped to a window or propped up near alternate light source — eg: a table lamp.
These were colour patches produced by Letraset for the "Stained glass" project. There was also a mockup of the packaging but that got lost along the way.
It turns out that after twelve years or so, Letraset finally got round to implementing Patrick's 'Stained Glass Transfers' concept. Please see the ColorGlo Page for details!
Although for many years we believed Busy Bees were Letraset's first attempt at a product for children, we've finally uncovered Patrick Tilley's preliminary excursion into this field: the IdentiKit game, for Palitoy. Because this is a crucial development, it gets a page all to itself: the Palitoy IdentiKit page.
Picture Credit: The SPLAT Scan Archives — Patrick Tilley
© Tom Vinelott 2023