For years, we had assumed that Patrick Tilley's first foray into Letraset for children was his range of Busy Bee Instant Picture Packs.
He never mentioned any earlier excursions, but recently Sane Pete (Agent of SPLAT) pointed out to me a brace of eBay auctions for these Palitoy IdentiKit games.
It was immediately obvious from the style, & from the box art by Aubrey Rix, that these games were from around 1963 — in which case, they pre-dated the Busy Bees.
The Seller was very helpful, & I was able to obtain both sets so as to increase the chances of finding clues to solve this historical anomaly.
While waiting for them to arrive, since Palitoy were based in Coalville in Leicestershire, I got in touch with Steve Duckworth of the Coalville Heritage Society. He was able to confirm:
Identikit was certainly in the range, as it first appears in the Palitoy catalogue in 1964… and again in 1965, but doesn't appear again after that.
So the kits (very heavily but not completely used, as you can see) are now here, & the results are in.
Palitoy Identikit is essentially just Letraset's Special Sheet S1678 (with a very early "B" number: B568) — suggesting development in 1963/1964 — plus a few pencils, etc., & is product number 15911 in Palitoy's 1964 products catalogue.
Aubrey Rix, whose characteristic style is clear in the image of the children on the box lid, was a member of Artist Partners, as was Patrick Tilley, & it was Patrick who invited him to produce his Art Sheets for Letraset; IdentiKit would have been an earlier collaboration.
You can see that the sheet has been cut into strips to fit in the plastic compartments of the box. My best guess is that each box would come with two divided-up copies of the Special Sheet, although there may have been more. No doubt there was also an instruction sheet, but unfortunately there's no trace of that in either of the two boxes I was able to obtain.
— It's the Letraset Rub Stick! A valuable historical artefact, if ever I saw one. And vintage 1964 colour pencils, practically unused, which gave my spine a distinct tingle when I took them out of the box. I'm sure I never had this game, but those pencils are VERY familiar…
The Special Sheet was obviously produced well ahead of the box art; whoever the artist was for the drawings of face parts is currently unknown. It certainly wasn't anyone who worked on the Busy Bees, Panoramas, or anything else for Letraset; I'm inclined to think it may have been the office boy! Perhaps IdentiKit, which isn't inherently a bad idea, might have survived after 1965 if the artwork hadn't been so inept. A project such as this needs really good design to succeed. You have to be able to produce interesting & plausible faces — not just a bunch of ugly freaks! Well, drawing ugly freaks is fun… but there's an Uncanny Valley thing going on here.
I'm hoping to hear back from Patrick Tilley, & from Bob Brechin, chief designer at Palitoy, although possibly he started there a few years too late to remember anything about the background for this earliest Letraset game. I suspect the reason Patrick never mentioned this set to me before was simply because he considered it a failed early experiment — but perhaps I will be put right about that!
Picture Credit: The SPLAT Scan Archives
© Tom Vinelott 2023