John Chudley conspicuously neglects to name Action Transfers in his book (he wasn't interested in products or design), but they are clearly the "major new toy launch" he describes for Summer 1969.
The chap in charge of our area of interest (let's call them 'toys') had, up to now, been Hugh Murray. But he was more interested in Letraset's industrial labelling process, which in the end never really took off; when Chudley took that away from him & told him to concentrate on the toys for a quick profit, he took offence at Chudley's heavy-handedness, & quit Letraset.
By the way, if the following extract from Chudley's book seems confusing, it helps to know that Letraset's financial year began in May — not December. So February really is three months from the year end, & the years mentioned are financial years — not calendar years.
And 'premium' doesn't mean 'Free Gift' — it refers to "labels on promotional material".
Explaining how Letraset had got itself in a pickle, he says:
"The second blow was the failure of our expectations in the toy, premium and industrial decoration fields. Hugh Murray had budgeted something like £700 000 sales in these products for 1968-9 and over £1 million in 1969-70 and by February of 1969, three months from the year end, it became obvious that neither of these figures was going to be met. In desperation I took all the industrial marketing away from Hugh to get him to concentrate on the quick-selling toys and premiums. In addition both Dai and I involved ourselves in a last minute effort on a major new toy launch, which just saved our figures for 1968-9 but to a large extent mortgaged the sales we had hoped for in the following year. During that summer of 1969… Hugh… left us and I was forced to take direct control of the twelve or so second-line staff involved in that side of the business for a period of about six months while we advertised for a general manager."
Letraset, a Lesson in Growth. pp53-54
By John A Chudley
Published by Business Books Limited, London. 1974.
Translation: Dai Davies (the original inventor of Letraset) & John Chudley (the Managing Director at the time) worked on Action Transfers as an emergency rescue project once they realised the company was in trouble, after February 1969.
Although this makes it sound as if Dai Davies & John Chudley were solely responsible for Action Transfers, in fact they were Peter Archer's idea, & they were created by him alongside fellow-artist John Marsh.
Despite the 'Red' Action Transfers being produced in late 1969, they are all dated "1968" — which is a prime example of pre-dating. However, this does strongly suggest that the concept & preliminary artwork at the very least must have been available well before the "last minute effort"… so the effort would have been for the launch, rather than the product.
That year, 25% of Letraset's profits were from Toys. You could justifiably claim that Action Transfers saved Letraset.
Peter Archer's relationship with Letraset seems to have been, as far as he remembered & described it to me, that of an outside freelancer who never got to know the 'real designers' who worked on Letraset's 'real products' (i.e., Instant Lettering).
Considering the enormous amount of work he did for Letraset — Panoramas, Action Transfers, Mini-Toons, Decor-Craft, Action Replay & dozens of other series — this seems astonishing; but after all, Patrick Tilley had been 'just a consultant' when he designed the Busy Bees & Panoramas, & conceived many other successful Letraset lines such as Art Sheets.
The way he told it, Peter had a contact at Letraset who would pass him work or asked for suggestions (it was Peter who suggested & guided the use of full-colour in toy transfers, & most likely he created the Action Transfers concept completely from scratch). Then, since the amount of work was far too much for one person to manage on their own, he passed much of it on to his artist friends, such as John Marsh & John Ward.
Peter's contact should logically have been Hugh Murray at the time Action Transfers were being developed, but he didn't remember that name. He remembered someone called Alan, & it was only after his death that I put two & two together & realised he must have meant Alan Lythgoe, Technical Director at Letraset from 1964. When Lythgoe left under a cloud (as so many staff at Letraset seemed to do back then), it seems he 'poached' Peter to work on Trans-Action Products.
It looks as if Letraset's management culture of expensive business lunches & power grabs was all very 60s machismo, & quite the opposite to Peter's character. Reading between the lines, I'm not sure he ever realised Lythgoe had left Letraset, & possibly believed he was still working for Letraset when in fact he had inadvertently burned his boats by defecting to the opposition.
Patrick Tilley's decision to give up graphic design to become a renowned screenwriter & sci-fi author may have been all his own idea, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Letraset attitude that design was just the fuel for company growth, with bad design being in many ways more useful than good design, was a contributing factor.
If so, then one way or another, Letraset drove off their two most creative toy designers. But for now, here we are at the dawn of the new age of Action Transfers!
This free sample pack was distributed to retailers in late Summer, 1969. It's interesting that exclusive distribution was via W.H.Smith; soon after, they were distributed by the Royal Sovereign Group (of whom Patterson Blick were a part) — as you can see from the sticker on the display box, below.
A great new toy backed by big big promotion
Outside Inner Flap:
Just look at the sample enclosed. Rub down one of the super colour figures onto the background provided and see for yourself the instant appeal of Action Transfers.
Made by Letraset and distributed exclusively throughout England and Wales by W.H.Smith & Son.
Big Big Television Advertising and Full Pages in the Top 20 Comics
June and School Friend
Look and Learn/Ranger
T/V Comic [sic]
More than 110 full page Ad's [sic]
30 second spots all stations T.V…
To launch this really great new line
Inside Middle ("P.T." refers to Purchase Tax):
Packed in displays —
containing 6 each
of 12 designs
Recommended Retail Price 2/-
74/- per pack plus P.T. 27/- per pack
SUPER Action Transfers available at 5/11
38/- per dozen plus P.T. 13/11 per dozen (2 each of 6 designs)
Inside Inner Flap:
WITH A WONDERFUL MARK-UP of almost 60% FOR YOU
Appropriately, the set featured on the display box is Peter Archer's "Pirate Island". Peter is particularly fond of pirates! Also note that Super Action Transfers are "available".
Read on to see our surviving example of this display box…
Letraset were in such a bad way in 1969 that they had to call the men in, in the form of P.A. Management Consultants (who are still going strong). But we all know now that it was the toys that saved the day. So at the same time that Action Transfers were being given their launch in comics & on TV, Letraset gave a public demonstration at London's Café Royal, which The Times attended. But… wait for it… it was all about the industrial marking systems which "make it possible to decorate automatically a huge variety of products from cosmetic tubes to golf balls". The systems, in fact, which never amounted to anything. Action Transfers didn't even get a mention.
I've edited out all the stuff about these 'industrial marking systems', but if you really want you can read the whole article (please close the window after viewing).
THE TIMES MONDAY SEPTEMBER 29 1969
Management edited by Robert Jones
In search of competition:
John Chudley (left), managing director of Letraset, and Dennis Bloor, sales manager for their new range of products
Photograph by John Manning
How Letraset, unhappy with its one-product image, spread into industrial fields — and toys
…This latest operation ties together many of the changes that have been taking place at Letraset. Not much more than a decade old (it started with £3,000 of borrowed capital in 1959) and forecasting pre-tax profits of £650,000 for the year ending next April (against £416,000 last year, depressed by bad results in the American offshoot), Letraset is famous for the sheets of transferable letters it sells to designers.
Besides the graphic arts and industrial divisions, Letraset's main raid out of "one product" precariousness has been into toys — now contributing about 25 per cent of turnover. The company has been in these for about four years, first in conjunction with Waddington's, then with Royal Sovereign Group. The "toys" are dry transfer packs which Letraset believes could be "as versatile as the jigsaw".
The P.A.-recommended reorganization now provides an international operations division to supervise problems such as the American one. Graphics, the cornerstone of the business, have a division of their own, so do services, and so does a technical back-up operation, while toys, premiums (labels on promotional material) and the industrial side have one division between them.
"It gets a bit wearying" says John Chudley, not altogether unhappily, "being the leader all the time."
Never mind: perhaps competition ("it has been fairly strongly competitive for about five years") will get worse.
It's got Peter Archer all over it.
As it says above: six each of the twelve titles would fit in this box, which you would find in toy shops & newsagents, or indeed anywhere where Action Transfers might be on sale.
Statistically, therefore, you would be seventy-two times more likely to find an Action Transfers set than one of these display boxes (even assuming shop keepers might have any reason to keep one), so we're indebted to Andy Hyatt for letting us scan this one.
You can see that part of the back folds out to form a flap to support the box at a jaunty angle on the counter. They've thought of everything!
Picture Credit: The SPLAT Scan Archives
© Tom Vinelott 2023