Great things are afoot. Magnificent things. They’re hiding behind a mask of silliness, but don’t be fooled—they’re nothing less than magical.
Out there in that wonderful place they call the U.K., a guy with really bad hair and only slightly better fashion sense is changing the world. Through toys.
I kid you not. This gentleman’s name is instantly recognizable throughout Britain—and most of the rest of the world—and, er, a little less so Stateside. (Yeah, as usual, we’re behind the times.) He’s James May, a “television presenter,” most famous for being the most level-headed of the over-the-top triumvirate that hosts the ridiculously popular “car show,” Top Gear. (I’ve mentioned it before in my blog. For a reason. It’s one of the best shows on television. So go watch it.)
He also does side projects for the BBC, all of which are must-see TV. In the past several years, Mr. May has brought his subtle yet cockeyed sense of humor and honeyed baritone to shows on the moon landings, wine (and beer), inventions and innovations, and toys. Yeah. Toys.
Several years ago he did a show called James May’s Top Toys and another called My Sister’s Top Toys, where he took a little walk down memory lane and reexamined the toys of his youth. And he finally got to do what he always wanted to with them—drop Action Man (a British G.I. Joe) out of a helicopter to see if the danged parachute would ever actually work (it did), shoot a model of the Bismarck with a toy rifle (and a magnificent sinking it was), and blow up his sister’s dumb plastic toy treehouse (seemed to be very satisfying).
And then Mr. May decided to turn it up to 11. His new show is called James May’s Toy Stories. It will air in Britain sometime in September…and here in America around…oh, half past never. (I thank the gods for YouTube and other nefarious Interweb methods for getting decent television here in the Land of Endless Reality Shows.)
Anyway, call them…really big toy stories. Mr. May’s idea was to take your garden-variety creative-type stuff, like Plasticine (as a frame of reference for us Americans, it’s something like Play-Doh that never dries out) and Lego, and go big, by making a life-size garden (that’s the Plasticine). Or a life-size house (that’s the Lego).
He’s been doing these projects all summer. It started with a life-size model airplane. That was followed up by a Meccano (metal Tinker Toy-type stuff) bridge over a canal in Liverpool—that he actually walked across; the garden, which was a breathtakingly color-splashed bit of whimsy that won the people’s choice award at the usually unbelievably snobby Chelsea Flower Show; a Scalextric (slot-car) recreation of the route of a long-gone racetrack; the longest toy train track (10 miles) on an old railway route between two towns in Devon; and the Lego house (still under construction) that he’s going to live in for a couple of days.
Fun? Oh yeah. I’m looking forward to watching the pirated videos of it (yeah, I said pirated videos—come and get me, coppers!) But there’s something else to all of this.
When Mr. May and his crew first conceived of the idea for his Toy Stories show, he said he wanted to get kids and their parents off their behinds, away from the video games and the TV, and truly playing, creating things with their imaginations, again.
Admirable. But of course kids and their parents would watch the show, think “that’s nice” and then go play video games, right?
Well, Mr. May put his ideas into…er, play (sorry) from the get-go. Instead of dragging an entire staff of paid BBC folk off to the far corners of Britain to create these toy wonders, he did something better.
He asked kids—and their parents—to participate. He put out the call. First to make Plasticine tulips for the garden. Then to make Lego bricks that would soon be the walls of the Lego house. Then to lay the slot-car track—one that ran through the kids’ neighborhoods and even yards. Then to lay the train track and monitor the train traveling from station to station. And they came. Thousands of them—so many for the Lego house that the number of people they could accommodate at the brick-making tables was maxed out by early morning.
And what did the kids and their parents say as they gleefully constructed brilliantly colored bricks, their fingers cramping on the unforgiving plastic? “There should be more things like this.”
They loved it. They ate it up and looked for more.
Now, this is great publicity, right? Not to mention cheap (okay, unpaid) labor. Plus the dude has already got his name in the Guinness Book of World Records for getting these suckers to build the longest Scalextric track (nearly 3 miles) and might have another world record on his hands for the longest end-to-end model railway track (10 miles) that other people built. Clever, eh? And a real money maker. Wink wink; rub hands together as only a network television executive with dollar signs—er, make that pound signs—for pupils could.
I could be cynical and leave it there. But I won’t. Because I think something bigger’s going on with all of this. I am going to go out on a limb and say that this scruffy, unassuming middle-aged individual (I can say that—we’re about the same age) who seems to be desperately in need of some decent hair product and a fashion consultant is playing the fool, but in reality he is doing nothing less than changing the world.
Yes, you read right. One man and his toys. Changing the world. For the better. Don’t believe me? Think about this: While way too much time is taken up on television with pointless fiction and even more pointless reality crap that shows us just how reprehensible our “fellow man” can be, Mr. May is actually asking us to be better people—and we don’t even have to open a vein or serve at a soup kitchen.
He’s onto something, this wily Mr. May. Because opening ourselves up to joy…to choosing to create something with our imaginations…to remember what it’s like to truly play…and encourage our children to do the same (along with us, no less)…isn’t that a way to remember what we really should be doing with our lives?
Yeah, you gotta watch those quiet ones in loud-patterned flowered shirts. They fly under the radar, but then—bam!—they hit you in the heart and soul with the meaning of life.
And before you know it, you’re giggling over a pile of Legos with your kid. What a way to go.