An Annual Demise

16th December 2011

Heather Harris asks whether technology has replaced tradition.

Justin Bieber… Homer Simpson… Chelsea Football Club… Against such opposition the Blue Peter annual is bottom of the pile. In 2007, Santa delivered 59,941 copies. Last year he barely broke a sweat carrying just 13,140.

Matthew Reynolds, sales manager of its publisher, Pedigree, explained, “We produced the front cover and presented it to the trade but Blue Peter is fighting against up to 200 other brands that retailers select from and it wasn’t strong enough.”

Since 1965, this children’s TV favourite hardback has been as vital a part of the Christmas stocking at the obligatory satsuma and its demise cannot be underestimated. Certainly, in my childhood home, a communal sharing of the previous 12 months in the life of John Noakes and his ever changing sidekicks was the only thing that passed the time until the 17 lb turkey was finally cooked.

That’s not to say that annuals have been totally rubbed off the letter to Santa. In fact, the market is worth £15 million a year from the sale of more than four million different subjects. It’s just that these are more likely to be teen idols, sports stars and more up-to-date TV programmes featuring the latest celebrity gossip… not the exploits of the Blue Peter tortoise.

As one WH Smiths customer told me, picking up a Twilight annual for her ten-year-old daughter, “I suppose the publishers just have to reflect what’s hot at the moment?”

The board game makers have certainly adopted this ‘if you can’t beat them join them’ approach, adding new contemporary angles to the traditional festive favourites.

Classic Monopoly has gone intergalactic, yellow, international and equestrian with versions ranging from Star Wars to the Simpsons, world football to horse racing. Players can even be sent to jail by not passing their own front door as the makers offer the ultimate in personalised pleasure with customers’ own villages now represented.

And while Monopoly’s favourite little silver shoe has been booted out by its newly designed play pieces, over in the Cluedo camp poor Colonel Mustard and Reverend Green have been dragged out of the library and into the world of Hogwarts as Harry Potter has muscled in on the mystery with his own £17.99 version of the 1926 original.

While multi-award winning, Trivial Pursuit has gone from the carpet to the TV with its manifestation into a DVD Lord of The Rings version featuring 2,400 wedge-winning questions on the trilogy, all read by Gollum himself. And I always thought that the reason parents bought this game was to teach their children general knowledge, not the date of Frodo Baggin’s birthday (22 September, if you’re interested).

The official definition of a board game is ‘where counters or pieces are placed, removed, or moved on a premarked service or board according to a set of rules’ and the concept has certainly come a long way since Senet – the oldest game known to have existed – was first pictured in a fresco in an Egyptian tomb in 3300-2700BC (bet the Mummies always won).

Clearly this modernisation strategy by the UK manufacturers has put them in a winning position. A mountainous 21.1 million individual boxes – worth a not so trivial £174 million to our economy – were sold in 2010. Let’s hope whoever was chosen to be the Banker was vetted first…

A spokesman for the Toy Retailer Association observed that “a quick review of our Top Toys for Christmas over recent years would show you that board games are still an important sector in toys.”

The 2011 annual Dream Toys list, the Association’s forecast of the gifts that every child will be desiring this year, is packed full of fantastic traditional toys with a technological twist. “From high tech tablet computers for kids to dolls that double as bedroom lights, and toys that can hold a conversation or play in a band with you, children now have the opportunity to interact and engage with their toys more than ever before.”

But, I can’t help wondering, shouldn’t they be interacting and engaging with human beings, such as their grandparents and the boring-cousins-that we-only-see-for-one-day-a-year-because-we-haven’t-got-anything-in-common-with them?

There is an argument that traditional annuals and boardgames encouraged ‘family bonding’. Granny and boring cousin could be amused together over the Blue Peter quiz or endless rounds of over competitive Pictionary – not stuck in separate corners, one reading the Downton Abbey Annual and the other drooling over the latest Hollyoaks hunk, or trying to fathom how to play the latest interactive version of Snakes and Ladders.

Gary Grant, Chairman of the Dream Toys selection panel, is aware of these concerns. “No, this doesn’t mean to say that the toys are ‘techy’”, he says, “rather that technology has been used to enrich the whole experience of play. Throughout the top 70 toys we’re also seeing a fantastic mix of the old and new including a board game of skill and action based on the phenomenon that is the Angry Birds app.”

Okay, so it’s not exactly Ludo – and. at £19.99. not exactly a ‘stocking filler’ – but the masters at Mattel certainly took a risk when they turned this bizarre computer game, featuring brightly coloured birds battering their way through various obstacles, into a wooden board game. The idea of this bird brained activity is that you pull out one of 56 ‘mission’ cards from the pack while your team mate builds a structure for you to try and knock down with the catapult included. There’s not a pair of headphones, a screen or even a battery included, and it’s literally flying off the shelves.

The Angry Birds board game will be appearing under many a tree this Christmas morning, as Ryan Hurney, Toys and Games Manager at Amazon.co.uk Ltd, explained, adding, “ We are also seeing classic games making a comeback. Pop-up Pirate is one of the biggest selling toys at the moment, Scattergories has been re-released, and the new edition of The Game of Life is proving very popular.”

If all the LEGO® bricks ever produced were divided equally among the world population, each person would have 62 pieces to play with or find under foot – and, in another interesting twist in Toyland, the foundation on which all our childhoods were built has entered the board game market. The company’s Danish creators announced last year that they were “introducing LEGO Games, the world’s first collection of games that you build, play and change. With the unique buildable LEGO Dice and changeable rules, LEGO Games is a great way of having fun together with family and friends.”

So, all is not lost. Blue Peter may have sailed off into the sunset and more and more people are playing Scrabble on their mobile phones instead of the kitchen table, but the industry has not given up on tradition. They’re still rolling the dice and taking a chance on the belief that for one period of the year at least, there remains a demand for books and toys that can be shared across the generations.

Even in 2011, surely, Christmas really wouldn’t be Christmas without a major family feud over just who did kill Miss Scarlet in the Ballroom with the Lead Piping.

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