In the attic…
I’ve become obsessed with an idea, or rather a feeling or memory of an emotion. It’s linked directly to an artifact that you probably don’t have the same interest in, let alone have any connection to. But the object isn’t the point of this, the linkages and thoughts that are connected to it are. So for you there may be a similar effect but with a very different artifact. Let’s see.
Five days before my sixth birthday, on Christmas morning, I awoke to find a box in my stocking, left by Father Christmas. It measured 8” x 6” x 6”. It was still dark when my brother and I climbed excitedly into my parent’s bed to open our presents. I unwrapped the box to discover what would be the most treasure toy of my childhood and my most valuable possession until I owned a computer six years later.
I played with the toy constantly until I was around eleven. Then it became an ornament on my windowsill, on display to see every day. Then, when I eventually left home to go to university, never to return, it was packed in a cupboard in a box which a decade later made its way into my loft.
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t a fan of Doctor Who. My parents knew I was that Christmas as I opened my presents to reveal The Dr Who Annual 1977 (which I wasn’t capable of reading until a year later) and the joy of joys: a Palitoy Talking Dalek.
Even the box was exciting. It had an illustration of a red Dalek on one side and a silver one on the other side. Mine was silver, with blue spots. There was a little bag in the box that contained the appendages; the eye, gun and sucker-arm. I put it together and put in the two HP7 batteries and pressed the black button on the Dalek’s head. It had four phrases, “Exterminate, Exterminate!”, “What Are Your Orders?”, “You Will Obey!” and “Attack, Attack, Attack!” Later I would discover that these were located on a small vinyl record disc inside the Dalek. David McKiterick took the record out of his bothers Dalek and put one in from a talking doll. So the Dalek said “Mama! Mama!” and some poor unfortunate little girl’s doll said “You Will Obey!”
I made the later, regretful, decision that I didn’t need to keep the Dalek’s box. It got thrown out on Boxing Day. That was the last toy box that I didn’t keep. So with future toys I would be able to keep them in pristine condition, return them to their box and open them up again, re-enacting opening them for the first time. But with my Dalek, the box had gone.
I did see a box, one more time, the following year when we were in Durham’s department store, Doggarts (later to become a branch of Boots). They had Talking Daleks on sale there. I longed to have a red one to compliment mine, but at £5, they were far too expensive. Simon Payne brought his red one to school when we were allowed to bring in a toy one day. I took in some teddy bear. There was no way I was going to risk any damage or loss to my Dalek.
But somehow, even with my due diligence, the sucker-arm was lost. I made a replacement one from a sucker dart from one of those guns that fired suckered darts. I made a replacement arm, gun and eye for Simon Mckiterick’s too. His dad had bought the last Talking Dalek from Doggarts, without the box or appendages. His Dalek didn’t last long, after losing the record, it got totally dismantled. I saw the shoulder section from Sarah Woolfenden’s bedroom window, inexplicably on her garage roof.
The following Christmas I was lucky enough to receive a Doctor Who doll (in the likeness of Tom Baker) and his Tardis, as well as the most prized book of my childhood and beyond; Terry Nation’s Dalek Annual 1978.
It was then that I noticed that something was amiss with my Palitoy Talking Dalek. Namely, it had the wrong number of spots. Looking at the pictures in my Dalek annual it seemed that the number of skirt panels were wrong too. Even though it was, to date, the most accurately reproduced model Dalek, the head was a little too small and squat too. Why did the sucker arm have a central spike and why was it and the eye red? I had suddenly become visual discerning.
The inaccuracy in Doctor Who toys is startling. The Cyberman had a nose. Tom Baker’s face looked exactly like Gareth Hunt from the Avengers (that was because the Tom Baker mould was damaged just before production so they actually did use a Gareth Hunt mould). Later 1980s toys had big errors such as the six-sided Tardis console having five sides, Davros, famous for having just one arm, had two, and the robot dog K9, who everyone could tell you was grey; was green in the toy.
But these things didn’t stop me having fun playing with my Dalek. I painted the eye the correct colours and in 1979 stuck on black stickers on the shoulder slats to match the on-screen look of the Daleks in Destiny of the Daleks.
By 1981 my Dalek would no longer talk. He stood on my windowsill until I went to university in 1990 and was then packed into a box that sat in a cupboard and then was shipped out to my own house and made it’s way to my loft.
Someone on ebay makes replica arms and boxes. What a crazy and yet genius idea. So now I have the parts to restore my Talking Dalek. But can I get him to talk once again?
I brought him down from the loft, dismantled the mechanism and washed him, taking off the stickers from 1979. His silver grey plastic had a slight golden tinge to it, probably due to exposure to light over the years. The inner mechanism is a tiny record player with a transparent disc that contains the phrases. I cleaned all the parts and removed the dust but nothing happened. I feared the motor had given up the ghost but after attaching the batteries directly to it, it started to spin. It too was probably clogged. I left the battery connected for ten minutes and the motor span faster and faster. Putting the needle back in and assembling the whole thing, I pressed the button.
It was a magic moment as an unearthly voice from the past grated out those famous words. What you need to appreciate is that sound coming from the Talking Dalek is not electronic; we’ve become too familiar with toys that have sampled digital sounds stored on computer chips. This is different. It’s an analogue, organic sound. The whir of the motor and the scratchy, wobbly sound echoing from the tiny disc. The Dalek toy is designed inside as a sound box which echoes and amplifies the sound, reverberating it throughout the inside of the Dalek.
Perhaps that why this was not just my favourite and most treasured toy; it was somehow alive. I wonder how he feels now, working again, being played with again. I wonder how he feels looking up with his red eye into my eyes, to see I’m no longer a five year old boy.
In February 1977 we sat on my parents bedroom windowsill, looking out into the evening as the snow started to fall. We watched it fall, my Dalek and I. First it covered the black tarmac with a powdery white covering. Within the hour it had hidden all sign of the curb as the pavement and road became a single blanket of white. We watched as the night fell and the street lights came on in the silence that only snow knows. Then it was tea-time. Outside the snow continued to fall and the wind blew drifts over the village.
That’s why there’s a value for me in this adventure. By restoring my Talking Dalek I’ve somehow re-connected, not with a old plastic toy, but with the little boy who used to treasure it. We are the same he and I, separated by a gulf of half a lifetime, of sorrows and joys. I need to remember that we are the same. Whatever trials and tribulations face me today, I owe it to that little boy to not let him down.
I also have children of my own now. There are at the age when they will be forming memories that will define for them their own history of who they are. It’s my job to facilitate and support that process in whatever form it takes. It’s unlikely to be a Talking Dalek that will excite and inspire them. They had fun pushing the button for a while before running off to play some other game.
My Talking Dalek also remind me that we are all unique in our loves, our passions and our journeys. My parents could not have guess the relevance of my Talking Dalek and I may probably never know what memory triggers my own children will find.
So have a think at what connects the dots in your life. Is there an artifact, a sound, a place that connects you to that small child from all those years ago?
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