The story of a long lost friend, found again

Palitoy Talking Dalek

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.

Palitoy Talking Dalek and boxIn 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?

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

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3rd March 1976 – Don’t Leave Me This Way

It’s a different sun. It’s more golden. Like in the old films. I feel the warmth of it on my skin. It’s my brother’s birthday. He’s four. It’s March the 3rd and it’s already high summer.

We’re playing out in shorts and shirts with no jumpers on the hot tarmac in Meldon Avenue. This asphalt is less than a year old, still inky black and soft like rubber. Something tells me that this is going to be the hottest summer on record. The ladybirds aren’t here yet, but they will come, in their millions.Gillian’s baby sister can’t say ‘chicken’. She says, ‘ticken’. Still the sun shines.

I go off for a walk, past the tarmaced Play Area One, as we call it, along the fence of the cornfield. It’s made from the wire that the fences that surround tennis courts are made from. They’re the ones that, if you hit the ball at it hard enough it gets stuck in the gaps, although I’ve never hit a tennis ball. Not yet. The fence isn’t that high, but is too high to climb. We’ll get in through a hole someone will cut later on, at the other end of the summer, and create a labyrinth with secret corridors and rooms within the corn.

But there’s no corn yet, just the dry brown ploughed earth stretching into infinity. I see something black and shiny, glinting in the sun, caught between the grass and the fence. It’s a 7” flexi disc, a record. I pick it up. There’s dried mud on it, clogging up the microgrooves that encircle one side. There’s some writing, but I can’t read it because I can’t yet read.

Memory is like a darkened room with all sorts of objects, known and unknown, littered about in it. No-one knows what is in that room until we shine the torch of the conscious mind into a corner, picking out a few odd details of the room. But we are unable to focus on more than one thing at a time. Whatever the torch is shining upon may well be brightly lit and visible, but the rest of the room will remain in darkness and although still there, cannot be seen and we cannot guess at what may or may not be hidden.

The present day conscious mind is like the tip of the iceberg that feels it is all that exists, unaware that it is but a tiny part of the powerhouse that is the unconscious, the storehouse, the deep engines, the foundations of the years. It is not the gentle wind that gives the iceberg direction, but the invisible currents that exert those powerful forces deep underneath the surface. What is memory? What causes some events to be recorded and others not? Why are some clear, crisp and accurate like the microgrooves of a record and yet other tracks, covered in mud, may not re-play.

I race home with my new treasure and with the help of mummy wash it. The furniture in the lounge has been re-arranged, presumably for my brother’s party so the record player has been moved. Daddy lifts the lid. There’s a smell of 1960s electronics. He flicks the switch to the 45 r.p.m. setting and slots the flimsy disk onto the spindle and pushes it down onto the rubber platter. The cream coloured metal arm that contains the needle swings across automatically and, robot-like, lowers itself onto the rotating disk. The room is filled with the sounds of a song, Don’t Leave Me This Way.

Amazed by the startling success of my brief adventure I set off again, this time with my brother, to look for new treasure. We head to near the same spot, just a bit further on. Yes! There, a few feet into the field, flapping in a dry furrow is another disc. My brother sees it too and quickly and gingerly is up and over the fence, retrieves it and hands it to me. We return home and after the same preparatory ritual is followed, the sound of You Keep Me Hanging On, by the Supremes, fills the air.

Then my memory comes to an end and I’m back in 2012. My brother is 40 today. Outside large flakes of snow fill the sky but at 2 degrees it’s not quite cold enough for them to lay.

It was just a day. Just a particular day and yet I remember it all as if it had just happened. Perhaps our memories are all there, all stored somewhere. Perhaps it’s not that we forget, rather it’s that we forget where we’ve put them until some trigger, some key, unlocks the doorway to them.

I have no recollection of the rest of that day. No knowledge of an actual 4th birthday party, or even if there was one, although I feel sure there was. I have access to no recording of the following day, 4th March 1976 and nothing for the day before either.

If we are our memories and we lose access to them, who are we then? Caught by the paradox that we won’t know what’s gone, we don’t remember what we can no longer remember. Not being able to remember is like losing part of who you are. Without remembering, you become less, you begin a journey to being nobody.

Perhaps my mind isn’t a carefully catalogued library of books after all, but instead is a collection of broken pottery. The occasional piece is cracked but complete, but most of the collection is broken fragments and clay shards. Perhaps the ‘being’ that I call ‘me’ can only be a museum curator of these memory artefacts, an archeologist of my own timeline, every day re-defining who I could be based on the scant remaining evidence.

I typed my password into iTunes. Don’t Leave Me This Way by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes downloaded in 17 seconds and began to play.

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: