Greetings, Spy Vibers! With a typical fall schedule filled with open house events, teacher-parent conferences, college applications, portfolios, cpr training, advising, meetings, workshops, and all the rest of the ongoing tasks we teachers face, it's been super busy lately. After my recent interview with Kaiser George Marionettes, I recorded two new segments for the Cocktail Nation radio show, which covered pre-Wild West West star credits in Hawaiian Eye (with Robert Conrad) and Mr. Lucky (with Ross Martin). My friend John Buss also stopped by the Spy Vibe lair to talk about his new books about cult TV merchandise. For Spy Vibers who don’t know him, John has one of the largest collections of TV and film tie-in collectibles in the world! He also runs the Little Storping Museum on-line. In early prep for my upcoming Spy Vibe book, we once spent a summer day going through his many artifacts. I’m still in awe over the scope and depth of the treasures he has found! And now John has been busy publishing really cool books about classic tie-in collectibles. With a couple of volumes out already, a new one was released recently covering The Prisoner and Danger Man!
John, congratulations on your new book projects! It’s been a while since our last interview, and since our team-interview with Return of The Saint star, Ian Ogilvy. Please catch us up on the previous editions. Which properties have you focused on already?
John Buss: Hi, thanks for your interest and invite for doing this. The first book was on The Man from U.N.C.L.E., that came out around two years ago now. It’s also the book I’m least happy with, as I had to leave so much out due to the space restrictions placed upon me by my publishers. I have pretty much a full second volume on that show ready, though at present my publishers don’t yet want to produce it. That was followed fairly quickly by a book on The Avengers and New Avengers collectables. Then 2020 hit and publications got delayed. This Danger Man / Prisoner book was originally scheduled for release around October of 2020. While my yet-to-be-published Saint / Return of the Saint book was due in September of 2020, it’s now due around March of next year I believe.
SV: I’m so glad you’re getting them out, even if the schedule is a bit behind. I really loved seeing your Avengers toys and, of course, the Emma Peel fashions! Have you run across other programs that inspired fashion lines? I know Lola Albright inspired a line, but I don’t think it had any direct connection to Peter Gunn.
JB: I’m not aware of a direct connection between the Lola Albright range and the Peter Gunn series, but fashion tie-up with movies and TV shows was not uncommon. Other shows that had direct fashion tie-ins were The Monkees and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., though as with anything fashion wise, details are very sketchy. I do also have, abide unlicensed, a commercial knitting pattern for Hutch’s cardigan (Starsky and Hutch). Other items encountered have been both James Bond and Jaws swimming trucks, a Return of the Saint jacket, Dr Who underpants, Beatles stockings. But to step backwards, even in the 60s, this sort of tie-up was not new. Back in the heyday of Hollywood in the 30s and 40s some of the studios would team up with department stores, so the young ladies could see somebody like Greta Garbo or Ginger Rogers -whoever the big-name actress was in a film wearing some fancy dress- on the Saturday night. Then on the Monday, be able to buy that outfit in the local department store.
SV: Interesting! And I think we could make a distinction between fashion lines, like the Emma Peeler outfit or a fancy dress, and logo-stamped merch like Beatles socks and T-shirts. I would assume The Man from U.N.C.L.E. might just be the most merchandised classic spy show from the 60s. It must have been hard to decide what to include in that volume?
SV: There is quite a large UNCLE collector fanbase, so I hope they all find your book! Regarding your new book about The Prisoner and Danger Man, I haven’t seen many Prisoner-related items apart from books and promo materials. I’m curious about what you found.
JB: Most of the new book’s contents is Danger Man, and I believe I’ve possibly put together the most comprehensive listing of what was around for the two series at that period. But you are correct, there was very little Prisoner merchandise. It was surprising, however, how many different editions of some of those books appeared around the world. What also amazed me, given the items’ short production run, was how many variations of the Dinky toys Prisoner Mini Moke appeared, of which I’ve gone into in some detail in the book.
JB: Possibly not quite in the same way, but it is interesting that in France a Sir Lancelot comic appeared around 1960ish featuring William Russell on the cover. This comic appeared to have lasted well into the 70’s (possibly early 80s), though the TV connection of having William Russell’s photograph on the cover only appears to have lasted the first 20 or so issues.
SV: Interesting! Yes, very similar to Drake; a kind of cover mascot. In that regard, I think Hitchcock, Ellery Queen, and Edgar Wallace also became merchandising symbols to encompass their own brands of mystery. What are some of your favorite Prisoner and Danger Man items?
JB: A favourite probably has to be the Bell toys issued board game for Danger Man, which I still don’t personally own, but was very kindly supplied for the book by Matt Courtman of www.danger-man.co.uk.
SV: That 1960 game seemed unusual in that it sported a photo cover on the box. Did you run across non-licensed merchandise? We can branch out into any of the spy shows at this point.
JB: The closest I came to this, for Danger Man, are the numerous “Secret Agent” toys that many American collectors seem to believe are related to the series. Almost all of these types of items were just generic spy toys relating to no particular TV show; most also hailed from the UK, where the series was only ever known as “Danger Man.” UK toy sellers just put “Secret Agent” on the items to try and cash in on the spy craze. Several of these types of items also featured graphics bearing crude likenesses of Bond or Napoleon Solo, while having no official connection to any series. One item I’m always amused at is the Waddington games Z Cars board game. This is almost a master class on how to put out an item related to a TV series without taking out any form of license or infringing the copyright. Another great example was “TV heroes comic,” which above that large title had in small print: “Picture stories of historical characters who have become”. This featured just generic -and completely unrelated to the TV series- stories of characters like William Tell.
SV: Ha! I bet many kids were disappointed when they got home and read it. Have you found that items were mainly licensed by a few major companies, or were there many licensees?
JB: It is actually very surprising just how many different firms held licences to produce products for some of these series, way more than would do so for a similar show currently. This isn’t so much to do with less interest from firms in producing merchandise now, but more to do with so many of the smaller companies having been swallowed up wholesale. So, while in the 60s a dozen companies would have licences to produce twenty or so different products, now just one company would hold the licence to produce that same quantity of items.
SV: I suppose that would also translate into seeing more varied and unique designs in the 60s, versus new product lines made around a cohesive marketing plan. What are some of the items that are hardest for collectors to track down from the world of 60s spy TV?
JB: Some of the Japanese produced model kits of spy equipment. While I know these items are out there, even after 40 years of collecting I’ve still not been able to obtain any. This question does also open up the fact that what is hardest to find also varies dependent on which country you live in. For example, while the Ideal toy U.N.C.L.E. gun sets are still fairly tough to find in the USA, they are a lot easier to find in the States than they are in here the UK. Then with the modern gun laws etc -if I was to find them in the USA- getting them back to the UK and through the UK customs is so much more complicated than it was, say, 20 years ago.
SV: I’m curious about graphics from this era. Book and LP design turned almost completely to studio-provided photographs by this point. What are some items that generated unique illustration artwork?
JB: For my liking, some of the best artwork came from the jigsaw puzzles produced for these shows. Artwork was still used on some games, the USA Secret Agent game being a good example. The interesting one for me, though, is the 1961 TV Crimebusters annual, which used an unusual combination of original art mixed with photographs from the series to produce comic strip stories. Then we have things like the TV Tornado issues, which would feature a beautiful full colour piece of artwork on the front cover for a TV series, but then there would be almost no content in the comic for that series.
SV: I really loved seeing the many puzzles in your collection, and they really do have unique artwork on the boxes. I guess another area we’d see unique illustrations would be on some of the model kit boxes. Did your research go into merchandise produced widely in international markets, or did you mainly focus on US and UK goods?
JB: I wouldn’t say I intentionally focus on just the English-speaking market; in fact, if anything, I do try and hunt out the unusual, regardless of where it’s from. I love the quirkiness of some of the international items. I have some of the U.N.C.L.E. books in more than a dozen different languages. It is, however, a lot more difficult to locate, if like me, you are linguistically challenged. I am just terrible at languages. There are both Chinese and Japanese items for many shows I would love to track down, but with my lack of skills, unless they turn up on an English language site, I struggle to find them. I find it a little easier with European sites, particularly French and German, though I do have difficulties trying to find items from both Portugal and Spain. So, I attempt to be as cosmopolitan as I can.
SV: With my background in Japan, I’ve tended to focus mainly on Japanese publications in my collecting over the past ten years or so. I can’t wait to share that material in my upcoming Spy Vibe book! But tracking items down does take a lot of patience and knowing how to translate and how to phrase searches. What have been your own holy grail finds from 60s spy TV?
JB: Now that is a very tricky question. My goals are always shifting with what I’m looking for. I guess one thing I still don’t have in my collection is an original piece of Jean Varon fashion from Mrs. Peel’s first season of The Avengers. All the Avengerswear pieces I have come from the Alun Hughes range, her second season. There are other items that I would like, but I’ve kind of given up on getting them; things like the Ideal toys Thrush rife. Nowadays I expect I’d have so many issues trying to get one into the UK through customs. Also, some of the Japanese stuff. There is a set of 3 Man From U.N.C.L.E. manga comics I would love to have. There is so much out there that I still do not have that it is a very tricky thing to answer. I mean the holy grail item might turn out to be an item I have not yet discovered, or that am still unaware of.
As for holy grail items I’ve actually found, well there are a few that were quests to find, The Triang underwater battle game was and still is a favourite, but that’s movies. Having said I don’t have any Jean Varon bits , well that’s not quite true, I don’t have any of the clothing items, but I do have a Jean Varon wristwatch which was part of his range for the Avengers series, now that was somewhat of a quest. Then there is the Girl from U.N.C.L.E. flashlight and whistle set of which mine is the only known example, I really should have watermarked my photos of that as I quite regularly see my images of that turning up on other sites, as do quite a few of my photos. Over the year though I have been very lucky and do have many items that when I started collecting , I never dreamt I’d be able to find and own in my collection.
SV: So true! Well put. And it’s the sudden discovery of an artifact that is the most thrilling experience as a collector and historian, I think. So many toy concepts, like games, puzzles, and cap guns, could be recycled with new logos to market different properties. I’m curious to hear about toys you’ve found from the 60s spy shows that have a uniquely “espionage” concept. What would a young spy fan, say in 1965 or 1966, see on the shelves that really reflected the whole new style and focus?
JB: Well the whole thing about 60s spies was the gadgets and there were some pretty inventive toys out there that reflected this. Some of the most inventive don’t even directly tie-in to a series. The Zero-M , was it?
SV: Oh, yes! Those were transforming spy gadgets long before Transformers.
JB: The radio that turned into a rifle. The Sixth Finger water pistol toy -I think that one was Marx.
JB: I will confess to not being as fully up on these as I should be, having always concentrated just on the TV Show licenced stuff, but all of these toys still fall into the whole spy-fi genre. One thing I find surprising is that Action Man (GI Joe to those in the USA) never jumped onto the spy bandwagon. Of the directly TV-related items, the Ideal Illya lighter that contained a radio stood out. But so much of what appeared was rehashed and repackaged toys, just slightly modified to relate to a spy show. I guess one thing that truly reflected the Spy invasion, in toy shops, as it were, was just how many -both licenced and unlicensed- versions of James Bond’s Aston Martin appeared as toys. I think most firms put out some variation of it.
SV: As Dave Worrall (Cinema Retro) put it in the title his book, The Most Famous Car in the World. Am I remembering right, that you have identical sword sticks that were marketed both for The Avengers and Adam Adamant? Have you spotted many other spy toy doppelgängers adapted for diverse properties?
JB: Well, they are not quite Identical. The Adam Adamant one has a white, fake Ivory handle, while the Avengers one has a brown “Cane” handle. The shafts however are the same -just in a different colour plastic. But yes, toy companies reuse things. Several of the Lone Star cap guns, for example, turn up in many guises. One started off as a Dan Dare gun, later reused as a Stingray pistol. Then I believe it was further reused later. Parts of the Captain Scarlet gun was later reused to make a Flash Gordon gun. The U.N.C.L.E. gun from Ideal was reworked for both T.H.E Cat and Combat. There are just so many examples.
SV: I guess it made sense for companies to work with what they had in the factory, rather than re-tooling everything. It’s also part of the history of action figures. My fave example being He-Man’s Battle Cat just being borrowed from another line; the cat was not to scale, so they just put a saddle on it! Which areas are you focusing on now? The Saint is next?
JB: The Saint book was originally due for release before the Danger Man / Prisoner book, but that is the next one due to be published, yes. In somewhat of a change to the previous books, I’m currently working on an Indiana Jones book. So, if anybody reading this out there has a collection for those movies and wouldn’t mind supplying me with photographs or information for that book, I would be interested in hearing from them. I have several different thoughts on possible subjects after that, one of which is potentially looking at the Irwin Allen shows. I tend to take notes and partially write stuff for several different projects simultaneously, which saves time in long run -especially when you come across items, as was the case when researching The Saint, which also pertained to Danger Man. There are still ITC shows I would like to cover, but everything kind of depends on which subjects I can interest my publishers in.
SV: I’m also very excited to hear you are working on an ITC swashbuckler edition. I’m a big fan of those shows, especially Robin Hood and Sir Lancelot. Are items from that era harder to locate? Not ITC, but what about Roger Moore’s Ivanhoe?
JB: Yes, I finished that one at the beginning of the year and it’s now at the publishers. I don’t yet have a release date for it. This has, so far, probably been the book that was the most fun to work on, as it was an area that nobody else had really ever concentrated on. Initially, yes, it proved to be very difficult to locate items. In fact, I’m still finding new bits months after having had to submit the manuscript to the publishers. Only recently, I discovered a Sculptercraft set for Robin Hood (way too late to be included). With Robin Hood, I did have a kind of floodgate moment, when I made chance contact with a collector in Australia from whom I did purchase a rather large quantity of bits. The thing I’ve found most odd is that, for 1950s British ITC series, almost everything I’ve been able to obtain has come from either the USA or Australia; virtually none of it has turned up on the UK market. Ah, Ivanhoe. Yes, you are correct in that it was not an ITC series, but it is amazing how many people seem to be under the impression that it was. The same Australian gentleman from who I obtained many of the Robin Hood pieces did also have a considerable quantity of items for that show as well, which I believe he still has; pieces I’ve certainly not seen elsewhere.
SV: Can’t wait to see it! Please let us know when a release date is announced. John, how did you get started collecting?
JB: I started collecting when I was around 10, collecting the TV and film shows I was enjoying on TV, and I wanted more. So, if I saw stuff connected to the shows, I would buy it. Initially it was books and annuals for the shows and Diecast toys. As I found out about other products, they would be added into my collection for that series. It kind of just happened!
SV: I can relate! We could continue the adventures at home as kids, long before the days of VHS, DVD, etc. Do you have any advice to new collectors starting out?
JB: Collect what you like, what you enjoy. If collecting new items, don’t buy the bits specifically aimed at collectors in hopes that it will become worth a fortune if you keep it mint and boxed. Chances are it won’t, because everybody else has done the same. Always buy the best you can afford. Not that I always do this; with magazines I tend to buy the cheapest complete edition I can find. In my case, I will be using that magazine to research the articles, so I don’t want to pay a vast amount for a perfect mint magazine which I’m not going to be able to use. If anything, collect items that mean something to you; don’t collect just to try and make money.
SV: Wise words! The collector worlds can really be adversely impacted by “speculators” hoping to cash in. We can never assume our bits will have big value in the end, but the personal joy of discovering and displaying is their eternal value. Thanks, John! We can’t wait to see your amazing collections and research. Spy Vibers can find John’s books on Amazon sites. Our 2015 interview HERE. Our interview with Return of the Saint star Ian Ogilvy HERE.