James May's Toy Stories

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James May's Toy Stories
Genre Documentary
Created by James May
Presented by James May
Narrated by James May
Country of origin United Kingdom
No. of series 1
No. of episodes 6 (series)
3 (specials)
Executive producer(s) Will Daws
Stuart Cabb[1]
Editor(s) Ian Holt
Location(s) Various
Running time 60 minutes
Production company(s) Plum Pictures
Original channel BBC Two
Original run Main series:
27 October 2009 (2009-10-27)
25 December 2009
Special episodes:
12 June 2011 – Present
External links
Production website

James May's Toy Stories is a television series presented by James May.[2][3] The series was commissioned for BBC Two from Plum Pictures.[3][4] The first episode, "Airfix", was shown on BBC Two at 8:00 pm on Tuesday 27 October 2009.[1]

The premise of the 6-part show was to bring favourite toys of the past into the modern era, by using the toys in real life large scale enterprises. In each episode, he also explores the history of each toy.

In "Airfix", he builds a full-sized model of a Second World War Spitfire fighter plane, using the plastic moulding and assembly technique used in the Airfix self-assembly plastic scale model range. In "Plasticine", he models a full-sized garden out of the toy modelling clay Plasticine, as an exhibit in the Chelsea Flower Show. In "Meccano", he builds a full-sized footbridge out of the mechanical construction toy range Meccano, to cross a canal in Liverpool. In "Scalextric", he reconstructs the Brooklands racing circuit in full size using the slot-car toy racing track used by the Scalextric range. In "Lego", he builds a full-sized house in Dorking out of the Lego toy model brick range. In "Hornby", he re-lays a railway track along 10 miles (16 km) the line of a disused full-sized railway, the Tarka Trail, using the OO gauge (1/76th) track used in the Hornby Railways model train range. Of the six episodes, the Hornby attempt was the only one that failed; May revisited it in 2011 with a follow-up episode, "The Great Train Race". A new edition, "Flight Club", focusing on an attempt to fly a balsa wood glider across the English Channel, aired just before Christmas 2012.[5]

A further episode was broadcast on BBC Two at 9pm on Friday 3 January 2014, featuring the presenter attempting to get his motorbike and sidecar made out of Meccano around a lap of the Isle of Man Snaefell Mountain Course.


May's interest in technology is known from his presentation of such programmes as James May's 20th Century and James May's Big Ideas. He credits much of the inventiveness of humans to the love of playing with toys and he has credited many technological developments to men playing in sheds.[6] He has shown his passion for toys in programmes he has presented including James May's Top Toys and James May: My Sisters' Top Toys and he has discussed his desire for children to get away from games consoles and play with real toys preferably with their parents.[2] May was quoted as saying:

Episode list[edit]

The ambitious - world record-breaking in many cases - projects included:[2]

Episode Title Original airdate Summary Ratings BBC Two weekly rank
1 "Airfix" 27 October 2009 Attempting to build a full-sized model Spitfire from a giant Airfix kit. 3.93m 1
2 "Plasticine" 3 November 2009 Creating a Plasticine garden and entering it for the 2009 Chelsea Flower Show. 3.46m 1
3 "Meccano" 10 November 2009 Building a life-sized rolling bascule bridge made entirely out of Meccano. 3.86m 2
4 "Scalextric" 17 November 2009 Racing two Scalextric cars at the site of former grand prix track Brooklands in Surrey. 4.22m 2
5 "Lego" 20 December 2009[7] Attempting to build the world's first full-sized house made entirely out of Lego bricks. 4.85m 2
6 "Hornby"[8] 25 December 2009[9] Linking Barnstaple to Bideford with the world's longest model train set. 3.04m 10
7 "The Great Train Race"[10] 12 June 2011[10] 2011 Special: Re-attempt of the OO-gauge challenge between Barnstaple and Bideford, racing against a German team from Miniatur Wunderland. 2.46m 8
8 "Flight Club" 23 December 2012 2012 Special: Attempt to fly a large unpowered balsa wood glider across the English Channel.[11] 2.01m 17
9 "The Motorcycle Diary" 3 January 2014 2013 Special: Attempt to build a motorbike and sidecar out of Meccano and complete a lap of the Isle of Man TT circuit.[12] 2.14m 20
10 "Action Man at the Speed of Sound" 25 December 2014

Original plans[edit]

Many of the plans involved significant engineering problems, so the programme makers searched for architects, designers and engineers to help them.[13] However, many more volunteers would be required as a labour force, so appeals for volunteers were distributed in local newspapers.

James May's Airfix Model (Episode 1)[edit]

James successfully constructs a model Spitfire, on a scale of 1:1, by having the pieces constructed out of fibreglass by Gateguards in Cornwall.[14] Once the fibreglass pieces have been made, it becomes clear that they cannot support their own weight without internal supports. The model was completed and placed on display at the Royal Air Force Museum Cosford until November 2009.[15] In October 2010, the Spitfire returned to Cosford's Hangar 1.[16]

James May's Plasticine Garden (Episode 2)[edit]

Plasticine garden centrepiece.

May designed a garden named "Paradise in Plasticine" made entirely of Plasticine (except for some iron supports) for the 2009 Chelsea Flower Show. He missed out on the official awards due to a lack of "real" flowers but won 'The People's Choice' award and was also awarded a special "Plasticine Gold" Award for his efforts.[17] May refused to take credit for the garden, the largest of its kind, saying that 2,000 volunteers assisted with the venture.[18]

In July 2009, the garden was moved to Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire,[19] and was placed on display in the upper mall of the Octagon Shopping Centre in Burton upon Trent in February 2010.[20] In March 2013 it was rehomed to Wolverhampton.[21]

James May's Meccano Bridge (Episode 3)[edit]

In September 2009, May unveiled a life-sized Meccano bridge 23 metres (75 ft) long.[22][23][24] The scheme was designed at the University of Liverpool by Architecture students John Carroll, Daniel Dobson and Josh Woods, and was then engineered by the design and engineering consultancy Atkins. The bridge comprises two parts; a swing bridge and a rolling bascule bridge, which in total weigh about 12 tonne. It took 20 students and technicians more than 10 weeks to build, enlisting help from the University of Liverpool's Engineering Department to manage the project. The bridge's two sides have 14 sections within the swing side and 22 sections within the bascule side. Each section required around 40 hours to build to a sufficient standard. It was situated in the heart of Liverpool's newly redeveloped Pier Head. As the home to Meccano for more than 70 years during the running of the Binns Road 'factory of dreams' until 1979, Liverpool is an appropriate location for the bridge. It is also believed to be a new world record for the biggest Meccano bridge ever built, with over 100,000 individual parts per side — including 28,000 bolts.[25] After the successful completion of the project the student project managers were invited to the Lego House in Episode 5 for a party as a reward for their efforts.

Both sections of the bridge have remained at the University of Liverpool, with one of the two sections on public display within the engineering department.

James May's Scalextric race of Brooklands (Episode 4)[edit]

May re-created the banked track at Brooklands in Scalextric track.[26][27][28][29][30]

The 2.95 miles (4.75 km)[31] long track was assembled by 400 volunteers who used approximately 20,000 Scalextric pieces. The project faced a number of obstacles as James insisted on using the route of the original Brooklands track, most of which has now been demolished and built over. Obstacles including residential housing, commercial buildings, fences, a road, and the most challenging obstacle — a large pond. The track broke the world record for the longest successful Scalextric track, with the previous record measuring 1.59 miles (2.56 km).

The race had two teams — volunteers (often referred to, in the show, as "Tom's Team", Tom Ferris being a participant from a nearby company) and residents of Brooklands against "Scalextric Professionals". The race used multiple drivers in a relay, with each 'driver' racing one part of track as a single power unit could not power the whole track and one person would not be able to run the length of the track. The cars briefly stopped due to crashing off the track, the contacts acquiring dirt and flawed changeovers. Tiff Needell guested as the race reporter. The volunteers raced a maroon Aston Martin DB9 model and the professionals raced a silver Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren.[32] The Aston Martin won the race by a few minutes.[33]

James May's Lego House (Episode 5)[edit]

The house nears completion

Publicity from the programme-makers called for volunteers to help with the building project.[34] The response was overwhelming: on Saturday 1 August 2009 huge queues formed at the construction site, Denbies Wine Estate in Dorking, Surrey. Some people started queuing at 4:30 am. 1,200 were given tickets to work on the project while another 1,500 people had to be turned away.[35][36]

Volunteers made standardised hollow blocks each consisting of 272 standard 8-stud Lego bricks: 12 bricks long by six wide and eight bricks high.[37][38] The house was completed on 17 September 2009. Overall, the construction project overran by one month.

The programme-makers attempted to sell the house to the Legoland theme park in Windsor. However, the cost of dismantling and reassembling it was estimated at £50,000 which was judged to be too expensive, and the deal did not go through.[39] Having spent one night in the house, May said: "I slept in it on Friday and had the best night's sleep for a long time. The bed was a bit hard but I slept like a brick. Knocking it down is just wrong on every level. It's a lovely thing — it will break the hearts of the 1,000 people who worked like dogs to build it."[40] During the construction, James May noticed that one of the plastic bricks on the outside wall of the house, which was supposed to be entirely red, contained one pink lego piece on the outer rim. He sarcastically stated on air that he "hated" the volunteer who did this, as it upset the colour and balance of the house.

The house could not remain at Denbies because the space was needed for vines and there was no planning permission.[41] Despite attempts to save the house, dismantling the house began on Tuesday 22 September 2009. Before the demolition, on Sunday or Tuesday a Lego cat named Fusker, after May's own pet, went missing and is assumed to have been stolen by a member of the public — a few of whom had been allowed to look round the house after filming.[42] The 3.3 million plastic bricks used to build the house were donated to charity.[41]

James May's Hornby, Barnstaple - Bideford (Episode 6)[edit]

May, who had previously identified the train set as his "absolute favourite"[43] attempted to build the world's longest model railway. The team hoped that a train would run successfully along the length of the track, built on the picturesque Tarka Trail – a disused 37-mile (60 km) long railway line acquired by the local council in 1990 and which was converted for use as an off-road cycle track.[44] May chose the site because he thought that people wanted to see a line rebuilt there and because of the dramatic scenery. May joined 400 enthusiasts, including students from Petroc, to build the miniature railway stretching 10 miles (16 km) from Barnstaple to Bideford, in North Devon.[45]

The attempt was disrupted by vandals and thieves who interfered with the track. Coins were dropped onto the line, causing short circuits and some batteries and parts of the track were taken.[45] Weather also added problems of blocked lines and damage to the fragile track, leading to several derailments as shown in the programme.

Simon Kohler, marketing manager of Hornby model railways, said that the train which travels at just 1 mile per hour (1.6 km/h) failed two miles short of Bideford station; but he also told BBC news "Even though the last locomotive gave up the ghost at Instow, we did link the track – in fact I finished it at about 2230 – so we'll just need to wait and see what Guinness make of it."[45]

As shown in the programme, five trains set off on the track. The first, James' own 1970s-vintage Flying Scotsman model with realistic chuffing sound, failed very early (it had been out of use for many years). The other trains were chosen to reflect the original services on the line: a steam-hauled passenger train (a rebuilt SR 'West Country' class locomotive and Pullman coaches), to represent the Atlantic Coast Express; a diesel-hauled passenger train (a BR Class 42 Warship with Mark 1 coaches), to represent the 'everyday' passenger services; a diesel-hauled goods train (EWS-liveried Class 37 and hopper wagons), to represent the clay trains that ran to Fremington Quay; and the prototype of Hornby's Class 395 "Javelin" model.[45] Passing sections allowed the faster models to overtake the slower ones, however on several occasions slower trains had to be physically lifted out of the way; The "West Country" locomotive had been carried by Oz Clarke on trains from London Waterloo to Barnstaple, to replicate the original route of the Atlantic Coast Express. The Javelin was the last train running.

The Great Train Race[edit]

After the failure of the first attempt, a new toy train challenge occurred on 16 April 2011. A team composed of Germans from the Miniatur Wunderland (including one of its founders) who had assisted in the first toy train attempt raced against a team from Britain, again between Barnstaple and Bideford in North Devon.[46] The new challenge was to race three different types of trains from one end of the track and see who could get to the other station first, with each team starting at opposite ends. As well as reuniting previous collaborators, including his friend Oz Clarke, May asked for help from the local marines to guard the components; this stopped the theft of batteries and track, as well as short circuits caused by the placing of coins on the track, which occurred on the previous attempt. A different, sturdier type of track was used, as was a new battery system to power it; the length of track was divided into 100 yard insulated sections with two batteries per train, with the operators leapfrogging each other as each train progressed from one section to the next. This time, for most of the route, two parallel tracks were laid to avoid the opposing trains meeting head-on.

The German Team started at Bideford and the British Team at Barnstaple. The race was a best of three rounds. The first round used steam locomotives, the Germans using a model German DR Class 58.30 and the British using James' own childhood model of LNER Class A3 4472 Flying Scotsman – "with realistic chuffing sound", driven by Oz Clarke. Following the last attempt, James had dismantled, cleaned and repaired the whole model piece by piece before reassembly, making it the finest example of its kind in the country. The second race involved a German DB Class 403 electric train, nicknamed the "Donald Duck", and a British Rail InterCity 125. The third round featured modified trains driven by any power source the teams could come up with:

  • The German team originally used fermented sauerkraut to power a small piston engine motor, which started quickly but then fell off the track and exploded. The backup was a standard EuroSprinter ES 64 P electric locomotive, powered by a bank of lithium-ion cells instead of electricity supplied from the track.
  • The British team tried a train based on a ducted fan propelling a British Rail Class 395, which while extremely fast, proved too unstable and lacked brakes. It quickly derailed, breaking several wheels in the process. The replacement used an electric motor driven by a hydrogen fuel cell, the workings of which were disguised by an over-scale Thomas the Tank Engine body (although this was removed for much of the route as it made it top heavy).

The Germans were the first to complete the full journey with the Donald Duck. The British then won the second round with their hydrogen fuel cell train, and the third round was also won by the British with the Flying Scotsman after the German DR58 steam locomotive had problems. James May, after the crushing disappointment from the first attempt, was emotional that his Flying Scotsman model had made it to Bideford, and was delighted that the mechanically generated "realistic chuffing sound" was still working.

Several of the engines that finished had problems which were fixed en route. The Flying Scotsman had to have a new chassis block, the "Donald Duck" had two breakdowns due to a faulty gearbox, both within view of the finishing point, the EuroSprinter battery powered engine also suffered gearbox trouble and the German steam BR58 limped along very slowly with unspecified problems to finish last of all the trains several hours after the others, at 2:20am. Both experimental trains that finished had reliable power sources but major issues with top-heavy stability. All six trains eventually arrived at their destination.

The episode aired on BBC 2, 12 June 2011 at 8:00pm.[10]

The British models (and the track) were made by Hornby Railways, the German models used were made under the Rivarossi brand, which is also owned by Hornby.

Flight Club[edit]

In August 2012 James May built a model glider that he wanted to fly across the English Channel. The design chosen was a scaled-up version of a semi-scale model kit of the Slingsby Swallow which he described as "reminiscent of the Keil-Kraft type of gliders I built as a kid". The original plan was to launch the glider from a balloon from a height of 8,000 feet (2,438 m). Due to the 2012 Olympics and French air traffic control, they were unable to fly the glider across the Channel. Instead it was decided that the glider would be flown from Barnstaple, in Devon, across the Bristol Channel to south Wales. This was the same distance - 22 mi (35 km) - as across the English Channel at its narrowest point. The project had support from "Simmy" (Simeon Oakley), an engineer who has appeared in James May's Man Lab and aerospace engineering students from Brunel University.[47]

It was also decided that the launch would be from a helicopter in order to control it. The original model design was given new wings to increase its glide ratio. Due to delays and low cloud it was launched from below 4,000 feet (1,219 m) and as such it only flew 2 mi (3.2 km) before landing in the sea. On the following day the weather was clear and a second attempt was made from the same location but from an altitude of more than 9,000 feet (2,743 m). However, due to the wind on the day blowing from the East it was launched towards Lundy, an island in the Bristol Channel, which it reached, and landed on, in approximately one hour.

The Motorcycle Diary[edit]

Meccano Motorcycle on display at the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu.
Electric motor assembly.

Following James May's successful attempt to create a bridge out of Meccano in Liverpool back in 2009, a new challenge was made to see if the mechanical toy could be used to create a fully working motorcycle, and then ride it across the Isle of Man.[48] More specifically, for one lap of the island's famous TT Course, in 2013. The challenge was a daunting one, consisting of many technical and mechanical problems with the bike being made out of Meccano, alongside other issues. The first problem faced was from the island's government, which only gave the go-ahead for the bike to partake in travelling the TT Course, as long as the show promoted the tourism for the area; this led to the bike having to include a sidecar for Oz Clarke, who was brought in to handle the tourism matter. Construction of the bike was slow because of the parts needed, making a chain for the bike, for example, was a time consuming process since they were creating a full-sized functioning bike rather than a small model. Despite being slightly behind schedule, the construction of the bike was completed just a day before the challenge was to be started. As in previous episodes of Toy Stories, the engineering side to the construction was overseen by Sim Oakley.[49]

However, while the construction had been problematic, the bulk of the problems faced in the challenge only truly began when the main task was to be started. The first faced came when the bike's brakes were being tested by the team to ensure that they worked, on the night before the challenge would begin; the front ones were found to be too firm for the Meccano pieces, when it crippled the front wheel and ruined the front forks, forcing the team to repair the damage by remaking the parts. Then the bike had to undertake an MOT test before it could be allowed to perform on the road and the course, which it managed to pass after a worrying amount of time. The next issue came from an unexpected matter; the practice session for the Grand Prix of the main race was cancelled while the group were filming the bike in all its glory, forcing the team to start earlier than had been planned. Despite these initial issues that were faced, the bike was able to function and move on its own power, and began the task in hand, with a police escort protecting it from local traffic as it drove along the course.

However, further problems were encountered after it started. The power for the bike was not strong enough as they had hoped for; despite it using several Meccano motors that would be more suited for smaller models, but had been fashioned in a way to work with the bike like a full sized engine, they could not supply the power needed for it to tackle hills or give it good enough speed to cover the length of the course. This led to a motor from a golf buggy (described as Plan B by May), to be used to supply more power, but even it could not get the bike far enough for the pair's liking; only a few miles were covered before May and Clarke had to stop for the night, much to May's disappointment, as they were not allowed to do so under strict rules. The bike had to be carted away for emergency repairs to evaluate the issues.

The following day, the group had to complete much more distance than had been hoped, and continued to have further problems, which began from the back wheel becoming a major issue and needing repairs, and also from the lack of speed, which was needed to cover the remaining miles; the group had to complete the challenge before the TT Race was to be officially started, otherwise they would have to stop and try again another time. Oz was abandoned to tour the island's sights and remove unwanted weight, while May continued on with the challenge, suffering further problems with power, which had origins of a mysterious nature that could not be found. The slowdowns to make repairs to these issues and more, cost time they did not have to spare.

Despite the issues faced, the bike managed to complete the majority of the course into the late hours after gaining special permission to do so, and gaining unexpected power to help it cross the mountains. May and Clarke were reunited just before entering Douglas, where the finish line lay in sight.[48] All of the issues faced could not prevent them from crossing it, and the pair received cheers of celebrations from the waiting crowds for completing the challenge within time, whereupon Clarke performed the traditional racing celebration; spraying champagne over May. May ended the challenge by questioning what could be done next with Meccano, commenting that making a space craft with the toy would be very unlikely.


Awards and nominations[edit]

The series was nominated in the Features category of the 2010 British Academy Television Awards, but lost out to the eventual winner, Masterchef: The Professionals.

James released a well-received book in conjunction with the series, through Conway Publishing (2009).



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General references[edit]

External links[edit]