Anyone remember Bagpuss? For the uninitiated, Bagpuss was a lackadaisical toy cat who slept in the window of an antiques shop. Only after the shop closed did Bagpuss shake himself into life, whereupon our furry friend began making merry in the company of a platoon of mice and a wooden bird named Professor Yaffle.
If Bagpuss still has a pulse, he must be smoking fat cigars and toasting his good fortune to live in an era when the middle classes believe in endlessly recycling pop-cultural artefacts from their youth. For, 20 years after his spot on British children's television was cruelly taken away, Bagpuss is making a comeback as a licensed brand. In its first three years, the Bagpuss franchise has churned out more than a hundred different product lines, all of which are aimed at adults with fond memories of the lovable moggie. Talking toys, promotional sweet covers, mobile phone covers, inflatable chairs, a computer mouse, talking alarm clocks and furry lunch bags - all have been stamped with the Bagpuss logo, and much more is on the way. Marks & Spencer has been so impressed by the lift that Bagpuss gave to its themed confectionery ranges that its marketing people are busy sounding out other TV characters for possible roles in its sales force.
At this point, I have a confession to make. I don't remember Bagpuss. Neither do I have a firm recollection of Postman Pat, The Clangers, Noddy or The Magic Roundabout. For years after I stepped off the banana boat from Ireland, I colluded with gaggles of English public schoolboys who liked nothing better than to name-check cultural fauna dredged up from their youth, slandering Captain Pugwash with innuendo and singing tinny impressions of Bill and Ben, the Flowerpot Men.
It wasn't that we didn't have television in Ireland. Oh no. It was just that we weren't interested in regurgitating the awful embarrassment of being young and having nothing to do but watch crap TV. Bagpuss, along with his colleagues on the children's TV circuit, has become the staple of the stand-up comedian running perilously low on material, the last fling of the joker at a party attempting to forge a cuddly entree into the affections of the opposite sex. Anyone remember Bagpuss? Anyone remember The Magic Roundabout? Heh, heh, heh.
Industry analysts in the UK estimate that one in every six toys now ends up in the lap of an adult. Marketing people today are so desperate to forge a connection with their customers that they are content to jog for real and imagined memories. In a recent report on the state of the British toy industry, one retail analyst enthuses that "toys which use 'nostalgic properties', ie, those that are based on television programmes from the 1970s and 1980s, have developed from a relatively niche activity, via one or two licensees, into more mainstream activity". Helping to create a revival of interest in classic toys, the report notes, is the redevelopment of old character franchises, together with a slew of nostalgia programming on British TV. Sometimes the toy manufacturers don't need any help. In June 2002, Frank Martin, the chief executive of the model train-maker Hornby, announced that his company now sells 75 per cent of its trains to adults over the age of 35.
"We are talking about 40- and 50-year-olds who perhaps didn't get the large-size train set they wanted as children," Martin told his shareholders, "and now find themselves with the time and the money to fulfil their dreams."
In the United States, the cultural equivalent of Bagpuss is a little toy car called Hot Wheels. When it realised a couple of years ago that it could exploit burgeoning nostalgia among the 40 million adults who grew up playing with Hot Wheels, the toy giant Mattel set about courting adult enthusiasts. Mattel unveiled its first life-size replica of an original Hot Wheels design at a trade show at the end of 2001. Rather like Bagpuss, however, the company soon discovered that the real money lay in merchandising of the Hot Wheels brand. At a licensing trade fair in June 2002, Mattel's Jeffrey Orridge told a receptive audience: "You have an emotional connection to Hot Wheels because it's the first car you ever bought."
Very soon, the trickle of Hot Wheels spin-offs aimed at adults had become a flood. Mattel had begun distributing the toy cars through US car parts retailers. It had licensed the Hot Wheels name for adult products such as clothing, car floor mats, seat covers and tyre rims. It had even lent its brand to the car company DaimlerChrysler for a special-edition "Hot Wheels PT Cruiser" - a formidable machine boasting a powerful 200-horsepower engine, oversized aluminium wheels and a hefty price tag. Women who never had much time for toy cars should not feel neglected: Mattel has also moved to extend the Barbie brand for adult collectors.
American analysts have attributed the growth of the US market for adult toys to the tragedy of 11 September. After the trauma of terrorist attacks and anthrax scares, this argument goes, the national psyche needed therapy, and was ready to take refuge in cuddly icons from the past. But even before 11 September, American men and women were sneaking into department stores and emerging with toys under plain cover. Even before 11 September, an estimated 10 per cent to 20 per cent of the sales of big US toy companies came from older buyers. And even before 11 September, one American toy retailer, the Vermont Teddy Bear Company, reported that it was selling 90 per cent of its stock to adults.
In any event, the adult interest in classic toys is more than just an American or even a western phenomenon. Adults in every industrialised country are becoming faithful devotees of stuffed toys, while toy companies everywhere are frantically rejigging their marketing machines in order to chase this lucrative source of new demand.
As usual, the Japanese can lay good claim to having been ahead of the curve. More than five years ago, grown Japanese women began filling their designer handbags with mobile phones, pens and credit cards all marked with the image of a cute little cat that they remembered from their youth. By the year 2000, Kitty had evolved a billion-dollar cash-cow for its owners, Sanrio, which was churning out Hello Kitty backpacks, beer mugs, exercise bicycles, cellular telephone covers, television sets, bath towels, wineglasses, fax machines, clocks, kimonos, pianos, hairdryers, rice bowls and automobiles. Flushed with success, Kitty now resides in her own theme park in the suburbs of Tokyo.
Anyone who requires further evidence of Japan's love affair with kawaii (the ubiquitous Japanese word for cute) should search out a copy of a Japanese magazine called Cutie. On a recent visit to Tokyo, I was introduced to the editor, a woman called Kyoko. Her magazine, she explained, was initially designed for teenage girls. But as the cuddly whims of teenage girls began to be appropriated by a vulturous adult population, Cutie - an endearingly soft-focus catalogue of cuddly toys and stories - won a more mature audience.
To illustrate her point, Kyoko took me on a Tube ride to Omotesando in western Tokyo. Amid the tall trees, Parisian-style cafes and exclusive boutiques of Omotesando boulevard is Tokyo's most popular toy store, a lavish six-storey emporium called Kiddyland. The shop's imposing foyer is guarded by an enormous figurine of a primitive hunter. Inside, a life-size mechanical grizzly bear greets new arrivals with Japanese ditties. As I browsed through the aisles full of wide-eyed, giggling groups of young adults cavorting with all manner of soft toys, I realised that something was missing. In Kiddyland, it soon became apparent, there is precious little evidence of any kiddies.
Nostalgia for yesterday's inanimate companions, however, is only the most easily recognisable sign of the adult fetish for toys. Other entrepreneurs are creating brand new toys for grown-ups, using the latest technology to make them more responsive to their doting owners. As I write, one of the most popular gadgets in Japanese department stores is a robot for stressed executives which comes programmed with a hundred different phrases, but whose sole purpose is to serve up alcohol to its grateful owner until either robot or recipient begins to malfunction.
The same company has introduced a doll for women which says "Good morning" in the morning and "I'm sleepy" at night: more, presumably, than Japanese husbands can manage. Within the realm of technotoys, however, the real action is in adult gaming. Roughly 60 per cent of Americans play games - on consoles, or hand-held devices, or PCs. Of those, 61 per cent are adults; the average player is 28 years old. Figures from Europe and Japan tell a similar story. "A generation that grew up with games," reported the Economist last summer, "has simply kept on playing."
The reasons why grown men and women are so keen to spend the evening twiddling their thumbs in homage to a games console are scarcely discussed. Some argue that today's young adults, nostalgic for the pixelated Space Invaders that they played on yesterday's computers, are easily wowed by the gaming animation of the new breed. Others point out that only adults can afford the exorbitant prices that games companies charge. Whatever the reason, the console manufacturers are targeting their new market with enthusiasm. The makers of PlayStation 2 and GameCube have deliberately courted the "M" or "age-restricted" rating for many of their games in the US, packaging them with appropriately sinister names such as Eternal Darkness and Resident Evil - Code: Veronica. Microsoft's commitment to the adult gaming market was clear when it launched its own gaming console, Xbox, in November 2001: the first game to be played on the Xbox was an M-rated sci-fi shootout called Halo.
Japanese analysts usually ascribe the adult demand for toys and games to the recent economic slump in that country. As a result, they say, many are seeking escape through the nostalgic toys of their childhood. Since 11 September, US commentators tend to point the finger at al-Qaeda. For their part, British pundits roll their eyes and put it down to that indefinable catch-all, "stress". But our reluctance to put the ageing Bagpuss to sleep, our inability to say "Goodbye Kitty" must be more deeply rooted in the culture than that. The banners of the Jarrow marchers, after all, were not festooned with teddy-bear mascots. Nor did the people of Northern Ireland respond to the stress of political violence by arming themselves with soft toys. Rather than being a reaction to any specific problem, adult toys and games are the material expression of a cloying infantilism that has haunted popular culture for nearly a decade. They function as comfort objects, compensation for our powerlessness in the real world.
If the adult fixation with toys had been bubbling under the surface of popular culture for some time, the first two years of the 21st century saw a new and more disturbing development. After the bursting of the dotcom bubble and the run on technology stocks, the promise of technology itself increasingly gave way to the idea of technology as glorified toy. The mobile phone industry offers a good example. Between March and April 2000, mobile network operators in the UK committed to paying the government more than £22bn for the licences to operate "third generation" mobile telephony. When they handed over the money, the mobile phone operators were confident of recouping their outlay many times over. Very soon, they said, we would be paying them to watch the latest film, or to video-conference with our friends on the phone, receive live music downloads on the bus, even keep tabs on our children, using the latest location-sensitive technology.
Two years later, that rhetoric of technological gee-whizzery had dimmed into insignificance. Beset by a series of technical hitches and embarrassed by the huge investment in infrastructure that third-generation mobile technology requires, the UK mobile operators postponed the launch of their 3G services. They began to change their tune. Instead of parroting the benefits of third-generation technology and setting ourselves up for a fall when the technology takes its time to materialise, the new orthodoxy ran, why not drop all mention of 3G, market mobile phones as toys, and leave it to the users to decide how to play with them?
Never mind that a fully functioning third-generation mobile network is still years away, or that the new marketing pitch - use your phone to pass on photos of your bum - does not even require that technology. The corporations that previously made it their mission to wow and tantalise us into the telecommunications space age have quietly dropped their ambitious plans. Like that joker at a party, stuck for anything more bracing to say, it seems that the mobile operators want to excuse their shortcomings by coming over all cute. At an industry presentation I attended in the UK at the beginning of 2002, a big cheese from one of Britain's major network operators attempted to demonstrate the potential of 3G by passing on a grainy snapshot of his favourite football team scoring a goal.
Even that failed, when he couldn't get a signal.