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The defining Doctor Who toys of the 1970s belonged to innovative manufacturer Denys Fisher. The people behind the range explain how they made it happen.
The Denys Fisher Doctor stands in the doorway of his TARDIS. By twisting the lamp on the roof the figure could be made to disappear.

While designing precision components for NATO weaponry, the Leeds-born engineer Denys Fisher created what would become the UK Toy of the Year for 1967. Making draughting tools from Meccano, he accidentally created a drawing toy that produced amazing patterns – the Spirograph.

First produced in 1965, Spirograph was licensed a year later to the US toy giant Kenner, making Fisher an extremely wealthy man.

“I got to know Denys when his firm was making precision springs,” recalls David Potter, who was a sales executive at Fisher’s company from 1968 and became its managing director ten years later. “I was an apprentice salesman at United Steel. I worked in Liverpool and a guy called Bob Fieldhouse was the salesman for Leeds; he used to sell steel to Denys for his springs.”

Fieldhouse saw the potential of Fisher’s drawing toy and David, Bob and their United Steel colleagues Peter Craig and Graham Venison formed the original marketing team. Denys Fisher Ltd quickly exploded onto the market. “We were the first UK toy company to adopt TV advertising,” says David, “and it had a dramatic, colossal effect on sales – over 1000 per cent increases.”

Having expanded rapidly, Denys Fisher Ltd was acquired in 1970 by the American food giant General Mills, owners of Spirograph’s US licensee Kenner and the Leicester-based British firm Palitoy. Bob Fieldhouse became managing director, with Fisher himself taking a back seat. “Denys was chairman but had far less to do with the day-to-day running of the company,” remembers David. “He had this think tank in the Lake District, developing new products. The stuff they came up with only had limited success but it kept Denys quiet. Commercially speaking he was quite unorthodox, so we were quite glad he was out of the way. He came up with one more truly great idea though, a toy called the Cyclax, and we were ready to go big with it. But Kenner legally insisted this was an extension of Spirograph and so it was their property. That was a real shame.”

Though with only limited factory facilities on the Thorp Arch trading estate in Wetherby, Yorkshire, Denys Fisher Ltd was now a global player, helping US brands like Kenner penetrate the UK market. As Kenner president Bernie Loomis later reflected, “Kenner was the engine that drove Palitoy and Denys Fisher in England.”

In 1976 Kenner brought such toys as the wildly successful TV tie-in Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman action figures to Britain and thus promoted a licensing culture. “We started to explore the character-licensing world and struck up a relationship with the BBC licensing company [BBC Enterprises] run by Roy Williams,” David explains. “He and I had a very special relationship that led us into many licence agreements, including Doctor Who. I thought he was a great guy. Selling those licences, he became a very important figure in the trade.

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About Doctor Who Magazine

In 1964 Dalekmania led to the birth of Doctor Who licensing, and it’s been with us ever since. The return of the series in 2005 prompted an even bigger range of merchandise, which this time invaded supermarkets as well as toy shops. In 2017 the popularity, and ingenuity, of these products continues unabated. This is the surprising story of Doctor Who toys and games – told by the people who make, sell and collect them.