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Titanic in a Tub: The Golden Age of Toy Boats (1981)

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Charming documentary on television twenty five years ago
3 September 2006 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

TOY BOATS - An odd sort of subject for a television documentary, but this was a little more than that. It was a look at a piece of social history, and how it reflected it's period.

Between 1870 and 1920 or so there was a "golden age" of toys made mostly in Germany and England, particularly of models of ocean liners. These boats mirrored the expanding merchant marines of Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Holland, Denmark, the United States, Japan and Russia. They were originally made with sails and masts, but slowly they were to show smokestacks and screws (the changes in the model boats mirroring such developments as turbine engines and diesel engines). Many of these models were capable of motion in the water, due to spring

  • "clockwork" movements. So the little boys who got the toys could play


with them in the bathtub (hence the title of this documentary).

Similarly models of the latest battleships were soon also appearing on the shelves, mirroring the nationalistic rivalries of the day. In fact one anecdote that was mentioned on the show was how, in 1912, Kaiser Wilhelm visited a large Berlin toy shop, and noted approvingly of the model boats - until he noticed something missing. "Where are the toy submarines?", he demanded. The owner explained that no German toy maker made toy submarines. "That has to change.", Wilhelm said. It did. Soon toy model submarines were on the shelves.

The comparisons between the latest model toys and the technological developments in their contemporary full size vessels is well handled, with a side comment to the disasters of the day (a drawing of the sinking of the TITANIC, and the sinking, by a model "U-boat" of a full model of the LUSITANIA). But aside from these glances at tragedy and the military naval race, the bulk of the show was a glance at the beauty and craftsmanship of the toy boats. It was a very good program.

One final point, surprisingly not mentioned in the production notes: the narration was by Rex Harrison, at his most calm and normal. No trace of Professor Higgins here.


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