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Dennis Diamond takes a look at some classic, in more way than one, figures by Tommy Atkins
Certain stories, classical literature, retain their resonance and have the ability to touch us in the present day just as they did when originally written. 2012 marked the bicentenary of the birth of writer Charles Dickens and one of the great mans most famous works is undoubtedly Oliver Twist which also went by the subtitle of 'The Parish Boy's Progress'. First published in 1838 there can be few of us who have not heard of the plight of orphan and workhouse child Oliver Twist and all those rich and wonderful characters met along the way within the novel which sheds light on the darkness of a time which has become known to us today as simply Dickensian England. A time when poverty, disease and exploitation were rife within Britain and Dickens helped to highlight and expose to the masses, via his literature, the need for change, and a greater understanding to affect that change.
I could prattle on all day about Oliver Twist the story but we are here for toy soldiers and all things 54mm. I get quite excited when I discover figures which reflect in miniature the heroes and villains of great literature or movies. Tommy Atkins range of characters relating to Oliver Twist are by no means new but deserve a relook if for no other reason than because they are so damned good!
Always one for a bargain I could not resist purchasing the six figure casting set (7 if you include the dog), which inclusive of postage and packing cost me about half of a decent quality painted figure these days. In the set are all the key protagonists of the tale. The arch villain Fagin, the aptly named bumbling beadle Mr Bumble, The Artful Dodger (real name Jack Dawkins), Bill Sikes (surely the most vile essence of man ever created for sheer brutality) and luckless dog Bull's-eye, ever suffering girlfriend to Bill is prostitute Nancy and last but not least the supplicating eponymous hero little Oliver himself.
As castings these 54mm figures are some of the sharpest I have seen with a good even weight to them. They paint up very nicely and though my efforts may not match the more adept and professional toy soldier artists I believe they are acceptable and I am pleased with the outcome; which as usual for all devotees of toy soldier collecting is the whole point.
When ordering these figures I enquired of Tommy Atkins whether there might be more characters from the novel to follow but sadly I was informed that nothing was planned, though they would complement TA/Fusilier's more recent range of Victorian street figures, thus building an entire street scene and a wonderfully evocative miniature world exuding period charm.
The figures in more depth are worth commenting on. Oliver himself is the typical pose we are all familiar with, the frail nine year old boy wanting more, the begging bowl if you will speaking for all those like him, then and now, standing up for his rights against a cruel system, the haves and the have not's. Take a closer look at the open book I have used as an appropriate atmospheric backdrop to this article and its associated figures. On the title page that silhouette of Oliver, that pose which needs no description, once seen you know who it is, the boy, the story, the whole thing, that is the power of good literature and this little figure, dare I say it, made easy for Tommy Atkins to tap into, but done very well as are all the pieces on offer here. A good friend of mine, a non toy soldier collector, saw these figures displayed at Christmas in my home and was very envious and desirous of them, put more simply they speak for themselves and induce desirability.
What of the other figures in this range? For me the real scene stealer (pardon the pun here!) is thief and all round bad lot Bill Sikes, described to Oliver by Fagin as '...a rough man, and thinks nothing of blood when his own is up.' Just marvel at that sinister pose, that brooding furtive look, a stare which suggests he really would do for you at the drop of a low denomination coin, the club held behind his back as one might conceal a bunch of flowers for a loved one, but nothing genteel or pleasant will come of this hidden 'gift'. This is a man with not one decent atom in his corrupt and evil body as we discover, if not having suspected it earlier in the tale, when he puts a gun to Oliver's head, then at the end when the ruffian kills Nancy in a horrific act of sheer brutality. Sikes only dubious ally through the dirty world he inhabits is his dog, bull terrier, Bull's-eye which again has a modern day resonance for us, think in terms of those bullying thugs who use such intimidating canines to enhance their macho reputations, many of the breeds held illegally. In essence nothing changes. Bulls-eye is often portrayed in film versions of Oliver Twist as a gentle beast at heart, but Dickens makes us fully aware from the outset that this red eyed dog will give as good as he gets and is not adverse to sinking his teeth into his masters leg if the occasion warrants it and only out lives his barbaric master by a matter of moments, both meeting a grizzly end.
Poor ill fated Nancy is modelled here in cheery mood, flirtatious, hands to hips, low cut dress. In superior company this young girl would have fared better but once in tow with Sikes the end was inevitable. Her exact age in the novel is never determined but we can assume she was probably a mere teenager when she met her untimely end.
The Artful Dodger, another lost boy, who befriends Oliver merely to ingratiate himself with Fagin, lives well enough from his ill gotten association but as can be seen by Tommy Atkins representation the boy is never going to be a gentleman as much as he tries, his attire well reflected here in miniature and there is to be presumably no happy ending for the Dodger when he is sentenced to transportation once the game is up.
The man who gave name to the central character and workhouse orphan is larger than life Mr Bumble, a man who covets power and is seemingly without a heart, he too gets his comeuppance when he finishes his days in the workhouse a broken man.
Then we have to come to Fagin, 'The Jew', as Dickens constantly refers to him in Oliver Twist and I cannot help but think of, and draw a parallel to, the way in which the Nazi's portrayed Jewish people in their hateful propaganda which has often resulted in people chastising the writer for this racist depiction. Dickens describes Fagin as physically 'grotesque' and certainly he is all that and more in this Tommy Atkins miniature version, the big nose, the bulbous jutting bottom lip, the array of sharp predatory teeth, just as Dickens presumably envisaged him. Here we see Fagin teaching Oliver to pickpocket with silk hankies trailing for easy lifting. A well modelled figure as are the entire set.
Full marks to Tommy Atkins for this literary inspired range and how I wish there were more to accompany them from the other Dickens stories with such an abundance to choose from.
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