The bombshell news report that forced Subbuteo to create a monster

This week a very interesting document landed in my inbox courtesy of Glen, or CanadianHammer on Twitter.

He had found a copy of Flick me sideways!, a collector magazine from the late 1990s and early 2000s. It’s very much the forerunner to The Hobby magazine but has a much more forensic look at the history of Subbuteo.

I am going to feature a lot of the in-depth information about Subbuteo’s history on the website and the upcoming magazine but the highlight for me was an interview with David Morrison Wilpred, who not only worked for Subbuteo as a sales rep but actually defected from Subbuteo’s major rival, New Footy, after Subbuteo’s launch of the 00 scale figures.

It’s an incredible interview and his information about the launch of the Zombie figures was particularly interesting.

He says: “The ‘zombie’ figure came about as the direct result of a damning article in either ‘The People’ or the ‘News of the World’ newspapers, claiming that our outworkers were paid ‘slave labour wages’ to paint figures. At this time about half the mums in Kent were happy to work for us and earn a little ‘pin money’. The Low Pay Unit became involved, and there were a lot of problems caused at the factory. I personally believe that Subbuteo wildly overreacted to the piece in the newspaper, and decided that they would have to mechanise production.

“About this time, pad of ‘Tempo’ printing came in, and it was decided to print figures from then on. However, it proved impossible to print anything other than a more or less flat figure – bent knees etc caused all kinds of problems – and special figures were designed to fit the Tempo printing machines. These were stick figures (also known as Zombies). They were tremendously unpopular, but as the print process improved, slightly more animated figures (lightweights) were introduced. There was an overlap of both types of figures being in use, and we still had some outworkers who wanted to carry on painting – hence you have both painted and printed zombie and lightweight figures.”

An interesting insight into the world of Subbuteo and how sensitive to media coverage the team behind the brand was at the time. So we can thank Britain’s red top tabloids (and perhaps shady work practices from Subbuteo itself) for the unpopular Zombie figures.

There was one final piece if information on the subject of Zombies. Have you ever noticed some Zombie figures do not have Subbuteo written on the base? That is because it was phased out as a cost-saving exercise. 

David says: “A certain amount of organised confusion was the norm on the production side of things!”

Stephen Hurrell
Stephen Hurrell
Stephen is the founder and editor of The Hobby Online and The Hobby by Subbuteo.Online print magazine. He is a giant nerd and specialises in Subbuteo, retro football kits and consumer stories. A journalist and editor of 15 years, he has written about football for some of the UK's biggest publications.

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