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Thursday, 30 October 2014

Star Wars Letraset transfers: The fun that never wore off

There's the rub: the front of the first Star Wars set from
Letraset Action Transfers, 'Battle at Mos Eisley'

Letraset.  If you're a first generation Star Wars fan, you might be tempted to say "Now that's a name I haven't heard in a long time ... a long time."

But it's a brand name that, for British fans in 1977-78, meant Star Wars – as surely as did the names Del Ray or Kenner in the US or Sphere and Palitoy in the UK.

Letraset was the British company behind a revolutionary way of getting text onto paper from 1961: the rub-down transfer system.  But for children of the 1970s, it was the company that made those cool Star Wars scenes.

Under the banner Letraset Action Transfers, Letraset initially produced three memorable Star Wars scenes for the UK market in the early part of 1978. 

These packages were not the first Letraset Star Wars products. As this comprehensive article on the official Star Wars website notes, those who ate Shreddies for breakfast would already have acquired some transfers and backgrounds, while other sets of transfers had been distributed with Wall's sausages and Look-In magazine.  But the three panoramic scenes which sold individually were something special.

The first Letraset Action Transfer Star Wars scene, as completed by an 11-year-old

The Letraset Action Transfer Star Wars panoramas

Each set consisted of a cardboard background and a sheet of transfers. The transfers depicted characters that you would place into the scene by rubbing each image with a soft pencil – putting Luke, Han, the droids and a generous selection of Jawas and stormtroopers wherever you liked in the action.  

The package was A4 sized, but a couple of cardboard flaps unfolded to make the background wider, which was nicely reminiscent of the Panavision shape of the film itself.

Part one of the three original Letrasets scenes was titled 'Battle at Mos Eisley'.  The text on one of the flaps tells the early part of the film's story. 
Continue the story? In three lines?
One of the flaps from Star Wars
Letraset Action Transfer
set number one

Well, sort of.  

It actually reads as though the author has made notes on the film and is reading them back some time later in a bit of a hurry. For example, it begins: "Inter-galactic war has broken out once more and during an attack on the planet Alderaan the Rebel Princess Leia escapes to summon help, but she is kidnapped by Stormtroopers lead [sic] by Darth Vader the evil Dark Lord of the sith, patrolling space in a giant ship."

An attack on the planet Alderaan?  I don't think I remember seeing that.

Thereafter, there's not a mention of the Death Star plans, only an account of Artoo carrying a secret message to Luke's homestead. "Luke decides to find Obi Wan Kenobi and let R2 D2 pass on the message. They go to the mountains to start their search, and are watched by the Tusken Raiders (desert bandits) who attack the three," it says.

Then, with the arrival of our heroes at Mos Eisley, the text takes a bit of a liberty with the film action in order to justify what's going on in Letraset's version of the scene.  "In a cantina in Mos Eisley they meet Chewbacca, a Wookie [sic] who is the co-pilot of the starship Millennium Falcon and Han solo the Pilot. Before they take off the stormtroopers are informed of their plans and a running battle through the town begins."  

The author then adds: "Can you continue the story?"  

This might simply be an invitation to get on with rubbing those transfers, but the package leaves three narrow, dotted lines as though we were supposed to write something down. Given that the copywriter took more than four lines of tiny type and a 47-word sentence to get us to the first scene of the movie – and then got it wrong – that was a bit of a challenge.

Anyway, we weren't buying this thing for the text (though, like all Star Wars text, it was probably read several times over by kids like me).  This was all about the pleasure of rubbing those transfers into the scene.  It was a good deal of fun, too – working out where to put the heroes with their blasters drawn, so that they matched up with stormtroopers who looked like they were being hit; or finding the right spots for the droids and the Jawas to be running away from the gunfire. It was like producing art, but without the frustration you experienced when nothing came out the way you imagined it.

Would a product like this have been popular years later, in the age of video games?  I suspect it would, because the satisfaction of making marks on paper is pretty deeply rooted.

The images on this page are from my own copy of the 'Battle of Mos Eisley' set, as completed by an eleven-year-old in 1978. I'll add parts two and three – 'Escape from the Death Star' and 'Rebel Air Attack' – shortly.  

That was not the end of the Letraset range.  There would be ten more panoramic scenes, as well as another give-away associated the original film – and Letraset's association with the Star Wars series would last until 1985.  But those first three packs were surely the point at which the largest number of children whiled away the evenings and school holidays happily immersed in laser blaster shootouts and audacious attacks on a giant, planet-destroying battle station.


chipsteak said...

I loved the mail-away bumper set that Kraft cheese triangles offered for ESB. A great great freebie.

Darren Slade said...

Thanks for the comment, Chipsteak. I remember the Kraft promotion, but I never owned those transfers. Look what I missed by not eating cheese triangles!
Keep visiting and commenting.

John white said...

Cheese triangles. Did you peel or squeeze?