Britain’s Daily Telegraph has carried a feature on how Malta has populated the world with little people – 2.7 billion little plastic people produced by Playmobil since 1974.

Writer Harry Wallop went behind the scenes in the ‘people factory’ in Hal Far.

“Forty years ago, the world was in crisis. Banks were collapsing, a US president resigned in disgrace, the price of oil had quadrupled.

“But in 1974, on the tiny island of Malta, a new world order was taking shape – peopled by little, 2.9 inch plastic figures: Playmobil.”

In that first year, he wrote, there were just three men: a construction worker in stripy bib (no sign of high-vis jackets in those days), a knight with a silver helmet and an American Indian with a feather in his hair. Since then 3,995 different designs have come off the production lines in a slightly scruffy factory, along the road from the airport.

German toy company Brandstatter asked chief designer Hans Beck  to come up with a toy that used less plastic than other toys the company was making, otherwise the firm would go bust. The result was a little man, made to fit into the palm of a child’s hand.

When the designs were first sketched, the little figures had noses and bendable knees – two of the most distinctive shortcomings of Playmobil. But Matthias Fauser, the head of Playmobil’s Malta saids: “Mr Beck realised that with bendable knees the figures were not stable and they would topple over. And children would be frustrated playing with them.

All the figures smile. But how much longer?  

Mr Wallop observed that many  within the toy industry have noticed that the latest threat is of a whole other order: mobile phones and tablet computers are being found in increasingly young hands. Toddlers are often swiping away at Fruit Ninja or tilting the screen to win Temple Run at an age when they should be tooting trains and scaling dragons’ castles.

Playmobil’s turnover increased by 4 per cent last year to €552m. But Mr Fauser admitted that whereas 20 years ago children would have abandoned traditional toys at the age of 12, it is now about the age of eight. “It is getting earlier, no doubt.”

But he insisted that there would never come a time when all toys become screen-based.

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