A spate of child kidnappings perpetrated by gangs of under-elevens have been blamed on a new range of accessories recently introduced for a popular make of action figure. “I swear he would never have thought of doing such a wicked thing before he got given that Action Man ‘Iraqi Insurgent’ set for his birthday,” says Gloucester mother of three Fran Frewer, whose ten year old son Simon masterminded the abduction of a local teacher’s eight year old boy, threatening to behead him if some other members of their gang were not released early from detention. “He’s never done anything like this before – he usually sticks to shoplifting and vandalising the local bus stops.” The kidnap victim was eventually freed from his prison when Simon’s mother recognised the inside of her garden shed from the video the gang had made of the boy pleading for his life, but not before an attempt to carry out the death sentence had been thwarted by Simon’s inability to open his penknife.

The Action Man outfit being blamed for this, and at least a dozen similar incidents the length and breadth of Britain, was rushed into production by its manufacturers – Handjob Toys and Games – to try and capitalise upon the kidnappings of westerners in Iraq. “We like to be topical with our products,” says company spokesperson Tim Pincher, who defends the outfit on educational grounds. “We’re just trying to nurture children’s interest in current affairs – you know how difficult that can be! Hopefully this new range of accessories will help to stimulate informed discussion in Britain’s school playgrounds.” The set includes accessories for both kidnappers and victim, including black robes, knives, chains and blindfolds – a scale replica iron cage is available separately. Pincher is particularly proud of the blood capsule included in the kit. “It fits inside the head of the victim Action Man, so that when he is beheaded there’s an authentic looking spurt of blood,” he enthuses, before going on to describe the next innovation for the range. “We’re hoping to release an alternative set of phrases for the talking Action Man very soon. The kidnapper will be able to spout all the standard rants, including the ever popular ‘Death to infidels’, whilst the victim will be able to plead for his life and condemn Blair and Bush for the invasion of Iraq!”

The range has inevitably been condemned as ‘depraved’ and ‘insensitive’ by both government officials and the families of Iraqi kidnapping victims, and comes hot on the heels of the company’s earlier Iraq themed accessory set – the Abu Graib Prison collection. “We were very pleased with that set – our designers spent hours looking at those pictures from the prison so as to ensure that all the torture gear included was completely authentic,” explains Pincher. “The fully operational set of electrodes and cattle prods was especially popular, as was the attack dog with snapping jaws. We were going to issue a detachable set of genitals for the dog to tear off of prisoners, but we thought that might be in poor taste.”

The manufacturers of the Action Man doll itself have been quick to point out that these accessory sets are after-market items made and marketed by a third party. “We have absolutely no control over the sale and distribution of these items,” declared a company spokesperson. “There is no way we would be involved with something as tasteless and disrespectful as this. Hell, we took enough shit that time we tried to introduce the IRA outfit.” (See Fun and Games). Action Man isn’t the only doll Handjob produce accessories for – their recent range of Barbie products have been equally controversial. “With the Bratz dolls beginning to outstrip Barbie in sales, it was obvious that the old girl needed a more contemporary, raunchier image,” says Pincher. “You know, the makers should be thanking us for our dominatrix and bondage slave ranges – they certainly put Barbie back into the headlines!” High heels, black leather, whips, gags, chains and manacles all feature heavily in theses sets, which have drawn criticism from both women’s and children’s groups for encouraging sexual awareness in pre-pubescent girls.

Indeed, several tabloid press reports have claimed that the outfits have led to cases of girls as young as eight dressing like prostitutes. Pincher denies that the miniature dildo collection, scale working vibrator or nipple torture set could lead to children developing a warped view of female sexuality. “This is just pure alarmism, a typical knee-jerk reaction,” he sighs. “We’re simply portraying Barbie as a liberated woman comfortable with her own sexuality and unafraid to experiment. Hopefully this will encourage a greater level of self-confidence amongst young girls! Let’s not forget that nowhere in our catalogues is Ken seen tying up Barbie – all the action is strictly girl on girl.” Nevertheless, Handjob were forced to withdraw the ‘Naughty Schoolgirl’ set, featuring Barbie in a skimpy school uniform and Ken in a mortar board and cape, armed with a variety of canes.

Indeed, Pincher is proud of the sense of social responsibility his company has shown in voluntarily withdrawing several of its products from the market place. “We don’t always wait for a public outcry before discontinuing a product range – often we act unilaterally if we feel public morals could be offended,” he explains. “Just recently, for instance, we decided not to go ahead with Abu Hamza Halloween outfit for kiddies, even though those hook hands, huge beard and scarred face would have been a real scream for ‘trick or treaters ‘. We felt that depicting him as some kind of bogeyman could jeopardise his chances of a fair trial.”

Nevertheless, some cynics have suggested that the withdrawal of the outfit was the result of threats from Islamic fundamentalist groups, angered by the apparent demonisation of the jailed London cleric. “If we were scared of these people, would our replacement outfit have been the ‘Palestinian Suicide Bomber’ costume?” asks Pincher. “Hell, kids just loved that one – anyone trying to trick them on the doorstep got a blast of fake blood and innards when the phoney bomb they had strapped to their abdomen exploded!” Undeterred by the negative reaction from police and parents to this costume – which is rumoured to have induced at least one fatal heart attack in a pensioner – Handjob have announced a new ‘Dirty Bomber’ set for Action Man, including decontamination suits and radioactive device. “Anything caught in the device’s blast will glow in the dark for at least three days,” chuckles Pincher. “But parents needn’t worry, we’re assured the actual radiation levels are far too low to cause permanent harm to human beings.”