Back in the late ’70s in the UK the word “transfer” evoked three things. It brought to mind the musical stylings of Manhattan Transfer, the record-breaking sale of Trevor Francis from Birmingham to Nottingham Forest, and Star Wars. Why Star Wars? Because back in the day for kids raised on Grange Hill, Madness, Pot Noodles, 2000 A.D. and Secret Agents the chance to rub your favorite Star Wars characters onto anything and everything was almost irresistible.
The company that had the Star Wars licence in the UK was Ashford, Kent-based company Letraset. Formed in 1959, the company made its name manufacturing typeface for application to all manner of artwork, a requirement for companies and magazines in those pre-computer typeface days. By the ’60s they applied the dry transfer technique to a children’s game called “Action Transfers” and by the ’70s had branched out into buying licences including DC Superheroes, The Rescuers, and then Star Wars.
STAR WARS (1977)
The massive and surprising success of the film had a number of effects. Many companies were caught on the hop, rush-releasing products to the market to cash-in on the monster popularity of the space fantasy. Letraset were quick to add the Star Wars licence to their growing roster of titles, and so their Dry Transfers first appeared on breakfast tables on the back of packets of Shreddies with four themes (Capture of the Rebel Cruiser, Escape from Mos Eisley, Breakout at Prison Block, and Escape from the Death Star) that each came with a set of transfers. Printed in Gravure, a process used from 1968 to 1977, the four sets brought the action of the movie to kids everywhere.
Except me, I was a Sugar Puffs kid.
By February ’78, Marvel had released their weekly Star Wars comic to the UK market, bringing a weekly does of the saga to kids across the country and the film had truly exploded into the public consciousness. As a consequence, both Wall’s Sausages and weekly magazine Look-In released sets of transfers.
The Wall’s Sausages set came one per pack but sets were also available as a giveaway in random pairs in the eleventh issue of Look-In, dated 11 March 1978. A hugely popular title, Look-In often featured Star Wars articles during its run alongside such British staples as Follyfoot, The Tomorrow People, Worzel Gummidge, and Robin of Sherwood. Look-In ended in 1994 after 23 years. At the same time a block of six sheets were also out there in the Star Wars Space Writing Set.
By now Star Wars was literally everywhere and Letraset were at the forefront of that avalanche of product. There were Star Wars masks, Star Wars ice cream, Star Wars T-shirts — you name it, there was probably something with the cast of the film on it. Their next release was Letraset L46, sets one to three (L Series Litho) that collected Battle at Mos Eisley, Escape from the Death Star, and Rebel Air Attack. Featuring some beautiful painted artwork, the three sets are hugely nostalgic to look back at, bringing the pure focus of that first film right to the forefront. When we had nothing but that first Star Wars film, it was a very potent experience and naturally one that later generations never had the chance to repeat. Note the unusual elongated TIE fighter designs, drawn from a time when reference material was at a premium.
The next sets to arrive were the 10-part series which ran chronologically through the events of the film, from the Kidnap of the Princess right through to Last Battle. Folding down as all Letraset packs did this 1978 series again brought unique artwork and interesting depictions of the vehicles and locations. Set three, Action at Mos Eisley, again featured the tubular TIE fighters, while set five, Flight to Alderaan, highlighted the interior of the Millennium Falcon, though in a configuration not seen before or since with a vast viewing window and the cargo hold directly adjacent to the cockpit. A fascinating snapshot of what was available in a time before technical manuals, cutaways or high-detail blueprints, this is something you really need to see to appreciate.
The final Star Wars release came as part of another giveaway, this time via burger house Wimpy. Back in the ’70s, Wimpy was the UK’s number one burger bar, advertising far and wide on TV and in magazines. To celebrate Star Wars, they released six Letraset rub-down transfers featuring Darth Vader, R2-D2, C-3P0, Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca, and a Stormtrooper. The sets were 120mm x 55mm and came sealed with instructions on how to use them. Not that kids needed an excuse, but it was another great reason to go buy a burger.
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)
It seems unusual in these days of high impact marketing and tie-ins, but back in 1980 when The Empire Strikes Back arrived in cinemas, the promotional machine for the second Star Wars film was a sizeable amount smaller than for its colossal predecessor. Not due to any lack of quality but because back in those days sequels were seen largely as cheaper, smaller and inferior in quality to the film that came before. Very much the law of diminishing returns at play.
As such, Letraset didn’t do what we would expect today and release a 10-part Empire set in the UK, but instead tested the waters with a promotion with soft cheese makers Dairylea. Back then, most kids were nuts about Dairylea and as such the four sets (Space Battle, Hoth Ice Planet, Dagobah Bog Planet, and Bespin Cloud City) were massively popular. Dagobah Bog Planet was also available with issue 118 of the freshly renamed The Empire Strikes Back Weekly, dated 29th May 1980. The issue featured a black and white circular scene where kids could rub down their transfers, while the back page gave readers the opportunity to claim the mailaway bumper transfer pack in return for pack lids, a process kids of the time were familiar with as it was similar to cutting out the names from their Palitoy Star Wars figure cards in return for gifts.
RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983)
The final entry in the middle trilogy of the Star Wars saga arrived in May 1983 and by this time the staying power of Star Wars had been proven. Return of the Jedi was by far the most highly anticipated film in movie history, pulling in 43 million viewers by July of 1983 and bringing with it a glut of tie-in material.
By autumn 1981 Letraset had been bought by Esselte, with Letraset Consumer Products being sold to Thomas Salter at the same time. It was during this time that Letraset released their small and large sized Jedi series, all under the Action Transfers banner, converting both the court of Jabba the Hutt and the villages of The Ewoks into Dry Transfers.
Letrasets larger packs again brought the Ewok Village along with the ravenous Sarlacc Pit, while small boxes brought Battle on Endor and Jabba the Hutt Throne Room and a large box the Ewok Village. Commonly seen in newsagents nationwide, the scope of the Jedi releases were narrower than that of the well-covered Star Wars releases, focusing only on three locations.
The final Letraset Star Wars releases in the UK came as giveaways with Return of the Jedi Weekly. Mounted to the cover of issues 97 (27 April 1985), 98 (4 May 1985), and 99 (11 May 1985), these three sheets of Ewok stickers completed a run of eight years bringing the saga to kid collectors nationwide.
A fun and vibrant hobby, many of these sets can still be found on eBay, with sets from all three films originating in the United States and Europe also available. Hunt them down; they’re well worth the effort.
With thanks to www.action-transfers.com, www.jawatrader.co.uk and Tom Vinelott.
Mark Newbold is the daily content manager of Jedi News and has been involved in websites since 1995. He has been contributing to Star Wars Insider since 2006 and is the co-host of the UK-focused podcast Radio 1138.