You are on page 1of 4

Sylvanian Families: How folksy ways and

wholesome values captured a global audience

Rhodri Marsden
Under a striped green and white awning and behind panes of sparkling glass, dozens of
anthropomorphic animal figurines, neatly dressed in homely garments and standing about four
inches tall, are engaged in thoroughly wholesome pursuits. A painstakingly built diorama of a
bustling garden fte depicts such virtuous activities as sweeping, baking and close-harmony singing.
The contrast between these guys and, say, the fearsome menace of a Transformers Age of Extinction
Stomp And Chomp Grimlock could not be greater.
"In the world of Sylvania, nothing bad ever happens," says Ben Miller-Poole, 34, who's worked at
the countrys only dedicated Sylvanian Families shop for the last 11 years. "Everyone's lovely.
There are no problems. The most difficult decision you're going to have to make is what sandwich
to take out of the picnic basket. The only reason there's a Sylvanian policeman is in case someone's
football gets stuck up a tree." That policeman is, I learn later, PC Bobby Roberts, a badger as well
as an officer of the law. According to the blurb, he has "a friendly word for everyone he meets
except if they've been naughty, then he has a stern word with them and takes them back home to
their mother!"
But in the two hours that I spend immersed in the world of Sylvania, I see no scenes of moderate
violence (to borrow a phrase from the British Board of Film Classification). No scenes of mild peril.
No scary moments. No need for PC Bobby Roberts whatsoever. I almost forget about my mortgage
and my nagging shoulder pain. Its really, really nice.
This week marks the 30th anniversary of the launch of "Pleasant Friends Of The Forest Epoch
System Collection Animal Toy Sylvanian Families", a Japanese toy that was, rather sensibly,
renamed "Sylvanian Families". Over the years, Sylvania has become very diverse, biologicallyspeaking: youll find cats (Persian, silk and "Celebration"), mice, rabbits, otters, hedgehogs,
squirrels, meerkats, Dalmatians, kangaroos, monkeys, elephants, sheep, bears, pandas (red as well
as giant) and beavers. And thats just for starters.
A standard family of four (single-species only, natch) will set you back 15.99, but its not just
animals that make up the Sylvanian civilisation. Theres an ever-growing infrastructure of homes,
civic structures, shops, transport solutions and leisure facilities. Theres even the Sylvanian Families
Country Dentist Set (14.99) which comes with a reclining chair, mouth rinser, toothbrush and
various tools, all overseen by Dr Periwinkle, whos almost certainly a really nice chap who inflicts
no pain on anyone.
Sylvanian figurines dont do anything by themselves; you buy a set, perhaps with a few accessories,
and then you (or your children, if youre a bit busy) position them. You move them about and tell
your own stories. If you try to passively interact with Sylvanian Families, nothing will happen; its
down to you and your imagination. Its just like the dolls houses that our grandmothers might have
played with, except the characters are a bunch of impossibly cute, lightly fuzzy, creatures. And
granny probably didnt have access to a doll-size Supermarket (39.99), Fish and Chips Van
(29.99) or Country Tree School (34.99).
Needless to say, the retro appeal is colossal. "Every now and then you get someone in the shop who
cant believe that theyre buying them for themselves," says Miller-Poole. "But the spectrum of
people who like them is so broad. Weve been running the club magazine for years, and have had
members as old as 88, right down to children whove not even been born yet, whose expectant
mothers have signed them up."

Sylvanian Families was the brainchild of an executive at the Japanese toy firm Epoch, who
reckoned that a simulacrum of a rural English idyll would enchant Japanese children who spent
most of their lives in high-rise buildings. The brand has remained consistently popular in Japan,
with manifestations of Sylvania to be found in stage shows, theme parks and themed restaurants.
But it ended up enchanting much of the Western world, too. In the US, retitled "Calico Critters", it
was a copper-bottomed hit, and when the toys went on sale in the UK in 1987 we went nuts for it.
It was named Toy of The Year for three years in succession, and has continued to win awards for its
detailed modelling, the way it facilitates imaginative play and, of course, its wholesomeness. In
1992, Angela and Simon Harwood, a British couple who ran a Sylvanian token-collecting scheme
on behalf of the then UK manufacturer, Tomy, were so inundated with children sending them tokens
in exchange for freebies that in 1992 they decided to move the business into empty premises around
the corner from their home; the Sylvanian Families shop Im standing in is the result.
"I was a huge fan as a child," says Sally Carnall, 27, who is now the marketing manager at Epoch in
the UK. "The otter family would have been my favourite. And the canal boat. I was featured in a
magazine with my collection when I was ten or eleven, and me and my friend would make regular
visits to the shop in London. Id collect the tokens and every year my mum would take us down
In 2015, a regular stream of curious passers-by still wander in off the street to gawp at the displays,
which almost seem frozen in time. Victor Tailbury, the father of the Tailbury dog family, sits with a
gardening book and a crossword puzzle, while his wife, Purdy, stands in a kitchen alongside an
array of tiny fresh (plastic) vegetables. These four-square families, all with two parents and two
children, a boy and a girl of similar age, are either fantastically or appallingly nuclear, depending on
your point of view. "Recently," says Miller-Poole, "some of the families have had two children of
different ages a child with a baby sister, say so it has been shaken up a little bit. But no more
than that." Progressive is certainly not the watchword, here. Its "wholesome". (As weve already
Toys arent popular for ever, and Sylvanian Families has had its share of ups and downs over the
past 30 years. In the late 1990s, Tomy cut its losses and stopped production entirely in the UK, only
for the brand to be revived 18 months later by a British company, Flair Leisure Products.
"After Tomy stopped making them, the shop was incredibly busy," says Miller-Poole, "because you
genuinely couldnt get them anywhere else. But then Peter Brown, the guy who brought Sylvanian
Families to Tomy in the first place, started Flair and relaunched the brand. And we [at the shop]
were very hands-on in terms of development. It became a very anglicised take on Sylvanian
Families, playing up its quintessential Britishness." You can see this when you look around the
shelves; there are gags only British people of a certain age would get, such as the driver and the
conductor of the Woodland Bus being named Stan and Olive, a reference to the 1970s ITV sitcom
On The Buses.
Flairs association with the brand, however, ended last year. The creation and production of every
Sylvanian Family is now tightly controlled by Epochs head office; the traditional blue packaging is
now cream-coloured across all territories, and the description of each family member on the
underside of the box is no longer there. "I dont know why theyve done it," says Miller-Poole,
slightly mournfully. "We think its a bit of a shame one of the things I remember from playing
with them as a kid is turning the box over and thinking Who IS this?"
The backstories now appear online, instead, alongside the family group portrait and the add-tobasket button. There, youll find the improbably named members of the Persian cat family,
Septimus, Salome, Nolly and Sadie Persis; Father Septimus is a master rug-maker, Mother Salome
is an artist and painter, Brother Nolly likes climbing trees, while sister Sadie prefers to curl up in a
sunny spot with a good book (rather than pen vitriolic poems about gender politics). And other
changes are afoot under the new regime. "Every house used to look different," explains Miller-

Poole, "different tiles, different finishes but now theyre cream stone walls and red roofs, and they
can all be clipped together. Epoch is very keen on connectability."
You sense that these changes dont sit well with all Sylvanian connoisseurs, but theres a lucrative
second-generation market of parents ("predominantly mums", notes Miller-Poole) who played with
them as children and are now eager to instil a bit of Sylvanian wholesomeness in their own
offspring. Reviews of the range abound on parenting sites. "These little beasts are the bane of my
life," writes one Mumsnetter. "Disgustingly over-priced teensy tiny bits and pieces which get all too
easily lost and broken. They ARE cute though." But the intricate detail of these "teensy" pieces is
precisely what attracts collectors and miniaturists who still hold Sylvanian Families in very high
"Theres definitely a trend of parents wanting to go back to more traditional toys," says Carnall.
"Its about stimulating imagination and dexterity... its about love, family and nature." Is it almost
two fingers to the digital world, I ask? "Ha well, theres no technology in Sylvania," she laughs.
"Its very wholesome."
The replies feed to the @SylvanianUK Twitter account is noticeably devoid of abuse, and online
praise is effusive. "Its nice that they encourage lots of imaginative play," reads another Mumsnet
post. "Only down side is that they are quite pricey but they do seem to last. A good choice as an
alternative for children who arent so keen on dolls." That idea of imaginative, creative play is
encouraged in the shop with models of papier mach and card, which Miller-Poole has built and
used in the displays. Patterns for these can be downloaded at the shops website
( and made at home. His knowledge of the range is encyclopaedic; when
I dare to suggest that all the bear families look a bit similar, hes at pains to point out the unique
attributes of the Porridge family, and Chloe Porridge in particular. As he explains the intricate
society of Sylvania, uniformed couriers arrive and depart carrying large boxes, full of Sylvanian
items, with destinations marked from Brighton to Brazil. "There are people with huge collections
overseas," says Miller-Poole, "and well try to help them with shipping if, say, an eBay vendor
wont ship abroad."
I note with some bemusement that hes wearing a name badge that says "Rocky". "Oh," he says,
"so, we each play a Sylvanian character. When kids email me, theyll get an email back from Rocky
Babblebrook." (The real Rocky, in stark contrast to Miller-Poole, is a grey rabbit who runs the
General Store, selling rakes and hoes and seeds.) "And my colleague," he continues, pointing
towards a back room, "is Belinda Brighteyes." (Miller-Pooles colleague is not a grey rabbit either
shes a woman changing a printer cartridge.) "And whos this?" I ask, pointing at an upscaled model
of a rabbit in a spotty red dress. I quickly realise that Ive betrayed my pathetic ignorance of
Sylvanias best-selling character. "Shes the most photographed rabbit in the world!" he replies,
with mock indignation. "Thats Freya Chocolate, the eldest sister of the Chocolate family. She runs
a bakery and a restaurant, and shes everyones best friend. Shes also got concrete feet so she
doesnt fall over."
He informs me that Freya was once stolen by a drunk student from outside the shop. "It was in his
wardrobe for six months," he says. "But in the end, when he moved out, he came in and confessed.
And gave her back, rather sheepishly." PC Bobby Roberts was not informed about this incident. No
charges were pressed, and no punishments were handed down. This is Sylvania, after all.
Students like them despite themselves, adults go a bit funny over them, but kids really love them.
"Sylvanian Families are the best!" reads an online review by Megan, aged six. "Ive got the beach,"
she continues. "They love my beach. Ive got meerkat babies and a car, too." But even for a
cynical bloke like myself who likes moaning about how rubbish everything is, theres something
about the escapism offered by Sylvanian Families thats curiously compelling. Because Sylvania is
devoid of rubbish; its an idealistic utopia over which you can exercise total control. If you wanted
to delve deep, the psychology of Sylvanian Families would be fascinating.

"My interest never really left me, to be honest," says Miller-Poole. "You might grow up and put
your toys away but, as is common with a lot of people of my generation who are Sylvanian fans,
you come back to it. And you get the same comforting feeling from it that you used to get as a child.
A cosy safeness."
Its a big year for the brand. Epoch, perhaps sensing a British hunger for wholesomeness, is
launching a big advertising campaign, with online competitions, National Trust-partnered events in
Hatchlands Park and Wallington, and a search to establish which village in the UK will be named
Sylvanias "twin".
But for many fans, the real-world location of Sylvania is already established. Thanks to its quaint
picture-postcard charm and its picturesque silk mill, the Hampshire town of Whitchurch has been
chosen to host a number of Sylvanian-related events, and Miller-Poole will be heading there at the
end of June for a weekend of wholesome activities. "Therell be a big marquee with the characters,"
he says, "things to do, spot the difference, treasure hunts, face painting"
He laughs at my deadpan nod; for all his wide-eyed enthusiasm, hes very aware of Sylvanian
Families rather quaint position in the world of kids entertainment. "Well," he says, gesturing
around him, "you can see that this shop is too small to put on events that create mass hysteria."

Related Interests