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PLUS ÇA CHANGE…

Kits, bits and accusations of bias. Decades pass by, but nothing really changes, does it?

If I had been paid a pound every time I’d been accused of favouritism, bias and that gloss had been applied to a review to ensure it looked as favourable as possible, I’d drink far nicer tea, eat more expensive chocolate biscuits and be able to sample some of that craft ale that I keep hearing so much about. But I digress…

Whilst researching ideas for the next column on this here website (aka sitting around doing nothing, when I could realistically have spent time being more productive…) my good friend Haris Ali popped round to drop off some magazines that he didn’t want. Knowing that I am something of a fan of all things ancient, he knew that the sight of Airfix, Modelworld and AIR Enthusiast/International magazines would fill me with pleasure. He was not wrong. So when I got a moment, cup of tea in hand, I set about reading the latest additions to my collection of dust-gathering publications.

Amongst the interesting articles, build features, aeronautical wonders and adverts for shops long-gone, I was struck by the editorials. Penned no later that 1982 in most cases, the one thing that struck me, was that little has really changed within this hobby over the intervening 40-odd years in terms of points to discuss. Much of the discourse was concerned with the quality of kits, details required by the enthusiast, details offered by the manufacturers, why a particular prototype has been kitted when another would have been preferable and why, in the case of those tasked with penning the material that modellers read, authors – and reviewers in particular – there is a tendency to gloss over issues that even to the blind, would be more than obvious. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

The editorial that sparked this particular rambling diatribe was entitled “…so shall ye reap!” and was found in the March 1982 edition of the superb and now, long-gone, AIR International magazine. In essence, the author, Fred Henderson (famous builder of the Tiger Moth that many of you will remember from the Matchbox adds that we all love. You do love them, right?) was discussing how their round-up of thoughts on the previous year’s modelling scene, had drawn some fire from those who seemed to feel that he/they were being overly generous to manufacturers. In turn, he/they had ignored what had really caused the issues seen during 1981, seeemingly a perceived paucity of releases and when they did arrive, not ones that those pulling the pin of dubious thoughts, felt to be interesting enought to persuade them to part with money for said kits.

Much of this was down to the conservatism of the manufactures they went on to say, ‘safe’ choices being made when bravery would have resulted in kits that had not been seen before (think Kotare daring to release another boring Spitfire Mk.I in 1/32 when a Scruggs Wonderplane would have been far more interesting and you start to get the picture… ). Such was the ire on show, that one modeller had decided that his letter should not be published (a decision reinforced in red by the inscription “NOT FOR PUBLICATION!”) and then gone on to say he would no longer read a single word written by this team ever again (though he failed it seemed, to decide wether anything else within the pages of AIR International would be read and absorbed). I couldn’t help but laugh at this inclusion of fascinatingly penned detail. As an editor that has been on the recieving end of such laugable threats in the past, I couldn’t help but imagine the team at AIR International responding with a shrug of the shoulders, a gulp of tea and the quite understandable response, and?! as the letter was scrunched up and nonchalantly tossed over shoulder into overflowing bin. But this was not all this particular scribe had to say (it never is, is it?) going on to accuse the team of being lackeys to the modelling industry (what, all of it?!) and then falling over backwards to ensure that no criticism, no matter how small, went their way. You see: nothing has changed…

Why this particular point stood out as much as it did, should be obvious to most as it’s nothing new and pervades modelling discourse to this day, especially from those that are keen to appear relevant, when their modelling and models cannot do the talking for them. If I had been paid a pound every time I’d been accused of favouritism, bias and that gloss had been applied to a review to ensure it looked as favourable as possible, I’d drink far nicer tea, eat more expensive chocolate biscuits and be able to sample some of that craft ale that I keep hearing so much about. But I digress…

Much of the accusatory in-coming tends to be from those that feel that my opinion – and by association, the opinions of others within the industry – cannot be honest because… we get given kits for free. “Yes, but you get free kits, products that sway your opinion!” Well, I do get free kits, but I have to do something with them – they are not there to brighten up my office! I also buy kits that are used for reviews and the like, the Airfix 1/48 Sabre that I built for Model Airplane International being one such example. But still the engine runs on down the tracks. Such is the pervasive nature of this particular runaway train of thought, I wonder if I will ever be able to successfully argue against it. I fear that the answer to that is indeed, no, especially when there are ex-scribes to fuel the fire, commentators who have decided that it is their place to set the record straight before blasting their thoughts through the PA of social media, click-bait guardians of all that is just, fair and honest.

In this case, the accusation of bias was less than subtle, as indeed it is in many cases today. But it was also unfair. Many of the reviews written during those years, in that magazine in particular, were so pointed and so honest, I really had to wonder what the detractors had been reading. Fred Henderson was certainly not one to pull punches and when they landed on kits that he might have liked but not loved (the then new 1/48 Matchbox range being a particular case for concern, Seasprite and Fury) those thoughts told me that his was an opinion to trust. Indeed, I have built both of those kits over the years, so I can tell you his opinions were indeed spot on. The same could be said for Scale Models and Airfix Magazine, where authors such as Roger Chesneau (aka Joe Saki), Geoff Prentice, Chris Ellis, Ray Rimell et al, were hardly backwards in coming forward with their thoughts on a particular product. Indeed, I remember having a long conversation with the late, great, David Hannant, who complained bitterly about the negativity that Geoff generated through his condemnation of Microscale instructions in their decal sheets, something he revelled in, seemingly with every individual review. And of course he was right: Microscale instructions were in the main, shocking, so pointing that out was his job, despite the fact that he was handed dozens of sheets a year to review and the flow of samples never stopped.

The same accusations take wing today, despite there being many trustworthy reviewers that put pen to paper in order to let readers know what is available and with samples to hand, how those kits look. And yet questions persist from those that seemingly feel that all we are doing is hungrily riding the gravy train and that free kits are more important than honesty and integrity. Well, maybe they have a point. And maybe not.

I’ve been in this game a long time (almost 30 years) and have seen both sides come in to bat. I’ve seen the most honest reviewers tell the truth about kits that ranged from poor to downright awful and then had that supply cut off, and I’ve seen others say a kit was fine, despite having seen it myself and found it to be anything but! I’ve seen those that care not one jot about samples, feeling that integrity is more important and I’ve seen and indeed been witness to conversations about a kit or product, where the favourable has overwhelmed the honest. I’ve seen the ill-informed espouse opinions in contradiction with noted experts in their field. Poor modellers, berate those with skills to envy. Kits reviewed before they’ve even been released, CAD drawings or early renders being enough to form opinions, some that have been entirely correct, many that have been the result of nothing more than personal emnity. I’ve seen it all, but I’m happy to say that the former has been far more prevalent than the latter, honesty from the majority being an almost overwhelming factor of the industry. Why? Because reputations are very hard earned, but they are so easily lost. And frankly, I, like many that I know and trust, are not about to lose ours for the price of a small plastic kit…

Snide, back of hand comments about perceived bias will always persist within this hobby, of that, there is no doubt. The two companies that most often find themselves on the receiving end of these comments are Airfix and Tamiya. It’s odd that such different concerns should find themselves subject to such things, and yet they do. “But yes, you would say that, wouldn’t you, fanboy?!” Fanboy. That’s the appellation that is most often thrown in the air by those that want an accusation of bias to stick, but don’t have the glue with which to cement more informed thoughts in place. Fanboy. “You only say that because you are a fan of the company and despite my feelings to the contrary, you can say what you like and I will never believe you.” So, you don’t believe me when I say a kit is really impressive and you don’t believe me when I say that is not so great? Do you see the contradiction in that position? Seriously, you can’t have it both ways!

As an author, I really feel that I can only ever do my best and tell the truth as I see it and that’s exactly what I could see from those magazines from the late 70s/early 80s. I spent time reading through a lot of the modelling chapters within each one that preceded that editorial and saw no evidence of overt, positive bias, any more than I see much of it around in 2021. I think that the real issue is not that authors gloss over issues, but that they have so little space to discuss them. Realistically, how much can you fit into a 200 word thumbnail appraisal, written to a tight deadline? Not much. Add to that the idea that an author might be covering a number of bases and you will soon see that they can only appraise what’s in front of them. I might be able to spot errors within a Harrier kit because that is an area of expertise; another author who may specialise in WWII fighters, might not be so well-informed. It’s far easier to pen a well-rounded review over weeks for a website, blog or forum where space is not an issue, than it is in hours for a commercial publication where you have a few lines and a couple of images to get your point across. Of course the counter argument to that would be to drop such ‘reviews’ altogether if they are not going to be detailed enough, but then magazines would be cutting down on large numbers of kits that otherwise would not see their turn in the spotlight. Swings and roundabouts…

Reading through these old magazines, not only helps to build the foundations of my historical knowledge of both the industry and hobby that revolves around it, it helps to reassure me that modellers have really, aways been the same. Four decades ago, we all cared about the same things that we do now and though choice was not as great back then, expectations were in line with what was possible in plastic and paint. Kits were looked at, models were built, letters were written to critique the critical, or not, depending on your point of view. The more things change, the more they stay the same: were it ever not thus?

See you next time.

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I'm formerly the editor in charge of Military In Scale magazine and latterly, Model Airplane International. Editing duties to one side, I'm now a full-time modelmaker with Doolittle Media, working to supply modelling articles and material for a number of their group titles, including MAI and Tamiya Model Magazine International. I'm also an avid fan of Assassin's creed, Coventry City FC and when the mood takes me, a drummer of only passing skill. Here though, you'll find what I do best: build models and occassionally, write about them!

11 comments on “PLUS ÇA CHANGE…

  1. John Green

    Spence , my only disagreement with what you’ve written is that I believe it was Geoff Prentice rather than Roger Chesneau who was prone to savaging Microscale over their diabolical instruction sheets . It always amazed me that they went to such trouble with the decals and then often failed to show you where to put most of them .

  2. Christian Atkins

    Brilliant!

  3. My main complaint about kit reviews these days (and I’ve only been modelling a few years so I don’t know if this was ever thus, and seems mainly to be an online thing) is the paucity of build reviews vs ‘out of the box’ reviews, which should be better described as previews. I completely understand why this is – the reviewers can’t build every kit that lands on their bench, and the time it would take to build a kit for a build review would mean they’d never be ‘timely’.

    However, the formulaic structure of these reviews – a few paragraphs of history copied from wikipedia and then a description of the steps in the instructions (the cliched “Construction begins, appropriately, with the cockpit…”) aren’t terribly useful. You might get some comment on the quality of the panel lines, the register of the decals, and what stores/extras come with it but that makes up maybe 5-10% of the word count. Generally the photos are what you come for in these reviews.

    (I’ve seen plenty of these reviews claim ‘the decals look glossy and thin and should go down nicely’ on reviews of mid 00s Academy kits that I know have possibly the most dreadful decals known to man!)

    I’m not sure what the answer to this is, or maybe even what exactly I’m getting at, maybe that box reviews should “get to the point more quickly and stop waffling!”. The box reviews where the reviewer actually snips off some plastic and dry fits/does some basic construction the model are much more useful to a reader, but I understand why they wouldn’t always want to do this to a nice new kit they’ve just purchased.

    • I used to dabble in reviews for a website, a few years ago (not in Mr Pollard’s league though). I always made a conscious effort, when doing previews (out of the box reviews) to take lots of pics and write sparsely. I also always wrote the history part myself, NEVER copied and pasted, as I felt it didn’t take that much longer to read and paraphrase than it did to slavishly copy. I’d also describe the instructions (i.e. well illustrated, plenty of steps, in colour, easy to follow; or only a couple of black & white diagrams, hard to see which bit goes where and in what order),l but didn’t see the point in describing the steps. You don’t need to know WHAT the instructions are, but it is useful to know HOW they are done. I reckon that style of previewing/reviewing is in the minority though, Tom, as most seem to be done the way you describe, and only really useful for the pictures.
      Another thing I dislike about that style of review is the comments like “decals should go down nicely,” or “the parts look like they will go together well.” Until the reviewer actually builds the kit and uses the decals, they should only offer opinion on design, moulding quality or print quality, not what they might be like in a hypothetical building situation. Leave that to the actual build review.

      Good grief, that’s turned into quite the rant! I’m not that angry about reviews really.

  4. baker24earthlinknet

    Ah, Fred Henderson, a major influence on my modeling – it was he who recommended the attractions of elderberry wine in modeling, and I couldn’t do without it…..:-) Of course, I go back to the RAF Flying Review when Bill Matthews had the modeling column….. Back then, the magazines didn’t have the competition from the web and Facebook they do now, and modelers often had to do real research in libraries, prying needed details and references from stacks or personal book collections. The better magazines were in fact historical references and resources. Today, I am amazed that so many modelers ask such basic questions when the answers are often found with the most basic queries via Google – decades ago, we all depended on the better magazines and books to guide the way….. In respect to normal model research, we are in a golden age indeed, and even the kit reviews often have enough photos of sprues and included bits and details that we can make at least an initial decisions on whether or not the kit might be of interest. As an ancient modeler, I am not afraid to chop ‘n channel a kit to make it more accurate (within reason) – my guiding principle is, will it be easier to correct this kit to the standard I want, or will it be easier and faster to scratch-build the basic shapes and add the kit’s details to that. And reviews, whether from a sample or the reviewer’s wallet, can help make that decision. I appreciate the knowledge and work that goes into reviews, even the “first look” type. They are valuable…..

  5. Hey, Spencer, if you read the cover article story in that issue of Air Enthusiast, I believe you will see a name you recognize in the by-line. The very first “serious airplane book” I ever got, as a precocious pre-teen with a reading level beyond his years, was William Green’s first “All The World’s Aircraft,” which I convinced my father to spend a whole $5 (an enormous sum for a book then) and get it for me. Cut to 20 years later, and William Green was the first editor to publish any of my aeronautical writing (first was Air Enthusiast Quarterly #11, for which he also gave me the cover, (an air-to-air of a 1928 Travelaire 4000 that Richard Bach later described as “the reluctant messiah’s Travelaire” in his novel “Illusions”). Bill (we became corresponding friends for the next 30+ years till he departed) published quite a bit of my stuff back then (AEQ #14 has an article about the restoration of F4U-7 BuNo133722, the last-but-10 Corsair still in existence – now at the McMinnville “museum” painted now as a Korean-era F4U “because the Corsair is an American airplane” – um, maybe yes, but not this one ever). Those Suez markings were found four layers down in the paint the airplane had been cocooned in over its lifetime by the French – when we found them, I was the only one who knew what they were.There’s an AI in 1983 that has my article about flying with the Wild Weasels (yes, the back seat of an F-4E is indeed the best roller coaster ride evah).

    Fred Henderson was my model for the kind of reviews I write – I think he was as influential in writing about models as Bill was for writing about the real ones. He was certainly the first I am aware of to take the subject seriously and not “it’s a bunch of plastic toys”> The two of them – Fred and Bill – were definitely my biggest influences in what I do. I think my reviews over at Modeling Madness are a combination of both – Bill for the history I write, Fred for how I treat the model.

    As to the portrait of the Muddlers you present – hoo boy! Too true! The one guy over at HyperFlail (my term for that “discussion” group, for what most of them do) who’s complaining about the Kotare Spitfire announcement because it wasn’t for a Fairleigh Fruitbat Mk. VIa, the one with the pilot’s relief tube on the left side of the cockpit where it should be, is almost a caricature of his “type.”

    I’ll never forget the criticism I got for my review of the Dragon 1/32 P-51D, which ended with a photo of the half-completed model in the trash bin and the statement “There is nothing you can do to this model that will ever make it good.” Oh by! “Tom Cleaver will destroy the hobby!” I’m not kidding, the party line over at Large Slow People was that now that I had peed in Dragon’s bowl of Wheaties, they’d never release another kit (Really!) and it would be all my fault. Some semil-literate from Oz who called himself “Wumm” posted on the discussion board that I only ever gave good reviews to models if I was given a “piece of the action” on the kit. (And he got a lot of them agreeing with him). Hell Dragon went after me on their website discussion board, with some employee posting that “Modelers don’t care about accuracy, modelers only want to have fun building models.” Needless to say, I never got another review kit from them. But interestingly, their next release was the very good Bf-110 series, and in the instructions they listed the Subject Matter Experts they had consulted in the kit design. I think most 109Nutz consider their 109E series to be the best in that scale. But “Tom Cleaver destroyed the hobby” when he wasn’t writing “sycophantic reviews” for pay. I’ll close of my memory of this incident by quoting the opening of the review by one of the LSP founders, of the copy of the P-51D he was given to review: “I’m not a P-51 fan, but this kit looks marvelous to me…”

    I’ve also been the subject of “He only gives them good reviews because he writes nice things about the kits they give him.” One of the benefits of being my doctor’s “most boring patient” is that nearly all of my critics from back then are now dead. Literally! And I’m still here. And you are so right that it takes years to create a reputation and seconds to destroy it, and the price of so doing is so much more than the price of any of these boxes full of plastic parts.

    Thanks for the reminder of two of the best guys I ever knew. If you paw though the Air Enthusiast Quarterlies and the Air Internationals you’ll find some more early TCinLA stuff. The best aviation magazines ever, while Bill edited them; there was something “not there” in what Key did with them.

    I notice that Chris Ellis has returned to Airfix Model World from FlyPast, having not made the transfer from models of the real thing to the real thing successfully (with the staff happy to get a new editor) – sadly the only British editor in 45 years of working with British editors (the best!) I didn’t get on with, though I did deliver what he asked for (the B-25 history in the Key “Flying Machines” series).

    And I’ll do my best to continue to take “little plastic toys” seriously and get on with my life’s work of destroying the hobby. (/snark)

    • “Read the article in the cover story of Air International” – sorry, it’s still early hours here in the City of Lost Angles.

  6. It’s much the same with book reviews. I write reviews from the point of view “what might make you want to read this book”, because why else would you read a review? Unsubstantiated opinion doesn’t really have a place in a review. Sometimes glaring errors have to be pointed out, but a commoner problem is how to review a series book that delivers the goods, exactly like the preceding 10 equally professionally produced works, without sounding repetitive or gushing?

  7. As a long time model builder and history buff, mainly of the Israeli Air Force, I believe that my kit reviews should include a historical perspective of the subject I chose to build, and show the reader how I managed to get the model built, modified, painted and decaled to represent accuracy the subject I chose to build.
    As stated by fellow kit review publishers, integrity is first and foremost in every article I write, after all it’s my name at the heading of the title.
    Yoav Efrati

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