In one of those strange coincidences I had some thoughts about toy building blocks this morning, specifically Betta Bilda bricks, and then in the afternoon a colleague raised the topic of Lego in a conversation, giving me the opportunity to voice my recently-formed theory about Betta Bilda.During the 60s, when everybody else seemed to have Lego, I was one of the few kids in Basildon locked into the Betta Bilda standard. It was like a fore-runner of the VHS/Betamax battles in a way. I don’t know why I took the road less travelled because I am not one of those people who can remember every detail of their childhoods. Just one more reason why I would be terrible on ‘I Love 1974′.
Anyway, it might have been an my mother’s choice either for economical reasons or because of the Airfix brand name, or it might have been my choice – because of the Airfix brand name. I do remember that I was mad for Airfix model kits so it is likely. What is sure is that once you have a starter kit and a couple of packs of extra bricks you are in the realms of what the economists refer to as ‘sunk cost’ because if you decide to collect a different system of bricks you have wasted what you already have, because Lego and Betta Bilda bricks looked very similar but were not compatible at all.
Lego was the big brand. It had brighter colours, flashier boxes, and even back then it could be used to make more different types of model. Betta Bilda was a lot more austere and, dare I say, nerdier. It was great for building miniature houses, with some very specialised architectural extras allowing you to make quite accurate models, but not really suited to making aeroplanes, spaceships or lorries. Looking at the boxes for the Betta Bilda sets, they all appear to be aimed at aspiring 1960′s town planners.
Some of my schoolfriends teased me about my choice of bricks a bit. In a way I wished I had Lego so that I fitted in with everybody else and could swap bricks like the others did, but secretly I actually preferred my own set because it had things Lego didn’t – like a working drawbridge with little cotton chains to raise and lower it, as well as some other parts which were specially designed for making castles. The drawbridge was actually quite a fragile part, though as far as I recall I never did break it.
The relevence of all this? Aside from an excuse to wallow in a previously untapped well of nostalgia it reminded me a bit of my relationship with Apple products. When I got my first mp3 player it was the mighty iRiver iHP-120. It didn’t have the cool of the iPod but in my opinion although it didn’t do everything the iPod did, it did its one thing better. The only drawback to not having the market leader mp3 player is the same as it was with building bricks – compatibility. Back then it was the greater availability of Lego sets, now it is the inability to find any decent docks for an mp3 player not made by Apple.
I don’t think the analogy holds up very well, but Betta Bilda seems a bit Linux-y to me. Doing what it does well but not appealing to the masses. A bit nerdy and worthy and overwhelmed by rivals grabbing market share through making people want to conform.
Is that a bit forced? Yeah I think so too, but I didn’t realise until today how much I enjoyed playing with those Betta Bilda bricks and kind of wish I had been nerdier and tried making architecturally accurate models of my house rather than getting seduced by the curved bricks and crennelations of the castle accessories.