Gloucestershire

Peter Powell's stunt kite: The rise and fall and rise again

Peter Powell
Image caption Peter Powell described the fun of kite flying as "the freedom on the hills"

Peter Powell kites were the must have toy in the summer of 1976, with millions selling worldwide and their creator becoming a household name.

But despite out-selling Lego and taking a Toy of the Year award, the business came crashing down in the 1990s when the kite-maker put a match to his equipment.

Now, more than a decade after he brought his business to a dramatic end, his sons Paul and Mark have restarted it with a shop in Cheltenham.

Born in Gloucester in 1932, Peter Powell was aged in his 40s when he devised the kite that would make him famous - the Peter Powell Stunter.

Battling with the problem of a traditional one-line kite that was listing to one side, Mr Powell came up with the idea of attaching extra lines to it.

Image caption Peter's attempt to build and fly the UK's biggest kite was featured on Blue Peter in 1972...
Image caption ...but the record bid did not go according to plan
Image caption The same year, Peter persuaded Mary Hardy, 70, to sit in a chair lifted into the air by five kites

With a car boot loaded up with his kites, he would head to Paignton sea front and "sell every single one of them" out of the back of his car. He advertised by simply flying the kites.

But it was three years later, during the heatwave of 1976, when the flamboyant kitemaker hit the big time following an appearance on the BBC's daily magazine show, Nationwide.

"It went from 300 kites a week to 75,000 a week in its heyday - we opened two factories but that wasn't enough so we opened three more, it was massive," said his son Mark.

With a regular audience of over 10m viewers, the Nationwide appearance kick-started a UK craze for flying steerable kites.

Overnight the big, bright and durable Stunter was on every child's wish list and was being flown by stars including Muhammad Ali, James Stuart and Henry Fonda.

"I suppose dad was a bit like a celebrity at that time. I mean he was on programmes like Tiswas and he flew his kites off the back of the President's yacht down the Hudson river," said Paul, another son.

"And flying down the River Thames on the back of a police speedboat with St Paul's Cathedral in the background must have been an amazing thing to do," added Mark.

Image caption It was a TV appearance on Nationwide that sent kite sales soaring
Image copyright Peter Powell
Image caption In the 1970s Peter Powell had five factories making 75,000 kites a week

With a clear run through the 1970s it was in the decade that followed - as Peter Powell himself had predicted - that it all started to "go wrong".

As home computers and video games took hold of the children's leisure market, kite sales crashed and profits dwindled.

By the late-1990s, in the wake of poor commercial decisions and cheap knock-offs from abroad, the "dream was over" and Peter Powell was left with nothing.

"Me and Paul came home one night and it looked as if the house was on fire," said Mark.

"Dad had been round all the factories, collected all their jigs for making the kite and he had a big bonfire and burnt everything to do with the kite.

"He said to me and Paul, whatever you do, do not start that business back up again."

But they have.

Image caption By the late 1990s poor commercial decisions and cheap knock-offs had left him with nothing
Image caption Paul and Mark are determined their father's name and legacy will live on

Working in secret for two years, the brothers developed their own version of their father's Original Stunt Kite before confronting him with it in 2012.

"We didn't want dad finding out what we were doing, but when we showed him our first prototype he was gobsmacked," said Mark.

In 2014, two years before their father's death, the brothers re-launched his business through an online shop and retail outlet in Cheltenham.

"We weren't too sure how it was going to go, but we were so pleased that he was thrilled to bits that we'd brought it back," said Mark.

"But it will never go as big as dad had it."

Watch more from the family on Inside Out (West) via the BBC iPlayer.

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