Film stars age; that is the nature of things. Even though their great works remain unchanged, celluloid portraits kept in the attic which may look better to modern eyes through restoration efforts, they only serve as evidence of how the flesh has decayed down through the years. Even the best preserved cannot hold back the wrinkles indefinitely, yet Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward, of unspecified age (one should never ask a Lady!) upon her television debut in September 1965, remains utterly unchanged almost half a century later.
Another truth is that quality endures, and that the works of Gerry Anderson look as good now if not better than when they were first broadcast is a testament not only to his determination as a writer, creator and producer but also to the talent and dedication of those who worked alongside him, all of them celebrated in the new documentary Filmed in Supermarionation.
The much missed Anderson, who died in December 2012, is present in an extensive archive interview, lively and honest about the many factors which affected his career; his frustration at working with puppets, his fondness for his successes, his sadness that many projects did not reach as wide an audience as he felt they deserved, and his sometimes difficult dealings with those upon whom he was obliged to collaborate in order to progress in the industry.
Most famous of these is of course the late Lew Grade with whom he enjoyed a fifteen year business relationship from Supercar in the early sixties to Space 1999 in the mid seventies. Notoriously single minded and direct in his dealings, it is clear that Anderson speaks of Baron Grade with fondness even as he recalls how intimidating their early meetings were, being asked to cut the anticipated budget for Supercar then timidly requesting the arrangement to be put in writing when agreement was reached and being told “My word is better than any contract.”
Anderson is not the only contributor, and much context and many reminiscences are provided by the woman who was hired as a part time typist in the early days, Sylvia Thamm, later of course to become Sylvia Anderson, an essential part of the various iterations of AP Films, Century 21 Films and Group Three where she served in many capacities including developing the format of shows, script supervision, production duties and even costume design in addition to her best known role as voice talent across multiple lead and supporting roles.
None of those parts are more famous than Lady Penelope herself who is present along with Aloysius “Nosey” Parker, linking the different segments of the documentary in newly shot sequences; “Why, Parker,” she enquires of her chauffeur as he recounts the tale of their creation, “Having an existential crisis?” Many other cast and crew offer contributions, with Nicholas Parsons, the voice of Tex Tucker on Four Feather Falls, specifically praising the leadership of the husband and wife team: “Very happy times, very happy atmosphere – this was down to Gerry and Sylvia.”
A celebration not only of the Andersons and their iconic shows but the whole era of the swinging sixties where Britain was the coolest place on the planet, it tells how a film company based on a less than glamorous Slough industrial estate achieved what none of their peers had done when they sold Fireball XL5 to the American network and set the scene for all their subsequent shows, each increasing in ambition and scope, the ever rising technical complexity a challenge for all involved. “We were dead tired, no money. Humour was the thing that kept us going.”
With Gerry focused on the practicalities of running the production it was often Sylvia who provided the human touch, keeping spirits up on the team who were performing challenging work on strict deadlines of time and money. The puppet techniques were not easy, and while operating them from above allowed the sets to have depth never before seen in puppet shows, that innovation had practical consequences.
Due to the length of the wires, there would be a delay before they would respond, the operators would have to be prepared to compensate for any swing which might develop from too rapid movement, and later in the day there was a tendency for the heavy puppets to develop saggy legs as the operators’ arms grew tired. “Editing was just cutting away from what didn’t work,” explains Desmond Saunders, one of the many crew reassembled to discuss and demonstrate their craft.
Unfortunately, two key personnel are represented only in brief archive footage, composer Barry Gray and special effects designer Derek Meddings, though both are described as geniuses in their fields, the former by Jamie Anderson, Gerry’s son, now a producer in his own right, the latter by Sylvia, though the contribution of both is evident in every frame of the beautifully restored footage presented. Throughout, the ethic of all matches that of perfectionist Gerry Anderson when first confronted with the unwanted challenge of working with puppets: “We may as well make it as well as we can.”
The only criticism is that with the focus solely on those shows broadcast under the banner of Supermarionation the spotlight never touches the other half of Anderson’s career where the technical expertise developed on those shows was put to use in the live action field in UFO, Space 1999 and Space Precinct, his return to puppets in Terrahawks and Dick Spanner and his embrace of the digital in Firestorm and Gerry Anderson’s New Captain Scarlet, though these and his many other projects certainly deserve to be the focus of their own follow-up documentary.
Filmed in Supermarionation is now available on DVD and as Blu-ray box with This is Supermarionation, a selection of remastered episodes drawn from each of the Supermarionation series