Gerry Anderson – Cold War Puppeteer or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Supermarionation

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Stand by for action!

The end of 2012 saw us robbed of one of the greatest and most influential figures in genre television. For those of us lucky enough to have been children in the sixties, Gerry Anderson was probably the one single force that most shaped our imagination and our play. For wee boys with a bent for the fantastical and a love of exotic flying machines, along with his team of regular collaborators, special effects designer Derek Meddings, producer Reg Hill, composer Barry Gray and Sylvia Anderson, who developed and voiced characters, he gave shape and form to our imaginings like no other.

At the dawn of the Space Age and with the Cold War having driven technological progress at a phenomenal rate, the resultant fetishisation of all things jet- and rocket-powered saw Anderson tapping into a zeitgeist and producing some of the most imaginative and influential children’s genre shows ever made, taking many of the visual tropes of the Cold War and turning them into popular family entertainment. Even now, many of his ideas still resonate and have been appropriated for new audiences in the 21st Century.

From small acorns do little boys grow...

From small acorns do little boys grow…

Anderson had begun working with marionettes in 1957 on The Adventures of Twizzle, co-produced with writer Roberta Leigh, a relatively crude children’s puppet series, and for the next twelve years he continued to progress and refine that format. This culminated in 1969 with the little-seen The Secret Service which came at the tail end of a declining interest in Supermarionation, though in the interim he fed our playground games with Supercar, Stingray and Fireball XL5, reaching a zenith in 1965 with Thunderbirds, the series for which he will be best remembered.

Having first ventured into the realms of science fiction with his fourth series Supercar in 1960, it would be his next, Fireball XL5, which took Anderson into the grandiose arena of outer space. Concentrating on the adventures of Captain Steve Zodiac of the World Space Patrol, it was the first of Anderson’s series to foreground the futuristic hardware that would become one of his trademarks. Supercar had simply been a means to an end, a contrivance to endow the characters with mobility without requiring the puppets to actually walk.

I wish I was a spaceman...

I wish I was a spaceman…

One of the advantages Anderson had that brought him closer to hard science fiction than the science fantasy of his contemporaries was that his vehicles and technology were firmly rooted in the here and now, inspired by the incredible advances in aerospace technology of the 1950s. At the end of the Second World War in 1945 most fighter aircraft were propeller-driven and powered by piston engines, yet by 1960 the US Air Force and NASA were already testing the hypersonic X-15 aircraft which had sub-orbital capability leading to many of its test pilots, including Neil Armstrong, being officially classed as astronauts. Much of the hardware featured in Anderson’s shows was a simple extension of what was already being built and tested in the real world, lending his creations an air of solidity and believability.

Design, construction and filming of the highly-detailed models, from Stingray onwards, was the responsibility of Derek Meddings and Reg Hill. Both would work with Anderson regularly, Meddings until UFO and Hill until Space:1999. One of the finest modelmakers ever to work in film and television, Meddings designed all the iconic Thunderbirds craft and also had a significant career in feature films, providing modelwork for all the 1970s Bond films and for Richard Lester’s Superman in 1978. Hill, older than Meddings, would work almost exclusively for Anderson, retiring after Space:1999. In 1960, Anderson married his second wife, Sylvia who would play a significant creative role in all his series up until Space:1999 and their subsequent divorce.

Thunderbirds creators Gerry and Sylvia Anderson

Thunderbirds creators Gerry and Sylvia Anderson

Following hard on the heels of Fireball XL5, Stingray was the first of Anderson’s shows to be shot in colour, despite being transmitted in the UK in black and white. This was largely due to the involvement of Lew Grade, the head of ATV and one of the most significant figures in the history of British television production. A Ukrainian Jew, in 1912 at age six he was brought to London by his family to escape anti-Semitism. By 1926 he was World Charleston Champion and in 1954 he founded ITC which would go on to create some of the most iconic television shows of the 1960s including The Saint, The Prisoner, Department S, Jason King, Man in A Suitcase, Randall and Hopkirk, Deceased and many others now held as classics.

One of Grade’s core principles was that his series be appealing to overseas markets, particularly the USA, which resulted in high production values and the use of 35mm colour film, the most expensive format for television production at that time. His association with Anderson began in 1960 when he funded production of Supercar and would continue until Space 1999. In 1962, Grade’s ITC bought Anderson’s production company AP Films and in the 1970s Grade bought out the rights to Anderson’s shows following his separation from Sylvia.

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Anything can happen in the next half hour!

Produced in 1963, in Stingray we can see many of the themes and images that would follow in Thunderbirds. Captain Troy Tempest of the World Aquanaut Security Patrol (WASP), with his trusty lieutenant Phones at his side, fought the evil forces of King Titan using their ultra-futuristic submarine. From their underground base, the boys would venture forth assisted by the mute mermaid Marina (a forerunner of Thunderbird‘s Tin-Tin as both help meet and romantic interest).

Courtesy of Meddings, Stingray was the first Anderson show to embrace ideas that would later become the province of the Bond films, such as the buildings in Marineville sinking below ground into bombproof shelters whenever an alert was called, an ultimate form of ‘Duck and Cover,’ the American mantra for protect
ion from nuclear blasts. But it was in the following year that Anderson, Meddings and Hill would create some of the most iconic hardware and characters ever to grace the world of televised science fiction: Thunderbirds were go!

Again, Anderson was to draw on familiar Cold War imagery and ideas but this time subverted them into a humanitarian rescue organisation run privately by a family from a secret island base in the Pacific. Monitoring global communications for distress calls is the secret space station Thunderbird Five, effectively a spy satellite, from where John Tracy alerts the team when a suitable situation arises. Scott Tracy’s Thunderbird One and Alan Tracy’s Thunderbird Three both launched from underground silos almost identical to those in which numerous ICBMs were hidden across the USA and the Soviet Union, the retractable swimming pool echoing the sliding blast covers that protected most American missiles. Gordon Tracy’s Thunderbird Four was a corollary of the deep-ocean submersibles we later saw used in Jacques Cousteau’s documentaries on Sunday afternoon television.

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My personal favourite was always the Jolly Green Giant: Virgil Tracy’s Thunderbird Two; if you had asked me, aged six, what was the thing I most wanted to do In The Whole World, it would be sliding on my back down that chute and then rolling out to the takeoff ramp, palm trees akimbo before blasting into the sky. Gerry Anderson always seemed to know what made a child’s heart beat faster and delivered it to his eager audience in spades. For example, in the almost meta-episode Security Hazard a young boy, Chip, stows away in Thunderbird Two and I can’t tell you how much I envied him; believe me, that was every child’s dream given form on the screen.

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The machines would have been nothing without their pilots, and for the voice talent, Anderson drew on a pool of performers including established onscreen actors such as Shane Rimmer and Ray Barrett as well as Peter Dyneley and the versatile David Graham who alone voiced Parker, Kyrano, Brains and Gordon Tracy. Each character had their own distinct and rounded personality, something conspicuously absent from the 2004 feature remake with its clan of interchangeable boyband clones.

As with Stingray, Thunderbirds was shot on 35mm colour film, a statement of Lew Grade’s faith in the show considering most viewers would still be watching in black and white at that time, as colour television would not become widespread in the UK until the late sixties. Notwithstanding this, Anderson made much use of colour in the show; each of the Thunderbirds had a specific colour scheme and the Tracy boys’ uniforms were colour-coded.

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In fact, Grade’s belief in the show was so great that, having watching the finished cut of the first episode, Trapped in the Sky, he asked Anderson to double each episode from his then-customary twenty five minute format to fifty, a full hour of entertainment once advertisements were included. Although some of the resultant extra footage can be regarded as padding, out of this came some of the most iconic moments of the show as a whole: the launch sequences.

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One of the greatest difficulties in using marionettes is that they don’t walk convincingly. Anderson frequently avoided this by having his characters mostly sitting and the use of hover scooters in Fireball XL5 and Thunderbirds would be an ingenious way around this. As for Stingray, most of the characters just swam suspended underwater while Commander Shore was confined to a high-tech wheelchair, one of the first examples of a disabled regular character in children’s television.

From the need to watch each Tracy brother board his craft without actually walking into them came the masterstroke of having each being directly conveyed into their vehicle from the comfort of their living room on Tracy Island. My own favourite may have been Virgil’s slide, but the most civilised had to be Alan’s trip by sofa straight into the heart of Thunderbird Three, without even having to stand up. This could also be looked on as a kind of meta experience for the boggle-eyed young audience as each week they were transported from the comfort of their own sofas into worlds of thrilling adventures spiced with comedy and a dash of camp.

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Speaking of camp, it is important to acknowledge its essential contribution to the success of Thunderbirds. It was necessary to counterpoint the po-faced seriousness of the Tracy clan with the deliciously over-the-top shenanigans of Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward and her safe-cracking factotum “Nosey” Parker. Sylvia Anderson was a glamorous, larger-than-life character offscreen and brought this quality to the ice-cool aristocratic secret agent she created, always exquisitely coiffed and gowned even in the direst situations, supported faithfully by her butler-cum-chauffeur of her pink Rolls-Royce FAB1.

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The craftsmanship exhibited was of the highest order, with great care and attention to detail taken in every aspect, from the design and creation of the models to the puppeteering and especially the explosions, of which there were many to every young lad’s delight. What makes this even more of an achievement is the fact that all effects work was practical, carried out ‘in camera’ with little or no optical effects added after principal photography, an arrangement unthinkable in modern filmmaking. It goes without saying that the onscreen result could only have been reached by the finest workers behind the camera.

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It wasn’t just the show itself that powered its way into the imagination of the nation’s children; by the time of Thunderbirds, AP Films had in place a comprehensive merchandising strategy that was pioneering for a genre series, including not only toys but also the comic TV21, tie in novels, soundtrack LPs and even an ice lolly, but the most memorable and now-lucrative items were the diecast models. Thunderbird Two featured spring-loaded legs and a tiny little companion Thunderbird Four, inevitably lost to the hoovers of the nation’s mothers. Notwithstanding the material artefacts, perhaps one of the most lasting components of the show to come down to us was sonic in nature. One of the secrets of a successful television show is to have a memorable theme tune, and for that Gerry Anderson certainly had a good ear.

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In the sixties, theme tunes had to be easily and immediately recognisable, and so usually had a strong melody or distinct beat. This was because in many households of the time, long before the days of multiple sets in different rooms and ‘timeshift viewing,’ the theme tune was the signal to those not sitting in their front room that their programme was starting. The tune also had to reflect the content and style of the show so that it not only set the tone but also allowed new viewers to form an immediate idea of what they would be watching.

2013_ga no-strings-vinylAnderson was never shy to promote the excitement to come: after the promise from Commander Shore that “Anything can happen in the next half-hour,” Stingray‘s hyperactive theme tune was enough to stir any sugar-drenched child of the sixties into a frenzy of anticipation. Similarly, Thunderbirds‘ pre-credits 5-4-3-2-1 countdown followed by the preview of that week’s episode, carefully edited in time to Barry Gray’s bombastic music, fuelled expectations, a style repeated from Space:1999 to the remake of Battlestar Galactica. The stirring Thunderbirds march became an instant classic and has been used over the decades by many a military brass band. Gray had been Anderson’s in-house composer since The Adventures of Twizzle and stayed with him right through to Space:1999.

2013_ga tv21_051_pg_001Having said all that, Thunderbirds was by no means perfect. Amongst its faults, continuity between episodes is, at best, haphazard and relative scale can vary from shot to shot and setting to setting, however that’s all part of its organic charm and is something conspicuously absent from today’s CGI-laden offerings such as the “hypermarionation” of the 2005 New Captain Scarlet.

Throughout his various series, Anderson always strove to refine and improve his puppeteering techniques with particular emphasis on making the character’s faces expressive and having the mouths move in sync with the pre-recorded dialogue. He did everything he could to make the strings as invisible as possible and, in later series, would often animate characters from below the camera, doing away with strings whenever possible.

However, to many of his adoring audience, these technical limitations were irrelevant if the story and characters were sufficiently involving. Indeed, what is remarkable is not that corners were cut or that the limitations of the technology are now apparent, but that the best of Anderson’s shows still hold up as solid entertainment decades later, Thunderbirds in particular drawing a whole new devoted audience who had not been born during the original screenings when it was rerun on BBC2 in the early nineties.

2013_ga sigIt’s difficult to pin down exactly what made the show so appealing but it’s probably the old saw about the sum of the parts exceeding the whole as well as a tribute to the power of high production values. As is now well-known, Anderson never enjoyed working with marionettes and with each new series strove to make them as realistic as possible finally achieving his dream of a totally live-action series in the shape of UFO in 1970.

Immediately following the high-jinks of Thunderbirds, Anderson moved into more serious territory in the form of 1967’s Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. Largely devoid of humour and with an eerie pre-credits sequence opening every episode, it recounted the ongoing battle between the world security organisation Spectrum and the Mysterons, aliens from Mars who had the power to reanimate objects and people on Earth for their nefarious ends. Anderson took colour-coding to an extreme in this series with each Spectrum agent being given a colour codename and uniform.

2013_ga angelsCaptain Scarlet was one of Spectrum’s top agents and had been killed and resurrected by the Mysterons but he overcame their influence and worked to help Spectrum defeat them. This also rendered him well-nigh immortal and led to the announcement to the audience at the end of every episode: “Remember: Captain Scarlet is indestructible. You are not!” The notion of an immortal agent would be resurrected in the character Captain Jack Harkness in Doctor Who and Torchwood, and Scarlet’s residual psychic link to the Mysterons would be echoed in the 1990s in Captain Picard’s link to the Borg in Star Trek: First Contact.

In a significant development, the continuing refinement of puppeteering techniques allowed Captain Scarlet and his peers to be correctly proportioned physically for the first time. The marionettes in all of Anderson’s earlier series had disproportionately large heads to accommodate the speech mechanism, and some commentators have attributed the move to physical realism as one of the factors behind the decline in interest in his later series, observing that because the earlier characters had the same physical proportions as a child, this made them more appealing to the children in the audience.

2013_ga joe 90After the somewhat dour Captain Scarlet, Anderson moved back into children’s adventure in 1968 with his Enid-Blyton-meets-James-Bond Joe 90 in which Joe McClaine, the nine year old protagonist, gets recruited by the World Intelligence Network with the reluctant consent of his father, a genius in neurological science. For each mission, Joe is imprinted temporarily by his father with knowledge and skills garnered from various experts, a concept which would be recycled forty years later by Joss Whedon in his series Dollhouse. The notion of a father sending his nine year old child into mortal danger every week didn’t seem to deter the producers or the audience.

2013_ga secretserviceI was nine years old myself when the show was first transmitted and thoroughly enjoyed it but then again I grew up on a diet of Blyton and the Children’s Film Foundation in which plucky pre-teens regularly took on and bested stereotyped baddies, and it seemed a natural extension of those stories, however, public interest continued to decline. Anderson’s final series involving marionettes was The Secret Service which mixed live action and puppetry and was never broadcast nationally, slipping into obscurity very quickly.

With the failure of The Secret Service, Anderson finally made the move into full live-action with three high-budget series, the modish UFO in 1970, the international thriller The Protectors in 1974 and then Space:1999 in 1976. UFO would continue many of Anderson’s thematic concerns – a secret global organisation combats an enigmatic alien threat from Outer Space using ultra-secret bases both on Earth and the Moon. Using extensive modelwork but with a live cast instead of marionettes, UFO had a distinctive visual signature because Anderson continued to use the designers from his puppet shows and the sets looked very much like scaled-up versions of those rather than resembling other live-action series of the time.

2013_ga ufoAs with Thunderbirds, UFO worked well due to its high production values and its superb cast, but also like Thunderbirds it suffered from continuity problems across the series and scattershot plotting, but is very fondly remembered now. Presciently, although considered science fiction at the time, the method used to launch the lunar shuttle, carried aloft by a powerful aircraft before being launched at high altitude, is the method to be used by Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip for launching wealthy tourists into ‘space’ later this decade; whether the crew will wear shiny purple wigs remains to be seen.

The Protectors was a radically different format for Anderson. A generic action series filmed on international locations with glamorous jetsetting principal characters, it did not prove a comfortable fit despite being a popular success, and it also spawned the Tony Christie cult hit song Avenues and Alleyways. With Space:1999 he was back on familiar territory with a massive budget and a somewhat outlandish basic conceit, the Earth’s moon blasted out of orbit by the explosion of the nuclear waste dump on its far side, causing the crew of Moonbase Alpha to become wanderers in space. It was reportedly the most expensive TV series made in the UK up to that time. Boasting feature-standard production values and starring the husband-and-wife team of Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, the show proved a success during its first series, however its second series, under a new producer, was perceived to be poorer in execution and it was not renewed.

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It was at this point that Gerry Anderson reached his personal and professional nadir. His acrimonous divorce from Sylvia had left him broke having sold all his television rights to Lew Grade. Professionally he severed ties with Grade and was attempting to work as an independent producer. He had made three feature films in the 1960s, Thunderbirds Are Go!, Thunderbird 6 and Doppelganger, also known as Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, none of which were box-office successes. He eventually returned to television with Terrahawks in 1983. This saw Anderson falling back on tried-and-tested formulae of a marionette crew defending Earth from alien threat in a variety of distinctive vehicles.

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Aimed squarely at a young audience it seemed, to a now-adult viewer, to try too hard to repeat Thunderbirds‘ winning formula but without its distinctive magic. For the next twenty years or so, Anderson continued to work sporadically on various children’s and young adult’s shows, the most prominent being the live action Space Precinct in the mid-nineties, though that era did see a massive resurgence in popularity in Thunderbirds through the BBC rerun and the tour of the nostalgic Thunderbirds FAB stage show, due as much as anything to first-generation fans now having the economic and professional power to indulge their love of the show.

2013_ga new scarletHaving signed away all his rights in the seventies, Anderson himself had no involvement in the Hollywood live-action remake of 2004 which was not received well in the UK. The same year also brought to the world’s cinemas Team America: World Police. Produced by the creators of South Park, it was a scabrous very adult satire on the USA’s interventionist politics and was made and filmed using many of Anderson’s Supermarionation techniques and visual tropes. In 2005, Anderson did succeed in bringing a brand-new all-CGI remake of Captain Scarlet to screens which, although poorly-scheduled when broadcast, was well-received on its DVD release.

Reported to be planning a similar reboot of Thunderbirds prior to his diagnosis with Alzheimer’s in the late 2000s, his condition deteriorated therafter and he died peacefully on Boxing Day 2012.

It is difficult to imagine a sixties childhood without Gerry Anderson, or indeed without Blue Peter and Doctor Who either, but Gerry’s work will always have a special place in my and many others’ memories like no-one else of that era; like Captain Scarlet, his legacy is indestructible.

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Les Anderson has previously written for Geek Chocolate about Star Trek The Next Generation, Fringe and Joe Dante

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