A producer, director and writer in his own right, not to mention a self-proclaimed geek and tea drinker as well as son of legendary television producer Gerry Anderson, creator of Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, UFO, Space 1999 and Terrahawks, we were thrilled when Jamie Anderson announced his attendance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival alongside collaborator M G Harris in support of Gemini Force One and delighted when he made the time on the morning of Saturday 29th August to have a chat about his own work and his much missed father and to celebrate a half century of International Rescue.
Geek Chocolate – You’re here in Edinburgh with M G Harris to introduce Gemini Force One, the first book Black Horizon, funded through Kickstarter. It’s based on the notes and outlines of your late and much missed father, Gerry Anderson, whose vast body of work had many recurring themes yet with each show distinct and individual. What familiar elements can we expect and what’s unique about the Gemini team?
Jamie Anderson – What a good question! When M G and I first sat down together and talked about how it would work and how she could best channel the spirit of Gerry Anderson she wanted to know what motivated him and so I was able to give her enough information about his fascination with technology and aviation, the family connection and the hero pilot element. The main thing that I think is consistent in all the shows is the hero pilot in the family, beyond the obvious of the sci-fi, the action adventure stuff.
Dad’s hero brother, who was killed in the second world war, Lionel, was the inspiration for Steve Zodiac, Troy Tempest, Scott Tracy, Captain Scarlet, any hero pilot in any of the series, so that was one of the main focus points that M G took on board. That character has actually become female in the guise of Addison Dyer, she really has taken on that kind of Scott Tracy role, so there’s that familiar hero there, but also the family unit.
Dad’s family, especially after the death of his brother when he was growing up, was a bit troubled, he had a very difficult relationship with his mother, Debbie, and his father was very downtrodden, so in all the shows generally there is an absent mother figure, but whether or not it is a real family or just a collection of people, there’s a kind of family unit suggestion to it, so again M G wanted to make sure that was carried through. There was evidence of that in the notes that dad had left behind but it wasn’t fully formed enough.
So you’re getting the group of people who work together selflessly, as they did in so many of the shows, but also the hero pilot focus point, and then obviously the action adventure, the rescues, the science fiction canvas that it’s all painted on.
GC – There are currently a further two books planned; how has the first one been received and would you like to see the story go further?
JA – The next two books are very different. It’s interesting because M G and I were talking last night and the first book has kind of had to start, because of the way dad wrote them, because we wanted to keep it true to his thing, as an origin story which is really unusual and is maybe not the strongest point to start at, maybe you want to go straight into action adventure and then look back at the origin.
Having said that, the response to the first book has been brilliant. The fact that we had those six hundred and sixtyish backers on the Kickstarter, we had a kind of core audience who were ready to spread the word and say nice things, and I would say that 98% of our backers have been really positive about the books.
I’ve really enjoyed reading them and I know that’s really important, although I was involved more in the story side of the first book, for Ghost Mine M G was left to her own devices with dad’s notes, and it shows how long it takes in publishing but I read the first draft on the way out to San Diego Comic Con last year and it was great, sequences where Ben is swimming through underwater caves and running out of oxygen, and I was holding my breath reading them. They were just so, so good.
So yes, the response has been fantastic, everyone’s been really positive and hopefully will continue to be so, and I think now we’re getting to the meat of the rescues and stuff it’s going to be better.
GC – Way back in the day, I remember reading the John Theydon Thunderbirds books which did a brilliant job of capturing the characters and the excitement of the show, but also expressing such a hugely visual phenomenon in prose. Writing styles have obviously changed a great deal, but how does M G compare to those brilliant memories?
JA – Do you know what, I’ve never read those books, isn’t that terrible? When I was growing up, things like that were banned from the house because dad didn’t want all the old stuff, he looked forward to new things. But M G’s had an interesting time because normally she would write kind of as she wished and there would never be any accompanying visuals, nobody would ever expect any accompanying visuals, but she’s had to work with Andrew Probert who has been designing vehicles which gives her actual designed physical spaces and craft to explore and to give real life to in the text, so I think she’s done a fantastic job.
The scene in Black Horizon where they arrive in the Sikorsky helicopter for the first time at Gemini Force One I think is a good indicator of her ability to describe the action and the technological side.
GC – There’s also the pilot episode of Firestorm on the way, on which you’re a producer and writer, a reimagining of the anime series using traditional animation methods. There have been some test animations released on the website, and the original plan was to have it completed the last quarter of this year. What can we expect and how is it going?
JA – It’s going alright. Over the last few months, as you may have seen, Thunderbirds 1965, the Kickstarter to make three original style episodes that we shall talk about, but the nice thing that’s happened there is we’ve got Stirling Road which is where the original shows were made. Slough Trading Estate/SEGRO have been very kind and very helpful in giving us that space which we can now use to make Firestorm.
Originally we were aiming to shoot June-July, release in August, which was pushed back and back, mostly because of availability of people and the development of puppets.
GC – It is to be expected that things will not go as expected.
JA – Expect the unexpected, really! But, no, things are coming together really nicely, Mackinnon and Saunders are working on the final phase of the puppet making, but the nice thing is that when we go in, well, things are already starting to be built in the studio for it, but there’s a pipeline being set up for the Thunderbirds project, and the same people are working on the two projects so it make things flow a lot more easily.
GC – You’ve got established relationships, you’ve got established experience.
JA – Yeah, and it’s a way of shooting the puppets and moving the sets around and that kind of stuff perfected during the Thunderbirds phase ready for us on this. There’s something lovely about doing them next to each other, shooting the final episode ever of something fifty years old and then going on to the first of something brand new.
GC – And as you just mentioned, most unexpected but also possibly most exciting in this anniversary year of Thunderbirds is that there are three new episodes in production using traditional Supermarionation techniques with newly built sets, models and puppets, using soundtracks from a trio of audio adventures from the late sixties. My own feelings on that are so huge and complex, I can’t even imagine what you’re feeling, but even so, I’m going to ask.
JA – Yeah, thanks for that! When Stephen (La Rivière), who is producing the project, first mentioned that he was going to approach ITV about this, I sort of said something ruder but the equivalent of “if you do, I’ll eat my hat.”
GC – So how did that hat taste?
JA – It’s delicious. He was so enthusiastic about it and made them so enthusiastic, and then made the public so enthusiastic about it. I think it’s absolutely brilliant, and like I said, the fact that we get to go back to the same place to round off, it really is the last three episodes that could possibly be made because a lot of the voice actors aren’t with us any more, it’s as genuine as we can possibly get to extend that series from thirty two episodes to thirty five, and to include the prequel episode. Like you were saying about origin stories, they’re really interesting things coming from already knowing the series.
Being able to do that there is amazing, and there’s a few people who are working on it who either worked on the original series like David Elliott who is directing, and he is in his element. How old is David, he must be eighty five? He’s back there, he’s supervising director across all three but he’s directing the final episode, The Stately Home Robberies, and even just listening to him talk about the way he’s visualising it shows that he’s still got it. From forty nine years after directing his last episode of Thunderbirds, he’s gone straight back into that mode.
It’s magic. Seeing that studio come together over the last couple of weeks has been amazing.
JA – Yeah, it is, because it’s an odd space to be in, in entertainment at the minute, because you’ve got the networks and the studios all wanting to kind of “de-risk” projects by saying “oh, we’ll go back to something that’s already got an audience,” but there had been, especially a couple of years ago, a tendency to feel that the Anderson stuff had been and gone and there wasn’t still that audience there.
GC – We showed them!
JA – We really have! Because originally we went around to a few publishers with Gemini Force One to show them the book and there was that kind of reluctance – “do people still know the name? I mean we recognise it.” That should have been a giveaway, the fact that there were several generations of people working at those publishing houses saying “well, we all know the name, but do other people?” Yes, of course!
We find it all the time, even going down to B&Q to buy bits and pieces for the studio, bits of copper pipe and stuff for set building, and one of the guys at the till, probably in his mid-fifties, obviously he was a big fan, he told the supervisor, she was in her late thirties, somebody else got wind of it, a guy in his early twenties, and all of them know and love Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet, they’re having a little argument about whether Captain Scarlet or Thunderbirds was better.
GC – I’m a huge Fireball XL5 fan, you know, because it was set in outer space, my first love.
JA – Yeah, I don’t know. I found Steve a bit annoying. But they’re all good. We always knew that the love was there. We knew the people were there, but to have them come out in such force… across those projects they’ve raised over half a million between them, which is incredible.
GC – Of course, with some understandable updating for the new century, the Tracy brothers are back on their screen with Kayo Kyrano at their side as a fully-fledged member of the team in Thunderbirds Are Go. Despite the initial Saturday morning “kiddie slot” broadcast it’s had a great response and the network have given it further support, and it’s been confirmed for a second season, something the original never managed. How do you look upon the show?
JA – It think it’s been readjusted for modern programming. By that I mean there is a real tendency to pigeonhole stuff for particular demographics, so this is very much aimed at a five to seven, six to eight year old audience, and in doing so for me it’s lost something that the original had, some of the original spirit, because it had that aim to entertain the entire family. It became something you could watch as a five year old, a fifteen year old, a fifty-five year old. It would never be something that you looked on as being made specifically for kids, so in that respect I think there’s something that’s been lost.
I’ve heard a few people whinging about the fact there’s no puppets – “If you can’t see the strings it’s not Thunderbirds”, they say, but having said that WETA have obviously poured a huge amount of love into it. Richard Taylor is a massive fan, a real geek, I had the pleasure of having breakfast with him before we did a panel at Comic Con and it’s clear that he’s put a huge amount of love in.
Interestingly it’s reignited the Gerry Anderson fanbase, things like classic Thunderbirds, the DVD set climbed up from thirty or forty on the Amazon chart where it had sat for several years up to number one, beating tons of other science fiction and fantasy, the box set was ranked above all the Game of Thrones seasons which is amazing, and that’s really all thanks to the show being rebooted and revived for the fiftieth anniversary. So I hope it will just continue to introduce people.
GC – And of course the first season is always about making the impact. They have the second season, this allows them to develop and expand.
JA – Exactly. I’ll be really interested to see what they do with it next season.
GC – There is an interesting division between British and American televised science fiction, their shows being very hierarchical, even military: Starfleet in Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, even the Robinson family of Lost in Space having a major on board Jupiter II, whereas we tend to be more anarchic, Bernard Quatermass forever in conflict with the ministry and the military, the squabbling rebels on board Liberator, the Doctor the ultimate anti-establishment figure. The exception is the work of your father, a canny producer with one eye always on the American market, but were there other reasons for that formal structure to appeal to him?
JA – Gosh. That’s interesting.
GC – If you want to just say “the puppets looked good in uniform…”
JA – No, no, it’s interesting to think on. It’s funny because he really despised conscription and the structures and the hierarchical element of the army, very anti-military in that way, but I think a lot of it relates to his brother, to Lionel, and to dad’s experiences in the RAF as something he could call upon. You’re probably right, also, in the American market thing, but I think that was probably a subconscious thing.
I don’t think, especially in the mid-sixties or early sixties, he would have looked at American TV and gone “oh, what we need here is a strict hierarchical structure.” It’s just the way that he wrote it, but I think it also gave that familiar familial tie-in a more formal structure. Even Jeff and the boys, there was a hierarchy amongst them even though it was dad and brothers.
GC – But you also mentioned conscription and it was very much evident that these people never felt like they were there against their will. They were there because they wanted to be.
JA – Yeah, they really did, especially in… well, I was going to say Captain Scarlet, who was in a rather awkward position there.
GC – I was delighted when The Lost Worlds of Gerry Anderson was recently released, particularly as it included The Day After Tomorrow which I hadn’t seen since I was a child yet remembered not only vividly but, astonishingly, accurately.
JA – Really?
GC – Yes. Do you have any favourites in that collection?
JA – Well, Space Police, because that one was made when I was just a little tiny baby, and those early years when I was growing up dad was trying to sell Space Police as a concept so I saw that all the time and I just thought it was such a cool mixture of all the techniques they developed. There was puppetry in there, there was stop-motion, there was live action, all the modelwork, it was just a kind of brilliant showcase of all the stuff that he had become expert at and brought all those people together, people like Christine Glanville, chief puppeteer on Thunderbirds, she was playing one of those cat alien things, and Steve Begg coming on just after doing Terrahawks and joining as kind of “the new Derek Meddings,” Tony Barwick writing slightly irreverent stuff.
Everything kind of melded together, that was always a favourite, but having said that it’s been absolutely fascinating to see the “you’ve never seen this” section on that set. Because I’d never seen it.
GC – A sometimes overlooked show is Joe 90, and I was curious whether you had watched and what you thought of Joss Whedon’s most recent show Dollhouse, where characters – conspicuously more mature than young Joe McClaine – are electronically imprinted with new personalities and capabilities enabling them to carry out dangerous missions?
JA – Do you know, I haven’t seen it, isn’t that terrible? And people tell me all the time. But there’s that and also Ben 10, which is remarkably similar in concept again, I’m told. Once people say I almost don’t want to watch it because I don’t want to go “god, they’re right!” I think it might make me a bit grumpy.
GC – Or it might make you a bit proud.
JA – One or the other. Depends on whether I’m channelling mom or dad on the day, I think. Dad would get terribly cross if he thought people were ripping off his ideas. I don’t know. Trying to remake Joe 90 now you might have some trouble with social services, abusing nine year old kids… But it’s obviously just a good idea, so I’ll just wait for the cheque and letter of thanks from Joss Whedon.
GC – I saw the Filmed in Supermarionation documentary at the cinema, but only recently picked up the double Blu-ray which has a selection of remastered episodes on the second disc. Fireball XL5’s Space City Special looks astonishing, absolutely beautiful, crisp, textured black and white and greytones – it looks better than episodes of Doctor Who shot on video of a quarter century later. Everyone talks about the machines, the characters, how much they loved the shows, but it’s only as an adult you see the level of technical sophistication and ingenuity of all involved. Why were your father and his colleagues not more celebrated right across the British film industry?
JA – I don’t know. It’s something I ask myself quite a lot, actually. I think dad was probably deserving of something higher than an MBE in recognition of his services, but the same for the other guys working on the shows like Derek (Meddings, special effects designer), Brian Johnson (special effects designer), even Steve Begg (visual effects director) more recently, Steve’s gone on to do some fantastic stuff.
But the guys in the sixties, they weren’t thinking “oh, one day the negs are going to be scanned at 2K and shown in HD,” and yet they were still churning out this incredibly high quality work. I think part of it was not that they were trying desperately to be futureproofed or to show off for the industry what they could do, it was because dad was obsessed with leaving behind the what he saw as the naff puppetry of the late fifties and early sixties, the Muffin the Mule stuff where you could see all the thick carpet threads and painted on eyes.
It was almost by accident that he brought together a group of people who all wanted to do the best they possibly could and as a result churned out that, but they should get more recognition because really British special effects were all really born in Slough courtesy of Anderson Productions, and a lot of modern science fiction across the globe has those shows to thank. Some of the biggest movie directors in the world in the last ten years are all people who have been inspired by those shows, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Christopher Nolan, they wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing without the crews from AP Films and Century 21, so yeah, they should be recognised more and I can’t for the life of me work out why they’re not.
GC – We mentioned earlier the support of the huge Anderson fanbase which became apparent when we lost your father. Despite the ups and downs of his career, he must have been aware of that level of continuing love from the audiences who had grown up with his work and shared it with their own families.
JA – He would quite regularly be stopped in the street by people and asked for autographs – except for once where somebody asked him for an autograph and he signed it and they said “it doesn’t look like you’ve signed Donald Pleasance there.” So it didn’t always work in his favour, but he became gradually more and more aware over time, but it wasn’t until the resurgence in the early nineties that he really understood what a strong influence he had had on so many people who had grown up and had their lives transformed.
Even yesterday I had two emails from people, one guy saying “my younger brother wants to go into filmmaking because of your dad,” and another guy said “I went into aeronautical engineering because of your dad.” That’s just one day. I get that every week. People have gone into artificial intelligence, robotics, filmmaking, special effects, you name it, people all over the world have been so heavily influenced.
It was really only in the last few years he really got the flavour of it, and of course, as is always the way, sadly there’s the biggest outpouring of love for people once they’re gone, which is a shame.
GC – You just want to shake people and say “why didn’t you say it before?”
JA – Exactly. But at the same time, on a day which is particularly dark when a loved one passes away, to receive hundreds and hundreds of emails from all over the world, people saying lovely, lovely things, and they weren’t just empty condolence messages, they were these long, long almost theses about how those shows had improved their lives.
An amazing influence. It was a bit icebergy for him as he was only aware of that little bit on the surface and not the huge amount underneath.
GC – I think it’s safe to say that with so many projects you have your hands full and hopefully we’ve managed to touch on most of them. Jamie Anderson, heir to Tracy Island, thank you so much for your time today and allowing us to share your memories.
JA – A lovely title! Not at all, thanks for having me!