Having just posted a nostalgic piece about the TV programmes of my distant youth, the very last thing I wanted to post now was another entry about more old TV programmes. However, this week has seen the death of Gerry Anderson, who was perhaps the greatest producer of children’s shows in British TV history, and I think a few words of tribute to Anderson and his creations are due.
Gerry Anderson will, of course, be remembered as ‘the puppet man’. He and his wife Sylvia began making kids’ puppet shows such as The Adventures of Twizzle, Torchy the Battery Boy and Four Feather Falls in the late 1950s. In that monochrome and austerity-hit decade, every second children’s programme on British TV seemed to feature misshapen and ultra-cheap wooden figures jerking around in a jungle of marionette strings: Andy Pandy, Bill and Ben, Muffin the Mule and Pinky and Perky. What set the Andersons apart from their competitors, however, was their ambition. Their audiences might’ve been children and their characters might’ve been children’s playthings, but that didn’t mean they weren’t allowed to be spectacular. In less than a decade, in fact, the Andersons had refined their puppetry to an art-form. They called their technical process ‘Supermarionation’ and each of their shows began with the proud declaration, Filmed in Supermarionation. The result was Thunderbirds.
The cast of Thunderbirds might’ve been marionettes, but in all other respects this show – about the adventures of International Rescue, a 21st century organisation run by the heroic Tracy family who used their fabulous and futuristic vehicles and gadgets to save people from crashing airliners and burning skyscrapers – was the James Bond films tailored for children. As well as gadgetry, explosions and skin-of-the-teeth escapes, it had a secret island headquarters (Tracy Island), an exotic villain (The Hood), a glamorous heroine (Lady Penelope) and a brash 1960s swagger, epitomised in Barry Gray’s strident theme music (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_mBUaPsX6o). Children’s television had never seen the likes of this before. No wonder Anderson’s boss at ITC Entertainment, the cigar-loving impresario Lord Lew Grade, informed Anderson after seeing the first rushes of Thunderbirds that he wasn’t making TV any more, but feature films. Grade knew showmanship when he saw it.
Another feature that Thunderbirds shared with the best Bond movies was that while it gave international audiences the spectacle they wanted, it retained a certain wry British-ness. The Tracy family might’ve been Americans – indeed, the demands of voicing Anderson’s shows surely kept Britain’s small community of North American actors, like Ed Bishop and Shane Rimmer, in employment for years – but for British audiences the real stars of Thunderbirds were Lady Penelope and Parker, her Cockney ex-convict butler and chauffeur of her pink Rolls Royce.
Researchers into Britain’s class structure must’ve had a field day analysing the relationship between Lady Penelope and the loyal, if sometimes downtrodden, Parker. At least she tolerated his less socially-acceptable talents, which included being light-fingered and knowing how to crack a safe – and on occasion, when he helped her escape from a tight corner, she was grateful for them. Lady Penelope was famously voiced by Sylvia Anderson and it’s significant that, following their divorce in the mid-1970s, Gerry Anderson claimed that among all his puppet characters Parker was the one he identified with most.
Sure, Thunderbirds looks creaky when viewed today – what film or TV show from the 1960s doesn’t? The special effects seem a bit dinky, the puppets’ heads are too big for them to be comfortably lifelike and their manner of walking always elicits amusement. (Any drunkard attempting to move with exaggerated caution from the table to the toilets in a British pub is invariably likened to a ‘Thunderbirds puppet’.) I can only testify that as a kid, the moment each episode began with that famous countdown (“Five… Four… Three… Two… One!”), that famous catchphrase (“Thunderbirds are go!”) and that pulse-quickening theme music, a real-life crashing airliner or burning skyscraper would’ve been hard-pressed to divert my attention from the television set.
Again like the Bond producers, Anderson knew the value of merchandising tie-ins. I often found myself standing with my nose pressed against a toyshop window, wishing my pocket money was lavish enough to buy all the miniature Anderson space-vehicles displayed in front of me – Thunderbirds 1, 2 and 3, the Mole, Lady Penelope’s Rolls, and other Anderson-show items like Captain Scarlet’s SPV vehicle, UFO’s Interceptors, Skydiver and Mobiles and Space 1999’s Eagles. The technicians who operated the models for the vehicles and spaceships in Anderson’s shows, men like Derek Meddings and Brian Johnson, later became the backbone of Britain’s movie special-effects industry. It was thanks to Anderson’s protégés that after the indigenous British film industry died on its arse in the late 1970s, international studios at least kept coming to Britain to make the likes of the Star Wars and Alien movies because of the technical expertise located there.
Along the way from Twizzle, Torchy and Four Feather Falls to Thunderbirds, the Andersons had made Supercar, Fireball XL5 and underwater extravaganza Stingray. Stingray is probably the second-best remembered of Anderson’s shows, partly because it was the first British children’s programme to be filmed in colour and partly because of its camp value. It was never more camp than at the close of each episode, when Don Mason sang the ballad Aqua Marina in honour of the mute and enigmatic mermaid who helped out the Stingray crew in their battles against the despicable Aquaphibians (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FxOYqoPkdc8). However, it’s Anderson’s shows that came after Thunderbirds that I like best.
Joe 90 was a charming sci-fi espionage show with a juvenile and bespectacled hero. It was just unfortunate that over the next few decades, on account of Joe’s oversized glasses, ‘Joe 90’ became the nickname of every short-sighted kid in Britain’s playgrounds. Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, meanwhile, returned to Thunderbirds territory and served up more spaceships, gadgets, explosions and spectacle. The tone was darker, however. The Mars-based Mysterons whom Captain Scarlet and his gang fought off in every episode were basically terrorists and their habit of taunting the ‘Earthmen’ with messages threatening death and destruction prefigured Osama Bin Laden’s mode of operation decades later. (I bet little Osama owned all the Gerry Anderson toys when he was a kid in Riyadh in the 1960s.)
The puppets in Joe 90 and Captain Scarlet had exact human proportions. Anderson’s Supermarionation had achieved perfection, in other words. Accordingly, with nowhere else to take the puppet genre, Anderson moved into live action. His 1970 show UFO was basically a remake of Captain Scarlet with human actors. Although UFO is fondly remembered for its kitsch 1970-view-of-the-future fashions, such as Gabrielle Drake’s silver mini-skirt and outrageous purple bob, and although it tapped into every frustrated middle manager’s secret fantasy – Commander Straker (Ed Bishop) pretended to be a desk-bound film producer, but at the touch of a button his office would descend a giant lift shaft into the huge underground headquarters of anti-alien defence force SHADO, which he was the secret boss of – the show was in fact rather bleak. The aliens who attacked the earth in UFO only did so because they wanted to harvest human organs, and the guest cast rarely made it to the end of each episode alive. Straker’s devotion to duty had even indirectly caused the death of his young son, something the programme once showed in a painful flashback.
By the mid-1970s Anderson was putting together Space 1999, which at the time was the most expensive show in TV history. It should’ve given him a franchise of Star Trek proportions and brought him fame and fortune. It didn’t, alas, and the show’s problems were mostly self-inflicted. Though its special effects were the best yet – some compared them to the space scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – its scripts often strayed into the metaphysical and ended up muddled and impossible-to-follow. Also, its leads, Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, were unaccountably dour and uninteresting. (This was before Landau reinvented himself as a much-loved character actor.) There were some good performers among the supporting cast, though, including Australian Nick Tate and the wonderful Barry Morse, and the guest cast was among the best to have ever graced a British TV show: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Judy Geeson, Julian Glover, Anthony Valentine, Joan Collins, Roy Dotrice, Ian McShane, Leo McKern and Brian Blessed. (On Boxing Day afternoon, when word of Anderson’s death was announced, the garrulous Blessed was the first person whom the BBC News Channel found to pay tribute. Blessed had obviously quaffed a few Christmas sherries by then, but his affection for Anderson shone through.)
Space 1999’s worst problem was that, scientifically, it was rubbish. Its premise was that a massive explosion on the moon’s surface in 1999 caused it to be blown out of the earth’s orbit, along with a moonbase and its 300-strong crew. From there the runaway satellite and its reluctant passengers careered across the galaxy, managing to encounter a new solar system, and an inhabitable earth-like planet, and a usually-unfriendly alien civilisation in nearly every episode. The scientist and science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov condemned the show for being preposterous, but even at ten years old I didn’t need Dr Asimov to tell me that. I knew already that outer space was rather bigger than a fairground ride and if you shot off through it at random you weren’t going to bump into earth-like planets as frequently as dodgem cars.
Unwisely, to oversee Space 1999’s second series, Anderson hired American producer Fred Freiberger, who was known in American TV circles as ‘the Show-Killer’ thanks to his habit of taking over shows shortly before they got cancelled. (He’d produced the last and worst season of the original Star Trek.) Freiberger dumped the few things that were good about Space 1999’s first season, including Barry Gray’s urgent theme music (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLhdY6_juDk) and poor old Barry Morse. It became an embarrassing piece of juvenilia and was duly cancelled in 1977.
From there on, it was pretty much downhill for Anderson. Into Infinity was a 1975 special that was meant to launch another live-action science fiction series. It had Brian Blessed, Nick Tate and Ed Bishop on board and was supposed to be based on proper astronomical knowledge of the universe – maybe Anderson was atoning for the scientific absurdities of Space 1999 – but it never got beyond the pilot stage. In the 1980s he returned to making puppet shows and the result, Terrahawks, was an amiable but unoriginal rehash of his 1960s glories. (Inevitably, ‘Zelda’, the intensely wrinkled villainess of Terrahawks, became another nickname in Britain, this time for ladies of a certain age who’d spent too long drying out on their sunbeds.) In the 1990s he made the terrible live-action show Space Precinct, while in the noughties a computer-generated version of Captain Scarlet came and went with nary a ripple.
During this period Anderson was financially as well as creatively unlucky. He no longer held the rights to Thunderbirds when the BBC got around to rescreening it in the early 1990s. Thus, when yet another generation of British children went Thunderbirds-daft, and the country’s toyshops filled up again with Thunderbirds merchandising, he didn’t make a penny. Similarly, Anderson was denied any participation in a live-action version of Thunderbirds that was released in 2004. The film was directed by an American (Jonathon Frakes) and was aimed only at young children – as opposed to older children and nostalgic adults. It was, predictably, dreadful.
Hopefully, at the end of his life, Anderson was at least aware of the great affection that the British public had for him and his TV shows and of how his work had become stamped on the DNA of modern popular culture. The other year, for example, there wasn’t one, but two different adverts running on British TV that used characters from Thunderbirds (one of whom being the Tracy family’s backroom boffin Brains, who always looked like Elvis Costello during his Oliver’s Army phase). Also, Nick Park paid tribute to Anderson in the opening scene of Wallace and Gromit and the Curse of the Were-Rabbit, with his titular heroes going to the seats of their pest-control vehicle via a series of chutes, pulleys and lifts, just as the Tracy brothers did when entering the cockpits of the International Rescue vehicles, and accompanied by some rousing Barry Gray-esque music. Even Wallace and Gromit’s garden gnomes parted before the pathway of their van, just as the palm trees on Tracy Island used to do when Thunderbird 2 rumbled into view.
But the greatest Anderson tribute of all may be Team America – World Police, the scabrous 2004 puppet movie from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the men behind South Park. The heroes of Team America might’ve been a bunch of gung-ho terrorist-blasting commandoes rather than the mannerly and ultra-decent Tracy family, and the villain might have been Kim Jong-Il rather than the Hood, but the film was basically a grown-up version of Thunderbirds. I just hope Gerry Anderson managed to see beyond the blood, the vomit, the swearing and the graphic puppet-copulation scenes, got the joke and appreciated the fondness that Parker and Stone obviously had for the source material.