Gerry Anderson: 1929 – 2013

 

(C) MGM

 

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 StingrayStingray 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.

 

(c) Paramount

 

 

I blame Neil Armstrong (…and Gerry Anderson… and Arthur C. Clarke)

 

August saw the death of Neil Armstrong, the first-ever human being to set foot on an alien world.  All right, it was only the moon, which is hardly in the same league as Krypton, Tatooine or the fancy three-dimensional planet in Avatar, but for a wee species that only evolved out of the Homo genus about 200,000 years ago, that first step of his in 1969 was still pretty impressive.

 

Armstrong’s passing got me thinking about an uncomfortable question.  How come the future has turned out to be so rubbish?

 

Even I am a little too young to remember seeing Armstrong plant his spacesuit-encased foot on the lunar turf 43 years ago, but I can just about recall live TV pictures of a subsequent Apollo mission to the moon in the early 1970s.  Admittedly, I wasn’t altogether sure of what I was watching.  At the time my family and I were huddled around a tiny black-and-white television set in Northern Ireland, which only picked up one channel, the BBC.  (Well, it showed a second channel, Raidio Teilifis Eireann from the Irish Free State, if my Dad poked a screwdriver into a hole at the side of the set and did some dangerous-looking twiddling.)  All I could make out on the screen were some fuzzy pale blobs floating against a fuzzy dark-grey background.  However, my Dad assured me that these were men walking about on the moon, high above us, at that very moment, so I took his word for it.

 

It must have been in 1973 that my imagination took a leap that was almost as giant as the ‘leap for mankind’ that Armstrong spoke of when he descended from the lunar landing module.  The cause of this were two sets of newly-published encyclopaedias that my parents had seen advertised somewhere and ordered – a 15-volume set with lemony-coloured covers called the Childcraft books that, accordingly, were for children; and a 24-volume set called the World Book series that were for adults and came in sombre, mossy-green covers.  Together, all 39 encyclopaedias just about fitted along the top of the sideboard in our living room.  They made an imposing sight.  Until then, I hadn’t suspected that there were enough books in the world to fill our sideboard.

 

I immediately set about reading these encyclopaedias, both the juvenile and adult ones, and my horizons were swiftly widened.  Not all the consequences of this were positive, however.  My parents had neglected to read the small print in the advertisement – if they had, they would have discovered that the encyclopaedias had been printed in America, by Americans, for Americans, and their contents were duly biased towards America.  As a result, I wasted a lot of time searching in the fields of our farm for evidence that woodchucks, porcupines, prairie dogs and Gila monsters had been foraging there.  Also, some quaint words started to appear in my vocabulary – diaper, candy store, soda fountain, rest room – which inevitably had my classmates at primary school tearing the piss out of me.

 

One feature of these encyclopaedias that really rubbed off on me was that, because they were American and because they’d been published just after the moon landings, they were dripping with optimism.  This was a scientific as well as an American optimism.  It’s hard to believe today, now that one of the two main American political parties is infested with right-wing religious fruitcakes who maintain that the universe was built in six days flat a few thousand years ago (http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/politics/2012/10/republican-congressman-evolution-lies-straight-pit-hell), but there was a time not so long ago when America took science seriously and saw it as one of the key tools in converting the rest of the world to the glories of the American way.  At the age of eight or nine, I lapped all this up – even those assertions in the encyclopaedias that, with the benefit of hindsight, were a bit over-optimistic.

 

For example, the encyclopaedias predicted that, having reached the moon, it would only be a short time – the 1980s, at the latest – before human beings were tramping around the surface of Mars too.  The ‘S’ volume of the World Book encyclopaedias had a lengthy entry about ‘space travel’ and on one page I found a multi-pictured diagram showing how astronauts were going to get to Mars.  Admittedly, the Mars spaceship in that diagram, as well as having a long, sleek fuselage and a beak-like nose, had wings, which seemed a bit suspicious because by then I knew that in outer space there wasn’t any air and wings were thus superfluous.  (I suspect the artist behind those pictures had been unconsciously influenced by a non-space vehicle that was making a stir at the time, Concorde.)  Elsewhere, there were pictures of what a moonbase – only a few decades away in the future, I was told – would look like, although it was an unprepossessing cylindrical structure that resembled a giant tin can left littering a lunar crater.

 

Anyway, I assumed this was what I could expect by the time I’d reached my thirties.  I’d be living on a moonbase, watching Concorde-like spaceships streak past on their way to Mars.

 

My expectations were buoyed further when in the mid-1970s my parents finally got round to buying a new TV set that got three channels, the BBC, RTE and ITV – Independent Television.  Although ITV had (and still has) a reputation for cheap and lowbrow programming in comparison with that made by the BBC, it did broadcast at the time various action / adventure series made by a subsidiary called ITC entertainment, run by the cigar-smoking Jewish-Ukrainian impresario Lord Lew Grade.  Aimed at international markets and at the American market in particular, ITC’s shows commanded higher-than-average budgets and looked quite glossy by the standards of 1960s and 1970s British TV.  They included The Prisoner, The Persuaders, Department S and a host of science-fiction shows made by the remarkable Gerry Anderson.  These I was suddenly able to watch for the first time.

 

Gerry Anderson, of course, is best-known today for his ‘Supermarionation’ sci-fi series, which were populated by puppets and featured special effects that, for the time, looked impressively cinematic: Thunderbirds, Stingray, Fireball XL5, Joe 90…  Not to mention the surprisingly grim Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, each episode of which began with the rumbling, terrifying Voice of the Mysterons transmitting from Mars and threatening to wreak havoc somewhere on earth (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bV8YbLvGrb0&feature=related).  But it was seeing repeats of Anderson’s first live-action sci-fi show, UFO, made in 1970 and starring Ed Bishop, George Sewell, Michael Billington, Peter Gordeno, Wanda Ventham (Benedict Cumberbatch’s mum) and Gabrielle Drake (Nick Drake’s sister), that convinced me that the future was going to be absolutely brilliant.

 

For UFO, Anderson’s production team envisioned the shape of things to come through a prism of gaudy late-1960s design and fashion, with a smidgeon too of then-fashionable psychedelia.  It didn’t just feature spaceships and moonbases, but also sleek super-cars, talking computers with hallucinogenic panels of flashing lights, giant submarines with detachable nose-modules that turned into aircraft when they reached the ocean surface, guys in groovy-looking suits that didn’t have lapels, and a lot of sexy ladies wearing silver miniskirts and sporting purple hairdos.  (Here’s UFO’s famous title sequence, by the way: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mb4nMFHXxro).  So, I thought, I’d be living on a moonbase, watching spaceships streak past towards Mars, and Gabrielle Drake would be shimmying around me looking fetching in silver and purple.  The future seemed better than ever.

 

Needless to say, as the 1970s wore on, I began to get uneasy about the fact that little futuristic stuff was happening any more.  As far as manned spaceflight was concerned, not much occurred after the Skylab project – yes, there was the space shuttle, but that didn’t venture beyond earth’s orbit and, frankly, seemed a bit shit.  Meanwhile, the Viking 1 probe landed on Mars but, alas, found nothing interesting.  There were no aliens, Martian canals or three-legged war machines shooting out death-rays – just some boring geological formations that had once been river valleys.  And what had happened to that you-can-do-anything-if-you-put-your-mind-to-it American optimism?  It seemed to fizzle out as the 1970s became one long litany of American trauma: the Vietnam War, the 1973 oil crisis, Watergate, the Iran hostage saga.

 

I still held out hope, though.  In the mobile library that came to our village every week, I picked up a copy of Arthur C. Clarke’s novelisation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the classic late-1960s sci-fi movie he’d co-written with director Stanley Kubrick.  It was reassuring to read Clarke’s sober, matter-of-fact account of a journey from the earth to the moon and then on to Saturn.  (In Kubrick’s film, the final destination was changed to Jupiter because the job of convincingly depicting Saturn’s rings was too much for his special effects team.)  By then I was well-versed in astronomy and space travel and the book seemed to reinforce everything I knew already about the subjects.  It also made the idea that humanity would be out exploring more of space in the early 21st century seem feasible and, indeed, logical.

 

When I finally saw 2001 the movie, however, it was the early 1980s and even I had to concede that it’d become a bit of a museum piece.  In some ways it possessed an admirable, almost documentary-like realism – for instance, I was impressed by the fact that, unlike the spaceships in every other sci-fi movie I’d seen, Kubrick’s spaceships didn’t make any noise (because sound doesn’t travel in the vacuum of space) – but it struck me as a historical artefact nonetheless because it was clearly rooted in a past time and in past conceptions of what lay ahead.  It offered a late-1960s view of the future, one that just wasn’t plausible any longer in 1981 or 1982.

 

(By then, the Mad Max movies had started to do the rounds and, after the oil shortages of the 1970s, they presented an unfortunately more credible vision of what the 21st century might be like.  It was also telling that a couple of years earlier, in 1978, Lord Grade’s ITC Entertainment, which had once stimulated my space-age fantasies with the Gerry Anderson shows, had produced the movie Capricorn One – a cynical sci-fi thriller about a NASA expedition to Mars that is actually a hoax, with the supposed landing on the Martian surface being filmed in a TV studio in the American desert.)

 

And now in 2012 I find myself inhabiting a world far removed from the visions that Neil Armstrong, Gerry Anderson and Arthur C. Clarke inspired in me during my childhood.  An international space station has been in low earth orbit for the past dozen years (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Space_Station) but, still, little else is happening on the manned space-travel front – I doubt very much if people will get to Mars in my lifetime and I’m beginning to wonder if they will get there at all, ever.  Okay, I spend my working days squinting into the screen and poking at the keyboard of a computer, but it doesn’t seem like a proper computer.  After all, when a proper computer developed a fault, it would surely – like HAL in 2001 – start singing ‘Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do…’  Mine just mutely informs me that it has encountered a problem and is going to shut down.

 

In fact, the only thing that anyone back then got right about the future was the scenario in Gerry Anderson’s Captain Scarlet.  For many years, up until recently, we did cower as the Voice of the Mysterons, at regular intervals, threatened to wreak havoc in our lives – though to be fair, it wasn’t the Voice of the Mysterons broadcasting from Mars, but the Voice of Osama Bin Laden broadcasting via smuggled-out video cassettes from a compound in Pakistan.  (I often wonder if the ten-year-old Osama watched that show on television in late-1960s Riyadh and borrowed a few ideas from it.)

 

Armstrong departed from this world – again, and this time for good – on August 25th.  Clarke died back in 2008 (whereas poor old Kubrick didn’t even live to see 2001).  And Gerry Anderson, I was saddened to read recently, is now suffering from Alzheimer’s disease (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-oxfordshire-18614483).

 

And that’s ironic in a way, for I sometimes feel I am suffering from a reverse form of Alzheimer’s – not one that erases my memories of the past through neuro-degeneration, but one that erases my fanciful memories of the future through on-going exposure to dull, disillusioning reality.