FAB! The Century 21 Supermarionation Worlds of Gerry & Sylvia Anderson
Especially the ITC shows they created for Lew Grade, from Supercar (1962) to Space: 1999 (1974-6), which I grew up watching from a young child. With their fab futuristic worlds, organisations (WASP), costume design (the coloured costumes of SPECTRUM) and fantastic machines (Thunderbirds) I'm a fan, and have many of these series on DVD. Click on words in blue for links.
Gerry Anderson MBE (born Gerald Abrahams 14 April 1929 – 26 December 2012) was born in Bloomsbury London, descended from East European Jewish refugees who fled the Russian pogroms to come to live in London in the late 19th Century. After grammar school, he joined the British Colonial Film Unit as a photographer. He then joined the prestigious Gainsborough Pictures in the film editing department, where he returned after doing his National Service in 1947. In 1950 with the closure of Gainsborough he became a freelancer in the British film industry. In 1952 he married his first wife.
In 1955 he met cameraman Arthur Provis, model & set designer Reg Hill, and director John Read and as producer they worked for two years under various company names until 1957 when they formed AP Films. For the fledgling ITV they created their first puppet series for Granada TV, Roberta Leigh's character The Adventures of Twizzle. On that series he met future collaborators, puppeteer Christine Glanville, special effects supervisor Derek Meddings, and musical composer and arranger Barry Gray. The rest is history.
Sylvia Anderson (née Thomas: 25 March 1927 – 15 March 2016) was born in Camberwell London. A graduate of the LSE, she moved in the late 40s to the USA with her first husband. She returned in 1955, met Gerry Anderson when he was at Polytechnic Films, then joined the board of directors of AP Films in 1957 alongside Anderson & Provis, Read, and Hill. She worked on The Adventures of Twizzle as a production assistant and in 1960 married Gerry Anderson.
Later she would play a vitally important role in their productions, as costume designer (all those wonderful 60s costumes are hers), character development, voice artist (most famously Lady Penelope in Thunderbirds), and she supervised the voice recording sessions. She is often overlooked in studies of these shows, which is a grave error, and pays her a great disservice. If Gerry was mainly responsible for the hardware (the machines), she was responsible for the software (the characters, how they acted, what they wore etc). In 1975 the couple split personally and professionally.
EARLY WORKS (15-minute puppet shows)
The Adventures of Twizzle (1957 - 58, 52 X 15mins, Granada TV, only one episode survives), created by Roberta Leigh. Torchy the Battery Boy (1959 season one only ABC 26 X 15mins), created by Roberta Leigh. Four Feather Falls (1959-60 39 X 15mins Granada TV), their first Supermarionation show.
These early shows serve as their apprenticeship, the first two series created by Roberta Leigh (pictured above with Torchy puppets), author, artist, composer and Britain's first woman television producer. They were quite primitive, the first series being especially cheap, the Andersons making it in order to prove to the ITV companies that they could make TV series. The last was all their own, based on an idea by AP partner, composer Barry Gray, and traded on the huge popularity of Westerns on TV at the time. The main character was sheriff Tex Tucker, and he also sang. Because of this, the Andersons came up with an early version of Supermarionation, where the puppet heads were replaced by interchangeable hollow fibre glass heads where the eyes could be moved, and solenoids so the lips could move in sync with the dialogue. This is why the heads were so large in these shows. Despite its success, Granada refused to commission a second series. Distraught, and faced with unemployment, a chance meeting with ATV boss Lew Grade led to a change in direction, and a long-standing relationship with Lew's ITC company. Both available on DVD and DVD.
THE ATV/ITC YEARS
Supercar (1961-62 two series 39 X 25mins B&W)
This is where it all really begins. Their first 25-minute series, their first Sci-Fi show, their first to prominently feature hi-tech machinery (here the titular car), their first to feature one of Barry Gray's theme tunes becoming a pop hit, and their first show to be sold abroad (due to ITC's habit of successfully selling shows overseas), in the U.S. it was shown in syndication. A landmark series for them, and for us the audience. Its success led to the later shows that had such an impact on popular culture.
Later, Gerry admitted that the sole reason for having the car was to avoid showing the puppets walking, something he thought never looked right (in later series the characters often used hover-cars of some description). The show concentrated on test pilot Mike Mercury, and Professor Popkiss the inventor, in adventures that would involve the futuristic flying and submersible Supercar, with the first of many legendary Anderson craft launch sequences, and the first in a long line of great crafts designed by AP partner & model designer Reg Hill. Because it didn't sell to a U.S. network, and because it was easier to pitch new shows to the U.S. networks than recommission follow ups, Lew urged them to make a new series. Available on DVD.
Fireball XL5 (1962 -63 39 X 25mins B&W)
Their first series to be featured in outer space, with Don Spencer singing "I wish I was a spaceman" in Barry Gray's theme tune (another Top 40 hit). Featuring the rocket ship itself with its detachable nose cone, square-jawed blonde hero Colonel Steve Zodiac, and companions Doctor Venus (voiced by Sylvia Anderson, who had married Gerry during the making of Supercar), navigator and engineer Professor Matthew Matic, and co-pilot, the transparent Robert the robot.
With its thinly-disguised Cold war and Cowboy 'n' Indian plots, this Space opera now seems slightly quaint and retro, and despite Venus being a scientist she is still expected to make the coffee (and is scolded if it's late). Shown in the U.S. on NBC Saturday morning at 10.30am from 1963-65. Available on DVD.
Stingray (1964-65 39 X 25mins Colour)
This is the first true Anderson classic series that has stood the test of time. ITC having acquired AP Films, they moved to a larger studio in Slough and at a cost of just under £1million made their first colour series, the first British TV series to be fully made in colour.
Set in the mid-21st Century it featured the exploits of the Stingray submarine and its crew, square-jawed hero Troy Tempest, navigator Phones, plus mute undersea creature Marina. They worked for WASP (World Aquanaut Security Patrol) based at Marineville, headed by the invalid Commander Shore and his daughter Atlanta (voiced by James Bond's Miss Moneypenny Lois Maxwell).
The series follows the whole gamut of nautical adventures, encountering hostile and suspicious undersea races, pirates, ghost galleons, and even the Loch Ness Monster. The Stingray craft itself, designed by Reg Hill, is a classic, and Derek Medding's special effects (shooting on high-speed cameras then projecting at normal speed) overcomes the problems of physics when shooting small scale craft in water (which cannot be miniaturised). If there are criticisms that the craft and pen is too large, considering the size of the crew, and their method of entering by descending chairs is expensive and unpractical, then these are countered by the sheer beauty of the design and the graceful 'underwater' photography. Also, the criticism that all the buildings of Marineville descend underground when endangered when it would be cheaper and more pragmatic to build them underground in the first place is well-founded but misses the sheer magic and power of the descent sequences.
It also has probably the most exciting action-packed opening credits one has ever seen (see above), accompanied by Barry Gray's stirring anthem. What child could resist that? The show finished with another great Barry Gray song, the romantic "Marina". Syndicated in the States, it made about £3million for the company, but again no network sale. Available on DVD.
Thunderbirds (1964-66 two series 32 X 50mins Colour)Probably their most famous show. With the success of Stingray, the Andersons wanted to make a more family-oriented show, one that could be shown in the evening (as the series eventually was in the U.K.). Gerry came up with the concept of an International Rescue organisation in the mid-21st Century. Developing the concept, Gerry concentrated on developing the machinery, whilst Sylvia developed the characters (the family structure of father and five brothers was based on then hit Western TV show Bonanza).
They shot a pilot, showed it to Lew, and he was so enthused by the cinematic feel of the show, he tripled the budget and ordered 50-minute shows. This extra time allowed for greater characterisation and relationships, especially among the Traceys on Tracey Island and their staff, and also saw the creation of Lady Penelope (voiced by Sylvia), the first Anderson female character to be allowed depth and dramatic agency in her own right, with her cockney ex-safecracker butler Parker (complete with catchphrase "Yes, M'Lady"). They lived in a stately home and drove a pink Rolls Royce (registration FAB1).
A fantastic opening credit sequence (starting with the "5,4,3,2,1 ... Thunderbirds are go!" declaration) accompanied by Barry Gray's dramatic score, in the style of a John Barry Bond theme (note the blaring horns that finish the end theme), superb crafts, each a design classic in its own right, wonderful characterisations and exciting action-packed plots, the series is rightly regarded as a TV classic, that can be enjoyed by all the family. It looked like a Hollywood blockbuster shown on a weekly basis. Notice again how the extraordinary lengths the characters went to get into their crafts obviated the need to see them walking.
There was also a massive marketing campaign, and like many kids, for the Christmas of 1966 I got a Thunderbird 2 model (heavy cast-iron job with detachable pod), while my brothers got Thunderbirds 1,3,and 4. Sadly, no U.S. network sale, which is why season 2 was curtailed, but it was a huge commercial hit overseas, and a cultural landmark. Two feature films were also made, but they were not commercial or critical successes. Life imitating art, in 1981 a group of volunteers set up International Rescue Corp, testament to the show's stature in popular culture. Available on DVD.
"The finger is on the trigger, about to unleash a force with terrible powers beyond the comprehension of man. This force we shall know as The Mysterons. This man will be our hero, for fate will make him indestructible. His name Captain Scarlet".
Captain Scarlet & The Mysterons (1967-68 32 X 25mins)
Their first for renamed production company Century 21 Productions, to tie in with the various merchandising and comic. Due to new improved miniaturisation of electronics, they were now able to build the heads to scale. This series was much darker in tone, the titular hero is killed then reanimated and is now indestructible (dying gruesome deaths every week). The Mysterons, invisible beings from Mars, kill humans then create simulacra, and Captain Black is seen in the credits in a graveyard. These, along with the war of terror waged by the Mysterons which necessitated a lack of heroic battles or final confrontations, meant that it was aimed more at an older teen or adult audience (indeed more relevant in the post 9/11 world). There was also no humour or knock-about kids stuff or funny animals as in the previous series. But the kids could still revel in the fantastic design concepts. Since the organisation is called SPECTRUM, it makes sense that the leader is Colonel White (all the colours combined), with the enemy Captain Black (lack of light). All the Captains were modelled to look like their voice artistes (Francis Matthews as Scarlet, long-time Anderson actor Ed Bishop as Blue, with Sylvia voicing the Angels). This was also the first of their shows to feature BME characters (Lieutenant Green), and another with strong supporting female roles (the Angels pilots).
It also featured an innovative editing technique, where jump-cuts were done in triplicate from now to then, each time zooming in, accompanied by Barry Gray's drum motif, a device copied by cult U.S. TV show Kung Fu. The crafts were again excellent, though why the SPVs were driven seated backwards I have no idea.
That Christmas I got the SPV (with slide-out side door) while my brothers got Captain Scarlet doll and the Angel Interceptor crafts. Aided by a great theme song by Barry Gray sung, appropriately, by The Spectrum, this was the third Anderson classic in a row. Spectrum is Green! Sadly, there was no second series. Available on DVD.
Joe 90 (1968-69 30 X 25mins Colour)Joe 90 saw a return to children-oriented themes and 25 minutes length, and is in many ways a regrettable backward step. Joe is a 9 year old schoolboy who can instantly acquire the skills of any adult when placed in his father's RAT gyroscope, which transfers brain waves, but in the field he must wear these special glasses. Lots of adventures, mainly of an espionage nature (Joe is a special agent for WIN, World Intelligence Network), ensue.
However, the father's flying car is another backward step (see Supercar) and all in all, though a fairly well written and exciting show, it doesn't have the oomph factor of the preceding three shows. It did have a groovy opening credit sequence with psychedelic colours and fuzz-guitar pop-psyche tune. This was the last show the Andersons made using solely puppet marionettes. A sort of Mission: Impossible for kids, preceding the SpyKids franchise by three decades. It was not renewed. Available on DVD.
Using a mix of real actors and marionettes, this show featured the spy organisation BISHOP (British Intelligence Service Headquarters, Operation Priest). The acronym is a bit of a reach, it doesn't flow naturally, and neither does anything else in this show. Stanley Unwin, a master of his own invented gobbledygook language plays a priest who drives an old but super charged Ford Model T called Gabriel, who gets involved in various espionage adventures with his partner, Matthew, who he shrinks using a minimiser machine so he can fit into briefcases and things.
The Secret Service (1969 13 X 25mins Colour)
Not even networked by ITV (most regions never showed it) Lew Grade apparently said when he saw a screening of one of the episodes "Cut the lights! Stop! Stop!" and cancelled the show there and then at thirteen episodes. He objected to Unwin's speech, which does tend to grate. Nobody much liked it, including me. This was the last show the Andersons made using the Supermarionation puppet process. Available on DVD.
PART TWO: THE LIVE-ACTION SHOWS
UFO (1970-71 26 X 50mins Colour)Most of 1969 was spent making their first live-action feature film since Gerry's 1960 second feature Crossroads to Crime. Doppelgänger (aka Journey to the Far Side of the Sun) was a Sci-Fi film starring Roy Thinnes of The Invaders fame. It was not a success. However, it prompted them and Lew Grade to make a 50-minute live action show called UFO. Based in the then future of 1980, it featured a secret organisation hidden below a film studio called SHADO (Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation), which defended the Earth from aliens who came to Earth to kidnap humans, ostensibly for organ transplants. Commanded by Ed Straker (Ed Bishop in another role), they were aided by Moon Base with its three Interceptors (and a bevy of lovely ladies in tin-foil costumes and purple wigs, led by a favourite of mine, Gabrielle Drake), a submarine Skydiver whose nose was a rocket plane that could take off, and on the ground they had Mobiles.
Captain Scarlet, this had quite dark themes, and also tried adult relationships. This, and the excellent production design (bases and crafts) makes it a cult favourite of mine. The various ITV regions however didn't know where to schedule it. Some early Saturday morning, some Sunday tea time, others after the News at Ten. They were also never shown in the same order. Interestingly, a five-month break caused by the closure of MGM Borehamwood studios saw some key cast (George Sewell and Peter Gordeno in particular) disappear. It was quite successful in U.S. syndication, and a mooted second series eventually became Space: 1999. Again, for Christmas, I got a Mobile and a Moon Interceptor, both complete with launch-able missiles. I love this show, with its mix of thoughtful episodes, action sequences, psychological horror, and beautiful ladies (Wanda Ventham, Jane Merrow, Anouska Hempel etc). Available on DVD.
The Protectors (1972-73 two series 52 X 25mins Colour)The Andersons had now formed a new company, Group Three Productions, with Reg Hill, and were hired by Lew's ITC to make a live action espionage and crime action adventure series, similar to shows like The Persuaders. Following a trio of private investigators, this was successful enough to warrant two series. Professional, slick, if a little cold, it's a complete departure for the Andersons, and fits more the ITC action-adventurer template (see my post on ITC). Lew had come up with the basic concept, and hired two of the cast (Robert Vaughn especially), though then Group Three had a free hand. More famous for its theme tune, Avenues and Alleyways, sung by Tony Christie. To offset cost, it was shot on 16mm film. Available on DVD.
Picking up from the abandoned second season of UFO, this was a return to futuristic Sci-Fi for the Andersons (whose last show this was, they split at the wrap party). The premise of the show was that the nuclear waste Earth was burying on the far side of the Moon exploded, catapulting the Moon out of Earth orbit and sent it spinning into space. We then follow the inhabitants of Moon Base Alpha as they at first try to survive, then try to find a way home, with their various encounters with alien races along the way. The cast was headed by American husband and wife team Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, at Lew's insistence, and against Gerry's wishes (he'd had problems with Vaughn on the previous show).
An expensive show shot at Pinewood Studios, it used old fashioned model shots against black backgrounds and in-camera mixing of various elements, thus saving time and money compared to blue screen process. The models were again excellent (and this was the last Christmas I got an Anderson toy, the Eagle shuttlecraft). The scripts left a little to be desired, often the plots were the same old hackneyed stories seen in dozens of earlier Sci-Fi shows. Oddly, lead Barbara Bain, who'd been nominated for Emmys in successive years for Mission: Impossible, gives a wooden and blank-faced performance, icy cold. It doesn't help that her close-ups always used diffusers. Much better was Barry Morse as the scientist. Series one was co-sponsored by Italian state TV RAI.
For the second series, ITC America (who were really calling the shots on this show) insisted on some changes. U.S. producer Fred Freiberger was hired to make the scripts more American-friendly, new costume and set designs for the Main Control Centre, and cast changes (Morse out, Catherine Schell in as a shape-shifting alien). Budgets were cut, and metaphysical issue were excised. it was to be a more action-oriented show. We Star Trek fans shuddered when we first saw Freiberger's on-screen credit, it was he that worked on the third and last series of that show, and was blamed by many (rightly or wrongly) as being responsible for its cancellation. The second series was admittedly brighter, warmer (there was a romance between the two leads), but it didn't address the real issue, the poor quality scripts, often diluted by constant rewrites by ITC America (Freiberger being hired to avoid this). It looks like a show made by committee, rather than individual vision, like their famous Supermarionation shows. It's not that Space: 1999 is actually bad (barring the odd episode), it's just that it's not as brilliant, individual, and exciting as those 60s shows. Half a century later, time has been more kinder to the show, now it looks a solid if not inspired piece of entertainment, and as 70s retro nostalgia (wow, flared trousers! and trouser-suits!). Available on DVD and Blu-Ray.
AFTER ITCGerry & Sylvia split after this show, which ends the classic Anderson period. They finally divorced in 1980. Sylvia retired from TV production, becoming a talent scout for HBO. Gerry, after a couple of years of financial difficulty and lack of work (he was forced to sell the intellectual property rights to all his 60s shows), eventually returned to TV production with shows: Terrahawks (1983-86), Dick Spanner, P.I. (1987), GFI (1993), a return to live-action with Space Precinct (1994-95), Lavender Castle (1999-2000), and the computer generated revival Gerry Anderson's New Captain Scarlet (2005). None of them ever captured the public imagination, or became cultural icons, as their Supermarionation shows did. But we do have those shows, and thanks to the modern digital age they're all on DVD and/or Blu-Ray (I've included links at the end of each show), to be watched and re-watched by old and new alike. I'm a huge fan, I grew up with these shows, and I'd like to thank the Andersons, and all their creative partners (Reg Hill, Derek Meddings, Barry Gray etc) for hours of fun and enjoyment. FAB!