As always, the global state of affairs was mirrored by the entertainment industry. Think only of the enormously successful James Bond series – the first Bond movie, Doctor No, premiered in 1962 and caused quite a stir – and its many successors and imitators on both the big and the small screen. Especially television, that new companion in every home, knew its bane of spy series: I Spy, Get Smart, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Mission Impossible, The Avengers, and as unchallenged pinnacle of course Batman.
There was, nevertheless, one series among all these that was quite different in format, approach and appearance. Firmly anchored in the futuristic and technological trend of thought of the times, Thunderbirds was set in 2026 and centered around an American millionaire philanthropist (alleged to have been one of the first men on the moon!) and his five sons, every one of them named after an American astronaut. No doubt due to both this and the Mid-Atlantic accents of the voice-over artists it was generally thought to be just another US produced, animated series but, in fact, nothing turned out to be further from the truth. The programme – which, incidentally, had its world premiere on September 5, 1965 on Dutch television – was the seventh in a series of ten puppetshows made by the Britain based AP Films, a production company helmed by the Andersons, Gerry and his wife Sylvia.
The Andersons never intended to make puppet films. They started out in film production in the mid Fifties when they teamed up with Arthur Provis to start AP Films and the first assignment they landed was for a 52-episode children's series commissioned by one of the newly formed itv Network companies. The intrepid threesome fully expected to do a live-action production but, to their dismay, itv specifically stated it wanted marionettes. Undaunted by this prospect however, the Andersons and their staff set about producing The Adventures of Twizzle about which little more can be said but that it used the most basic of puppet techniques.
A year later, in 1956, itv asked them to produce another puppet series, Torchy the Battery Boy, which again used rather straightforward string puppets although they now had the ability to 'talk'. The puppeteers could move the puppet's lower jaw in synch with pre-recorded dialogue, a practice held over from Twizzle. Nevertheless, it proved to be very difficult to control the puppet during dialogue sequences: not only the jaw would move but also the head. Besides that, the shot had to be a static one since the puppets could not walk and talk at the same time. Anderson and Provis decided to invest in an attempt to free the puppeteers from having to control the dialogue mechanism. In cooperation with the British electronics company R.T.C. Wright & Co. AP's resident technician John Read developed a technology which has since become known as Supermarionation.
Nothing less than a true breakthrough in string puppet technology, it involved a small solenoid placed in the puppet head which carried an electrical impulse from the pre-recorded dialogue so the puppet's lower lip would open and close in sync. The technique was first employed in their third programme, Four Feather Falls, and not only enabled hero Tex Tucker [left] to talk, the new fibreglass heads also left room for a mechanism to move the eyes. Also, the all too visible wires with which the puppets had been manipulated thus far were, by this time, replaced by ultrathin, tungsten steel controlstrings, specially developed for the studio by the Ormiston company.
Nonetheless, the Andersons still were not satisfied with the results since they could not get the puppets to walk properly, a virtual impossibility with any string puppet technique since the puppet's leg is lifted at the knee so it can never throw it's leg forward at the foot like a human being does. This prompted them to turn toward the realm of science fiction for their next series, reasoning that in the future – or at least their version of it – everybody would use either futuristically designed vehicles or rolling chairs to move from one spot to the other, thus effectively eliminating the need for characters to walk. And indeed, Supercar (produced in 1959), not only had a machine as one of its main 'characters', foreshadowing the important role hardware would play in the Anderson's later series, but also featured atomic trains and the like.
AP Films started the next decade with a production that was firmly seated in the future. Fireball XL5 was produced in 1961, purportedly set a cool 106 years later, and highlighted the adventures of the crew of a rocket called Fireball XL5, hence the series title. With the advent of this show the Andersons for the first time tried to create a complete 'universe' as a background for the characters' actions and motivations, just as George Lucas would do years later for his Star Wars series: Fireball XL5 is but one of a fleet of rockets under the command of the World Space Patrol, a global military organisation, and hero Steve Zodiac "patrols sector 25".
Another aspect of the studio's idiosyncratic approach that began to emerge at this time was the practice of modelling the puppet faces on the faces of their voice artists. Venus, the female lead in the series, was voiced by Gerry's wife Sylvia just as Thunderbirds' lady Penelope would later be and the similarity between the two characters' heads, which were sculpted by puppeteer Mary Turner, is indeed obvious. Another trait that began to show was the increasing quality of the special effects – and more specifically the model work – a factor that would lead to a constant quest for ever more convincing realism. In its own way AP was making live-action productions (as they had originally set out to do), only they did not hire their actors, they created them and the locations they populated.
Both the concept of a coherent 'universe' and the similarity between puppet and voice-artist laid also at the foundation of the next series, Stingray, produced in 1962-63 and situated in 2065. Due to the importance of the American market and the fast rise of colour television over there it was decided to film the series in colour and that earned it the distinction of being the first such British television production. It highlighted the exploits of the dashing Troy Tempest and his inseparable companion Phones, both members of the World Aquanaut Security Patrol (another global institution along the lines of Fireball's World Space Patrol) which, under the benign guidance of Commander Sam Shore and his beautiful daughter Atlanta, set itself to battle the evil undersea Lord Titan. Atlanta's voice was done by Lois Maxwell – who would later go on to become Miss Moneypenny in the James Bond series – and again the resemblance between puppet and voice-artist is unmistakably there.
Hardware stars of this series were wasp's supersubmarines of the Stingray type and the Terror Fish, Titans counterpart to Stingray. The most remarkable thing about Stingray, apart from the employed Supermarionation technique, was undoubtedly the decision to situate the larger part of events above or under water. Special-effects-wise water and fire are two phenomena which are extremely hard to miniaturise convincingly but special effects ace Derek Meddings – who, after the untimely demise of Century 21 (as the company would later be called), moved on to produce effects for such blockbusters as Superman and The Spy who Loved Me – had been employed by the firm since the very early days of Twizzle and proved himself more than capable of producing the elaborate effects needed.
And the effects became ever more elaborate with the advent of AP's new series Thunderbirds. Produced between 1964 and 1966 and set in 2026, every episode involved a disaster of one kind or another so Meddings could show his mastery of pyrotechnic effects while the highly secret International Rescue organisation could show off its truly magnificent machines. Each of the five Thunderbirds, as they were called, were designed by Brains, a young prodigy with a high forehead, a stammer and an enormous pair of glasses, and piloted by Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John, the five sons of one-time astronaut Jeff Tracy. He had named them after historic American colleagues Carpenter, Grissom, Shepard, Cooper and Glenn respectively, reflecting the writers' point of view on the spirit of the times. They turned up mysteriously wherever and whenever they were needed, thanks to a constant monitoring of the airwaves for distress calls from ir's spacestation Thunderbird 5, ceaselessly circling the Earth.
Adding to the allure of the format was the idea of having three of the machines launch from a secret Pacific island base. Thunderbird 1, a reconnoitering rocket, was hidden by a sliding swimming pool, Thunderbird 2, an immense freight plane hauling one of six different equipment pods (one of which housed the Thunderbird 4 submarine), required palmtrees to sway outward before it could be angled upwards on its launching ramp to take to the skies while Thunderbird 3, a spacefaring vehicle in the true sense of the word, rose majestically through a roundhouse that must have been fireproofed to a remarkable degree. In case of an emergency call the pilots could quickly reach their machines following a living room conference through an ingenious system of ramps, revolving walls and descending settees.
The series boasted some colourful figures such as International Rescue's London agent lady Penelope Creighton-Ward and her butler Aloysius 'Nosey' Parker, an ex-safecracker gone straight, who both lived in her South Kent country mansion. Whenever they were called upon through the teapot two-way radio to intervene they would board FAB 1, a custom built Rolls Royce decked out in shocking pink and equipped with smoke screens and machine guns much like James Bond's Aston Martin car from the concurrent Thunderball and Goldfinger movies.
Thunderbirds also brought the Andersons the international fame they had been deserving for such a long time: between roughly 1965 and 1968 every kid around the world was in the thrall of the Tracy family and their exploits: the series was sold in 98 territories, in those days an unusually large number. The studio had, by this time, installed a close-circuit TV system along with the 35mm cameras so the puppeteers no longer needed to use awkwardly placed mirrors to check on the eyeline of their puppets. This enabled Gerry Anderson, like a true tycoon, to check on proceedings on any of the puppet stages at all times from behind his desk. This feature, known as Add-A-Vision, can be considered a forerunner of today's ubiquitous video assist, another example of the technological innovations that were introduced by the studio.
At about the same time the weekly TV21 magazine was started, later to become the ephemeral crown on a dynamic merchandising campaign, which firmly supported, and elaborated on, the 'alternative universe' concept publishing biographies of the stars and sophisticated cutaway drawings of the machines. The latter are all the more remarkable when one takes into consideration that they were, in fact, retro-engineered: the artist who drew them not only had to fit in the normal mechanical accoutrements such as suspension, gear boxes and motors but he also had to come up with plausible explanations for gadgets that were dreamed up by Meddings who, in his own words, 'just doodled' when designing his futuristic machinery (the Thunderbird launch bays are a case in point). It is also a wellknown fact that Meddings was often scolded for his outrageous designs by art director Bob Bell who had to fit the puppet interiors into the most unusual spaces since, most of the times, the outside shape would be designed first.
As a matter of fact the series were so successful that its producer Lew Grade decided to have Century 21 make a feature film based on the Thunderbirds concept. Thunderbirds Are Go! (produced in 1966) was unusual in that it did not really involve the Thunderbirds characters and hardware but instead concentrated on the first manned flight to Mars. The attempt is sabotaged and the Tracy family is called in to protect the next. Once on Mars the crew is being fired upon by Mars' indigenous lifeform and they have to make good a quick escape. A mechanical failure prevents a safe return and, once again, International Rescue is called in to save the day. The film also contained a remarkable intermezzo in the shape of a nightclub appearance in miniature by youth idols Cliff Richard and the Shadows performing the specially written Shooting Star.
In spite of the most intensive merchandising campaign ever – and it would hold that distinction until Star Wars came along – the film nose-dived completely. This did not deter the Andersons however, from embarking on another puppet series, one which was to herald an even more sophisticated approach to string puppetry while at the same time enriching what was by now definitely established as the Anderson Universe.
September 29, 1967, the screen shows a dark alley and some furtive silhouettes. Shots ring out and one of them is suddenly bathed in light. He lifts his gun, returns the shots and his adversary's lifeless body drops to the ground while a stern and ominous voice intones: 'The Mysterons... sworn enemies of Earth, possessing the ability to recreate an exact likeness of an object or person. But first, they must destroy. Leading the fight, one man fate has made indestructible. His name: Captain Scarlet...' Enter Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, Britain's latest Supermarionation series. It was clear from the very start that this time the Andersons meant business: not only the format and the stories were more mature but also the effects and the music were of a definitely more adult level. And of course the puppets.
The opening sequence was filmed entirely with marionettes but still managed to convey an eerie humanlike quality largely due to what is generally referred to as 'the perfectly proportioned puppet'. Thanks to technical improvements, the lip-sync mechanism could be relocated in the puppet's chest cavity allowing the sculptors to steer away from the exaggerated features that had been the norm till then. Analogous to Meddings' fire and water the actors were now also exact miniature replicas since, true to the standard, the puppetfaces were modelled on existing people and a stable of doppelgänger ranging from voice-artists to stage hands, stepped into the limelight making the gap between puppet and human smaller and smaller. Sets were by now so real that, without the puppets to give away their true scale, they could pass for fullscale rooms.
At the same time the 'alternative universe' concept was taken another step further. After doing one-hour episodes about a non-military rescue organisation for Thunderbirds, the Andersons returned to the fold with this new series, producing half-hour episodes that told the story of the Spectrum agents. The Zero X rocketcraft used in Thunderbirds Are Go! made its re-entrance here, assisting in what was presumably another Mars expedition. But instead of the rock-snakes from the film the crew locates, and accidentally destroys, the deserted remains of an old Martian city. This triggers a vast defensive computer network left on the alert by inhabitants long extinct, the Mysterons. Unfortunately the network has the ability to rebuild anything (or anyone) that it previously destroyed, the twist being that the Mysterons (aka the network) are in complete control of the subject in question once it has been recreated.
Two agents of Spectrum, Captain Black and Captain Scarlet, are being taken over by the Mysterons in a plot to kill the world president. In the course of events Scarlet falls off a high rise which causes him to return to his senses while at the same time retaining the Mysteron regenerative powers, rendering him effectively indestructible. Black escapes and for the duration of the series keeps turning up in the role of eternal foe, the inscrutable Mysteron henchman.
According to TV21 and the Annuals, Spectrum was yet another secret para-military organisation founded originally to assist the World Space Patrol and the World Aquanaut Security Patrol established in previous series but at the advent of the Mysteron crisis they were employed singularly to stave off their insidious attacks. More proof of the Anderson's visionary approach to what might tentatively be called 'future history' could be found in the fact that the Spectrum setup was truly multi-racial: Blacks, Asians and a number of colourful variations inbetween were cast in responsible positions and showed up regularly among the Caucasian members of the crew.
Now that the perfectly proportioned puppet had been developed and the string puppet had finally grown up, the next logical step was to shift the emphasis from hardware to characters. 1968 saw the birth of Joe 90, an innocent, freckled lad of prepubescent age who, thanks to a device developed by his adopted father Ian MacLaine, could absorb the knowledge and personality of any given expert. MacLaine almost sold the machine (called the b.i.g. r.a.t. for Brain Impulse Galvanoscope, Record And Transfer) to a commercial company before Sam Loover managed to persuade both him and Joe to devote their loyalties to the World Intelligence Network; a conglomerate, or so can be gathered from the Annuals and sparse on-the-tube information, of all the world's security organisations and devoted to world peace. The assorted criminal types that were left came from diversified racial backgrounds, complete with ominous moustaches and eye-patches.
For the first time the notion of a single adversary, as present in previous Anderson series, was abandoned while at the same time the need for secrecy remained an integral part of the plot: Joe was claimed to be nine years of age (incidentally just as old as the Anderson Supermarionation Imperium was at that time) and it was no easy task for Sam and Joe's father to send him out every time on a mission which might prove fatal for the wide-eyed kid. Besides that, what would happen if anyone got wind of this exceptional win agent? Also, there was the housekeeper, Mrs. Harris, to contend with: the good woman never even suspected what was going on beneath her busy feet while at the same time in the cellar Joe was being briefed in the Rat Trap for another win mission. All in all, the scripts were written in such a way that the characters played off each other rather than off hardware greats and intricate special effects (the only regular hardware left in the series – apart from the big rat – was Mac's jet car) as had been the case in previous series. This trend of toning down hardware display and special effects sequences was continued in the next Supermarionation series which, tragically, would also be the last.
Joe 90 followed on the heels of Thunderbird Six, the second feature film, once again highlighting the adventures of the Tracy family. Although their first attempt at producing cinema fare had been a total disaster due to no fault from them, producer Lew Grade had requested the folks at what was by now called Century 21 to come up with yet another Thunderbirds big screen adventure. The storyline of this second effort was remarkably less adventurous, however, and did in fact differ little from an episode produced for television. Lady Penelope, Brains and Tin Tin are invited to join the maiden flight of Skyship One, a mammoth passenger airplane. The machine is in jeopardy of crashing and Brains urges Tracy Sr. to deploy the new Thunderbird 6 to effect the difficult rescue. Slight disillusion can hardly be averted when the new machine turns out to be nothing but a Tiger Moth biplane which dutifully lands on the prostrate hulk to take off again with the crew and passengers aboard, after which the remains of the airplane come to a fittingly spectacular end. Production of this new feature film necessitated dividing the workforce between feature film production and the current tv series and caused talents to be spread rather thin.
The same fate more or less befell Secret Service (1969) since the Andersons were switching to live action productions as they were gearing up for Doppelgänger (or Journey to the Far Side of the Sun as it would be known in the US) which would lead up to the ufo series in much the same way as Thunderbirds Are Go! had paved the way for Captain Scarlet. Nevertheless, the Anderson team again succeeded in surpassing the already high standards they had set for themselves in previous productions.
For this new show the scriptwriters whittled down the number of protagonists even further. Gone were the days of big organisations that retained virtual armies of employees; the programme concentrated instead on the adventures of one Father Unwin (voiced indeed by famous comedian/entertainer Stanley Unwin) and his gardener Matthew Harding.
The twosome was employed by bishop British Intelligence Service Headquarters – Operation Priest, yet another secret spy club run by a mysterious individual by the name of, you guessed it, Bishop. Whenever this character found the affairs of the country in a nasty spot he would call on his two intrepid assistants. Father Unwin, by the grace of his 'trade', could penetrate into places where a more regular plain-clothes man would immediately have been detected (much as Joe MacClaine cunningly used his age in Joe 90), and once inside the reverend father would open his suitcase and out popped Matthew.
Now in day to day life Matthew was a regular sized, likable, if somewhat dim chap who tended the cottage grounds but in case of emergency he let himself be shrunk in size by Father Unwin's Minimiser, a device so small it could be hidden in a book. How the good father came into possession of the instrument was never fully explained but it was clearly another Anderson touch (the Anderson couple always came up with the format for a new series). Once in his diminutive state, Matthew would surreptitiously slip out of the suitcase he had been transported in and reveal himself to be an athletic and energetic character in possession of considerably more than the average intelligence, set to accomplish even the most dangerous mission.
Technically this was the most advanced Supermarionation production ever. The 'actors' and sets were so lifelike they allowed intercutting of close and medium shots of puppets and miniature sets with long shots of human actors and real locations without the difference being all too noticeable. This mix of flesh and fiberglass had been seen before in earlier series of course but only to the extent of cutting away to human hands or feet (and in one case even an eye) for close-ups of specific manipulations that transcended the puppets' capacities, in spite of puppet sculptor John Blundall having developed a fully articulated miniature hand at one point. Another technique, that was pioneered by Mary Turner on Captain Scarlet and further improved during the production of Joe 90, was the use of puppets that were controlled from underneath, necessitated by the many cockpit shots featured in the series. In a sense, with this new series the Andersons bestowed their creative skills on their own creation: just like them, the reverend created miniature humans, marionettes. Strictly speaking, the Minimiser is the key to the perfect puppet and, remarkably enough, there is even a certain physical likeness between Gerry Anderson and Father Unwin.
By now, however, many felt that the charm that had characterised the earlier series was gone – the puppets had simply become too real and, while this was fine for posed stills, the immobile faces could never quite convey the drama that spoke from the pre-recorded dialogue. The switch to human actors, therefore, was imminent.
Secret Service was not destined for a long and healthy life. Only 13 episodes were made and even these were seldom seen anywhere. Century 21, meanwhile, entered the 70s with production of the UFO and The Protectors live-action TV series, the latter one completely abandoning the realms of science-fiction and instead concentrating on a private investigation firm (run by Robert Vaughn of Man From U.N.C.L.E. fame) and cast in a mould that reminds one of a spate of other detective series seen on TV at that time.
Gone were the brilliant special effects and beautiful models — Meddings' technique of dirtying down his models and using off-the-shelf plastic model kits to detail them found its way to the US when his erstwhile assistant Brian Johnson went to work on Kubrick's visually and intellectually dazzling 2001, A Space Odyssey, and, to this day, the Americans think they invented the process.
The Andersons returned once more to Supermarionation in 1973 to make the never commercially screened pilot for a new series, The Investigator. The pilot set the marionettes against fullscale backgrounds (the whole thing was shot on location on Malta) and was made for the Starkits production company, a subsidiary of the NBC Network, but they did not seem to be all too satisfied with it and nothing more was heard of the project.
The years 1973-1976 saw the conception and subsequent demise of Space 1999. It was a combination of live action and the much lauded special effects, and ran for two seasons, both critically acclaimed in the us but panned by press and public in its country of origin and, indeed, much of the rest of Europe. It cannot be denied that the acting is certainly below average as are the storylines and it may be suspected that a second season was made due to the money and effort that were put in the initial 13 episodes. In 1977 the Andersons would, for the last time, utilise Supermarionation for Alien Attack, a dessert topping commercial featuring the boy and girl left over from the Investigator pilot.
The switch from puppets to actors had, apparently, not been a wise one after all; Gerry Anderson expressed his regret about the move on several occasions. Moreover, personal circumstances had, by this time, alienated the couple and, consequently, they split up: Sylvia started a production company doing commercials and went to work for the American based HBO network while Gerry and his company returned to puppetry for the ill-fated Terrahawks series. Produced and screened in the early Eighties, it was shot in Supermacromation, a technique that did away with marionettes altogether, singularly employing puppets controlled from underneath. This almost invariably reduced an episode to a near-endless succession of awkward close-ups and medium shots since, naturally, the puppets were legless.
And even when disregarding the overt allusion to the heyday of puppet TV, the hotch-potch similarities between Terrahawks and previous Anderson series remain obvious: the format was again built around a supersecret quasi-military organisation that operated from a lavish mansion cum secret base and battled adversaries from a vague interplanetary background. The protagonists again rode around in a Rolls Royce, a talking one this time, answering to the name of Hudson, or flew around in some snazzy aircraft (there even was a counterpart to the Thunderbird 5 spacestation) but the success and, more importantly, the magic of Thunderbirds would not be equalled. Somewhere along the way, in the transition from Tex Tucker's caricatured features to the almost insipid blandness of Matthew Harding's face, something had been lost.
It is often stipulated that it was the very imperfection, the distinct 'puppet' quality, that gave the series their charm. A feeling similar to playing with model trains or walking through a miniature city. A feeling that, however bad the situation, the world fitted in the palm of one's hand and events could be controlled at the pull of a string. Yet, when the 60s drew to a close, the Andersons had definitely let their hold on the strings slip.
Nevertheless, Supermarionation had touched a nerve: in the early Eighties a fanclub sprang up and a quarterly magazine began to be published, the Japanese did a Thunderbirds cartoon series, scandalously unfaithful to the original, a mimeshow highlighting the exploits of the Tracy family was produced, and clips from the series even appeared in pop videos.
And now, in the wake of the omnipresent Sixties Revival, the Andersons (or more precisely Thunderbirds) suddenly seem to be everywhere. The BBC has broadcast all 32 Thunderbirds episodes and intends to make a six-part documentary about its creators, a live-action(!) Thunderbirds feature film is reputed to be in the works, and director Steve Barron, who gained notoriety with the Ninja Turtle movie, asked Gerry to revive Jeff and a few of the boys, not to mention Dire Straits (as a nifty Nineties counterpart to Thunderbirds Are Go!'s Cliff Richard and The Shadows) for their Calling Elvis video. According to Anderson 'the whole technique had to be reinvented' and indeed Scott, Alan, Gordon and Tracy Senior are indubitably newly created puppets cleverly intercut with clips from the series.
The video itself is a wonderfully ironic look on the thinly veiled ambiguities of Supermarionation: one of the unseen puppeteers drops the control-cross and the puppet walks away under its own steam dragging the cross behind it, only to get stuck in the too narrow doorway of the Tracy living room so it cannot reach the vital button. Combined with literally all the famous moments and symbols from the series, and some very confusing switches from puppet to human and vice versa, the video is a genuine tribute to the past achievements of the Anderson team. Moreover, it is in eminent contrast to the scornful epithet that was given them by their peers in the industry: 'those puppet people'.