art directing the future

Simon Archer

Bob Bell has lived in the same cottage, deep in the Buckinghamshire countryside, for the past three decades. It is from here, that a lot of this man's creative thoughts originated for planning the interiors of Space City, Marineville, Lady Penelope's stately home, in fact most of the sets that involved producing a backdrop for the puppets in Gerry Anderson's productions. His studio is a cosy wooden retreat at the foot of the garden, filled with brushes, reference books and other tools of his trade. A haven for anyone with a creative mind. I was surprised to see that there was no memorabilia relating to his work in the Sixties on the walls or on the shelves, not a spacecraft or puppet anywhere in sight. "All I have kept is this one photograph of the entire crew involved in the making of Thunderbirds," he remarked with some degree of regret. With the coffee poured, we were ready to reflect on the early days of working with Gerry and his team.

Bob Bell sitting behind a desk, reading a magazine, smiling and looking into the camera
Bob Bell at home, in his study

During the Second World War, Bob served as a boy soldier with the Durham Light Infantry in France, before being posted to the Western Desert. It was here that he spent the remainder of the war years as a prisoner of war, a period that he obviously didn't choose to reflect upon but for one point. During the long spells of loneliness and boredom, he would pass the time sketching. It was here that he developed his artistic skills that led him to take up a career in art and design. "l had also had some experience of mechanical drawing of guns and parts of guns as an apprentice armourer, which led me to believe that I had some artistic ability", he explained. "So when I left the army I began to study art fairly seriously."

After a while, Bob got work as a matte artist at Pinewood Studios. One of the first films he worked on was A Tale of Two Cities, starring Dirk Bogarde, in the late Fifties. "We had built a replica of the Bastille and to save on costs, only the huge door was made, through which the carts would rumble loaded with aristocrats ready to be topped." Bob then reproduced, in miniature, an image of the remainder of the building which was then super-imposed around the shot of the life-size set of the imposing doorway. "The matte painting studio at Pinewood still exists, with the same man I worked with working there today. In 1958, television had begun to make its mark. Film production was in decline, audiences numbers were declining and investors became nervous to back major projects. My contract with Pinewood ran for another six months, but I didn't have any work. It was all very depressing," said Bob.

By chance, he then met special effects guru Les Bowie, who had also been a prisoner of war. "As soon as he heard that I was out of work he told me that he knew someone who had 'a little set-up at Maidenhead' who was making puppet films and that his name was Gerry Anderson. He said that he would introduce me to him and that it was up to me to take it from there." As fate had it, Gerry Anderson was looking for an assistant art director at the time, to work on Torchy the Battery Boy. "This was my introduction to working with puppets and I never had so much fun in my life. They were marvellous days" he said.

I asked Bob if this was because they were working with the unknown. "l think it was a touch of everything. They were ail nice people working on the series, we all got on well together. The atmosphere on the floor was wonderful. Everyone was highly professional."

Bob manipulates the hand of the Wilbur Dandridge puppet with Jeff Tracy sitting opposite in the set of Dandridge's office
Bob tends to the set of the Gazelle Automations office from the Duchess Assignment episode

Working with puppets, there was the traditional belief to cope with that the whole operation involved two old ladies pulling the strings, but now puppetry had entered the film world and it was a radically different story. In reality, the same facilities were used as with a big screen 35mm film, complete with camera crew, fighting technicians and so on. "My job was to dress the sets and help Reg Hill, who had drawn them up, to get the materials together for making them". There was a further member of the team in the workshop who assisted with the production of many of the sets, which included such detail as trees, bushes and rocks made from coal.

A large former ballroom at Islet Park, an imposing mansion on the banks of the river Thames at Maidenhead, was where filming took place. The stage was an area of about 20sq. ft. and was spanned by a bridge from which the puppeteers worked. "When the river overflowed, we would stand on the ballroom's impressive veranda and watch the water rush past us below. It was really quite frightening! l remember vividly Roger Woodburn, sitting in a punt playing the guitar through beams from the car head lights that were shone at the river. It was quite an eerie sight!"

For Torchy, the majority of the sets were simple countryside backdrops, but, for the next series, Four Feather Falls, the art department designed more ambitious sets. These now required actual buildings and interior props, such as cups and saucers and chairs. Gradually, everything was becoming more sophisticated.

"When it came to producing the first science fiction series, Supercar, we were in to using our imagination in a big way," he said. And it was on Supercar and subsequent productions, that Bob served his apprenticeship for later working on the bigger TV and feature film productions. "It was a very good apprenticeship because everything had to be drawn and made. With the later films all the furniture that was needed I could get easily from local hire companies. Everything we made had to be in scale with the puppets. The chairs were made very upright, so that the puppets could sit easily, but more often than not, the chairs and settees were purely for dressing in the background."

The biggest challenge when it came to working on Supercar was what Bob described as 'working to a continual life of deadlines'. quot;There had to be a date by which each programme should be finished and edited and this took quite a while, cutting the film down to the exact requirement, which was something like 27½ minutes. This had to then be ready for a specific transmission date. We all got used to this continual process. Occasionally, we got a bit hot under the collar. If, say, a script hadn't arrived on time, as it had to be re-written, everyone would start to feel itchy and think that if we didn't receive something soon we'd be in trouble. But, we always got around the problems somehow."

With Fireball XL5, Reg Hill became associate producer and Bob was promoted to art director. "Then I had to simply sit back and do the drawings and design the sets," he said. "This was very exciting for me as I could more or less please myself. And I did! It taught me how to read a script and how to interpret a set. As an art director of feature films, you have to learn and appreciate the kind of character it is that you are going to put in the room that you are designing. It has to be done accordingly. All the props have to relate to the man or woman's character too. It wasn't quite the same in puppet films because their characters were not so sharply delineated, but, we still had sets to design such as rooms in characters' houses to design and it was quite fun doing all that.

Desmond Saunders and Bob Bell stand in front of the set of Jeff Tracy's desk; Sauders points at something out of frame
Bob discusses Jeff's redesigned desk with director Desmond Saunders

Most of the sets in the science fiction series were very practical in nature. They would all have a table and chairs and books on the shelves. But they would also have a console tucked up in the corner with knobs and switches on and a screen where they would talk to the leader or somebody out on a mission. So they were usually living room-cum-offices."

One of Bob's biggest problems was the dressing up of the faces of the consoles which were littered with knobs and lights. "We used to get the crew, in fact everyone who was working with Gerry Anderson, to save their toothpaste tube caps which were then stuck in a row as dials on a control unit," he said. Bob confirmed my belief that egg timers were used on these panels, positioned to look like hi-tech switches. Then he confessed to where most of the control panel components came from. "l used to visit a shop in Lyle Street just behind Leicester Square in London which is still there today."

At this point a wicked grim appeared on Bob's face as he whispered an apology to my tape recorder perched on the table that he was about to deviate from the tale. "It's a rude one this, but I remember that before the war, Lyle Street was where the prostitutes used to hang out. When we were young teenagers, we would go out on a Saturday night just to look at the girls! It was all great fun but we were absolutely terrified!"

Returning to the original story, Bob explained how the street, 'deteriorated' after the war and became a street of shops selling secondhand wireless parts. "This became a Mecca for me. It was a fairyland because I could go and buy all sorts of dials and grills from loudspeakers. I think the bits were all overspill from factories. Each lunchtime, the street was packed with enthusiasts who owned radio sets and were in search of replacement parts. l would go down there with a large bags and fill it up and would then stagger back to my car in the underground car park in Hyde Park and on to the studios in Stirling Road, Slough, with these heavy loads. It was very hard work!" Once on the set, anything that looked remotely like any company's product would be heavily disguised to avoid any unnecessary embarrassment. "We were drilled very carefully at the outset not to cause any problems," he said.

Working on the science fiction stories divided the team into two specific departments, the special effects and the puppet department. "My sets were primarily concerned with the puppets. Anything that appeared with a puppet in or in front of, I designed and made. If, for example, the interior of a power station was required, then I would design it. If the puppet were to press a button saying 'Danger' and the shot then cut to the outside of the station, this scene would generally have been designed by Derek Meddings, our special effects man in those days. He would design the outside scene which may then be shown blowing up. If we ever had to show an explosion inside, we would show the flash of the explosion and then we would spray some black paint on the walls and twist up a few things, to make it look as though it had actually happened."

three puppets sitting in a wide, modern style room with abstract artwork on the far wall
the interior of a room at the Maxacom Motel from the Captain Scarlet episode Heart of New York

I asked Bob if he thought that one of the keys to the success of Fireball XL5 and Stingray, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet, was due to the fact that all of the productions were ahead of their time technically and creatively. "It was ahead of its time because everything was more or less realistic, I think it appealed to kids more than the flat cartoon which was one-dimensional. To have something three-dimensional was one way of looking at the future."

During my recent interview with Gerry Anderson, he praised Bob for his extremely high level of creativeness and his great achievements in the design of the many hundreds of sets for the different puppet series. In his view, Bob's greatest achievement was in the series that gave him his biggest design and artistic opportunities, Thunderbirds. "The episode The Cham-Cham, a showbusiness story set in the spectacular Paradise Peaks Hotel high in the Alps, gave our art and wardrobe departments a chance to show what they could really do when it came to a Supermarionation version of a Hollywood musical and they didn't let us down," he explained. "Bob turned in some spectacular settings"

Whether for a space craft or nerve centre, Bob produced a score of different consoles for the many puppet series he worked on during the Sixties. "On reviewing a new script, it would often read 'Interior control room' and I would think 'Oh, no, not another control room!" Bob would then get some consoles out of his huge store room and have them repainted for a fresh scene. Usually, the sets were built around the consoles as the latter took so long to build!

With Supercar, Fireball XL5 and Stingray firmly behind him, it came as no surprise when Gerry Anderson asked him to continue his role for the next adventure, Thunderbirds. Needless to say, Bob got a great deal of pleasure out of working on the series. "Of all the puppet series, it was this one that gave me the most pleasure to work on. It was a culmination of all the ideas we ever had plus new ideas which we were thinking up every day."

The team had regular meetings at which critical ideas were aired. "Gerry was a brilliant leader. He is the kind of producer to whom you felt you want to give your best because he is always appreciative. He is, of course, an innovator. If any of us had any ideas, we wouldn't hesitate to go to him. He would never say 'You're wasting my time, go away', he would sit and listen and if the suggestion was practicable and not to expensive then we would do it."

As art director for Thunderbirds, it was Bob's responsibility to design and build, to budget and on time, any set that was required for the puppets, from the inside of one of the Thunderbird machines to the interior of any of the buildings.

His office was in Edinburgh Avenue on the Slough Trading Estate, just around the corner from the Stirling Road studios. The office fronted onto a big warehouse unit where much of the construction took place.

"I designed my sets to the exact requirements of the director for each scene. All building was carried out in the confines of not only cost, but time as well. The more you give a director, the more he wants to shoot and the longer it takes to shoot the film." Of all the sets he produced for the series, his pride and joy appeared in the closing scenes

Working in miniature, Bob and his colleagues were very conscious of their own faults. "When I went to see the 'rushes' in the morning I often thought 'I hope they don't see that curtain, it's a bit squint and drove me mad yesterday trying to get it straight'. It was then shown on the screen and everyone agreed — 'very good rushes', without mentioning the curtain, at which point I breathed a sigh of relief!" I know that from talking to my friends, that they all feel the same way about their own work. Even actors are similarly very selfcritical."

a group of diners sitting at tables bisected by railway tracks
the interior of the Whistle Stop Inn restaurant from Thunderbird Six

Of all the sets he produced for the series, his pride and joy appeared in the the closing scenes of the film Thunderbird Six. "The setting was a restaurant designed as a railway station, with the food being brought to the tables by toy trains. This was a real challenge and took a lot of working out, as we had the puppets in one scale and the trains in another scale and it all had to have precise timing."

Bob has less fond memories of the episode Attack of the Alligators!, a feat in film production which involved filming real baby alligators and puppets together! "We had great trouble trying to motivate the alligators which tended to just sit and look at us. We couldn't get anything dramatic to happen. I remember Lew Grade came to see us that day with his bevy of henchmen and we were faced with the terrible smell being given off by the alligators! Unperturbed by the creatures, he thought the filming was all wonderful."

As a complete contrast to the alligator swamps, one set that required particular attention to detail was the interior of Lady Penelope's stately home. "This contained a lot of detail, for instance, the fireplace and the coat of arms. The walls were covered with ordinary wallpaper. It was the nearest I could get to scale, if anything it was slightly to large. The 'rug' material was bought at a department store and cut in the shape of a polar bear. The chairs were drawn and made to period, following closely lots of books on Georgian and Regency furniture. It was all very satisfying."

One of the biggest problems for Bob when it came to designing anything, was that the puppets' head were out of proportion to their bodies. Therefore, to which part of the body should each set be scaled to, head or body? "The biggest headache was with FAB 1 which we made in proportion to the puppets' heads, so that when they were sitting in the car they looked about right. But, when they got out and stood alongside they looked ridiculous as FAB 1 towered over them!" Bob designed those parts of the inside of FAB 1 used specifically for close-up shots when Lady Penelope and Parker were in conversation.

With Captain Scarlet, the proportions of the puppets' bodies were corrected, otherwise little changed in the design and production process for Bob and his team as the puppets were still a third of full scale. "It was during the making of Captain Scarlet that I came off it to art direct the feature film Doppelganger/Journey to the Far Side of the Sun. Keith Wilson took over and I never went back to puppet films. "Once I had had a taste of the 'real thing' I didn't want to go back to working with puppets, it was too hard work!"

a pencil drawing of a control room with big TV screens on the walls and people and conputer consoles scattered throughout
Bob Bell's preproduction artwork for S.H.A.D.O. H.Q.

Of all his work with Gerry, Bob was most proud of his contribution to UFO. "I found it very satisfying and when I look back at episodes today, I still like the sets that I designed for it, like the SHADO headquarters." In 1971, Bob worked on the secret agent series The Protectors, starring Robert Vaughan. "This was very enjoyable because we were on location all over Europe". At the end of the first series, Gerry told Bob that he was producing another science fiction series and also a second series of The Protectors and gave him the choice of which to work on. "I gave it some thought, about 30 seconds, and said I'll stay with The Protectors." Bob then recommended Keith Wilson for the role of art director for the new series he had turned down — Space:1999 As it turned out, the second series of The Protectors was never made. "I was left high and dry," Bob laughed. "Initially, I cursed myself for not making the right choice, but then thought that perhaps it might be better to have a break and work with another film company for a while."

Before long, Bob found working on a number of TV series, commercials and films including The New Avengers, Wild Geese, Lion of the Desert and Wilbur Smith's Gold. Filming took him all over the world, to South Africa, Venice, Yugoslavia, Rome and Libya. "I did a lot of travelling in those days and after a while I found myself getting a little fed-up with it, in as much as your homelife suffers if you're away a lot and I felt that I had to be home more than I was. So I started finding films that were in England."

During the late Seventies, Bob went through several patches when little work was coming in. "We all hit this in the film industry, because it's a very dicey business these days." At that time, Gerry lived at Farnham, a short drive from Bob's Buckinghamshire home and very often, the two of them met for coffee and a chat on a Sunday morning. "One day he told me of a new series in the pipeline that he wanted some advice on. It turned out to be Terrahawks. I ended up designing some of the first sets for him and then became his associate producer.

Bob also worked with Gerry on the pilot film for Space Police, a science fiction series that combined actors and puppets. "He and his partner took the pilot to Hollywood. Everyone went crazy about it there and Gerry and Christopher returned with a feeling of euphoria. It wasn't a matter of are we going to make it, but when. Sadly, it never took off and died a death. It was very, very sad." I asked Bob if he'd ever considered retiring and he looked at me in mischievous disbelief. "I don't want to retire, that's for old fellas! I've never really given it a thought. Strangely enough I write as well. I've written about 12 novels. My favourite one, which I'm working on at the moment is about 270,000 words and has had some good response from one or two publishers. What I'd really like to do is have the time to sit down at home and make up stories."

So, looking back, what did working with puppets do for Bob? "Working with puppets was a fascinating period in my career during which I learned a hell of a lot. I adjusted myself to time schedules. I learned how to design for films. I learned about scale and its use in films. Finally, I learned how not to get too het-up and how to relax so that later on when I worked on feature films I found it easy in comparison. That really sums it up.

I certainly didn't realise at the time just how big a success the series would become and how important they were to children. It's only in recent years that I have realised how important they were to children of that era who have grown up to be men like yourself. If I meet a someone aged between 30 and 50 and say that I worked on Thunderbirds their response is usually terrific. It's thrilling to meet people who appreciated work that I did 20 or 30 years ago. I get a great kick out of that.

Thunderbirds was way ahead of its time and because everything was more or less realistic, it tended to appeal to the kids more than the one dimensional flat cartoon. Although Gerry employed a lot of scriptwriters, many of the storylines were a product of his mind. Everything was inspired by him. He is a very imaginative man".

article originally appeared in Century 21 magazine #6 & 7