Terry Curtis interview

Alan Shubrook

In an effort to try and balance the scales in this book, between special effects and the puppet department, I recently caught up with one of the studios puppet sculptors, Terry Curtis. Terry spent over three years producing some amazing puppet heads for Century 21, including Rick O'Shea, Paul Travers, Hank Marvin, Captain Blue, Professor McCiaine and many more. Terry now lives with his wife Sue on the Island of Madeira, some 850 miles from our shores. Yet when I tracked him down he was happy to relate his memories to me of his time working in Slough back in the 60's.

I suppose it all started for me back in my college days. I grew up in North Devon where I studied for a diploma course in art which normally took about two years to complete. However, I managed to finish it in a couple of terms. lt was then that my head tutor at the college encouraged me in my sculpting work, and suggested that I might find a suitable job in the film industry. I had an uncle who lived in Bray on the outskirts of London, close to many of the studios, so I went to stay with him and knocked on all the nearby doors for a job. Eventually I ended up at the Hammer Studios at Bray with Les Bowie doing some matte paintings for him. I had also been to the Century 21 studios in Slough and was offered a job by Bob Bell in the art department, working on Thunderbirds. I had always been a great admirer of the work produced by the Century 21 studios, and as a young boy had grown up with Fireball XL5 and Stingray.

The first project that I was given was to produce the sarcophagus for the episode of Thunderbirds called The Uninvited. That's when Sylvia Anderson saw my work and looked through my portfolio, following which she asked if I would like to have a go at some sculpting work. So I joined John Brown and John Blundall in the studios puppet workshop which was a new challenge for me. By this time all the main characters had been produced for the series, but individual episode heads still had to be made as the series progressed. I remember that when Christine Glanville produced John Tracy, Gerry hated him. So much so that he had him cast as the brother that got banished to Thunderbird 5 space station, so that he was hardly ever seen. My first head I can remember sculpting was Rick O'Shea for the episode Ricochet.

The head was first sculptured in plasticine over a plastic shell to make the mould. After that the eyes would be added, and the all important lipsync mechanism would be installed in the back of the head for the mouth movement. The men's hair was always mohair, which we simply stuck on with glue. The only exception was for the puppet head of Captain Paul Travers for the feature film, who was based on Sean Connery, when I just happen to have a hank of some real hair laying around the workshop, so I used it on him. The women's hair was always made up by Wig Creations in London, and Wanda Web used to work on perfecting them for the puppets.

When we went into production of the Thunderbirds feature film Tim Cooksey joined the team along with various art students who had been drafted in to help. Christine Glanville continued to be very involved in head production as well. I made Hank Marvin from the Shadows. Cliff and the group would visit the studios to see the work we were doing on mimicking them. Usually Sylvia would come in to our department with the theatrical casting directory 'Spotlight', and show us a picture of actors or actresses that she wanted a puppet to look like. She would simply say, "a bit like him, but perhaps a little more rugged". From that I would produce a plasticine test head that would be filmed to see if it was what she wanted. Sylvia would make all the main decisions, Gerry never got involved at all. Sylvia had a friend of hers who was given heads to produce. I can't remember his name, but we would just be presented with a new head that he had made up and asked to finish it off. Revamp characters went onto the set as plasticine heads. When the wires broke, as they often did, you would end up with a head without a nose, chopped of by the wire. But we always had photographs of everything before they went onto the set, so that we knew how to rebuild them and make them look the same again.

When we went onto Captain Scarlet I was asked to produce Captain Blue. Once again I sculpted him by looking at myself in the mirror in front of me. Sylvia liked him but wanted him to be blonde, and with blue eyes. I also produced Captains Grey and Ochre for the series, plus Destiny Angel. John Blundall left us around this time. He had made some fabulous heads including Parker, Grandma and Kyrano, all brilliant character heads, but he didn't like working on the lifelike heads that we were producing for the Scarlet series. For the Joe 90 series I made Professor McClaine and many others. Often we would use heads from Captain Scarlet and change them slightly. I can remember Scarlet with glasses and Captain Blue with a moustache in the Joe 90 programmes.

I was of course made redundant at the end of the failed Secret Service series, along with all my colleagues. I was contacted by the studios after it had finally closed and asked if I would like anything to keep as everything was being thrown into skips, but I didn't bother. I did know that Captain Blue had ended up with a kid from Slough who turned him into his favourite Action Man, complete with a deep scar in his cheek and his sister's ginger hair stuck onto his head. Eventually, some twenty years later, I managed to retrieve him and restore him to his former glory. My memories of my time at the studios are fond ones, full of many great friends, one of whom was Derek Meddings, head of special effects. I always dreaded walking onto a set that he was on as he would inevitably thrust a fire extinguisher in my hands, at the same time as shouting 'action'. After that anything could happen! I went on to do lots of exciting things after leaving the studios, including making props for UFO and Space:1999, but my time as a sculptor will stay precious to me.

text originally appeared in Alan Shubrook's Century 21 FX special studios revisited edition