Wag Evans interview

Simon Archer

Imagine turning your favourite hobby in to your full-time job. One such person who did just that is modelmaker Wag Evans, the man who constructed a large number of the key craft used in the Gerry Anderson puppet series. More than 30 years on, Wag, whose real name is Arthur, still makes models today of aircraft and satellites, in fact anything to do with flight, working with the same company, Space Models. I met him at the company's Andover factory where, surrounded by models in different stages of production, he told me with an understandable sense of pride, about his passion for modelmaking.

Wag Evans sitting behind a desk strewn with papers, looking into the camera smiling
modelmaker Wag Evans re-aquaints himself with the original drawings from which he made Thunderbird 4; in the left of the photograph is the model of a satellite he was working on

When Wag was given the chance to join Master Models in the '50s, it meant a switch in his career path from managing exhibition displays to doing what he liked doing best: modelmaking. "l couldn't believe that people got paid for what I saw as a hobby!" he exclaimed. "The first job we did for Gerry Anderson was to repair Supercar," he recalled. "The wreckage was brought back from the studios and we were asked if we could repair it. "The model was about 5ft long and made of thin plywood. It was very badly damaged, it looked as though it had been dropped. They were due to carry out some extra shooting and we had to get it repaired within a week. This was the start of our very happy relationship with Gerry".

It was not long before several employees from Master Models, left to form a new company to be called Space Models, led by Brian Pugsley and Derek Ridley. Wag came too, along with continued work from Gerry Anderson. Wag's journey into the 21st century progressed further in 1961 when he was given the job of making the Fireball XL5 ship. "The model was 24" long. It was made of balsa to keep the weight down and to enable it to be easily suspended by wires. The fins were covered in thin plywood. Fireball XL5 Junior was detachable from the main model and I think this was done magnetically. We produced this model and many others subsequently very quickly. Rarely were we given proper drawings to produce the models from. Instead, we were given sketches and these were usually provided by special effects expert Derek Meddings, or Derek 'Air Intake' Meddings as we called him, because all the models had to have plenty of air intakes on them!"

Fireball XL5 sketch
sketches from the early 60s showing the design and colouring for Fireball XL5; it was from sketches like this that the models were built

Wag and his colleagues would paint the models, usually with a type of specified cellulose car paint, and the studio's special effects team would 'dirty them down'. Specific colour guides were stipulated for each model. Car paint was used as it was easy to rub down and re-spray, although it was inflammable. "XL5 came back for repair many times and oft'," he went on. "And they would wait whilst we restored them before rushing back to carry on filming." Wag often took time out to visit the Slough studios to see his craft in action. "It was fascinating to see what you could do with a bit of wood and some bits of plastic. If you study the photographs of some of the big models they built in-house, it was usually a rough wooden model but it was covered in all sorts of bits of stuff from tank and gun kits. Of course, it looked terrific."

Stingray gave Wag a great deal of pleasure to make. The craft was motor driven and illuminated, with access to the cabin. "Again, solid balsa was used, which I then hollowed out. The propeller was machined out of Perspex and the cabin top was moulded from the same material. Access to the cabin was from the underside of the model. The landing gear was retractable," he added. "In all, it took about a month to build". No sooner had they finished this, then the team began work building the puppet-sized model of Stingray's cabin. "l enjoyed making Stingray. It was certainly the prettiest of the models, in my view".

The 'big one' for Space Models and particularly for Wag Evans, was working on Thunderbirds. "As far as we were concerned, it was absolute magic. The whole project was a delight to work on. The stories were good, the filming was good and the models were good. If it was on again now I'd watch it. Thunderbirds is what entertainment is all about. l remember, I used to rush home from work to watch it on TV."

The first craft that Wag made for the series was Thunderbird 2. "l made the big version, all from balsa, starting with the mainframe and then half a dozen different pods from a vac-form moulding. The difficulty was getting the ship's legs, which were made of brass tubing to retract into the given depth. We never achieved it, in fact". A large nose section was made too, from moulded Perspex.

Thunderbird 2, and particularly the smaller model, often returned to the Feltham factory following incidents during filming. One design flaw of the big bird was a weakness in the area, either side of the ship, where the main weight of the nose section was carried on the side sections. "When the pod was lowered, the craft wasn't left with much strength. It kept breaking in the same place and was a bit of a job to repair," remembered Wag.

One of their biggest problems was creating continuity in the different versions of the same craft. Once a model was produced, very often the studio special effects team would add extra features. This could then lead to difficulties if the studio were to ask for another model, this time for long shots. Wag and his colleagues would refer back to the original plans only to find that some of the features of the revised model were missing. "We had to find out which particular parts from plastic kits they had used and then make all those little bits smaller," he explained. "Similarly, we often had to enlarge up features, say of a flight deck for the puppet shots, and we couldn't rely on plastic kits and had to make the bits which had to be four times larger."

Thunderbird 4 sketch
the original plans from which Thunderbird 4 was built

To Wag's amazement, I went on to unfold the very same drawing that he used 26 years ago to build the 18" version of Thunderbird 4. One of the special features of Thunderbird 4 was the lighting dominating the front section. "We put very bright quartz halogen light bulbs in the trough, with the batteries hidden inside the craft," he said. "At the time, I couldn't understand how this model would work underwater, it would never work, the batteries would short-out straight away! Of course, it was then that I realised that the model never came near water and that it was filmed through a tank."

Wag's favourite model was the Tiger Moth, Thunderbird 6, star of the second Thunderbird feature film. "l built it as I would have built a flying model and as exact as I could get it. It was one of my favourite airplanes anyway." Thunderbird 6 contained an electric motor to drive the propeller. The tail wheels came from a full-size plane, but proved to be the only item not to scale, as shown in the scene with Parker clinging to the axle as the Moth prepares to crash-land. In addition to the 'flying' craft, Wag also made several tables and chairs for the sets. "In those days, Space Models was located above a garage, a car repair place, and we used the owner's car upholstery machine to run-up all this plastic furniture!"

With production running at a pace for everyone concerned, Wag only met the Thunderbird creators at rare intervals. "Derek Meddings and Bob Bell came to visit a few times, but it was only three years ago that I met Gerry for the first time!"

Unknown to both Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, Spectrum came very close to having an extra vehicle in its fleet. When model production was in full flight for this particular Gerry Anderson series in 1966, modeller Wag Evans' sense of humour almost got the better of him. "My colleague Derek Ridley printed up the Spectrum logos and when I had my first Renault, I was considering putting one on the door! I decided not to fearing that it might ruin the paintwork!

angeljet cockpit sketch
the original sketch from which the puppet size angeljet cockpit was constructed
puppet of an Angel pilot sitting in a puppet scale jet cockpit, another jet is visible in the background
Rhapsody Angel at the controls of her Angel Interceptor

"As far as the Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle was concerned, all we made was the interior. But, what I do remember clearly, was making the cockpit for the Angel aircraft". At that point I produced the sketch pictured here, together with a photograph of one of the Angel pilots seated in the aircraft. "Look, there's my stitching!" he exclaimed pointing out the fine machine work that he had engineered for the rear of the Angel's seat. "The canopy was made from a Perspex moulding, covered by aluminium plates and we used real rivets. It was fantastic!"

spiral staircase model
Wag Evans took particular pride in this spiral staircase which he made for Joe 90's rustic home

A year later, Wag became involved with model-making for the Joe 90 series. "I made the spiral staircase in the cottage. The top step was machined-out Perspex and I made a pattern for the remaining steps out of Perspex and we moulded them in resin because there were so many of them. The handrail was made of aluminium." He got so much pleasure out of making this feature at the time, that he made a miniature version out of mahogany to form a standard lamp. Production of the 'old' timber beams in the cottage also brought back memories for wag. "We had these huge bits of timber which we hacked about and then burnt with a blowlamp out on the roof of our building. Using a wire brush, we then brought out the grain and rounded off the edges. We were covered in brown soot by the time we had finished!" Wag also produced a lot of furniture for the Joe 90 series too. At about that time he recalled going to the Slough studios and watching one of the on-site model-makers constructing a gun. "They were actually firing them using oxyacetylene. This was done by feeding some gas through a pipe which led up to the puppet's hand holding the firearm. I remember the 'crack-crack' of the gun."

Next up was The Secret Service for which Wag made the 'star' vehicle, a 1917 Model 'T' Ford. "The drawings were specially drawn from a full size car. They were perfect. The only part of the vehicle that I didn't make were the headlamps. These were made by someone who came to help us out during the evenings as we were getting so behind with our schedule. Fully radio-controlled, it was a masterpiece of engineering." The model housed several belt driven electric motors, a battery hidden under the back seat and with the radio control devices under the bonnet. Apart from the metal panels for the bonnet, the car was made from wood. "The hood folded down and all the seats were properly upholstered."

miniature Model T Ford
straight of the production line, the miniature Model T Ford, built by Wag Evans, that appeared in The Secret Service

Not only did he manufacture the car, but Wag also 'drove' it during filming. "Well, I attempted to drive it! Filming took place at Burnham Beeches, in Buckinghamshire. It was autumn and the lighting was not good. It was sunny, but also misty and therefore we were lucky if we got five minutes filmed in a day. I had to stand out of shot which meant I had to drive the car down the road while it was out of my view. I had no idea where the bloody thing was! I couldn't see it and didn't know where or when it had stopped!" The solution was to have another person at the end of the run, also standing out of shot with a large cushion, ready to catch the car. Soon afterwards, Wag started work on a replica of the car for his young son to drive around the garden in. "I built another chassis, had the four wheels and tyres made and that's as far as I got. In the end, my lad was quite happy just pushing the chassis around the garden. He loved it. During filming, Wag met the series' star voice-artist, comedian Stanley Unwin who proceeded to give him the full low-down on how the radio-controlled car ran in his unique double-speak. "It wasn't until he stopped speaking, that I realised just who it was. He really wound me up and almost had me believing him!"

Thumbing through a copy of The Complete Gerry Anderson Episode Guide, Wag saw something else in the section on the series UFO that jogged his memory. "I remember making the gloves and boots for the green space suits. They had to have big clamping devices where they joined to the suits." Some of his other colleagues at Space Models also made some of the model aircraft for this series. His memories of building the jeeps for the film Doppelganger and later UFO were not happy ones. "It was making these that gave me my bad back! Each vehicle was made from a Mini Moke with a spare Mini rear axle assembly literally bolted on the back which we got from a nearby breakers' yard. As there is no rear chassis on a Mini, we had to cut the floor of the cars to get at the bits that the rear suspension fits to. It was all the fibreglass work that damaged my back. We had to produce three in three months and one of my colleagues, Keith Baker, gave up on the project before it was finished. It was too much for him." The canopies for the jeeps were moulded at a plastic fabricators at Tring, Hertfordshire.

"Space:1999 was another epic we worked on, making all the control panels for Moonbase Alpha from silkscreen printed Perspex with bits stuck on to look like switches. We made the hand-held communicators too. They were made from blocks of wood, but we did one bigger version which housed a 2" diameter TV screen. You only saw the front of it as all the wires were hanging out at the back!" But what about the famous Eagle craft I asked. "Oh, yes I made several of those too." Space Models supplied the models painted and left the Century 21 special effects crew to add the livery and dirty the models down.

Wag's next Century 21 model was the Rolls Royce 'Hudson' that featured in the 1983 series Terrahawks. He made the car at the Space Models factory that he still works at today in Andover, Hampshire. "The biggest challenge with this model was applying the reflective paint onto the car. It must have taken about a month to produce. For Wag, working on models for Terrahawks didn't prove to have the same feeling that he experienced making the Thunderbird models. "They were very happy days." And the feeling? "lt was one of pure magic."

article originally appeared inCentury 21 magazine #6 & #7