adventure in the 21st century

TV21 was a comic first — as innovative in its approach to the media as were Gerry's programmes. Even twenty-something years on, who can fail to appreciate those lavish, large-form at layouts, that superb colouring and those exciting mock newspaper covers? This issue we chat to Milton Finesilver, very much a part of TV21 through its golden publishing days up to the time when, sadly, it ceased publication. Milton's comments are frank and to the point, and offer us an intriguing view of life working on this legendary publication.

What was your role within the Century 21 organisation?

Well, I started there as an Office Boy, then I was a Sub-editor on the comics for a while and then on the annuals and specials for a while. I would have joined them around April 1967 (or 2067, I suppose!) and Century 21 Publishing would have been closed up round about the summer of '69, give or take a few months, it may have been May or June.

You joined as an Office Boy. How did your job develop from there?

They needed some help in the subbing department, and I was eager — that's what I really wanted to do, so I was given bits and pieces and proofs to read and occasionally wrote little squibs for the letters pages. If you look back in those issues there were a lot of things that were sent in by readers. There was a lot of reader participation in the comic and that's what helped make TV21 successful. The one case I can remember was a reader – a fairly young kid – who managed to get a picture of himself against a futuristic backdrop – it was possibly some sort of centre for processing gas or an electric power station – so one of the things I did was to write a little 'agent's report' about that picture. You know, to dress it up so that it was something we could use.

So you handled the Spectrum Shades project?

Yes, I think I made a rod for my back as I recall, because I wanted to get into that very much. If you look back at those issues we did a map of England where we split every area up into colours. For some strange reason most of our readers were in Yorkshire. Maybe at the time Yorkshire was showing the programmes in a better time-slot, but most of the reader reaction seemed to come back from that area. One of the things we did with the Spectrum promotion was to have a series of tests — stages where you would get a colour-coded card. You would enter the competition by sending your card in, and in return you would get the next card. The person running administration by that time was Bob Prior, and I don't think he'd lined up anyone to process all these entries because by then they'd closed the competitions department, and so I volunteered to do that, every day sending out the next batch of cards.

The first idea was that you wouldn't bother to check whether they'd got the answer right or wrong, we'd just send out the card. But then we realised in fact that we were probably sending out more cards than we needed to so we started taking a look at the entries. It was going to carry on to the point were readers eventually got a gold card. But six or nine months down the road they saw that the project was running out of steam, so anyone who was expecting a gold card never got that final card, although I think we had them printed.

This project was a follow on in the tradition of TV21. Initially they estimated the comic would need a large competitions department, and in its hey-day the publication would have perhaps half-a-dozen ladies working in that department.

#1 issues of Solo, Lady Penelope and TV21 magazines

In early 1967 there were four comics in the group – TV21, Lady Penelope, Solo and Candy – plus annuals and specials, and one of my jobs at that time was to check the post and open any that wasn't addressed to someone specific. One of the letters I opened was from a chap named Mark Wolfman, now an American comics writer, in those days a comics fan. Amongst other things he wanted were samples of Frank Bellamy's artwork and one of the things he was suggesting we ought to adapt was Star Trek. At that time I hadn't heard of Star Trek. So we passed on the letter to Frank Bellamy, Frank Langford, etc. Years later Frank Langford – who drew Lady Penelope – his artwork turns up in American comic books because of Mark Wolfman, who became sort of an agent for some of our people.

Tell us about Frank Bellamy.

Frank Bellamy illustration
an example of Bellamy's artwork

Frank Bellamy, who lived in South London, was tremendous as you know. He never missed a deadline. He would have loved to have lettered the (Thunderbirds) strip himself. He lettered the first few episodes of Thunderbirds and I suspect he lettered quite a few of the other strips he did over the years but I think Alan Fennel's style was that you would get the script, get the artwork back into the office, go back to the script and if it didn't quite fit the artwork you would do some work on it, so you would get it lettered afterwards. So Frank Bellamy was stopped from lettering his own work. He also would have liked to have left space, but he was stopped from doing that and the balloons were stuck on afterwards.

One of the jobs I would have to do if the script was late – because we knew Frank Bellamy didn't like to miss deadlines – would be to get on the tube, go straight down to South London, hand the script to Frank Bellamy at the station, and then come back home. On those occasions, I think twice or three times, Frank said, "Well look, you're tired, do you want a cup of coffee or a cup of tea?" and here's me, loved his work but very shy, and I said, "No, no, I'd better get back to the office." So I missed having long chats with Frank Bellamy! I saw him years later at the London Comics Convention and then was very shocked to hear of his untimely death. I suspect the man had a lot more ink left to put on paper.

I also used to sub stories to some extent. A script would come in from a writer. The chief writers were Angus Allen, of course; Scott Goodall; I think Tom Tulley did do some stuff but not very much — Tom Tulley's one of the Dan Dare scriptwriters these days, and the artists you know, Bellamy, the two Embletons, Michael Strand was the artist who came close to presenting puppets because he drew small characters anyway and I think did a lot of the Stingrays after Thunderbirds went into the centre. He drew The Champions in Joe 90.

Did you have any in-house artists or was the comic artwork freelanced out?

As with most comics and magazines generally you would have the artists work from home, and they would come in or they would send the artwork in by train or the artist's agent would pick it up and bring it in. Ron Embleton, for example, had an agent The Paul Bart Agency — so their people would pick it up and bring it in. In fact, they wouldn't send a messenger. The messenger would usually be the art agent in principle. On occasion I would have to go to the station and pick it up Red Star, or else I would have to go and pick it up from the artist's place. As mentioned, I used to go to pick things up from Frank Bellamy, and Frank Langford who lived at Potter's Bar. In the first six months or thereabouts I was just an office boy and that's what I would have to do.

What was the company line-up when you joined?

When I joined, you had Alan Fennell as Managing Director, with him you had Todd Sullivan and Dennis Hooper, Todd was a bit more on the administrative side, Dennis was Art Editor, later on he would come into Countdown, which was also a good comic but I think also missed out on certain areas — chief of which was cover price. John Holding was below Todd Sullivan, I think he was related to the Holding partners, who for many years had run Disney magazines. There was also Bob Prior, who was sort of Manager of the annuals. With him was Roger Perry, as Art Editor of annuals, Roger had worked on Eagle in the sixties. Below him was Andy Harrison, Howard Ellson, me for a time and Linda Wheeway — her father had for many years written a string of stories for Schoolfriend. From the end of '68 onwards Geoff Cowlan came in. He had been working on comics at Odhams Press, and came to look after the editorial for the annuals.

Over in the comics you had Gillian Allen who was Editor of Lady Penelope. Running TV21 and Solo was Chris Spencer. Someone else was running Candy. About the time I joined one of the first things I did was proof-read Candy comic as it came through from Gerrard and Lofthouse, about the same time Solo was dropping the Disney reprints it had, and putting in the teaser stories for Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. One of the last issues of Solo has about 16 to 24 mug-shots-tinted pictures of staff members who were said to be Mysteron agents. They did a similar thing for the Project Sword annual — all staff, apart from a gentleman they dragged off the street who was a bus conductor!

What about the annuals?

On the annuals artwork would come in, I would proof-read it. The annuals were great weren't they! There was colour capability on every page. The first annuals that they produced were the smaller size. They were done at Century 21, but by someone who had been brought in specially just to do them. When Roger Perry took over they expanded the size, they still had colour on every page.

Where were the TV21 Offices at that time?

The office was at 161 Fleet Street. Upstairs was the Golden Egg, next door was a Kentucky, I think the building is now Roeters. City Magazines had a few floors. Century 21 had parts of different floors, by the end of our time in that building we had one whole floor. City Magazines handled the advertising, sales and distribution. The copyright line was shared by both companies, although if you look at Lady Penelope towards the end it is no longer a shared copyright because the magazine was no longer making enough money for both companies. What they said was that Century 21 would just supply the editorial as a package, but further than that all revenue went to City Magazines.

It is said that football – England winning the World Cup – killed TV21.

Well, yes. The Marxpress people did put football on the front page, but even before then you'll find there was a strip called Superleague drawn by Martin Stokes – a futuristic strip – because they were having trouble with circulation and they thought let's copy the Thompsons — and with Joe 90 the idea was that it was supposed to be a comic rather than a magazine.

On the subject of Joe 90 — was that produced with the intention of drawing readers to Century 21, or was it produced as a completely separate entity?

Well, I think it was supposed to be a separate entity. In terms of sales, if you can sell one you can sell two. If you can sell TV21 you can have Lady Penelope, if you can sell those two you can have two more — in this case Solo and Candy.

The concept for Candy — was that Gerry Anderson's?

I should think that was Gerry and Alan Fennell. They obviously said let's do something with photographs and let's do something with sets. So they had someone at Slough photographing the sets, but if I remember rightly the sets were being put together on a TV budget, in other words, the people who were paid to put the sets up may have been staff, it may have been staff who were working in between puppet series, but whoever took the shots was charging a budget which was more appropriate to taking stills for TV.

Candy was expensive for a nursery comic, and you were unlikely to get any advertising revenue — nursery comics don't get much advertising. I think Candy was a mistake. But later, after the comic folded, Roger Perry did some Candy and Andy annuals, where he took the photographs. He took the puppets and models to his own home and set up things in his own garden.

What more can you tell us about Joe 90?

issue #1 of the Joe 90 magazine
issue #1 of the Joe 90 magazine

I don't think Joe 90 the Comic was very good. It was going to be a comic rather than a magazine, it had a stamp-collecting article at the front. It also had Land Of The Giants — beautiful artwork by Gerry Haylock (later of UFO fame in Countdown — Ed.) and it had Star Trek before the series started in England. The BBC had the rights to show Star Trek as early as the previous summer. It was going to be on TV I think the following January, so it was a natural to have in Joe 90. Joe 90 was a sort of last fling comic. If Joe 90 had started six months later, or Star Trek 6 months earlier, then it could have capitalised on that fact and might have carried on. Because the TV show (Joe 90) was a flop the comic was a flop. It may be unfair of me to say this, because a lot of people now look on that show with affection, a lot of people look at the comic with affection. It had Gerry Haylock, it had Michael Strand, and sometimes Ron Turner on The Champions, it also had a football strip drawn by a French artist.

What's the story behind the Joe 90 strip?

I think the idea was Joe 90 was going to be the next big thing. Because they'd founded Solo and Candy I think they said right, Gerry's next production we're going to do a big push on, so it had its own comic as opposed to being another strip in TV21, and I suppose they decided 'let's do it as a newspaper strip'.

So there was no specific newspaper lined up for the strip.

Not specifically. I would have thought they'd have started with the Express. The Express was syndicating this stuff overseas.

Why didn't they go ahead with it?

I suspect because at that time as now newspapers were cutting down on comic strips. It was drawn, by the way, by Don Laurence of Trigan Empire fame.

What about Project Sword? Keith Shackleton claims to have created that.

I should think that is quite true. He was merchandising, and the merchandising side was obviously looking for other things. Someone asked me why Century 21 had its own toy company – they took over Rosenthals – as opposed to people like Disney who licensed out such items. Century 21 obviously thought that if there was money to be made they should be making it themselves. So they set up a merchandising department.

Obviously Project Sword was something they could do as a toy range, so you have the first set of toy ranges. Project Sword was first a comic strip in Solo, then text stories in TV21, Angus Allen did some of them, with some of them illustrated by Ron Embleton. The Project Sword annual was a completely different environment, using the 2001 stills and Zero X.

This has always been intriguing — Do you know whether there was an established line of toys produced in Hong Kong which Century 21 said we'll take those as a body and put stickers on them?

I suspect that Keith Shackleton would have been in touch with toy exhibitions, and may have brought it in line with a Hong Kong manufacturer — you know, 'let's do it together.'

There were incongruities in it. You'd got the Saturn 5 rocket as part of Project Sword — the time period was all wrong.

Well, even before the end of Century 21 they decided to do the Mission To Saturn thing, and I didn't think it worked. If any reader had been buying the comic because of the shows, I think this kind of thing would turn them off.

Why did the company fold up?

Well, it was tied to the fortunes of the TV shows. Thunderbirds, as you know, was a big hit. Captain Scarlet was a lesser hit, and I think, commercially anyway, they messed themselves up with Joe 90. All of the shows up till them — From Fireball onwards, anyway, had had merchandising opportunities to sell to women. Joe 90 didn't. Joe 90 was a nine year old boy. Therefore if you were watching and you were aged ten, you didn't really want to be a nine-year-old boy, so you probably wouldn't go out and buy a Joe 90 comic or a Joe 90 case. I think because the production company was no longer going to be the big money-maker that it had been, they felt the comics were something not to be carried on with. During 1969, they put in a gentleman called Basil Margrave – a very nice chap who was I think, an accountant with ATV – to see what could be done with the publishing arm, and obviously it was his recommendation to fold up and to licence out the publishing rights to another company — in fact to Marx Press by the summer of 1969.

Readers must have noticed a change — the stories went into past tense. The participation features all disappeared. Instead you had some comedy pages — they called them Laugh-In 21. A comic, like any other periodical, must be a living thing, it must have reader participation. TV21 had that in bags, but by the time Marx Press took it over it lost it, and I think any reader who had been tied to the magazine, who definitely wanted to get it every week would lose the desire to do so purely because, in my estimation, the reader participation had vanished and it was just stories on their own. There were still some good artists — Frank Bellamy carried on for a few weeks when TV21 and Joe 90 were merged, but there was no atmosphere in the magazine.

What actually happened when the Company folded?

We all sort of got notice. The way it happened was that by that time the offices were at the back of the London Colosseum, St. Martin's Lane, and I think Alan Fennell called in staff in twos to tell them the news that the publishing arm was folding and I think the way it worked was that it got down to me and I was more or less a junior member of staff in those days, and so I didn't go in with anyone.

We received a letter that said they were closing up the publishing arm because it was no longer making the money it was, say, in the Thunderbirds period, and that was it.

Looking back at those times, they really were heady times, weren't they?

Well, yes. Gerry and Sylvia were very often in the papers, they were very much a part of society, and TV21 was a lavish company — it was not operated on a shoestring.

article originally appeared in Century 21 magazine #3