Bill James interview

Simon Archer

Special effects guru Derek Meddings was famous for his air intakes and art director Bob Bell for his control consoles. Now meet craftsman Bill James, renowned for the numerous miniature interiors he built for all the Anderson puppet series from Twizzle to Terrahawks. Bill, who lives in Windsor, first made contact with the Anderson team back in 1957 when he was working as a pattern maker for a company in Slough. Pattern making involves the production of a wooden mould used to make a cast in molten metal. During the war, Bill made patterns for refuelling pumps for the RAF and was later transferred to another factory at High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. "There were 40 pattern makers in that shop that had been brought in from all over the country making equipment for aircraft including the undercarriage for Stirling and Halifax bombers." Bill particularly remembers the time when he and two colleagues were given a special assignment. "We had no idea at the time as to what we were making, but it turned out to be the first jet engine, created by Frank Whittle. We made a shape as instructed but it meant nothing to us."

Bill James
Bill James

After the war, Bill continued pattern making, setting up business with a former colleague initially in Slough and later nearby Chippenham. "One day, a man came into our workshop and asked if we could make some small model furniture – tables, chairs, wardrobes, beds – and all approximately a third size. He gave us an address to deliver the work to. It was a big house in Maidenhead, which I have since found out was Islet Park. I didn't realise at the time that I was producing wooden models for Gerry Anderson's team making The Adventures of Twizzle."

A few years later, Bill noticed a new company had arrived on the Slough Trading Estate by the name of APF Films. Not realising the connection with the client in Maidenhead a few years before, he called in on the off-chance of new business. "I remember talking to the receptionist Una and I asked her if they used models in their filmmaking." The reply was obviously a positive one and Bill was introduced to the company's producer Reg Hill. "A few week's later I received a call from Reg, asking if I could help them with a rush job over the weekend." It was Friday evening and the models were required by 8.30am on the following Monday.

AP Films were just completing the Four Feather Falls puppet series and his order for an item for the set delighted the new client. Within a fortnight, Bill's telephone was ringing again with a further order. This time, the request was for a more memorable item — a four foot wooden model of Supercar! "The full size puppet version was made at AP Films and I made several components, like the frame-work for the canopy."

Bill James holding Supercar
Bill James holding the wooden Supercar model

For each order, Reg Hill would draw everything up to scale with detailed technical drawings. "From those days, the work snowballed. My pattern making went out the window and I worked totally on the film orders, right up until the closure of the Stirling Road studios." Many of the models were made from jelutong, a light form of wood, hollowed out and light enough to hang safely on strings. The majority of Bill's work was on the interiors or cockpits of various craft.

Following hot on the heels of Supercar came Fireball XL5. Bill remembers making the large 9ft version of the leading craft. "I made the basic shape. It was skin-plyed and made up of a series of rings. The front section was made of balsa wood and was detachable. Once I had made it, the model went to the studios to be painted and finished by Derek Meddings and his special effects crew. It was a real team effort."

Bill's impressive list included: the cockpits for Fireball XL5, Stingray, most of the Thunderbird craft including FAB 1, plus the Captain Scarlet car interiors and many supporting craft. "The interior for Stingray was big, stretching right across the floor of our workshop. It must have been about 25ft long and took about a month to construct." There was an 18" version of Thunderbird 3 that he made too, again from balsa.

Not all his work was restricted to spacecraft and cockpits. A special one-off was an order to make the first three sets of blue spectacles for the character of Brains. "This was a real rush job, as they were needed the next day! They were made from thin blue plastic that I found at the studios. I drew them up, and then traced out the shape and cut them out with a fret-saw and just filed the rough edges down and polished them up with some Bluebell Polish. I remember going to Woolworths and paying six old pence for a pair of sunglasses, simply to get the hinges!

Another 'special' that was Bill's handiwork was the full-size front section of FAB 1 that was used for the close-up, cannon-firing shots, for which an actual Rolls Royce radiator was used.

For one job, Bill was asked to make a Swiss chalet-style building. "When I delivered it to art director Bob Bell, he told me that I should have made it in a dilapidated condition and he picked up a hammer and started bashing away at it. I thought he'd gone mad for a moment!"

Bill James at work on the Dire Straits video
Bill James at work on the Dire Straits video

When the puppet series came to an end, Bill returned to pattern making. But, in 1980, his services were called upon for the making a series of interiors for Terrahawks. More recently, he returned to Thunderbirds to make cockpits and sets for the series of Swinton Insurance advertisements and the Dire Straits' Calling Elvis pop video.

Like so many of the original contributors, Bill amassed many technical drawings which didn't survive to see the present day. "Right from Supercar to Secret Service, I filed all the drawings and sketches, complete with lists of materials and time spent on each project, together with the costs. About six years ago we had a clear out and we found this big cardboard box containing these drawings and they all got thrown in the skip!"

One of the lighter moments for Bill was working on the set for the photo comic strip characters Candy and Andy. In addition to a full size set, there were people-size puppet characters, two 'bears' and a stripey coloured Magic Mini car. "When it came to the London launch of the new project, I was asked if I would drive the Mini, complete with the bears to the function at a hotel. I got some very strange looks from people at traffic lights with these two huge bears in the back!" Bill was also to be spotted transporting 'rocks' from the studio stores to Stirling Avenue, Slough on the roof of his car which also encouraged puzzled looks from fellow road users!

During his varied career, Bill worked on props and sets for several BBC TV productions, including The Little and Large Show and The Two Ronnies. "Those early days flashed by. They were really happy times."

During a recent conversation with Bob Bell, he described Bill's work as perfection. "He has produced work for us over the years that has always been correct, down to 1000th of an inch. He is the best pattern maker and carpenter that I have ever met."

article originally appeared in Century 21 magazine #9