Derek Meddings

21th Century Visions

Theo de Klerk

on Sunday, September 10th 1995, at age 64, Derek Meddings died of cancer of the bowels in Cookham [Berkshire] where he lived. His well attended funeral took place on September 19th, a day that marked the end of an era in more ways then one. On the one hand Sylvia Anderson, John Read and Mary Turner auctioned the major part of their puppets on the other, the world lost a man who was largely responsible for the succes of those puppet series — up to 30 years after their creation. Also present was the crew of the latest James Bond movie that they and Derek had just finished filming special effects for. So many people attended the event that the crematorium doors opened wide to let everyone be part of the service. It was moving to see Derek start his last trip accompanied by the strains of Live and Let Die. The press, meanwhile, was more interested in the puppet auction than in the deceased.

Derek adjusting Fireflash for its control tower flyby
Derek Meddings
1931 – 1995 picture of a pair of binoculars

For many Century 21 employees, the funeral was a chance to meet for the first time in years. Among the almost 500 attendees were David Lane, Ian Scoones, Keith Wilson, Alan Fennell, Ken Turner, Paddy Seale and other names that can be found on many a Supermarionation series closing titles. Indeed, Derek Meddings was the man responsible for the fact that the Thunderbird machines really appeared to fly, for models that appeared more lifelike than the real thing and whose designs [Stingray and the Thunderbirds a.o.] have withstood the ravages of time. Where many films are now dated by their cars and planes, Derek's designs are just as fresh as when they were designed.

Film had always been part of Derek's life. His mother was secretary to the great Alexander Korda, his father was a studio carpenter and his stepfather was head electrician, both at Denham Studios. Together with his brother Brian, he regularly visited the premises. Small wonder, therefore, that he was captured by the magic of the movies and wanted to be part of it at any cost: 'I don't care what it is I do, as long as I can design stuff.' For design was his specialty. After attending art school for five years, Derek served in the army. Once out of the service he had to keep on his job since no-one at Denham was waiting for him. Only when an ad for making titles was pointed out to him, Derek saw his chance. Not that making titles was the pinnacle of excitement but it got him into the studios.

Anglo Scottish and AP Films

Later on, he worked for the Anglo Scottish Picture company which specialised in commercials. There he worked as matte artist, mattes being glass panes partly covered with paint so that live action can be shot through the clear part, thus combining painting and actors. That way, knights could ride into painted castles. Doing that kind of work brought him into contact with Les Bowie, a wellknown matte painter and special effects person. Besides commercials, Les and Derek co-operated on the infamous Hammer Horror films. During one of these stints, Les was paid a visit by a man unknown to Derek who asked Les to do special effects for a new series. Les had other commitments [Swiss Space Family Robinson] but introduced Derek to the stranger, saying: 'He can do an equally good job.' The stranger introduced himself as Gerry Anderson. Having just gotten married and having four mouths to feed, the money was very welcome so Derek took on the extra assignment.

Derek was involved with AP Films almost from its very inception, starting with The Adventures of Twizzle. A.P. Films still had to prove itself and the three regular staff members, Gerry Anderson, Arthur Provis and Reg Hill often slept in the studio whereas Derek had to drive home at 2 am. During the Twizzle and Torchy period, Derek's job was mainly painting backgrounds. It wasn't until the advent of Four Feather Falls that special effects came back into play. The studio exchanged their cramped quarters for a bigger location at Ipswitch Road and the special effects and set department got its own space.

The flat cardboard sets of Twizzle made room for real models and Derek's interest was piqued. He designed Tex Tucker's self-shooting guns. It was only then that he started admiring the puppets; up till now they had just been wooden Punch and Judy's. But Supermarionation — now that was something. And the enthusiasm of the small studio group kept the flame burning. After Lew Grade turned up with an assignment for 39 Supercar episodes, Derek was promoted to Head of Special Effects and Model Department for the staggering sum of £20.- a week. By the time of Fireball XL5, Derek's team had grown to six and had its own studio space. Many would be the times that the team would ransack the Slough Woolworth's toy department for new parts: wings, tyres, metal constructions. Besides, this series introduced the phenomenon that made the other series so popular: explosions.

Innovative special effects

The first explosions resulted from fiddling about with paper drenched in sugared insecticide which was put in metal tubes. This gave a slow, lazy flame which, even at high film speeds, looked quite amateurish. Things changed for the better when Schermuly Pistol Rocket Apparatus Ltd. was approached and compressed gunpowder in specially designed metal cylinders was employed. Then there came a time when people lived in the studio and almost never saw wife and kids. They were always in a hurry since the next episode had to be produced. And no detergent could clean those clothes anymore: in the afternoon the group looked more like coal merchants than film people.

Stingray was the first main model that was completely designed by Derek. He also build the Terror Fish prototype, throwing together various odds and ends. Legend has it that the famous Stingray opening shot [where the Stingray sub jumps out of the water in hot pursuit of a Terror Fish] was a one taker. Thunderbirds gave Derek a fifty man staff to realise the special effects with. Although Gerry and Sylvia came up with the initial concept, the machines flowed out of Derek's pencil. 'I just doodled', he said. Next to the Zero-X Mars craft, Thunderbird 2 was his favourite. There were several different sizes of the model. 'I didn't like one of the larger sized models so it was a good thing that we could crash it for the Terror in New York City episode.' Besides the Thunderbird machines, FAB 1 was Derek's design as well. With official approval of the Rolls Royce factory.

Derek remembered a scene from Thunderbird Six, where FAB 1 is escorted to the airport by Thunderbird 1 and 2, as one of his most difficult. Large sets were built on the studio floor rather than on a rostrum, as had been the case up till then. Also, explosions would rock the rostrum. To still be able to film from a low POV, manholes were dug into the studio floor. To hide the tubing that held up the background cycloramas from the camera the sets featured trees and like objects. During this period, Mike Trim would rise to become Derek's assistant and would increasingly contribute to the designs. In many ways, Thunderbirds was innovating special effects science. The now wellknown rolling backgrounds (roller road, roller sky) were tried and tested during that period. Dirtied down models, dust on the roads, everything was tried to make it look more realistic. The roller sky always gave problems due to the seam where the two ends were joined. Welltimed clouds of smoke blown in front of it were employed to hide it from the camera.

Beyond century 21

Derek found Captain Scarlet even more to his liking due to the heightened realism. His first challenge: how do we make an SPV drive up the spiral ramp of the CarVue in the first episode? The answer is, you don't. You suspend the vehicle from a wire at the back and let the road turn underneath it in corkscrew fashion. Turn the camera 90 degrees and there you have a car racing upwards realistically. The futuristic models would be followed by Mac's jet car, the Doppelgänger rocket and finally the models from UFO with Skydiver as the biggest one.

After UFO was done, Century 21 closed its doors and Derek was unemployed. But not for long: his experience was sought for the James Bond, Superman and Batman movies. Due to the larger budget, Derek could use his experience to realise special effects that were as good as the real thing. And so he earned a well deserved Academy Award for Superman I. This was later followed by Santa Claus the Movie, Krull, Spies Like Us, Never Ending Story II and Cape Fear. But his dearest memories were of the Thunderbirds era. 'It was a great time and everybody enjoyed themselves immensely in spite of the pressures. It was magic.' A sentiment that is shared by many other collaborators on the Anderson series. And the fans, too, usually agree.

Although it cannot be proven, there is a fair chance that working with volatile materials in the course of his special effects career has contributed to his terminal illness. His mentor, Les Bowie, died of cancer at the same age. Luckily, many of Dereks anecdotes, stories and experiences have been written down by Sam Mitchell who, as co-author, helped write Derek's book 21st Century Visions. Chockful of photos that reflect Derek's perfect work like no other medium. It will serve as a permanent reminder of a remarkable man.

text ©1995 Theo de Klerk