Derek Meddings interview

Simon Archer

Many people who started their film career with Gerry Anderson's team back in the Sixties went on to shine in the industry internationally. Perhaps one of the best known is special effects expert Derek Meddings, who began working with Twizzle and Torchy and 25 years later was to be found in the company of Superman and Batman. Today, he lives with one of his sons, Elliott, at the former family home near Cookham, Berkshire. Derek bases his work at offices at Shepperton Studios. Elliott works at the same studios having recently entered the business and is currently working on the set of the TV favourite Inspector Morse. Earlier this year, Derek contributed to the special effects for one of the year's big releases from Hollywood, Cape Fear. His large, rambling and extremely comfortable 17th century house is peppered with his paintings and sketches. With the video recorder checked for pre-set record and the coffee and biscuits served, we settled in one of his favourite rooms, the conservatory, to begin our conversation on looking back at his career which lead him to the forefront of special effects.

Derek Meddings
Derek Meddings next to a few of the many awards and memorabilia that populate the walls and shelves of his living room

Both Derek's parents were in the film industry. His mother's roles included being a stand in for Merle Oberon, who was best known for her performance as Empress Josephine opposite Marlon Brando in Desiree in 1954. She was also secretary to film director Sir Alexander Korda, the man responsible for launching the film careers of Oberon, Vivien Leigh, Charles Laughton and Robert Donat. She also worked as a continuity girl and appeared in First of the Few as a face in the crowd. Derek was equally proud of his father who was a master carpenter and his step-father, a chief electrician, both of whom worked at Denham Studios.

"When I was a kid, our sitting room was decorated with photographs from the stars autographed to my mother and father. At the time, we lived at Uxbridge, which wasn't far from the studios and my brother Bryan and I were both taken on regular trips around the studio. Very early on, I realised that I wanted a role in the film industry, but I didn't know what so long as it had something to do with art because this was the only thing I was ever any good at."

The young pupil struggled through his school years only achieving success in art related subjects. His parents didn't have to encourage him to take an interest in the film business. "There was always the Saturday morning cinema that we used to visit. This was a very important time to go to the cinema, especially as the war was on," he recalls.

While his brother chose not to take too much interest in the work of their parents, Derek listened to them talking at the end of each day and automatically became attracted to the profession. "As I was artistic, I could see that if I could get into the film industry, there would be a lot of avenues to explore. I remember, when I was about sixteen my mother took me to see a production designer, Paul Sherriff, who was one of Alexander Korda's leading art directors."

The nervous teenager was shown into his office only to be asked where he saw his future in the business! Frightened to answer in case he picked out a department that may have already been full, his reply was quick and to the point "I'll do anything!" the natural reaction from someone whose heart was set on entry to the business. The interview was obviously premature, but was an earlier indication as to whether he stood a chance. It would have been difficult for Derek to enter the industry then as he did not belong to a union which was necessary to qualify for entry, but then, on the other hand, it was imperative to have a job to be in the union! It's only in the last ten years that this anomaly has disappeared.

After five years at art school, Derek embarked on 18 months National Service in the Royal Air Force, as a lorry driver. The effect of the Korean War lengthened his service by six months, but as soon as it was complete, he unsuccessfully attempted to join Denham Studios. Instead he became a lorry driver for Pickfords removal service based near the Elephant and Castle, South London. "One day, someone handed me a copy of the evening paper and pointed out an advertisement for a title artist at Denham," he continues. "I had no idea what a title artist was so I rang the studios only to be told that they wanted someone who could do lettering." Instantly recalling his dislike for the same work experienced at art school, he nevertheless recognised that he had at last been presented with the opportunity to approach the film business. "I sat down one evening and did some lettering and a small painting and sent them off." Derek was then asked to attend an interview where he was offered the job. At last, he had made it through the studio doors!

Now living in London, he travelled to Denham each morning by public transport, a journey that took several hours. Before long, Derek found himself working on titles for American films, many of them cowboy stories, that had to be retitled or changed into a foreign language. "The backgrounds to the titles varied, but often they had been shot when the film was being made, showing for example, the Arizona Desert with a stage coach travelling across it. "At that time the titles were played over the scene. When the films were translated into another language, they couldn't use the background plate of the stagecoach because no-one had considered changing it into a foreign language. They usually didn't shoot enough footage for us to be able to put new lettering over it. We had someone in our department who would paint those backgrounds photographically to match the scenes. That was the job I wanted as I hated doing lettering, apart from the fact that I found myself getting involved in rows when I got someone's name spelt wrong!" Eventually, Derek found himself working on backgrounds and this gave him great job satisfaction.

Some time later he joined The Anglo Scottish Picture Company, specialising in making commercials for films and while he was there met Les Bowie, a matte artist who was the master in special effects at the time. "It was at this point that it all started for me. He took me on as a matte artist and when we weren't doing matte paintings we would be staging effects for some of the Hammer Horror films. As his assistant, I helped him with whatever horror he had to create, whether, they were disolving bodies, ghostly settings, landscapes covered in mist or simple miniatures." Derek remembers one particular day in the art department when he and Les were working on a matte shot when a tall figure appeared at the door who was welcomed in by Les. Derek had not seen him before. "I carried on working while Les listened as the visitor explained how he wanted him to work evenings and weekends at a studio in Maidenhead on a new puppet series for television. He was looking for someone who could paint backings, houses and trees on hardboard, in order that a carpenter could cut them out so they could be used as pieces of scenery."

Les Bowie was due to leave Anglo Scottish Pictures and travel to Tobago to work on some effects for Swiss Family Robinson. Apologising to his visitor that he could not take up his offer of work on the new TV series, Les turned to his assistant and said "But I know someone who will work for you," placing his hand firmly on the young assistant's shoulder adding "he'll do it". Somewhat surprised Derek looked up at the smiling visitor. "Derek," said Les. "I'd like you to meet Gerry Anderson". Without even being asked if he wanted the job, he accepted the offer there and then. "I was quite young, married with two young kids and I needed the money." As if his days were not already long enough, the extra hours left little free time for Derek to spend with his family. "Each day after work, I left from Addlestone near Shepperton in my rickety old Ford Eight, with my tin of sandwiches that had been packed for me in the morning, and drove to Islet Park at Maidenhead and worked there until whatever time they decided to pack up."

Derek was amazed to find how some of the senior members of the team at AP Films never actually went home at night, but stayed in apartments at the 'studio' to capture a few hours sleep before returning to their work a flight of stairs away. "Unfortunately, I didn't have an apartment there!" he says laughingly. "So at about two in the morning they would decide 'That's it for today!' so I had to jump into my old car and go right back to Addlestone. I did this for months and months."

At first Derek could not see the personal benefit of his extra job, apart from bringing in much needed extra finances to run his family and home. His work was simple, painting skies and backings, stylised, as nothing had to look realistic for the new series Twizzle. "For the buildings, I would be given a sketch by set designer Reg Hill and I would paint the buildings while in another corner a carpenter would fret them out. Meanwhile a plasterer and painter occupied a further corner. We were all crammed into this tiny ballroom that formed the studio. Some of the shooting took place while I was there in the evenings. I remember trying to paint while they were calling for quiet and 'Action!', leaving me thinking that I was never going to complete my work!" Derek remembers the challenge posed by two large pillars that supported the ceiling in the centre of the ornately decorated room. "Reg had to design the sets to incorporate these two pillars, which often became trees or telegraph poles, or whatever they could think ofl"

For some time, he continued to work for both Anglo Scottish Pictures and AP Films. But, when Les Bowie returned to the UK and went into business elsewhere, Derek found his work load reduced and that he was beginning to lose interest in working on commercials. He was enjoying the feeling of working in the film industry. His role changed little for the next AP Films series Torchy the Battery Boy, but it was with Four Feather Falls that he saw his role develop. With the company's move to bigger premises in Ipswich Road, Slough, the special effects crew were given their own designated special effects film area. "Four Feather Falls was a great improvement and everyone thought that we were getting somewhere," he says in reflection.

Derek became more involved with special effects with this series, and produced the double hands-free gunfiring sequence for the opening titles. He got most enjoyment from working on the production of the story's central location, a cowboy town. "At that time, everyone was beginning to get excited. Our work looked good and was certainly better than Torchy. It seemed to have more of an adult touch to it. The puppets were more sophisticated too. The sets were beginning to look believeable, in a Disney sort of way. There was a certain fascination with Twizzle and Torchy that didn't appeal to me, but when it came to Four Feather Falls everything had a more professional touch. Buildings became buildings and they were no longer just cut-outs with holes in them for doors."

Analysing the roles of the men running the company Gerry Anderson, Arthur Provis and Reg Hill, with John Read as lighting carnerarnan Derek saw Reg as his immediate boss. "As production designer, he told me what to do. Gerry and Arthur always were discussing each project more initimately than anyone else and they were the ones who would decide how or when it would be done, together with Reg who played a very active part."

It was not until this series that Derek developed any respect for the puppets which, until then, he viewed as no more than "tiny wooden things with clothes and big heads that hung on strings and walked very strangely", but when they began to shoot guns more realism was added. "I wasn't all that keen on puppets but realised with Four Feather Falls that they did have a degree of charm and I began to believe that they did have a life of their own." Derek looks back on his early days at AP Films with degree of a affection. "They were good days and it was great fun. It was a close-knit community and everyone was very fond of one another. It was a small crowd of very enthusiastic people."

Towards the end of the making of Gerry Anderson's first science fiction series, Supercar, Derek Meddings was asked if he would join the team full-time and set effects separate up a department. "More effects were needed and I remember being offered an exorbitant sum of money to work for them, something like £20 a week," says Derek. "I thought that I would be a millionaire within a matter of weeks! It was an offer I couldn't turn down."

At about this time, Derek took over co-ordination of the staging of the effects work from AP Films art director Reg Hill. When it came to firing up the engines of the Supercar craft, he used pyrotechnics to achieve the visual effect. Gerry's concept for the futuristic craft that had been designed by Reg, demanded an appropriate sound effect to provide the noise of Supercar lifting off, travelling and coming to rest. The sound had to make the special effects shot look believable. "We were looking for a jet-type of soundtrack, mixed with a cocktail of other sounds," adds Derek. "There is no doubt about it, no matter how good your special effects are visually, when you add the right kind of sounds, the pictures come alive."

Derek also used his artistic talents to paint more backings, skies, landscapes, buildings, and trees. One regular feature of the landscape sets was large quantities of rocklike material, which were not lumps of rock at all but chunks of coal bought in from a local coal yard. The team would take it in turns to search for suitable samples that showed strata. They would then paint them grey and surround them with sand and green powder. "Another trick was used when we wanted to show the stump of a tree with its roots showing. We would go outside and pick-up a clump of weed, shake off all the earth to expose some of the tendrils which we stuck in the ground to look like dead trees. We went round the studio ripping up all the grass we could find to cut into bush shapes!"

Derek Meddings adjusts the SL6 nosedive
Derek Meddings adjusts what seems to be a model of the SL6 supersonic airliner for its nosedive in the Space City Special episode

With the next AP Films series, Fireball XL5, Derek was given his own stage, a very small area attached to the main stage in the Ipswich Road studio. Six people now worked with him on special effects. The futuristic craft were made from anything they could find from local hardware stores and in particular, the Slough branch of Woolworths! Plastic model kits were purchased in large volumes and carefully dissected in order that bits and pieces could be used to make the craft appear more interesting. Whoever was responsible for holding the strings attached to the Fireball XL5 craft during its launch sequence needed a steady hand, as Derek explained. "You had to stretch your legs apart as wide as you could and try not to actually have to walk at all. If you did, the weight had to be kept on one leg while the other leg was lifted off the ground, moving like a ballerina and the most difficult task was keeping the craft level with the track. Some people were very good at it. Later, Peter Wragg, who is now Senior Designer, Visual Effects for BBC Television, became an expert at this. He was very light on his feet. I believe he was a dancer at one time. While he was with us, he spent most of his day up on the gantry, where it was very hot, flying these craft."

To provide a very real visual effect for Fireball XL5's jet engines, AP Films approached a British company, Schermuly Pistol Rocket Apparatus Limited, suppliers of rocket devices to the Royal Navy. "At first we mixed up some weed killer with sugar, soaked paper in it, let it dry out and then rolled it into small pellets and stuffed it into a metal tube," remembers Derek. "It wasn't that successful as we usually got a very lazy flame that would curl up, powerless at the end. Sometimes, there would be a minor explosion in the tube and it would blow out bits of the paper that were on fire and it looked very amateurish. I remember when we used to launch the nose-cone of Fireball XL5, XL5 Junior, even though we were shooting at high speed, it always wobbled as it came off the main body as it was a little too much for it."

Later the explosive mixture of compressed gunpowder was supplied in specially designed tubes. "We also used fireworks wherever we could, dismantling each one and using only the burning section. At that time, it was all very experimental." The firings, which were electronically ignited, were quite ferocious and caused the tubes to become red hot while they were burning. Each craft was lined with an asbestos tube to prevent it from catching fire during the launch sequences. "They weren't dangerous," Derek points out. "They never exploded. I always encouraged the team to produce a ferocious flame that didn't spit out bits. There was a time when we used a certain amount of magnesium, particularly from fireworks which would end up spewing out a molten globule which ruined the scale of the effect."

With workloads increasing the whole time and the team's enthusiasm growing from strength to strength, some found that their personal lives were beginning to be affected. "I know mine was," says Derek. "I was never at home. Looking back on it now, I must have been crazy, but I was only doing it, like a lot of other people, because there was this chance to be a part of a new era. We had a hell of a work schedule to stick to, but there was always this incredible drive. The film industry hasn't changed. If you work on a picture for six to seven months, if you're lucky, towards the end of the film you are putting in overtime to put yourself out of work. when you've completed the picture, you look at each other and say 'Well, that's it, none of us are in employment any more'. At AP Films it was different, we had to finish the episode because the next one had to be done and they had to be finished on time so that they would meet the air dates."

At the end of each day, Derek and his colleagues would rush home and grab a few hours sleep in order to be back at the studios early the next morning. "We used to get into a terrible mess throwing paint powder around to colour the sets. It would get into your hair and clothes and into the air. First thing in the morning we would change into dirty clothes but by lunchtime we were filthy and by the evening we looked like coalmen. I can remember the lines down our faces where the perspiration used to wash the paint powder away leaving a clean streak. Eventually showers were installed which made it better."

A new demand for the special effects team came with Fireball XL5's successor Stingray. The action had switched from space to underwater. Early on, Gerry had visualised a water tank 15ft square with ports on either side through which the filming could be carried out. Reg and Derek suggested an alternative which they demonstrated using an aquarium filled with fish differing in size from three inches down to half an inch in length. The tank stood on a piece of cyclorama, a curved backing paper, on which the seabed was painted. A shadowy effect was given to the lighting in which a number of odd shapes were cut out of a disc placed in front of the light that, when turned, shone moving patterns. The surface of the aquarium was then disturbed to give added rippling lights.

A Stingray model was then flown on wires between the tank and the cyclorama, gliding, turning and banking across the set without getting wet. One of the biggest problems for Derek was caused by the fish occupying the tank. "Whenever we pointed the camera at the tank, the fish were never in the picture. Special effects supervisor Brian Johnson had the bright idea one day that we weren't going to feed the fish until we were ready to shoot. He tapped on the tank in front of the camera and put some fish food in the exact spot." Much to their surprise, the routine worked and on some occasions, too well, when too many fish would gather before the lens for a frenzied feeding. If anything, the creatures were over-fed which led to a high mortality rate!

The Stingray craft was designed by Derek. He often found that evenings were the best time for being creative as his children had gone to bed and the 'phone was silent. "I always regretted it in the morning when I couldn't get out of bed, but once I got involved in designing something and had got into the swing of it, I didn't want to let go. The pencil may not have been working well and tomorrow, my thoughts may not have been as good." His brief was for an underwater craft that was nuclear powered, could transport three crew members and could fire torpedoes. "It didn't have to look like a submarine and was given the name before it was designed. I got the inspiration from magazines, but didn't want to copy anything in them as this was a cheat and also I would only get credit for copying a craft."

Stingray's enemies of the deep, the Titan Terror Fish, were made by his own hands from cardboard with wood for their heads. In the opening titles a fish is seen to chase in a salmon-like leap out of the sea, change trajectory and fall back into the water, a highly complex task for two model operators who achieved the sequence with the first take!

The model buildings and the surroundings for the World Aquanaut Security Patrol headquarters, Marineville, were made by Derek and his team from cardboard and wood for lightness. Much of the hardware was decorated again with pieces from model kits. "We spent hundreds of pounds in the local toy shop and never actually made up one of the kits! Although the Americans get the credit for this method of building, we came up with the idea first because it was the cheapest way of making something very detailed."

landscape set from Thunderbirds
one of the many landscapes from the set of Thunderbirds

In 1964 the concept for AP Films biggest project, Thunderbirds became reality as production work began on the new series. The Slough studios had expanded still further and were now home to the biggest and most advanced special effects operation in the world. For special effects director Derek Meddings the responsibilities were to increase together with the personal workload. The team now totalled more than 50 specialists including model makers. "We all knew that Thunderbirds was going to be the biggest project we had worked on and we were all a bit nervous," he recalls. "I was excited but also nervous too because now I was being given the chance to do what I always believed I could do, to make convincing miniature shots for films."

The pressure was on. Each episode for the series, as well as being twice the length of earlier shows, had to be finished on time in readiness for the next one and in order to meet the transmission dates. Each of the leading Thunderbird craft were conceived by Gerry Anderson and designed by Derek from their description in the script for the first episode of the series Trapped in the Sky. From this script, Derek was able to gauge the role of each of the star craft. In designing Thunderbird 2, he remembers "doodling for a while" before coming up with what he considered to be "a pleasant shape". "If I had to design it again now, it would have more air intakes and it would be a chunkier vehicle, because there are so many around today that are not, like the Apache helicopters. I still think the original design is a good shape."

In the episode Terror in New York City, Thunderbird 2 comes under fire and crash lands back on Tracy Island, a sequence that completely wrote-off one of the large models that Derek found less pleasing in shape. "There was something wrong with it and it didn't quite look right. So we got rid of it and had the model rebuilt."

Derek's design skills didn't stop with the air and space craft. He also designed the Thunderbirds star car, Lady Penelope's FAB 1. In seeking approval of the design from Rolls Royce, the special effects team requested a Rolls Royce radiator grill on permanent loan for use in the close-up shots. "We wanted one from an earlier model where the grill could be opened and closed so that we could get the machine gun through it." The car company told AP Films that they could use its name and proceed with the model-making, but there was one stipulation — whenever the car was referred to in an episode the full 'Rolls Royce' name had to be used. "At the time there was a company called Rolls Razors which was trading off the 'Rolls-Royce' name."

Like all craft designed for any Anderson show, each one had to look different and FAB 1 was no exception. "The only idea I could come up with was to put the four wheels at the front. My excuse for this was that the engine was so big and powerful that it demanded this design. I also put the driver in the middle. He would then view whatever was behind him on a television screen, a technique that is now used on these big American campers for reversing. I have always thought it would be a good idea, but I suppose if you were in a real car you would be hypnotised by constantly watching what was coming up behind you."

Whereas Gerry conceived the idea of hiding Thunderbird 1 beneath a swimming pool, it was up to Derek to work out how the rocket should leave the pool and this, together with designing the layout of Tracy Island, gave him a great deal of pleasure. "It was one of those feelings you get when you're a kid, imagining you are Robinson Crusoe living on a lovely island. On reflection, we never explored the island enough. We never went to the other side. What the hell was there? A bunch of savages maybe?" he laughed.

So what influenced Derek? "I enjoyed the Eagle comics. Maybe I was influenced by some of the contents, but not to the point where I copied things, otherwise the rockets would have looked like the Eagle rockets which always had that modern, old-fashioned look — to me anyway." One of his favourite designs was the star guest craft Zero X in the company's first feature film Thunderbirds Are GO!. The famous crash sequence at the end of the film was, surprisingly, filmed indoors. One brief shot was filmed outside the studio building. "When we showed one of the lifting bodies flying away, dropping and crashing, we went out and rigged it up on the trading estate using the towers that supplied the cooling station there."

One of the most difficult shots produced was for the second feature film Thunderbird Six where FAB 1 and Thunderbirds 1, 2 and 6 are seen travelling in convoy. Sets for shots like this were built on the floor rather than being raised off the ground. "The rostrums were never big enough. We would add pieces to them and prop them up with pieces of wood. Scenes involving explosions were difficult to produce effectively on the rostrums as the force of the small blasts would cause the platforms to shake. The best place to do this was on the floor, but this led to a problem with the backings which were laced with a tubular frame. We would introduce mountains or trees so that you could not see where the backing was laced to the tube at the bottom of the backing." Tired with lying on the floor with his face pressed on the concrete in an attempt to look through the camera, the team were given pits dug into the floor. "We could then put the camera on legs and we could stand in the pit and look at the set. We could then do any sort of explosion we wanted without the set wobbling."

Working closely with him throughout the series was a young apprentice, Michael Trim. He designed many of the small secondary craft that appeared in Thunderbirds, such as the rescue machines housed in Thunderbird 2's six pods. "If fire engines had to appear on the scene, Michael would draw-out some designs, supervise them being made and jazz them up before dirtying them down," recounts Derek. "He became a great help to me."

A continual problem for the special effects team came with concealing the wires supporting the craft on the set. "We used to have to paint them, spray them and have them back lit. If you saw the wires it gave the game away and it gave us great pride to produce a shot that didn't show how a model was held up."

A film technique that was exclusive to AP Films was a device that was introduced in the first episode of Thunderbirds, Trapped in the Sky, which became known as the roller road. It was created to overcome the problems of tracking with a 'flying' craft in limited studio space and keeping the camera in pace with the moving object. A roller sky came first for relatively simple shots of craft 'flying' against a moving background. The roller road had three rolling surfaces, one in the foreground four inches wide, a road or runway surface in the middle that was four feet wide and a thin band at the rear of the set carrying pieces of small vegetation. Each one ran at a different speed to give the impression of perspective, with the foreground roller moving the fastest. "The roller sky obviously had to be joined and when it was originally designed it used to drop on the tubes at either end that it was wrapped around and chew up the bottom of the backing. It took ages to get it to run perfectly evenly. Another snag was that it had to have a join in the canvas. We had a diagonal join put in it, but it didn't matter what we did, we couldn't lose that join. We used to have someone standing on the edge of the back and using a wind machine, a fan and a smoke gun. he would wait and when he saw the join coming round he would give a squirt of smoke through the fan which would go over the backing like a puff of cloud and cover up the join. His timing had to be right!"

The models that appeared in all Gerry Anderson's Supermarionation series and beyond have always been known for their realism. With Thunderbirds came great advances in detail for the craft and in particular the road vehicles. The majority of them were fitted with independent suspension, with only a flimsy piece of foam rubber trapped between two metal shims. More often than not, the vehicles were towed by fine wires, attached via a channel in the road, and towed at speed from under the set. "Now the vehicles would bounce along the road, instead of juddering," explained Derek." A thin layer of dust was laid on the road surface, and, when the director shouted 'Action!' a Jetex motor would blow the dust around the vehicle as it passed over the point. Once road, air or space worthy, each craft was 'dirtied down' to add further realism, an important stage that made many of the shots totally believable. Often, the dirtying down was exaggerated and models were then sprayed over again, this time with a very fine coating of the original base colour.

A special area was designated in the special effects department for the storage any model that was considered reusable. "It eventually got out of hand. There was just so much stuff. We had someone to sort it all out vehicles with tracks here, all the vehicles with skids there but unfortunately, even he couldn't keep ahead of it. After we had finished an episode in which everything had been blown to bits, there were all kinds of plastic wheels that had melted and fused together, all of which there was no point in keeping and it was bunged in the bin We would keep anything that we thought could be revamped for later shots to save us time."

Working in the special effects department was a messy business and often cool nerves were required. The teams escapades with a collection of live alligators during the making of the episode Attack of the Alligators! make good stories on which to dine-out on, but at the time of shooting, there were more than one or two anxious faces around the studio complex. Working with alligators was not as easy as the film crew first imagined it would be. Despite the fact that they had been made very much at home with all the correct food and the technicians had ensured that the water tank was heated to the right temperature. The beasts from the swamp ranged in length from between 4ft and 5ft. Derek remembers opening the lid of one of the boxes containing the Cayman variety of alligators only to be greeted by an open jaw, rows of sharp teeth and a loud hiss! "We're not going to use that one!" he cried as he forcefully slammed the lid shut.

There was worse to come. One particular shot necessitated a view of a more docile alligator chasing a boat. Derek was in the tank, holding on to a rope which was tied to the alligator. "I was pulling this rope from under the water at an angle, towards the camera, from a corner of the tank. The alligator wouldn't open its mouth, but we wanted it to, to make the scene look more frightening. nothing happened for six takes." Remaining in the tank in his thick, thigh length waders, Derek told they crew they would have one more attempt. He pulled the rope to feel the tension. There was nothing. Repeatedly, he tugged and tugged to feel the weight of the alligator, but there was no response. The alligator had disentangled itself from the rope and was now swimming free in the murky green tank. "As soon as I realised that it was free, I leapt over the high edge of the tank clearing it very quickly and landing on the concrete floor in my boots." Derek had just staged his first personal vertical take-off!

Inspiration for the design of some of the futuristic craft came to Century 21's special effects director Derek Meddings at the strangest of moments. Following hot on the heels of Thunderbirds came Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and the need for a whole new range of exciting vehicles. For instance, the design for the sleek Angel aircraft came to him during a trans-Atlantic flight with colleague art director Bob Bell. Reaching for a piece of paper and a pen, he scribbled his first outline for the fighter aircraft that went on to appear in some of the most exciting flight scenes from the Slough puppet studios. "It began with a doodle," he says recalling the five hour flight to New York. "Again, it was a case of thinking of something different, hence the wheels that appeared out of the end of the two wings." In the series, the craft would land on a ramp at the end of the Cloudbase aircraft carrier in the sky. This landing procedure became reality decades later, re-emerging during the Falklands campaign in the form of a ramp on the sea-borne aircraft carriers. "I tend to log the ideas somewhere in my mind, knowing that I will come up with the idea and thinking about it continually. The same thing happens now if I am working on a film. I'll go to bed and lay there, thinking and thinking, until I get to a point where I can't go to sleep." While the SPV concept belonged to Gerry Anderson, the detailed design was down to Derek. "This was another vehicle that could be filmed from any angle."

The Captain Scarlet series was a particular favourite for him. "I liked the new puppets with their heads made smaller but now in proportion with their bodies. They were very convincing miniature people, despite the fact that they still couldn't walk. The earlier puppets with larger heads may have been more appealing to the general public, but I felt we were moving closer towards live action. I haven't seen the series since it was made, but there is some great work in it." Derek's first challenge came in the first episode. His script told him to follow a Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle down a spiral high-rise car park. "I thought 'How the hell am I going to do this? I can't get a camera that can circle the set and drop'. In the end, we revolved the tower and kept the SPV still, held by a wire over the back!"

Derek went on to work on the penultimate Supermarionation series Joe 90 and designed the series' star craft, Mac's Car.

Sky One is prepared for filming
Sky One is prepared for filming

Before the puppet studios closed down, the special effects team worked briefly on The Secret Service and finally Century 21's first live action series UFO. "My involvement remained the same, but the craft had now become even more sophisticated. Another of my favourite craft was the Skydiver submarine from this series and in particular Sky 1. It was a real chunky thing and was the nearest I got to making a craft look a bit meaty. It wasn't a pretty looking thing but it flew well and looked good against the sky."

The UFOs themselves were 'flown' on wires with motors revolving a series of 'paddles' stuck to the sides. "They were difficult to fly and got out of true. The bloody things used to wobble like hell and we'd spend hours trying to true them up again as they were so light and delicate. I didn't particularly like them but I didn't know what else to do for a design. So, we developed these rotating paddles that gave a flashing effect that confused the eye. They were split so that the top was made from Perspex and held by four wires and it was only the bottom section that revolved, it was the only way to keep it static. The motor inside was fixed to the top and spun the bottom. Flying them was a problem. The minute we tried to bank one of the models, the motor would stop running because the bottom and top parts were only held by a spindle and the weight on the bottom would lead it to come into contact with the top section." Derek's assistant Mike Trim was responsible for a large percentage of the design of the tracked Shado mobile. "I remember, we really went to town building the settings for the vehicle, the woods, for which we used real Juniper trees."

SHADO mobile model
New heights of realism were reached with the advanced miniatures produced for the UFO series; here Derek and Ken Holt attend to the details before filming a mobile for the episode The Long Sleep

UFO was developed from Gerry Anderson's first live action film Doppelganger, for which Derek staged a dramatic outdoor special effects sequence for the lift-off of a rocket that was reduced in size down to eight feet tall. The launch pad set was built in the car park between the two special effects stages. At the time, there were no houses in close proximity and this gave the special effects technicians the opportunity to use the natural sky as a backdrop. Disaster struck the team on the first day of shooting when the rocket caught fire and was badly damaged. Filming was taking place for the initial stage of the lift-off inside the studios. "We had to show a few seconds of the rockets igniting and blasting down a tunnel towards the viewer," explains Derek. "My instructions to Ian, one of the assistants, was to pull the rocket up when I shout 'Now!' and get it off the launch pad, or else it would catch fire. He was standing at the end of the tunnel and when the flame came towards him he froze." Made from fibreglass, the rocket became engulfed in flames and in seconds the majority of it was destroyed. "It was rebuilt and we were ready for reshooting the following day. It was as quick as that."

With the completion of UFO and the closure of the Slough studios, so ended Derek's long association with AP Films and Century 21. "Having had this 'safe' job for all these years, I was now unemployed and panic set in. I went to Denmark and worked on a film with production designer Tony Masters who worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey." By the time Space:1999 had gone into production in the early Seventies, Derek had already forged new links with the makers of the Bond films, which, at the time were about to star Roger Moore. The opportunity to work on the blockbusters came while Derek was working on Fear is the Key at Bray Studios near Windsor. "It was an Alistair MacLean film about the oil wells in the Mississippi area and told the story of a Dakota that crashed into the sea laden with gold and how a couple went in search of the treasure in a bathyscaphe. The production designer was Syd Cain, who was responsible for the same work on the earlier Bond films, and he asked me if I would be interested in doing the special effects for the next Bond film, Live and Let Die."

Derek went on to contribute to a further four Bond films – The Man with the Golden Gun, The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker and For Your Eyes Only – between 1973 and 1981. During this period, he also worked on Shout at the Devil (1975), Aces High (1976), Superman The Movie (1978) and Superman II (1980). He won an Oscar for Superman I and also later received the first BAFTA award to be given for special effects. The American Academy also awarded him a nomination for Moonraker. In one review of that particular film, a newspaper critic paid Derek a back-handed complement: "I don't have to ask who did the special effects," he wrote. "He's doing the same things that he was doing on Thunderbirds!"

One of the most pleasurable aspects about working on the Bond films for Derek was working with Roger Moore. "He was great. While he took his work seriously, but didn't take himself seriously. He used to say it was lovely to be paid to act. But he reckoned that he couldn't act! Always good fun with the crew, there was none of this 'I'm a big star' business. Whenever he could, he would play backgammon with Cubby Broccoli. They were both mad keen players and Roger would go and act a scene and come back and say to Cubby 'You moved!'"

The Bond and Superman films were the most rewarding times for Derek. The former also gave him the opportunity to travel the world. "Wherever we went, Cubby would bestow great luxury upon us. As heads of departments we were sent on location recces and put in the best hotels. We flew first class, it was luxury. We went from Los Angeles down to Rio, out to the Belize jungle... They were great days." He paused for further deeper reflection for a moment before continuing. "It spoils you in the end, because you find that you can't afford to stay in these hotels and you can't afford to fly first class, unless Cubby Broccoli is paying..."

During the Eighties, Derek continued to work on big productions. These included Krull, Supergirl, Santa Claus The Movie, Spies Like Us, High Spirits and Batman. He was responsible for the sequence in the first Caped Crusader film where the Batmobile becomes shielded against enemy attack. In recent years his achievements included Never Ending Story II, Hudson Hawk and in 1991 he produced all the miniatures for Cape Fear, starring Robert de Niro. While the bulk of the film was being shot in America, Derek worked on a particular special effects scene in England. "It was the last part of the film when the boat is going down the rapids in a horrendous rain storm and finally it breaks up. We shot the underwater sequence in a tank at Shepperton Studios," he recalls. "It was quite a small tank and I was crammed up against the side of it. By the time we had got the boat and the rocks in there, we could hardly get che camera in!"

Today, Derek is somewhat despondent about the state of the British film industry. "It has gone very, very slack and unfortunately the Government hasn't helped. We didn't want money, we just wanted to make it easier for American stars and directors to come over to this country without taxing them to high heaven, but they didn't do anything. Unfortunately, our Government treat the film industry like they used to treat the pop industry and probably still do, except the pop industry has made billions of pounds and they now realise they are an asset. I can't understand the mentality behind it. "Our technicians, whether camera, make-up, hair, whatever department you want to pick, are among the best in the world and to prove it, a lot of them are working in America now. If you go back to the days of Alexander Korda, American special effects were brought over here because we didn't have anyone who could cope with that sort of thing. We learned from them, they taught us, then we became experts. It's like we taught the world cricket and now we can't win a game. So then American companies didn't have to bring special effects people here. They came and we were already here and they used us because we were good and the films could be made cheaper here... and still can be."

Star Wars was made in Britain, but the miniature effects were shot in America where they created a completely new method of shooting miniatures. "The Americans ploughed in more and more money and out of it rose people like Lucas and Spielberg. Today they have this multi-million dollar company, ILM, Industrial Light and Magic, with all the most sophisticated equipment you could wish to have for special effects. They demand a figure for doing effects and they get it. If we try to demand that sort of figure they don't want to know. We still have people in this country who are quite capable of doing what ILM do with their computers but nobody will back us. And that is the story of our lives... We have invented some great things, from the Jump Jet to Concorde amongst others. The only country in the world to ever take things up and make money out of it is America. There is a great deal of money to be made and lost, but the Americans don't give in. If they lose on one film, they don't pack up their camp and move, they stay with it and make two other films and put more money into it, rather like Cubby Broccoli used to do. He would make a Bond film and if one started to sag at the box office, then the next one would have more money spent on it, with more effects and better stories and he would lift them up again and that's why they lasted so long."

Of all his work, Derek talks with most pride about his contribution to Thunderbirds. While the series still manages to keep a tight hold on two or maybe three generations of viewers, he is not easily convinced that the same magic could be recreated in a new series today. "I once told a seminar that I thought it could return but having given it a lot of thought I don't think it could be made again. I don't know if you could get anybody to work the way we worked. We were like maniacs rushing around. I can't speak for the puppeteers, but for special effects people it was a golden opportunity to get into the film industry. Today, Peter Wragg holds a senior position with the BBC special effects unit, then there's Brian Johnson who worked on Star Wars pictures, John Evans who produced the floor effects on Batman, there were so many — Georgie Gibbs, Richard Conway, Ian Scoones. I could use both hands to count them. I look back on those times with affection, working with some indispensable people. I give credit to Les Bowie because he taught me everyting.

"Bob Bell and I used to have our little arguments," he added with a smile. "He was the production director on the puppets and I would be doing the effects and would design a craft with a cockpit that he couldn't make full size and he'd go bloody barmy! He would say 'You've designed this bloody cockpit and I can't get a compound curve on the Perspex like you've done. Mine's three feet across and yours is just two inches!' Remembering such times clearly, Derek smiles, adding insistently "We were great mates really! My relationship with Gerry was great too."

So what was the formula to producing such high quality television, that was to be enjoyed by millions of viewers over three decades around the world? "It was purely and simply everyone's enthusiasm. We were being led by someone with enthusiasm and beneath him there are other people who were enthusiastic. For myself, I set out to prove what I knew I could do — to create miniature effects that people wouldn't know were miniatures. That was my driving force and the thrill of it all was when you went to rushes the following day, you saw it on the screen. I'm not saying that every shot we did on Thunderbirds was perfect, because there were often reasons why it wasn't — we ran out of time or we ran out of money, or patience! You had to be young, ambitious and stupid to work in all that filth all day long!"

article originally appeared in Century 21 magazine #10, 11, 12 & 13