What were your earliest artistic interests?
I don't know, really. I was always interested in art and drawing from the very beginning. I'd always scribbled and sketched and even as a very young boy I wanted to earn a living somehow as an artist or something along those lines. It wasn't until I was a little older that I had the idea of being a graphic designer. While I was at art school, learning to be a graphic designer, it kind of dawned on me that I really wanted to be some sort of illustrator rather than a designer. Running alongside all of that was an interest in all things mechanical. Rockets, tanks and cars, anything really. The two interests came together when I joined Century 21 Productions.
Were you particularly interested in science-fiction in any form?
Well I was but only like most young lads are, I suppose. I liked films like Forbidden Planet and The Day The Earth Stood Still and those kind of things because they were good films but mostly because they had lots of different types of hardware which was what I was particularly into. I wasn't an avid 'Sci-Fi Fan' as such but I enjoyed it, yes. I loved Eagle, the comic, but really anything that had mechanical things which looked appealing to me were of interest.
How did you come to join AP Films/Century 21 Productions?
It was very simple, really. I saw an advert in the newspaper and answered it. It was for a position as a model maker. I didn't really know what it was all about but I kind of liked the sound of it and thought I'd apply.
Were you familiar with the early Anderson productions?
Oh yes. I vaguely remember things like Torchy and Twizzle but the first one I really watched was Four Feather Falls, the cowboy one. I only really took a greater interest in it when they moved into all the hardware with Supercar and Fireball XL5. Funnily enough it was Fireball that was showing on television at the time I went for the interview. When I actually went up for the interview I saw a sneak preview of Stingray which was a real eye-opener. The quality of the show itself was a dramatic improvement on anything that had been done before. Obviously it was in colour, too, so it looked amazing. They were sort of 'top and tailing' it really when I went up there. You know, post-production stuff.
When exactly did you join the company?
They were beginning work on Thunderbirds, I think it was probably early May, 1964. They had only begun preproduction about two or three months before. It was early days. I was interviewed by Reg Hill. I took some artwork with me and he had a look and I guess he was impressed with it. He took me next door to meet Derek (Meddings), who was in this very small stage where some of the model stuff had been done up to that point. That was it. The next day I got a call to say I had the job and that was it, I was in. I was living with my parents in Fulham and it saw the start of many years of treks to the trading estate in Slough where the shows were made.
Who were your colleagues within the company at that time?
Although I did regard Derek as a mate in later years, at that point he was 'the guvnor'. He was great to work for and a lovely guy, he really was. The first few weeks were spent in an office drawing up plans of the vehicles for him, actually. He knew I could draw a bit and asked me to do them for him and I was new and did what I was asked to do. It's the same in any job. I did Thunderbird 1, Thunderbird 2, Thunderbird 4, FAB 1, Thunderbird 3 and the 'round-house' where it launched from. The cliff house above where Thunderbird 2 came out of. They were all done in the first few weeks before I'd even got into the model shop. By the time I was in there things had really pressed on and I couldn't wait to get involved in it all. I really got to be closest mates with Roger Dicken, you've probably seen pictures of him at the time, the 'Teddy-Boy'. We were good mates throughout Thunderbirds but he was one of the people that went on to do 2001. Brian Johnson went off first and Roger went soon after. I think they were the only two.
What are your recollections of that 'defection'?
I don't remember hearing too much about it at the time but I've come to learn that Kubrick really wanted Derek. Gerry had no intention of letting him go, of course. I understand that they kind of offered Brian Johnson as a sort of consolation prize. Brian went off and then I think he came back and asked Roger if he fancied joining him. 2001 is very good film too. I can't say I really ever understood it or decided to read the book to find out the meaning of life or any of that but I was, of course, very impressed with the look of the film and the effects work and miniatures are just brilliant.
In a very short space of time you became a key member of Derek's team. What vehicles were you responsible for in one form or another?
When I began I was involved in 'dirtying down' the models and doing some running repairs on things which had been knocked about during filming. I did do so much that it is hard to pin down things, particularly on Thunderbirds. Most of the models came in from an outside company called Master Models. I was put to work on them making them look more realistic and less 'new'. I did some work on Fireflash but really it was the secondary vehicles, you know like some of the things in the pods, that I was responsible for.
When did Derek approach you to take a hand in designing?
I remember the episode, Pit Of Peril. It was probably about the fourth or fifth episode, I can't recall exactly, but it was a pretty early one. Anyway, I saw the scripts and there were these recovery vehicles deployed by Thunderbird 2 to get the thing out of the trench, you remember the story. I cheekily designed a vehicle and showed it to Derek. You remember they had these harpoons with suction cups on the end. Basically Derek looked at them and said, "I like those. We'll make 'em". So we did and that kind of began the design side of it all for me. Roger and I built them and they worked brilliantly and we were all really pleased. Then when we did End Of The Road I was asked to do the truck that is full of explosives and trapped on the cliff and it just grew from there because Derek was just so busy with everything. I kind of took the pressure off of him and he trusted me to come up with good designs. When the feature films began I just took over really because he was so tied up with Thunderbirds Are Go and by then he knew I was capable of doing whatever was required by the scripts.
You were responsible for a great many of the vehicles in Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons.
Yes I was. About a year after I joined the company, work began on Scarlet, maybe a little later. Derek had decided to reorganise the department and was intending to make Ray Brown the head of the model shop and pull me out to help him with the storyboards and the designs too. I was more than happy to do this as I'd been doing a bit of that anyway as well as the model building and dirtying down and all the rest. I did sky backings and backdrops too, so it was an excellent start for me in the industry, really. When I joined Derek permanently Brian Smithies took over all of that type of stuff. Dirtying down and all that. Towards the tail end of Thunderbirds, scripts for Scarlet started to appear and I just got stuck in. I did the Spectrum Patrol Car, Spectrum passenger jet, Spectrum helicopter, Spectrum hovercraft and the Maximum Security Vehicle. I also did quite a few buildings too and the most famous, I suppose, is the London Car-Vu from the first episode.
It was at this time that merchandise began to appear in shops based on your designs.
Yes it did. I wasn't paid a penny extra for any of that stuff. In the early days it was quite a novelty to go past a toy shop or into a sweet shop and see one of your designs on the front of a comic or as a Dinky Toy or something but after a while it would get a little annoying because they were just so popular and you'd see kids playing with them and go into shops and see great stacks of these things and you'd think to yourself if only I had been paid just a penny for each toy sold you'd be doing all right. That's not even taking in the big plastic toys that they did and all the kits in Japan.
The look of Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons is far more 'life-like' than Thunderbirds. Was there a constant intention to move toward a live action look to the shows as the puppets became more realistic?
Well, not from my point of view, but we all knew that Gerry was always intending to do live action. The designs I did for those later shows were just a natural progression for me, really. I think the more believable the design of the puppets and vehicles were, the happier Gerry was. When the films began like Thunderbirds Are Go and a little later with Doppelgänger (Journey To The far Side Of The Sun in the US — Ed.], they very much became the focal point for the senior members of the company, and understandably so. We kind of ran things while Derek and Gerry and Sylvia got on and concentrated on the feature films and so things like Captain Scarlet and Joe 90 became very much my things in terms of design because Derek was concentrating on the films.
Did you contribute to Doppelgänger in any form?
I designed the rocket's vertical assembly building. I think I did a few other bits but mostly it was Derek's 'show'. I was honestly too busy with Joe 90. I did Sam Loover's car, Joe's cottage, the WIN building and probably 90% of the things in that series. The same with The Secret Service too. I did all the jets and rockets and stuff because Derek was tied up with the second Thunderbirds film and Doppelgänger and then he began to start to think about UFO.
What was the feeling within the company when the word of a live action series began to filter through?
Well, me and my mates in the model and design shop were excited and pleased, really. Several of us did feel that the puppets shouldn't be totally left behind and, in fact, Keith Wilson and Des Saunders came to me one time to talk about an idea they had for a series about a futuristic version of the Noah's Ark story. There was a captain called Noah and there were these huge buildings around the world and there was a disaster or something or other and, at a given time, these buildings would actually take off and rendezvous with this giant ship in space called The Ark and it would have been full of explorers and scientists and that kind of thing. I suppose it was a little like Space:1999 with these characters drifting through space meeting different civilisations while searching for a place to live. I did do a few designs but they went to Gerry and he said that puppets were over and his sights were firmly set on live-action with UFO.
Did you alter your design ideas now that you were working on a live action programme?
No, not at all. We were still dealing with a fantasy situation. The designs were driven by the demands of the scripts. It doesn't matter if you are working on puppets, animation or live action. It is the story that matters and if a story says you need a vehicle that does such and such and must look vaguely like such and such, that is what you do. The main considerations are what these vehicles actually have to do on screen which is dictated by the scripts. I think the designs in general were progressing. The vehicles in Thunderbirds, for example, are magnificent but outrageous. Things in Scarlet and Joe are much more believable and I have to say that I like to consider myself as someone who designs for the 'near future'. I like to have a basis in reality.
Did you look to NASA and such like for inspiration?
Obviously they were an influence, no doubt about it. The designs I was doing were always relating to the script requirements but it was nice to see that we had done something on one of the shows and then see something similar on a real Apollo or NASA piece of hardware. Around about the time of UFO we had the first real Moon landings and we were pretty pleased with some of the things we'd done because they were pretty realistic in many respects.
Could you tell us a little about your designs for the series beginning with SID?
The guidelines I had from Derek and the scripts was that SID must look sort of 'insecty'. Off I went and came up with this design that was sort of 'bug-eyed' with a face and antenna sticking out all over the place. So I think it kind of captured what Derek wanted. Mostly on UFO I would ask Derek what needed doing or if I could have a crack at something and he'd just tell me to get on with it because by then I think he was fully confident in what I was doing. I was given a free reign, really, and I am, to this day, very grateful.
What about SHADO's base on the Moon?
Moonbase was a design that I came up with because I thought that a prefabricated, pressurised building built on the Moon would probably be spherical. It looked kind of interesting, too, and that was always important. Although we tried to be realistic we had to do things which were visually appealing so that is how I came up with that one. There were lots of cardboard kits that you could buy that were made up of pentagons and other geometric shapes and they were appealing visual images of that period and I guess I was influenced by that a little, too. It was a pain for the model makers because of the shapes but I think it worked.
What was the story behind your most famous UFO design, the Mobile?
It began with an idea I had for a sort of tank/truck used in Joe 90. There was a couple of them carrying explosives and Joe 90 was driving one of them across country. [The Ken Turner helmed episode Colonel McClaine.] They were very low slung, originally, and very wide but David Lane, who was the producer of Joe 90, said that he really liked the look of them but couldn't see them being very easy to film once the miniature sets of the cabs were built because they were very wide and the puppets would have been too far apart to film. So I kept the basic design but reduced the size of the cabs. When I came to design the UFO Mobiles the scripts said that they were smallish and tracked and I remembered the Joe 90 design and sort of updated it. I knew that they were supposed to be kind of amphibious and able to drive over any type of terrain. I remember Derek had a metallic blue car at that time and it was a very light colour blue and it just seemed right for the colour of the Mobiles.
I understand that you were responsible for an unused Interceptor design too.
That's right. It was another one that Derek was too busy to work on and I just asked if I could have a go. I'd already done the 'Hopper which started out as a design from Captain Scarlet. In fact, Gerry was so keen on it that he wanted it exactly the same as the one in that. I was always sure that I could do a little better given the chance and so I reworked the design and came up with the one seen in UFO. I wanted to make this particular craft, the 'Hopper or Moon-Mobile as it was also known, look more realistic and I suppose a little like the real NASA things that we were then seeing and I wanted to make the Interceptor kind of follow that design too. You know, to make it look like an actual factory was constructing these things so there would be a uniform look to them. The big thing about the Interceptor is that it had a single missile. I remember an early script that I saw saying something like, "The Interceptor fires its missile and turns away". In the singular. I thought to myself that it would then have to be a pretty impressive missile if the Interceptor only carried one and the ideal place for it would be on the nose of a craft with a smallish cockpit and then a motor up the end and landing legs. Derek saw it and, on this occasion, didn't like it. He streamlined my design and made it a bit more futuristic but kept the legs and the single missile aspect of the design. Derek was the boss and that was that. There were no hard feelings. I had a little girder-work on it a bit like the Eagles in Space:1999 and I thought it looked all right but sometimes things don't work out.
Many of the models in UFO exhibit the use of 'kit bashing'. Can you tell us a little about this?
We'd been doing that for some time, actually. I think it went back to the shows like Fireball XL5 and Derek had made it very much the thing to do to brighten up a dull model or to enhance something that was already quite nice. I'd been doing things like that at home since I was a kid. I'd start off building a Spitfire kit or something and get a bit bored with it. I'd spray it silver and add some balsa wood wings and other kit parts to create a futuristic jet or something so it was not a new idea to me. I know now that many of these up and coming modellers like Mammas Pitsillis who I've been working with and people like David Sisson, who is very good, actually use these old kit parts as a basis for the scratchbuilt models that they do. They pinpoint a bit of an engine we might have used or girder bridge work or something and it gives them the exact scale to work to. Some of the things that some of these young guys are doing are very good.
How do you look back upon your work on UFO?
Well I'm quite proud of some it and actually I feel the same about the things I did on all of those shows. It is difficult to say that you like one more than another, like a parent in a way. I liked the 'Hopper, you know, the Moon-Mobile. The normal Earth-based Mobiles were a bit of a favourite, I suppose. The thing with UFO was that, as a creative unit, we were at our height, there is no doubt about that. I'm not bragging at all but I really think that the designs, the models and the sequences themselves still stand up incredibly well to anything that is being done today. As it was a live action show we were giving it that little bit extra, I suppose, because it was for adults as well as kids, because really the puppet things were kids' shows, however good they actually were.
Did your designs for the models need to be passed by Bob Bell as he was responsible for the full size sets?
I can't really remember. It was smoothed out by the time we did UFO but on the puppet shows when Bob would be doing the puppet sized sets we did have a few exchanges. [Laughs] There was plenty of swearing and door slamming when Derek or myself had come up with a design that had some awkward curves or panels. They were all right for us because we were working in a smaller scale but Bob would often shout and holler about it because he had to do exactly the same thing in a larger scale and it wasn't always easy. It was sometimes a race for who could design the thing first. If Bob designed and built a cockpit he would then present us with the idea and we would then have to incorporate what he had designed into our model but if I did it first he would have to build his sets to our specifications. Another aspect of UFO that diffused these problems was the fact that the camera angles on the guys in SKY 1 or an Interceptor or whatever were very tight so not much set needed building anyway. We could have done some really outrageous stuff and it wouldn't have mattered too much because the cockpit interior was going to be little more than a seat, a joystick and a back panel with a few lights on it like the Interceptors had. It would have been nice to have been able to do some sections of, say, the Mobiles, in full scale and taken them out to Black Park and had actors jumping out of them. I'd wished we could have done that but scripts never included that type of thing. It could have looked very impressive even with just a small section of tracks and a door, for instance, but, like I said earlier, the designs were dictated by what was in the scripts.
UFO had a very 'uniform' look to it as it was about an organisation, SHADO. Did you liaise with other crew members to ensure a continuity to the design of the show?
We had the problem on UFO of being stuck in Slough, while the actors and the rest of the team were at either MGM or Pinewood. You rarely saw anybody, actually. Both sides of the production, live action and models, worked in a vacuum. We would see copies of things they were doing and vice-versa but we never worked together as we did on the puppet shows because then we were all under one roof. When the Supermarionation programmes ended we swallowed up what they had been using and we were ready to go to town with all the space and, in many respects, we were happy to be on our own and allowed to get on with it. I must be honest and say that when we were sharing the buildings with the puppet crowd it was very much a 'them and us' situation. From those early days it was 'Christine's lot' and 'Derek's lot'. We were all lads sort of shouting and larking about with plenty of bad language like any group of blokes together I guess and sometimes we'd get complaints because we were only separated from the puppet stage by a dividing wall. We were blowing things up and hammering and sawing things and weren't really too worried about people's sensibilities. There was even a division in the effects unit with the crew and the workshop people. That's human nature, really. Once the puppet lot were gone it was great because we could shout and swear and blow things up and nobody gave a toss. It was great.
How do you look back on UFO as a television programme?
In all honesty as a programme I think it sometimes fell a little short of the mark. Things like Scarlet and Joe were for kids and so it didn't matter if a storyline or a piece of dialogue was a bit 'iffy' as it was for kids. With UFO we were all working hard to make it the best thing the company had ever done and sometimes I did feel the acting was a bit corny or a plot line was a bit daft. It's a funny one, really, because visually it is still a very impressive piece of television. I think I actually felt like that at the time, too, it isn't me just looking back on it. There is a following for those shows, particularly UFO, that is quite extraordinary. It's funny because I've just come back from a holiday in Italy and I went on a boat called UFO and I do know that Italy has a huge UFO following. Very strange.
How do you feel about the various model kits now available based on your designs?
Well, I'm very flattered. Some of them are excellent as I said people like Mammas and David are very good. I like the fact that something I've done is bringing pleasure and enjoyment to people after all these years and to have been involved in those programmes is something I'm very proud of. Whether it's a model kit or something built from scratch at home I'm pleased people still like them as designs.
After many years out of the industry you are now 'in the thick of it' once more.
That's right. I'm here at Bray working on a project called CABS. I'm working with a guy called Sean Robinson and it's through Gerry Anderson's fan club, Fanderson, that I kind of met Sean, actually. I had done some interviews with a guy called Sam Mitchell who was working on the book about Derek Meddings. [The stunning 21st Century Visions.] He told me about the club and asked if it was alright to give them my address. I agreed and soon after went along to one of their conventions. I met up with some of the old crowd including Alan Perry, who at that point was working with Sean on another project. Derek Meddings was involved too when sadly he passed away. Sean was devastated by Derek's death because he had become a close friend of his as well as hoping that he would do some designs for the project. Sean was talking to Alan and said that the only other person he would want to design the vehicles for the proposed project was me but had no idea of how to contact me. Alan said, "I met Mike again for the first time in years at a Fanderson thing a little while ago. Here's his number". For the last five years Sean and I have been working on different ideas and things are now looking pretty good. We've been to Cannes and had a big response from some potential backers from the States. We are looking, soon, to be 'all systems go!' as it were and I'm very excited. It feels like I'm coming home in a way because I'm doing what I began doing in those early days with Derek on Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons and Joe 90. Sitting at a drawing board and throwing ideas around with some mates until you achieve something you are happy with. I've been doing a bit of model making and some weathering and dirtying-down too so that's great. CABS is a totally original idea which will have a look and feel of its own but there will be kind of references to the old shows and I think fans of those things will be very interested in it. All the designs I've come up with are primarily driven by what is required from the script and if that looks good on screen then I'm happy. And if it makes a nice Dinky Toy, too, then I'm even happier. [Laughs uproariously]