Thunderbirds, UFO, Stingray (and many more) creator and master of puppets Gerry Anderson sadly passed away on Boxing Day last year at the age of 83. Nick Briggs recalls the joy he had meeting the legend a few years ago...
This article was originally published when Gerry was 78 years old...
The accompanying photo (left) is (c) Lisa Bowerman.
I may have been terrified by the Daleks on BBC1 back in the 1960s, but I had my biggest childhood thrills when ITV teatimes were rocked by the arrival of gigantic, fantastical flying machines, huge, fiery explosions and the pounding beat of almost impossibly dramatic music. Writer/director/producer Gerry Anderson was in full creative flow, making the famous Thunderbirds, a heroic series about the daring deeds of International Rescue. It thrilled a generation and has returned decade after decade in reruns that never fail to reignite the original excitement.
Thunderbirds and such sister shows as Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray, Captain Scarlet and Joe 90 from the Anderson stable were and are unique, because all their heroes were portrayed by puppets. Marionettes on strings. In the cold light of hindsight, some of those strings are even visible. So why doesn’t that matter?
Now 78 years old and showing no sign of retiring, Gerry Anderson is still in his wood-panelled office suite at Pinewood Studios. Just across the way, the latest Bond movie is in production, alongside The Wolf Man, Lily Allen’s new TV show, Weakest Link, My Family… oh, and The Day of the Triffids too.
‘Anyone who knows me will tell you, Gerry Anderson lives in his own world’ he says, with a knowing smile. He takes me on a tour of his impressive memorabilia before we settle into elegant leather armchairs for a chat. Is that really Captain Scarlet’s head? I’m too awed to ask. I’m face-to-face with an elder statesman of television! Despite his often quoted disdain for Doctor Who, on learning of my Dalek voice credentials, Gerry smiles and is kind enough to say it was only the old show he didn’t like, ‘because the sets wobbled’. He’s fairly impressed with the new Doctor Who and thinks the only thing that might give it a run for its money is, perhaps, a revival of one of his famous shows. I wonder which one…
It’s hard to believe that this restrained, polite gentleman with such a sly, dry wit could be responsible for the creation of those old, bombastic puppet shows. They were unashamedly big and brash, glorying in out-sized technology, nail-biting tension and explosive flames that now make you feel you’ve an idea when people realized we were running out of fossil fuel! Mayhem and disaster featured at every turn.
Gerry calmly explains how he got himself into the ‘Danger Zone’, as those Thunderbird pilots would say. He worked with legendary film director Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front).
‘He altered my entire life,’ says Gerry. ‘He said, “Would you like to become famous?” And I said, “Yeah”. He said, “Then you do what you want to do, don’t listen to anyone else. Just do what you enjoy… what you think is right. And if you do that, you will either become famous or you will be in a position where you’ll have to become a greengrocer.”
‘And that stuck in my mind,’ says Gerry. ‘So from that point, I always did what I wanted to do.’
What he did, back in the day, was to set up AP films with some friends. Initially, it was far from successful, but then… ‘One day, a lady by the name of Roberta Lee came to see me with a bag full of fifty-two scripts for The Adventures of Twizzle,’ explains Gerry. Twizzle was a character who could extend his limbs and stand very tall. Gerry was quite excited by the idea until he was told it was a puppet show.
‘I mean, puppets! I’d never seen a puppet!’ He was clearly unimpressed. ‘But it was work, so we took it. And that’s how it all started.’
Almost immediately, he started to innovate ideas of how to make the settings and characters more realistic and three-dimensional.
‘I was trying to make puppet films so good that a broadcaster or financier would say “He makes these superb puppet films! For goodness' sake, give him some live action”. But the reverse happened. I got stuck with puppets.’
After launching into space with Fireball XL5 and diving under the sea with Stingray, Gerry came up with his most famous idea, Thunderbirds. But, bizarrely, he’s never been interested in science fiction.
‘If I go to the movies, I rarely choose science fiction,’ he says. ‘I never thought I was making science fiction. People thought I was. I just wanted to make pictures that were different to the run of the mill.’
He explains his route into the world of technological fantasy in down-to-earth, personal terms. ‘My brother was a mosquito pilot in the war. His aircraft was shot down over Holland and he was killed. I was called up to do my National Service after the war. I used to steer aircraft into the airfield. And that love of aircraft led me quite naturally to rocketry and the Moon. Rocketry led me to space and to the future. Put that all together and you’ve got a Gerry Anderson picture.’
It sounds like a simple equation. But I’m searching for the passion that drives Gerry Anderson, because he gives the impression that everything in his creative process is simply a tricky, practical problem to solve. He’s more likely to talk about developing electronic lip-movement on puppets or video-assist monitors than enthuse about characters or stories.
But it’s when we get to the inspiration for Thunderbirds that I begin to glimpse the magic of the man.
‘I was making Stingray and was busy thinking about what I was going to do next,’ he says. ‘And there was a German mine disaster in the news. It was a massive story. It was like a running commentary on the radio for about three weeks.’ And this is where his passion for detailed storytelling starts to emerge… ‘The mine was built under a lake, if you please. And the ground gave way and the lake collapsed into the mine. They drilled a hole down where they thought there might be an air pocket. The people up top lowered a microphone and they were able to establish how many people were down there. There were about ten miners still alive. They were standing in freezing cold water in pitch darkness. Their lights had long burnt out. They were in a terrible way. But they found there was only one drilling machine with a bit large enough to drill to get them out. The trouble was that it was in Bremen and it was an eight hour journey to get it to the site. And I just thought, 'Why should they have to wait all that time to get the drill?' They should have a depot for all the rescue equipment. But that would only cover one country. So I thought they could have one big place with all the rescue equipment and fast aircraft to fly it all over the world. And that’s how I came up with the idea for International Rescue and Thunderbirds.’
And what a cracking idea it was. Enormous, gadget-festooned, flying craft dashing across the globe and beyond from their secret paradise island hideaway, rescuing anybody in deadly peril. Millionaire Jeff Tracy headed up this family operation with handsome support from his square-jawed sons, secret sexy agent Lady Penelope and her rough-diamond butler, Parker (‘yes, m’lady'). An enduring and loveable fantasy created by a man of modest origins.
‘I had little or no education,’ he explains. ‘In the RAF, they classified me with a very, very low IQ. I came from a very poor family. I can’t spell, even today. But for some reason or other – and I can’t tell you why – if somebody said to me, ‘Make an action story about wasps’, by tomorrow morning, I’d have it ready. I just find it so easy. Everything else in my life I find difficult! I love my work, and if I didn’t, I’d have retired years ago!’
But, he confesses, ‘I can only type with two fingers. I dictated the first episode of Thunderbirds in three separate parts. I only had a very rough idea of the story. But I have the advantage of being able to see the finished thing on the screen as I’m talking. Honestly, I can see it all.’
What he perhaps couldn’t have foreseen was the fate of his lovingly crafted remake of Captain Scarlet. He calls it his ‘precious show’.
‘They ran it during a three-hour slot called The Ministry of Mayhem.’ He gives a look which says it all. ‘And they took Captain Scarlet, cut the front off the titles, cut the end titles and cut it in half without any reference to me. It wasn’t even in the TV listings. Whenever they reached a dead spot in this show, they’d just say, “Oh, let’s have a look at Captain Scarlet”, then halfway through an episode, it would just fade out and they’d say, “Oh, it’s time for another food fight”! They murdered the show. They absolutely murdered it.’
But that’s all behind him. There’s new blood at the heart of ITV’s commissioning, and Gerry is optimistic about a return for another of his classic series. Maybe it could even be Thunderbirds. Gerry’s revealing nothing. But I tempt him a little by asking how a new series for International Rescue might begin.
Suddenly he’s transformed. And as he speaks, describing every detail of a smashing opening scene, I’m transported back to my childhood. Like Gerry, I can see every shot, every detail. I can’t even see the strings. And suddenly, I realize I never could.