Gerry Anderson

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Gerry Anderson Pencil Portrait
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Last update : 25/10/15

The classic children’s television created by husband and wife team Gerry and Sylvia Anderson – from the 1950s to the mid 70’ – has attracted an international fan base spanning three generations. But series like Thunderbirds, Stingray and Captain Scarlet did more than redefine the potential of puppet-based shows; they created a merchandising empire with a legacy as strong as the productions from which it sprang.

Like millions of a certain age, Anderson’s pioneering work is indelibly stamped upon my childhood, and it was with interest that I recently became aware of the new Thunderbirds 1965 project. For fans who prefer their heroes with strings attached, the prospect of three new episodes featuring the original marionettes was enticing news indeed.

From the crude early puppet productions, including The Adventures of Twizzle and Four Feather Falls, to the live-action dramas ‘UFO’ and Space: 1999 in the mid 1970s, the couple created a body of work that has withstood the changing fashions of TV production – a legacy unmatched in UK broadcasting history.

At the height of their success, the Andersons also made two Thunderbirds feature films and published books and records related to their shows. However, the most important production was a comic tie-in, TV Century 21. At its mid-60s height it sold 1,300,000 copies a week in partnership with its sister title Lady Penelope, a publishing record that remains unbroken.

Forty years on, and new merchandise is still appearing in toy shops around the globe, in the form of action figures, models, DVDs, soundtrack CDs… Original puppets fetch tens of thousands of pounds at auction and the catch phrase from Thunderbirds, FAB,’ has entered into popular use.

Thunderbirds is also distinguished by one of the most familiar theme tunes of any UK TV show. Its 5… 4… 3… 2… 1… countdown crescendo still thrills audiences after some four decades.

Anderson was a driven man, and the ‘supermarionation’ technique he developed — the use of lip-synched marionettes, controlled by supposedly invisible wire-pulling on 3D sets — was pioneering. Inevitably, such widespread success would come at a price. In Anderson’s case, there would be two failed marriages, including a particularly acrimonious separation from his second wife Sylvia – and estrangement from his son Gerry Jnr. It is always poignant to realise that someone who brought such happiness into childrens’ lives, should have struggled to find his own personal contentment. Personal failure resonated strongly with him, and in the 80’s, the famed producer would be moved to comment: ‘There are some people in showbusiness who are proud of the number of marriages they’ve had. I am on my third marriage and I have to say that I am thoroughly ashamed of it. The reason I don’t discuss it is that I left behind an eight-year-old son.’

In the 50’s, he would be fortunate to come under the wing of Lew Grade’s ITC compmany. The media mogul was a true visionary, and his commercial instincts were finely tuned to the era in which he flourished. ITC’s reputation is well founded; as a pioneering company, it is best known for many successful British cult TV filmed series during the 1960s and 1970s, such as ‘The Saint,’ ‘Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased),’ ‘Danger Man,’‘The Baron,’ ‘Gideon’s Way,’ ‘The Champions,’ ‘The Prisoner,’ ‘Thunderbirds,’ ‘Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons,’ ‘Stingray,’ ‘Joe 90,’‘Man in a Suitcase,’ ‘Strange Report,’ ‘Department S, ‘‘The Persuaders!,’ ‘Jason King,’ ‘The Adventurer,’ ‘The Protectors,’ and ‘Return of the Saint.’ It was also the production company for ‘The Muppet Show’ and ‘Julie on Sesame Street’ which were both made at ATV’s Elstree Studios and distributed in the UK by ATV and in the US by ITC.

Grade was astute enough to realise the potential in overseas sales of colour television programming (the last 14 episodes of ‘The Adventures of Sir Lancelot’ were filmed in colour a decade before colour television existed in the UK), and ITC would consistently combine high production values with exotic locations and variations on the same successful formula for the majority of its television output.

Anderson’s stock would rise considerably with “Stingray,” his first British television series to be filmed entirely in colour over its 39 episode production run. The show would be the first Supermarionation production in which the marionette characters had interchangeable heads, thus facilitating a variety of expressions. Joe Moran, in his book “Armchair Nation – an intimate history of Britain in front of the Tv,” recalls on page 184:

BBC 1 and ITV agreed on a single date for the launching of a full colour service: Saturday 15 November 1969. That month, travellers at London Euston were treated to a ‘Colour comes to Town’ exhibition which had been touring the country since starting at Croydon two years earlier – in order to show off colour Tv and dispel some of the myths about it, including the nasty rumour thats radiation made men sterile. Programmes premiering in colour that weekend included ‘Dixon of Dock Green,’‘The Harry Secombe Show,’ and ‘Match of the day’ – and sunday’s ‘Royal Variety Performance,’ which showed comedian Ronnie Corbett nursing a black eye, more visible in colour, after walking into a door. The hundreds of viewers who rang the BBC and ITV to complain that their sets were still showing black and white pictures were gently informed that they needed to buy colour tvs.’

Anderson and his production company were fully geared for colour television and ‘Thunderbirds’ would run consistently throughout 1969 on several ITV regions; in particular ATV Midlands, which had championed his series from the outset. For those lucky viewers with colour sets, the adventures of the Tracey Brothers seemed visually ‘au courant’ and space age futuristic in its storylines.



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