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Fireball XL5, Stingray, Captain Scarlet, and most notably Thunderbirds, made Gerry Anderson a big name in children’s television, but this was never his intention.
Gerry Anderson worked as a film editor before setting up his own film company called AP Films in the mid 1950s. His goal was to make live action films, but in 1957 he was asked to produce a series of puppet shows called The Adventures of Twizzle for ITV company Associated Rediffusion. Anderson’s ventures into live action film and television would never be as successful as his puppet productions.
After making a series called Torchy the Battery Boy (1960), AP Films created a new puppet series, Four Feather Falls (1960), in a converted warehouse on the Slough Trading Estate. These series were the first to use electronic lip synch, which made the puppets’ mouths open and close in time to dialogue. Gerry Anderson called this technique ‘Supermarionation’.
Although Anderson’s puppets were sophisticated, the major stumbling block was making them walk convincingly. Anderson’s next series Supercar in 1961 tackled this by creating a futuristic craft for his characters to pilot.
From this point on his series featured more and more science fiction devices and fantastic vehicles to move his slow moving heroes around.
If you’ve visited the Museum, you may have spotted some of Anderson’s heroes on display in TV Heaven. Studio standard replicas of Thunderbirds’ Scott Tracy and Brains, and Captain Scarlet, are on display alongside other characters from the history of British Television, but we also have some original Gerry Anderson puppets in the National Television Collection.
In TV Heaven you’ll see the head of an original Matt Matic puppet from Fireball XL5 (1962).
Set 100 years in the future, in 2062/63, the series followed the intereplanetary adventures of the spaceship Fireball XL5, commanded by Colonel Steve Zodiac of the World Space Patrol. Also on board were navigator and scientist Professor Matthew Matic, glamorous doctor Venus, and co-pilot Robert the Robot.
Also on display in TV Heaven is a hybrid puppet made from two of Gerry Anderson’s creatures; the head of a Subterranean from Fireball XL5 is on the body of an Aquaphibian from Stingray.
This photograph from the Daily Herald Archive shows a camera man* shooting a scene of the launch of Thunderbird 1 from its hiding place within Tracy Island, while his visual effects supervisor Derek Meddings operates the mechanical effects. Meddings went on to be one of the film industry’s most respected visual effects specialists.
*(Previously thought to be Gerry Anderson, but by this time, Gerry was usually to be found in his office or the editing suites, being mainly involved in planning and post-production.)
Not on display, but in the Collection, we have a robot puppet from Thunderbirds.
In this contact sheet frame, also from the Daily Herald Archive, you can see Thunderbirds Peter Hayward and other puppet makers at work at at AP Film Studios in Slough.
As Anderson strove for more realism and spectacle in his films, his puppets moved from caricatures to the more realistic human representations seen in Captain Scarlet and The Mysterons in 1967.
Finally, in 1970, Gerry Anderson accomplished what he set out to do at the start of his career as his first live action series UFO was aired. UFO retained the futuristic action of Anderson’s earlier puppet series, but it ended a thirteen year career with puppets.
What was your favourite puppet production, or your most memorable Anderson moment? Mine’s got to be Terrahawks. I’ll never forget Zelda’s terrifying face!