Monday 18 November 2019

Gerry Anderson

Creator of the hugely popular futuristic television series Thunderbirds, who ironically, hated working with puppets

Gerry Anderson, who died on St Stephen's Day aged 83, entertained generations of children with a string of futuristic puppet series for television in the Sixties, including Thunderbirds, Joe 90 and Fireball XL5.

Anderson's Thunderbirds, his biggest hit, was a spoof of the James Bond genre, endowed with sophistication, elan and adult appeal, setting it apart from much other children's television fare.

Yet Anderson detested puppets, and was embarrassed to be working with them.

Until his arrival, televised puppets ran the brief gamut from Andy Pandy to Bill and Ben. Coining the term "supermarionation", Anderson defined a new brand of puppetry, a style that purists hated for its absence of any action beyond nodding heads, weirdly swivelling eye-movements and hands that merely sawed the air; the marionettes were almost never seen to walk.

Anderson's power base was a warehouse on an industrial estate at Slough, where soundproofing had been achieved by his nailing 1,500 egg boxes to the walls. He ordered his team of model-makers to fashion the heads of his miniature heroes to look like film stars: the square-jawed Troy Tempest was modelled on James Garner, Scott Tracy on Sean Connery.

Later, with the success of his flagship Thunderbirds series ("Thunderbirds are go!"), Anderson could afford to shrink the size of his puppets' heads in the interests of realism, and getting a dentist to make real teeth for them.

Out of work, Anderson had fallen into the business by accident in the late Fifties. "The last thing in the world I wanted to do," he remembered, "was work with puppets." Anderson was struggling to find work until the children's writer and animator Roberta Leigh asked him to make The Adventures of Twizzle.

"It's surprising what you'll do when you're on the breadline," Anderson recalled. "I'd never seen a puppet in my life, and grew to hate them very quickly." As he confided in 2001, not only had he never wanted to work with puppets, but he had really wanted to be Steven Spielberg.

Gerald Alexander Anderson was born on April 14, 1929 at Feltham, Middlesex. His Jewish father scratched a living filling cigarette machines, his mother hated her husband. Gerry was brought up at Neasden, London, where the family shared a single room, but at the outbreak of war he was evacuated to Northamptonshire, where he experienced rural anti-Semitism.

He left school with ambitions of being a plasterer until he realised he was allergic to plaster. He started work as a trainee with Colonial Films and after national service as a radio operator with the RAF worked as an assistant at Gainsborough Studios before co-founding Pentagon Films to make commercials in 1955.

The following year, with his business partner Arthur Provis, he moved into film production and formed AP Films in the hope of making a classic epic – but the opportunities were not forthcoming. Instead he reluctantly turned to making puppet series for television and produced 52 episodes of The Adventures of Twizzle.

These early efforts convinced Anderson of the potential of puppet series as an entertainment form, and his 1960 series Supercar was the first successful science-fiction format to reflect the growing interest among children in futuristic technology. He followed it with the more sophisticated Fireball XL5, featuring the hero Steve Zodiac, and timing it to coincide with increased interest in the "space race".

In 1965 Anderson created Stingray, featuring the underwater exploits of Troy Tempest and his submarine, and the first of his series to be shot in colour.

Anderson's most successful and popular series Thunderbirds followed the adventures of the futuristic Tracy family who ran an air, space and undersea rescue service from a small island in the Pacific. Anderson remembered that his elder brother, Lionel, a pilot who was killed in the war, had trained in Arizona near Thunderbird Field, and helped himself to the "very exciting" name.

As well as Jeff Tracy and his sons John, Scott, Virgil, Alan and Gordon (all named after early American astronauts), Thunderbirds also introduced some of Anderson's most popular and enduring characters, including the myopic genius Brains, the glamorous secret agent Lady Penelope (based on his second wife, Sylvia) and her chauffeur, an ex-alcoholic Cockney called Parker, whose distinctive way of speaking ("Yus, m'lady") was modelled on a waiter at a pub in Cookham where Anderson used to have his lunch.

Although the series caught the imagination of millions of young viewers, two feature-length film spin-offs, Thunderbirds Are Go and Thunderbirds 6, both failed to achieve the same popularity.

In 1967 Anderson created a new series, Captain Scarlet, named after its indestructible hero.It was followed in 1968 by Joe 90, about a nine-year-old boy who gained expert knowledge on any subject using his uncle's hi-tech mousetrap invention.

His first science-fiction feature film, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, starred Ian Hendry and Patrick Wymark and coincided with Anderson's first all-live action series for television called UFO which, although well produced, was humourless.

In the Seventies Anderson persevered with live action series such as The Protectors, featuring a glamorous international crime-fighting agency starring Robert Vaughn and Nyree Dawn Porter, and Space 1999, a sub-Star Trek enterprise which was critically panned for its stereotyped characters and bland scripts. Stalled projects, and a property crash left Anderson in dire financial straits, and he endured a painful divorce from his second wife and former business partner, Sylvia.

Anderson returned to puppets in 1982 with Terrahawks, in which Dr Tiger Ninestein and the Terrahawks battled the evil Zelda. The success of this series encouraged Anderson to attempt a new project called Space Police, but although a pilot was produced, financial backing never materialised and the series failed to get off the ground.

Having sold the rights to his shows in the Seventies, in 2008 he entered into talks with ITV to buy back the rights to Thunderbirds to remake it using computer-generated imagery.

In retirement he lived at Henley-on-Thames with his third wife, Mary, and took an interest in his production enterprises and the extraordinary following his puppet series continued to attract.

Latterly he had recanted his old detestation of puppetry. "It would be very churlish for me now to denigrate the puppets that brought me so much success," he admitted. "I've slowly changed my attitude. Now I'm really very grateful to these little things that I strung up, um, that strung themselves up, for my benefit."

Gerry Anderson married, in 1952, Betty Wrightman, with whom he had two daughters. His second marriage, in 1961, to Sylvia Thamm, with whom he had a son, ended in divorce in 1975, and in 1981 he married Mary Robins, with whom he had a second son.

Sunday Independent

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