Over the course of a couple of weeks, I chatted with my old friend and occasional collaborator Stephen Baxter about our mutual affection for the TV series and films of Gerry Anderson. If you haven't the slightest interest in puppets, toys, comics, and 1960s children's entertainment, there probably isn't very much point reading on. If, however, you share our enthusiasm, or are at least sympathetic to it, you may find something to enjoy in the following. My very grateful thanks to Steve for taking part.
AR: It was Gerry Anderson’s birthday a couple of days ago (he’d have been 91) so given that we’ve both watched Thunderbird Six recently -and have a shared enthusiasm for his shows – I thought it would be fun to talk about the film, as well as the puppet series more generally. Perhaps we could start by covering our introductions to the worlds of GA? I know you go back at least as far as Stingray, the series which preceded Thunderbirds – was that the first exposure to Supermarionation for you, or are we looking at the even earlier shows like Fireball XL-5, Supercar and so on? Any really early memories of the shows or even the merchandise surrounding them?
SB: As it happens I was born on the day Anderson’s first show was first broadcast, The Adventures of Twizzle. An omen! But the first show I remember properly was Fireball, which was launched when I was nearly 5. Supercar was around but as repeats, I guess. Fireball was the one. It wasn’t the stories that struck me I think as much as the background world. The fantastic huge ship, and it looked huge thanks to good effects work, luxurious inside – Professor Matic lived on it, and how I envied him! And this was no fantasy, we were given one-century-ahead dates, 2062 and so on. Authentic SF, and I was lost forever.
Merchandise, yeah, we can discuss the comics, but I did have a couple of annuals, and a Steve Zodiac string puppet – and a fab XL5 that you could shoot up into the air and let it parachute back to Earth. All gone now, though I bought back the annuals a few years ago – but couldn’t afford the toys!
AR: Thunderbirds is the earliest Anderson show I remember seeing on TV, but then only one or two episodes. As you and I will remember, TV scheduling was much more regional in the sixties and seventies than it is today, and I spent my early years in Cornwall, where they never seemed to show Thunderbirds. We got Joe 90, and later UFO, but none of the other Supermarionation shows. I do remember seeing an episode of Thunderbirds at my grandmothers in Wales, when we were visiting – I think the one with Monte Carlo (“The Man from MI5”) – but the vast majority of the episodes I never saw until much later in the 70s. By then I’d only really seen the films. Thunderbirds Are Go was aired on TV somewhere around the mid-70s (I thought it was great!) and then Thunderbird Six was shown over one Christmas when I’m guessing I’d have been around ten. Prior to that, all I really knew about Thunderbirds was what I’d gleaned from the merchandise. I had an illustrated, hardcover book – not an annual, but a single self-contained story. All the characters were drawn to normal proportions so it was a bit of a shock when I saw the puppets! They were much weirder looking than the Joe 90 characters. I’m not sure if I ever had any of the Thunderbirds-specific Dinky toys: TB2 (and 4) and FAB1 although I did have the UFO (and later Space:1999) models. As for the earlier shows, I only knew about them from pictures in annuals and so on, although Stingray was later shown in re-runs and I’m sure I’d have enjoyed it greatly if it had been on when I was younger. I think that was one of the first British TV series to be filmed in colour.
|Some Thunderbirds craft drawn by Al. Why is there more than one Mole? No idea.
SB: It’s interesting how a few years difference in age makes such a difference to how we apprehend stuff. Reminds me of my discovery of the Beatles. I was 12 when they broke up, so I’d known the singles, but didn’t hear the albums until my teens, when they had already split. It’s different knowing this was from the past, there will be no more. I think some would say Thunderbirds was Anderson’s peak, with the fabulous visual invention, a heartwarming premise – a family dedicated to helping people, in a utopian future! – and before Anderson, whose real ambition was to direct live action, lost his way in trying to achieve realism in the puppets. When all he achieved was to make them stiff and eerie. Paul McAuley once said Anderson was an idiot savant who didn’t know what he was best at. The other theory about which show is the ‘best’ is that it’s the one that aired when you were about seven! So did you see Joe 90 live?
|Joe 90's Jet Car, presented to Al during his visit to Japan in 2012.
AR: No, probably not until a year or two after its original run. But it felt live enough at the time. I had the Dinky version of the jetcar, which I thought was fantastic. Decades later, when I attended Halcon in Japan, the convention very kindly presented me with a small model of the same vehicle, knowing my affection for it. I agree with you that GA wasn’t playing to his strengths as he tried to make the move into live-action, first with the stiffer puppets, then actual actors, but again it does go back to that thing of whichever show you first saw. Incidentally I was a little put off by the puppets to begin with, something to do with the way their mouths worked, but before long I was won round by the model work, which (in all GA’s shows) was so far ahead of anything else on TV at the time. Joe 90 has the best title music, in my view. The guitar on that is played by Vic Flick, who did the Bond theme! Real secret agent credibility. It was a staple of the Northern Soul clubs, too. I never saw, or had any recollection of, The Secret Service. GA was going off in some weird directions at the end of the sixties. Do you remember Stripey The Magic Mini, from the Candy & Andy photostrip in TV21?
You’re right about the sense of it all already belonging in the past, though. The peak of Thunderbirds mania was long past by the time I became aware of the series, but there were still toys, annuals and books to be found, as well as older boys who’d seen it all at the time. I think on balance I’d have to agree that Thunderbirds is the best series, overall. The utopianism of the set-up, the family structure, and bringing in Lady Penelope and Parker as significant characters – and the music!
SB: It was all very different then, even if you were watching the first run shows. I mean you saw it once, no catchup , no DVD, no recording. .. of course the series would be repeated later and I think cumulatively you got to know the episodes that way. But not at the time! So the comics, books etc were v important to support the shows, even at the time. In Anderson’s glory days the key comic was the wonderful TV 21 and a year later the equally lush Lady Penelope. You had full colour photogravure production, artists hired from the Eagle, and stories and features that knitted the whole thing into a consistent 100 years ahead future. In the first year especially you had editor Alan Fennell (also a script writer for Anderson ) deliberately creating crossovers between the shows. So Lady Penelope goes to a Paris previously devastated by Stingray sea monsters. And Steve Zodiac, handling an alien assassination, gets help from Penelope and Troy Tempest. The conceit was it was a newspaper from the future, dated accordingly.
I was hooked age 7 and remain so.
In fact though, the shows themselves were dated 100 years ahead, they were somewhat different futures, and they tended to get more conservative. .. so XL5 was interstellar, but Zero X was the first mission to Mars. The more creative fans have tried to fit it all together. .. so maybe XL5 used a Zero X drive to reach interstellar wormholes, or some such...
|A typical issue of TV21.
Candy and Andy was actually in a comic called Candy, aimed at littler kids, in the peak years when it seemed Anderson could do not wrong! Didn’t last, and nor did the peak years...
|The horror that was Candy & Andy
AR: The fact that the shows were only on once, and you couldn’t be sure of seeing them again, made them very intense viewing experiences! I tried to memorise or draw the vehicles as the episodes were playing, so that I could make them in Lego afterwards. I did a drawing of Skyship right after seeing Thunderbird Six, which I still have somewhere. Which might ease us into a discussion of the films in general, and that one in particular. The films were both huge flops, of course, for reasons that now seem obvious, but if you’re a committed fan there’s still much to enjoy in them. TB6 is clearly a better film than Thunderbirds Are Go, but for my money it’s not quite as exciting – nothing can beat the Zero-X, which goes wrong not once but twice! My favorite GA vehicle, by the way, and the one I still most covet. And Barry Gray’s Zero-X march is sublime, quite wonderfully stirring and exciting. But Thunderbirds Are Go has this problem that once the Mars mission is on its way, there’s nothing for International Rescue to do until it comes back, so you get weird but charming filler like the Cliff Richard dream sequence. At least with TB6 the sense of peril is there most of the time. One thing I didn’t realise until now was that they’d more or less shot all the Captain Scarlet episodes before they did TB6. Can you imagine the marketing? Come and see the sequel to a film you didn’t watch, based on a series that’s already been cancelled! Now wonder they stayed away in droves.
|Al's first attempt at drawing the Zero-X, done from memory after watching Thunderbirds Are Go.
SB: we should talk more about the Anderson era model making, SFX, and their legacy. But my own theory about the films is that they weren’t adult friendly enough. My parents didn’t want to sit through 90 minutes of puppets, there was nothing in it to appeal to them! Compare the Jungle Book, out about the same time, which my mother did take us to see at the Wavertree Cinerama. Great music, good humour, and in jokes for the grown ups, such as the Beatles vultures. (And we kids loved it.) And in 68 my dad took us to see 2001, which baffled the 10 year old me, I think, let alone my younger siblings! ( But we all responded to the music. And it did stick in my head; I do remember thinking, a decade later, that the opening scene of Star Wars was the most impressive movie moment I had seen since 2001...) So my parents weren’t averse to kids’ movies or sf, it was those darn puppets. And probably if they had gone once, never again...
AR: I think the films were pitched at an audience that didn’t exist: too unengaging for adults, not gripping enough for kids. I think I may have seen the Jungle Book in the cinema as well! I didn’t see 2001 until the mid-seventies, but it was in the cinema, back out again for a theatrical release as tended to happen in those days (and I’m sure it had never been on television at that point). I was pretty baffled as well. I’d read the book, and a fair bit of Clarke short fiction by that point, but tonally the film was nothing like my expectations. I think because the ships and props had a Gerry Anderson sort of look to them, I was expecting something more in keeping with Space:1999 or UFO, lots of explosions and lasers, but of course the film couldn’t be further from that, and it left me cold and bewildered. I’ve a different view of it now, of course. You’re right about the legacy of the model work and SFX; there was nothing else to touch it, and for the most part it all still looks good now. You can see why Derek Meddings was brought onto the James Bond films, after showing what he could do on the small screen. I recently watched the first series of Space:1999 on remastered DVDs and the effects work is still impressive, as are the props and sets, all of which look solid and believable. I used to wonder why the BBC’s effects work was so inferior, not realising that there were such things as budgets and time schedules, and the model makers and technicians were probably just as talented, but just had a lot less to work with. But going back to the puppets thing … yes, all a bit much to ask for really! You can understand why GA felt he needed to get away from them, even though it all came full circle back to puppets in the end.
|Essential reading for the GA completist.
When I’m watching Thunderbirds now, though, I’m struck by things I never noticed as a kid, just clever little touches in the puppetwork, little glances and reactions that are so well done and a real testament to the skill of the puppeteers. Have you seen the short film that Jamie Anderson’s done for the new Firestorm series he wants to make, based on a concept of Gerry’s? It’s very well done. The puppets are wire-operated from underneath, and they can make them run! The look of them is much closer to Stingray or Thunderbirds than the later marionettes, but at the same time the whole thing looks modern and futuristic. I hope it becomes a full series. Sign me up!
SB:Seconded, your remarks about the brilliant model work. Writing this in the middle of the lockdown, and yes we are comfort watching old Bonds, where as you say you have Meddings working on Live and Let Die, and also later Steve Begg on the Daniel Craig movies – he worked with Anderson later, on Terrahawks onwards I think. So Anderson’s legacy in that regard spanned decades. And some of the models were magnificent weren’t they? As you noted, the Thunderbirds movies were both predicated on the wrecking of magnificent new craft, Zero X and the Skyship. The latter featuring in a worse movie, but what a design. They just went crazy with it, the fabulous interiors – the Games Room, a lounge with huge playing cards covering the walls, etc. And latterly I appreciated the engineering consistency (give or take the odd anti gravity engine!) You can get rough visual scales of the machines by comparisons with FAB 1, etc., and they do make sense, and are consistent with stuff given in the annuals, etc. You got a sense of the great mass of the machines by the slowness with which TB2, say, cautiously landed – or the long launch sequence of Fireball XL5. It took a lot of push to move that mass down that ramp! That’s one trick the makers of the new Thunderbirds Are Go have missed I think, the craft flit about like paper planes....
|A second go at the Zero-X - this time after borrowing a friend's TV21 annual.
AR: One thing I like in the new series is the turbulence around TB1 as it goes supersonic! But there’s always going to be a sense of mass and solidity with the older approach. Skyship’s quite a weird concept, isn’t it? It’s introduced as an airship, in that nightmarish scene where we see into the mouths of all the executives laughing at Brains, but then it turns out to use anti-gravity for lift, instead of hydrogen or helium. If the antigravity devices make its weigh less than that of the air it displaces, does it still count as an airship, but just with an unusual lifting medium? Quite an interesting bit of design thinking, anyway. And you’re right – the interiors are beautifully conceived. Just a pity it ends up impaling itself on a radio antenna right over a missile base! One thing I thought was very well done were the twilight shots of Skyship, with that dusky light playing over it – gorgeously staged and evoking the romantic image of the airship very nicely. The whole thing’s done with such love and affection it’s a pity the film doesn’t quite come off as a whole. As a child I was very disappointed in the fact that it didn’t end up introducing a new Thunderbird craft, as the title implies. Sorry, but a puny little Tiger Moth’s just not going to cut it. Not that I’ve anything against Tiger Moths … and doesn’t that end sequence, with Penelope, Parker etc on the plane, go on for absolutely ages? It’s well filmed, integrating live action, radio control and model work, but it doesn’t half overstay its welcome. And poor old Parker ends up being the butt of the joke at the end, again. Incidentally, when I was in school, a boy told me that one of his relatives had worked on Thunderbirds and the reason they stopped making it was because Parker had “seized up”. I believed that for years.
SB: at this point I ought to fess up to my Anderson fandom. This goes back to browsing in a library and serendipitously finding a book on vintage British TV. ... with a chapter on Anderson, and a couple of TV21 cover images. This was about 2000 I think, and pow, with those covers I was right back to 1965. Imagery always very evocative, isn’t it? I soon found out that the only way to see those comics again was collecting.... the British Library holds the Eagle, for instance, but not TV21 despite the huge numbers it sold . And Fanderson, the main fan group, had no copies either. So, dealers and eBay! You know how it is, I became a micro dealer myself as I ended up selling swaps.... went on a posh auction site to get number one, with free gift. .. got them all in the end, plus some related stuff, specials, annuals etc. Hadn’t seen this stuff since I had to chuck out my childhood copies decades earlier. Nowadays there are good quality reprint collections you can buy, but you have to have the whole experience, the peripheral strips (including a glorious Daleks strip) and ‘news’ features from 2065. And from that I got quite heavily involved in Fanderson...l contributed features, some original fiction... and I got to meet Gerry himself once. Am proud to be a Friend of Fanderson, free subscription! I see myself as a sf fan generally (as well as a pro), but this is where I have focused my fannish energies, I guess. And a reflection of its importance for me generally. My single proudest moment: when Anderson himself asked me, through Fanderson, for data on TV21 sales! Second proudest, having letters published in TV21 back in the day...
AR: Fantastic stuff, Steve. TV21 must have been around in my childhood but I don’t have any clear memories of reading a copy, which is rather a shame. I might follow you into the rabbit hole of ebay! I can relate to what you say about fandom and fannish activity. I’ve never really felt myself to be an SF “fan” in the traditional sense; my relationship with SF in its written forms is far too complicated and conflicted for that. But I’m unreservedly a fan of Anderson, the good and the bad! It’s just that primal joy of seeing the Century 21 logo/animation and knowing the next half hour or so was going to be good, as well as all sorts of coveting of Dinky toys, annuals, etc. That’s why I can still watch stuff that’s not all that brilliant on many levels, like Space:1999, and still get some bizarre enjoyment out of it.
|A Space:1999 scene done by Al.probably after seeing the episode "Earthbound", which aired in December 1975.
I never met Gerry, but if I had, I’d just want to express an enormous gratitude for adding a dab of colour and futuristic excitement to my childhood. I suppose, having watched all of the shows that particularly interest me, and some of them many times, what I return to is the music (I’m sure that Barry Gray will be remembered as one of the great popular composers) and a desire to own versions of the models. Particular highlights: going into Dan Evans, a long-gone department store in Barry and seeing a promotional poster for Dinky’s model of the Eagle, advertised a good year before the series aired. And then following the build-up to Space: 1999 in the pages of Speed & Power, and then – my crowning glory – winning a space quiz in S&P for which the prize was a Dinky Eagle – and I’ve still got it!
|Al's two Eagles: a 45 year old Dinky version, and a 24 inch half-scale studio model. He still owns the Dinky version he won in the competition, but it's the white-bodied freighter version, in a box somewhere.
But I always wanted a bigger one. Airfix bought out a kit for an Eagle in 1976 and I made that (along with the Hawk, which only appeared in one episode) but the one I had to have was a half-scale replica (24 inches instead of 48) of the studio model, which I finished last year. The day Gerry died, I started an Angel Interceptor by way of a personal tribute and this year I completed a Fireflash. As mentioned, the one I really hanker after is the Zero-X. As far as I can tell there have been five different models since the 1960s. There’s a battery powered toy, two injection-moulded kits (one small and quite readily available, and the other large and very, very rare), a die-cast model and a large but expensive resin kit which will set you back about 400 pounds before you’ve even built it. Not a bad showing for a model from a flop film! Perhaps there’ll be a new lease of life now that the Zero-X has made a return of sorts in the new series.
|Fireflash - elevate port wing!
SB: Ooh, lots of interesting threads in there. Including fandom ... what it means to be a fan, what it is you do with the material – as opposed to, as you say, the way you in your case approached the written material. But, models! I don’t think I ever had a self assembly Anderson model, Airfix style... a couple were pop together plastic moulds, a big TB2 and TB1. I did do some modelling but mostly ‘mundane’ stuff, a couple of cars. .. some ace space kits including an Apollo LM and a Saturn V! But, truth be told, I was never very practical and never did that stuff very well. I did make a Meccano Cloudbase! My own design. Later as an adult I bought myself some great stuff, including a fine desk top XL5... and the 1990s Dinky toys: two for the nephews and one for me.... I do remember how hard it was to find TB2 then, until we found a stack in a motorway service station.... Later I met the Fanderson true fen, including those who made quite fantastic recreations of the craft, characters, even striking scene. As a kid I drew rather than modelled I think, and that was a way to appreciate the beauty of, say, Stingray. .. And before you ask, yep I bought the toys from Thunderbirds Are Go, the recent reboot. All for research purposes of course....
AR: Strictly research, yes. I do like the new designs from the reboot, they’re close enough to the originals to look respectful, but with modern touches that give them a bit of contemporary plausibility. One thing I like – and I admit I haven’t watched all the series yet – is that they’ve found a lot more for TB3 to do, and in that one instance I think the new design is superior to the old. The designs of the craft have worn well, I think, because Gerry had that background in the RAF and knew when something looked right. Did you know that Trapped in the Sky was inspired by a memory he had of seeing a Mosquito trying to land with undercarriage damage? Really though it’s amazing how contemporary most of those sixties designs still look. I suppose that says more about the lack of development in aviation and aerospace in the fifty-odd years since the various series, although there’s no doubt that the designers and model makers knew how to make something look both believable and exciting.
|Angel Interceptor from Captain Scarlet - still the only GA craft to have an Ash song named after it.
Do you have a favorite scene involving one of the Thunderbird craft? For me it’s the bit when TB2 gets shot down! The bit when the captain fires the missiles, and then gets the call from HQ that the unidentified craft is a “Thunderbird machine of the International Rescue organisation” – gets me every time! And the crash sequence is very well done. And then we learn a bit about how the Thunderbirds are made and repaired, using components from many different aircraft manufacturers, so that no one company will realise who they’re supplying. Great episode! (Rushes off to check which episode that was.)
SB: I think I will offer an off beam answer to that, but looking back to fan writing. ... The Dr Who tie in novel The Indestructible Man (Simon Messingham, BBC, 2004) is a kind of mash up of Who with the Anderverse, with names changed or parodied... the ‘Mysteron’ war is recently over, with much public resentment about the secrecy. The Doctor is arrested because they think his regeneration is Mysteronisation! Versions of Black and Scarlet, unable to die, battle on like charismatic zombies. And with high tech out of fashion , one of the ‘Sharon’ brothers (geddit ) landed TB2 in a rainforest and is acting as a doctor to the locals. It’s that image of TB2, the last pod open beneath it, the whole wreathed in vines and battered by rain, but still fulfilling its mission.. .
So not fan writing (as I have committed myself) but a sort of respectful exploration. Not so respectful were the Anderson references in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, with a series of disastrous spacecraft each named for the way its predecessor was destroyed. So Pancake XL4 was destroyed in a fireball. ...!
AR: Ah, with the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (that made me laugh, by the way!) we’re veering dangerously close to another of my youthful obsessions, which is the art of Kevin O’Neill. And that in turn makes of think of another Thunderbirds pastiche, the comic strip Ro-Busters, which originated In Starlord in 1978 and then passed to 2000AD. Instead of International Rescue and Jeff Tracy, it’s a rescue organisation operated by robots, and run by “Mr 10 Per Cent”, because only a tenth of him is still humanoid. The initial format was very similar, though: there’d be a high-tech disaster of the week, with the robots (all with different designs and capabilities) swooping in for the rescue. It worked because the robots were given memorable designs and personalities and the whole thing was fantastically well drawn. Their main vehicle was a very Gerry Anderson-like craft and the whole thing was set 100 years in the future. Going back a little further, I remember the strip SOS International which ran in Speed & Power for a while, which I remember rather enjoying at the time. It was less fanciful than Thunderbirds, set near enough to the present day, but the format was broadly similar. It’s hardly surprising there’s still mileage in the concept. I notice, incidentally, that among all the discussions about the series, the Supermationation films, the newer animation and the various homages, we’ve tactfully avoided saying anything at all about the 2004 movie. What a let down! I’ve mostly blanked it from memory, but I wonder if it’s still as terrible as it seemed at the time. Talk about not grasping the point of the franchise.
SB: Yes, we ought to talk about TBAG, and that 2004 movie... in which commander Riker, having crashed the Enterprise, crashes International Rescue! You’re right I think, they looked for a Hollywood story within the overall premise, and missed the point of the franchise. And clearly it didn’t have legs, no sequels. I remember Anderson saying he hated it. But, looking for good points. ... we saw it in the cinema with families and kids, and it held their attention. The adults too, enough in jokes etc to hold the attention. I thought the craft were well enough done, and the sight of TB2 coming to the rescue brought a lump to the throat. Maybe it was a necessary step towards the decent modernisation that is TBAG. And... it had a corking closing track by Busted, cue lots of little kids jumping up and down singing Thunderbirds Are Go! Imprinted for life, like their older siblings in the 1990s.
AR: Fair enough! Good call on the Busted song, by the way. I’d missed that. I just had a look at the Youtube comments under the video and it’s full of people expressing immense fondness and nostalgia for a film and soundtrack they experienced all the way back in 2004! So you might be onto something there.
By and large (moving onto the new animations) I think TBAG is a very successful updating, and I guess it must be going well or they wouldn’t keep making it. I found the scheduling very odd, it was difficult to keep track of, almost as if they were trying to bury it, and at some point I realised I’d missed most of season two so didn’t bother pursuing it. But I got some DVDs of it for Christmas so now I’m catching up again. I like the fundamentally forward-looking and optimistic tone of the series, very much in keeping with GA’s vision, and the set designs and machines all look good. I can’t easily tell what’s model work and what’s CGI, which I think shows how well it’s all integrated. The storylines are fast moving and necessarily simple, but there’s still an intelligence behind it. It’s probably closer in pace to the original conception of Thunderbirds, before Lew Grade insisted that GA make the episodes longer.
SB: Yep, I would endorse all you say about TBAG. They clearly stuck to the basic premise. Even though there were plenty of climate-crisis type settings as the boys dealt with accidents in waste reclamation sites and the like, basically their version of the 2060s was, just like the 1960s precursor, hopeful, a world at peace more or less, a positive place. Give or take the Hood and other master criminals! A future you would want to live in, and a hopeful vision for the present day 7 year olds, as the Anderson future was for us back in the 1960s. Making a pleasant changed from too common dystopian visions. As you say the modelling and CGI worked very well, the craft were true to the originals – but I did like the upgraded TB5, a very modern hub of smartness. And also plenty of nods and winks for we oldsters, lots of refs to the originals – the Tracy boys watching Stingray on TV! The scheduling always seemed odd but I think it spanned 5 years of broadcasts, in chunks. Sadly however I don’t think it ever had the resonance of the 1960s original. But I do remember a parent of 5 year olds, about the time of the 2004 movie, saying that kids came out of Star Wars whacking each other with light sabres, while after Thunderbirds they came out saving people. Maybe you can’t have a better legacy than that!