THE FUTURE WAS FAB:
Remembering Gerry Anderson
“We were at Pinewood to discuss a new project when there was a knock at the door,” remembers scriptwriter Phil Ford. “A guy walked in with a bottle of champagne. He said Gerry didn't know him, but he had heard it was his birthday and he wanted to say thank you - his shows had been the inspiration for him working in the film businesses. I heard lots of stories like that - people inspired to work in film and TV, to become engineers, rocket engineers and pilots.”
It’s difficult to sum up succinctly what Gerry Anderson’s special talents were. In a way Gerry Anderson wasn’t just producer but a genre in himself. When you saw his name on the credits you knew you were in for adventure. One newspaper enthused: “Gerry Anderson is Britain’s answer to Walt Disney,” however, unlike Disney, Anderson gave you drama and explosive conflagrations rarely seen on children’s TV – or elsewhere.
Modern film-makers will often talk of a special interest or youthful passion which led them to produce the works they became renowned for, but one of the many extraordinary things about Gerry was that there was little in his early life to indicate how influential he’d become or the sphere he’d shine in.
Born in 1929 in Hampstead, London, Gerry was the second son of Deborah and Joseph Abrahams (later Anderson). His upbringing was tough; dominated by poverty and his parents’ internecine war; his older brother’s death during World War II had a deep psychological impact.
He began training as a plasterer but an allergy put paid to this career plan. Employment at a photographic studio raised his hopes of entering the film industry and he applied for a job at the Ministry of Information’s Colonial Film Unit. He made his industry debut in 1946 as an assistant editor, a job he discovered he had a real talent for. Former colleague David Elliott recalls: “Oh he was very, very good. I remember a picture he sound edited called They Who Dare. Everybody was amazed because during this piece of stock footage of aircraft being shot at, rather than just running a generic bangs and flashes soundtrack over it he synced each individual bit of flack. Amazing.” His understanding of editing would pay dividends when he came to make his most famous action shows.
Following two years National Service in the RAF Anderson returned to the cutting rooms. He married Betty Wrightman in 1952 by whom he had two daughters, Joy and Linda.
The arrival of commercial television in 1955 paved the way to Anderson’s success. After decades the BBC’s monopoly on the airwaves had been broken and now a slew of independent broadcasters were looking to fill their expensively acquired airwaves with content, which opened up commercial opportunities for independent producers. In 1956 Anderson and colleague Arthur Provis, with others, formed Pentagon Films. It was there two serendipitous events would take place. Firstly, a two-line advertisement in the local paper for ‘Part time typist – Afternoons’ yielded a response from Anderson’s future wife Sylvia Thamm. Secondly, Kelloggs commissioned them to make a commercial featuring Noddy – with puppets. It was this commercial that brought children’s writer Roberta Leigh knocking.
“A woman called Roberta Leigh turned up one day with 52 scripts for a series called Twizzle,” remembered Anderson. “She said they were for puppets and I nearly vomited on the floor.” By this time, Anderson and Provis had grown disillusioned with their Pentagon partners and decided to go it alone incorporating A.P. Films (Anderson Provis Films – later Century 21). On a meagre budget of just £450 per episode they accepted the commission. “I saw myself becoming a Stephen Spielberg of the time. But we needed the money and so we took it on,” said Anderson.
Alas, Gerry hated the marionettes but here perhaps his greatest attribute came into play: whatever the difficulty, he was determined to make the best of it. He also wanted to produce his own product. It was with puppet western Four Feather Falls that what Anderson would later dub ‘Supermarionation’ was born. If he couldn’t work with real actors, then he was determined to make these lifeless forms on strings as human as possible. Faces were sculpted in fibreglass and fitted with solenoids that, through a gadget that converted dialogue into electrical impulses, moved the lower lip allowing the puppets to ‘speak’. Frustrated because only the cameraman could see what was happening during shooting, he hit upon the idea of putting a video camera in the viewfinder producing the world’s earliest, albeit primitive, ‘video assist’. “I put Arthur and Gerry as a bit like the ant and the grasshopper,” says puppeteer Roger Woodburn. “Gerry was destined to go somewhere and Arthur was a bit, ‘Oh, that’s new. Not sure about that.’” Sure enough, Arthur not finding himself in harmony with Gerry’s aspirations, left. “Gerry was a perfectionist,” says David Elliott. “I remember him being in a deep despair during Four Feather Falls about being able to see the wires despite them being specially drawn ultra-fine tungsten.”
Four Feather Falls ran for one series after which backers, Granada, stated that they didn’t require anymore of A.P. Films’ unique product. By the middle of 1960 with just a few minor pieces keeping them ticking over, it became clear that the writing was on the wall for A.P. Films. Enter Lew Grade.
Anderson vividly recalled the fateful pitch meeting for Supercar: “I said, ‘We’ve budgeted it out and it will cost £3000 per episode.’ And he exploded, ‘I can’t afford to pay you that! This is a kid’s series!’” The next day the budget was cut, Lew offered them a contract, and the historic partnership was formed.
The team were under pressure to get the series ready to air by January 1961. Meanwhile, following his divorce from Betty, Gerry and Sylvia found the time to get married. This led to Sylvia’s role increasing and by the end of the 60s they would be known as a winning husband and wife team: Gerry had the technical fascination and instinctive knowledge of how to cut a picture, Sylvia was a 60s gal with a great sense of character and style which made the shows swing. The combination of these talents meant their shows were truly unlike anything else on television.
Primitive by today’s standards, Supercar launched Gerry Anderson ‘full boost vertical’ into the space age. However, its origins weren’t born of a specific love of sci-fi but more through Anderson’s quest to make the puppets as realistic as possible. Walking convincingly was well nigh impossible but placing them in futuristic vehicles reduced jerky puppet movement to a desirable minimum. This was ingeniously extended to a series of now iconic ‘launch sequences’ in which the puppets would smoothly board their craft through a variety of moving pathways and chairs.
With the real life space race, Gerry and his team inadvertently tapped into a zeitgeist which was expanded with the stories of the futuristic spaceship Fireball XL5. Both Supercar and Fireball were astonishing successes and so Lew bought A.P. Films outright before ploughing serious cash into their next production, the all-colour Stingray. “Every show we did was a rehearsal for Thunderbirds,” Sylvia Anderson once stated.
Gerry recalled Lew’s reaction to the first 25-minute episode of Thunderbirds. “He said, ‘Gerry. This is not a television series.’ I was absolutely distraught. He then said, ‘Gerry – this is a feature film! You have to make them an hour!’” Thunderbirds were GO!
Anderson’s career flew to dizzying heights during the roughly two-year period that Thunderbirds was in production. Yet still he felt cruelly short of achieving his true ambitions. The glittering success of the series at home did not translate overseas as it failed to secure the essential American sale. Despite arousing expectations of being ‘Bigger than Bond’, the feature film versions also failed to lift off.
However, the cancellation of Thunderbirds did not signal the end for Gerry, and Lew still believed in his golden boy. Further iconic marionette masterpieces were developed in the form of the daringly sadistic Captain Scarlet and the ‘kids can be Bond’ format of Joe 90. Each show Anderson pushed to be technically more proficient than the last. However, they were rapidly drowning in their own successful product. In 1968 a live-action feature film produced by Century 21 called Doppelgänger convinced Grade that their unique style of film-making would transfer to live actors. UFO was given the go-ahead and the puppets were consigned to the skip.
Unfortunately for Anderson, as he entered the 70s he found that American ratings chasing became a serious issue. “As we were developing a second series one of the guys in America phoned Lew and said the ratings are dropping off UFO,” recalled Gerry. “We made 26 shows, they ran for 17 weeks leading the country, but because they dipped ‘cancel the show.’” From UFO’s ashes rose Space: 1999, allegedly the most expensive show in the world at the time and widely regarded as one of Anderson’s great achievements particularly noted for its world-leading special effects.
The mid to late 70s was an exceptionally tough time for Gerry. Lew Grade found himself moving away from television production and thus Space: 1999 marked the end of their long and fruitful partnership. Furthermore, after years of being increasingly strained, his marriage to Sylvia finally collapsed. It also marked the beginning of a long period of estrangement from his son Gerry Jnr; something that he would never forgive Sylvia for.
Without the backing of Lew Grade and thus the final disbanding of the team that he had worked with for 16 years Anderson found himself in limbo. The man who once earned a reported £1000 a week was broke and found himself having to search for a backer again.
One ray of light during this period was Anderson’s marriage to Mary Robins in 1981. Their enduring and happy relationship produced a son, Jamie.
In the early 80s Anderson teamed up with a new business partner Christopher Burr who, unlike Lew, recognised the potential of the puppet-loving Japanese market. This led to Anderson’s return to puppets, albeit in sophisticated glove puppet form with Terrahawks. The show achieved modest success and re-launched Anderson’s career for a whole new generation.
Counter intuitively, launching projects in the latter half of Anderson’s career proved more difficult. Although his biggest production of the 90s was the multi-million pound Space Precinct, it was, astonishingly, not his most successful. BBC2’s repeat of Thunderbirds, now 25-years old, launched a new mania for Supermarionation with the must-have Christmas toy being a Tracy Island play set - and just 8 years later in 2000 the craze resurfaced. Anderson didn’t receive a penny having sold his rights in the 1970s.
Deservedly awarded an MBE in 2001, he still had his gaze set on the future. “Making these shows was his life, and he was always - right up into his last years - looking for the next idea,” says Phil Ford.
In 2005 setting out to break new ground again, Anderson raised £20 million to resurrect the indestructible Captain Scarlet in CGI. Invariable dismissive of his own masterpieces Anderson for once seemed rightly proud of his current achievement. “We made what I, without any shame, say is the biggest technical achievement of my career.”
By this time, Anderson had mellowed and came to appreciate his past works. “When I look at my career from afar, even I am amazed at how many shows I have made. No less than 18 series, 800 episodes. And so it’s been a wonderful career and one that I’m now very proud of.”
In 2012 Anderson announced publicly that he had Alzheimer’s. He worked to make something positive from this destructive disease and, evoking the ‘help others’ spirit of International Rescue, became a celebrity patron of the Memory Walk charity.
Anderson passed away on Boxing Day 2012. Former colleagues and fans travelled from across the world to attend his funeral and pay tribute to the man who had made the future so exciting.
Captain Scarlet actress Liz Morgan remembers: “He was so innovative and his work has spanned the generations. If you show them now, children do not feel that this is something of a different age.”
Phil Ford concludes, “Gerry wanted each episode to be like a mini movie. And that was what drove just about every story he ever told. Huge ambition, a lot of imagination and a shed load of love and fun.”
Though Anderson had probably never manipulated a puppet, Anderson will always be associated with them. With his editorial brilliance, his obsessive commitment, his ability to develop the best in others and his unique vision he took puppetry into an entirely new dimension. What would the lumpen Andy Pandy have made of Lady Penelope?
Gerry always seemed surprised and humbled by his success, but others saw it coming from afar. After her first meeting with Anderson and his new team in 1957, puppeteer Joy Laurey wrote prophetically:
“They are all most keen and enthusiastic to make these the best puppet films ever made. I too feel that this is a wonderful opportunity, and may well be the beginning of something big!”
-- Stephen La Rivière