THE STORY OF AP FILMS AND CENTURY 21
Over fifty years on, the adventures of International Rescue and their amazing Thunderbird machines continue to enthral generations of viewers. In 1966, when the show was part way through its very first UK transmission, and Thunderbirds-mania was at its height, the production company that made it, A.P. Films, was one of the most important independent film companies operating in the UK. A staff of around 200 people worked tirelessly to invent new disasters for the Tracy family to battle in what was, at the time, the most expensive television show in the UK. However, things had not always been so lucrative for the company and the 7-year path to this phenomenal success was a highly eventful one.
In 1956 a small, two-lined advertisement appeared in the Maidenhead Advertiser – a local newspaper for the UK Buckinghamshire town of Maidenhead. It read:
“Part time typist for local Film Studios – Afternoons. Telephone Maidenhead 140.”
The ambiguous ad attracted little attention. However, one applicant was invited for interview. Her name was Sylvia Thamm.
The company that Sylvia joined was called Pentagon Films, which had been formed in March of that year. It was the result of a collaboration between a group of film-makers previously employed by another company, Polytechnic Films.
Polytechnic was approached in 1955 to produce a programme called You’ve Never Seen This, a show that would feature unlikely freakish stunts from across Europe. Gerry Anderson, a 26-year-old film and dubbing editor was hired to direct the series, despite having no previous experience as a director.
Throughout the next few months Anderson and his team met a throng of strange contributors performing bizarre, intriguing and sometimes pointless talents. There was a woman who created clothes from dogs’ hair, a cyclist who clamed to be able to ride at 109 miles per hour and a restaurant that deliberately made its customers feel unwelcome. It was a shoot fraught with difficulties, but Anderson overcame the odds with his newfound friend – the cameraman, Arthur Provis.
Following You’ve Never Seen This, some members of Polytechnic, including Anderson and Provis, decided to incorporate a new company, specialising in a similar type of business, but this time hoping to capitalise on the recent formation of Independent Television.
1954 had seen the founding of the Independent Television Authority in the UK, a body formed to oversee the development of Independent Television. Until now, the only organisation that had been able to broadcast television in the UK was the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), a public interest broadcaster, funded from a licence paid by everyone in possession of a television set, that was free from political and commercial influence. Independent Television, however, was a model based on the American system. Unlike the BBC, Independent Television (or ITV as it is known) would not get its revenue from the television licence, but by screening sponsored advertisements during scheduled breaks in its regular programming. The ITA was charged with dividing the UK into franchise areas (known as ‘regions’) and awarding licences to a number of different broadcasters. Three franchises were initially awarded (London, the Midlands and the North) to four broadcasters. Associated British Cinemas (ABC), Associated TeleVision (ATV), Associated Rediffusion and Granada. Over the next few years, other regions were awarded and the channels became so lucrative that one executive branded an ITV franchise as ‘a licence to print money’. Three of these four broadcasters would pave the path to Thunderbirds.
Pentagon benefitted from this new market and produced commercials for a variety of every day objects. It was a commission from Kellogg’s, however, that would change the life of Gerry Anderson forever.
Amongst the schedules in ITV’s inaugural month there was a new puppet show for children The Adventures of Noddy based on the successful works of British author Enid Blyton. In 1955 Kellogg’s purchased the rights to use Noddy in their advertising and in 1956 commissioned Pentagon to make a commercial featuring the puppets. It was these adverts that brought Pentagon to the attention of marketing executive Suzanne Warner and prolific romantic novelist Roberta Leigh, who had developed an idea for a children’s series entitled The Adventures of Twizzle; the story of a toy boy doll that could extend its arms and legs.
In this day and age, getting a programme commissioned involves teams of committees making decisions about commercial viability. Then it was much simpler. In British television trade magazine The Stage and Television Today in 1964 Roberta Leigh recalled securing the commission for Twizzle. “I didn’t know one end of the camera from another when John McMillan (Associated Rediffusion Executive) gave me my very first start with The Adventures of Twizzle. I sent him a manuscript; he loved it, told me to make a film and put the money up for it. I blithely said ‘Yes,’ because I was quite determined to do it and I wanted to see my characters come alive.”
Gerry Anderson recalls this first encounter well: “A woman called Roberta Leigh turned up one day with 52 scripts for a series called Twizzle. She asked us if we’d like to make them and we said, ‘Yes!’. Then she said they were with puppets and I nearly vomited on the floor.”
Despite having visions of becoming a big-shot movie director, Anderson and Provis decided to see if they could use Roberta’s proposal to their advantage. They had both grown disillusioned with their business partners and had decided to set up their own company. “We’d already made up our minds to leave when Roberta came along,” says Arthur Provis. “Gerry and I told her we were leaving but were interested in producing the films.”
In the summer of 1957 Anderson and Provis left Pentagon and incorporated a new company: A.P. Films (Anderson Provis Films). They soon set to work on production of the 52, fifteen minute films, each with a meagre budget of £450 each.
Anderson and Provis decided to set their ‘studio’ up in a large ballroom at a nearby pseudo-gothic Victorian house called Islet Park. At the same time, they began recruiting. Initially, to help them they engaged three new staff. Unhappy at their old company, Pentagon Films, Sylvia Thamm left to join them at Islet Park. Arthur Provis recruited two other former colleagues – Reg Hill, an artist and carpenter who had recently been working in Special Effects, and John Read, an experienced rostrum cameraman. Such was their dedication that Read, Hill and Thamm were awarded directorships and shareholdings during production.
This team of five knew very little about puppets and so enlisted the help of a respected puppeteer called Joy Laurey. She was well-known at the time for a character she had developed called Mr Turnip who featured in a children’s television show called Whirligig. Gerry Anderson explains: “I contacted a puppeteer and she came along with this papier-mâché puppet with a very rough face; eyes were painted, mouth was painted and it had thick carpet thread to the control the puppet. Then she said, ‘What you do is get a sheet of hardboard, I stand behind it and on the hardboard you paint a little scene like a garden, with a few props – a fork, spade, flower posts – and I lean over the top and perform with the puppet and you film it.’ Well, of course, I couldn’t see how we could make a television series like that!”
Traditionally, puppets come from a theatrical background, and in the 1950s, even puppets that had graduated to the television screen still maintained their theatricality. Lacking affinity with puppetry traditions and approaching potential problems with the minds of film-makers, Anderson and Provis began devising a way to make these puppets work for film. “We approached making the series like we were shooting a proper film,” says Provis.
It was this desire to make proper films that was the driving force behind advancing the sophistication of the puppets. Instead of traditional locked-off camera shots, filmed against a two dimensional background, as favoured by the staid world of 50s puppet television, it was decided that these puppets would be given the same treatment as their human counterparts with long-shots, close-ups etc. in a three dimensional set.
The Adventures of Twizzle, which premiered in England in November 1957, was a moderate success and Roberta soon returned with another commission – 26 episodes of a series called Torchy the Battery Boy.
Torchy was a much more ambitious production than Twizzle had been. More effort was put into the construction of the sets built by Reg Hill and the puppets, which this time were built by Christine Glanville, the puppeteer whom had been originally hired by Joy Laurey, but was now chief puppeteer after Laurey had left to work on other projects. These new puppets were constructed from a form of plastic wood, rather than papier-mâché and had mobile eyes and a moving mouth, albeit it one operated by a string.
The team worked at great speed on Torchy and even delivered the series three months early. This was in spite of various production problems, including the River Thames (which ran behind the house) bursting its banks and flooding the approach to the house. For a while all the sets had to be transported by punt!
Roberta was again delighted and asked APF to produce another series of Torchy the Battery Boy for her. However, they declined…
Whilst producing Torchy the Battery Boy Gerry Anderson decided that he no longer wanted to work with Roberta Leigh and wanted to make something original. Barry Gray, a friend of Roberta Leigh, and the man who had either arranged or composed all the music for Twizzle and Torchy suggested an idea to Gerry about a puppet Western. This developed into Four Feather Falls, a fantasy series about a cowboy called Tex Tucker who maintains law and order with the help of four magic feathers given to him by a magic Indian chieftan.
During the production of Torchy the team worked in secret on building sets and puppets so that they would be ready to shoot the pilot episode as soon as Torchy was finished. They considered secrecy important as they were concerned that Roberta would cancel their existing contract if she found out. Their plan was a success and in March 1959 they began filming the pilot episode “How it Began”.
Four Feather Falls is significant as it featured the first ‘Supermarionation’ puppets (although this term would not be dreamt-up until Supercar) . For the first time the puppets’ heads had faces made from rigid fibreglass and, most significantly of all, could talk using a new ingenious device that allowed each syllable of dialogue to be converted into electrical impulses which moved the marionettes’ lips.
Contemporary News of the World press coverage on the development of Supermarionation for "Four Feather Falls".
The pilot episode was screened to Granada television who agreed to fund a further 38 episodes of the series. With the money from their new commission, the team moved out of Islet Park and found a warehouse on a Trading Estate in nearby Slough. As they did not need to record sound, the old, echoing shell of a building was a cheap and viable place for them to film. Slough was also sufficiently near a number of major film places, such as Pinewood Studios, which meant they were able to acquire materials easily.
In early 1960 they completed the series and approached Granada with an idea for a new series: Supercar. Despite Four Feather Falls being a success (it received a Network transmission meaning that all ITV companies screened it simultaneously, and sold overseas to countries such as Japan) Granada were not interested in any further puppet films from APF. They felt that 39 episodes of this unusual style was sufficient.
A.P. Films was in trouble. By mid 1960 the money was rapidly running out. They had managed to get a little work producing three commercials (which, coincidentally, one would later win the Grand Prix Award for the best commercial of the year!) and a travel documentary, but this wasn’t enough to keep them going. With the money now gone, Anderson, Provis, Thamm, Red and Hill decided to dissolve the company.
As they were starting to wind down a friend of theirs called Connery Chappell intervened: he organised a meeting with Lew Grade. Grade was, at this time, the Deputy Managing Director of Associated TeleVision (ATV), one of the independent ITV companies. Lew, who had seen Four Feather Falls commissioned 26-episodes of Supercar, a series about the test crew of a revolutionary car that could travel on land, undersea and even in space.
The first episodes were broadcast a mere four months after filming had begun and the series was an instant hit. It immediately sold to America as a syndicated series (various independent broadcasters showing the series at different times) and Lew commissioned a further 13. When these too were successful he wasted no time in getting A.P. Films to make a new series for him called Fireball XL5 – the space adventures of the crew of the amazing spaceship of the same name. Fireball was an even bigger hit and secured the ‘Golden Goose’ for ATV – Network broadcast in America. Every station broadcasting the series, nationwide, at the same time.
At the end of 1962 the British newspaper The Daily Mirror made this announcement: “THE MASTER SHOWMAN IS TO QUIT. Val Parnell, the last of Britain’s great showmen is giving up his £8,000 a year job as managing director of Associated TeleVision Ltd. His place will be taken by his deputy Mr Lew Grade.” With Parnell’s resignation Lew became, debatably, television’s most influential man. He now had the authority to buy one of his most successful suppliers: A.P. Films.
In late 1962 the sale was complete and A.P. Films came under the control of ATV, with Gerry, Sylvia, Reg and John Read retaining their directorships in the company (Arthur Provis, Gerry’s original partner, left during the making of Four Feather Falls to go and work with Roberta Leigh). Grade invested thousands of pounds in the company allowing the studio to move to larger premises on the Slough Trading Estate and to buy brand new equipment. Lew was intent that the next series was the be the biggest thing the country had ever seen.
Stingray, the story of a futuristic submarine and its crew was a big success. It was the first major television series to be shot entirely in colour in Britain and the puppets, which now had several heads featuring different expressions, were becoming increasingly sophisticated.
In 1964 Grade gave one of his regular press conferences. The trade magazine Kine Weekly reported: Grade then shifted the emphasis of his conference to Stingray and the fact that two of the major networks were bidding furiously for it. Said Grade: “I am holding back until I get the time I want. We have sold this series at the prices we want and in the stations of the world we want. I have already commissioned Gerry Anderson to go ahead with another 39 puppet films in colour based on a marvellous idea.”
Thunderbirds were GO.
Stingray was somewhat unceremoniously dumped by the forever forwards-looking studio which was already ensconced in its next production entitled International Rescue. When the press turned up to A.P. Films to promote the new series in October 1964, they had to make do with pictures of the characters and craft on sets built for the new series (Stingray is even photographed on the desert set for Pit of Peril). For A.P. Films the future was always more important than the past.
International Rescue - the story of a family-run rescue organisation with a series of amazing rescue vehicles - was to become the enduring success that would eclipse all others for the company. Eventually retitled Thunderbirds (when Gerry recalled a letter his brother had written to him during the war mentioning that he'd been an extra in a film called Thunder Birds) the series began life in the traditional 25-minute format. However, that was to change when in December 1964 Gerry screened for Lew the opening instalment. As the lights went up at the end of this mini-epic, Lew Grade declared, "That's not a television series! That's a feature film! Gerry, you've got to make them an hour!"
The decision to expand each episode to 50-minutes was not entirely a joyous one. Whilst Lew's faith in the series was appreciated, his instruction left the company in a difficult position as 9 episodes had already been filmed. Nevertheless, Lew remained steadfast - the show had to be an hour. Episodes were rapidly rewritten and new material was shot on an almost ad-hoc basis across the year in between the new episodes that were entering production. In September 1965 Thunderbirds was go for the very first time - and was an instant smash-hit.
Before the series had even hit the screens, Lew had done a 3-picture deal with United Artists and, with no time to recover from the heavy work-load of the previous year, A.P. Films started work on Thunderbirds Are Go - the first silver-screen outing for the puppets. In early 1966 the company expanded significantly to enable them to produce the film and television series simultaneously. It wasn't just the physical studios themselves that expanded, but other areas of the business too. The merchandising division was absolutely booming leading them to absorb other companies including J.R. Rosethal Toys. A.P. Films - soon to be renamed Century 21 Productions - was unstoppable. Or so it seemed.
In early 1966 a bombshell was dropped by Lew: he hadn't secured the all-important American market. The television series had to cease production and a new show - which he reasoned would be easier to sell - would be needed. A final six episodes of Thunderbirds was produced - and then all eyes were on the forthcoming film which United Artists believed would be 'bigger than Bond'. Following the dizzying spectacle of the premiere in 1966, that prophesy would be shown to be wrong. The film was not a flop as is widely believed, but it hadn't commercially lived up to the hype. A second film was commissioned, but rapidly Thunderbirds became old-news in the way Stingray had. For Gerry & Sylvia Anderson, the next thing was always going to be the biggest and best thing they had done. Time would tell though that their greatest and most enduring success was Thunderbirds - and it would certainly never be forgotten.
Although the cancellation of Thunderbirds was a shock to the studio, it by no means marked the end of the line for their unique style of puppet film-making and they continued to produce iconic programming. Whilst the later episodes of Thunderbirds were in production new ideas were being discussed and in August 1966 the first script materialised for a series entitled The Mysterons.
After a few modifications, the series, which was re-titled Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons , concerned the on-going ‘war of nerves’ between an extra-terrestrial, disembodied intelligence from Mars called The Mysterons, and the earth which is defended by a top military organisation called Spectrum. In the first episode, Spectrum assigns two of its many colour-coded agents, Captains Scarlet and Brown, to look after the World President. However, unknown to Spectrum, The Mysterons are capable of creating duplicates of anything or anyone they destroy and when the original Brown and Scarlet are killed in a road accident, it is their doppelgangers that meet with the President. Eventually, the Mysteron Brown is destroyed and the duplicate Scarlet falls to his apparent death, except… Miraculously, he is released from Mysteron control, but retains the abilities of retro-metabolism (the process by which he can renew himself). He therefore becomes indestructible and returns to Spectrum to do battle with The Mysterons as Spectrum’s number 1 agent.
The production of Captain Scarlet marked something of a sea of change at the studio. A number of the ‘first generation crew’, the people who had been with the company since the early days, such as Alan Pattillo, Brian Johnson and David Elliott had departed. The crew for Scarlet was very much the next generation. A number of the younger team, who had joined as junior staff on earlier series found themselves being offered welcome promotions. For instance, Alan Perry, who had started at the age of 18 as a clapper / loader on Four Feather Falls now found himself elevated to the position of Director. Indeed, all the regular pool of directors on Scarlet were new hands. The only previously experienced directors had either left, or been promoted themselves.
With the prominent position that Century 21 had carved for itself in the British film industry, the company finally shed the last vestiges of its cottage industry approach, and the transformation into a well-oiled machine, churning out product, was complete. Supervising Director Desmond Saunders recalls the ad hoc organisation as the situation slowly evolved: “By the time we got to Thunderbirds, after Stingray, we had got ourselves slightly better organised in terms of pre-production and co-ordination between the various departments that all contributed to making this series. You have to remember that we had the puppeteers, the wardrobe department, the special effects department and another several people that all needed to be consulted as a team in order to get things ready on time, so that when you wanted it, it would be there. Up to a point we got that right, without the assistance of production managers and people to co-ordinate these things.”
As Thunderbirds had progressed, elements were slowly introduced to aid the efficiency of production, from small touches such as issuing various personnel with electronic bleepers, through to a major organisational change with the appointment of a dedicated Production Manager, Norman Foster. For Captain Scarlet it was finally decided to bring Century 21 in line with the major studios. “What they wanted to do with Captain Scarlet was make it more like a professional film studio’s production in keeping with the way other television series were done,” says Leo Eaton, who was brought in as an assistant director on the series. “I was a Second Assistant Director on The Saint, and Frank Hollands was my First Assistant. Gerry Anderson asked him to come over to be Production Manager on Captain Scarlet and then he called me and asked did I want to be a First Assistant which would be a jump up for me. If I did well, and everybody liked me, I would get a chance to direct, which is what happened.”
Eaton was the Assistant Director on the first episode of the new series. Like other new crew members, used to the traditional labours of working with actors, Eaton found himself undergoing a brief adjustment period, getting to grips with a variety of factors, including the fact that all the sound was artificially produced and dubbed later, meaning that studio noise was unimportant. He explains: “Part of a First’s job is to keep the crew quiet and call, ‘Silence everyone!’ I remember that the first time I called for quiet on the stage, one of the puppeteers said, ‘Why!?’”
Eaton continues: “The thing that I remember is how noisy those stages were. I mean, if it rained hard, you really couldn’t hear yourself think. There were tin or corrugated iron roofs and the rain would just beat off them. You were literally yelling on the floor to get things done.”
Some of the ‘old hands’ whose work consisted entirely of Century 21 films were hit by a culture shock, when organisation resembling a factory line was implemented. Eaton laughs this off: “Remember, I had come from a real factory. When you’re doing an episodic series like The Saint where you’re shooting one episode every seven days and you have a huge crew – that is absolutely a well-organised machine. I think the people on Scarlet that were saying that it was a bit more factory-like, were saying so because of innovations that people like Frank brought in. To me, coming from a proper factory environment, Captain Scarlet was playing!”
For many of the old hands though, these changes were unwelcome and they longed for the halcyon days of Four Feather Falls when they had not been the cogs of a major company, but friends pulling together doing a fun job.
The other major change that came with Captain Scarlet was to the puppets themselves. Finally, Anderson’s dream of producing the perfectly proportioned marionette had arrived and the old Thunderbirds style puppets were phased out (although they did manage one last outing in Thunderbird 6 which was being filmed simultaneously on another stage).
Captain Scarlet was another success for Century 21, spawning a slew of its own related merchandise. However, it lived in the shadow of Thunderbirds and so there was no talk of doing another series of Scarlet.
Next up for Century 21 was Joe 90, the on-going adventures of a 9-year-old secret agent, who, with the aid of his step-father’s secret machine, receives brain patterns from top professionals allowing him to carry out a range of daring missions involving anything from scuba diving to going into space. Again, despite high hopes Joe 90 did not turn out to be a massive hit and soon it became apparent that the puppet stars were coming to the end of their lives. Merchandise sales started to go into decline, and in 1968 Century 21 Magazine, which had been a phenomenal success opened its pages to non-Anderson content. It wouldn’t be long before it was sold off and within a couple of years it would disappear altogether.
Despite the failure of Thunderbird 6 and the moderate successes of Scarlet and Joe 90, the Andersons were not too downhearted. Finally, after years of waiting, the wish to produce a live-action project had come true and in conjunction with Universal Pictures they were making the feature film Doppelganger, a peculiar tale about the discovery of another planet on the far side of the sun which is identical to the earth. The film, in keeping with the company’s other feature film output, was not a great success. However, Lew Grade felt that it showed that Century 21 were capable of producing live-action content, so instructed them to consider possible formats.
Meanwhile, back on the puppet stages, the next, what would soon turn out to be final, Supermarionation show went into production: The Secret Service.
The Secret Service was an odd show that didn’t really know who its audience was. Featuring light-entertainer Stanley Unwin, who was famous in Britain for his trademark confused language ‘Unwinese’. ‘Unwinese’ was an odd concept in which Unwin would speak what would initially appear to be nonsense, yet somehow could be understood by the listener (a difficult concept to explain in writing!). Gerry was a fan of Unwin’s and thought that casting him would bring an unusual element to the next show and some welcome publicity.
The Secret Service features Stanley Unwin playing a sort of version of himself. However, in this world, he is not a comic, but a Priest who has a secret double-life as a secret agent. When he needs to confuse the enemy, he speaks to them in Unwinese. It was an odd concept, in the mould of The Avengers and other, more traditional ITC espionage series. Unfortunately, it was not grown-up enough for the adults and not child-like enough for the children. Lew Grade got only halfway through the first episode when he leapt up from his seat and told Gerry to cancel the show. This bad news came tinged with better news for Gerry though – finally Lew was to free him permanently from the marionettes and let him work full-time in live-action.
When the concluding episode of The Secret Service was complete, Supermarionation died.
It had all begun with an advert in a newspaper long, long ago. A two-line notice had shaped the future both in the real world and the puppet world. From humble beginnings in a toyshop where a little girl set her sights on a ‘Twizzle’ toy, APF / Century 21 had gone on to become one of the most prolific studios in the country and true pioneers in their field. They had struggled with methods now taken for granted, from video-assist through to filming in colour. With the passage of time, it is now clear that the tiny film studio in Slough changed the industry as we know it, and its place in media history is assured.
On January 24th 1969, the puppet studios closed.
The area they vacated did not remain empty for long, because the special effects unit, which would be needed for the new venture involving live actors, expanded to fill the space and was refitted for its new function.
Century 21 would continue for one more production. The puppets, however, had seen their day. On that final day, Rowena White wrote in her diary:
Last day. All had champagne. Cried.