In 1960, as filming on Four Feather Falls was coming to an end, Gerry was invited to make a low-budget b-movie by Stuart Levy and Nat Cohen of Anglo Amalgamated. The film was planned to accompany one of Anglo’s major releases and as they were one of Britain’s leading film distributors, Gerry saw this as a great opportunity to break into serious movie making. The budget was a meagre £16,250 but nevertheless, Gerry immediately commissioned Alun Falconer to write a script, which was eventually called Crossroads To Crime. The film was shot in the vicinity of AP Film studios and was a standard crime-thriller that starred Anthony Oliver in the lead role of PC Don Ross. Location work was undertaken between May and June 1960, with one day’s shooting of interiors at Shepperton. An in-joke was included in the 54-minute film. In one scene a group of youths are sitting around a jukebox and as a record finishes one of them suggests the next song they put on be the theme from Four Feather Falls. When Gerry showed the finished product to Nat Cohen, the Anglo Amalgamated executive sat in stony silence for a moment before looking at Gerry and saying, “Well, I’ve seen worse.”
Soon after the movie Gerry was offered work by Nicholas Parson’s own production company. Parson’s had been employed by Gerry as a voice artist on Four Feather Falls and saw this as a way of repaying the favour. The commercials were made on a shoestring budget for Blue Cars Holidays and one of them, featuring Parson’s and his wife, Denise Bryer, dressed as Martians won a prestigious Grand Prix prize at the first ever British Television Commercials Awards in 1961.
In spite of all this activity, the future for AP Films didn’t look all that promising. Reg Hill had produced a lavish brochure for Supercar, but with Granada not even taking his phone-calls, said brochure sat in a drawer in Gerry’s office. Gerry made arrangements for the company to go into voluntary liquidation, whilst at the same time phoning everyone in the industry that he knew to try and find some work. One of those calls was to Frank Sherwin Green, an old friend from Beaconsfield Studios. Green in turn suggested Gerry contact a man called Connery Chapel and after looking over the set-up at AP Films Chapel agreed to accept some shares in the company in return for an introduction to the Deputy Managing Director of Associated Television, Lew Grade.
Gerry Anderson did not know who Lew Grade was, nor is it likely that he was all that interested. At this point Grade was beginning to build a reputation as one of the most influential executives in the history of British TV. But Gerry was oblivious to this. Here was an opportunity to save his company and turn into reality the project that had been gathering dust in his office drawer for many months. On the day that Gerry Anderson travelled to London to meet Lew Grade for the first time that was probably all that was on his mind.
In Grade’s office, Gerry pitched the idea for Supercar. Grade seemed to be impatient to Gerry but the chances are he was already weighing up the likelihood of selling such a product abroad. Lew Grade knew the importance of international sales and was quoted as saying, "No one but a fool makes television for the British market alone. Without the guarantee of an American outlet he will lose his shirt." The chances are that while Gerry was putting his case to Lew, the TV exec was already doing the math. As Gerry came to the end of his sales pitch Lew asked the inevitable question, “How much?”
“£3,000 an episode.” Said Gerry
With that, Lew Grade leapt from his chair and slammed his fist down on the desk and barked “That’s ridiculous! I can’t possibly afford that much for a programme of this sort!”
Gerry was speechless. He hadn’t been prepared for such an outburst and figured he’d blown his chance. But before he got a chance to put on his coat and back out of the office Lew Grade’s mood changed. “I’ll give you an immediate order for twenty-six episodes provided you cut the budget in half” he told a stunned Anderson. “And I want you back here tomorrow at 7.30am with an answer.” It was a classic Lew Grade approach. The chances are he never expected Gerry to be able to cut the budget in half for one moment. But he knew that by putting the pressure on Gerry to come up with the goods, he’d get the same show for a much better price. Gerry didn’t know this and raced back to AP Films with the news. He and the crew worked through the night trimming as many unnecessary costs as possible including cutting back on the number of puppets, sets and salaries. By morning they realised it was impossible to meet Lew Grade’s target.
Gerry duly arrived at Lew Grade’s office the next morning at the appointed time and told the executive that no matter how hard they tried the best they could get the budget down to was a third. “Okay,” said Lew, “you’ve got deal. But I want it within six months.” Gerry then asked Grade if he could have a letter confirming that, to which he was subjected to another desk hammering. “Just so long as you work for me, remember this;” stormed Grade. “My word is better than any written contract.” And as Gerry had to admit later, Lew Grade was always as good as that word. Within four days the first cheque had arrived and Supercar was ready to fly.
The idea for Supercar was of a craft that could travel on land, under the sea, and through the air and was far more fantastical and futuristic than anything AP Films had come up with before. But as before, the new series was used to inject far more realism into the puppets and props than had been used previously. To help in this Gerry went to meet a man called William Shakespeare, who made artificial eyes. Gerry explained to Shakespeare that the eyes he wanted were for a puppet series and after confirming that they could be made to the scale that Gerry required, he asked how much a pair would cost. Shakespeare thought for a moment and said, “I don’t know. I’ve never been asked to make a pair before!”
But by far, the star of the show was the craft itself, Supercar. Based in a secret location in the Nevada desert in a laboratory which was equipped with a central hangar for the craft, further laboratories for the two scientists and living quarters for the whole team, Supercar was manned by Mike Mercury who would check all it's systems before a vertical take-off when the craft would rise through the lab's retracting roof doors. Supercar had eight rockets and retractable wings, which were operated electronically and could be controlled from afar by using a special remote device. The craft was also equipped with radar and sonar as well as something called 'ClearView', which via a cockpit display screen allowed the pilot to see through clouds, fog or storms. When travelling on land Supercar didn't actually touch the ground, but hovered just above the surface. Under the sea a periscope was brought into use when necessary. Designed, made and painted by Reg Hill and costing around £1,000 to construct there were two models of Supercar, one which stood 25 feet long and a puppet version which stood about 7 feet long. Both had a Perspex canopy.
Gerry also insisted that the scripts were ‘written up’, in other words, they had to have adult appeal. Gerry himself always masterminded scripts for all of his produced series pilots. Another element that the crew came to refer as ‘Andersonised’ was also employed: This involved rapid action, fast cut sequences played against a dramatic opening theme, and in this case utilised back-projection; aerial photography that Gerry and John Read had shot themselves from a twin-engined Airspeed Oxford.
As previously stated, Gerry had already laid the foundations for the process known a Supermarionation, and with Supercar, it appeared on screen for the first time. Gerry created the term as an amalgam of ‘super marionette’ and it was featured on promotional literature produced by AP Films and hailed as a ‘new TV discovery’. The voice synchronisation technique was only part of it and added to that were interchangeable puppet heads so they could be seen with different expressions, wires that were painted the same colour as the background rendering them almost invisible, and a host of film making methods, the aforementioned back projection as well as front projection, location filming and full orchestral music scores.
The initial 26 episodes were filmed between September 1960 and May 1961 and began broadcasting on the ATV network on 28th January 1961. In the meantime Lew Grade had successfully sold the series to the USA, where it grossed $750,000 in its first eight weeks. Eventually it was broadcast coast to coast by 107 stations and became the country’s top rated children’s programme. It was the first ITC show to be sold to America and secured the future success of the company as well as Gerry Anderson. Another first for Gerry was AP Merchandising, a company set up purely to cash in on the merchandising of his product; something that these days is taken for granted but hardly heard of in 1960. AP Merchandising produced a range of Supercar books, dolls, toys, games and play sets and within three years could boast retail sales exceeding £750,000.
During the filming of Supercar, Gerry’s divorce came through and he and Sylvia wasted no time in getting married. They had a simple ceremony at London’s Caxton Hall registry office before Gerry had to rush back to the studio to continue filming the series.
There was only one series of Supercar ever intended although due to the way it was transmitted it appeared as two seasons. The first ‘season’ of 26 episodes appeared in the London region of ITV between January and August 1961 and the second ‘season’ of 13 episodes ran from February to April 1962. However, in other ITV regions where the series did not begin until September 1961 all 39 episodes were shown in a continuous run.
For his next series Gerry decided to pump up the science fiction element. In view of the space race at that time between America and Russia his timing couldn’t have been better. The public’s imagination had been captured as the two super-powers challenged each other to put the first man into orbit. Russia won –with cosmonaut Uri Gagarin becoming the first man to leave the Earth’s atmosphere and orbit the planet for a 108-minute journey in the spaceship Vostock 1. A few weeks later, not to be outdone by their cold-war adversaries, America’s President John F. Kennedy announced the first Apollo program that was destined to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade.
Gerry’s proposal for the new series, to be called Century 21, was presented to Lew Grade in a spiral bound hand-made brochure prepared by Reg Hill with full colour illustrations by Hill and Derek Meddings (who had joined AP Films on a regular basis during the filming of Supercar). Grade immediately agreed to finance a series of 26 episodes (later expanded to 39) on the understanding that the first episode would be ready for broadcast by October. Round about this time the series title was changed to Nova X 100 before going into production as Fireball XL5 –inspired by the motor oil Castrol XL.
Set in the year 2063, Fireball XL5 introduced a theme that would constantly reappear in subsequent Anderson produced series: that of a worldwide organisation acting to unify all the governments and countries of the world. In this case it is the United Planets Organisation whose member planets work together in order to maintain peace throughout the galaxy. Earth’s own peacekeeping force is the World Space Patrol, based on a Pacific island off the coast of Chile and operating out of Space City headquarters.
Like their predecessors in Supercar, the puppets for Fireball XL5 had fibre glass heads which contained solenoid cells to automatically control their lip movements as they reacted to the vocal pitches of the human voices speaking their words, which were pre-recorded and played back from the control room of the studio where filming took place. Accompanying Steve Zodiac (voiced by Paul Maxwell) were Professor Matthew (Matt) Matic, a navigation mathematics genius, who had his own navigation bay on the ship. Also on board was attractive blonde, Venus, a continental accented doctor of space medicine, with her own laboratory on the craft (voiced by Sylvia Anderson). Another of the regulars was Robert the Robot, a transparent mechanization and automatic pilot of the ship, who could walk when controlled by sound waves. He did however have one eccentricity: If his orders were changed or anything went wrong, steam would come out of his electronic head! This was the first and last Anderson creation to feature a character voiced by Gerry Anderson himself, the robot's electronic voice being achieved via the use of a device which was based on an artificial larynx. However, Anderson had to press his mouth very close to the device making it impossible for him to pronounce the letter 'h'. This gave Robert a very distinctive catchphrase "On our way 'ome". Among the many other characters who came into the stories from episode to episode was a lovable monkey-like creature called Zoonie of the Lazoon race.
This being the most elaborate Anderson series to date, the talented backroom crew created a special effects studio which was added to the existing one, and it was here that Space City was built, enabling close-ups to be shot of the spaceships being fired from their rocket bases and returning safely to land. Gerry and Sylvia Anderson wrote the opening episode with the remaining thirty-eight being penned by Alan Fennell, Anthony Marriott and Dennis Spooner. (Fennell went on to edit the superior Anderson based comic TV21, which featured XL5 and was accompanied by stunning artwork). The theme to Fireball, sung by Don Spencer was released as a single in 1963 and spent a total of twelve weeks in the charts, reaching its highest position (32) on 23rd March. In the UK, the series reached number seven in the TV charts and when Lew Grade sold it to the USA it performed well beyond anyone’s expectations on the NBC Network.
During one of his periodic meetings with Grade the up and coming TV mogul said to Gerry “I’m going to buy your company.” Gerry’s initial reaction was “What a bloody cheek this guy’s got!” although he didn’t say it out loud. Probably just as well, because in the next breath Grade told Gerry how much he intended to pay for it. Gerry’s next thought was “What a good idea that Lew should want to buy my company!” Not long after that meeting Gerry received a similar approach by the cinema advertising giant Pearl and Dean, but ultimately went with Lew Grade, even though it wasn’t as clear cut as he first thought. Grade explained to Gerry that the deal wouldn’t be closed until he had been promoted to Managing Director of ATV, which was imminent. In any event it was around six weeks before Lew Grade purchased AP Films as well as its two subsidiary companies, AP Merchandising and Arrow Publishing.
Grade’s buy-out stipulated that Gerry would continue to run AP, and one of his first decisions was to lease and equip a larger premises on another part of the Slough Industrial Estate, on Stirling Road. This housed three shooting stages, production offices, a preview theatre and 12 cutting rooms. Here he would shoot his next series, Stingray.
Gerry Anderson’s third venture into Supermarionation, and his first to be filmed in colour (even though it could only be shown in black and white on it’s first run in the UK), Stingray was possibly the first puppet series to win the appreciation of an adult audience. Stingray was a high-tech, atomic powered, super-sub armed with sting missiles and captained by Troy Tempest. Tempest's physical appearance was modelled on a favourite movie actor of Gerry Anderson's wife - James Garner. Based in Marineville at the headquarters of WASP (World Aquanaut Security Patrol), the crew of Stingray came under constant threat from Titan, lord of the underwater city of Titanica, who was the leader of evil Aquaphibians, (the humans were dubbed 'Terrainians') a submerged race of people who roamed the deep sea in their mechanical Terror Fish crafts, that were able to fire missiles from their gaping fish mouths. On land, Titan’s agent was Artura, code named X20.
Although most of the scenes took place under water, hardly any of the models were ever immersed in one of the two large tanks housed within the studio. Reg Hill and Derek Meddings came up with an idea where one of the tanks was filled with fish of differing sizes from three inches to half an inch in length. The tank stood on a piece of curved backing paper on which a seabed was painted, known as a cyclorama. A shadowing effect was achieved by cutting shapes out of a disc placed in front of the light that when turned created a moving pattern. The surface of the tank was then disturbed to get a rippling effect. Models were then filmed between the tank and the cyclorama to give the effect of 'swimming.'
Stingray was significant for being the first Gerry Anderson series to be shot in colour, and although it has often been stated that it was the first British series to have been so filmed, this is incorrect. That distinction went to The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, some years before. But it’s true to say that Stingray was the first series shot in colour in its entirety. When Gerry suggested colour to Lew Grade both men were aware of the added appeal to overseas audiences especially the USA, Canada and Japan, and so Grade had no problem with the extra costs for colour film for which APF very quickly became the country’s largest consumer, getting through over a million feet in a year (that figure would treble in 1965). Stingray cost £20,000 per episode.
In 1963, Japanese executives were treated to a special feature-length episode of Stingray in which Commander Shore and Admiral Denver watch over videotapes of four Stingray adventures. These were in fact four of the TV episodes linked together by an additional 4½ minutes of footage. The framing sequences for these were rediscovered in 2001 at which time they were included on Carlton Visual Entertainment’s Stingray Volume 3 DVD release.
Stingray proved to be a worldwide success with manufacturers clamouring for licences. Among them was Lyons Maid who produced an iced-lollipop called Sea Jet. AP Films shot sequences for the TV ad campaign. But one of the biggest merchandising successes for AP was the launch, on Wednesday 23rd January 1965, of a weekly colour comic called TV Century 21 or, as it has become more popularly known, TV21. Selling for 7d which was slightly higher than the average children’s comic then available, TV21 was, like all of Anderson’s puppet series, far superior than its competitors. Printed on high quality smooth paper (as opposed to the newsprint type) it also included a number of other TV shows that were popular with youngsters, such as My Favourite Martian, Get Smart!, Burke’s Law, The Munsters and, in something of a coup for the comic, The Daleks (but not Doctor Who). The comic proved such a big hit that a year later, Lady Penelope, aimed specifically at girls, was added to AP’s catalogue and between them the two comics combined circulation totalled 1,300,000 copies a week, a phenomenal total that has not been bettered by any British comic to this day.
Encouraged by the popularity of the comics, Gerry instigated Century 21 Records in association with Pye Records to produce a series of 21-minute EP’s featuring abridged versions of the TV episodes of his shows, usually narrated by one of the principle characters.
Even whilst Stingray was still in production, Gerry was making plans for his next series. The working title for it was ‘International Rescue’. Gerry talked his plans over with Lew Grade then went to Portugal with Sylvia, feeling that the only way he could concentrate on getting the formula just right, was to be as far away from the filming studios in Slough as possible. By the time they returned, Gerry had finished the script for the opening episode. He had also given it a new, punchier title, which was inspired by the airfield near where his brother had trained. It was to be called Thunderbirds.
The show’s central premise was stunning in its simple and economical effectiveness. Operating from their base located on an isolated atoll in the Pacific, Millionaire ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy and his five sons, Scott, John, Virgil, Gordon and Alan, formed the core of the altruistic secret organisation "International Rescue". The premise for the show was influenced by a German mining disaster where a group of miners had been trapped underground and the efforts made to save them. Gerry pondered the idea of a secret organisation that would turn up just in the nick of time when all hope seemed lost, and using ultra-modern rescue equipment, and fantastic, futuristic machines, raced against the clock to save the day.
With a budget of £25,000 per episode, filming began in the late summer of 1964 and by late September, nine of the proposed 26 half-hour episodes were 'in the can.' The opening episode 'Trapped In The Sky' was then screened for Grade who on seeing it exclaimed, “This isn’t a television series, it’s an epic!” and promptly ordered each episode to be doubled in length and increased the budget to £38,000 for each hour. New footage had to be shot for each of the 'completed' episodes and by the time the first had debuted on ITV, Grade had commissioned a further six episodes along with a £250,000 feature film. Matt Zimmerman, who voiced the character of Alan Tracy in Thunderbirds, remembers the recordings very well. “We used to record the stories once a month on a Sunday and we did three episodes at a time. We'd go down to Slough and to a small studio where we'd have a read through of the first script and at that point Sylvia would say "Matt, can you do the voice of that other character too, and Shane (Rimmer – the voice of Scott) you do this one and we'd share the voices between us. It was great fun, and what's more we did it on the Sunday and the cheque arrived Tuesday morning!”
Public response to the series was phenomenal, and the series immediately won £350,000 in overseas sales. It also won over some very influential fans, as Matt Zimmerman recalls: “One of my treasures is that the astronaut Alan Shepherd was a fan of Thunderbirds and he signed an Alan Tracy/Thunderbird 3 card 'Best of Luck namesake, Alan Shepherd.' They came over from NASA, the man who built the nose-cone for the rockets was holding my hand and holding out a card saying "Can you sign this for me?" and I was saying "Why me?" and he'd say "Because Gerry Anderson did on screen things we are starting to do now!”
Unfortunately, America decided not to show the series in its full 60-minute version and each show was split into thirty minutes with the first half hour finishing on a cliff-hanger. Thunderbirds wasn’t the hit in America that it was round the rest of the world (it sold to 65 countries) and, even though it was shown coast-to-coast, one has to wonder if this influenced Lew Grade's decision not to renew it for a second series. However, before this Grade, now Sir Lew Grade, came up with the idea to transfer Thunderbirds to the big screen.
"Thunderbirds Are Go" was premiered with glittering ceremony at the London Pavilion in Piccadilly Circus on Monday 12th December, 1966. Everyone was positive and upbeat about the film and the next day the press echoed these sentiments. Wherever the film was being shown it was accompanied by posters that declared, “Adults should be accompanied by a child!” To this day it is still a mystery to Gerry Anderson as to why it performed so poorly at the box office. Despite this setback, Gerry could content himself with two very high profile awards that year. On May 13th he was awarded a Silver Medal for Outstanding Artistic Achievement from the Royal Television Society, and later he was made an Honorary Fellow of the British Kinematograph Sound and Television Society.
By its end in 1966, Thunderbirds had become something of a national institution. The Tracy’s, along with the likes of such characters as their London based agent, Lady Penelope, and her shifty Cockney chauffeur, Parker, had gained a place in the collective consciousness that has endured to this day. The appeal of the show was universal, and has so far managed to recreate itself with every generation that discovers it.”
At the end of the production of the 22 episodes Gerry attended a meeting with Lew Grade, fully expecting to talk about the second series of Thunderbirds. Instead, he was taken aback when Grade began the conversation with, “I think it’s time we made a new show.”
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Article: Laurence Marcus. October 2005.