Gerry Anderson was totally unprepared for Lew Grade’s decision to drop Thunderbirds after just one season. It was, without any shadow of a doubt, a total bombshell: “All our planning was geared towards another series”, he told his biographer, Simon Archer.
The cancellation also came as a serious blow to the Century 21 Organisation. Large amounts of money had been tied up in merchandising and a factory in Hong Kong had been financed to produce Thunderbird toys in a significant quantity. But when the news broke that there would be no new series orders were cancelled all round the world. “We were caught with our pants down”, said Gerry. “We had a lot of merchandise aboard ships in transit.” Gerry claims that it was ‘a catastrophe’ that marked the beginning of the end. “The infrastructure was too big to sustain without a hit like Thunderbirds. Eventually, large amounts of toys were simply dumped.” But Grade was adamant. Gerry had to come up with a new series.
Gerry’s first idea was to turn away from puppet series and do a live action show. He pitched an idea to Lew Grade for an American cop show in which the lead character -who would be a big-name US star- was killed off half way through the series, to be replaced by another big name star. Grade told Gerry he needed his head examined! But when he finally came up with a formula for a new puppet series he hadn’t completely discarded the concept of killing off the lead character. Instead, he did it in the first episode!
Returning to a more fantastical science fiction element, Gerry came up with a plot that involved Earth being under threat from an alien menace, bent on the total destruction of the human race. The Mysterons from Mars would have the ability to destroy life and then reanimate it -but under their control and to do their bidding. The central hero in the new series would be an officer of a world police organisation called Spectrum (another incarnation of Anderson's unified world security organisations). He would be killed off in the first episode and taken under the alien’s control. But through a series of circumstances that control would be broken and he would return to fight the good fight against Earth’s menace with one added advantage; he’d be virtually indestructible. The new series was to be called Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons.
As one might expect there was one eye heavily focused on merchandising, and along with their different coloured uniforms the Spectrum agents packed hardware aplenty. Spectrum Pursuit Vehicles, Maximum Security Vehicles and Angel Interceptors all found their way onto the toy shelves, with the SPV becoming Dinky's best-selling toy of all time. Spectrum’s ‘mission control’ was a vast platform floating high above the clouds and was called-appropriately-Cloudbase. “My inspiration was a hangover from the Second World War,” said Gerry. “When the German bombers were sighted heading towards London, the was a big scramble to get the Spitfires off the ground as quickly as possible. They used to fold their undercart up as soon as they left the ground and the engines went full bore. But it took them about twenty minutes to climb high enough to intercept the bombers at around sixteen thousand feet.” Using this inspiration, Cloudbase also became the launching pad for Spectrum’s supersonic Angel Interceptor aircraft.
It was Gerry's idea to name the cast after colours, with the colours indicating each character's personality. Hence Captain Black was the traitor, Colonel White the upright commander and Scarlet the dynamic action hero. Actor Francis Matthews voiced Captain Scarlet in a deliberate imitation of Cary Grant. "It wasn't exactly what we were looking for," explained Anderson. "But it sounded great so we used it."
What differentiated ‘Scarlet’ most from Gerry's earlier series was the decidedly darker tone of the scripts. The puppets were made to look like the actors who supplied their voices and were also given a full biographical background -both Lt. Green and Captain Grey had previously been assigned to WASP, the organisation that ran the Stingray project. Another departure from previous Gerry Anderson series was the opening titles, which took on a more sinister atmosphere. "The titles on the series were always devised by me," he recalled in an interview. "When it came to Scarlet I was frightened people would say "Oh, it's the same old crash, bang, wallop stuff again." So I made a conscious effort to do something totally different. I don't think I necessarily did the right thing."
In many respects the underlying atmosphere was tinged with a degree of futility, as each new gambit in the Mysterons on-going "war of nerves" served to highlight their ultimate superiority over the much less advanced - and hardly blameless in the first place – humans.
The series also presented Gerry with the opportunity to abandon the disproportionate heads of previous series in favour of perfectly proportioned puppets. However, this created its own particular problems. The electromagnets and solenoids that operated the mouth and eyes could no longer be housed in the puppets heads and had to be placed in the chest cavity. The eyes had to be smaller too and to make them look as real as possible John Read photographed the eyes of some members of the staff before reducing the colour prints to the correct size and then sticking them onto the half spheres that formed the eyeball. With meticulous care the irises had to be placed in the centre of the eye and this proved to be a very fiddly operation and was also very time-consuming.
The smaller head, now a lot lighter in weight, was more difficult to manoeuvre and to get it to move convincingly the puppeteers had to stand just out of shot with their fingers ready to twist the wires from just above the head. Because the wires carried an electrical current they had to be insulated so the operators didn’t receive a shock. Not everyone was convinced that making the puppets head more proportionate to the body was the right thing to do. John Brown, who was the Gerry Anderson’s head of puppets, made a prototype and put it next to Lady Penelope for comparison. “Some people were horrified by at the difference.” He Said. Sculptor John Blundall was one of them: “we should always try to do with puppets what you can’t do with humans,” he said in an interview. “The naturalistic heads on Captain Scarlet were ridiculous in my opinion.”
Despite hearing the voices of the Mysterons the viewers never actually got to see them. What they did see were two glowing rings that were projected over each of the aliens’ victims just before they were reanimated. The inspiration for this was an OXO advertisement on television where the name of the product was projected onto a frying pan and over a girls figure. Gerry liked the idea and decided to utilise it. It was one of the show's cheaper effects.
With a budget of £1,500,000 for the series, filming began on Monday 27th January, 1967. Each episode took two weeks to shoot. During filming of 'Captain Scarlet', Gerry was also filming the second Thunderbirds movie, "Thunderbird 6" and this caused delays to the 'Scarlet' shooting schedule. Therefore, instead of completing all 32 episodes in eight months the last episodes were not in the can until the end October 1967.
From the merchandising point of view the big guns were rolled out for Christmas 1967 with a massive publicity campaign. Promotions were staged at around 1,200 retail outlets around the country aided by two teams of ‘Spectrum’ agents, uniformed up and touring the UK in specially painted Mini-Mokes. They didn’t just confine themselves to toyshops and department stores either and the teams visited local schools and cinemas, everywhere, in fact, where there were children and their parents. The press were utilised too and one of Britain’s biggest newspapers, the Daily Express, informed its readers of ‘…television’s biggest gamble…marking the arrival of American business techniques.’
A new comic was released which urged its readers to ‘help fight the Mysterons’ although ‘Solo’ was generally considered to be a poor substitute for ‘TV21.’
It’s hard to say whether Thunderbird’s was just too hard an act to follow, whether Gerry, who was busy on other projects at that time, didn’t put as much effort into the series, whether the pre-publicity hype had gone too far or it was simply that Captain Scarlet wasn’t as good as previous Gerry Anderson series, that ultimately left slightly older fans feeling the series was something of an anti-climax.
Certainly Gerry was less involved in the day-to-day running of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, mainly because he was paying attention to a second Thunderbird movie. In spite of cancelling the show and the disappointing performance of the first movie, Lew Grade and United Artists had enough faith in Gerry to bankroll Thunderbird Six. With a budget of £300,000-production for the movie began during the filming of Captain Scarlet.
The storyline for this second feature film involved International Rescue being lured into a trap by their archenemy, The Hood. As a result, when they are needed to effect a rescue on a futuristic airship they are unable to use any of the famous Thunderbird craft or any of the equipment they normally carry. In the end, they use an old Tiger Moth biplane to save the day.
The film required a number of stunt flying scenes using a real Tiger Moth with ace pilot Joan Hughes at the controls. Hughes had over 9,500 hours and thirty-two years of flying experience behind her and had done a fair bit of movie work in the past in ‘Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines’ and ‘The Blue Max’, among others. For the Thunderbird feature Hughes would be flying out of Booker Airfield in Buckinghamshire and permission was granted from the Department of Transport and the Ministry of Civil Aviation to shoot scenes over sections of the M40 motorway, which at that time was still under construction. Originally, the scene called for Hughes to fly the plane under a bridge at Lane End between junctions 4 and 5. However, the MCA refused permission for this and insisted that the stunt could only be made if the planes wheels were in contact with the road.
Hughes made several passes of the bridge in order to accomplish the stunt but on one approach a sudden crosswind caused a potential crash situation. Calling on all her experience as a pilot, Hughes made a last second decision that the only option was to fly under the bridge as originally planned. The films Production Manager, Norman Foster, was immediately arrested and charged on seventeen counts of breaking the law. Hughes was also charged but for Foster it was more serious. Had he been found guilty he would have faced a potential six months in prison for each offence.
The case was eventually heard at Aylesbury Crown Court where both Foster and Hughes were acquitted. However, permission to film over the M40 was withdrawn and the production team had to fall back on their tried and tested methods by building a miniature motorway and a model Tiger Moth. Alas, these didn’t look as good as the real thing. And the movie didn’t fare any better at the box office. Once again the series failed to make an impact with Britain’s theatre-going public and returns were even poorer than for the first feature.
In spite of this, Gerry was given another chance to make a feature film only this time he’d been given the chance to do something he’d always wanted to do from the start of his career. He’d be working with live actors. Sylvia Anderson remembers: “I always wanted to get into films, I bombarded Lew Grade with ideas all the time, and I campaigned very hard to try and make a really big movie.” Gerry says that in spite of the two disappointing Thunderbird films he was still very much Lew Grade’s ‘golden boy’.
When Gerry heard that Universal Studios had set up a European office in London and had several million dollars to spend he immediately got in touch with executive Jay Kanter. With Lew's blessing, Gerry pitched an idea to Kanter from an original 194-page script he had written with Sylvia some years earlier. Sylvia remembers ‘Doppelganger’, as it was called, as originally being prepared as an hour-long drama for ATV. “We'd had a call from Joe Douglas of ATV who was looking for hour long dramas, so I pulled it out of the drawer, but I felt it was too good to give away, so I thought, 'Let's make it into a film.’”
Kanter liked the idea of a science fiction series about a mirror image Earth on the other side of the sun that matched our Earth’s orbit exactly so that it was never seen by telescope. But he thought the script was a little short on characterisation. So Gerry bought in Donald James to ‘beef it up’. There was however, one other stipulation to the deal that didn’t leave Gerry or Sylvia entirely happy.
Gerry wanted David Lane to direct the movie but Kanter insisted on a ‘bankable’ US director. This delayed the filming by around ten week’s, as the two sides couldn’t agree on a director they both liked. In the end, Kanter used his authority to bring in Robert Parrish. It was clear from the start that Gerry and Robert Parrish were not going to get on. Gerry became frustrated when the director deleted whole scenes without discussing the decision first. At one point Gerry became so annoyed that he told Parrish that if he deleted any more scenes without reference he would be in breach on contract. Parrish’s response was to announce to the crew that the producer was forcing him to film scenes that he ‘didn’t really want, don’t need and will be cut out anyway.” But Gerry wasn’t the only one who wasn’t entirely happy with the director, as Sylvia Anderson remembered some years later. “I don't think Robert Parrish was a brilliant choice as director. They wanted an American so they could finance the film, but I think his direction was uninspired. We had a lot of trouble getting what we wanted from him.”
The 15 week shoot was dogged with other problems, too. The original female lead, Gayle Hunnicutt was taken ill just before production commenced and had to be replaced by Lynn Loring who had starred in the US TV series The FBI. Scenes starring Patrick Wymark (who had starred in TV’s The Power Game) and Peter Dyneley (the voice of Thunderbirds' Jeff Tracy) had to be re-shot after it was pointed out that there was a stark physical similarity between the two actors that might confuse the audience. Then in September 1968, location filming in Portugal had to be cut short when that countries Prime Minister was deposed and the crew feared being caught up in a coup.
One of the models for the movie included a six-foot rocket which caught fire and was seriously damaged and narrowly avoided seriously injuring one of the production crew. It then had to be hastily rebuilt. Derek Meddings also built a full action sized vehicle based on NASA’s space shuttle. But when the craft was transported to Pinewood studios it caused a row with the carpenters union who insisted that the prop should have been built there. Gerry was furious and eventually was forced into destroying the vehicle just so the Pinewood carpenters could rebuild it.
During the shoot Gerry also parted company with John Read after the two of them couldn’t agree on the filming of a certain scene.
Then Universal decided they didn’t like the title and feared that American audiences wouldn’t understand what it meant (because British audiences obviously would, right?). So, for the US release the movie was re-titled Journey to the Far Side of the Sun. Even with the new title Universal were still not happy and held the release back by twelve full months. Box office returns were disappointing even though in won the Hollywood Blue Ribbon Award for Best Screenplay (1969) and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Special Effects.
By the time Doppelganger was released Gerry was already involved with a new puppet series for television. Inspired by an article he’d read on how the human brain is controlled by electrical impulses, Gerry began to toy with the idea of recording people’s memories and thought patterns and transferring them to another’s brain. This was the basis for Joe 90.
Gerry’s ninth consecutive TV puppet series and the sixth in the ever expanding Supermarionation stable, Joe 90 marked the beginning of a conscious change of style and pace towards the more realistic sophistication of character design and technique which had begun with Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons.
Gone were the overtly hi-tech hardware and more traditionally epic heroics of previous Anderson outings, to be replaced by the smaller scaled secret agent adventures of a bespectacled nine-year-old schoolboy named Joe McClaine, who was the adopted son of brilliant electronics genius, Professor Ian McClaine, creator of the BIG RAT device, (Brain Impulse Galvanoscope Record And Transfer), a technologically sophisticated device which recorded the brain patterns and special skills of one person and transferred them to another.
At the suggestion of Shane Weston, Deputy Head of the World Intelligence Network, McClaine subjected Joe to the BIG RAT treatment, successfully transferring to the boy the specialist knowledge and attributes of an appropriate highly skilled adult, thereby making him WIN's "Most Special Agent". At the outset of each mission, Joe would be placed in a special chair that rose up into a circular cage, which revolved as the BIG RAT tape containing the chosen specialist's brain patterns was run and fed directly into the boy's mind. Once the transfer was complete, Joe would don a pair of 'electrode glasses' to trigger the new knowledge housed within him. Over the course of the series, his missions called upon him to adopt the personas of such diverse experts as an astronaut, test pilot, racing driver, aquanaut, computer boffin and a brain surgeon.
Among the well known vocal talents behind the characters were those of TV's original Maigret, Rupert Davies, and Keith Alexander, the voice of another 1960s puppet celebrity - Topo Gigio. Clearly the most child oriented of the latter Anderson Supermarionation series, Joe 90's appeal with the adult section of the audience which had been captured by Thunderbirds and its follow up series Captain Scarlet, suffered from the decision to make the all important central character a child. While still enjoyable and technically accomplished, ultimately Joe 90 is remembered as one of the Anderson stable's lesser series.
Gerry certainly had less to do with this series, and it would seem that a lot less resources were piled into it. A large revamp of previously used puppets was undertaken and apart from three of the principal characters, very few new models were created for Joe 90. As a consequence, in some episodes, some instantly recognizable faces are seen such as Captain Black, Colonel White and even Captain Scarlet himself.
Many TV stations, it seems, were less than enthusiastic about the series. It debuted on ATV Midlands and Tyne-Tees at the end of September 1968 and appeared shortly after in London on LWT and then elsewhere in the Southern and Anglia regions before screenings in the Harlech and Channel regions on Christmas Day. Inexplicably, Granada debuted it with episode 8, and the first episode, in which ‘Mac’ McClaine first demonstrates BIG RAT, didn’t appear until several weeks later. Yorkshire Television didn’t show the series for 13 years!
Just two days after principal photography had concluded on Joe 90, Gerry’s next puppet series was in production. The Secret Service was inspired by a chance meeting between Gerry and actor Stanley Unwin at Pinewood Studios during production of Doppleganger.
Professor Unwin, as he was affectionately known, found fame by twisting words into a nonsense language, which he called Unwinese, on radio and later TV in the 1940s and 1950s.
Born in Pretoria, South Africa, it was his mother who unwittingly provided him with the inspiration for his language. When she tripped up one day, she told her son that she had "falloloped over and grazed her knee clapper". Unwin developed his unique language by reading fairytales to his children, an example being: "Once a polly tie tode, a young lad set out in the early mordee, to find it deef wisdom and true love in flower petals arrayed."
One of his biggest fans was the late Tommy Cooper who once described him as "bleeding barmy". Unwin was also said to have influenced comedians such as Spike Milligan, Peter Cook, Freddie Starr and the Monty Python crew. He was also hugely popular with children. “As far as I was concerned,” said Gerry “Stanley came first and the idea had to accommodate him. It wasn’t that the show called for someone who could speak gobbledegook, it was a question of how we could fit him into the storyline.”
Originally, it was intended to make the series live action, but production costs prohibited this. And so, Gerry went for a mixture of live action and puppetry. A puppet of Unwin was made and the series went into production on Tuesday 20th August, 1968. In it, Unwin played an old-country vicar who was secretly a secret agent for BISHOP-British Intelligence Srvice Headquarters Operation Priest. It was an awful concept and made for an equally awful series. Thirteen episodes were in the can when Gerry took the pilot to Lew Grade. All was going well until Unwin’s character started to speak-Grade shouted for the lights to go up in the screening room and stormed, “Cancel It! I don’t want any more made.” And with that comment the Supermarionation productions of Gerry Anderson were bought to a close.
UFO to SPACE 1999
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Article: Laurence Marcus. October 2005.