TV bosses? Total idiots. Lady Penelope? Don't get me started. Outspoken Thunderbirds genius Gerry Anderson and the TV comeback that may not happen

By Jane Fryer
Last updated at 1:56 AM on 11th July 2009

Thunderbirds

Ooh la la: Lady Penelope and Parker indulge in some Parisian fashion and potentially some escargot in Thunderbirds

Thunderbirds creator Gerry Anderson is wearing flashy new trainers, blue jeans, a hearing aid - and is in a bit of a lather.

Not, right now, about the 2004 Thunderbirds film, starring Sir Ben Kingsley and Sophia Myles, which I foolishly mentioned earlier: 'It was c**p - utter c**p, and you can quote me on that!'

Or his ex-wife Sylvia, who provided the voice and (allegedly) the inspiration for Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward - his show's glamorous British secret agent, famous for her jewels, chauffeur-driven pink Rolls-Royce and stylish chain-smoking: 'I've no time for Sylvia. I haven't seen her for nearly 40 years and I hope I never see her again.'

Or even his recent tirade against the dreaded wheelie bins that have been making his and current (very lovely) wife Mary's life a misery in their pretty cottage near Henley-on-Thames: 'They just dumped the new bins on our doorstep without any consultation. The entire thing is a shambles.'

The object of his fury is that Thunderbirds are not go, despite more than three years of excited discussions and fudged promises. And unless things take a dramatic turn, they won't be any time soon.

Because while Anderson, 80, is the creative genius behind the cult 1965 series (as well as Stingray, Joe 90 and Captain Scarlet) and is desperate to remake it using 21st Century technology, he no longer owns the rights to the show - and ITV, which does, won't let him near them.

'It's madness. Everyone loves Thunderbirds - the bloody audience is out there waiting. What the hell is the matter with these people that they won't let me make it?

'It's beyond my understanding. Is it ageism? I even said I'd raise the money myself, for God's sake.

'I don't want you to think I'm over-emotional, but being able to remake Thunderbirds is the most important thing in my life. I can't believe they let that AWFUL film be made, but wouldn't let me do the remake.'

Oh dear. . . Not for nothing does Gerry have a reputation for speaking his mind. At length. 

'I'd keep the same characters, the same principles - good overcoming evil - but new machines, new places of concealment, new ways of rescuing people and it'd all be computer-generated.

'Just imagine. It'd be so nice if the team could actually walk and pick things up and open and close their mouths properly.'

Hang on a minute. The members of International Rescue acting like normal people? Walking, running, climbing, expressing their emotions without their enormous fibreglass heads bobbing about with every word, or getting tangled in their own strings in the middle of a death-defying stunt? Surely not.

Friction: Gerry Anderson with his ex wife Sylvia and a model of Lady Penelope who is said to be based on her

Friction: Gerry Anderson with his ex wife Sylvia and a model of Lady Penelope who is said to be based on her

What a change it would be from the good old days when props were made from bits of broken plastic, porridge was the key to a good eruption ('everyone knows that porridge makes the best lava'), toothpaste lids doubled as control knobs and the creative team went through condoms like hot cakes. 

'They had a wonderful time going to the chemist and asking the girls for 100 at a time. You see, they made terrific chins,' Gerry says with a twinkle. 

Eh? 'For the puppets. The lips and jawlines were made of fibreglass, but the bit between - you know, that flat bit below the mouth and above the jawline - was made from stretched condoms. It was the only material we could find, but it worked perfectly.'

With such inspired improvisations, Thunderbirds became the children's TV show of the Sixties (and again in the 1990s, thanks to repeats).

It turned the heroic Tracy family, Lady Penelope and her butler Parker into household names, and Gerry and his (then) wife Sylvia into the celebrity couple of the moment - rich, famous and with a luxury mansion in Gerrards Cross with its own aviary, kidney-shaped pool and blue Rolls-Royce in the drive.

It all started back in the 1950s when Gerry (who grew up in a one-room flat in North-West London - neighbours included a prostitute downstairs and a convicted wife-batterer next door) trained as a plasterer.

Unfortunately, he discovered he was allergic to dust - and so set up a film production company called AP with a couple of friends.

Thunderbirds Troy and Brains
Thunderbirds

Thunderbirds are go: Virgil Tracy with Brains, left and Alan Tracy, right

Thunderbird two

We have lift off: Thunderbird two is go

'We moved into a big mansion next to the Thames where we took a small ballroom for the stage and a flat for our office. We had printed notepaper and a filing cabinet and a telephone. Which never rang.'

Until one day the writer Roberta Leigh arrived out of the blue clasping a big carrier of scripts for a programme called The Adventures of Twizzle.

'She asked if we were interested in making them,' says Gerry today. 'And before she'd even finished speaking, we all shouted: "Yes!"

'Then she added "One more thing, it's to be made using puppets", and I nearly vomited on my shoe.

'I didn't know anything about puppets - I'd only ever seen them on television, bobbing up and down with those silly voices. My ambition was to be like Steven Spielberg is today, not filming puppets. But we couldn't turn it down.'

Thunderbirds film

'C**p - utter c**p': Gerry voices his opinions of 2004 film Thunderbirds starring Sophia Myles as Lady Penelope and Ron Cook as Parker

Horribly embarrassed by his new role as puppet-master, Gerry's solution was to make the programmes as close as possible to real life, constantly developing ever more impressive techniques to cover up for the fact that puppets can't walk, let alone run or jump.

'I was waiting for someone to say: "Hey Gerry, you're wasting your time doing this. You're a talented guy - you should be making live-action dramas." Instead of which, of course, the opposite happened and they said: "Hey Gerry, you make great puppet films - here's another one."'

And another and another. So Twizzle was followed by Four Feather Falls, Supercar, Fireball XL5 and Stingray, each more successful than the last.

Soon their tiny ballroom was swapped for a huge lot at Pinewood Studios and 250 staff.

Model series: Stingray was just one of Gerry Anderson's other hit shows

Model series: Stingray was just one of Gerry Anderson's other hit shows

Looks familiar: Marina from Stingray was just as glam as Lady P

Looks familiar: Marina from Stingray was just as glam as Lady P

And then, in 1964, Scott and Virgil Tracy and their stiff-jawed comrades from International Rescue raced into action with the biggest budget for any TV show of its era.

The idea came to Gerry in his car. 'A newsflash came on the radio about a mining disaster in Germany with men trapped underground.

'Special heavy drilling equipment was needed to save them. I thought an international rescue operation set in a science fiction context would work. And that was that.'

The name of the series came from his glamorous elder brother Lionel, who was a Mosquito pilot in World War II and flew over an airbase called Thunderbird Field in Arizona during his training.

'He mentioned it in a letter home and the name fired my imagination. I must have just mentally logged it because I never thought of it again until we needed a name for the series.'

Thanks to astonishing gadgetry, outlandish scripts and inspired special effects, the series was an instant hit. The Tracy brothers were all named after American astronauts of the time and had very familiar faces - Scott Tracy was supposedly inspired by Sean Connery, John by Adam Faith and Charlton Heston, Jeff Tracy by Lorne Greene of Bonanza fame and Alan by Robert Reed of the Brady Bunch.

Captain Scarlet flashes his baby blues in the cult series

Red hot: Captain Scarlet flashes his baby blues in the cult series

'Parker was the best, though,' says Gerry. 'He was based on a waiter called Arthur at a pub in Cookham.

'He'd obviously poshed up and started using haitches, but they always popped up on the wrong place: "I h'am going to do that."

'Parker became a huge hit, but we never told Arthur. We didn't know if he'd see the funny side or not...'

And, erm, Lady Penelope? Gerry seems to have overlooked her. Wasn't she based on Sylvia? They certainly looked very similar in their respective heydays.

'Lady Penelope was based on Sylvia. Well, so Sylvia says,' he says stiffly. 'The puppeteers made the puppets, not me. I've been told she was copied from a model on a shampoo advert.

'Put it this way, Sylvia actually came to believe that she was Lady Penelope and the character was just an extension of her.

'Of course she did the voice, but we had a number of voice artists - one played Scott, one played Jeff. One played Brains. Not one of them goes around saying "I'm Jeff Tracy" or: "Did you know that I'm Scott?" Of course not!'

The Andersons' bitter differences are no great secret. They've rowed publicly over creative input - Sylvia's always insisted she was an equal partner and Gerry became horribly jealous of her and Lady Penelope's fame

'The newspapers always wanted to photograph me and Lady Penelope together, which made Gerry jealous,' she remarked in 1991. 'He was like a comedian who starts counting the lines and complaining that his partner is getting all the attention.'

Joe 90

Not like other boys: Through the genius of his adopted father, Joe 90 became the World Intelligence Networks top secret agent at just nine years old

Gerry, meanwhile, insists he only made his former secretary a director of the company in a moment of kindness, after he'd dictated the entire first episode of Thunderbirds to her and her wrist was hurting from the shorthand.

'It's the biggest mistake of my life. It was a moment of generosity that created a monster,' he says.

Things started unravelling in 1972 when Gerry bought a cottage in Hertfordshire with a bridging loan - only to discover that the pub next door was horribly noisy. He couldn't resell the house.

Eventually he had to sell his company - and, crucially, the rights to its programmes - to TV mogul Lew Grade. 'If I hadn't sold them, I'd be a multi-millionaire by now.' And, presumably, able to remake Thunderbirds to his heart's content.

But Gerry and Sylvia's bitterest fight came after their divorce - over access to their son, Gerry Junior.

'I spent months in court - I nearly bankrupted myself with the money I spent trying to get access to him,' says Gerry senior.

And then a couple of days after the final hearing, he received a note through the door scrawled in childish writing.

It read: 'Daddy, I don't want to see you. Please don't ask me to see you ever again.'

Gerry believes that Sylvia 'took my child away'. He is still furious today. 'He was eight and I didn't hear from him again until he was about 20 and telephoned out of the blue to say: "Hi Dad, I think we ought to meet." My legs nearly gave way with the shock.

'So we met in a London hotel and had a lovely time. The first thing he said was: "Dad, I want you to know, I didn't write that letter." '

Sadly, despite a promising start, relations soon soured and they haven't seen each other since.

'He's an anaesthetist, apparently. I don't know where he is and I'm not going to find out. I don't really want to have a knife stuck through my heart again.

'But, fortunately, I'm very happily married now and that makes all the difference.'

His second wife Mary was also a secretary at the studios and they have been together for 28 years. They have their own son, Jamie, 24, who breeds horses. 

The couple live in a pretty cottage near Henley, with four dogs and a summer house in the garden, where Gerry spends every waking moment working on animated films - recently, a CGI remake of Captain Scarlet entitled Gerry Anderson's New Captain Scarlet was shown on ITV - and surrounded by awards, photographs and a model of Thunderbird 2.

'I love working, so I work to relax. Am I a workaholic? Yes. Obsessive? Yes. A perfectionist? Yes.'

wheelie bins

Evil: Gerry shares his dislike of the dreaded wheelie with many a Mail reader

And what about his age - isn't it a teeny bit of a disadvantage? 'Not up here,' he says, tapping his bald head rather hard. 'Physically, I feel it a little, but as far as my brain's concerned I'm fine.'

So what is the enduring appeal of Thunderbirds - the puppets, the jiggly heads, the special effects?

'It's pretty simple - it's about good overcoming evil,' he says, lighting up. Gerry can be quite lovely when he's happy.

'So there's all the nail-biting action you could ever want, but it was about saving lives and not destroying them.'

And today, he might not be Steven Spielberg, but is he fulfilled? 'No. Not really,' he says with a big smile.

'But I'm so very happy with Mary - she's an absolutely ace person, wonderful with dogs and very calm, whereas I can be a bit mercurial. I tend to get a bit het up about things.'

A bit? 'And I'm very proud of Thunderbirds. But the past is the past. The future is something I do worry about. And getting ITV to let me remake my own show.'

Poor old Gerry. It does seem daft. On the one hand there's a creative genius with the talent, the drive, the following and, more importantly, the money, to do it. And on the other is a TV station drowning in repeats.

Surely now it's time for the boys from International Rescue to scramble their vehicles once again - but this time with no strings attached.

 

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