An Interview with Howard Elson, writer and editor of TV21.
Photo: Howard Elson poses as Lieutenant Jeff Vickers for the Project SWORD annual in 1968 - photo by art editor Roger Perry. Polo neck by Bob Reed.
Howard Elson started as office boy and trainee journalist on TV Century 21, and rose to the position of book editor, handling the annuals and storybooks, becoming the publication's editor its final year. However, his only credited work was for the novel Joe 90 in Revenge, though his name crops up in promotional lines for the strips Secret Agent 21 and Superleague.
Moving on from City Magazines after the dissolving of Century 21 Publishing, Howard became a sports reporter at IPC for a few years. His late father Clifford ran the successful Clifford Elson Publicity personal management company, with clients such as Joe Longthorne and Tom O'Connor, and Howard worked with him for over twenty years. Howard himself is still agent for Roger Whitaker and does the PR for Shakin' Stevens. He has written many books and biographies in the music industry, including Barry (Barry Manilow), Olivia (Olivia Newton-John), The Superstuds: Machismo and the Media, McCartney, songwriter, James Last, Whatever Happened To?: The Great Rock and Pop Nostalgia Book (co-written with John Brunton) and co-authoring the autobiography Danny La Rue: From Drags to Riches.
In his spare time, he also writes, composes and produces for his local drama group.
Howard was kind enough to chat to The Gerry Anderson Complete Comic History recently, and expand on his career and work at City Magazines, and for TV Century 21.
GACCH: Can you tell me a bit more about Howard Elson the person, from the beginning?
Howard Elson: I was born, where I live, in Buckinghamshire, of a northern mother and a southern father, so I had sort of 'dual-nationality' and spent a lot of my time in Manchester. So I became a great Manchester United supporter, and have been for the last hundred years. And I have every right to be, even though I live in the south, and have a southern accent, I have northern roots, so I have every right to be a Manchester United supporter!
I was educated to grammar school level and left at sixteen, and joined TV21 straight away. It was right in its infancy. In fact, it hadn't started... I mean, we started it! There were six of us, I think, in the office. Alan Fennell was there. Dennis Hooper, who was the manager in charge of the art side. Tod Sullivan, myself, and Gillian Allan, and that was it. And there was a secretary. But that was the entire staff at that time.
GACCH: Was this born of a desire to be a journalist?
Howard Elson: Yes, I used to write little magazine things when I was at school. I contributed to the school magazine, and I did my own little bits and pieces.
GACCH: How did TV21 actually come about, from your point of view? Alan Fennell was editor, but did he draw you all together as a team?
Howard Elson: I think he had worked with everybody, apart from myself, because I was the youngest. I think he had worked witth the likes of Tod, Dennis, and Gillian. He knew Gillian, as she was married to Angus Allan, and he was his best friend. And they had worked at Fleetway together, and various magazines, so the connection was there. And I was offered the job basically because I wanted to get into that side of the business, but fortuitously nepotism in a certain area prevailed, in as much my father was the publicity director for a large chain of cinemas - ABC - and they used to do promotion with a guy called John Littlejohn, who was the promotions manager at City Magazines. And they used to do promotions together with the various films, and they had ABC Minors, which was Saturday morning pictures. So when my father said, 'My son wants to get into this, and he doesn't know whether he wants to get into A levels, and go on to university but would to write and whatever...', and John Littlejohn said, 'What a coincidence!' Basically, it was something like that.
GACCH: Did you feel it was a massive opportunity?
Howard Elson: I didn't at the time, no. I didn't know what I was doing. I mean, I'd gone for a job on a local paper, and been promised it. There were several jobs I was going for. One was for a big company locally that did all the television ratings for the independent television company. They monitored the ratings to see what was being watched. And they had an office where I lived, and purely on a whim, or I think through the careers adviser - I forget - a friend and I went down there for a job interview, which was right in at the beginning of computers. They were a computer-based company but computers were very much in their infancy at the time. And what would have happened was I would have been trained, probably earning a million pounds a year, as a computer whizz-kid... and would have been for the last several hundred years. But I didn't fancy that! So I turned that down, and fortuitously joined TV21. Or City Magazines as it was before.
I think the comic was borne out of the fact there was another comic in the fifties and sixties called TV Comic. And TV Express was another one. And I think because Century 21, or A.P. Films as it was called then, owned several television shows namely, Four Feather Falls, Supercar, and Fireball XL5, and the current one just about to start was Stingray. I think with the experience Alan Fennell, and Dennis and Tod had... they had all at one time worked on TV Express, or were involved with it in freelance. That's how it came about.
GACCH: How did you progress from office boy on TV Century 21?
Howard Elson: I think I became a general editorial person, a sub-editor. I wrote several of the features in it, as office boy, and scripts. I used to write two factual half pages in it. One was called Orbit Over, a geography feature, and there was an animal feature The World We Share - we tried to get the most unusual animals. I also used to write scripts for My Favourite Martian, and The Munsters, when they came into it. I did a couple of Girl from UNCLEs. Towards the end, I used to write Agent 21 - I wrote it after Mr Magnet. We decided that Mr Magnet wasn't the right thing, and we wanted to go back to basics, and the basics were that he was a super agent. It was a unique idea, working with the toys and all that. And we wanted to get back to that prognosis, I suppose. I wrote loads of things, as one did. One of the Monkees strips I wrote is a dead pinch from Help, the Beatles film. They were stealing a hat, rather than a ring. It was done consciously, and there's a line something like 'with apologies to The Beatles'.
Illustration: Howard Elson unashamedly mocks the Beatles' film Help!, replacing the sacrificial ring with Mike Nesmith's woolen hat, for the ©1968 Monkees annual. Little artist in the corner, Tom Kerr.
GACCH: Editorial would mean proof-reading, editing scripts, and checking proofs from printers?
Howard Elson: That's right. It was fairly straight-forward, fairly innocuous really. We had twenty pages a week to get out, and that was it. Reading all the scripts, changing everything that needed changing, and just generally getting on with it really.
GACCH: As the developer of our 'online TV21 decoder', Kim Stevens was wondering who had the job of writing the coded messages?
Howard Elson: I did it a lot of the time. I got into serious trouble, and I'll tell you a funny story about that in a minute. The first giveaway was a code cypher, which was unbelieveably successful. And it was just a wheel which turned on a piece of cardboard that had all the letters and numbers, and by turning certain things, it was a very simple form of code operation. The first edition of TV21 sold phenomenonally well, and a lot of people wanted to buy the encoder, which was a shilling. Or five new pence. So we ran an ad in the paper to say 'if you want to buy this...', and we had hundreds and hundreds of five pence or shillings, coming in postal orders and whatever. And I was sorting them out one day, and we didn't have anywhere to put them. So we put them in waste paper baskets. And the next morning they'd all been thrown away!
Photo: One of the infamous 'Lost In Post' editorial messages that had to put in TV Century 21 (this is from issue 10), asking readers to resend their postal orders for the Identicode.
GACCH: There's an ad in an early issue asking for all people who had sent postal orders over a period to send them in again...
Howard Elson: That's right! (laughs) That was what had happened. I mean, someone said to me, 'put them in the waste paper baskets', and we'll make sure, etc... so I did. I mean, I was sixteen, I was young. A very young lad at the time. And I did that, stuck them in the waste paper baskets... ba doom ba doom ba doom... and some other people did the same thing as well, as I think we'd increased the staff by a couple. And by then I wasn't the office boy either. And they were thrown away. All thrown away! And I went down to London Bridge, to the refuse department, to try and reclaim them, and of course I couldn't.
Another very interesting story I'll tell you about. I used to run the club page which was Contact 21. We used to set tasks for the readers to do every week, and one day I set a task - encrypted, of course - for the readers to send in plans, sightings and details of all the army, navy and air force bases within their area, and thought nothing of it. Anyway, about six weeks later, I got summoned into Alan Fennell's office, and I was ceremoniously told that the guy sitting opposite was Colonel Major somebody so-and-so from M.I.5! Didn't actually say M.I.5, but I soon got the message that it was a person from the secret service, or security services of the country! And grilled, basically. Grilled , the fact, 'did I know what I was doing?' I didn't know... and I said I'm sorry, I didn't realise what I was doing. And I didn't! So that was my brush with the secret service. But I think they realised it was a genuine mistake.
This actually appears in issue 3, dated February 6th 2065, and the message (in Red Code) is:
JWULI&KP. &E USJW FX WEWDP SKKSUB, &J KZWIW SE SIDP, ESMP FI S&I TSJW EWSI PFL? ESDW &K.
The translated message is:
Security. In case of enemy attack, is there an army, navy or air base near you? Name it.
One amazing thing was, there was an issue of TV21, the front cover is in black, purporting to tell the death of Steve Zodiac, and I think it says something like 'Death Of A Hero' (TV Century 21 issue 119, with the headline World Mourns Dead Space Hero - see below). And the week that came out, there was one of the space projects - there were people killed on that. It was uncanny what happened, because in Fleet Street, several of the news vendors carried our picture - the front page of TV21 - and the front page of the Evening Standard or Evening News at the time. It was purely coincidence, because as you can imagine these things are planned six weeks in advance, and they went to press. So you couldn't just pull an issue. You had a bit of leeway with the print deadline, up to about three weeks. That happened the day that came out.
Photo: The Evening Standard dated Monday April 24, 1967, and TV Century 21 issue 119 - a sad and shocking coincidence.
GACCH: How much liaison was there between City Magazines as publishers, and Gerry Anderson's production team? Obviously you had access to the photographs but beyond that, did you have a free hand to develop the series in a comic strip format?
Howard Elson: To a certain degree, yes. I mean, there were certain guidelines laid down. And in fact, I used to do that towards the end. For Joe 90, I wrote all the characterisations for most of them, and they were used for scriptwriters, and they used our characterisations. Funny enough, it was a juxtaposition - a complete reversal of roles in a way. And we developed various ideas from a core line or such and such, and we'd sort of put the bones on it.
GACCH: Would you have watched, say, the first episode or two of a series, and taken it from that?
Howard Elson: I think that's how it developed in the comic strips, yes. Obviously one didn't go outrageous! But I remember at one time, I put forward the idea the Mysterons in Captain Scarlet should be annihilated, and we should start a whole new story line. And I was told in no uncertain terms, 'but these are sold all around the world, and will be for the next so many years, and it would be stupid!' And quite rightly. So we didn't have that free range.
GACCH: The Mysterons were actually killed off right at the end of the original TV21...
Howard Elson: I wasn't there when that happened. I think what happened was that when Century 21 (Publishing) folded, it was bought by another publishing company. We ended in about June 1969, and it was taken over by another company, and I was offered another job to edit it, but I turned it down. I didn't go right the way to the end... I went right to the very end of Century 21 Publishing, and I think everyone who worked on it did. I can't think of anyone who went over on a permanent basis to the new company. We all did a bit of freelance for it, but to my knowledge none of the regular employees of Century 21 went over.
GACCH: The other company would have been IPC?
Howard Elson: Probably. I don't think IPC had it immediately. I think, because I then went to work for IPC, and it wasn't part of their portfolio. I don't know, to be quite honest.
GACCH: Would you have liaised with any of the artists?
Howard Elson: Yeah, all of them! I used to talk to them about the scripts, and how we wanted things doing, and tell them the deadline was like tomorrow, y'know. Frank Bellamy was a fantastic artist. Mike Noble was a good one too. There was a guy called Eric Eden, who did the Lady Penelope strips. He used to do all the exploded drawings - he was the guy who used to do all of them. I liked him... he used to live in Hampstead. He was a nice bloke. And Paul Trevillion did a lot of stuff for us as well. He did the last Burke's Law strips. There was this guy Bruno who did Get Smart. The most surreal artist was the guy who did the Monkees strips! It was brilliant.
GACCH: Would you have been involved with the Summer Extras?
Howard Elson: Yes, I wrote a lot of the stuff for the Summer Extras. As I said, I wrote a lot of My Favourite Martian and things like that. I tended to be more a comedy writer than a drama writer, though in the end I wrote for everything. We all did. It was a way of supplementing our income, first and foremost. Secondly, it was a way of just sort of expressing yourself.
Illustration: Howard Elson 'kills' writer Scott Goodall in his ©1968 Captain Scarlet annual story 'The City Of London Will Be Destroyed'. Art by Ron Turner.
GACCH: So you would have got additional payments for writing scripts?
Howard Elson: Oh yes, of course. They weren't written in the office, they were as freelance items at night. In fact, most of the balloon lettering was done 'out-of-house', but in-house if you know what I mean. Because it was on such a tight deadline, they would do the balloon lettering overnight. A very dear friend of mine, a guy called Bob Reed who was a general art person, he did the Thunderbirds lettering. He hand did that, and he used to earn an a fortune in balloon lettering. I mean, he'd take about eight or nine pages home at night, and bring it back in the morning, having worked virtually all night to do it. I used to write scripts, or articles, overnight. There was a guy called Geoff Cowan, who worked for Eagle at the time, or one of those other publications, who later joined us and later went on to Look-In. When I was commissioning as an editor in the book department, I used to use him all the time, for stuff overnight.
GACCH: Were there main writers on each strip, or were they written on an ad hoc basis?
Howard Elson: Fireball XL5, I think, was written by Tod Sullivan. And Alan Fennell wrote Stingray to start with. And there were other writers. I think Angus Allan wrote a lot. He wrote loads. There were two major scriptwriters that weren't in-house, Angus and Scott Goodall, even though Angus was in-house for a while, who were major, major contributors to the papers. I think it was on a ad hoc basis, but it was a situation whereby there were regular writers. Dennis Hooper used to write a lot of the Burke's Law, and he was the art editor. And then he wrote some Stingray things. And Richard O'Neill did some. But various people who took over writing the scripts. There were a lot of different writers, all the time, towards the end.
GACCH: You mentioned you were an editor for the book department, that covered stuff like the annuals?
Howard Elson: Yes, all the annuals. All the puzzle books.
GACCH: But the paperback novels were by Armada?
Howard Elson: They were indeed. John Theydon. Was that his name? John Jennison, that's right. And he wrote most of them, most of the time. And he was great. You could ring him up, and it was like a production line. And he did the Lady Penelopes under a female pseudonym, I think. Well, he wrote something under a female pseudonym, because we were laughing about it.
When the book department was formed, there were three art people and two editorial people. The art people were Roger Perry, who was the art editor, and then he had two people under him, Andy Harrison and Bob Reed. And then there was myself, and a lady called Linda Wheway, and we ran the whole thing. Commissioned everything and did the lot. We must have done about several hundred titles a year, including about four or five annuals. Most of which, particularly the Monkees annuals, we wrote all that between us, including Roger. We put all those together off our own back.
Photo: Century 21 Publishing art assistant and fellow annual conspirator Andy Harrison mugs for the camera - under his own name - in the ©1968 Monkees annual. His whereabouts are still not known...
GACCH: The Monkees annuals are quite anarchic aren't they?
Howard Elson: They're quite surreal. Quite Monty Python-ish, a long time before Monty Python.
GACCH: There's a photo of a guy with a beard, in a 'Wanted' poster in the 1968 edition, who also appears as 'Ivan Quant' in TV21...
Howard Elson: I've got my annuals here. I kept everything... let me look. That's Andy Harrison! His name crops up all the time, and we tried to get as many names of people in the papers. All our mates together, in everything we could. There's references to all our wives, or girlfriends, in all the Monkees annuals. In the Joe 90 annual (©1968 - page 69), the girl on the telephone is Linda Wheway, she and I ran the book department. God knows who the bloke above is. The other guy is Roger Perry's nephew. If you look at page 66, the writing at the top (supposedly Shane Weston's!) is my writing! We used to do that all the time. In all the Monkees annuals, you look and there's bit and pieces - it was all splodge and everything. That was us.
I mean, Scott Goodall's name crops up. If you look in one of the Captain Scarlet books, Scott Goodall becomes a Mysteron! I wrote that script. The funny thing is, it shows you how life mirrors art sometimes. I wrote this story about they were carrying some nuclear waste on a train, and the only way they could get it across London was to go on the Underground. And they actually did that once, many years later.
GACCH: TV21 never really credited anyone under their real name but in the final year when you were editor, these odd 'pseudonyms' crop up for each strip. And you wrote under the name 'Spencer Howard'?
Howard Elson: No, they're not real names. But Spencer Howard, yes. We wrote a couple of The Champions things together, Chris Spencer and I. That was the thing, we had to write that in a lunch hour! They were desperate for a script. So he and I decided, there's nobody else we can ring up to get a script in an hour and a half, and I don't know why we needed it, but we needed something very quickly. Was it for Solo? Joe 90? So we wrote it together, we bounced ideas off each other, and we wrote a frame a time. I think he typed it as I dictated. So we came up with an idea, and it worked so we had a script in a hour. We did that a couple of times. And afterwards when he left, I continued the by-line, because I thought it was a good name.
GACCH: Chris Spencer was the editor of TV21 for a time, wasn't he?
Howard Elson: Yes I think he probably was. For a while. He was only there for a short while. He went on to Hamlyns, and later he used me for some freelance stuff.
GACCH: How much leeway would you have had writing strips or stories? I mean, in the case of Captain Scarlet, you were writing the annuals while the series was still in production...
Howard Elson: We did, yes. Obviously, we knew certain facts. But you just embellished.
GACCH: The Mysterons were never defined as a specific threat. Did the writers ever have problems getting their heads round any of the concepts?
Howard Elson: Yes, I mean I wrote several Captain Scarlets in the annuals. At the beginning, we were told what we could do, and what we couldn't do. And there are a lot of times where they just left things hanging. There's a lot of things that aren't tied up. A lot of loose ends. You know, things just happened! In the television shows as well. They all follow a very similar pattern... you've got your victim, and then you defined what was going to happen, and then Captain Scarlet and his mates either got them, or didn't! And they were all very stylised in that respect. I remember I did one, something about Swan Lake... 'We, the Mysterons, will kill the dying swan.', that was one of the cartoon strips I did. It was about a ballet thing, and they couldn't figure out what the dying swan was, something like that. You went off, killed your victim, and then went off and told your story. There was a way of doing it.
Illustration: Howard Elson's 'Dying Swan' strip, from the Angels Sticker Fun book, 1968.
GACCH: Were there ever any issues, with the Captain Scarlet series being fairly violent, about matching that violence in the comics?
Howard Elson: You didn't think about it. I mean, these days, with the political correctness and all that, there's a lot of things you couldn't do now, which you could do then. I don't think we thought about it, to be quite honest. Towards the end, we did get a little bit politically correct, because we'd never used the word 'terrific', as it came from the word 'terror'. I think we wanted to get as much action, and as few words as possible in the balloons. It was all about action, explosions, adventure and excitement.
I used to do a thing called Catch Or Kill in one of the papers - I wrote the whole lot of that, the entire series - and you'd get to a cliffhanger, and not know what the hell you were going to do next week! You didn't hand six scripts in, and it was a story from beginning to end. No, they were written on a week to week basis. You had some kind of synopsis, but towards the end, it was again flying by the seat of your pants, and you just left cliffhangers, and then the idea was to get yourself out of it. It was good fun though.
Photo: Howard Elson's 'ego trip' novel Joe 90 in Revenge, published in 1969.
GACCH: What about problems having a child character - Joe 90 - in danger?
Howard Elson: None at all. It was never a consideration. It was just a great idea - just think what you can do with that. It was tremendous. I mean. Joe 90 was a great idea. The idea of a kid doing all this. The idea was, they hoped every kid could relate to being Joe 90. I mean I thought it was a good series - I enjoyed it very much. I was much more involved with that from a writing point - as you know, I wrote one of the books. The reason I wrote the Joe 90 book (Revenge) was pure ego - I was editor of the book department at the time and fancied writing a novel. Simple as that. But I really did think it was one of the best ideas they did. I was never keen on Captain Scarlet. Didn't like it at all. Personal viewpoint, I thought it was too far-fetched. The fact the guy was dead, then came back and y'know. Thunderbirds was a brilliant idea. A magnificent idea, and a brilliant concept.
GACCH: Do you have any recollections about Joe 90 in Revenge?
Howard Elson: I thought it was a cracking yarn. Tod Sullivan wrote the other one - there were two, weren't there? - and his was a cracking yarn that sort of stayed in one place, if I remember rightly. Mine went all over the world and back, to the Amazon jungle! I was fascinated by the Amazon jungle, and animals that were seventy-four foot tall, and dinosaurs. And that seems to be the general theme that runs through most of my creative work at the time. Hand on heart, I would write backwards from the cliffhanger virtually. When I started, I didn't know where it was going to go - I had a basic idea of what was going to happen - but I didn't know how he was going to get into it, or out of it. I thought one of the big things was going to be that he lost his glasses, and never found them again - that was the great thing. I think he does lose his glasses, and it lasts for... no time at all. There's one line in it, which I was very proud of, which is 'nothing cleanses like fire', because I think he burns the place down at the end. That's a nice line - I think I'd use it again... 'nothing cleanses like fire'. Which is true. That's how they got rid of the Great Plague of London.
GACCH: With all your other writing and editorial duites, can you recall how long it took to write the novel?
Howard Elson: I don't know. I can tell you that I wrote the last two chapters on the day before I was going on holiday, to get it finished. My mother was doing the typing for me, to get it in to the publisher on time.
GACCH: That was the only Century 21 item you were officially credited for, wasn't it?
Howard Elson: In writing, yes it probably is. In fact, what happened was Linda Wheway commissioned me - well, I commissioned myself but she commissioned me, as it were, to write it - and I gave a false name. And then when it was passed, I went and said to Alan Fennell, 'you know this is me', and he said, 'yeah, I thought it was'. I said, 'is that alright?'. 'Yeah, it's alright... '
GACCH: How did the other comic titles come about, like Lady Penelope?
Howard Elson: Lady Penelope was a spin-off. They wanted to have a girls' comic. And then the next one that came along, that was for under-fives, Candy. I only worked on the book side. And the amazing thing was, Roger Perry and I used to live close together, and we had the car, and a studio set up in a barn. He used to drive round in this car, a striped mini, up the high street! It was only a barn really, where they set the things up and filmed them, and I think it was owned by Jenny Lee, who was Aneurin (that's how you spell it, pronounced An-ire-ron) Bevan's wife. It was Asheridge, in Hertfordshire.
Image: Howard Elson's self-penned 'biography' of TV21 stalwart 'Spencer Howard', from the ©1969 Joe 90 annual.
GACCH: There were two other titles, TV Tornado and Solo?
Howard Elson: TV Tornado was nothing to do with us. I worked for Solo. We had an association with Disney, and to start with, there were a lot of Disney cartoon strips. I think Mary Poppins was one of the strips, and The Scarecrow and The Nutty Professor. It was, to my mind, to begin with totally Disney, and then all of a sudden they changed it round so there was less Disney. It needed a revamp.
GACCH: They introduced The Mark Of The Mysterons, and Project SWORD.
Howard Elson: Project SWORD was going to be the next big thing. Because they had loads of merchandise for it - vast amounts of merchandise. And the scripts were written around the merchandise basically, featuring the various vehicles and spaceships and things like that. If you look at the annual, there's a lot of stuff taken from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
GACCH: How would that have come about?
Howard Elson: We got permission to use the pictures. We used pictures from all over the place. We had a guy called Bill Dunn, who worked for the American Embassy - he was one of the press attachés. He used to write, in the early TV21s, a couple of space features. Roger Dunn was his pseudonym, and he used to get the pictures from the US space agency. But in the annual, we have the Project SWORD Moon Crawler, and they actually had this merchandise - this Moon Crawler - made out of plastic and tin and whatever, and that's what they wanted to sell, so we just wrote scripts round the machines. I've got the pictures of Project SWORD personnel - I'm in there. We used to go out on the street, and take pictures of people walking down the road. They didn't know about it. They were taken with a long lens. They were all taken by Roger Perry, who is also in it, as Bill Janson. And the red polar neck jumper, that everyone is in - they were taken on the roof of our building in Fleet Street - was supplied by Bob Reed, and he wasn't in any of the pictures!
GACCH: What kind of lead time would you have had for the annuals?
Howard Elson: I think that it was six months. I think they were printed well in advance, because a lot of them were printed in Holland. To print them in Europe was a lot cheaper.
GACCH: Some were still printed by Jarrolds?
Howard Elson: Yes, they were in Norwich. I remember going up there several times to see their printing process, and to see things on the press.
GACCH: Did the printers ever feel they were being pushed to higher standards to reproduce the high quality artwork and photos?
Howard Elson: No, I don't think it so. There were two different processes. The very first TV21 albums had an overlay system. The artwork was drawn in black and white, and then a series of overlays of the various colours were put over the top. If you look at the strips, there's a red one, a blue one, a yellow one. And that's how it was done. And then some are full colour.
GACCH: Was there anything that sticks out in your mind as an outstanding thing to do in the annuals?
Howard Elson: I think it was the quality, and the content. For the first time, we thought about what we were putting into them. I'll go back to what I said originally, that I think annuals were just a money-spinning spin-off from the magazines, and a lot of content wasn't thought about, and they were just cobbled together... y'know, 'we'll stick that in and we'll stick this in...'. But I think for the first time that we suddenly thought about what we were doing. And we tried to make them as good as, if not better, than the actual comics themselves. Different, slightly different. So that they were a 'must buy' collection you needed. We felt we were doing something, well not pioneering, but we were trying to keep a high standard. A very high quality. You have to remember that the money that was paid for the scripts, and the artwork on the books, was a lot lower than the money that was paid for the scripts and artwork on the comic. One had a very small and very tight budget. And I can remember bringing all my annuals in under budget. And I was very proud of doing that.
GACCH: How would you have done that?
Howard Elson: By getting the best deals I could. By giving artists four or five scripts to do, as opposed to just giving them one, and paying them for a series. Let's go back the other way. I would give people five or six scripts, or articles, to write as opposed to giving individuals just one each, because I felt it encouraged that sort of team work. We used to do it that way. You look at the annuals now, and they hold up today. I mean, they're very, very good. There's a lot of content. The content was tremendous, I think. There was no throwaways, it was all good content. Plus the fact we had no back catalogue to put in. I mean a lot of the Fleetway annuals were just rehashed stories from ten years before, or just reprinted. We didn't do that. It was all original.
GACCH: Did that cause any problems, meeting that demand to fill an entire annual?
Howard Elson: No, not at all. It was a very creative time. And there were a lot of creative people... everybody was. I used to write most of the editorial in the annuals. I think I wrote all the biographies, to be quite honest, for Joe 90. The funny thing was, I put some things in which were figments of my imagination, that suddenly became part of a script that was filmed!
GACCH: Was that the ballooning?
Howard Elson: Yes. I think that was mine. How did you know that?
GACCH: Fans think it a reference to an episode that had already been filmed when the annual was put together.
Howard Elson: I wrote all the explanations, the biographies. I wrote the biographies of all the Thunderbirds, when we did them. All the Captain Scarlet ones. We made up history, and background and things for them. But that was part and parcel - you didn't think about what you were doing, you just did it! It was like a production line.
GACCH: The annuals were quite different from others of the period. The first TV21 and Stingray annuals were quite conventional, but what was behind the decision to increase the size and photographic content?
Howard Elson: We had access to the photos, and I think we'd become better at doing what we were doing. I mean , when we started - apart for myself - everybody had a lot of experience within the children's publishing market, particularly Alan Fennell and Angus Allan. And so, I think what happened was we started off trying to be original - but safe. And after it was proved that it was successful, then the boundaries were extended slightly. Plus the fact we got better budgets to produce the publications. Plus we went from doing a couple of annuals a year to all the spin-offs like the picture books, I think there were dolls' dressing books... and right the way down the line. We did a vast amount of puzzle books, join-the-dot books, cut-out-and-stick, poster books, and all sorts of things. It ran the whole gamut of publishing at that time.
Illustration: More of the Century 21 activity book range: The Captain Scarlet Sticker Fun Book CS/3, a page from the Angels Sticker Fun Book A/3 illustrated by Rab Hamilton, the Joe 90 Games Book J/10, and a page from the Captain Scarlet Sticker Fun Book CS/3 illustrated by Jim Watson.
GACCH: You mention having a larger budget. Did the co-production with the Gerry Anderson series allow you to have more money for, say, higher quality full colour print, and more photgraphic content?
Howard Elson: I think, again this is speculation, the annual was a spin-off from the mainstream comic. I think they had very little budgets, because if you look at some of the Fleetway annuals that spin off from their comics, they're all very much of a muchness. I think they're put together on a shoestring budget, almost as a... not as an afterthought, but as an extension, without the same... I was going to say 'care to it' but that's not the right word. They were put together very quickly, to meet a demand. And I think, as far as we were concerned, that demand became almost obsessive. And the demand grew and grew. So that demand being quite outstanding, there was a lot of money coming in from sales of these things, that we were allowed to go on further. But that is again a purely speculative thing.
GACCH: To start with, there was a new series every year - Thunderbirds, Zero X, Captain Scarlet... but with older strips being retired, like Supercar, Fireball XL5 and Stingray being dropped, was there a struggle to justify the 'TV21' part of the title towards the end?
Howard Elson: No, I just think it was a natural progression. You had the major series, like Thunderbirds. They wanted to keep it as topical as they could. You know what kids were like. I mean, Supercar would have been several years old by then, and the kids wouldn't know that. Even Fireball XL5 - as it wasn't being shown on television, people forget them. And to keep popular they went with popular trends. I mean, in one of the magazines, we had Star Trek, didn't we? I mean that became popular, and that was very, very instrumental in selling comics. And ditto The Man from UNCLE, which was in Lady Penelope. I think at the beginning they tried to get the popular television programmes of the day, like My Favourite Martian was a huge television hit. Burke's Law was a huge hit, as were The Munsters, and Get Smart. These were things kids were watching. Say you were ten or twelve when you bought TV21, by the time you were fifteen, you were onto something else. You weren't into that, so you needed to attract that next generation.
GACCH: Was that the reason for bringing in new strips like The Saint and Department S?
Howard Elson: They were popular at the time. They were on television. They gave the magazines high profile.
GACCH: How did you come to be editor of TV21. Was that moving on from being a book editor?
Howard Elson: I'd like to think they wanted somone who knew the pedigree, and knew the background of the whole situation. I think they wanted someone to come and... not save it, but somebody with the knowledge and the experience, who had been with it from the beginning, so I was seconded from the book department. Plus the fact Chris Spencer was leaving (laughs).
GACCH: You mention 'saving' TV21. Was there a feeling of a decline in sales, or in quality?
Howard Elson: It went through several up and down periods, as you know. It started off a real high. The first year I think we sold lots and lots. And towards the end, because instead of putting Joe 90 in TV21, which at that time was the big thing from television, they formed their own paper from it. I think that might well have taken... and this is purely me speculating, by doing that they may have taken a lot of the TV21 readership to Joe 90.
GACCH: Why do you think they started Joe 90 as a separate comic?
Howard Elson: I don't know. I think it was purely financial. I wasn't party to those decisions.
GACCH: How did things come to an end at Century 21 Publishing?
Howard Elson: I think the whole thing had had its time. I think there were some financial things that weren't right but I won't go down that line because I don't know. But from going from being a very successful entity, to suddenly not being a successful entity. At one time, we were employing a lot of people. We had offices at the Coliseum in St Martin's Lane, and there were a lot of people working for the publications. A lot of people, and I just think it was probably of its time. And towards the end, its time had come and gone. That again is purely speculation.
Photo: Football Mania (Who's Who In Soccer) - One of the wider range of Century 21 books unrelated to the Gerry Anderson productions, and another under Howard Elson's editorship.
GACCH: There was a feeling, among what you might call the 'hardcore' readership of TV21, that the inclusion of things like football were a mistake.
Howard Elson: I know, that was a major mistake. We got terrible letters saying, 'why have we got a football thing in it?' It was very popular at the time - we'd won the World Cup in 1966, and it seemed a natural progression to go on to football. I mean, I was instrumental in making that decision.
GACCH: Looking back over your time on TV21, what would you say was your greatest personal achievement?
Howard Elson: I would like to think that what we pioneered in the book department, particularly with the Monkees annuals.I thought they stood the test of time. As you said, they were anarchic, and they were very much surreal and Python-esque, a long time before the Monty Python thing ever hit the television. That was one of the things. When it first came out it was so revolutionary as a comic. I mean, the idea... the style of the front page of a newspaper a hundred years hence. It was just so original. And it has become a cult publication. And one is almost revered for being on it, y'know - anything to do with Thunderbirds and things like that.
GACCH: Were there any ideas for TV21 which were mooted and rejected?
Howard Elson: You remember in the sixties, there used to be a series of war books, A5 size, 50 or 60 pages? Commado pocket libraries? Anyway, they did lots of different themes... well we were going to do that. That was the next venture, in about 1967 or 1968. The idea was to create a series of mini-libraries, for Stingray and Thunderbirds and whatever, totally in black and white, that would be one story lasting fifty pages and 3 frames on a page, so you're looking at 150 frames - so it was a long and involved story. What happened was, we did have some scripts commissioned for that. But at the end of the day, it never came to fruition, so we were left with scripts containing 150 frames, and sometimes these were cut down for use in the annuals. I remember writing some My Favourite Martian scripts and putting gambling and betting, which I wasn't allowed to do. I had him using his powers to win all sorts of bets, and I wasn't allowed to do that. The only other one, as I said, was to kill off the Mysterons.
GACCH: You wouldn't have done Perils Of Parker then? That occasionally featured gambling...
Howard Elson: I don't think I did, to be honest. I might have done the odd one. I mean, we did so much. It was like a little cottage industry, in a way. Roger Perry, who did most of the photos in the annuals, also did most of the artwork in some of the puzzle books - he actually drew them. And Andy (Harrison) and Bob (Reed) did the same. We all did the same - I wrote most of the scripts for the puzzle books. I remember for some of the Angels (activity) books, I wrote the scripts in the middle of them. And that's how we did it. It was easier that way, as we knew what we wanted. There were a couple of people we put out for freelance, and they came up with the totally wrong concept for what it was all about. I know that sounds very insular in a way but it was self-protection.
I'll tell you a story - I also direct plays and things, and I did a pantomime last Christmas. And the guy who ran the theatre was a fanatical Thunderbirds fan, and I was telling him some of the stories. And you don't realise that there are people out there who are. And it doesn't go away. I think because of the uniqueness of it all. I mean to be quite honest, Gerry Anderson was a complete and utter genius in what he did. And I know he didn't like doing what he did - he wanted to work with actors. He readily says that, he always wanted to work with actors rather than puppets. But he was one of the great film-makers of our generation. I know it was television, I know it was puppets, and I know it was totally different to anything else going on at the time, but it was just so unique and so original. And I think that carried on with the comics, and we tried to make them as unique as we could in as much as we were telling stories that were taking place a hundred years in the future. And you had carte blanche, to do whatever you could do. Whatever you wanted. And some of things that we came up with, have subsequently become part of everyday life, like mobile phones for one, and the development of lasers. We were making a lot of this up as we went along.
Photo: Alphabeat - Howard Elson's magnum opus of of the late 1960s pop scene, and possibly the last ever book produced by Century 21 Publishing, going to print as the company was shut down.
Howard Elson: We did a series of books for under-fives. We did a pet book, and we got peoples' pets from down the road and used them! We were very resourceful, in the same way they made the Thunderbirds equipment and sets. They used the most bizarre and throwaway things. I think, Lady Penelope's mansion, the chimney spress were made of toilet roll holders - the string holders, all red and pitted. And they used those as the chimneys. And they used Bic biros for other bits and pieces. In a similar sort of way, we used whatever we could get hold of, or however we could do it, we did it. That book department was very self contained little unit. When I was there, and I was there for several years, with the four of us, and Bob Prior was the overall director of the book department. The great thing about both Bob Prior and Alan Fennell, and the people who were in charge - they gave us our head. I mean, we were all seventeen, eighteen, nineteen... all young lads, apart from the likes of Roger Perry and Dennis Hooper, who were slightly older. We were given our head, and we delivered the goods. So it was very adventurous times, and we used to fly by the seat of our pants on many occasions.
GACCH: Alan Fennell sadly died a few years ago.
Howard Elson: That was a great shame. I didn't realise that until I found a website, and there was an interview with Angus Allan, and he said Alan Fennell had died. He was my great mentor, Alan Fennell. I would be very proud if you said that. He taught me everything I knew. What I didn't learn from him willingly, he bludgeoned into me. And I don't mean that in any nasty way. He had a style of his own. He was a unique man, and that's a great compliment to him. Alan was very dynamic. He was a very determined... knew what he wanted. But he was a great, great mentor to me.
The Gerry Anderson Complete Comic History would like to thank:
Howard Elson, for his time and patience in an exhaustive series of interviews
and Kelly Patrick Lannan for some of the scans
Any comments or notes about this interview, please contact email@example.com.
All text © The Gerry Anderson Complete Comic History, and its respective writers, and may not be reproduced without permission.
All images © their respective copyright holders