Gerry Anderson: The Puppet Master

Gerry Anderson

"Here I was ready to make 'The Ten Commandments' and they were asking us to work with puppets!"

There are very few modern day television storytellers whose tales span the generations. But each generation of children from the 1950s to the present day are familiar with the name Gerry Anderson. You don't have to be "of a certain age" to have marvelled at the wondrous offerings that Anderson and his talented stable of puppeteers and animators have bought to the screen. Gerry Anderson is to television what Walt Disney is to the movies. But for a man who has enthralled generations of both adults and children down the years, his own childhood had a less than fairy-tale start.

Born Gerald Alexander Abrahams on 14th July 1929, Gerry was the second son of Joseph and Deborah Abrahams. After Gerald suffered from recurring anti-Semitism at school, the family changed the family name to Anderson. From an early age Gerry Anderson showed a flair and imagination and was also a keen cinemagoer. Once a week his mother would take him to see the latest release. In the meantime, Gerry's brother, Lionel, had joined the RAF as a pilot and was sent to America to do his basic training. On his first tour of duty Lionel undertook thirty missions over the most dangerous air space in the world. But after the eighth mission of Lionel's second tour, the family received a telegram to say that he was missing in action. Gerry had received a number letters from Lionel, who he regarded as a hero, sent during his training period at Falcon Field, Arizona. In them, Lionel enthused about the amazing aerobatics he'd seen by a display team. Gerry never forgot the name of the airfield where they were stationed. It was called Thunderbird Field.

After leaving school Anderson sent off a continuous stream of letters to film companies and studios in search of employment, and eventually received a response from the Ministry of Information offering him a placement with their Colonial Film Unit. Growing in confidence, Anderson then applied for a vacancy at Gainsborough Pictures, who were one of the biggest independent filmmakers in the country. In 1947, he was called up to do his National Service. Anderson was sent to Cranwell Radio School where he passed out with the rank of Leading Aircraftsman. It proved to be very influential on his later career and an incident in his final year with the RAF also had a profound effect on Anderson. While working in the radio tower a message came through that an aircraft with a damaged undercarriage was about to attempt a life or death landing. After a tense approach the pilot managed to bring his aircraft down safely with little injury to himself or his crew. The incident stayed with Anderson for many years and formed the basis of his first Thunderbirds story Trapped in the Sky.

On completion of his National Service Anderson went to Pinewood Studios as a dubbing editor. After a brief time at Elstree he moved on to Shepperton. By 1955, Anderson was working for a small production company based in Taplow, Buckinghamshire. Polytechnic Films was a relatively new company that had been formed specifically to supply programmes to the embryonic Independent Television network. Anderson had been invited to join as a director and quickly struck up a good working relationship with cameraman Arthur Provis. By 1957 Polytechnic had gone into liquidation and with the prospect of unemployment looming, Gerry and Arthur decided to form their own production company. They took on three of Polytechnic's existing employees from the art department, Reg Hill who had a career as an artist before going into films and John Read who had done his National Service with the RAF as an airframe fitter. 30 -year old secretary Sylvia Thamm completed the line-up. They called the company Pentagon Films, but after making a few TV commercials they too went bust. Undeterred they set up AP Films (Anderson/Provis) and rented space in an Edwardian mansion in Maidenhead, Berkshire. They installed a phone and waited for their first big order. Nothing happened. Six months later, with nothing further happening, the money began to run out and all had to take other jobs to keep the company afloat. Then the phone rang.

Roberta LeighRoberta Leigh, a writer of romantic novels and children’s stories, as well as a columnist on the Daily Herald, and her colleague Suzanne Warner had been asked by the Associated Rediffusion television company to find a production company to shoot a series of Leigh's creation, Twizzle. The budget for the series was very modest and Leigh and Warner knew that their only chance of getting it made cheaply was by finding a company hungry for work. Fortunately for them, AP Films was such a company. Anderson later recalled: "Here I was ready to make 'The Ten Commandments' and they were asking us to work with puppets!" Although somewhat underwhelmed at the prospect of making a children's puppet series, there was no other offer of work, so they reluctantly took on the project at a very modest budget of £450.00 per episode.

Anderson was unimpressed by the puppets seen on television which were, up to that point were quite grotesque looking and static in as far as eye movements and facial expressions were concerned and he sought ways of improving the genre. With Art Director Reg Hill, they decided to add a number of 'film technique' elements. Details were added to the set and during filming Anderson employed cuts and close-ups, all of which were unheard of in a children's puppet series up to that point. The puppet operators were located on an overhead bridge 12 feet off the studio floor, eliminating the need for one-dimensional sets and the shadows that often seen in the background in other puppet series. In order for the puppeteers to see what they were doing from so high above, Anderson bought a new lightweight camera that had just come onto the market. He rigged it up to form a device that became known as Video Assist, a brilliantly innovative technique that involved attaching the new camera to the movie camera in such a way that whatever the movie camera saw was relayed to monitors anywhere on the set. The method was soon adopted by the film industry worldwide.

TwizzleThe Adventures of Twizzle was first broadcast on November 13th 1957 at 4.30pm. The television series was so well received that A-R wanted another. Roberta Leigh, through her own newly formed company, Pelham Films Ltd., to make 26 episodes of a brand new puppet series called Torchy the Battery Boy. With an increase in the budget this time round to £27,000, the incentive was there to see how much further they could go with the puppet series format. Delighted by the results, Roberta Leigh asked for 26 more. However, Anderson and Provis had already decided to branch out on their own and produce their own puppet series. The two companies parted amicably and with £6,000 in the bank and an idea given to them by their music composer, Barry Gray, they set about making a pilot episode for a western called Four Feather Falls. But a disagreement between Anderson and Provis over the purchase of a property eventually led to the pair parting company. Provis later joined forces with Roberta Leigh and together they produced another children's puppet series called Space Patrol.

Torchy the Battery BoyFour Feather Falls was AP Films' most ambitious project to date, with more detailed sets and more sophisticated puppets. Anderson and his team experimented with electronics to match the puppets mouth movements to the dialogue. The head of the puppet was fitted with a solenoid connected to a tungsten wire and pulses were fed down it from a tape recording of the actors' voices. When each shot was ready, a switch was thrown and the pulses of direct current went out onto the stage, up the bridge and into power lines running in front of the puppeteers. The electronic lip synch mechanism had, according to Gerry Anderson, about a 90 per cent success rate. This technique was one of the earliest developments for a process that Anderson eventually named Supermarionation.

Four Feather FallsAnderson took the pilot to Granada Television who commissioned 34 episodes. As a result of his new found success he decided it was time for AP Films to move into larger premises, and he quickly secured a lease on a former warehouse at Ipswich Road on the Slough Trading Estate. The first episode of Four Feather Falls was shown in the UK just two days after Gerry Anderson's previous series Torchy the Battery Boy had begun in the London area. It debuted on Thursday 25th February 1960 at 5.00pm and featured on the cover of that week's edition of TV Times. With the success of Four Feather Falls to add to Anderson's impressive CV of children's puppet series, AP Films fully expected Granada to ask for more. Instead, on delivery of the last programme Anderson was handed a cheque and met with stony silence. In the meantime he and his crew had already worked out a concept for their next series. They even had a name for it.

It was called...Supercar.

Chapter 2: Supercar to Thunderbirds

Sources: The Television Annual | The ATV Television Show Book | The Complete Gerry Anderson by Chris Bentley | The Complete Gerry Anderson Episode Guide by Adam Pirani | Stingray by Dave Rogers