Gerry Anderson: The Puppet Master
During one of his periodic meetings with Lew Grade, the TV mogul said to Anderson "I'm going to buy your company."
In 1960, as filming on Four Feather Falls was coming to an end, Anderson was invited to make a low-budget b-movie by Stuart Levy and Nat Cohen of Anglo Amalgamated. Anderson saw this as a great opportunity to break into serious movie making. The budget was a meagre £16,250 but nevertheless, Anderson immediately commissioned 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 and quickly disappeared without trace.
Soon after the movie Anderson was offered work by Nicholas Parsons' own production company to make a series of commercials on a shoestring budget for Blue Cars Holidays and one of them 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. Anderson had already made arrangements for the company to go into voluntary liquidation when he received a phone call from a man called Connery Chapel. 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. At this point Grade was beginning to build a huge reputation for himself and would go on to become one of the most influential executives in the history of British TV, and Anderson saw an opportunity to save his company and turn into reality the project that had been gathering dust in his office drawer for many months.
Arriving at Grade's office, Anderson pitched the idea for Supercar. Grade was impressed with the premise of the series but was not prepared to invest the £3,000 per episode that Anderson was asking for. "I'll give you an immediate order for twenty-six episodes provided you cut the budget in half" he told Anderson. "And I want you back here tomorrow at 7.30am with an answer." Anderson returned to his office and he and his crew worked through the night trimming as many unnecessary costs as possible. By morning they realised it was impossible to meet Lew Grade's target. Anderson duly arrived at Grade's office at the appointed time the following morning 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 Grade, "you've got deal."
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. Anderson had already laid the foundations for the process known as Supermarionation, and with Supercar, it appeared on screen for the first time. Anderson created the term as an amalgam of 'super marionette' and publicised it 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 such as 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 Anderson 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 and Sylvia Thamm were married.
For his next series Anderson decided to pump up the science fiction element. Anderson's proposal for the new series, to be called Century 21, was taken up without hesitation by Lew Grade. 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.
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. On it's broadcast 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 Lew Grade, the TV mogul said to Anderson "I'm going to buy your company." Not long after that meeting Anderson received a similar approach by the cinema advertising giant Pearl and Dean, but ultimately went with Lew Grade, who purchased AP Films as well as its two subsidiary companies, AP Merchandising and Arrow Publishing. Grade's buy-out stipulated that Gerry Anderson would continue to run AP, and one of his first decisions was to lease and equip 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 its 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. The series proved to be a worldwide success with manufacturers clamouring for licences. Among them was Lyons Maid who produced an iced-lolly 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 . Selling for 7d which was slightly higher than the average children's comic then available; TV21 (it later dropped the 'Century' part of the title) was, like all of Anderson's puppet series, far superior to that of 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 Anderson 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, Anderson was making plans for his next series. The working title for it was International Rescue, although he later decided on a punchier title, 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 Anderson's previous experiences but also by a German mining disaster where a group of miners had been trapped underground and the efforts made to save them. Anderson 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 Lew 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 around 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 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. Till the day he died it remained a mystery to Gerry Anderson as to why it performed so poorly at the box office. Despite this setback, Anderson 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.
At the end of the production of the 22 episodes Anderson attended a meeting with Lew Grade, fully expecting to talk about the second series of Thunderbirds. Instead, he was stunned when Grade began the conversation with, "I think it's time we made a new show."
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 | Matt Zimmerman interviewed by Laurence Marcus