Gerry Anderson's new production company was ailing and in desperate need of a cash boost when, in 1957, they were approached by children's writer Roberta Leigh and her colleague Suzanne Warner at the behest of Associated Rediffusion to make a series of 52 thirteen-minute episodes of a children's puppet series. 'Here I was ready to make 'The Ten Commandments' and they were asking us to work with puppets!' Said Anderson many years later. But make it they did. Today, almost half a century later, Anderson can look back on a career that has seen him produce his unique brand of family entertainment that continues to enthral audiences around the world. It all started with Twizzle.
Twizzle was a 'living' boy doll who had the ability to extend his arms and legs to amazing lengths. He lived in a toyshop with his other toy friends where, priced at two-shillings-and-sixpence, he was a little too expensive for most people’s pockets. He had already resigned himself to living on the shop counter forever when, one day, a horrible little girl called Sally Cross came into the shop and bullied the shop owner into selling him for just two-shillings. Horrified that he will have to go and live with Sally Cross, Twizzle hides in the Jack-In-The-Box until nightfall when he escapes the shop by using his 'twizzling' ability. He takes refuge in a dog kennel where he meets Footso, a big black cat whose paws are so enormous that he keeps falling over them.
Footso has also run away from home, and so the two fugitives team up and become firm friends before setting off on a series of adventures. One of these involves Twizzle using his unique abilities to rescue a little girl doll from a house fire. As a reward, Twizzle is given a shiny new racing car, but after crashing it he exchanges it with The Garage Man for a red breakdown truck and sets about rescuing broken toys such as Chawky -the white faced golliwog, Jiffy -The Broomstick Man, Bouncy -a ball that has lost its bounce, Candy Floss -the mama doll that can't say 'mama', The China Doll, Thin Teddy Bear, Jack-In-The-Box and Polly Moppet. Needing somewhere to live Twizzle and his new found friends build a town of log cabins which they name Stray Town where all the stray toys in the world are welcome. From time-to-time they are visited by The Toy Inspector, a sort of patriarchal figure who ensures that the toys are alright.
In 1955, shortly after the advent of Commercial Television in the UK, Gerry Anderson was invited to join Polytechnic Films, a small production company based in Taplow, Buckinghamshire. Acting as a director, Anderson quickly established a rapport with Polytechnic cameraman Arthur Provis. But two years later, unable to overcome their financial difficulties, Polytechnic went into liquidation leaving Anderson and Provis, as well as many other members of staff unemployed. The duo decided to form their own production company and offered work to Reg Hill and John Read from Polytechnic's art department, and Sylvia Thamm, the company's secretary. The new company, AP Films, set up their fledgling film studios at Islet Park, an Edwardian mansion situated on the banks of the Thames at Maidenhead. They installed a phone and waited for their first big order. Nothing happened.
Six months later, with still nothing happening and money beginning to run out, they all had to take other jobs to keep the company afloat. Then the phone rang.
Anderson and Provis were hardly thrilled at the prospect of making a children's puppet series, which they saw as underselling their talents. But with no other offer of work they reluctantly took on the project at a very modest budget (even by 1950s standards) of £450.00 per episode. And because time equated to money, the show was shot on a very tight schedule. Models had their finishing touches applied in the morning and were in front of the camera by the same afternoon. This left little time for improvements.
Anderson was aware that puppets seen on television up to that point were quite grotesque looking and static in as far as eye movements and facial expressions and was ashamed to be associated with such a project. To compensate, he and Art Director Reg Hill 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. Another improvement was the shift away from traditional manipulation and instead of the puppet operators working the strings from behind a backdrop, where they had to lean forward to see the puppets faces, they were now located on an overhead bridge 12 feet off the studio floor. This eliminated the need for one-dimensional sets and did away with shadows that were reflected onto the background of 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.
By now the team working on Twizzle had grown to twelve, but still more were needed. Reg Hill approached leading special effects expert Les Bowie, but when he proved to be unavailable Bowie recommended his own apprentice Derek Meddings. He took the job only to earn some extra money but considered working on a puppet series to be of no real value at first. The skills that Meddings honed over the years working on Anderson produced series made him one of the most sought after SFX men in the business.
Most of the character voices on Twizzle (although not the main character) were performed by actress Denise Bryer, former wife of TV personality Nicholas Parsons, who also lent his voice to future Anderson produced projects. Roberta Leigh wrote songs for the show but with no musical background she employed a composer to whom she would hum the tunes. He would then go away a score these songs. Barry Gray went on to become one of the most prolific TV and film composers in the industry.
The first episode of The Adventures of Twizzle was broadcast on November 13th 1957 at 4.30pm. The AP Films crew were still hard at work filming the series' later episodes but they afforded themselves the luxury of a launch party. The party marked the beginning of the relationship between Gerry Anderson and Sylvia Thamm, who would later become Sylvia Anderson. From episode seven onwards the series was shown under the umbrella of the children's television title Small Time and moved to the later transmission time of 5.00pm. It continued in that slot until September 17th 1958 when it moved to 4.45pm. The last new episode -'Candy Floss Has A Birthday' was transmitted on Wednesday 10th June 1959, 7 months after the original series ended its run. It is not known why this episode was held back, although it may have been a simple oversight by Associated Rediffusion.
The Adventures of Twizzle was so well received that A-R wanted another series from Roberta Leigh and Gerry Anderson: Another puppet series. Gerry Anderson's career was beginning to take shape.
Published on November 26th, 2018. Written by Laurence Marcus 5 March 2005 for Television Heaven.