Gerry Anderson has a track record that would make any self-respecting TV producer shake in his boots: 17 television programs, virtually all of which now rate as cult successesfrom the lavishly produced space adventure Space: 1999 and the cult favorite UFO to the "Supermarionation" of Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet. Today we continue our exclusive interview with this legend of genre TV.
By the Thunderbirds hit the airwaves in 1964, Anderson's desperate little production company had 250 people on its payroll and Anderson was creating charactersand machinesthat would become beloved by both children and adults.
"We had our own merchandising company, toy company, record company, publishing company," Anderson recalls. "I always used to write the first script of every series, because this is where the creation took place. I'd write, in the case of Thunderbirds, that there's an impending disaster. So I have a very practical mind and I think, 'Well, the first thing is to get someone to the disaster fast.' At the time the fastest aircraft was a rocket, so okay, we'll have a rocket and when it's up to speed it'll have to transcend to horizontal flight, so it will have stub wings and they will come out, and on the launch the pilot will have to be facing upward but when it transcends he'll have to change his position. There weren't satellites in that day and age but obviously aircraft would fly over this island where these vehicles come from so we'll have a swimming pool that will retract and the rocket would come out."
"I would write all this and the same with the other craft and the same with the characters. As each character appeared there would be a paragraph describing them. The heads of the department were Derek Meddings in special effects, Bob Bell who was in charge of the art department, we had a model department, we had a property department that built all the furniture, and everything in each room would have to be madecarpets, lamps, glasses, every single thing had to be made. We had a wardrobe department and my wife Sylvia doubled in that and we had expert people in there. They would design tiny clothes and make them and the puppeteers in between production would be sculpting the new heads."
If the Stingray and Thunderbirds look a little familiar, Anderson takes full responsibility for it. "People always say to me, was such and such a character based on such and such an actor or a famous person?" he explains. "I always give the example of StingrayI didn't have the most incredible education in the world and I came from a poor family when London was being bombed, and when it came to characters I didn't have the ability to describe them very well. I used to write things like, 'Troy Tempest: heroic, blue eyes, blond hair, square jaw, sense of humor in the face,' and the sculptors would come in to me totally bemused and ask me to describe more about the character. It's very difficult to describe a face anyway but to describe a face that doesn't exist is damn near impossible. So we would talk for a while and they were trying to be helpful, and out of sheer frustration I would say, 'Look, something like James Garner.' Off they'd go and make the series and it would go on the air and people would say to me, 'Was Troy Tempest a copy of James Garner?' Well not intentionally, no!"
A key associate in the development of the Anderson shows' popularity was special effects technician Derek Meddings, a master of miniature photography and pyrotechnics who was so good at his job that he was courted by Stanley Kubrick to work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, and eventually became one of the primary effects artists behind many of the James Bond pictures. "Derek Meddings was working with a tiny special effects company when we first started in business, and when we made Torchy the Battery Boy, which was the second series we made, we had highly stylized clouds and he used to finish work and come to our studio in the evening and paint our backings," Anderson recalls. "We asked him to join the company and he was an art department assistant."
"What started Supercar we had a character called Doctor Beaker, and one of the scripts had Doctor Beaker playing an organ. He got carried away and started playing more stridently until at the finale he hit the keyboard and this tremendous sound built and the script said the organ fell to pieces. Derek came to me and said, 'Look, instead of having the organ fall to pieces, how about blowing it up?' He said he could do it with some fireworks and black powder and an electric detonator. I said okay and when we shot the scene Christine Glanville was up overhead operating the puppet's hands, and I did a countdown and when I got to zero there was this bloody great bang, and Christine on the balcony jumped and of course Beaker raised his hands and the organ burst into flames. The next day we all saw the dailies and we all said well, this is spectacular, and after that we started blowing things up on a regular basis and I gave Derek his own special effects department."
Be sure to check back for the third part of our exclusive interview with Gerry Anderson.