Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Gerry Anderson - The Puppetmaster

Another little piece of yer actual Keith Telly Topping's misspent childhood sadly bit the dust on Boxing Day with the announcement that the TV legend Gerry Anderson has died. The announcement came from his son, Jamie. Anderson was, just in case you've been living in a cave for the last forty odd years, the creator of - in no particular order - Thunderbirds, Joe 90, Stingray, UFO, Space: 1999, Fireball XL5, Captain Scarlet & The Mysterons and many other classic TV series. He died peacefully in his sleep, having suffered with dementia for the past few years. He was eighty three. Gerry Anderson, MBE was a publisher, producer, director and writer, famous for his futuristic television programmes, particularly those involving specially modified marionettes, a process which eventually came to be known as 'Supermarionation.' His production company, originally AP Films, later, renamed Century 21 Productions, was formed with partners Arthur Provis, Reg Hill and John Read. Gerry also wrote and produced several feature films. Following a successful move towards live action productions in the 1970s, his long and highly successful association with Lew Grade's ITC ended with the second series of Space: 1999. Gerald Alexander Abrahams was born in London in 1929. His ancestral name was Bieloglovski, with his Jewish grandfather fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe and settling in London. The name was changed to Abrahams by a British immigration official in 1895. Anderson's mother, Deborah, changed it again - by deed poll, in 1939 - to Anderson reportedly because she liked the sound of it. When the second World War kicked-off big-style, Anderson's older brother, Lionel, volunteered for the RAF and was posted to the United States for training. He often wrote to his family and one of these letters described a USAF airbase called 'Thunderbird Field', a name which would stick in his brother's memory.
Gerry's began his career in photography and after the war he secured an apprenticeship with the British Colonial Film Unit. He developed an interest in film editing and moved on to Gainsborough Pictures, where he gained further experience. In 1947, he was conscripted for national service with the RAF but, after completing his military service, he returned to Gainsborough and remained there until the studio folded in 1950. In the mid-1950s Gerry joined independent television production company Polytechnic Studios, as a director. After Polytechnic collapsed, Anderson, and his friends Arthur Provis, Reg Hill and John Read formed Pentagon Films in 1957 which became AP Films' soon afterwards. Their first television venture was produced for Granada. Created by Roberta Leigh, The Adventures of Twizzle (1957–58) was a series for young children about a doll with the ability to 'twizzle' his arms and legs to greater lengths. It was Anderson's first work with puppets and the start of his long and successful collaborations with puppeteer Christine Glanville, special effects technician Derek Meddings and composer and arranger Barry Gray. During the production of Twizzle, Anderson began a relationship with his secretary, Sylvia Thamm and eventually left his then wife, Betty. He and Sylvia married in 1960. Twizzle was followed by another low budget - but, very well-remembered, puppet series with Leigh, Torchy the Battery Boy (1958–59), the story of a young doll who lived in a fantasy world for toys called Topsy-Turvy-Land. Ironically, although the APF puppet productions would make the Andersons world famous, Gerry was reportedly often unhappy about working with puppets and made these shows primarily as a means of gaining a reputation with the ITV network.

AP's third series was the children's western fantasy-adventure series Four Feather Falls (1959–60), the first Anderson series to use an early version of the 'Supermarionation' process, though the term had yet to be coined. It centred on 'the nicest cowpoke you could ever meet', Tex Tucker (voiced by Nicholas Parsons), who would frequently burst into song (sung by Michael Holliday) and fight such contemptible critters as yer actual Pedro the Bandit. Despite APF's success with Four Feather Falls, Granada did not pick up an option to commission another series from them, so Anderson took up the offer to direct a film for Anglo-Amalgamated Studios. Crossroads To Crime was a very undistinguished low-budget crime thriller and although Anderson hoped that its success might enable him to move into mainstream film-making, it failed at the box office. By this time, APF was in financial trouble and the company was struggling to find a buyer for their new puppet series. They were rescued by a fortuitous meeting with ATV boss Lew Grade who offered to buy the show. This began a long and very successful successful professional association - and friendship - between Anderson and Grade which was to last for most of the next two decades. Supercar (1960–61) was created by Anderson and Reg Hill and marked several important advances for APF. Sylvia Anderson took on a larger role and became a partner in the company. The series was also the official début of Supermarionation, an electronic system which made the marionettes more lifelike and convincing on screen. The system used the audio signal from the pre-recorded tapes of the actors' voices to trigger solenoids installed in the puppets' heads, enabling the puppets' lips to move in more or less exact synchronisation with the voices of the actors. The series also, in its square-jawed mid-Atlantic hero Mike Mercury, provided a prototype for all future Anderson heroes.

APF's innovative merchandising made them a world leader in the field and they licensed a huge range of toys, books, magazines and related items during the 1960s and 70s. The worldwide popularity of their TV shows was coupled with astute marketing and the combination made APF one of the most successful merchandising ventures of the decade. The die-cast metal toys from series such as the Thunderbird vehicles were hugely popular at the time and they now number among the most collectible toys of their kind. Models from almost all their series have been produced ever since by companies throughout the world, notably in Japan, where the Anderson series have a dedicated following. They also produced board games (this blogger, for instance, has a now probably impossibly rare Thunderbirds game from the late 1960s, albeit, the Telly Topping cat rather ruined any potential resale value by chewing up Thunderbird 3, the little bastard).

APF's next series was the futuristic space adventure Fireball XL5 (1962) and it was the company's biggest success yet, becoming the first Anderson series sold to a US TV network (in this case, NBC). This was a space opera concerning the adventures of astronaut Steve Zodiac and his crew, Venus, Professor Matic and Robert the Robot (voiced by Anderson himself through an effects box). The special effects on the series, created by Derek Meddings, ensured that Fireball XL5 was a giant leap forward from Supercar. The - memorable - theme song was 'I Wish I Was A Spaceman'. After the completion of Fireball XL5, Lew Grade offered to buy AP Films. Although Anderson was initially reluctant, the deal eventually went ahead, with Grade becoming managing director, and the Andersons, Hill and Read becoming directors of the company. Shortly after the buy-out, APF began production on Stingray (1964), the first British children's TV series to be filmed in colour. Stingray concerned the World Aquanaut Security Patrol, as represented by Troy Tempest, Phones, Commander Shore (whose 'Stand by for action. Anything can happen in the next half-hour!' opened each episode) and the mute mermaid, Marina. With Meddings' effects now far more realistic, and a series of outrageous villains, including Titan, the Aquaphibians and the Killer Fish, Stingray was Anderson's first truly groovy series. Though many of the plots were predictable and corny, there was a knowingness and a love of character which made the whole thing utterly charming and captured the imaginations of a generation of proto-hooligans like yer actual Keith Telly Topping. For the new production APF moved to new studios in Slough. The bigger facilities allowed them to make further improvements in special effects, notably in the underwater sequences, as well as advances in puppetry, with the use of a variety of interchangeable heads for each character to convey different expressions.

Their next project for ATV was, according to Anderson, inspired by news of a mining disaster which occurred in West Germany in October 1963. This real-life drama inspired Anderson to create a programme format about a worldwide rescue organisation, which eventually became his most famous and popular series, Thunderbirds (1964–66). The story concerned an ex-astronaut, Jeff Tracy, and his five sons (Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John - all named after some of the US Mercury astronauts) who formed the secret International Rescue organisation from their hi-tech island base. In their battles against the villainous Hood or, more usually, natural disasters, the Tracy boys were aided by their genius house guest, Brains, their London agent, Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward and her cockney ex-con chauffeur, Parker. Gerry initially wanted sexy-voiced actress Fenella Fielding to perform the voice of Lady Penelope, but Sylvia convinced her husband to let her play the role instead. F.A.B. Thunderbirds also marked the start of a long professional association between the Andersons and the actor Shane Rimmer, an American based in the UK, who voiced Scott Tracy. With a substantial increase in budget the renamed Century 21 Productions enjoyed its greatest success with Thunderbirds, and the series made the Andersons world-famous. The thirty two-episode series was not initially successful in the United States, although it later became huge in syndication. But it was a major - and by major, we mean Brigadier-General - hit with young audiences in the UK, Australia, Canada and many other countries. It retains a huge and dedicated international following which spans several generations although the two big-screen adaptations Thunderbirds Are GO (1966) and Thunderbird 6 (1967) were relative flops at the box office.

Although Thunderbirds remains Anderson's best loved series, for many fans the pinnacle of his career came with Captain Scarlet & The Mysterons in 1967. This saw the advent of more realistic puppet characters which, thanks to improvements in electronics which allowed miniaturisation of the lip-sync mechanisms, could now be built closer to normal human proportions. Captain Scarlet portrays a future Earth at war, due to misunderstanding and xenophobia, with Mars. The Earth forces of Spectrum fought the faceless Mysterons and their human agents, notably Captain Black. The series had careful continuity with advantage in the conflict continually shifting. The cast in the series included Francis Matthews doing, in Gerry Anderson's words, 'his Cary Grant voice' for the eponymous Captain Scarlet, Ed Bishop (another US-born, British-based actor who would have a long and fruitful association with Anderson) as his partner Captain Blue, and Donald Gray, whose velvet tones provided the voices not only of Colonel White, but also of the Mysterons and Captain Black. This also had it catchphrases ('spectrum is green', 'Captain Scarlet is indestructible, you are not!') and its classy female characters to get the boys all hot and sweaty (the Angels). Coming off the back of such a hit, Joe 90 was something of a disappointment after Captain Scarlet, telling the story of a nine-year-old boy, Joe McLaine, who could be programmed with the brain patterns of a range of experts. He worked as a special agent for the World Intelligence Network. The model work was actually very impressive, but the series lacked the quality of previous Anderson shows and the writing was a distinct throwback to tweeness. Its relatively poor reception - Barry Gray's very cool theme tune notwithstanding - made it the last of the classic Anderson marionette shows.
Anderson's next project took the special effects expertise built up over previous TV projects and combined it with live action. Century 21's third feature film, 1969's Doppelgänger (aka Journey to the Far Side of the Sun) was a dark, Twilight Zone-style SF project about an astronaut who travels to a newly discovered planet on the opposite side of the sun, which proves to be an exact mirror-image of Earth. It starred American actor Roy Thinnes, famed at the time for his role as the protagonist in The Invaders. But, again, it wasn't a huge success. Century 21's return to television was the abortive series The Secret Service, which this time mixed live action with Supermarionation. The series was inspired by Anderson's love of the British comedian Stanley Unwin, who was known for his nonsense language. Despite Anderson's track record and Unwin's popularity, the series was cancelled before its first screening; Lew Grade considered that it would be incomprehensible to American audiences, and thus unsellable. Only thirteen episodes were produced. In 1969 the Andersons began production on their masterpiece, UFO, the company's first full live-action television series. This classic SF action-adventure series starred Ed Bishop as Commander Ed Straker, head of a secret defence organisation - S.H.A.D.O - set up to counter an alien invasion around the year 1980. UFO was decidedly more adult in tone than any of the previous puppet series (although it shared some qualities with Captain Scarlet), and it mixed the classic futuristic action-adventure and special effects with some very serious dramatic elements. UFO was moderately successful on first release, but has built up a strong cult following over the years. Yer actual Keith Telly Topping considers it to be something of a lost treasure. Among the most impressive elements in UFO was the series' hardware, including the submarine Skydiver and a superbly designed moonbase, complete with its own Interceptors. The best episodes made use of the series' sweeping, multi-character aspect, which gave UFO a filmic quality. The Cat with Ten Lives concentrated on a man controlled by the aliens via the strange conduit of the family cat. The Square Triangle (a murder mystery), A Question of Priorities, The Sound of Silence and Confetti Check A-O.K. were almost soap-opera, focusing on the effects of S.H.A.D.O on individual lives, whilst The Man Who Came Back and Tony Barwick's The Psychobombs were strange, psychological studies of the techniques used by the green-skinned aliens to disrupt and infiltrate Staker's organisation. UFO's reputation, however, was made by the four episodes which were given restricted time slots. Timelash was deemed to be risky after Bishop and Wanda Ventham injected themselves with drugs to counteract an alien device which was slowing down time. The Responsibility Seat', a straightforward tale of the isolation of command, contained scenes in which beautiful spy Jane Merrow seduced the SHADO chief. Mindbender was a downright surreal episode in which Straker touches a hallucinatory alien rock and finds himself wandering around the UFO studio set, having his dialogue stopped by a shout of 'Cut!' from Sylvia Anderson, talking to Paul Foster, who tells him he is an actor called Michael, and watching 'rushes' of previous episodes. The last episode caused the most fuss. The Long Sleep, with its monochrome tinted hallucinatory dream sequences, plethora of drug speak and an implied rape, was provocative enough to be totally banned in certain ITV regions. The episode had - until the 1990s - never been shown on terrestrial television before 10.30pm.
Gerry next produced the ITC action series The Protectors. It was one of Anderson's few non-original projects. Lew Grade himself was heavily involved in the programme and cast both the lead actors, Robert Vaughn and Nyree Dawn Porter. The production was difficult for Anderson, who clashed with Vaughn from early in the shoot. There were also many logistical problems arising from the Europe-wide filming of the show, but it was pretty successful in both the UK and America and its theme song - 'Avenues and Alleyways' - became a big hit in the UK for the singer Tony Christie. It was also the first live-action series produced by Anderson to survive to a second season. A proposed second series of UFO was mooted and then shelved with elements of the abandoned series eventually turning into what became, at the time, the most expensive television series ever made, Space: 1999. Another futuristic SF adventure, it was based on the premise that a huge thermonuclear explosion on the Moon's surface (caused by dumping of nuclear waste) projected it out of orbit and into interstellar space. It starred American husband-and-wife actors Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, who had gained international TV fame in Mission: Impossible. The premise was excellent, but unfortunately, despite a promising beginning, a clutch of international guest stars and several well-remembered episodes - such as the extremely weird Black Sun and the horrific Dragon's Domain - the series was often vacuous, slow-moving hippie drivel. A second season, made in 1976, tried to dump some of the less successful elements and become a more standard action adventure drama. In doing so, it found several new ways to be Goddamn awful. Between making the two series of Space: 1999, Anderson produced a one-off television special, The Day After Tomorrow (also known as Into Infinity), about two spacefaring families en route to Alpha Centauri, for an NBC series of programmes illustrating current scientific theory for popular consumption.

In the early 1980s, Anderson formed a new partnership, Anderson Burr Pictures Ltd. The new company's first production was based on an unrealised concept devised by Anderson in the late seventies for a Japanese cartoon series. Terrahawks marked Anderson's return to working with puppets, but rather than marionettes this series used a new system dubbed 'Supermacromation' which used highly sophisticated glove puppets – an approach undoubtedly inspired by the great advances in this form of puppetry made by Jim Henson and his colleagues. Terrahawks ran successfully from 1983 to 1986 in the UK. Anderson hoped to continue his renewed success with a series called Space Police mixing live-action and puppets. The programme eventually emerged in 1995 as Space Precinct. In the meantime, Anderson and Burr produced the cult stop-motion animated series Dick Spanner, which enjoyed many showings on Channel Four in the late eighties and early nineties. Anderson then joined the Moving Picture Company as a commercials director, and provided special effects direction for the hit musical comedy Return to the Forbidden Planet.

In 1991, the BBC, riding on the nostalgia boom which began in the mid-80s, bought Thunderbirds for BBC2. The publicity given to the series, both by the BBC and the press at large, suggested less a twenty five-year-old puppet series for children and more a significant event in the history of western civilisation. Stingray and Captain Scarlet also proved to be huge hits in the same early evening slot, but even the BBC couldn't push Joe 90 successfully. The renewed interest enabled Anderson to return to television production, but several projects including GFI (an animated update of Thunderbirds) did not make it into production. Finally, in 1994, Anderson was able to get the long-shelved Space Precinct into production. It was followed by Lavender Castle, a children's SF fantasy series combining stop-motion animation and computer-generated imagery. Gerry was diagnosed with mixed dementia two years ago and his condition worsened quite dramatically over the past six months. Until very recently Anderson remained interested and involved in the film industry, keen to re-visit some of his earlier successes using the latest technology available. His last producer credit came in 2005 on New Captain Scarlet, a CGI-animated re-imagining of his 1967 Supermarionation series, which premiered on ITV. Most recently he worked as a consultant on a Hollywood remake of UFO, directed by Matthew Gratzner. He also worked as a celebrity ambassador for The Alzheimer's Society, helping to raise awareness and much-needed funds for the society. Gerry spoke publicly about his disease in June 2012. Speaking on BBC Berkshire he said: 'I don't think I realised at all. It was my wife Mary who began to notice that I would do something quite daft like putting the kettle in the sink and waiting for it to boil.' Gerry is survived by three children from former marriages, Joy, Linda and Gerry Junior, his son Jamie and widow Mary.

Where else we gonna go for yer actual Keith Telly Topping's 45 of the Day but Cloudbase. What we need, clearly, is a bit of melody, harmony, rhapsody and destiny.