Sylvia Anderson

Gerry Anderson (1929-2012)

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I was very sad indeed to learn of the passing of Gerry Anderson MBE, a man I never met in person but who had an immense impact on my childhood nonetheless, and whose TV shows influence my media likes and preferences to this day more than almost any others, shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Doctor Who and Star Trek.

Anderson is best known for creating a string of hit science fiction kids shows in the 1960s and 70s, many of them using a process that he called Supermarionation. To those of us who were his avid fans, the characters he conjured out of those wooden puppets were never anything other than literally living, breathing real people who went around saving the world and showing us what it meant to be heroes.

I learned in the obituaries that have appeared in the last 24 hours that Gerry Anderson started his career at the Colonial Film Unit, which was part of the Ministry of Information. That government organisation subsequently became the Central Office of Information after the end of World War 2, and is where I myself worked for 11 years some five decades later. It’s a small detail, but a crossed path that can’t help but tug at my heart today as I write this.

After completing his national service, Anderson started his television work with a number of short-lived, now little-remembered primitive puppet shows for small kids including The Adventures of Twizzle (1957–1958), Torchy the Battery Boy (1958–1959) and the fantasy western Four Feather Falls (1959–1960). He was forever pioneering dynamic new ways of using puppets to produce sophisticated shows light years ahead of other childrens far such as Muffin the Mule and Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men, and during this time he also built up a number of key professional associations that would be the backbone of his success in the next decade, including special effects pioneer Derek Meddings and composer/arranger Barry Gray. He also had an affair with his secretary Sylvia Thamm, with the end result that he married her and she became arguably his most important creative collaborator in all the big hits that followed.

Supercar (1960–1961) was the breakthrough for Anderson in which he introduced fantastic gadgets and futuristic vehicles that led in turn first to Fireball XL5 (1962) and then Stingray (1964), the first British children’s TV series to be filmed in colour (“Anything can happen in the next half hour!”) All the time, he was at still at the forefront of creating new techniques for filming marionettes and creating cutting edge special effects: many of his team, such as Meddings, ended up working on Hollywood blockbusters for years after their time collaborating with Anderson.

Arguably the biggest and most enduring Anderson legacy is the iconic Thunderbirds (1964–1966) and its inspirational vision of a team dedicated not to fighting evil and/or repelling aliens but simply helping to rescue people in trouble. (I feel the need to insert a note here that he had no involvement in the 2004 live-action film version, which only demonstrated how others lacking his creative vision and flair could utterly cock things up.) But there will be plenty of fans who will tell you that their own personal favourites are Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967) or Joe 90 (1968), the latter being the ultimate wish-fulfilment show for all bespectacled nine-year-old swots at school who inwardly dreamed of being James Bond.

However, by this point Anderson was getting frustrated at being stuck playing with puppets and started to resent not allowed to make ‘proper’ films and TV shows with real actors, and so he turned his back on Supermarionation and made the 2001-esque Journey to the Far Side of the Sun for the cinema and UFO (1970–71), The Protectors (1972–74) and Space: 1999 (1975–77) for television. The latter featured the beautiful Eagle spacecraft, the one and only time that I’ve attempted to assemble an Airfix model kit albeit sadly with somewhat mixed results in terms of quality, Meddings and his team had nothing to worry about from the eight-year-old me, that much was for certain!

Sadly, Space: 1999 coincided with the end of his marriage to Sylvia and things were never quite the same again. Plenty of younger fans than I will still have a great nostalgic love for his later work, which included a return to puppetry with Terrahawks (1983–86). I wasn’t a fan of this period: maybe I’d just temporarily outgrown my childhood, so that Terrahawks just seemed like a weak attempt to riff off all the ideas of his earlier greatest hits to diminishing returns. But credit where it’s due: Anderson continued to push for new ways of creating televisual entertainment, and in 2005 a revival of Captain Scarlet used then-groundbreaking CGI techniques to impressive effect.

Technology aside, it was always the creative imagination and vision allied to the pure narrative storytelling power that shone through everything that Anderson did and which enabled him to hardwire directly into the brains and affections of generations of British schoolkids – partly because he always felt like he was really a big kid just like us at heart. One of the things that I’m very grateful for is that I was the right age to be on hand to experience some of his best years of output, and to share – along with millions of other kids – in the world of Century 21 that Anderson created for us.

As a small tribute to Gerry Anderson after I heard the news on Boxing Day, I went back and found my DVDs of Stingray and watched a couple of half-hour episodes, “Pink Ice” and “The Masterplan.” They’re nearly 50 years old now, and obviously things have moved on since the shows were made. It might well be that I’m viewing them through the misty hazy of rose-tinted spectacles, but by God even after all this time they still stood up as far as I was concerned. In “Pink Ice” it almost feels like you’re watching the highlights of a much bigger epic science fiction blockbuster rather than a few puppets gamely trying (and largely failing, it has to be said!) to mimic the human gait.

I have an awful lot of DVD boxsets of Gerry Anderson shows on my shelves, and if you don’t then I’d recommend that you put that to rights as soon as you can – for the sake of your children if not for yourself. Every single one of those boxsets is a rich source of pleasure, and an example of enduring quality in a real world where the actual 21st Century has become sadly cheap, plastic and disposable. None of those words will ever apply to any of the things that Gerry Anderson created for us.

And so a final personal note to finish on: thank you, Gerry Anderson, for all that you gave us – hours of joy and entertainment, but more importantly the gift of imagination and fantasy. Your shows will undoubtedly live on, and through them you can be assured that you will always be appreciated and will never be forgotten.

Gerald Alexander Anderson, film and TV producer, director and writer, born 14 April 1929; died 26 December 2012. He was appointed an MBE in 2001. He is survived by his third wife, Mary, and by two daughters from his first marriage, a son from his second, and a son from his third.