GERRY ANDERSON: THE PUPPET MASTER
There are very few modern day television storytellers whose tales span the generations. But each generation of children from the 1950s to the present day are familiar with the name Gerry Anderson. You don’t have to be "of a certain age" to have marvelled at the wondrous offerings that Anderson and his talented stable of puppeteers and animators have bought to the screen. Gerry Anderson is to television what Walt Disney is to the movies. But for a man who has enthralled generations of both adults and children down the years, his own childhood had a less than fairy-tale start.
Born Gerald Alexander Abrahams on 14th July 1929, Gerry was the second son of Joseph and Deborah Abrahams, whose first child, Lionel, had come into the world some seven years before. The age difference between the two children meant that they weren’t particularly close, and the loneliness that Gerry felt was further compounded when, at the age of five, he caught German Measles and his parents sent him away –first to be treated and then to convalesce, all of which took a total of ten weeks. It was a deeply unhappy time for Gerry, but he always remembers that on his eventual return home he discovered that a neighbour had bought him a set of brightly painted lead toy cars, which were laid out in a street scene, complete with traffic lights and sitting atop a green baize card table. With hindsight, it may have been a determining moment in his life.
From an early age Gerry showed a flair and imagination and was also a keen cinemagoer. Once a week his mother would take him to see the latest release, whether it was the latest Hollywood blockbuster or a small budget British B-movie.
Although his family, especially on his father’s side, were devout Jews, Gerry realised that the faith meant very little to him. When, at the outbreak of WWII, the family moved to Neasden, Gerry had his first experience of anti-Semitism and bullying as a result of his religion. His mother, whose spiritual beliefs mirrored those of her youngest son, also experienced the same sort of narrow-mindedness, and after many arguments, Deborah and Gerry talked Joseph into changing the family name to Anderson.
In the meantime, Gerry’s brother, Lionel, had joined the RAF as a pilot, and carried out his basic training in America. His rank was Sergeant Pilot and he flew Mosquitoes with 515 Squadron, whose activities were shrouded in secrecy. Only after the war was it revealed that they flew over Holland, acting as homing beacons for British bombers and decoys for enemy radar systems. Lionel completed his first tour of thirty missions over the most dangerous air space in the world and returned home for a short break. In Gerry’s eyes, his brother was nothing short of a hero. It was after the eighth mission of Lionel’s second tour that the family received a telegram to say that he was missing in action.
The family were distraught with grief. Deborah, in particular, never really recovered from the shock of losing her eldest son. But for Gerry, his heroic brother left behind a legacy that would not be forgotten. As well as fostering a passionate interest in flying, Gerry never forgot about the letters that Lionel had sent him during his training period at Falcon Field, Arizona. In them, Lionel enthused about the amazing aerobatics he’d seen by a display team. And Gerry never forgot the name of the airfield where they were stationed. It was called Thunderbird Field.
After leaving school Gerry got an apprenticeship at a portrait gallery in London’s Regent Street. At the same time he sent off a continuous stream of letters to film companies and studios in search of employment. Eventually he received a response from the Ministry of Information offering him a placement with their Colonial Film Unit. Eventually, Gerry was put to work in the cutting room under the guidance of the legendary George Pearson whose credits included the first ever screen version of Conan Doyle’s "A Study in Scarlet." Growing in confidence, Gerry then applied for a vacancy at Gainsborough Pictures, who were one of the biggest independent filmmakers in the country.
In 1947, Gerry received his conscription papers ordering him to do his National Service. On completion of an entry I.Q. test Gerry was interviewed by an Education Officer who asked Gerry what he did in civilian life. When Gerry explained about his work at the film studios the EO was suitably impressed enough to suggest Gerry go to work as a radio telephone operator. Gerry was sent to Cranwell Radio School where he passed out with the rank of Leading Aircraftsman and was subsequently posted to RAF Manston in Kent. It was another decision that would prove to be very influential on his later career.
Two incidents in his final year with the RAF had a profound effect on Gerry. The first occurred during an aircraft display that was taking place to celebrate Battle of Britain Day. As thousands of spectators gathered to see a collection of Spitfire, Lancaster and Mosquito aircraft fly over RAF Manston, there was a disaster. The Mosquito went into a loop that it couldn’t get out of and hit the ground on the narrow road leading to the base. The road was still crowded with people coming to the display and many were unable to get out of the way in time. 20 people died.
Several months later, Gerry witnessed another incident while working in the radio tower. A message came through that an aircraft with a damaged undercarriage was about to attempt a life or death landing. After a tense approach the pilot managed to bring his aircraft down safely with little injury to himself or his crew. The two incidents, one ending in catastrophic disaster and the other, a near miss that ended up well, stayed with Gerry for many years and formed the basis of his first Thunderbirds story ‘Trapped In The Sky’.
On completion of his National Service Gerry went to Pinewood Studios as a dubbing editor. After a brief time at Elstree he moved on to Shepperton. During this period he got to work with a number of British film luminaries both in front of, and behind the camera and in the cutting room. It was also during this period that Gerry met his first wife, Betty. Together they had two children, Joy and Linda, but it wasn’t long before he and Betty were experiencing marital difficulties mainly caused by his continual late hours at the film studios where he was working every hour possible.
By 1955, Gerry was working for a small production company based in Taplow, Buckinghamshire. Polytechnic Films was a relatively new company that had been formed specifically to supply programmes to the embryonic Independent Television network that was due to start broadcasting in September of that year. Gerry had been invited to join as a director and quickly struck up a good working relationship with cameraman Arthur Provis. Among the type of programmes Polytechnic made was a show featuring people with unusual or bizarre talents, called "You’ve Never Seen This." In fact, hardly anyone ever did see it, because the show was broadcast only once (on Tuesday 4th October, 1955 at 800pm) and by 1957 Polytechnic had gone into liquidation.
With the prospect of unemployment looming, Gerry and Arthur decided to form their own production company. They took on three of Polytechnic’s existing employees from the art department, Reg Hill who had a career as an artist before going into films and John Read who had done his National Service with the RAF as an airframe fitter. 30 –year old secretary Sylvia Thamm completed the line-up. They called the company Pentagon Films, but after making a few TV commercials they too went bust. Undeterred they set up AP Films (Anderson / Provis) and rented space in an Edwardian mansion in Maidenhead, Berkshire, just yards from the river Thames. The mansion was called Islet Park. 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.
Roberta Leigh, a writer for young readers, and her colleague Suzanne Warner had been asked by the Associated Rediffusion television company to find a production company to shoot a series of Leigh’s creation, Twizzle. The budget for the series was not very big and Leigh and Warner knew that the best chance of getting it made cheaply was by finding a company hungry for work. AP Films was such a company. "Here I was ready to make 'The Ten Commandments' and they were asking us to work with puppets!" said Anderson many years later. In fact, it wasn’t Anderson and Provis’ first experience of working with puppets. That had come with the briefly formed Pentagon Films and a commercial for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes featuring Enid Blyton’s celebrated children’s character, Noddy. The puppet used was the same one previously seen in the Noddy television series in 1955 and it gave Gerry Anderson and Arthur Provis an understanding with regards to what they would be taking on.
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 in 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.
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 a relationship between Gerry Anderson and Sylvia Thamm. The television series was so well received that A-R wanted another. The success of Twizzle had delighted Roberta Leigh so much that in October 1958 she commissioned AP Films, through her own newly formed company, Pelham Films Ltd., to make 26 episodes of a brand new puppet series called "Torchy the Battery Boy."
With an increase in the budget this time round to £27,000, nearly double of what they had to spend on ‘Twizzle’, the incentive was there to see how much further they could go with the puppet series format.
The crew finished the filming of all 26 episodes two months ahead of schedule. Delighted by this, Roberta Leigh promptly asked for 26 more. However, Anderson and Provis had already decided to branch out on their own and produce their own puppet series. Anderson still wasn’t enamoured about working with puppets, but realised that his company was creating more and more sophisticated methods working with them. Under the conditions of her contract with AP Films, Roberta Leigh retained sole copyright of Torchy the Battery Boy, including all the puppets, sets and music.
The two companies parted amicably but they may not have done so if Leigh had known the full truth. With £6,000 in the bank and an idea given to them by their music composer, Barry Gray, they set about making a pilot episode for a western called "Four Feather Falls." However, fearing that Leigh would find out and cancel their contract for ‘Torchy’ and withhold payment, they began creating the puppets and sets for their new series under the utmost secrecy.
At this time, the owners of Islet Park offered to sell them the property for £16,500. But Arthur Provis thought it too much of a gamble and wouldn’t agree to the purchase. Anderson was understandably frustrated at Provis’ reluctance to expand the company and eventually the pair decided to part company. In the event, they broke without acrimony, and Provis later joined forces with Roberta Leigh and together they produced another children’s puppet series called "Space Patrol."
Four Feather Falls was AP Films’ most ambitious project to date, with much more detailed sets than used in ‘Twizzle’ or ‘Torchy’. The puppets became more sophisticated, too. Anderson and his team experimented with electronics to match the puppets mouth movements to the dialogue. The head of the puppet was fitted with a solenoid connected to a tungsten wire 1/5,000th of an inch thick and pulses were fed down it from a tape recording of the actors’ voices. When each shot was ready, a switch was thrown and the pulses of direct current went out onto the stage, up the bridge and into power lines running in front of the puppeteers. It was important that the operators didn’t touch these wires by hand because they had around sixty volts running through them. By the time the current reached the puppets head it was reduced to about twelve volts, which was just enough to activate the mouth movements. The electronic lip synch mechanism had, according to Gerry Anderson, about a 90 per cent success rate. This technique was one of the earliest developments for a process that Anderson eventually named Supermarionation.
Anderson took the pilot to Granada Television who commissioned 34 episodes. But that pilot was the last filming AP Films did at Islet Park. Gerry wanted larger premises and with Arthur Provis now gone he decided to go ahead with the expansion of the business. As a result of this he took a lease on a former warehouse at Ipswich Road on the Slough Trading Estate, just four miles away.
The first episode of Four Feather Falls was shown in the UK just two days after Gerry Anderson’s previous series Torchy the Battery Boy had begun in the London area. It debuted on Thursday 25th February 1960 at 500pm and featured on the cover of that week’s edition of TV Times. With the success of Four Feather Falls to add to Anderson’s impressive CV of children’s puppet series, AP Films fully expected Granada to ask for more. Instead, on delivery of the last programme Anderson was handed a cheque and met with stony silence. He felt this was a great shame because he and his crew had already worked out a concept for their next series. They even had a name for it.