GERRY ANDERSON: THE PUPPET MASTER
"To say that I was a little surprised when Lady Penelope's pink Rolls-Royce was turned into a pink Ford is something of an understatement."
Things had started to look up for Gerry in his private life, even though the bitterness between himself and Sylvia Anderson had spilled over to the extent that Gerry was no longer able to speak to his son, Gerry Junior, following a particularly painful letter in which the boy had told him he never wanted to see him again. Gerry blamed Sylvia for this and said quite categorically that he’d never forgive her. However, in spite of the pain Gerry felt he had started to see Mary Robbins, a secretary who had been working on a project with Gerry called The Day After Tomorrow – Into Infinity. Their relationship was going really well which was more than could be said of Gerry’s career at that time.
Maybe it was the divorce from Sylvia or maybe it was the lack of a new series on the horizon, but Gerry was suffering from a lack of confidence. The only offer of work at this time was from a Swedish company who wanted Gerry to make a promotional film for them. Money started to run out and Gerry found himself living on the breadline. In 1978 Gerry was invited to co-write a screenplay for a film called Operation Shockwave but it fell through at the last minute when the promised financing proved to be unavailable. 1979 was not much better and another attempt to make a movie, Five Star Five also fell through. But in 1981 Gerry was to see his fortunes take a turn for the better with a project that had its roots in a 1977 proposal.
Gerry and Reg Hill had been approached by Banjiro Uemura, the head of Toboku Shinsha, the Japanese arm of ITC, to create a new animated series for Japanese television. The series was entitled Thunderhawks but did, like so many other of Gerry’s late 1970s projects, fall through before it got too far. But in 1981 Uemura came back with a revamped version of the proposed series entitled Scientific Rescue Team Techno/Voyager. It would later air in both the UK and the USA as Thunderbirds 2086. At the same time Gerry had entered into a new business partnership with Christopher Burr who was able to secure financing for a new puppet series based on the abortive Japanese series. The title was changed to Terrahawks. Gerry approached Derek Meddings to do the special effects on the series but was astounded when Meddings turned him down with the curt response; “Gerry, you couldn’t possibly afford me!” Instead Gerry appointed Steven Begg as Special Effects Director and was very pleased with the result. Terrahawks was set at the end of the 21st Century after mankind had developed interstellar travel. This brought humankind into contact with alien races and led to the foundation of the Terrahawks Earth Defence Squadron, which would defend the home planet, should any of these alien races prove to be hostile. The hero of the series was Dr Tiger Ninestein and the villain of the piece Zelda, Imperial Queen of the planet Guk. For the series a new style of puppetry was introduced, a sophisticated form of glove puppetry which was dubbed Supermacromination.
In 1983 Gerry Anderson and Christopher Burr met with US TV executives in order to sell Terrahawks to North America. The series had not been an immediate success when it had initially aired in the UK but after a slow start it began to receive a very respectable audience of around 9 million viewers, and that was enough for London Weekend Television, together with Japan’s Asahi Tsushin Advertising Agency and Anderburr Pictures (a company set up by Anderson and Burr) to finance a further 13 episodes on top of the original 26. Although changes in ITC’s management meant that Gerry no longer had the backing of Lew Grade, he quite naturally thought that the show’s healthy viewing figures combined with Gerry’s own reputation would be enough to land a deal. However, this proved not to be the case.
Disappointed and a little disillusioned, Gerry and Christopher returned home to the UK. It seemed that the objections against Terrahawks was that, according to the US execs, puppet shows were generally ill received by America’s viewing audience. This claim was hardly backed up by hard facts, after all the Muppet Show had been a huge success in the USA just a few years before. The problem, Gerry decided, was not with the puppets themselves but with the facts that the puppets were depicting human beings and US audiences preferred their puppets to be distinctly non-human. Out of this was born an idea for a show that would use human actors for the human roles and puppets for the alien ones. Gerry and Christopher decided to set the series on a space station crewed by both alien and human police officers (cop shows were hugely popular at that time) and set round a ‘precinct’ that had a distinct New York feel to it. It would be called Space Police. A 53-minute pilot was made but in spite of an initial interest by TVS Gerry failed to raise the necessary finance and ultimately the series was dropped and consigned to the shelf.
Gerry went off and made another series called Dick Spanner using stop-motion animation as opposed to marionettes. However, the series which was based on Raymond Chandler’s down-at-heel private eye character Philip Marlowe and told in the same narrative style as Humphrey Bogart’s interpretation in the classic move The Big Sleep got a very limited showing on British TV although certainly enough to elevate it to ‘cult’ status. But Space Police wasn’t finished yet. Eight years after the pilot had been made Gerry got an unexpected call from John Needham of Mentorn Films who was keen to develop new television programmes. Needham was currently producing a three-minute segment called Comment whereby somebody was invited to talk about a current event. On this occasion the event was the Motor Show and in particular the launch of the new Bentley Continental. Needham thought it’d be fun if Lady Penelope and Parker could be ‘interviewed’. Later, Gerry returned to Mentorn’s studios and Needham asked Gerry if he had any ‘properties’ that they might be interested in. ‘Well actually,’ said Gerry ‘I’ve got a pilot for something called Space Police.
Needham and his managing director, Tom Gutteridge, managed to secure a commission from the BBC to develop a 13 part series on a budget of £750,000 per episode which included a remade pilot with a number of format changes. The aliens would no longer be played by puppets but by actors wearing masks. Then, with production set to commence in early 1993 the BBC pulled out-citing budget cuts as their reason. Another problem that they came up with was that they could no longer use the original title as it had been registered as a trademark in the US by toy manufacturers LEGO. Alternative titles were suggested such as Precinct 88 and Demeter City Blues before Space Precinct was finally decided on.
American actor Ted Shackelford starred as former NYPD detective Patrick Brogan, now a lieutenant with the Demeter City police force on the planet Altor. Brogan and his partner Jack Haldane (played by Rob Youngblood) must adjust to living in another solar system, and investigating crimes being committed by aliens as well as humans. Space Precinct was one of the highest-budgeted shows Gerry Anderson ever produced, but the series had taken many years to come to the screen and even then it was beset with further problems. In spite of the BBC’s pull-out funding was found from a company called Grove Television. But after going into full production the money began to dry up. “We were constantly running out of cash’ Gerry recalled years later. “Sometimes just managing to continue production by the skin of our teeth.’ Eventually, around episode 18 the money stopped coming through altogether and the company ran up huge debts. Eventually enough money was found to complete the series but Grove Television was put into liquidation. The show got its first UK showing on the satellite/cable channel Sky One airing at 700pm on Saturday 27th May 1995. Then, Sky had a much smaller audience than it has today but still backed it with a huge launch party and a press conference with a photo call for the national press. However, on terrestrial television it didn’t get the best of deals.
The show aired on BBC2 and was given a 6pm broadcast slot. Gerry was not overly happy with this as the show was intended for a more adult audience and still feels that it would have been better received had it been given a primetime showing. Furthermore, because of its early evening transmission the BBC ordered that scenes of explicit violence be completely removed from the show. These included threatening or sadistic behaviour, all traces of blood and post-production special effects were ordered to turn bladed items into laser style weapons. In some cases certain scenes had to be re-shot to comply with the BBC’s requests. The result of this was that many viewers only ever saw a watered down, sanitised version of the show. The series was also shown in syndication in North America but it was often scheduled in late-night/early morning time slots and consequently made little impression on American ratings.
There was one more Gerry Anderson produced series to be screened before the end of the 20th century, and that was Lavender Castle. Whilst working on ,b>Space Precinct Gerry was approached at Bray studios by the science fiction and fantasy artist Rodney Matthews, who showed him a collection of highly detailed and, in Gerry’s opinion, sometimes bizarre illustrations. Gerry and Rodney became friendly and would often meet up and discuss a number of topics. On one occasion Gerry said to Rodney that he had been inspired to create a new series based on the artists’ drawings but they needed to be developed further.
Rodney went away and came up with some characters and conceived a concept based on the lyrics of an old song he had written himself back in 1973. Together, he and Gerry conceived a stop motion animated series. Lavender Castle tells the story of a daring band of misfits. Travelling in their space ship, the Paradox, a half-timbered craft with a thatched roof, and their quest to find the elusive Lavender Castle, a city floating in space, a place of harmony and peace, of purity and power. And find it they must before the evil megalomaniac Dr. Agon gets there first to destroy it. Gerry took the proposal to the BBC who promised to back a 26 episode series. However, soon after, the Corporation withdrew its backing without explanation, and Gerry was unable to get Carlton to back it because their then head of children’s programmes didn’t like science fiction. The series remained on the shelf for the next few years, but that wasn’t an altogether bad thing. By 1996 technology had moved on and the development of CGI graphics meant that Gerry could better realise Rodney’s original concept. Craig Hemmings of Carrington Pictures International agreed to finance a full series which was made at Cosgrove Hall. The series, which consisted of 26 ten-minute episodes, was first broadcast on 7th January 1999 on the ITV Network as part of the ‘Children’s ITV’ strand and became the first Gerry Anderson series to be fully networked since Four Feather Falls in 1960.
As the decade, and indeed the millennium came to a close, Carlton Television approached Gerry with a view to recreating some of his famous Supermarionation series of the 1960s for a 21st century audience. In fact, the series chosen for testing purposes was the first to have originally gone out under the Century 21 banner Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons.
Having created Lavender Castle with CGI graphics it was quite evident that this was now the way forward in animation and there was never a chance that 'Scarlet' would be a puppet remake. Even before the approach by Carlton, Gerry had already begun experimenting with 'Captain Scarlet' using the new technology. A short script was written which was titled Captain Scarlet – The New Millennium which was set some years after we had last encountered the Spectrum agents. Former Anderson performers Francis Matthews (Captain Scarlet), Ed Bishop (Captain Blue) and Gary Martin (Captain Black) lent their vocal talents -plus a little bit more. Each actor was fitted with sensors that recorded their facial movements when speaking so the data could be imposed onto cyber-scanned heads.
The resulting film, now retitled Captain Scarlet and the Return of the Mysterons was shown to Gerry Anderson fans at a Century 21 convention in Coventry on October 7th 2000. The enthusiastic reception that the short film received was enough to encourage Anderson to secure the television and film rights from Carlton. With a 26-episode plan and a £22 million budget, the Indestructible Production Company was formed to produce the new series of Captain Scarlet in the state-of-the-art Stanley Kubrick Building at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, England. Round about this time, Gerry became (loosely) involved with a movie project that would bring Thunderbirds to the big screen only this time using real actors instead of puppets. However, as he never actually owned the rights to the series he had no artistic control over the new Thunderbirds movie and was only employed as an advisor. It soon became apparent that Gerry was intensely dissatisfied with the project and he very soon distanced himself from it, refusing to even comment on it. In an interview with ‘The Stage’ Gerry told their reporter, “I had absolutely nothing to do with it. Someone acquired the movie rights, and that was it. To say that I was a little surprised when Lady Penelope’s pink Rolls-Royce was turned into a pink Ford is something of an understatement. I heard a story - it’s probably hearsay - that they built the damn thing, and when it was finished it was so huge that the actors could hardly get into it. But, enough said.”
Following 12 weeks of pre-production, animation work on New Captain Scarlet began on 5th May 2003, but by Christmas Anderson was not happy with the way it looked. It turned out that the software being used on the series was totally inappropriate for television work and by the time Gerry realised this they had spent half the budget and only had about 60 shots ‘in the can’. Gerry quickly got on the phone to Emmy Award winning visual effects expert Ron Thornton who a decade before had worked on the hit US sci-fi series Babylon 5. Thornton arrived at Pinewood in early 2004 and immediately took charge of the digital work.
New Captain Scarlet was the first Gerry Anderson series to be filmed in the 16:9 widescreen format and also the first to be made in HD. The two-part pilot episode, Instrument of Destruction, was completed on April 16th 2004 and work on the remaining 24 episodes commenced in early May with a completion date set for June 2005, so it came as a big surprise when ITV announced that the series would premiere on its Saturday morning flagship show Ministry of Mayhem (MOM) in early 2005. Introduced by children’s presenters Holly Willoughby and Stephen Mulhern, 'MOM' was very much in the style of the classic 1970s series TISWAS, featuring kids games, appearances by pop and TV personalities, much bucket-of-water throwing and a series of popular cartoon shows. The first episode to feature New Captain Scarlet was broadcast on February 12th 2005 and although it was quite obvious that this was a brand new and innovative series, many fans enthusiasm was dampened by the way in which the series was broadcast, being divided up into two segments with a ten minute breakaway in between featuring 'MOM' style games. Once again, poor programme planning by ITV seemed to have scuppered Gerry Anderson's chances of a successful comeback to prime-time viewing. However, ITV listened to the dissenting voice of the public and the series was shown in subsequent weeks in two halves either side of a commercial break.
For Gerry Anderson, by now a sprightly 75, the series came as a welcome relief to years of making puppet series. “I hated ruddy puppets. There was a ghastly thing on TV once called Muffin the Mule and I found it both crude and inept. All those strings and grimacing faces. It made me shudder - and almost physically sick. And 'Twizzle' wasn’t that much better, or our successor, Torchy, The Battery Boy - dreadful papier-mâché faces and fixed expression. The thing was - beggars can’t be choosers.” Like it or lump it from the early days of Supermarionation Gerry has overseen many puppet worlds. In fact, to stress the marked difference between his old puppet series’ and his latest CGI one he had to invent a new term: Hypermarionation.
In early 2010, Gerry was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. However, it wasn't until June 2012 that he went public with the story for an Alzheimer's Society walk launch, to raise awareness of the illness. By now 83-years-old, Gerry said of living with the condition: "I've lost my freedom." Speaking on BBC Berkshire radio 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. Finally I was persuaded to go and see the doctor and eventually I was confronted with the traditional test - a piece of paper with drawings on it, taking a pencil and copying them. I thought 'Why are they doing this? A child could do this'. But when I started to copy the drawings, that wasn't the case." Just six months later, on 26 December 2012 Gerry Anderson passed away.
Gerry Anderson created a world of children’s characters that stand tall alongside the giants of the literary world. Like Alice, Snow White, Oliver and Mary Poppins, Gerry’s characters are simply timeless in their appeal. And in creating these characters he carved a unique place for himself in the heart and consciousness of the television watching public that spans the generations. The kids of the 1960s who grew up watching the thrilling adventures of International Rescue can only marvel now as they watch their own children and grandchildren rediscover the magic of Thunderbirds and other Supermarionation series each time his productions are re-shown, which is quite often. And until his condition worsened, even though he had been showing conditions of the symptoms up to ten years before, the man showed no signs of retiring. “That is just not anywhere in the plan,” he said some years before. “The only way I’m going out, I always tell people, is when someone finally cuts the strings.”
Sources: The Complete Gerry Anderson by Chris Bentley
The Complete Gerry Anderson Episode Guide by Adam Pirani
TV Zone Magazine
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