Interview: Stephen La Rivière on Supermarionation, Gerry Anderson and more

Stephen La Rivière talks to us about his new book, Filmed In Supermarionation, and how he came to the world of Gerry Anderson...

As we note in our review of Stephen La Rivière’s new book, we’re big fans of the world of Gerry Anderson at Den Of Geek, and really warmed to Filmed In Supermarionation, which offers a fascinating glimpse into his world. We also managed to track down Stephen for a chat about the book and his own passion for the work of Gerry Anderson, and here’s what happened…

How did you get hooked on Gerry Anderson shows?

I don’t actually know the answer to that, strangely! I’m a second, or third generation fan, so it must have been on video in the very late 80s. It’s funny, because I remember sitting down to watch Doctor Who The Time Meddler when it was repeated in 1992 and becoming an instant die-hard fan, but I don’t actually remember a time without Thunderbirds.

My first memory of it was my mother bringing me home a video of the American compilation film Countdown To Disaster (an edited movie-length video of the episodes Terror In New York City and Atlantic Inferno) and balling my eyes out when Thunderbird 2 was shot down thinking that Virgil would be killed. I’m pretty certain I was no older than four in my defence!

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However, I don’t remember that being the first time I saw Thunderbirds. I remember borrowing a video of volume 7 (Martian Invasion and Brink of Disaster) from the family downstairs. So, in an odd way, I suppose Thunderbirds, at least, has always been with me.

By contrast, I remember the staggering feeling of disappointment when my mother told me that there was a surprise for me and it turned out to be Terrahawks! Little did I know that it would later turn out to be my first job…

Was there a favourite?

Oh, Thunderbirds. I love them all, although I’ll admit I find Fireball XL5 a bit of a struggle (I feel certain the quality department at A.P. Films buggered off after episode 16 of Supercar and didn’t come back until episode 1 of Stingray!).

However, it’s Thunderbirds which I have a really strong undying love for. Why, I don’t know. I suspect because, at its heart, it had a lovely, warm concept – an organisation dedicated to saving lives.

Even as a child I found killing utterly abhorrent and so the idea of an organisation dedicated to helping people in peril really struck a chord. Similarly, I loved Doctor Who because it made it all right to be the outsider, which I always was at school. Perhaps my school days would have been happier, though, if I’d been more heavily influenced by Captain Scarlet, and pushed my opponents off the top of 800 foot car parks?

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Oh, and I always wanted to be Scott Tracy and fly Thunderbird 1. I never got people that thought Thunderbird 2 was best. People who wanted to fly Thunderbird 2 were probably destined to grow up as greasy truckers carrying heavy cargo across the continent. Thunderbird 1 is the sort of vehicle someone suave would pick up their girlfriend in. The less said about Thunderbird 4, the better.

And what led you to write the book?

Stupidity and pure, unadulterated naivety. In 2001, when I was at college, not doing a huge amount with my life, I decided to set up a website dedicated to Thunderbirds. My interest had waned quite a bit in the mid-90s when my Doctor Who obsession was at its peak, but in about 1998 I ended up watching my video of Countdown To Disaster as a bit of comfort television. For some reason, it re-ignited my interest, but in a slightly different way. I became hungry for knowledge about how the shows were made. There were a few websites, but generally, it was impossible to find out anything on the technical aspects.

Then, in 2000 came a revival with the release of the series on DVD and suddenly there was a mass of information. I don’t know why I never joined the fan club, which would have seemed the obvious thing to do. Possibly because at heart I’m a rebel and never really enjoyed being part of clubs.

Then later on, as I started to produce my own stuff, the fan club became needlessly obstructive. One would have thought that new interest from the next generation would have been healthy for fandom, but apparently not. Cult TV does have an unfortunate habit of breeding possessive, jealous die-hards. But I digress…

This 2000 relaunch led me to set up my own, atrociously designed, website called International Rescue. Attached to it was a forum which I christened the ‘FAB Forum’. I remember coming home from college day after day desolate that no one was posting and that the site was seemingly attracting no one. Then one day I came back and there was a post from ‘Mr. Ron’ asking if Supercar‘s Mike Mercury was based on Marty Feldman. I was ecstatic! One person had posted!

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Then over the next few days more and more posts started appearing and by October, when the site was relaunched as Supermarionation Is Go (this time much better designed – by 2001 standards, anyway) we had quite a healthy community.

One of the forum members dropped me a line and suggested that I do some interviews for the site and provided me with a link to Spotlight, the actors’ casting directory. I couldn’t believe it. I could actually write to these people!

A couple of weeks later and an envelope dropped through the door, heavy weight, cream embossed paper containing a note from Shane Rimmer’s (voice of Scott Tracy) agent. I couldn’t believe it. I’d actually had a response!

Then I got a hand written note from David Graham and many other members of the cast and crew. Then one day an e-mail arrived. Subject line: Supermarionation is Go!. Sender: GERRY ANDERSON.

I look back now and cringe to think at how naive I was. This was all so exciting! The only catch was he wanted to do the interview by phone. I remember my heart thumping come the fateful day, summoning up the courage to actually speak to him.

It went very well, and, in turn, I ended up doing other telephone interviews. When I came back to look at the interviews for the book, I realised that they were largely useless as all the questions showed someone young, desperate to know about how films were made and, as such, were very light on subject-specific content.

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Anyway, in 2002, I got an e-mail from the PR company working for Revelation Films. It constantly gives me brainache to think that one’s entire life can be changed by something so random. Revelation were releasing Terrahawks on DVD and so I enquired if I might have a review copy. They sent one, I wrote a review and shoved in on the website.

The special features were dreadful, at a time that the Doctor Who DVDs were starting to hit their stride. I couldn’t work out why there weren’t any interviews on the set. So I wrote to the PR company, who, in turn, passed me over to Revelation.

I can’t remember the exact specifics, but I basically told them that I could make them a documentary – this being despite the fact that I knew no one that had worked on Terrahawks, and, perhaps more significantly, had never made a documentary or any kind of film in my life.

Whilst I must have been out of my mind, being gung-ho through sheer stupidity can help you achieve some of the best things, as fear makes us cautious.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, it was Kevin Davies, the chap who’d designed and filmed the opening and closing titles for Terrahawks that saved my life. I have no idea why. Anyone else would probably have thought ‘amateur’ and steered clear. But he basically took me under his wing and gave me a crash course in making programmes.

Kevin had, in the intervening years, become a director himself and had made the fabulous Making Of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and More Than 30 Years In The TARDIS. He found me a cameraman, some gear to edit on (I didn’t even know how programmes were edited!) and the rest is history. I somehow got through it.

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Revelation had no idea I was an 18-year-old know-nothing until the day I turned up. Which is probably their fault for being seduced by someone being cheap!

From there I was looking to do something else. Supercar came out in America with nice extras – that had nothing specifically to do with Supercar! When I asked the chap who made them why he’d done this he said, “What’s there to say about Supercar?” So, being a belligerent git, I thought, “Aha – that’s my next project.”

As it turned out, Supercar was one of the most significant periods in Gerry Anderson’s career, and had, until then, been totally ignored by the army of unimaginative ‘researchers’ that were obsessed with writing about Thunderbirds. And so I made a 90-minute documentary, put it on DVD, went to America and bumped into Dan Herman of Hermes Press who said, “Write me a book.”

Tell us about putting it together, the research and the interviews. Was anyone you spoke to particularly hard to get hold of, and particularly surprising to meet?

It’s indescribably difficult to collate all the facts from conflicting sources, work out who or what is telling the truth and then put it into a coherent narrative without deviation, hesitation or repetition. You literally have to question every single thing you commit to paper and after a while you just get blinded by the sheer number of facts and figures. If it hadn’t been for an excellent editor in the form of my old English lecturer at college, I’m not sure I’d have negotiated my way through the minefield as well as I did in the end. 

I don’t know that anyone was particularly hard to get hold of, though it’s true that there are some people I didn’t talk to because I simply couldn’t find them. Although they may be dead, which was a frequent inconvenience. 

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It’s quite exciting finding new parts of the story, though. When I did my Supercar documentary, I was staggered that no one had bothered to track down Martin and Hugh Woodhouse, who were credited with writing the first 26 episodes, and nothing else for A.P. Films. Surely there had to be a story there?

Eventually I got through to Martin, who, in turn, gave me the number for his brother Hugh who, over the course of 40 minutes, outlined to me their complete experiences of writing for Anderson’s company and why they never wrote for them again. Fascinating stuff that really altered what was understood about the history of A.P. Films. 

Some people didn’t have a huge amount to say on the subject, but were just amazing to meet. Robert Easton, the voice of Phones and X-20 in Stingray, is a fascinating character. I remember waiting on the phone whilst someone connected me through to his office and suddenly this larger than life voice said, “Hiiiiii Stephen!” It was Phones!

The cast and crew were helpful to varying degrees. Some of them were difficult to persuade as they felt a certain loyalty to either Gerry or Sylvia, and as this book wasn’t taking sides, it somehow made them more suspicious.

Others became more helpful over time, as they saw the levels of research I was doing (stuck for weeks in old archives rummaging through paperwork and photographs) and there were one or two who were almost obstructive, either because they were quite close to the fan club, who did their best to dissuade certain individuals from contributing, or, because they felt I knew too much already.

Whilst I wasn’t setting out to be salacious and just wanted to tell the actual story – the good times and the bad – there were a couple of people who, I think, were a bit alarmed that I might reveal one or two of the more unsavoury stories. I didn’t.

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Though, there have been a few raised eyebrows about the picture on Page 176.

Finally, there were the crew members that really helped however they could. David Elliott (director) and Mary Turner (puppeteer) specifically, always taking the time to answer my questions, no matter how mundane, obscure or stupid they were.

The book’s full of interesting, and sometimes bizarre, anecdotes. What most surprised and/or amused you?

Well, despite it being a well-known story, I always raise a smile when I hear the story of Lew Grade going off into a cupboard before telling Gerry that he’d commission Supercar. I also laughed at the couple of occassions where the art department completely forgot to build certain sets, leading to some very peculiar solutions, the best one being an ice cave which was eventually put together out of blocks of ice, hurriedly imported, that instantly melted under the heat of the lights.

When the vexed director asked where his set was, Reg Hill, the designer enquired, “What’s the set-up?” ‘How can I tell you what the set-up is until I’ve got the set!?” asked the stunned director. After my documentary came out, ‘What’s the set-up!?” became a bit of a catchphrase amongst certain fans!

My favourite discovery for the book, though, is undoubtedly the advert that opens it. I knew that Sylvia Anderson (then Thamm) must have answered some sort of local advertisement. With my friend Tom, I went down to Maidenhead library and trawled through the microfilm of the Maidenhead Advertiser seeking out this advert that possibly didn’t exist.

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In true motion picture style, we were about to abandon this frustrating task when I spotted it – “Part time typist for local film studios – Afternoons – telephone Maidenhead 140”.

Being cautiously excited I said to Tom, “How do we know this has anything to do with Pentagon Films (the company Gerry Anderson was then working at, prior to forming A.P. Films)?” He was thumbing through a local directory from the 1950s and found a listing for Pentagon – telephone Maidenhead 140.

By talking to other members of the crew, and doing a bit more research, it became apparent that this was the actual advert itself. I’m rather proud of it as it epitomises, for me, how much work I put into getting the details right.

Whilst others have been content to regurgitate the same old ‘facts’ with little journalistic integrity, it was really important to me to get it as right as possible. I haven’t always got it right. There are a handful of irritating minor errors in the book. Indeed, with a story like this it is inevitable that, over time, other research will supercede it.

However, as it stands at this moment I really feel that if you want to know about the history of A.P. Films / Century 21 productions, then this book is it. If there’s someone out there that can improve upon it, then, as a fan, I’m very excited, as my thirst for new information hasn’t been sated yet.

At the other end of the scale, causing not delight, but irritation, are the discoveries made too late! I’ve just had transferred some interesting film that I’d like to see out there. Anyone wanna fund a Thunderbirds documentary?

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The book’s been some time in the pipeline?

Well, being the sort of person that gets right down to the job, I got the verbal commission in 2004, wrote the breakdown in 2006, the first two chapters in 2007 and the rest of the book in 2008.

In my defence, I was working like a dog, doing DVD extras for series like Upstairs Downstairs, The Persuaders!, The Champions, Danger UXB etc. etc. Putting it together was tough.

Again, I took on a commission that I wasn’t remotely able to do. I’d written a couple of articles for magazines by then, but a book was on another level. I rose to the challenge, though, and did it.

Then, once I’d delivered in mid 2008, my publisher was busy on other books, and the longer he took, the more changes I made to it. Then there were discussions to be had about the design and picture choices and placements, all very tedious stuff.

I’m still re-writing sections now. It’s true that something like this is never finished, merely abandoned.

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The remit is specific in that certain Anderson shows aren’t covered. How do you feel about Terrahawks, UFO, Space 1999, The Thunderbirds movie from 2004, CGI Captain Scarlet etc? Would you write a sequel?

Well, despite the disappointment expressed further up the page about Terrahawks, I do have a soft spot for it. I certainly have enough researching kicking over from DVD extras I did to write once, but would anyone buy it?

Regarding the other stuff, I’m not a fan. My interest really is Supermarionation specific, with room for Terrahawks.

It’s easy to get dragged into writing stuff about things you know nothing about for large sums of cash, but it doesn’t do your integrity any good. And after taking the best part of a decade to be qualified enough to write about Supermarionation, I dread to think how long it would take to start afresh on a subject I know nothing about!

I’ve done enough stuff looking at other people’s successes. I hope that if Den Of Geek asks for an interview again, then next time it’ll be about something that I’ve created that’s a big success.

Supposing another Anderson puppet show were to be translated to the big screen. What do you think they should do? Who would you cast in it?

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Oh, Captain Scarlet would be perfect. I’ve got a great vision for how the opening scenes would be played out. Perhaps it’ll be my first film – then I’ll tell you more about the cast in the next interview you do with me!

Den Of Geek enjoyed it very much. How do you feel about reactions to the book so far?

Delighted – and surprised! Mainly surprised that a number of people have said that they think it’s very well written. Being told something you’ve written is a “compelling read” is more delightful than being praised for the quality of research, as a lot of books like this come under fire for being too dry. It has been almost universally well-received.

I’m quite happy with criticism if it’s justified, so it only niggles when people write things that aren’t true. One anonymous reviewer stated that the book didn’t have an original interview with Gerry Anderson in it, when it quite clearly does. I thought I was being very good by attributing everything I’d quoted from other sources in a comprehensive list of footnotes, except this seems to have confounded some of the less intelligent members of the audience who see a footnote, like, “Taken from the official Gerry Anderson biography'”and assume this applies to every Gerry Anderson quotation.

Similarly, some people think I didn’t bother to speak to certain people, when, in fact, I did, but I just didn’t quote them, which is entirely different, something exacerbated by an incorrect list of acknowledgments going to print.

I was surprised that SFX said that they didn’t think the book was controversial enough. That’s something I’ve never been accused of before!

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It’s true of most creatives that, amongst a sea of praise, they get most worked up about the odd idiot criticising a phantom element of the work, and I’m no different. In this instance, though, I’ve started to rise above it as, frankly, I’m really proud of the book. It was a labour of love and I hope that, to most of the people that read it, it shows.

Stephen La Rivière, thanks very much!

You can read more about Filmed In Supermarionation, including excerpts from the book, here and our review is here.