A tribute to Gerry Anderson

Mark pays his respects to the achievements of Thunderbirds, Stingray and Space: 1999 creator Gerry Anderson, who sadly died last week.

I was born in 1961, which means that while I don’t recall the earliest Anderson series, The Adventures Of Twizzle or Torchy The Battery Boy, but I do remember watching Four-Feather Falls and Supercar.

However, it was Fireball XL-5 that really engulfed my imagination, and probably introduced me to the idea of distant worlds and alien races. And in doing so, it also triggered off something wonderful in my head, and I immediately fell in love with all things science fictional and technological.

What’s slightly depressing now, and even at the time, was that other parts of the TV and film industry rather turned their noses up at Gerry’s productions, referring to him as ‘that Puppet guy’, or other equally dismissive terms. This was entirely at odds with the tabloid reaction to his shows, where his inventive genius meant that he was often described as the ‘British Walt Disney’. As crass a statement as that undoubtedly was, there were some parallels between Gerry and Walt.

Both weren’t averse to bouts of unabashed self-promotion, but more importantly, they knew how to surround themselves with some remarkably talented people, even if their names and faces were not publicly well known. But Anderson was also generally rather adept at understanding his audience, and pitching things with a very wide appeal.

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As such, the puppets in his shows would often visually resemble film and TV stars of the era, and were given suitable voice talent to reinforce that idea. Some of this was admittedly lost on me at the time, because I was in bed by the time James Garner would appear in Maverick, so I didn’t realise that Stingray’s Troy Tempest was also meant to resemble him. But the real stars of the productions were the incredible models and effects on his shows, many of which rivalled anything that was in feature budget productions of the era. The model making team led by legendary special effects supervisor Derek Meddings did incredible things, which as a child literally brought my toys to life.

In particular, his production design of the Thunderbirds has been massively influential since, and his unique blending of form and functionality stands the test of time well.

However, in later years when Gerry would appear on TV they’d always put some of the models behind him, to create a context, but I know for a fact that with the exception of a few Thunderbirds puppets, none of these were original items. All episodes generally ended with everything blowing up, inevitably destroying the specific production models, and at the end of a production run Gerry usually instructed the model makers to burn everything. He was paranoid that he’d be legally outmanoeuvred, especially when his marriage to Sylvia irretrievably soured, and he didn’t want his creations finding a home with a rival production. Those models that did survive were often smuggled out by the dedicated few who’d lavished many hundreds of hours on making them, and relatively few of these still exist.

What this all says about Gerry is that despite the sentimentality of others for his works, he was almost certainly entirely devoid of those emotions for them. Puppets were a means to get a series made that wouldn’t be feasible with live actors, and not a creative choice as such. Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and Joe 90 were briefly interesting to him, but in reality just stepping stones to be offered enough money to break into something bigger, which he was eventually offered with UFO and then Space: 1999.

From the earliest days, the shows were orientated towards an American audience, even if getting syndication there proved very difficult for many of his puppet series. Gerry remained focused on the goal of global success, one that seemed to elude him – even if he got tantalisingly close on occasion. When, many years later, Hollywood did eventually notice his source material, it would pay him the ultimate rebuff of making Thunderbirds (2004) without him, and then made a predictable pig’s ear of it. In their defence, Gerry by then wasn’t the razor-edged inventive mind that he’d once been, as the onset of the Alzheimer’s that would ultimately take him was already apparent. In fact, even in the late 80s, when our paths crossed briefly, he’d lost much of his sparkle.

A film friend of mine from college was working for Anderson in a minor role, and through a complicated set of circumstances I managed to end up designing a Thunderbirds computer game which he’d allowed to be licensed. We met briefly in an office corridor where I wasn’t really introduced, and I never actually got to tell him how big an influence he’d been on me. It was pure business, and that I’d run around the house in 1966 dressed as a Thunderbird was probably not something he needed or wanted to know.

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At the time, he was trying to promote Dick Spanner, P.I., and went on the radio to talk about it. Frustratingly for him, the radio presented wanted to talk more about Thunderbirds, and as part of a phone quiz they got Gerry to set a question about which of the Tracey family flew a particular vehicle. Disturbingly, Gerry got the answer wrong himself, which caused some consternation. It was a hint of things to come, even if I’m reasonably convinced that Gerry just didn’t care any longer about what he’d done nearly 25 years earlier.

So now he’s gone, what has Gerry Anderson’s left behind? So much is the answer – some of it subtle, some much less so. He showed a whole generation that the future could be an amazing place, if you could just imagine it clearly enough.

From what I’ve been told about him by those who knew him better, Anderson was a frustrated man at times, and bitter about those opportunities he never fully realised, and with those in the film industry who intentionally obstructed his ambitions. That’s poignant, because he also seemed oblivious to the massive effect on the creative minds of so many people he’d had – many of whom have gone on to do great things inspired by the shows he produced. In many respects, that legacy is even greater than the collective productions themselves.

When his marker’s erected, it shouldn’t read RIP, but surely Gerry Anderson, FAB.