Interview: Gerry Anderson

The first lord of British sci-fi TV chats exclusively with us about Fireball XL5, the new UFO movie and the 007 movie he nearly got to make…

Gerry Anderson - and friends!

Gerry Anderson scarcely needs an introduction from us, at least to anyone who loves TV science-fiction. Anderson is the creative force behind Thunderbirds, UFO, Space:1999, Captain Scarlet…but the way for these much-loved UK sci-fi series was paved by the ground-breaking supermarionation series Fireball XL5, now set for a new DVD release…

There seem to be loads of Fireball XL5 tributes over the last ten years or so, on the internet. Are you aware that it retains a fan-base?

Yes, it does. I sometimes say to people that I liken my productions to good-quality wine, in as much as they improve with age [laughs]. The scene is constantly changing – it started off with grand-parents watching the show, and then their son or daughter was encouraged to watch, and now of course there’s yet another generation coming up. And each time a new generation appears, the show peaks again. So I think there’s a lot of life in it yet.

Is it fun for you to look back at Fireball XL5, or do you still view it as a perfectionist and find things that bother you a little?

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On occasions like this today, where I’m contributing my words in an effort to make sure that the people who are organising the re-release are successful, then I look back. But normally I don’t look back at the shows at all. I’m a tomorrow’s person. I don’t collect memorabilia. Once the show’s made, and hopefully been successful, my mind is on what to do next.

Did you ever try any technical tricks like choosing a grainier film stock to help hide the strings on the puppets in Supermarionation productions such as Fireball?

No. The entire industry, this country and America, were constantly trying to reduce grain. The grain became finer and finer as films were made. And in fact they got to a point where the grain was so minute that it almost looks grainless. Then, much to my amazement, people who were making films would finish the film and then superimpose grain on it! [laughs] And they’d look like pictures that we were normally used to watching, something I could never understand. But no, we never introduced grain or anything like that.

Did you set XL5 out with America in mind, even more than Supercar? It actually ran on NBC, uniquely among your work…?

We didn’t really set it up for America. When we made Fireball XL5, I’d never heard of NBC, and I didn’t even know what American networks were. I knew that it would be wonderful if the show was successful in America, but I knew nothing about the American networks.

The reason that a lot of my shows have a certain amount of American characters is simply because…in the case of Fireball XL5, we’re talking about space, and most if not all of the science-fiction films I’ve made deal with space-travel and with futuristic machines and futuristic cars, and so forth. I always wanted the stories to be believable, and I think that if we made them as truly British films and said that this moon-rocket was going to be launched tomorrow morning from Scunthorpe [laughs], I don’t think it would go down very well.

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Whether we like it or not, the Americans are the people who are way ahead of everybody else on space travel, landing on the moon and all that sort of thing…so I’d always had American characters for no other reason than to make the stories believable.

Did your regular role as the voice of Robert The Robot in XL5 not interfere with your running of the show?

I’ve explained to people that it wasn’t actually my voice. It wants a bit of explanation: there was no way we could, at that time, electronically produce a robot voice, so we made a box about eighteen inches square, and on one side of the box we cut a hole big enough for me to push my mouth in, with a small microphone at the other end of the box.

Then I got hold of a vibrator – not the sort of vibrator you might think! – which I pushed under my chin, switched it on, and then when I opened my mouth you could hear [makes drilling noise], and then when I mouthed the words, it manipulated that buzzing sound and produced an imitating sound, like [in monotone] ‘on…our…way…home’! [laughs]. It was a big deal just to get that, so to play the part was a bit of a tall order.

Can you tell us about the new UFO movie? Are you involved?

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I got a call from somebody in America. It was very kind actually – they phoned to say, ‘Gerry, listen, there’s an announcement going out now [about the new movie] and we didn’t want it to come as a shock to you’, which was a kind move. As a result of that I had a long chat with them. It wouldn’t help me to blow this up bigger than it is, but I have a feeling that I might end up being a consultant on the movie. It would be marvellous, I think…over here there’s a rather unfortunate history about remakes; Thunderbirds the film was a disaster, and The Avengers, and so on. But I hope, and I think I probably believe, that this could be the exception. It’ll be a big movie with a star cast.

What are the mistakes you’d like Hollywood not to make this time, now that they’re having a go at another one of your properties?

It’s a difficult one to answer, because if you make something that is really a carbon copy of the original, people can say that it lacks imagination, and that they’ve just really made another episode. And then if they do something that’s a big change, they can say ‘I preferred the original!’ [laughs].  I don’t think there’s an answer one can put into words. My approach is very simple – I don’t try to be a clever-dick. I just look at the screen, and if I am enjoying it, I’m pleased. If it’s had a profound effect on me, I think it’s going to be big.  I don’t do too much analysing.

So if I am invited to join the club, as it were, I would try and help as much as possible. It’s very difficult; it’s rather like somebody writing a script and when they’ve written the first four pages, somebody comes in and says ‘I don’t like it’. I really don’t know what’s going to happen, but if I were invited to join [UFO the movie], I’d try my best.

TV stations never seem to know how to schedule your shows except for the most obviously children-oriented stuff. Both UFO and the CGI Captain Scarlet seemed to have scheduling problems. Is there ever anything that you can do about this?

Well, [the new version of ] Captain Scarlet, of course, was terribly destructive, because one can’t even use the word ‘scheduling’. They cut the front-titles off, they cut the end-titles off, they put it in a three-hour rubbish show called ‘Ministry Of Mayhem’. They didn’t advertise it at all – it wasn’t even listed! Ministry Of Mayhem came on with kids screaming, shouting, chucking food at each other; and then someone would say ‘Oh, let’s have a look at Captain Scarlet‘, and then they would run the first half. When it faded out, they would then start all their nonsense again. They didn’t even say there was a second part.

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So people who wanted to watch [Captain Scarlet] had to suffer this show whilst waiting for Captain Scarlet to come on. And of course, a lot of them gave up. A lot of parents didn’t want their kids to watch [Ministry Of Mayhem] because it was so bad. So that was a real, terrible let-down. Can I do anything about scheduling? The answer is no, I can’t. Once it gets into the hands of the distributors, they’re the people who make the decisions, unfortunately.

UFO also suffered – it was shown 11pm in the 1970s, but it’s since been shown at midday and 6pm…anytime! Looking back, would you have focused the tone of the show more consistently to appeal more to adults or kids?

No, I wouldn’t have changed anything. All the way through my career I used to say to people, ‘If you walk into any broadcaster, there’s an arrow which says ‘To the right is drama’ and another arrow which says ‘to the left is kids’. There is no arrow which says ‘family’.

Could I ask you about your ‘lost’ version of Moonraker, which you lost through no fault of your own when Saltzman split with Broccoli? What was your vision for that film compared to what hit the screen in 1979?

I never got to actually having a vision! What happened was that Harry Saltzman phoned me and said ‘Can you pop in? I’d like to see you’. I went in and he said ‘Gerry, I want you to produce the next Bond picture, Moonraker – here’s the book’. I nearly took off and went into orbit [laughs]! I just thought it was a marvellous, marvellous break.

I read the book, which frankly wasn’t very exciting, and terribly out-of-date, as one would expect. I was initially trying to cement the deal, and at that time I would have put my thoughts together. What happened was that Tony Barwick – the late Tony Barwick, one of my favourite writers – and myself had written a synopsis. Harry had seen the synopsis and that was the reason he called me – he was fired by it.

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But a few weeks went by and then…just the worst bit of luck in my life, I think! It was announced that Harry Saltzman was parting company with Cubby Broccoli. And so the thing went down the tubes.

Did you consider the practical considerations of designing a toy in the design phase of your series? Reason I ask is that I could never find a Thunderbird 5 space station as a kid!

When we made Thunderbirds, space was a dream, really. It hadn’t actually happened yet. The space-station was designed, and it worked okay on film, but in my view it wasn’t a very glamorous toy. You couldn’t fly it, you couldn’t push it along…it didn’t have any play value.

I think we’ve always tried to steer clear of designing things that would make good merchandising. We tend to design them to ‘look right’ on the particular show we’re making. I didn’t like Thunderbird 5, period! [laughs]

I did! What episode out of all your Supermarionation series would be the best introduction to your work, for somebody who wasn’t already aware of Gerry Anderson output?

Thunderbirds – that’s my all-time favourite – the first episode. I love it to bits!

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Gerry Anderson, thank you very much!

Fireball XL5 – The Complete Series – Special Edition is released on June 29th.


Event: Special screening of Fireball XL5, with Gerry Anderson!

To celebrate the definitive release of Gerry Anderson’s Fireball XL5 on DVD, Network have arranged a special event on Saturday 27 June at the Odeon Covent Garden, London.

There will be a 35mm screening of ‘The Day The Earth Froze’, from a newly struck print from the original negative, in complete contrast the first ever public screening of the newly colorized and restored episode ‘A Day In The Life Of A Space General’ will follow in high definition. A 10 minute extract from the brand new documentary ‘A Wonderland of Stardust’ will conclude the screenings. To be followed by a Q&A with special guest Gerry Anderson moderated by Richard Hollis.

Tickets are £6.50, or as a special offer you can purchase your ticket and the limited edition packaging DVD box set of Fireball XL5 for a total of £40! Box sets ordered this way will receive priority for signing by Mr Anderson on the day. Tickets are now available to purchase – all purchases can be made through the Network website.

Standard ticket for £6.50 (click here to order) Special “ticket and box set” combined deal for £40 (click here to order)

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