Millions of years ago, in 1992, the BBC made a very wise decision: it broadcast the Gerry Anderson series Thunderbirds on its second channel. Back in those days BBC 2 on Sunday mornings (and 6pm weekdays) appeared to be curated entirely for geeks, with episodes of Star Trek, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica and further Gerry Anderson series such as Stingray and Captain Scarlet being broadcast alongside Shooting Stars and This Morning With Richard Not Judy. It was hella formative.
The renewed popularity of Thunderbirds had led to Matchbox releasing a Tracy Island playset. This became a must-have Christmas item, to the extent that fights were reported over the remaining sets in stores. With supply failing to match demand Blue Peter – the BBC’s flagship-show-named-after-a ship’s flag – intervened with instructions for making your own. The BBC was then inundated with requests for copies of the instructions by a pre-Google world (Even Ceefax wasn’t in every home). The demand for instructions was so great that the BBC eventually withdrew the offer of free instructions and released a video of the original demonstration instead.
While the home-made alternative saved many a Christmas, it didn’t offer any instructions for building the vehicles while still making space for them in various hangers/toilet roll tubes. My memory is of large shiny plastic replicas of the Thunderbirds being in shops at this point. These didn’t appeal to me because they lacked the requisite weight. Based on the illustrations of the ships in annuals – with their technobabble innards and technological optimism – I imagined them being heavy and metallic, so the plastic toys seemed intrinsically wrong. Then in 1994 a promotional deal on boxes of Frosties made me aware of an alternative. This is mainly how we found things out in the Nineties: through offers on packets of cereal.
Die cast models of Thunderbirds 1, 3, and Lady Penelope’s Pink Rolls Royce would be yours for tokens cut from the back of packets of cereal and mailed off with 20 pence for postage and packing, whereas Thunderbird 2 (with Thunderbird 4 in its pod) would cost you £6.99 and two tokens.
This was much easier than what Anthea Turner was proposing. You’d be eating breakfast anyway; you might as well get toys for it. Some packets came with a cut-out-and-make launch station for Thunderbird 1 (which was unfortunately made of cereal-packet cardboard and so unable to support the weight of a replica intercontinental rescue vehicle).
Both television and toy manufacturers explored the rest of Gerry Anderson’s output. From Space Precinct to Stingray and Captain Scarlet, toys and playsets were available in shops and lured folk in via breakfast cereals. This was eminently sensible. I was certainly fickle enough to change my diet based solely on the prospect of a complimentary spaceship, only to gain a cheap and unheeded lesson about disappointment.
Blow-up diagrams of the vehicles in annuals got pored over in great detail, sating a curiosity for mechanics and explosives that the toys didn’t come close to. Thunderbird 4 was a baseless nugget of yellow metal with no moving parts whatsoever. The legs of Thunderbird 2 were red. The nosecone of Thunderbird 1 was the wrong kind of red. The plastic parts had a different sheen to the metal parts, like when an old TV show cuts between video and film. These details mattered.
Still, even an imperfect representation can be played with. While there was an action figure of The Hood available, Thunderbirds in general lacked a regular vehicle for its antagonists, and there was nothing on offer to rescue. Thus, the Matchbox Thunderbirds range actively encouraged mash ups with other toy ranges. For example: the 6076 Dark Dragon’s Den Lego set proved surprisingly flexible. You’d be amazed how many ways there are to incorporate Thunderbird 4 into a landlocked battle betwixt Knights, wizards and fictional lizard monsters. The issue of scale was not a problem.
Stingray and Captain Scarlet toys also arrived on the shelves in 1993 (these being the days when John Menzies and Beatties not only existed, but had racks of Subbuteo teams in stock), but by the time I got round to owning them most of the diecast Thunderbirds vehicles had succumbed to the ravages of time and being a bit crap. Nose cones fell off, paint peeled and plastic spring-loaded parts became sluggish. Plus our Tracy Island went mouldy. The Marineville playset was relatively durable and slightly cheaper than the other bases, but its size was a problem; getting even the most childlike of your childhood hands inside was difficult, which made propelling Stingray through the ocean door an exercise fraught with mild peril.
The real star of the Stingray set was the Terror Fish with its blank, bulging white eyes and hinged jaw. That jaw eventually succumbed to one too many attempts to replicate the leap from the title sequence, leaving it hanging even lower than normal and giving the impression that the fish was regarding everything with slack-jawed incredulity.
Captain Scarlet toys were made by Vivid Imaginations rather than Matchbox. Their eye catching Cloudbase set (hefty, and surprisingly useful for storage) came with a ‘Mysteron Voice Changer’ – which just made you sound like you were talking into a bin, but also projected Mysteron rings onto things and was thus brilliant – and that least coveted of all Captain Scarlet vehicles, the Spectrum Jet Liner (aka the Spectrum Passenger Jet or SPJ). Also available were the Spectrum Saloon Car (or SSC – basically a toy car with a fin) the Maximum Security Vehicle (which also had an acronym) and the Spectrum Helijet (which didn’t). The Angel Interceptor toys had a small design flaw: their rear wings were as solid as prawn crackers. Every landing was a crash landing. What these toys really called out for is something weighty and durable, something that sated the need for lo-fi gadgetry in the way that Scrapheap Challenge later would.
And lo, unto us the SPV was mass produced.
It was clearly the best vehicle in the show, what with essentially being a tank driven at ludicrous speeds while facing backwards and located in secret garages around the world. It’s probably the fastest transformation from covert to ridiculously unsubtle that fiction has ever seen. The toy gave you the vehicle – which fired missiles that could (possibly) knock over (very unbalanced) enemies (at ground level) –and left you to come up with the secret garages. Next time you’re on a long car journey, why not play ‘Secret Garages’ to pass the time?
Now, it might sound like I’m mocking a few of these toys, but this is from the position of someone who is technically an adult looking back with incredulity at how much joy I got from toys that, in hindsight, were a bit pish. They broke easily, they looked wrong in ways that shouldn’t matter (but did) and being toys could never be as interesting as actual helicopters belonging to an international security group fighting disembodied Martians. Even if the toys weren’t perfect and never could be, the idea of them was enough. We were watching classic Doctor Who and original series Star Trek on BBC 2 at this point. Clearly we could see beyond dated special effects, and we still watch these shows today. Toys though are very much demarcated as a part of childhood we have to leave behind, but the principle is exactly the same.
People are now paid to create shared universes as multimedia franchises. They have to set up future movies and characters in a similar – but massively pressurised – way to how our inner script editor worked out stories based on our only having an SPV, a Lego dragon, Stingray, and the stuff we had lying around the house.
Which brings us back to Blue Peter, where someone (probably Margaret Parnell, who was responsible for most of the show’s craft “makes” from 1963 – 2001) noted the demand for Tracy Islands and worked out how to make one from items you might have lying around the house. Working with things you already have to make something greater: a lesson for storytellers of all ages.