A revolution in television puppetry was inaugurated by Gerry Anderson, who captured the imaginations of millions of children in the 1960s with a string of futuristic series, the most famous of them being Thunderbirds (1965-66).
Until then, television puppets were no more complex than Andy Pandy or Bill and Ben, but Anderson created marionettes of fibreglass and thin metal wires. Although these looked weird and moved uncomfortably, they became cult figures, playing out scenes of pure kitsch.
Thunderbirds ran for only two series, but its appeal far outweighed any of Anderson’s other shows, including Stingray, Fireball XL5 and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons.
After National Service, Anderson worked at Gainsborough Studios and then formed his own company, hoping to make movie epics. But the only work he was offered was 52 episodes of The Adventures of Twizzle (1957-58), featuring a boy with expanding arms and legs.
His first successful sci-fi show was Supercar (1960), specifically designed to harness the interest of children in new technology. Thunderbirds related the adventures of the futuristic Tracy family, who ran an air, space and undersea rescue service from an island in the Pacific.
The secret of its success was its selection of characters, who included the short-sighted genius Brains, the glamorous secret agent Lady Penelope, with her white mink fur and cigarette holder, and her Cockney chauffeur Parker, whose catchphrase was “Yus, M’Lady”.
Towards the end of the 1960s, Anderson was still hoping to work with real actors. But a movie, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969), with Ian Hendry and Patrick Wymark, failed to make any impact, while Space – 1999 (1975-77), starring two American actors, Martin Landau and his wife Barbara Bain, was panned by the critics.
During the 1980s, Anderson mostly produced television commercials. He also directed a video for Dire Straits. By then, he had sold the rights to his shows to Lew Grade. In 2008, he tried to reacquire the rights to Thunderbirds in the hope of remaking them using computer-generated imagery. But talks to achieve this ambition failed.
Oddly enough, Anderson had never wanted to work with puppets in the first place. When he was producing the Twizzle shows, he said: “I grew to hate them very quickly.” But his reputation rests on his pioneering achievements with jerky marionettes. Once, another catchphrase was “Thunderbirds are go”. With Anderson’s passing, it is now a case of “Thunderbirds are gone”.
Gerry Anderson, who was born on April 14, 1929, died on December 26, 2012, aged 83.