The Gerry Anderson Studios
Gerry passed away on Boxing Day 2012 following a couple of years suffering from dementia. By coincidence, I started writing this tribute to his work a few weeks before his death and finished it shortly afterwards. The TV and film industries owe him a great deal – as do many millions of kids and adults over several decades whose imaginations were fired by his extraordinary vision.
The rest of the website covers studios individually and the TV programmes that have been made in them. In this section I am taking a different approach: looking at the work of one man and his wife – Gerry and Sylvia Anderson – and briefly covering the studios they created or used. OK let’s face it, the rustle of anoraks may possibly be detected in the background and if you are younger than about fifty you may wish to read no further. However, for those of a certain age, the various APF and Century 21 ‘Supermarionation’ series shown on the ITV network helped to define the 1960s and with repeated transmissions continued to be popular well into the ’90s.
To try to explain to people who weren’t around in the ’60s and ’70s why these kids’ puppet series were so successful is difficult – but try to imagine that at that time there simply were no shows on TV that came anywhere near being so exciting. There were no action adventure series starring live actors that involved flying cars, aliens, spaceships, secret bases filled with futuristic gadgets and vehicles but most of all… loads of stuff getting blown up! It was like watching a Bond movie on your TV every week and you simply ignored the fact that it was puppets. Shows like Stingray, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet were just as popular with adults as with children.
Some of the shows were repeated on BBC2 in the early 1990s and a new generation discovered them. (Remember the crisis leading up to Christmas in 1992 when the shops ran out of Tracy Islands and Blue Peter showed you how to make your own?)
The ‘Supermarionation’ series made between 1960 and 1969 were essentially created by two enthusiastic teams working side by side under the guidance of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. One team was making TV movies with marionettes rather than actors. They used the same basic camera techniques as their contemporaries working on shows like The Avengers or The Saint at Elstree but with everything at one third scale.
However, it was in the special effects stages where the real ground-breaking work was done. The SFX department worked with miniature landscapes and buildings, model vehicles and flying craft. These had to explode, catch fire, be inundated with floods – you name it – and all the time remaining believable to a critical audience. As the years went by, through trial and error their efforts became more and more realistic until the results were almost indistinguishable from reality.
The young SFX designers and craftsmen working on these shows went on in future years to work on many blockbuster feature films made in studios all round London like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Batman , the Superman films, the Star Wars trilogy, the Alien movies, the Bond movies, Indiana Jones and many others. The reputation of British special effects teams spread all round the world and helped to attract these major movies to London during the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and beyond. Even today’s movies utilising the latest in CGI techniques still use miniatures, built with techniques developed on these kids’ puppet shows.
Gerry made the first British TV series to be sold to an American network (Supercar) and the first complete British TV series to be made in colour (Stingray) although of course it was first shown in black and white here. At one point his company was using more 35mm colour film than any other in the UK. Thunderbirds was so successful that they even made two feature films – starring puppets! Probably best to ignore the dreadful live action movie of 2004, with which Gerry was not involved. According to the Guardian he described the film as “the biggest load of crap I have ever seen in my life.”
And where were these glamorous studios? Slough Trading Estate. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
The puppet/Supermarionation studios: