Gerry began his career with no desire whatsoever to either make sci-fi movies or to work with puppets. When aged 14 he thought he might become an architect. A few years later he trained as a plasterer, which he was rather good at. Fortunately for us he turned out to be allergic to plaster and developed dermatitis. Passionate about the movie world he tried to get into film-making by turning up at studio gates and asking for work. He didn’t get any.
He wrote scores of letters to anyone in the industry who might be able to offer an opportunity and eventually at age 17 he was taken on by the Orwellian sounding ‘Colonial Film Unit of the Ministry of Information’. He worked as an assistant in the cutting rooms and quickly learnt the visual language of films – their framing, editing and pacing.
He then became a second assistant editor with Gainsborough Films at Lime Grove studios. After National Service he went to work at Pinewood as a dubbing editor. Then after a brief spell at Elstree he worked at Shepperton, still as a dubbing editor.
In 1955, aged 26, he joined Polytechnic Films – a small company based in Taplow, between Maidenhead and Slough. This was his first job as a director. For several months he worked on a documentary entertainment TV series prophetically called You’ve Never Seen This – which unfortunately never was, it was so bad. Well, slight exaggeration but only a handful of episodes were ever transmitted by Associated-Rediffusion.
He felt that he didn’t really fit with this company so in March 1956 he decided along with a few other employees including cameraman Arthur Provis to break away and form a new company. There were five of them so they called it Pentagon Films. They planned to make filmed programmes and adverts for the new ITV companies.
Initially they were based in the home of one of the partners but then they moved back into the recently vacated previous base of Polytechnic Films in a house called Stockwells in Berry Hill, Taplow. It was a large dilapidated old building, which conveniently had a small film stage in its grounds. Whether this was an outbuilding in the garden or a big room within the house I have yet to discover. (Can you help?) In any case, this could arguably be called the first studio Gerry Anderson at least partly owned.
(Stockwells is now the name of a cul-de-sac containing a small development of smart 1970s houses. No trace of the original big house remains, apart from the old garden wall.)
A popular children’s series shown in the first few months of ITV was a puppet version of The Adventures of Noddy. Kelloggs bought the rights to use Noddy to sell breakfast cereal. They decided to make their ads for Ricicles in Pentagon’s Berry Hill studio using the original puppets. This was Gerry’s first encounter with a marionette. He was not impressed. They made the ads which turned out to be very successful, and the catchphrase shrieked by the shrill voice of Noddy – ‘Ricicles are twicicles as nicicles!’ (apologies for spelling) became as well known as any advertising slogan in its day.
As it happened, a children’s writer called Roberta Leigh had just been commissioned by Associated-Rediffusion to make 52 fifteen-minute episodes of a story she had written called The Adventures of Twizzle. She saw the Noddy ads and decided to contact Pentagon, assuming they were experts in working with puppets.
In fact, Gerry and Arthur Provis had decided to break away from Pentagon and form their own company. They met her and told her that they were leaving and setting up a new business but were interested in making her films. Apparently, Gerry nearly ‘vomited on the floor’ when he discovered they would involve puppets. However, it represented months of work so of course he agreed.
The new company was called AP Films – named after Anderson and Provis obviously, although each would subsequently claim (tongue in cheek, naturally) that the name stood for ‘Arthur Provis Films’ or ‘Anderson Productions’ Films.