This page contains a brief section on Space Patrol, made by Roberta Leigh and Arthur Provis
Having made the pilot of Four Feather Falls and been commissioned to make a 52 part series for Granada, Gerry decided that they would need bigger premises so in June 1959 APF took over a studio in Ipswich Road on the Slough Trading Estate.
Of course, when I say ‘studio’ I mean a fairly small industrial building/warehouse although it did provide about four times the space they had had at Islet Park. After spending six weeks adapting it to their use there was only one shooting stage but it was larger than the Islet Park ballroom, with a bit more headroom. There was also a reasonable amount of workshop space and rooms to be used as offices, a small ‘theatre’ for viewing rushes (also used as a dialogue recording studio), a sound dubbing room, cutting rooms etc. Ipswich Road is just past the B&Q retail park on the left if you’re driving from Maidenhead, in case you happen to live locally. Turn left off the Bath Road and it is almost immediately on your right.
The contemporary accounts describe the building as being next to a railway bridge and not far from the noisy A4 Bath Road. It was said to have an ‘annexe’ running along the side of the building, in which was located the darkroom (for loading film canisters) and the workshop where the puppets and sets were constructed. There was a back yard where exterior model shots involving a small water tank were filmed that was in view of traffic queuing on the road. At one end was an area with small partitioned offices.
The building still exists although it has been a tyre fitters for a number of years. It is about 30ft wide and about 130ft long with the 10ft wide annexe running along one wall for about 70ft. The shooting stage was about 68 x 30ft.
A Dexion bridge was constructed for the puppeteers, attached to the roof structure. The sets were then built on moveable rostra and wheeled under the bridge when shooting. They now attempted to solve the problem of the operators seeing the puppets’ faces – so ensuring that they were looking in the right direction, which up until now had been an on-going problem with the operators being so high overhead.
After some unsuccessful experiments with mirrors they introduced a bit of new technology that the whole industry would eventually adopt: video assist. (Not that it was called that back then). A small CCTV video camera supplied by a company based on the trading estate was linked to the film camera so it showed on monitors how the shot was being framed. The operators had a reverse-scan monitor so to them it was like looking in a mirror. This was a true breakthrough. Reverse-scan monitors have been used on every TV puppet show I can think of since then. (The Muppets, Spitting Image, Basil Brush, Roland Rat, Gordon the Gopher – even the Knitted Character on TV Burp had one.)
However, this prototype system was far from perfect. The video camera looked down the film camera’s viewfinder so the cameraman couldn’t use it to frame the shot but had to use the monitor. Unfortunately, the image was vignetted so the edges of the actual filmed frame were cut off. Therefore, shots often had to be retaken because the camera was shooting off the set or seeing operators’ hands or other unwanted things in shot. It was pretty unreliable too, the picture often broke up or lost lock and the picture rolled – all of which was very frustrating and wasted time.
As well as the main shooting area, at one end of the stage was a back-projection screen, about 6 feet across. Sets would be built on rostra in front of this and it had its own small puppeteer’s bridge over it. The projector had to be reflected off a mirror as there was so little space. The 35mm projector was ingeniously positioned in its own tiny room so that it could either shine onto the BP mirror or by turning it through ninety degrees it would project through a small window onto the screen in the little viewing theatre where the previous day’s rushes were checked.
Background ‘plates’ for Supercar (more on this show in a moment) were filmed from an aircraft based at White Waltham and from a hired Jaguar driving at 100mph up the M1, which had just opened and had no speed limit – or traffic. They attempted to film a stormy sea at Brighton from a small boat but the cameraman was seasick so they shot it dangling off the end of the pier on ropes.
The Ipswich Road stage included a ‘director’s booth’ at one end with a window overlooking the working area. Gerry sat in here looking at a monitor and gave instructions to the crew over an intercom. It was raised about three feet above floor level and also contained the dialogue playback equipment and its operator. In a small booth next to it sat Reg Hill, the designer, where he worked on the plans for future sets. Some might think it was a bit odd for the director to be in a separate room when only one camera was ever in use and usually each shot was relatively complex to set up. Most directors might have expected to be working on the floor amongst the crew. However, Gerry thought this was the way a TV studio should be so he had it built.
It was during the making of Four Feather Falls that Arthur Provis left the company, although they kept the name APF for the time being. I’m not sure who approached whom but having left, he seems to have gone straight to Roberta Leigh where he was co-producer and cameraman on Sara and Hoppity and then Space Patrol.
In 1960 Roberta Leigh and Arthur Provis formed a company called Wonderama Productions. They produced Sara and Hoppity – a puppet series aimed at very young children, so somewhat similar to Twizzle and Torchy. 50 ten-minute episodes were made somewhere in Teddington.
Then in 1962 came a series that directly challenged Gerry Anderson’s reputation as the only person who made sci-fi puppet shows. It was Space Patrol (renamed ‘Planet Patrol’ in the US) – a curiously weird series that included a character with the catchphrase ‘I could do with a Martian sausage.’ I’m sure we all remember that one. Just me then.
Actually, to be fair, some of the sets and puppets were pretty good for their day and the strange electronic music soundtrack was really quite unsettling to a 9 year old me. It was all somehow rather spooky and just a bit disturbing for some reason. Maybe it was the weird robots, maybe the eerie radiophonic music. Even the closing titles were over a wideshot of a giant city of the future – no music, just the throb and hum of futuristic inexplicable machinery and transporters shooting through transparent tubes. It depicts a dark and unfamiliar world – a frightening vision of the future. I’m sure HG Wells would have approved and I imagine Roberta Leigh had no idea that was how it would come across to us viewers.
As a kid I remember enjoying it but it was definitely the low budget arthouse indie puppet show to Gerry Anderson’s glossy blockbuster TV series. An impressive 39 episodes were made and for many people this was one of their favourite TV shows when they were young. I think I’m over the nightmares now.
I have watched a recording of Arthur Provis being interviewed about this series in 2002. (It’s available on YouTube.) He reckons they had the best puppeteers in the business, bar none. They were led by Joan Garrick and Heather and Martin Granger. According to Arthur, Joan in particular was able to make the puppets appear to walk naturally, which was always Gerry’s biggest complaint. I have seen a clip and Arthur does have a point. I wonder what Gerry made of it. Incidentally, Martin Granger had previously worked on Andy Pandy for the BBC back in 1950. Quite a contrast with this show.
According to the interview with Arthur, the pilot for Space Patrol was filmed in ‘a filthy old garage in Shepherds Bush’. However, according to the well-researched Space Patrol unofficial website (sadly no longer online) filming of the series itself began in St Michael’s church hall in Northwold Road, Stoke Newington. Later, it appears that filming moved to a church in Harlesdon High St. This was apparently where most of the episodes were shot. It was occasionally referred to as NIP (National Interest Pictures) Harlesden.
Arthur and Roberta went on to film two more sci-fi pilots – Paul Starr (’64) and The Solarnauts (’67). The first one used puppets with latex skin and the second had real actors. Neither series was commissioned but the pilots are available to watch on YouTube. The special effects are sadly nothing like as effective or realistic as the ones Derek Meddings was achieving in Slough at the same time.
All 39 episodes of Four Feather Falls were completed in April 1960. The series had begun transmission on the ITV network in February of that year and even featured on the front cover of TV Times. It was very popular and Gerry assumed that a further series would be commissioned but if not, he did have plans for another show to offer Granada. In fact, astonishingly, they never contacted him again.
Now in the 1960s British television was dominated by two impresarios – Sydney Bernstein from Granada (who apparently had just gone off the idea of puppet series) and Lew Grade from ATV – who was soon to seriously buy into the idea – but not quite yet.
The APF team found themselves once more with no employment but soon picked up some unexpected work. Nicholas Parsons (yes, him again) had formed a production company and had just secured a deal to make three ads for Blue Cars Continental Travel. (David Rawsthorne has kindly written to inform me that this company offered ‘Grand Tours’ around Europe in their fleet of coaches.) He had some scripts but they were different from the style of the day – they were funny. We take comedy in advertisements for granted now but in those days selling stuff was serious business. Nicholas did a deal with Gerry (neither of them would make much money from it) and the ads were filmed in the Ipswich Road studio.
Unfortunately, the noise from the nearby Bath Road was an issue so 1,500 egg crates were purchased and stuck onto the walls to help deaden the sound. It wasn’t terribly successful in cutting the traffic noise or the sound of the express trains running by on the GWR track a few yards away but it did apparently reduce the reverberation of sound within the room. Live sound of course had not been a problem previously – the puppet dialogue recordings were always done in the viewing theatre on a Sunday when the trading estate was much quieter. (Sunday was the day on the later shows too when the dialogue was recorded, even when they had more sophisticated facilities.)
The adverts were astonishingly successful and even won an award for best ad of the year. Gerry was confident that this would become a new source of income for APF but not a single further booking came. It turned out that because they had not used an ad agency but had dealt directly with the client they had broken the industry rules. Nobody wanted anything to do with them.
Anglo-Amalgamated then offered Gerry the chance to direct a B-movie called Crossroads to Crime. Shot partly on location around Slough it used the Ipswich Road stage in which to build the interior sets. The film includes a number of sequences shot in cars and lorries with rather obvious back projection behind them. One assumes that the vehicles were parked in front of the BP screen in the studio. Unfortunately, the film turned out not to be the greatest crime thriller ever made. I have watched a rather dodgy copy of it and was truly enriched by the experience. From what I have read, the location breakfasts were really good, so not all bad then.
So – back to Lew Grade. To cut a very long story short – he agreed to commission a series of Supercar. I can confirm – as the target audience of the day – that up to that date this was the most exciting, most utterly brilliant TV series for small boys of a certain age that had ever been made. Supercar was about a car that could drive on land (obviously), could fly, could even go underwater and – er – that’s about it really.
After weeks of pre-production the puppets went in front of the camera.
During the filming of the 10th episode in November 1960 they decided to take some particularly spectacular shots to use in the opening titles. A small tank was built in the yard behind the studio and helpfully filled by the local fire brigade. They shot a sequence at night using the studio’s lights with Supercar diving into the water and then emerging. It was by all accounts much harder to do than anyone expected and several cars on the road alongside stopped to witness their attempts. One car contained Gerry and Sylvia who had just quietly got married. Gerry sent Sylvia home and he spent his wedding night till the small hours helping to get the shot right. I won’t mention that despite all their efforts you could still see the string pulling Supercar out of the water. Oh – I just have.
Supercar was like no other TV series that had ever been made. Despite being aimed at kids it was a huge hit with grownups too in the UK, the US and all over the world. It was for the second series of this show that Gerry invented the term ‘Supermarionation.’ He admitted in later years that the word actually meant nothing in particular – it was just a way of implying that the techniques they used were more sophisticated than traditional puppet shows but it certainly looked good on the opening titles of all the series he made. (He also used the expression ‘filmed in Videcolor’ on the titles of Stingray and Thunderbirds. This didn’t mean anything either – they were made using Kodak Eastmancolor film – but again it looked impressive.)
I remember as a very young lad going to an ice show at Wembley Arena in 1961 as a Christmas treat (my grandparents took me) – it was The Wizard of Oz on Ice . Randomly in the finale, Supercar slid out onto the ice in a cloud of smoke and flashing lights and the crowd went wild. To see a full-scale replica of what we had seen on television – and of course in colour – was deeply impressive to a small boy. Shame it didn’t fly round the arena or burrow itself into the ice but hey…
Filming of the first series of 26 episodes was completed in April 1961. Another series of 13 eps would begin shooting from September. They finished it by Christmas, thanks to a more efficient way of working.
For the second series Lew Grade upped the budget and Gerry made the most of this. He took on Derek Meddings full time and made him Special Effects Director. Previously anything along those lines had been done on the puppet stages by the art department. Now Derek was going to have his own ‘stage’ to blow things up in. The small room previously used for sound dubbing became his little empire and he made the most of it. (Sound dubbing moved out to the Gate studios in Elstree – well, Borehamwood, actually.)
Thanks to Derek it was now possible to have shots involving models on realistic looking backgrounds – the scale was small but on camera it all looked huge. Derek began to experiment with very bright lighting increasing depth of field and high speed photography, which when slowed down makes the movement of small models look more lifelike.
There was a plan to produce another 26 episodes but Gerry preferred to move on. He had a couple of ideas, which he presented to Lew Grade and the one that was chosen was – Fireball XL5. Why XL? It was named after the Castrol motor oil, obviously.
Filming of Fireball XL5 commenced in April 1962. It was about a huge spaceship that explored the universe and sorted things out. If you’ve never seen it, think Star Trek but four years before that was made.
One of the features of this series was the launch sequence of the Fireball spaceship – which instead of taking off vertically, ran along a rail hundreds of metres long at high speed on a rocket powered sled and then launched itself into the sky using a ski-jump rather like the Royal Navy’s Sea Harriers in the 1980s. This sequence fired the imagination of the target audience (me) who only wondered what happened to all the rocket powered sleds that flew off the end of the rail on each launch. The photography by Derek Meddings was very convincing and all the more impressive considering the tiny room in which he shot it.
The effective miniature rocket motors on Fireball and its disposable undercarriage that later also ‘powered’ the Thunderbird models were provided by a company called Schermuly, who also supplied distress flares and rockets to the Royal Navy. They were electrically fired – the current passed down the wires supporting the model craft which occasionally grew very hot and melted if the current was too great. The metal tubes that contained the rockets were initially provided by Gerry – they were his discarded cigar containers. Jetex motors were used in vehicles to direct a blast of air behind them, stirring up the ‘dust’ (usually Fuller’s earth) on the road behind them. These were manually fired.
The art department and effects department really came into their own on this show. They scoured electronic component suppliers for any items that would look good on sets. Meters with needles that twitched, panels with lights that flashed – the more the merrier. Knobs on control surfaces were often toothpaste lids or similar – bought from one of the local factories. The crew were also not beyond delving into skips around the trading estate and pulling out anything that might be useful on a set or as part of a model vehicle. They were regular customers in the Slough branch of Woolworths – purchasing various small plastic and metal items like lemon squeezers, hair rollers, colanders, knitting needles, small footballs that could be cut in half and used as domes on a nuclear power plant. Stick a few small kitchen implements together and spray it all silver, dirty it down and – bingo – you have a futuristic looking spaceship.
They also purchased hundreds of pounds’ worth of plastic Airfix, Monogram and Aurora kits. The tiny components of aircraft, ships and other models like railway bridges would be used in ways never intended by the manufacturers. They were stuck onto vehicles or spacecraft or used to dress launch pads or bases on remote planets. Derek Meddings was also very keen that buildings, vehicles and spacecraft should look dirty and well-used. These and other techniques were taken by the various people who started their careers in the APF effects department and then went on in later years to work on major feature films.
Lew Grade was very impressed with Fireball XL5. So impressed that he decided to buy APF from Gerry Anderson. Gerry was a bit put out at first until he was told how much Lew was going to pay him for the company.
At a stroke, Gerry didn’t have to worry about money any more. He was still a director of the company but the new owner had very deep pockets so could provide the necessary funding for the next show which would be better and much more expensive to produce. It would also be shot in colour, at Lew’s insistence so that it would be more likely to secure US sales. This new series was… Stingray.