A brief reference to The Telegoons, made by Grosvenor Films, is at the bottom of this page. Read on…
Gerry and Arthur looked for suitable premises to use as a studio and took out a lease on a wing of Islet Park House – a large, somewhat run-down Victorian gothic mansion on the bank of the Thames in Maidenhead. The house had a ballroom which could be used as a film stage and several other rooms which would become offices, cutting rooms, a sound recording studio and some rooms in which several of the company would sleep over after a very long day’s work.
The ballroom had a ceiling that was only just high enough and two pillars within it – these had to be incorporated into some of the larger sets.
They employed a few staff – one of whom was secretary Sylvia Thamm (later to become Anderson’s wife), Reg Hill – an artist and carpenter with special effects experience and John Read, an experienced rostrum cameraman. Christine Glanville was employed as a puppeteer contracted to work from 08.30 – 18.00 per day but she, like the rest of the crew, worked far longer hours than this. She stayed working with Gerry for some 40 years.
They began filming The Adventures of Twizzle on 1st September 1957 and the series wrapped in January 1958.
From what I have read, Roberta Leigh was not exactly popular with many of the APF crew, including Gerry. He considered that her stories were rather twee and thought that even though the series was for children, as viewers they deserved to be treated more intelligently. He had noticed that most kids like to watch exciting grown-up TV as much as programmes made specifically for them.
Roberta was highly influential in this series. It was very much her project, not Gerry’s. She even wrote the songs – at least, she hummed them to the composer Barry Gray and he went away and arranged and recorded them. He would later become the writer of such classics as the Thunderbirds theme and would contribute hugely to the success of all Gerry’s series.
Twizzle involved traditional string marionettes made from wood and the only way you knew who was talking was that the puppet waggled its head. In other words the puppets were similar to the BBC’s Andy Pandy or Mr Turnip. Gerry hated it. He was embarrassed to admit to his contemporaries that this was what he was filming. All of the AP Films team decided that to keep their sanity they would make this series look different from a normal kids’ puppet show so the sets were more realistic, the props more detailed, the shooting style more cinematic – anything to maintain their own self-esteem.
The traditional way of making puppet shows was to use a locked off camera and a flat background – the puppeteers would stand behind this and lean over. However, for Twizzle, in order to give more freedom of movement over a bigger area, Gerry built a Dexion bridge over the set so they were standing above it. The ballroom at Islet Park wasn’t that high so the operators’ heads were right up against the ceiling.
Incidentally, this was the only puppet series APF made in which the sets were painted in shades of grey. It was of course filmed in black and white. All subsequent series had the sets painted in colour, even though the film would still be black and white for a few more years, with pan glasses being used to check how they would look on black and white TVs.
The team working on Twizzle was about a dozen but they still needed more help. They contacted a special effects expert but he was busy and recommended his apprentice, a keen young lad called Derek Meddings. If you don’t recognise the name, shame on you. He went on after many years working with Gerry Anderson to become one of the most highly regarded Oscar-winning special effects designers in the business.
Derek joined the APF team part time – moonlighting from his proper job as a special effects assistant with Anglo-Scottish Pictures. (No, me neither.) He mostly worked as a matte painter and helped with making props and building sets, as there wasn’t a great demand to blow things up on Twizzle. His time would come in two or three years. Derek recalled some years later that the whole team were completely dedicated to making the show look as good as possible, and working till 2am at Islet Park was quite normal around that time.
Once Twizzle wrapped, the crew had to disband due to lack of work. Each found temporary jobs in other film studios working on such shows as The Adventures of Robin Hood at Walton Studios. Gerry was offered some directing work on a couple of episodes of a detective series called Martin Kane – Private Investigator, filmed at ABPC Elstree Studios. (This was produced by Harry Alan Towers – see the Highbury studios section on this website for more info about him.) At last, Gerry was working with people, not puppets. But this was not to last.
Following the success of Twizzle a new show was ordered by Granada from Roberta Leigh and AP Films – this one was called Torchy the Battery Boy. Gerry was insistent that the sets were more detailed and that the puppets should become more realistic with opening mouths and moving eyes. These were operated by the puppeteer simply pulling yet more strings. Some years later, Leigh claimed that all this was due to her influence. Well, maybe. Whoever was responsible, as a discerning toddler around this time I can vouch for the enhanced production values in this series, which I certainly noticed, if nobody else did.
The puppets’ mouths required a flap of flexible ‘skin’ below the lower lip. Christine Glanville was the chief puppeteer and she sent her father round every chemist’s shop in Maidenhead to buy a selection of condoms so that various grades of rubber could be experimented with. As a young lad growing up in Maidenhead I had no idea that such things were going on. In point of fact, a little chamois leather flap was found to work best. I think we should move swiftly on.
Sufficient finance had been secured to make only the first five episodes of Torchy and these were completed by August 1958. The team were out of work again and Gerry and Sylvia worked on a film called Further up the Creek starring David Tomlinson and Frankie Howerd. Shooting was at Shepperton but the Islet Park facilities were used for editing and dubbing.
The contract for the remaining episodes of Torchy at last came through and photography began in October 1958. Fortunately the budget was much higher so the team could begin to really develop their techniques. The twenty-six 15-minute episodes were delivered ahead of schedule in March 1959. Roberta immediately asked APF to make a second series but Gerry had had enough of working with her and declined. Arthur Provis was concerned at turning the work down but Gerry had his way. She made the second series with Associated British Pathé – this was the end of her working relationship with Gerry Anderson.
During the previous year, composer Barry Gray had been coming up with an idea of his own for a puppet series but rather than approaching Roberta Leigh he spoke to Gerry about it. It was a western with a hero called Tex Tucker who had 4 magic feathers in his hat – two enabled his dog and horse to speak and the other two made his guns fire without Tex touching them. It was to be called Four Feather Falls. Barry and Gerry developed the idea and even during the filming of Torchy, puppets and props were secretly made without Roberta Leigh’s knowledge.
Once Torchy had wrapped it was full on at APF to produce the pilot episode. Now Gerry was fully in charge the first signs of ‘Supermarionation’ emerged. These puppets were more realistic in the way they were constructed. The strings were now made from incredibly thin tungsten steel chemically etched in matt black.
Cleverest of all, each puppet contained solenoid motors enabling the eyes to move and the mouth to open. An electric current was passed down the strings, which were connected via electronic circuitry to a multi-track tape deck with the dialogue pre-recorded. After some adjustment, the mouths opened in synchronisation with the dialogue. There were four separate tracks so therefore up to four puppets could speak in any one scene (although according to some accounts the signal was manually switched at first). According to Derek Meddings’ book, this system was devised by John Read and Reg Hill. John was cameraman and Reg was production designer – both were founder members and directors of APF.
Tex (from Texas, obviously) was voiced by – you guessed it – Nicholas Parsons, of Radio 4’s Just A Minute fame. An obvious choice to play the part I’m sure you’ll agree.
The owner of Islet Park House now offered to sell it to AP Films for a reported £16,500 and Gerry was keen to buy. However, his business partner and cameraman Arthur Provis was not so sure. In the end they didn’t buy the house but this disagreement added to the gradual break-up of the working relationship between the two men.
Islet Park House has now been divided into a number of luxury 2-bedroom flats, each worth around half a million pounds. Had Gerry bought it then and sold it many years later, I wonder how much he would have made…
Electronic lip sync – who invented it first?
The system invented at Islet Park which became known as ‘Supermarionation’ was developed in great secrecy – but in Highgate, a gentleman called Ron Field was working on a very similar system around the same time. He put together a pilot for a puppet series based in a circus using this technique at some time in the late 1950s. The show was never commissioned but in late 1959 Ron started to work on the puppets for a series that was hugely popular with a niche market (including me.) The Telegoons was a puppet version of the famous radio show, The Goons. The scripts were based on the original stories but re-written, re-voiced by Milligan, Sellars and Secombe and then filmed. There was a long gap after the pilot was made but eventually the BBC commissioned 26 episodes which were filmed in two blocks during 1963.
The Telegoons was made by Grosvenor Films using the top floor of On-The-Spot Lighting, a hire company who were based at 208 Kensal Road, Westbourne Park. Although they did use third-scale stringed marionettes for about 20% of the shots, most of the filming used half-scale puppets which were operated from below. These had moveable eyes and mouths and used a similar lip-sync system to the one at APF. In fact, Ron Field patented his system in 1961, although he had been using an early version of it in 1959 for his circus pilot. The pilot for Four Feather Falls was also made in 1959. So who came up with the idea first? I’d call it a dead heat.
Actually, the story is a little more complicated than that. The puppets were made by Ron Field but oddly he didn’t incorporate his automatic lip movement mechanism into them at first. The mouths were operated manually by the puppeteers reading the script whilst listening to the recorded playback of the dialogue. However, there was of course loads of ad-libbing by the three performers and they often went off script which made it impossible to accurately follow with the mouth operation. After the first 16 episodes they incorporated Ron’s automatic system into the puppets and the mouths at last moved more accurately. Why this wasn’t installed from the beginning is a bit of a mystery but there seems to have been some sort of disagreement between Ron and the producers. Maybe he asked for extra payment for the automatic system. Quite right if he did. They clearly needed it.
photo thanks to puppeteer Richard Wheeler and www.telegoons.org
The picture above shows the Telegoons studio in Westbourne Park. Looks rather similar to APF’s except that this puppet bridge is wooden. Note the half scale puppets – just head to waist, any long shots were done using stringed marionettes. The puppets were mounted on trolleys and the operators thrust their hands inside to operate them. Each one was made differently so what might need a thumb to make the eyes move on one puppet would need a finger on another, making them even trickier to master. However, I imagine that there were probably more laughs on set making this show than Torchy the Battery Boy.
Incidentally, Ron’s puppets were made with a latex ‘skin’ which gave much more variation to their expressions. This was something Gerry later tried with Captain Scarlet but the results were disappointing. Mind you, the Telegoon puppets did look very weird indeed, but then that was all part of the comedy.
Gerry Anderson never patented the APF ‘Supermarionation’ lip-sync system – at least not until 1967 when the more sophisticated system was developed for Captain Scarlet.
For more info on The Telegoons go to www.telegoons.org . It’s a very well-researched website and if you remember the series as fondly as I do, well worth a read. If you’ve no idea what I’m on about, try this sample on YouTube .