Stirling Road, Slough Trading Estate

anderson stirling road 1960s450p
Above – the Stirling Road building as it was in 1967.  (The company won the Queen’s Award for Industry for exports in that year – hence the flag.)
anderson stirling rd copy of old photo in 2012 450p
Above – not that much has changed in December 2012.  Here we are well into the 21st century and the sky isn’t full of flying cars and spaceships after all.  Shame really.

 

Gerry told Lew he would need a bigger studio so Lew said fine – go and find something suitable.  This was soon located half a mile away in another part of the Slough trading estate, in the shadow of the local power station and a sickly whiff of chocolate away from the Mars factory.  Stirling Road was a cul-de-sac with a row of single storey industrial units with an office frontage to the road and a double ‘shed’ arrangement behind.  Each shed was roughly 40ft wide and about 120ft long.

They were brand new in 1962 and seemed perfect.  One double factory unit was purchased.  In the right hand shed, two shooting stages were created for puppets and one other for use as the special effects stage.  The puppet stages were each 40ft x 40ft.  Surprisingly small considering how much had to fit in them.  They were numbered 1 and 2, the SFX stage was stage 3.  The offices at the front and the rest of the space in the left hand shed contained most of the other facilities required – editing rooms, props, puppet making, ‘electrical mouth room’, kitchen, preview theatre, production manager’s office and director’s office.

 

There is a publicity brochure issued by APF in 1964 that boasts about their Stirling Road studios.  It states that there were seven cutting rooms, a large property department, a scene dock, a carpenters’ shop, a paint shop, a dressmaking department, a puppet workshop and a viewing theatre.  It refers to the two production stages, ‘identical in every way’ with mobile bridges for the ten puppeteers.  It says that next to the main stages is a special effects studio in which ‘violent explosions’ regularly take place.  It also mentions a large tank.  Interestingly, it refers to an experimental section where new processes are developed.

The art department with its construction facilities was based in another building a short walk away in Edinburgh Avenue.

 

gerry a stirling stingray bridge 450p
Stingray being filmed on the Stirling Rd puppet stages.  The bridge is mobile and made of steel rather than Dexion but there is not a lot more space to work in than there was at Ipswich Road.  There were of course two puppet stages now though.  Each bridge was 30 feet long, 3 feet wide and 12 feet high.
gerry stingray puppet stage 1963 450p
The photo above is taken from Alan Shubrook’s fascinating book, Century 21 FX Update

 

For Stingray, the special effects stage inevitably had several tanks within it.  Due to lack of space these often had to be set and struck which was very time-consuming.  For sequences involving Stingray on the surface of the sea, a wedge-shaped tank for static shots and a large rectangular tank for moving ones were built with a system which constantly pumped water over the edges into troughs that surrounded them.  With the camera low on the water line, and a painted sky backing on the other side it looked like a real horizon on the sea.  Incidentally, the very realistic skies that featured in all these shows were painted by Derek Meddings, who as well as being expert in special effects was an experienced and very talented matte artist.

In fact, APF had used an exterior tank with an artificial horizon for the shots of Supercar diving into the sea back in 1960.  This arrangement has now become popular with swimming pools in glamorous locations of course where they are known as infinity pools.

The other technique used was to construct a tank that consisted of two large vertical sheets of glass a few centimetres apart.  The tank was 8ft x 4ft and made of half inch plate glass.  The water contained some pond weed, several small fish and an air line to produce bubbles.  The fish were fed just before each take so they moved about rather than hiding in the corners.  The camera looked through the glass and the water in the tank and the Stingray model was ‘flown’ behind the tank, keeping completely dry.  Although this was built by a specialist company, it exploded one lunchtime sending gallons of water and several unfortunate fish all over the studio.  Luckily, nobody was close by when it happened.  A new tank with thicker glass was ordered.  A similar technique had been used for underwater scenes in Supercar at Ipswich Road with a smaller tank and less exotic fish.

 

gerry stingray tank 450p
These men are not actually underwater.  But then you probably guessed that.

 

Arriflex 35mm cameras were used.  Effects shots were usually photographed at very high speeds to make the water look natural on camera – 72 frames per second and sometimes even 120.  (The norm was and still is 24fps.)  This involved using phenomenal levels of light – and therefore heat.

 

As well as far more sophisticated effects shots, the puppets continued to develop.  In Stingray each puppet had several heads (not all at once you understand.)  These were relatively easy to swap and had varying facial expressions – a ‘smiler’, a ‘frowner’, a ‘blinker’ and a neutral.  This gave some opportunity for the director (no longer Gerry – he was only producing now) to give some variety to the puppets’ performances.

The puppets also had teeth purchased from a dental technician in Maidenhead and realistic glass eyes made by a chap called William Shakespeare (no, really) who specialised in making prosthetic eyes for humans.  This was the first time he had been asked to supply them in matching pairs.

39 episodes of Stingray were made from June 1963 into 1964.  It was shot on 35mm Eastmancolor film and was the first complete British TV series to be made in colour.  (Part of The Adventures of Sir Lancelot had been filmed in colour at Walton studios in 1956).  The opening titles claimed that the show was shot in ‘Videcolor’ but this word was a pure invention of Gerry’s just to look impressive.

 

 

It is worth mentioning at this point the vital involvement of Gerry’s wife Sylvia in these productions.  With each show from the early ones at Ipswich Road she became increasingly influential – helping to write scripts, directing the voice recordings, acting as a style consultant regarding the clothes of the puppets and voicing some of the characters – most notably of course, Lady Penelope.  She was also very good at giving interviews – arguably rather better than Gerry.  The Supermarionation series were quite rightly described in the press at the time as being made ‘by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’ which was of course true.  However, whilst researching this piece I have become convinced that in fact Sylvia deserves far more credit than she often receives.

I have read several accounts by people working on the various shows that they really respected Sylvia and that she, not Gerry was the driving force behind the success of the productions.  People working in the studios felt that they could go and see her for a chat about anything that was troubling them in a way that they would never dream of doing with Gerry.  He was allegedly seen as distant and unapproachable and frankly not all that interested in much of the work being done.  His disdain for working with puppets is well recorded.  One person working in the Special Effects department has written to me and informed me that Gerry ‘never set foot in the Slough studios from 1966 to the day the studios closed, which covers Captain Scarlet, Joe 90, The Secret Service and UFO.’  He tells me that Sylvia and Derek Meddings are the ones who deserve the most credit.

Of course, Gerry may have been more influential regarding the overall concept of the shows than it might have appeared to some working in the studios but what is clear is that he and Sylvia had a very productive relationship in the mid 1960s.  This was perhaps at its most creative around the time of the show that was about to explode onto the small TV screens of the unsuspecting public.  It was of course, Thunderbirds .

Sadly, Sylvia died on 15th March 2016, aged 88.  I have a friend who cared for her in her final years who tells me she was truly a lovely person.

 

 

After many months of pre-production, principal photography on Thunderbirds began in September 1964.  Just before Christmas, with nine episodes in various stages of completion, Gerry showed episode 1 to Lew Grade.  He was so impressed that he thought that it was more like a feature film than a half hour TV show.  He told Gerry to increase the length of each episode to an hour – so 50 minutes of material allowing for ad breaks.  The first episodes would therefore require extra material to be shot.  The later scripts were hastily reworked too.  The budget was increased to £40,000 per episode, making Thunderbirds one of the most expensive TV series in the world.

Two sets of identical puppets were created so that the ‘actors’ could be in two places at once – shooting different scenes on both puppet stages.  I’ll bet many a production manager has wished he or she could do that with the cast of EastEnders or Corrie.  In fact, it proved impossible to make the two puppets identical and serious fans of the show can tell one from the other.  (Not me, in case you were wondering.)

 

gerry puppet bodies 450p
A macabre hoard of dismembered heads and bodies, discovered some 30 years after the shows were made.  Note the label on the back of Scott’s body – ‘stage 2.’  That indicates that this was the puppet who was intended to perform in that stage rather than stage 1.  In fact, they all got mixed up and by the end of shooting Thunderbirds, Scott even had various bits of Alan and Gordon’s body under his costume.  That’s Troy Tempest at the top but I’m not 100% who the other two are.  Possibly Virgil Tracy having a bit of a lie down?  The one on the right I first assumed was Parker but now I’m not sure – the mouth isn’t right and the nose too small.  Maybe Kyrano?  Definitely time to move swiftly on…
gerry a thunderbirds bridge 400p
Thunderbirds being filmed. The puppeteers are nice and safe on their steel bridge, although one looks a little precariously balanced.
gerry a tbird 2 launch 400p
Meanwhile on an effects stage – the operator about to fly Thunderbird 2 is balanced on a plank resting on a ladder.
 Note the number of lights too.  It looks to me like one 5K and three 2Ks only about 2 metres from the model plus the ones lighting the backing.  Each of those sky pans was probably 2kW.  I reckon, assuming a similar rig on the right out of shot, there was probably about 25kW of light covering the model set and let’s say 20kW lighting the sky backing.  The heat must have been phenomenal.  According to Derek Meddings’ book, temperatures of 130 degrees F (55 degrees C) were recorded on the SFX stages.
The reason for all that light was to be able to stop the lens down thus increasing depth of field.  Also, the camera was running at a higher speed than normal so when played back it slowed everything down.  These two things helped the miniatures appear to be life-size.
Here’s a great photo showing the ‘Natterer’ in the foreground. This was the 4-track tape machine connected to the puppets’ mouths so they moved in sync with the pre-recorded dialogue. The knobs adjusted the sensitivity but it didn’t always work perfectly so the switches could be used instead to manually open the mouth.

 

To cope with the additional effects work a second unit was set up under Brian Johnson.  (He left APF after Thunderbirds to work on 2001: A Space Odyssey). Another SFX stage was created at the beginning of 1965 for this second unit.  Peter Hitchcock tells me that there was a model shop with a small SFX stage ‘ in an old building about 8 minutes walk away’.  The art department was based in Edinburgh Avenue which would have been about that distance away – they shared the same building as the small SFX stage.

Later, a third ‘flying unit’ was created led by Peter Wragg.  This was for a while based in a separate building on the trading estate.

 

Peter Wragg was an ex-dancer and as such was thought to have the best sense of balance.  He needed it.  The model craft were suspended on thin wires with electricity flowing through them to trigger the rocket motors.  He stood on a scaffold plank which was cantilevered out from an access tower over the set.  Balanced about 6 feet in the air he held a short length of wood with a couple of cross-members screwed onto it.  To this the thin tungsten wires were attached that supported whichever craft was being flown.  Some were a considerable weight – for example, Thunderbird 2 was about a metre long and weighed several kilos.  The wires were connected to the electric power that fired the Schermuly rockets and sometimes also tiny lights within the model.  When the rockets fired it took a special kind of skill to keep the movement of the craft absolutely smooth.

Meanwhile the whole set was lit with several film lights only a few feet away producing incredible levels of heat.  Ah – the heady days before the Health and Safety Executive put a stop to such fun activities.

 

gerry a tbirds peter wragg flying 400p
Peter Wragg, flying Thunderbird 1.  Just a bit of rope tied to the roof to hold onto for balance.  Extraordinary.
He worked with Gerry until all the puppet series ended and then joined the BBC, working in their FX department.  Amongst many other things, he was responsible for designing the spaceship and supervising the effects in Red Dwarf.
Peter sadly died in April 2012.
gerry a thunderbird 2 flying p wragg 400p
Peter with Thunderbird 2 – this time in a different stage (note the overhead light fittings).  This model was much heavier and because the wires suspending it were also supplying electric current to the rocket motors (hence the flex running off to the right) they occasionally over-heated and broke.  Somehow, Peter had to remain balanced on his plank.
Please do not ask permission to use these or any other photos on this website.  As with most of the images, the copyright is not mine to give.  They are shown here on this not-for-profit website for educational and reference purposes only.  Many photos have been sent to me and I don’t necessarily know their origin.  I would be very happy to credit the copyright holder or remove them if requested.

 

The first episode was transmitted on Thursday September 30th 1965 on the ITV network – at 7pm.  This was no ordinary kids’ show to be hidden away in the afternoon.  Series 1 would not be finished until a month or two into 1966 – by that time everyone knew they were working on a winner.

 

gerry a stirling fx lights and flying 400p
Another photo giving an idea of the amount of light (and heat) that was tolerated by the SFX crew.  In this shot I reckon there are 3 x 5Ks, 5 x 2Ks and a couple of 1Ks as well as all the sky pans.  And yes, that is Peter Wragg again balanced on a plank 10ft in the air above it all.  I have read that sweat dripping onto the set was often a problem.
What is extraordinary is that they were happy to risk not only serious injury to the man on the plank but thousands of pounds worth of damage to the set and the Thunderbird model if he were to fall.
My guess is that the flat cap was because he kept banging his head on the scaffolding.  You see – there was health and safety after all.
gerry thunderbirds peter hitchcock 450p
Peter Hitchcock has written to me with some memories.  He worked on Thunderbirds – in fact that’s him in the centre of this photo along with Scott Tracy.  Scott is the short one on the left.  Peter now makes movies in Canada.

 

Before the first episode had even been transmitted, Lew Grade ordered APF to make a Thunderbirds feature film (Thunderbirds Are Go) – a very bold and brave decision.  A second film was to be made a year or so later (Thunderbird 6).  This would have two main consequences.  To look acceptable on the big screen the puppets, sets and models would all have to be remade in greater detail.  Also, more room would be required at Stirling Road to accommodate the movie shoot alongside the filming of series two.

 

An additional two buildings were leased to the left of the original one. The one on the far left would become the base for the SFX department whilst the puppet department would move to the middle building, along with some other new facilities such as a staff canteen. The original building kept the editing facilities and viewing theatre, whilst the original 3 stages had the dividing walls removed to form one large one – intended to be used mostly for the two Thunderbirds movies.

Reg Hill, deputy managing director of APF but a designer by trade, devised a system enabling backing cloths to be ‘pulled down’ in the new SFX stages so that various sky backings could be flown in or out depending on the scene being shot.  It was in effect a small ‘fly tower’, built on the end of the building.  This saved loads of time repainting the one backing cloth they had previously used.  Reg had also designed the water tanks for  Stingray  and many other of the features that made the Supermarionation series so distinctive.

 

gerry fly tower 450p
This helicopter has brought a VIP visitor to the studios and landed on the field behind the buildings but what is much more interesting is in the background.  The large rectangular object is the fly tower on the end of the new SFX building.  A slight snag of course was that cloths had to be completely flown out in order to allow access to the dock doors.
photo by Alan Shubrook
 
 

The stages at Stirling Road

 

It has proved surprisingly difficult to establish precisely how many stages were in each building in Stirling Road at various times and their various shapes and sizes.  Part of the confusion comes from people using the word ‘studio’ when they mean ‘stage’ and vice versa.  Also, the factory units in Stirling Road could be described as one building or two, since they are joined together in a semi-detached way with the double shed arrangement behind the frontage.  Accounts in the various books differ and no doubt memories play tricks – it was a long time ago.  Alan Shubrook has confirmed to me that the internal walls were reconfigured from time to time, adding to the confusion. Fortunately, his excellent 2015 book ‘Century 21 FX Update’ has cleared up many of the mysteries.  I shall attempt to summarise what happened below:

 

One double factory unit was initially purchased (696 & 697, Stirling Road) in which Stingray and the first series of Thunderbirds were made.  Behind the offices facing the road were the two large sheds.  Initially, these contained two puppet stages and one special effects stage.  The puppet stages were numbered 1 and 2 and the SFX stage was 3.  There was also a model workshop that from early 1965 included a small SFX stage in the same building in Edinburgh Road that the art department was based in.  Peter Wragg’s flying unit came a little later and was based in another building on the trading estate.

gerry building 1 450p
This drawing was kindly sent to me by Alan Shubrook.  It shows the approximate layout (not to scale) of the internal rooms in the first building when it was used for Stingray in 1963.

 

In January 1966 two more buildings in Stirling Road were leased in order to make the Thunderbirds movies alongside series 2.  The three buildings were linked by a covered walkway.  By then there were 5 buildings in use including the art department in Edinburgh Avenue and Doug Luke’s small building used for stills photography. 

According to Alan Shubrook, the original building was reconfigured internally.  It now had one large stage (1) in the right hand shed – sometimes used for SFX but according to various accounts also used as a puppet stage.  Peter Hitchcock tells me that he recalls that stages did occasionally swap uses.

 

 

gerry stirling rd g earth 450p
A Google Earth image of the three studio buildings in 2015.  The one on the right was the first to be purchased.  According to Google Earth’s very clever measuring tool, the width of each individual shed is 40ft and the length, not including the offices at the front, is 120ft.

 

The building to the left of the original one contained the art department store, canteen, puppet props, workshops and probably one large puppet stage but possibly two – accounts do differ and I have yet to establish which was the case with absolute certainty.  (Can you help with this? If so, please drop me an email.)  The next building to its left had one SFX stage in one shed and 2 SFX stages in the other (see drawing below from an earlier book by Alan Shubrook).  Peter Wragg’s flying unit was now based in one of these (stage 7).

gerry stirling road sfx stage plan 400p
This is the approximate plan of how the stages were laid out in the new SFX block.  Stage 7 contained ‘rolling roads’ and ‘rolling skies’, against which the various craft could be suspended and appear to fly.  When the join in the roller came past the camera, someone puffed some smoke in front of the lens to disguise it.
In his interesting 2007 book ‘Century 21 FX’ Alan Shubruck recalls that when model vehicles had to drive down roads on miniature sets, a slot was cut into the road rather like a Scalextric track.  The pin that went through the slot was attached to a line beneath the set that was pulled by an operator.  The smoothest movement came if he walked very quickly.  When this happened in stage 5, he continued to walk down the corridor outside the stage.  Unfortunately, if someone unexpectedly exited the toilet, there would be a collision and the shot was ruined.  This apparently happened more than once.
the plan above gratefully copied from ‘Century 21 FX’ by Alan Shubrook (2007).  This book is out of print but well worth tracking down if you can find a copy.  Warning – second hand copies are very expensive indeed!
gerry stirling road still from secret service
A still from the opening of ep 1 of Secret Service.  This shows the studios in Stirling Road as they were in 1968.  The building in the centre of frame is the middle factory unit that APF/Century 21 owned – the one with the new puppet stage in the left hand shed.  To the right is the original Stingray building.  The covered walkway linking all three buildings can be seen.  The main SFX building is out of shot to the left.
The fields behind are now long gone, incidentally.  The space is occupied by a large housing estate.
 

Purchasing and equipping the new buildings was very expensive – accounts range from £200,000 to £250,000 – a lot of money in those days.  Most of this was spent on the new SFX building in which the stages had pits dug into the floor for the camera so sets could be built at floor level – they used to shake when explosions happened if they were built on timber and Dexion rostra.  Pits were also dug into the floor of the new stage 1 in the original building and in stage 4 – the puppet stage in the middle building.  The evidence of these pits still existed when Alan Shubrook visited the studio building in 2014.  His 2015 book ‘Century 21 FX Update’ contains many fascinating photos of ‘then and now’.

Doug Luke’s stills department was located in a small two-storey brick building on the opposite side of the road to the last studio building.  It no longer exists.  Alan Shubruck tells me that if you carried on past this building along a concrete path you eventually came to the large model workshop that Ray Brown and his team occupied.

 

In an interview for Kinematograph Weekly in November 1966 Gerry is quoted as saying that the studios had quadrupled in size and that they now had 7 stages.  That’s possibly Gerry being a little boastful.  With three SFX stages in the left building, one puppet stage in the middle building and a large multipurpose stage in the right hand one, that makes 5.  Of course, the original three stages were knocked into one, so the numbering became 1, 4, 5, 6 & 7.  On the other hand, the British Film and Television Yearbooks for 1967 and 1968 both list these studios as only having three stages.  All very confusing but one assumes that this referred to the original three and nobody had told them that more had opened in 1966.

 

Do please contact me if you know for sure that the above is not correct – or indeed that it is!

 

gerry a new building stirling 450p
The building to the left of the original one.  See what I mean by the ‘double shed’ arrangement which on this building is carried all the way to the front.  The new puppet stage opened here in 1966.  The panels were blue in those days, not red incidentally (see the image above).  It’s that kind of vital information that sets this website apart from all the others.
gerry stirling 2 new blocks 450p
Above – the new SFX block at the end of the road.  The new puppet building is in the foreground.
gerry stirling sfx block good view 450p
Above- a better view of the SFX building.  Still in 2013 looking pretty well just as it was in 1966.
gerry stirling end of road 450p
Looking towards the end of Stirling Road.  Doug Luke’s photographic building was at the end next to the unit on the left – now lost to the huge factory that dominates the view.
gerry a tbirds big miniature 450p
Above – the new stage 1 enabled large miniature sets like this to be constructed.  It is built on the floor and the camera and crew are in a pit to the left of this photo.  That’s Lady Penelope’s mansion in the centre right of the picture.  But then you knew that.
gerry sfx stage tb6 450p
Above- a scene from Thunderbird 6 being filmed on the new enlarged stage 1. Despite the length of this stage being very useful, its width was still limiting as can be seen here.  Every inch is being used and remember – this sequence is for a feature film, not a TV show, so the tiniest detail will be seen on screen.  What these guys achieved was quite extraordinary.
photo copyright Alan Shubruck.  It is taken from his book Century 21 FX – sadly now out of print.  Second hand copies are very rare but highly recommended and well worth tracking down if you can.
gerry a tbirds camera crane 400p
A sequence being filmed for Thunderbirds are Go on the new puppet stage.  Unusually, they have hired a camera crane for this shot. (A Transatlantic?)
Incidentally, the working light fittings in the ceiling give a useful clue as to which stage is which.  The ones in the original building were old-fashioned coolie shades with tungsten lightbulbs (see above), the ones in the two new buildings were fluorescent fittings.

 

 

Various parts of the company’s equipment were updated around his time, including the Arriflex cameras, which were replaced with Mitchells.  Prowest Electronics who manufactured broadcast equipment for the BBC and other TV companies were based in Maidenhead.  They were asked if they could supply an improved version of the video assist system and developed one that was properly integrated with the camera so it was much better quality.  They called it ‘Addavision’ – it was subsequently marketed as a useful tool to the industry as a whole.  The Avengers was one of the first series to use it at ABPC Elstree Studios.  One advantage was that it was connected to a video tape recorder so shots could be reviewed seconds after they were taken.  This was really useful and saved many expensive retakes.

 

Around the time of expanding the studios and making Thunderbirds are Go, Gerry decided to change the name of the company.  Aware that with Arthur Provis long gone, ‘AP Films’ seemed to be no longer appropriate he took the name from their comic that was proving highly successful.  Thus they became Century 21 Productions.  (Pronounced ‘two one’ apparently.)

anderson century21 logo

 

 

Let’s picture the scene.  The Century 21 gang know they are making the most successful TV show ever made.  It’s the X-Factor of its day.  Lew Grade goes to America to sell it.  He shows it to the networks one by one.  Two of them love it and immediately offer millions of dollars.  The third plays hard to get but then comes on board.  Lew knows he’s onto a winner so ups the price.  The networks draw breath and two of them say OK but one says no, too much.  The others hear that one has pulled out of the bid and assume that there is something wrong.  So they all pull out.  For once in his life, Lew Grade has screwed up.  He could easily have made a really good deal but got greedy so came away with nothing.  At least, this is what I have read.

 

So – Lew asked Gerry to meet him.  Gerry was making the movie, was six episodes into series two, was loving the adulation of the public thanks to a huge UK success and had major international toy merchandising deals in place.  He was brought into Lew’s office and told in no uncertain terms that Thunderbirds was over.  There would be one more movie (that was a signed deal) but no more TV shows would be made.  Finish the six episodes of series two but that was it.  Gerry and the whole of the Century 21 team were devastated.  Thanks to Lew Grade screwing up the US network sales deal, they would have to move on to another show.

 

 

That other show was Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons.  Filming began on January 2nd, 1967.

Let’s be honest – this was not as well received by the British public as Thunderbirds.  That show had got the balance between kids show and something the Mums and Dads also enjoyed exactly right.  Captain Scarlet was aimed at – well, who exactly?  Children, surely, but what age?  The show was dark, violent and nothing like the crash bang wallop of Thunderbirds.  It would have made a very good sci-fi drama series for adults if it had used actors rather than puppets.

Gerry knew this.  He wanted to move on from making children’s television so insisted that the puppets became more lifelike.  They were now proportioned exactly like humans.  The Thunderbirds puppets had larger heads than normal because they had to incorporate the mechanism to make the mouths move.  The Captain Scarlet puppets had the mechanism in the chest so the head could be smaller.  Also, the new electronics made it possible to modulate the mouth with more subtlety – it could half open or stay open for longer on extended vowels – at least, that was the theory.  Unfortunately, the eyes were of course smaller so the very realistic glass eyes of the Thunderbirds puppets were replaced with eyes that looked – well – perhaps dead is a bit harsh but let’s say less ‘sparkling’.  Also, unfortunately, the small heads were more difficult for the puppeteers to control smoothly.  Any movement ironically looked more artificial and less human than before.  So the puppets hardly moved at all – which some critics felt led to even more ‘wooden’ performances.

 

At this point in the proceedings I have to declare an interest…

 

My brother and I were both huge fans of all these series – in particular, Thunderbirds.  It’s hard to imagine any young lad at the time who wasn’t.  I was 13 early in 1967 and my brother was 10.  Our Dad mentioned to his secretary that we loved the show and it turned out that a relative (husband, brother – can’t remember) was one of the puppeteers.  A visit to the studio was organised and Chris and I turned up one Sunday with Dad to see how Thunderbirds was made!!!  Except of course, it wasn’t.

It was early in 1967 so unfortunately the unseen Captain Scarlet was in production.  Who?  What??  Where was Tracy Island???  Where indeed was Thunderbird 2?  We were shown round several disappointing large rooms with sets and models that meant absolutely nothing. 

 

I remember seeing Lady Penelope and Parker hanging up on a rack but all the Captain Scarlet puppets were strangers.  I wish I could be more excited at having seen Captain Black in the flesh but, well, there you are.  Our host was very proud of the fact that these puppets were proportioned like humans and didn’t have huge heads but this meant nothing to the 13 year old me.  I hope I hid my disappointment better than I feel it now.

We were shown round several stages and workshops (oh boy, if I could go back in time now with my camera).  One stage really threw me.  (It might have been Doug Luke’s photographic stage.)  It contained several sets – life sized – one of which had two spooky looking child mannequins standing in it rather like the things I remember seeing in the windows of shops selling children’s clothes.  I have since discovered that this was a rather bizarre business venture of Gerry Anderson’s.  He published a comic aimed at very young children containing stories about a couple of characters called Candy and Andy.  These ‘children’ had adventures with two large pandas – who acted as their parents in some sort of strange inter-species adoption scenario (I’m not making this up).  The stories were photographed on sets in Stirling Road and in various locations in the real world.  They were published as what we might now call graphic novels for very young kids.  Odd as it all may seem, the comics must have been relatively popular as they were sold from January 1967 to December 1969.

 

Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons – to give it its full and correct title – began filming on January 2nd 1967.  32 episodes were made.  The first one was transmitted in September 1967 and received luke-warm reviews.  Good – but not as good as Thunderbirds.  Principal photography was completed in the autumn.

 

gerry a stirling rd outside spectrum 450p
The theme for Captain Scarlet was recorded by a pop group called Spectrum.  To drum up a bit of publicity, they were dressed in uniforms similar to those in the show and paraded round town centres in these Mini Mokes during 1967.  Who the three heavies are I have no idea.  No doubt they were there to hold back the screaming fans.
gerry a stirling spectrum 2012 450p
Above- the same view in 2012.  A wider lens angle on the camera I’m afraid – but you can see that apart from the tree having grown and the right hand shed having a new roof, not much had changed.

 

 

Almost immediately, the next series – Joe 90 – occupied the puppet stage from November 13th.  This was set in the near future and in theory with fewer demands on the special effects department.  (But surely, that was what the viewers wanted to see?)  The story was about a boy who could use a machine to program his brain to learn special skills.  He had a vehicle – not unlike Supercar – to get about but that was more or less it really.  Nevertheless, this series did pose some new challenges to the SFX dept.  The exterior scenes which were all miniatures had to look even more life-like than ever, as the show was not set in some distant fantastic future. 

During the second half of 1967, the next Thunderbirds movie – Thunderbird 6 – occupied most of the SFX stages and stage 1.  It completed principal photography at the end of the year and was premiered the following summer.  It wasn’t a great success at the box office, despite the crew considering that the production values were the best they achieved in any Thunderbirds film or TV show.

Shooting of Joe 90 wrapped in August 1968, after 30 episodes.  To be honest, this was a pretty low key series and was not widely publicised by the ITV companies.  Often tucked away somewhere quiet in the schedules it never did particularly well.  In fact, it was not bought by all the ITV companies so was only transmitted in some parts of the UK.

Maybe I had grown out of such things by then but I don’t remember seeing a single episode.

 

 

In July 1968, Gerry began to shoot his first major feature film with live actors.  Called Doppelgänger, it was about a parallel planet Earth that was a mirror image of ours, hidden on the far side of the sun.  Live action was shot at Pinewood and the effects were done by Derek Meddings at Stirling Road.  It was not a happy shoot – Gerry was producer, but fell out with the director who had been picked by the company who put up the money.  It was modestly successful – not a great money-spinner for Universal but it persuaded Gerry that he definitely preferred making films or TV series with real actors.

 

 

Now we come to the most obscure of Gerry’s puppet series – The Secret Service.  This is the one hardly anyone has heard of.  Gerry was a great fan of Stanley Unwin – the entertainer who amused audiences on variety shows by talking gobbledygook.  (Actually, I thought he really was rather funny.  Have a look on YouTube if you’ve never heard of him.)  Gerry had the idea of casting him as a vicar who was also a secret agent.  If ever taken to task by villains he would baffle them with his strange and confusing language.  He had a gardener who could be shrunk down to a third normal size and carried around in a suitcase by the vicar so the pair of them could solve crimes and defeat villains.  How Lew Grade ever gave the green light to this show is a mystery (did he ever read a script I wonder?) – but I’m afraid it gets even stranger.

Gerry was still trying to make his puppets look more life-like and was aware that one of the disadvantages was that they could not walk or run, stand up or sit down.  He hit upon the idea of shooting parts of scenes with real actors – including Stanley Unwin – in long shot and then cutting to puppets for the close-ups.  An interesting concept I’m sure you’ll agree.  Of course, with most of the locations being shot in the real world – and no spaceships or things being blown up – there was even less for the SFX department to do on this one.  However, what there was had to look even more realistic as it was intercut with live action sequences.

13 episodes were in various stages of production.  After the first few had been finished he showed one to Lew Grade in December 1968.  Within a few minutes of it appearing on the viewing theatre screen Lew cancelled the series.  He told Gerry to finish the first 13 but that was it.  He wanted no more.  And with that decision, Supermarionation came to an end.  The puppet department closed on January 24th 1969.