As son of Gerry Anderson – the creator behind Captain Scarlet and Thunderbirds – Jamie Anderson is bringing a celebration of his dad’s work to Symphony Hall this season. Here he talks about why the TV shows were such a success and reveals his favourite character.
Tell me about the show Stand by for Action that is coming up in April?
It’s basically a time travel and nostalgia device in musical form. A showcase of pretty much every theme tune and incidental music from most of the Gerry Anderson TV shows from 1957 to 2005, played by a massive orchestra. It’s going to be two hours of nostalgia washing over the audience, taking them back to their childhoods.
Does it focus more on Thunderbirds, or balance out over the different shows?
It will be hard not to focus on Thunderbirds because it is the best known. It’s the jewel in dad’s crown some would say, so ‘yes’ it gets a little bit of extra attention. But every one of the shows that were broadcast as a full series gets some love, from Twizzle and Torchie the Battery Boy in the 50s to stuff like Fireball XL5 and Stingray. Post-Thunderbirds, even The Secret Service gets a look in, which nobody knows really because it was short-lived and only run in a few areas. We go right up to date with Space Precinct and the New Captain Scarlet. No matter when people started their Anderson journey there’ll be stuff to please them, make them feel warm and fuzzy and nostalgic.
John Culshaw will host the show, tell me about Jon?
Jon was a guest on our podcast a few years ago and whilst I was chatting to him he randomly mentioned the countdown that Jeff did, and then, he did it – he did the Jeff Tracey countdown. I thought “wow, this guy’s amazing”. When the opportunity came up to do this, I got in touch with him and said, “Jon, do you want to host?” You know, we’re going to have the Thunderbirds countdown live, so if you are going to have that you need somebody who can do a really good Jeff Tracey.
I understand many of the puppets were made in Birmingham:
John Blundell was a Birmingham-based puppet maker and sculptor. You see his work in the early shows, right up to Thunderbirds in fact. I don’t think he was necessarily making them IN Birmingham, but he was probably sculpting them and doing some of his work out of Birmingham, and was very much a Brummie. The iconic aliens from Fireball XL5, pretty much all the alien species that were made for that show were John’s. I guess, his best-known character was Parker from Thunderbirds, who was also dad’s favourite character in all of the shows.
How much are the puppets worth now?
I don’t think an original one has come up for auction for a while but they are certainly in the tens of thousands. I think some of the puppets have sold for as much as £50,000 which is kind of crazy when you think that at the time, a lot of them were thrown in a skip and went to landfill.
Were puppets actually modelled on real people?
Not always. We’ve been working on a documentary about dad recently and he referenced why he believes some of the puppets were sculpted after certain people. One of the reasons is that when you write down a character description that somebody’s heroic, with carefully parted hair on one side and furrowed brow or whatever, that’s not enough to give a puppet sculptor enough guidance. So, for a lot of the time they would say “You know, like Sean Connery” for example, and then Sean Connery gets referenced in the sculptor’s mind for a character like Scott Tracey, or Cary Grant for Captain Scarlet. So I think some of them yes. Clearly, Parker was not based on any human being because he was so jowly and so caricatured!
Have you ever had to ‘politically correct’ any of the characters for modern viewing?
They say that Thunderbirds presents a problem for modern-day viewing because all the puppets are smoking and drinking. They’re not all smoking and drinking all of the time! You know these things were made in the 60s and they were really pushing things forwards in terms of quality and diversity, when diversity wasn’t really used as a term. A lot of the time they are way ahead of their contemporaries. You do get the slightly awkward line, in UFO there are a few sexist gags here and there which make you think “Ooh dear”; but generally, they stand up pretty well. It’s quite surprising actually.
What do you think it is that made the shows so successful?
Dad always used to say that if you could boil it down to a formula you would be a multi-millionaire; you’d know what it is that could inspire and excite people, and make it work every time. There is a special something, an unknown. I think if you look at a lot of today’s stuff, especially the sci-fi, most things now are pretty dystopian. It’s a negative, grim view of the future with terrible things happening, whereas with all the Anderson stuff it’s looking towards a bright future.
That’s a good point, maybe we need to be more like that now?
It’s not a very in-vogue thing. Dad’s desire for a positive future was born out of childhood and early adulthood tragedies really. I think that set the tone for him wanting there to be a better world, and that came through. Then you had likeable characters doing selfless things with amazing technology and in amazing places. All of that is kind of enticing and exciting and inspiring for a young mind. They all have an aspirational quality, and the way they were made and the way that they looked gives them a sort of time-locked timelessness, because they all inhabit their own world. There is nothing to date them in terms of real-world proxy locations. It’s a fascinating mixture.
Who’s your favourite character?
Virgil. Everyone who watches Thunderbirds says Scott is their favourite but to me, Scott raced to the danger zone, got there, pulled out his control unit and said “Hurry up Virgil, these people need rescuing”. Virgil was the one who was taking all the goodies to the danger zone, doing the rescue himself, flying it all home. Then, when he got home, he’d paint a picture, play the piano, enjoy a cocktail! He had all the bases covered. He was cool. Scott THOUGHT he was cool; Virgil was actually cool. Outside of Thunderbirds, it’s the spherical robots called Zeroids in Terrahawks. Sergeant Major Zero, played by Windsor Davies was super cool, super funny.
The show was inspired by a real-life mining disaster.
Puppets were pretty big at 56cms (22 inches) tall
They were each made from more than 30 component parts.
The faces of the Thunderbirds characters were inspired by some of the biggest movie stars.
The Tracy brothers were named after the NASA astronauts from the Mercury Seven space program.
The show was followed by two feature length film, a live action film and a stage show.
Cliff Richard and the Shadows appeared in the film as puppets.
It was the first children’s TV show to be one-hour long.
There were only 26 episodes made – a further six were made following the first film.