Over the Christmas break, one of the true heroes of my life sadly passed away: the great Gerry Anderson.
Like most people of my age, my first exposure to Gerry’s work was as a child. The opening bars of each of his shows called us to gather eagerly around the television, captivated in turn by Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and Joe 90.
Famously, Gerry was frustrated by being known as ‘the puppet guy’ – he wanted to make serious films with live actors. (Of course, that day came with UFO and Space: 1999 – both blockbuster hits.) Yet I doubt that if he’d gone straight into live action that his legacy would be anywhere near as rich.
Out of financial necessity, Gerry created children’s television shows, using increasingly sophisticated puppets. Though sponsored and trusted by the great Lew Grade, he was squeezed tightly on budget – Grade knew that Anderson could deliver the goods, but he needed to turn a decent profit too.
And, where other filmmakers might be enjoying the luxury of large sound-stages and studio facilities, Anderson had to make do with a cramped unit on a Slough trading estate.
All of these restrictions were fuel to a unique creative fire. Tight budgets meant solving problems in an inventive way. Working for children meant that imaginations could run wild. A small set meant that people worked together closely; new techniques were needed to film what were ostensibly large set pieces.
A lesser person may well have produced what was ‘good enough’. Not Gerry. Gerry absolutely did not accept that any of these restrictions meant his output should be in any way apologetic. Yes, he was out to prove himself and desperately wanted to attract a different kind of commission – but he was also passionate about his product.
As a creator of children’s tales for a more modern age, Gerry was without equal. I say that in the knowledge that other filmmakers – most notably Disney – were around at the same time. But where Disney plundered folk tales for his stories, Anderson’s catalogue was set mostly in the future – original creations.
There is a magic and charm about Gerry’s work that is not only unique but has enabled it to stand the test of time. His shows are full of cheeky humour – but sentimentality is rare. Gerry’s audience were children – but he never, ever patronised them. He created television shows that were shot like blockbuster movies – large-scale action, tightly plotted stories and (despite their puppet-nature) entertaining and likeable characters.
Pushing back the boundaries at a technical level paid off – sure, we can see the strings, but the sheer quality of the model work and special effects still looks great today. It’s said that few filming techniques used by Hollywood in disaster blockbusters weren’t created by Gerry, from his little trading estate in Slough.
In filmmaking, genius isn’t all about self. It’s teamwork. And Gerry was oh so good at selecting, working with and trusting some truly great people. The model designs of Reg Hill and Mike Trim. The special effects of Derek Meddings. The fashion designs of Sylvia Anderson. And of course the unforgettable music of Barry Gray – each theme tune a heraldic introduction that set pulses racing and grabbed you firmly, pushing you down in front of the television. All of these elements – and more – came together under Anderson’s tireless coordination to create 30 to 60 minutes of television magic, week in, week out.
Gerry wasn’t always (indeed, often) the writer, but it’s as a storyteller rather than a filmmaker for which I remember him. His ideas positively sparkled and absolutely connected with his audience – which child wouldn’t want to be a secret agent with adult mind implants, or save people’s lives with the amazing equipment of a secret rescue organisation?
He only gave up work towards the end of his life. It’s true, his career took a dip – but he regained his creative mojo in 2005 with the CGI version of Captain Scarlet (sadly hidden in the schedules and not destined to be a commercial success). He didn’t own the rights to much of his work and would have loved to have remade Thunderbirds in CGI – and was scathing, rightly so, of the embarrassing misstep that was Jonathan Frakes’s Thunderbirds movie.
I doubt that any other person has had as big an influence on my childhood. Gerry Anderson created the things which inspired me to play as a child. Even today, my office contains models of Supercar, Fireball XL5, Eagle transporters, Skydiver and Interceptors. Each is beautiful in its own right; each is a reminder of a time when stories were told with both innocence and gusto; each shows me that – even with a tight budget and limited facilities – true greatness can be created.
Gerry, I can’t thank you enough.