50 years and counting

It's half a century since Gerry Anderson started working in television. But the man whose puppets changed the face of childhood is still modest about his achievements. Sue Nelson joined his fan club
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Stand by for action. The Royal Mail issues five new stamps next week to commemorate 50 years of children's television characters. One of them, depicting Troy Tempest and his underwater enemy Titan, serves a dual purpose. Not only does the 31p stamp celebrate the first colour TV series ever made in Britain, Stingray, it also pays tribute to its creator, Gerry Anderson.

"It's wonderful," Anderson says of his philatelic apotheosis, grinning widely as he prepares to address 300 people at a Surrey hotel over the August bank-holiday weekend. His audience are all members of Fanderson, the official Gerry Anderson Appreciation Society, but they have converged on Weybridge to celebrate another, more important anniversary: Anderson's 50 years in the film and television industry.

"I always find it difficult to understand why they want to celebrate my work," he says. "When Fanderson first started, I used to run a mile. Then my wife Mary said, 'These people obviously get a lot of pleasure and I think it's churlish of you not to go.' This made me feel thoroughly ashamed, so I went to a convention and now I love them all."

Although Anderson's work ranges from commercials to full-length feature films and TV series such as The Protectors, Space 1999 and UFO, he will always be remembered for his Supermarionation work - a term he coined to describe the marionettes used in Fireball XL5, Thunderbirds, Joe 90 and Captain Scarlet. Yet his first introduction both to puppets and to science fiction was practical, accidental and purely financial.

"I formed a production company and we didn't have any work, so when I was asked to make a puppet film I said yes. Gradually we turned the puppets into actors but the only thing we couldn't do was make them walk. So I came up with the idea for Supercar, where they could whizz around and seemingly move very fast. Then, once the show was completed, people would come up to me and say, 'Gerry, I see you're into science fiction now,' and I would say, 'Am I?' "

Despite this unwanted stereotyping, it resulted in programmes that continue to be loved by millions of adults and children alike. "I grew up with them and was part of that magic," explains Fanderson spokesman and charge nurse Ralph Titterton, who has been involved with the 2,000-strong fan club since its inception in 1981.

Photographer Dave Finchett is another fan: he owns the original Brains - the bespectacled boffin from Thunderbirds, and the designer of all those fantastically equipped vehicles in which the members of International Rescue sped round the world fighting crime. Dave refuses to reveal how much the puppet cost but kindly removes the back of Brains's head to show me the electromagnet used to open and close its mouth. "I've always appreciated the attention to detail that went into these programmes," he says.

Lady Penelope is a case in point. The original, which fetched almost pounds 40,000 at an auction last year, was the only puppet to have her own couturier: Zena Relph, a magician and former costume-maker. "I used real fabrics such as mink, silk, cotton or wool," she explains. Vogue magazine was a source of inspiration: "She wore the latest fashions from Paris and you began to live her. In the morning, you'd think, 'Gosh, she looks a bit rough, I wonder what she's been up to?' They were puppets but you got so involved with them you didn't think of them as inanimate."

Christine Glanville agrees. Apart from working as animatronix engineer on Anderson's Space Precinct, Glanville was one of the original Supermarionation puppeteers in the Sixties. "People used to laugh at me because my face was doing the same as the puppets should be doing," she says, giggling. "I'd be frowning, opening my eyes wide and mouthing the words because I'd act the part with the puppet and identify with it - so with Parker [Lady Penelope's chauffeur] you'd find your head nodding." Glanville also made two of the puppets - Scott and Alan Tracey for Thunderbirds - and these, plus related Anderson memorabilia, are now highly collectable items.

VT editor Andrew Frampton is coy about the cost of his Anderson collection, which includes Commander Koenig's desk from Space 1999, a spacesuit and a 4ft Eagle model. "The desk was pounds 600," he admits eventually, "and I've been offered five figures for the Eagle."

Mike Trim has a more pragmatic approach to items that can now fetch thousands of pounds. One of the original model-makers, Trim became a designer on Thunderbirds and worked with Anderson until the end of UFO in 1970. "If you had a craft that appeared in one episode then you knew damn well that it would get pulverised before the end credits," he recalls. "So you couldn't get too protective about it, otherwise it would break your heart." He believes that the simplicity and fast pace of Anderson's work has ensured that it still has an appeal 30 years after its creation.

Anderson himself, however, has to be forced to contemplate the past and accept his reluctant position as TV hero to several generations. "I tend to live in the future," says Anderson, "I think about the production I'm making next week instead of 25 years ago." He is made uneasy by the popularity of television work he produced three decades ago. "My heart has always been in the cinema," he reveals. "The big screen has always attracted me and equally eluded me."

Recent television ventures have also failed to equal his earlier successes. "I was disappointed Space Precinct wasn't recommissioned," he admits. "One of the main reasons was because the American company backing the series went bankrupt." He was also unhappy with the 6pm slot on BBC2. "I wish it had been shown on prime-time - it would have had more impact."

Meanwhile, with no plans of retiring and a biography due out in October, Anderson is currently writing a film script about a TV hijack and is about to start pre-production on a children's series called Lavender Castle. It will take two years to complete and Anderson hopes that it will become a "modern classic". From anyone else, this would sound ambitious, but coming from the man who turned a handful of string-manipulated puppets into legends, and gave a much patronised genre a sense of worth, you have to nod your head (quite slowly), and keep your eyes wide open.