Arts: Into the future with no strings attached: While others make the profits, Gerry Anderson makes the commercials. But as Kevin Jackson discovers, the creator of Thunderbirds won't make the mistake again

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The Independent Culture
LATE last year, the tabloid press gave a good deal of space to the story of a dramatic rescue mission which barely earned so much as a down-page paragraph in the broadsheets. The heroes of this mercy bid were the presenters of Blue Peter, who had discovered that countless Christmas mornings were about to be ruined by the drastic shortage of 'Tracy Islands' - models, that is, of the remote HQ of International Rescue in the vintage children's programme Thunderbirds. (And even those parents who managed to track down said item may have been daunted at its price: around pounds 35.)

So, armed only with a few yoghurt cartons, a toilet roll and lashings of sticky-back plastic, the doughty Blue Peter team showed its audience how to construct a serviceable replica of the island for just a few pence. Within a week, more than 90,000 young viewers had written in for the instruction sheet; by the middle of January Blue Peter's editor was forced to close down the offer, which had already cost the show more than than pounds 15,000 in printing and postage.

The scale of this demand should come as no surprise to anyone who is on reasonable speaking terms with an under-10-year-old. After some years of neglect, Thunderbirds are not simply 'go]' once again, but going like a blazing oil refinery. When the BBC showed the 32-part series in its Friday evening slot a couple of years ago, the average audience was around 5 million. Moreover, not only did Thunderbirds merchandising defy the recession - sales of the Thunderbirds toothbrush, for example, put it at number two in the national charts - but the imprimatur of the Tracy family is now being used to promote the disparate likes of Swinton Insurance, Weetabix and Kit-Kat.

Unluckily for Gerry Anderson, the man who dreamt up and directed the show, the revenue from most of these products goes into other people's accounts, since he sold his rights to Sir Lew Grade in the late Sixties for what then seemed like a vast sum. Anderson, now 64 and a ringer for Donald Pleasance (in one of his less happy years, Anderson was asked for his autograph, complied, and had his signature treated with disgust by a Pleasance fan), has had good cause to rue his business decision. Still, the great Thunderbirds revival of the Nineties carries plenty of indirect benefits: he has been called in to direct the aforementioned advertisements, and it has helped make his various television projects a good deal more bankable.

Just this week, for example, he has been in Russia supervising production work on his forthcoming 13-part cartoon series GFI at a place the locals have christened the Gerry Anderson Studios, Moscow ('flattery will get them everywhere'). Space Police, a project combining live action, animatronics and video effects, is in development with the BBC and Mentorn Films, and he is about to launch his own company, Gerry Anderson Productions, which will concern itself with the distribution and merchandising of all his future work. He has no intention of making the great Thunderbirds mistake again.

It is a trimphant recovery in a career which began - appropriately for the inventor of International Rescue - as a kind of accident. 'Why did I start making puppet films? Hunger. I was working in the feature film industry in cutting rooms, and then like a lot of young people I thought: why don't I start my own film company? After all, what do you need? A few bob, a letterhead, a telephone, and then you sit there and wait for people to ring you, like a grocery: 'Good morning, I want two feature films, three documentaries and four television commercials'. Well, nothing happened. What little funding we had evaporated, and we were about to shut up shop when a woman by the name of Roberta Lee, a writer of childrens' television programmes, came along, and she had 52 15-minute scripts for this series called The Adventures of Twizzle.

'And she said, 'I need them made with puppets', and I nearly vomited on the spot. But we needed the money, so we took it on. It was absolutely ghastly working with these things, but I thought - again, very naively - 'Well, if I try to make these shows as near as possible to a feature film, then obviously the people in the industry will say, this guy can make feature films, so let's give him something really big.' But instead they said 'Doesn't he make good puppet films? Let's give him some more.' '

Having backed into puppetry by force of circumstance, Anderson then found himself forced into writing his own scripts, and then into specialising in science fiction stories by the constraints of his format. 'We began to make our own productions with a Western called Four Feather Falls, for Granada. In those days I thought that you were either a writer or you weren't, so I called in professionals and they would come up with scripts which said 'Tex Tucker' (our hero) 'looks up and sees a hundred Indians galloping towards him]' And here I am making a puppet show] So I'd pick up my pen, slash it out and write '. . . sees AN Indian riding towards him. . . ', and before long I was writing scripts.'

As to the science fiction: 'Marionettes are very slow-moving, and I needed to have a lot of action and fast movement. So I came up with the idea of a car which the puppets could sit in and appear to be whizzing around, in the air and under the sea. . . ' Hence, in 1959, Supercar, and the string of hits with strings attached: Fireball XL5 (1962), Stingray (1963 - the first colour series to be made in Britain), Thunderbirds (1964-66), Captain Scarlet (1967), and Joe 90 (1968). All these, plus one notable flop: The Secret Service (1969; and now available on video for diehard Anderson fans, or, as they call themselves, 'Fandersons').

This last was a mixture of puppetry and live actors, and starred Stanley Unwin, as - this may strain belief a little - a vicar who worked in counter-intelligence, and would get out of tricky spots by talking gobbledegook. 'I took the first show along for Lew to see. Now in this story, the police stop Father Unwin and he talks Unwinese at them and they're baffled. Suddenly Lew jumps up, waves his arms to stop the projection and shouts 'I'm cancelling the show]' 'But why, Lew?' 'They'll never understand it in America]'. And that was it, the show was never networked.'

Thunderbirds, and its techniques of supermarionation (a puppeteering technique which used three-dimensional sets instead of a painted backdrop, remote controlled mouth action and so on) remains the series of which he is most fond: he likes the fact that the hour-long format allowed for 'greater characterisation'. But he is proudest of his innovations in the field of special effects - 'probably 60 per cent of the special effects business in this country started with me' - and his patriotism is ruffled by the fact that so much of that industry has now shifted to the United States.

Thunderbirds' special effects still stand up well, Anderson thinks, to comparison with more up-to-date productions, but even he is at a loss to explain why the series still captivates children who have grown blase on a diet of Ninja Turtles and Thundercats (no relation). 'Now, if I knew the answer to that question, I'd have a big office in Hollywood and would be advising producers on how to make guaranteed successes.'

(Photograph omitted)