Gerry Anderson: Nobody's puppet

You'd think Gerry Anderson would be pleased that his Thunderbirds TV series has been turned into a blockbuster film. Not a bit of it. As Matthew Sweet learns, he wouldn't endorse it - even if they paid him
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Thunderbirds are go, don't you know. Blasting out all over the big screen in a £46m movie co-produced by the British outfit Working Title and the US giant Universal. Transformed from clacketty-clacketty marionettes with hydrocephalic heads and a problem with lintels, to living, breathing actors with opposable digits and real hair (well, all of them except for Sir Ben Kingsley, anyway).

Thunderbirds are go, don't you know. Blasting out all over the big screen in a £46m movie co-produced by the British outfit Working Title and the US giant Universal. Transformed from clacketty-clacketty marionettes with hydrocephalic heads and a problem with lintels, to living, breathing actors with opposable digits and real hair (well, all of them except for Sir Ben Kingsley, anyway).

Don't ask Gerry Anderson about it, though. "It is no exaggeration to say," he announces, with Sisyphean weariness, "that wherever I go, every day of the week, people are saying to me, 'How's the Thunderbirds film going, Gerry?', and I have to say that I'm not involved with it. I'm not involved with it." Got that?

When I last spoke to Anderson, he believed himself to be on the point of being engaged by Working Title as a creative consultant on the movie. Unfortunately, things didn't quite work out that way. Now, the relationship between the inventor of Thunderbirds and its new custodians has deteriorated beyond remedy. Even the boys from International Rescue couldn't douse the flames of their mutual hostility.

It began with umbrage over the bread rolls. In the early stages of the movie's pre-production, a dinner meeting was arranged between Anderson and Tim Bevan, co-founder and co-chairman of Working Title. According to Anderson, when he sat down at the table, Bevan announced that he had another commitment and left his guest to talk with two colleagues. "I should have walked out there and then," Anderson reflects. "But I didn't want to be rude. And then, about three days later, I got a very short letter from Tim telling me that they had enough creative people on board and that they couldn't offer me anything. And I thought, right, that's the biggest insult I've ever had in my life. I didn't read the script. I just cut myself off from the whole thing."

That was easier said than done, when the film began shooting at Pinewood Studios, where Anderson's production company is also based. While Anderson and colleagues mulled over ideas for their big new project - a CGI remake of Captain Scarlet - Pinewood staff trolled past his windows lugging Tracy Island palm trees. The film's director, Star Trek alumnus Jonathan Frakes, and its star Bill Paxton, made apologetic noises. And the people at Working Title resumed their overtures.

"I guess that they began to realise that this was going to be very sticky for them," Anderson muses. "So they offered me money to say how nice the picture was. And to impress me, they e-mailed me the picture of the new 'Rolls-Royce'." He handles the word gingerly. As BMW Rolls-Royce refused permission for its car to be used, Working Title was obliged to trade in FAB 1, Lady Penelope's famous pink roller, for a substitute runabout supplied by the Ford Motor Company.

Anderson was appalled by the image on his computer screen. "I took one look and thought, if that's the kind of movie they're making, I'm out." A few months later, he says, Working Title offered him $750,000 to reconsider his position. "I'm not so wealthy that I can afford to turn that kind of money down. But I knew damn well that if I stood in front of that car saying, 'Isn't it wonderful!', there'd be people like you asking, 'How much did they pay you, Gerry?'. So I turned it down. A lot of money, but it's quite important to have morals."

And Working Title loves Gerry Anderson just as much as he loves them. "The reality with Gerry is that he's upset with everything," declares the firm's president of marketing David Livingstone, who clearly renounced diplomacy on this subject some time ago. "It's the nature of the man. If you ask him about his ex-wife, if you ask him about anything, he seems to be unhappy."

Livingstone upset Anderson with a click of his mouse. "We were on the cusp of giving him a deal as creative consultant. And then I made the mistake of mailing the picture of FAB 1," he says. "We'd had an incredible response to this 27ft pink car. All the geeks loved it - the fans of the original who have stayed with it for 40 years. But Gerry thought it was a horrible design." At this point, claims Livingstone, Anderson asked for other designs to be sent to him for approval. "And that's not how it works. I'm sure when he made a puppet show for Lew Grade, it would have been fine. But things have moved on."

And what about Tim Bevan's pre-soup-course snub? "It was only a dinner," says Livingstone, exasperated. "Tim enables films to happen. He generally backs off from creative discussions, because he's the producer, not the director. Little did Tim realise that two years later, Gerry would be considering this some kind of mortal sin. Tim's not an impolite man. He didn't storm out. He didn't throw a drink in Gerry's face."

So, might Working Title still kiss and make up with Anderson? "I'm not sure the door would still be open," reflects Livingstone, "because, frankly, he's been such a pain in the arse."

Anderson hasn't seen the new Thunderbirds picture. It may be best for his blood pressure if it remains that way. The film maroons the majority of the Tracy brothers on Thunderbird 5 - the narrative equivalent of locking them in the lav for the entire movie - delegating the job of defeating Ben Kingsley's villain, The Hood, to three teenage characters. (One of whom, the son of the Tracys' household boffin, Brains, did not feature in the original.) I show him photographs of these junior heroes: all teeth and freckles and Bacofoil. "Euchhh!" he exclaims. I tell him that the fight scenes in the film are punctuated by Bugs Bunny stings and whistles. "Oh, God..." he groans, "don't..." I tell him that I was surprised to see no mention of his name on screen - not even a credit for dreaming up the characters. Did they have no obligation to mention him? He smiles a slightly malevolent smile, like Peter Vaughan in Porridge. "That's a legal question that I'm not competent to answer."

David Livingstone, conversely, expresses no such uncertainty. The reason why Anderson's name is not on the credits, he insists, is because Anderson himself wanted it that way. (Anderson, he claims, even asked Working Title to send out a press release announcing his estrangement from the production.) And to demonstrate that not all of the original show's talents are so badly disposed towards the remake, Livingstone reads me a letter he has received from Sylvia Anderson, co-creator of the series - and the spouse from whom Gerry split in 1975, in a hurricane of acrimony. "I am delighted that the doom-mongers are so totally wrong," she gushes. (I wonder who she can mean?) "You have treated the subject with great respect and have introduced the new characters quite effortlessly. If we'd made it ourselves, we could not have improved on your version."

Her ex-husband will not allow himself the opportunity to make the same judgement. He won't go to see the film, he says, for fear of being photographed leaving the cinema with a smile on his face. "I think it's terribly arrogant of some people to think that you can simply take somebody else's format..." He stops, swallowing the thought, and tells me of a Thunderbirds remake that might have been. When Peter Jackson was in London last year to oversee post-production on The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the Oscar-encumbered director spent several evenings telling him how he wished that he'd got his hairy hands on the property. "If he had directed the film," says Anderson, "of course I would have been a consultant, and of course he would have listened, and of course he would have treated me decently, and of course I would have been proud for him to have chosen my creation for a movie."

So, does he wish failure on Working Title's endeavours? "Had you asked me that some time ago, I would have probably been a bit down, in terms of my spirit. Now, I don't give a damn. Sounds like Gone with the Wind, doesn't it? I don't give a damn simply because every minute of the day, I'm tunnel-visioned on the new Captain Scarlet. I believe we have a smash hit on our hands."

Anderson is famously diffident about his back catalogue. He has no great love for marionettes. Mention a creation from one of his shows - Zoony the Lazoon, perhaps, or Torchy the Battery Boy - and he's more likely to cringe than flush with pride. So, when he says his new one is a lulu, he means it. "Imagine you're watching the original series, with the puppets walking around." (He waggles his elbows for emphasis, and gurgles like Bill and Ben.) "And if you touch the screen with a magic wand, suddenly they all come to life. It's a dream come true. I'm sorry to be so excited about it, but I'm bloody delighted."

The original Captain Scarlet was the first Anderson series in which the plastic players possessed correct human proportions. The solenoids and other electronic gubbins that he was forced to squeeze into the skulls of his previous creations gave them all - from Troy Tempest to Mike Mercury - a peculiarly top-heavy appearance. In 1968, new miniaturised electronic components banished Big Head Puppet Misery. "It was the first time we had real people. Except they had wires to hold them up. Except they couldn't walk, couldn't pick things up, their movements were jerky, their faces expressionless."

Now, the strings have been snipped. When Captain Scarlet returns to our screens in a new £20m series, he will be 100 per cent computer-generated, and endowed with a whole arsenal of special powers: the ability to wiggle his fingers, raise his eyebrows, and get up from a chair without becoming tangled in wire.

It has been a long struggle. Anderson sold the rights to his shows in the 1970s, and the negotiations to secure permission to remake the programme have been tortuous and protracted. "I found the people at Carlton difficult to deal with. And it took damn near three years just to get the remake rights from them. Now that Granada has taken over, there's a whole different attitude. They say that they want to work with me, instead of me having to go down on my hands and knees and say, 'Please, please, please can we do a remake?'."

He treats me to a guided tour of his new digital domain, housed in the Stanley Kubrick wing of Pinewood. He leads me through room after room of pixel-drovers, concept artists, producers and directors. A staff of 123 is hard at work on the production. We peer around a door and watch one of his directors choreographing a fight scene on the bridge of Scarlet's Cloudbase. We slip inside the computer room where banks of hard drives collate and combine images created in the studio, their workings cooled by a monstrous refrigeration unit. Everyone seems delighted to be giving a childhood hero a 21st-century makeover.

Perhaps Anderson should be grateful that Working Title's acquisition of Thunderbirds pushed him back into the arms of the Captain. Of all the shows on his CV, it seems most attuned to our times. Whereas Thunderbirds expresses the cheery utopianism of the Marshall Plan and the League of Nations, Scarlet's adventures take place on more uncertain territory. His world is one in which the Mysterons - an intangible, unknowable force - are using a network of terrorist cells to wreak havoc on Earth. The parallels are not lost on Anderson's production team. One office door at the studio bears a sign declaring: "Captain Scarlet - the War on Terror has Begun!"

We sit down to watch the opening episode. The animation is sharp, fresh, spectacular. We watch a scene in which the cadaver of Scarlet's nemesis, Conrad Black - or Captain Black, to give him his due rank - is raised from the tomb by the power of the Mysterons. His eyes are aglow in that lurid lime-green favoured by sinister extra-terrestrial forces, and it's clear from the cut of his jib that he's ready to unleash misery upon the Earth. (Whether fraud, embezzlement and control of the Telegraph are part of his game plan isn't quite so clear.) Then I notice that the inscription on Captain Black's gravestone reveals the real name behind his colour-coded professional identity: Conrad Lefkon.

"Lefkon is the name of someone I can't stand," confides Anderson. And who was this Lefkon? Later, I looked on the net for likely candidates. There's an outside chance that Anderson's ire might be directed at Dr Bruce Lefkon, who, according to a website, was "the first urologist in northern New Jersey to be trained in the 'no scalpel' technique of vasectomy". But I suspect that Gerry has taken this odd revenge upon Roger Lefkon, who co-produced his last TV series, Space Precinct. Only the first two episodes of the new Captain Scarlet are in the can. Plenty of time, I think, for the Mysterons to recruit Agents Bevan and Livingstone.