Gerry Anderson: Thunderbirds creator whose puppet adventures thrilled millions of children across the world

He was always thinking to himself, 'Why can't I work with actors and do the thing properly?'

Gerry Anderson was responsible for some of the most instantly recognisable characters and series ever made for television. Never mind that most of his creations came with strings attached (quite literally), shows like Thunderbirds, Stingray and Captain Scarlet remain timeless, delighting and inspiring generation upon generation of children. Anderson once received a thank you letter from a scientist working for Nasa whose imagination was fired as a child watching one of his shows.

But how different it could have been. Anderson’s career in puppetry really began as a fluke. In the late 1950s he was running a fledgling production company hoping to land glamorous documentary work or even feature film assignments. The phone never rang. As he crawled ever closer towards bankruptcy a children’s writer offered him a batch of scripts for a puppet show called The Adventures of Twizzle. At the time Anderson knew nothing about children’s television and even less about puppetry. “We didn’t want to do it,” he recalled. “But we were broke. I was ashamed of it. It was not what I wanted to do. If they’d asked me to make a film about crocodiles, you might now be talking to a crocodile expert.” More than once Anderson was to claim that his life and career was ruled more by chance than design.

Gerry Anderson was born in 1929 in north London. His was a background of grinding poverty and zero education: home was a one-room flat he shared with his parents and elder brother that had no running water and neighbours which included one ex-con and a prostitute. Worse than being poor, the Anderson household was also a deeply unhappy one, his mother and father were temperamentally unsuited and bickered constantly. Anderson’s father, who barely scraped a living selling cigarettes, was a heavy gambler and usually in debt.

When he left the flat he was known to lock his two sons inside to stop his wife from leaving. When Anderson was 13 his mother finally walked out, taking the children with her. Always the dutiful son, Anderson later persuaded his parents to get back together, but the acrimony was still there and when his father died his mother refused to attend the funeral.

Entering technical college, Anderson set his heart on a career as a plasterer. Though he was extremely gifted, lime in the plaster caused dermatitis; he lost the skin on both hands and on doctor’s orders he was forced to abandon the profession. It was a crushing blow. So Anderson moved on to his second choice of career: the movies, which had always fascinated him as a child watching the adventures of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.

It was to be a long and tough apprenticeship, ideal grounding for his future role as producer and director of a unique brand of film-making. Working his way up from cutting room assistant, editor and then dubbing editor, he landed a job at the famous Gainsborough studios where one of his more interesting duties entailed recutting Margaret Lockwood’s heaving bosom for the American version of The Wicked Lady (1945).

By the mid-1950s Anderson was directing TV commercials and documentaries for an independent company, and it was here where he met and fell in love with Sylvia Thamm. The only problem was, he was already married, with two small daughters. A quick divorce enabled him to marry Sylvia but the decision to leave his wife and family was one he never truly forgave himself for. “When I look back I am ashamed,” he once said. “I don’t know how I could have done it.” Although Anderson kept in touch with both daughters, his relationship with them was never particularly close and over the years they drifted apart.

In 1956 Anderson took the biggest and bravest gamble of his life when he and Sylvia ploughed their last £500 into setting up their own film studio at Islet Park, an old mansion house near Maidenhead. Bedrooms and a ballroom were converted into workshops and offices and after a shaky start they were churning out highly popular puppet shows, beginning with The Adventures of Twizzle (1957), then Torchy the Battery Boy (1960) and Four Feather Falls (1960). Yet all the time Anderson strove to make each of his creations as much like a normal film as possible in the hope of landing live action assignments. “By making the puppets as lifelike as possible I thought people would see that I’d be good at making feature films.”

What people saw instead was his genius for the puppet genre, and more shows followed – Supercar (1961) and Fireball XL5 (1962), each one increasingly relying upon science fiction for their thrills. Then came Stingray, which made history in 1964 as the first colour television series produced in Britain.

Anderson was now head of a mini industry, employing a staff of 250 film-makers, designers and special effects men at new and more technically advanced studios in Slough. He was doing well financially, too, after the showbusiness tycoon Lew Grade bought out his company in 1962, though Anderson remained creatively in control and received 10 per cent of all profits.

Those profits skyrocketed with his next show, Thunderbirds (1965). Named after Thunderbird Field, the Arizona airfield where his elder brother, who was killed during the Second World War, had trained to be a Mosquito pilot, the adventures of millionaire Jeff Tracey’s sons – Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John (all named after American astronauts) and their daring rescues of people in peril was an instant  phenomenon.

Sold to 66 countries the show earned Anderson the Royal Television Society silver medal for outstanding artistic achievement. As for its enduring cult appeal, winning over successive generations of fans, Anderson was clear: “Thunderbirds gives kids what they want – death and destruction – and yet the underlying story is about saving life, not destroying it.”

Although across the years Anderson had introduced numerous innovations in order to perfect his puppetry technique, coining the term Supermarianation to describe it, he remained professionally stifled and dissatisfied with his pioneering achievements, always thinking, “Why am I working with puppets, why can’t I work with actors and do the thing properly?”

After two more Supermarianation classics, Captain Scarlet (1967) and Joe 90 (1968), Anderson finally got his wish and moved into the live action arena with the blessing and financial backing of Lew Grade. Testament to Anderson’s genius, his first two live action shows for television, UFO (1970) – in which for the first time he broached adult themes like drug abuse – and Space 1999 (1975) were once again instant cult hits.

But at the time of Anderson’s greatest success his private life was in chaos. His volatile marriage to Sylvia (famously the voice behind Thunderbird’s Lady Penelope) was crumbling. In a last-ditch effort to save it he bought an expensive house without selling his first home first, and when the property market crashed he was left in financial crisis. The couple eventually divorced in 1975 and so acrimonious was it the pair were never to speak to one another again. “As far as I am concerned.” Anderson once said. “She no longer exists.”

Sylvia went on to carve out a successful solo career, working for the American cable TV company HBO. She also won custody of their only son, Gerry Jnr. A gruelling and costly three-year legal battle undertaken by Anderson to get access to the boy swallowed up most of his fortune but he did at least win some visiting rights with his child, but on the day of the first proposed visit he received a letter in Gerry’s handwriting stating his wish never to see his father again. Anderson was mortified, and was not to see him for another 20 years, until out of the blue his estranged son contacted him in 1998 for a long overdue reconciliation. 

After more than a decade in the entertainment wilderness 1994 saw Anderson’s long-awaited return to big time television production with Space Precinct, a cop show set in outer space. It was his costliest series ever, with a $36 million budget, but the American backers went bust and the show folded. Anderson followed this up with a none-too-successful animated serial, Lavender Castle (1998), aimed squarely at the children’s market.

Genuinely modest about his achievements and slightly embarrassed by the fan adulation his shows engendered, Anderson received an MBE in 2001 for services to animation. Domestically, too, he found contentment in later life. His third marriage, to Mary Robins, produced his fourth child, Jamie. Anderson, who earlier this year was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, claimed that not only did Mary save his life after the personal trauma following his divorce from Sylvia, but also taught him how to be a better parent.

Learning through the bitter experience of being so distant with his other children, Anderson forged a far deeper and stronger  relationship with Jamie – although he liked to joke that the only fly in the ointment was that Jamie had grown up more a Dr Who fanatic than a Thunderbirds fan.  

Gerry Anderson: television producer and director: born London 14 April 1929; married 1952 Betty Wrightman (marriage dissolved; two daughters), 1961 Sylvia Thamm (marriage dissolved; one son), 1981 Mary Robins (one son); died Oxfordshire 26 December 2012

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own