No Strings Attached 

3 September 2005

One of the most remarkable cultural legacies of the fifty years of Independent Television in Britain is little mentioned by media historians, television critics and style gurus, yet it was nothing short of a revolution in television programming for children.

From the creative crucible of early ITV sprang a sequence of television series made between 1956 and 1970 that captivated the hearts and imaginations of millions – and all of them featuring puppets.

Gerry Anderson was the master of the “supermarionation” genre of action adventure series for children and produced a string of hit series featuring his creations that were exported widely, loved by all who saw them and seen around the world.

These programmes were new when television was new and their daring and innovation caught the imagination of the viewers. Anderson-Provis Films, based in a new post-war trading estate in Slough, Bucks, had a hit formula on their hands and they exploited it time and again in different settings.

It is impossible to avoid using the word ‘puppet’ when discussing these productions, but the word distracts the mind and does not do justice to the full flavour of these filmed productions. To the original viewers in the fifties and sixties, when television was new, exciting and less cynical than today, these programmes contained their own special kind of magic.

The ‘suspension of disbelief’ has traditionally been seen as the very minimum psychological requirement for the reader or viewer of fiction, if the material at hand is to be fully appreciated. It might seem that a series involving puppets, or “Supermarionettes” as the Anderson team named them, would make it visually hard for that suspension to be achieved.

Yet amazingly, no regular viewers ever had qualms about plausibility. The story lines, dialogue, special effects and suspense-filled scenarios ensured that the onlooker quickly forgot that puppets were the stars. The first experimental Anderson puppets of the fifties quickly gave way to a more sophisticated marionette with electronic lip sync and motorised movement. Clever photographic tricks of scale were used to ensure that the characters fitted well into the background and the copious use of very high quality background music – all specially written by leading popular composer Barry Gray – worked together to make suspension of disbelief a piece of cake.

The first experimental series “The Adventures of Twizzle” was filmed in the mid-fifties. The story about a boy doll and his adventures is hardly part of the later canon but led the way into the drama and science fiction that were to follow.

With ambitious plans for his second series, Gerry Anderson sought outside finance and was lucky to persuade Associated-Rediffusion to underwrite 26 episodes of “Torchy the Battery Boy”. The story of a boy with a torch on his forehead had much in common with the Pinocchio fairy tale of old – but was updated to an era of technology.

Transmitted about a year after production, it was an immediate success. Being made on film it was thus available for export: ensuring that the series paid for itself through foreign syndication. A second series was made – but not by Anderson and AP Films. Instead now-former colleague Roberta Leigh made it with funding from Associated British Pathe. It was distributed by ABPC and abroad by Warner Television Films.

The puppet masters now hawked their ideas around the network and persuaded Sydney Bernstein of Granada to underwrite the next project, “Four Feather Falls”, a cowboys and indians series with an undercurrent of magic.

This went into production in the late fifties. The popular singing star Michael Halliday voiced our hero, Tex Tucker; and as his dog and horse could also speak, all the ingredients were in place for the children of the era to sit at home enchanted.

So far the productions had been aimed at the younger child but with the next series came a switch to science fiction and a younger teenage audience. Granada could not be persuaded to finance a further series, despite the success of the last. It may be that backer after backer expected the genre to fall out of fashion. Unknown to these putative backers however, the productions of AP Films would stride from strength to strength, from hit to hit.

In what proved to be a masterstroke, Anderson visited the ATV tycoon Lew Grade, and in a moment the backing for many future series was secured. Lew was enchanted by the quality of production and the versatility of the marionettes – if nothing else, foreign language sales, so difficult with live action, would be easy to achieve with simple redubbing.

He immediately financed “Supercar”, a series about a supersonic car that could extend wings and fly – its ‘Vertical Take-off and Landing’ capability foreshadowing a real invention – the Harrier jump-jet – of later years.

The pilot, Mike Mercury quickly became a hero figure for a generation of schoolboys. The programme went into production in 1958, ran to two annual series and was very successful. ATV sold the programme to the ITV network and thereafter there was no looking back for the APF-ATV relationship. Sold abroad by ITC, the shows and their successors joined their live-action partners The Saint, The Baron and Danger Man on the ITC menu.

“Fireball XL5” followed into production 1960. This first ‘space adventure’ was an immediate success at a time when the US and the Soviet Union planned man’s first tentative footsteps into space. Although set a hundred years into the future, it concerned where the space race might ‘end up’ and seemed topical to the viewer.

These series rapidly became as popular with adults as with younger viewers and gained astonishingly large ratings. The programme was again widely exported by ITC and became another dollar earner for Lew Grade and ATV. A hit single of the theme tune followed and the catch phrase “On our way home” from the robot helmsman of the spaceship could quickly be heard in every playground. The hero, Steve Zodiac became such an iconic figure for children that merchandising of replica puppets took off as another big earner for ATV.

By 1962 the team were keen to try something more ambitious, and moving into colour for the first time, they produced “Stingray”, a cross between the previous two series but in a new underwater setting.

In one of the most ambitious opening title sequences ever devised for a children’s television programme, photography, special effects, graphics and stunning music combined to create a piece of television so iconic that no child of the age has ever forgotten it. The opening catchphrase “I am calling battle stations – anything can happen in the next half hour” became the children’s chant of the year when the series hit the screens. The biggest APF success to date, it earned its ATV backers huge profits.

Almost everything achieved so far was combined the following year into what is generally recognised as the most successful and popular children’s television series in the history of ITV.

“Thunderbirds” went into production in 1964 and for the first time used a whole hour per episode – a revolution in children’s drama and a big increase on the 25-minute long segments of old.

The stories of heroic endeavour in the fictional “International Rescue” organisation stunned millions with their special effects, technical accomplishment, plot lines, drama and characterisation. Gerry Anderson’s then-wife Sylvia had worked to achieve detailed characterisation of the figures in the drama – with a back-story and almost soap-like characteristics.

It gave the series a believability that enabled the viewer to forget the puppetry. Top class actors provided the voices and as always the Barry Gray music was a lesson in what tension building was about. The series was an enormous worldwide success and is regarded by some as the best children’s television series of all time.

By 1966 a new technology of microelectronics was allowing the marionettes to become smaller and more precise in their features. The lip sync mechanism was further refined and the next Anderson outing, under the new brand name of “21st Century Productions” was to become the most subtle and adult toned of the genre.

“Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons”, about a secret world organisation called ‘Spectrum’ facing up to a Martian invasion, was both frightening and, for the genre, hyper-realistic. The background music, photography and special effects reached a new high and, although the episodes reverted to the traditional half hour format for export reasons, the series was a critical success. It did not gain the high profile of its predecessor “Thunderbirds” but was greatly loved by its fans.

After Captain Scarlet, a quieter period followed with the subtle delights of “Joe 90”, filmed in 1968, about a schoolboy hero who could be sent on spy missions of his own by his scientist father – every schoolboy’s dream. This did not receive the critical acclaim of its forerunners but was much loved by the viewers.

Ending the puppet era for Gerry Anderson and bringing up the rear was “The Secret Service”, an experimental format in which real puppets were inter-cut with scenes from real life, background shots and full size panoramic views.

The series was filmed in 1969. The opening credits pictured the actor-comedian Stanley Unwin ‘live’, while the action scenes used a puppet modelled on Unwin and given his face. This was essentially an experimental format for the following live action series with human actors that Anderson was to break into next with his ground-breaking adventure, “UFO”, about a secret Earth-based organisation repelling another invader.

The supermarionettes of the Anderson films had represented a step-change in children’s television. The programmes are still repeated more than 35 years later and Thunderbirds even now impresses a new generation of children. Still a hit in ratings terms, it seems that the more sophisticated child of today is in no way fazed by the puppet format.

For the baby-boomer children of the 1960s, now fathers and even grandfathers themselves, these programmes represent a unique element of childhood. They are a piece of twentieth century television escapism with a distinctive formula and innovative visual format that has never been matched or bettered.

I never met a sixties child who was not in thrall to Gerry Anderson. They knew that “anything could happen in the next half hour” and they loved it! These series were an original and major contribution to television culture and represented one of the finest creations in the history of Independent Television in the UK.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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1 response to this article

Pelham cort 13 April 2016 at 10:53 am

Very good but just to put out the mistakes, supercar began in 1960 after some months after making four feather falls for Granada television, a few commercials, a blue cars film, and the film crossroads to crime, while fireball xl5 began production in early 1962.

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