Another chance to see… UFO 

11 November 2021

Century 21/ITC/ATV

Century 21 for ITC, 1970-1973

If ever a TV series could fall foul of bad scheduling…

In 1969 Gerry Anderson was coming to terms with production of his latest puppet venture The Secret Service being cancelled by TV mogul Lew Grade. The show was a total breakaway from Anderson’s ‘Supermarionation’ adventures in that it was a lightweight spy thriller set in the present day, so no futuristic pieces of flying machinery or suchlike. The lead character was Father Stanley Unwin, voiced by the real Stanley Unwin complete with his legendary ‘Gobbledegook’ language. Another major change in style was that it mixed puppetry with live action and not that well to be honest. Furthermore, only three of the fifteen ITV regional companies had bought the series, so it was against all of this that production was halted at seventeen episodes, Grade also suggesting that maybe the puppet programmes had run their course and it was time to pull the plug. Then the mood changed as he told Anderson that for the next show he wanted live action, puppets being replaced by real actors in a one hour format. Gerry says he left Grade’s office punching the air.

The result was UFO, the Anderson’s most spectacular and stylish production to date, for although the cast were now real people, the hardware that they would be flying or riding around in were still models of the kind we had grown accustomed to in previous series and the sets were now much more lavish, the cuts between the live action and the model sets being almost seamless. The cast were certainly colourful with the lead character being played by Ed Bishop, previously the voice of Captain Blue in Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. Others included a show dancer (Peter Gordino), an ex-regional ITV announcer (Jon Kelly), presenter of a children’s pop show (Ayshea), Eric Duffy’s girlfriend from Please Sir! (Penny Spencer) and the sister of folk singer Nick Drake and who would one day go on to manage the Crossroads Hotel (Gabrielle Drake).

The basic plot of the series is a conspiracy theorist’s dream. During the late 1960s there had been a number of unexplained attacks on various military establishments around the world. People were also disappearing in mysterious circumstances and all of this seemed to coincide with various UFO sightings. The conclusion was reached by governments around the world that Earth was being targeted by alien life, beings from a dying planet coming to Earth to harvest the population for human organs with a possible invasion in mind, a confirmation that had to remain undercover for fear of any mass hysteria should such information become public knowledge. Over the next ten years a new defence organisation would take shape, not just to tackle the aliens but to discover where they come from.

By 1980 the Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation (SHADO) is up and ready for operation. Situated under a film studio in England and ruthlessly led by one Commander Ed Straker who had to lead a double life as a film producer in the studios above (exterior shots are of what was then the offices and backlot of the ATV studios in Elstree, now doubling as Holby City Hospital and Albert Square). From here SHADO operates a fleet of submarines, aircraft and ground mobile units along with a base on the Moon.

The alien spacecraft (or “U-Foes” as they are referred to by Straker) travel at several million miles per hour and have to be dealt with swiftly. First alert comes from S.I.D (Space Intruder Detector), a talking satellite orbiting Earth putting everybody concerned on “RED ALERT! RED ALERT!”. The first line of defence is Moonbase, an all girl team of operatives in purple wigs headed by Lt Gay Ellis, along with the male crew of interceptor pilots. The three interceptors are launched to meet the incoming alien craft and once in range (bearing in mind they are still thousands of miles apart) the interceptors fire their huge missiles, each capable of delivering a nuclear scale explosion. Direct hits are infrequent but the impact is still enough to either damage the craft or send it spinning off on to a more manageable course where SHADO can track it.

Next in line is SKY ONE, a fighter plane launched from one of a fleet of SKYDIVER submarines, complete with a crew donning string vests, SKY ONE forming the front end of the submarine which leans backwards to launch the aircraft from its undersea position. By now the “U-Foe” is being slowed down by the Earth’s atmosphere and is an easy target for SKY ONE where a successful interception either results in total destruction, or more usually the craft crash landing allowing the fleet of ground mobiles to roll in and deal with the situation. Straker’s main objective was to bring in a live alien. He also wanted to get his hands on a “U-Foe” but the damaged craft had a habit of disintegrating before that was ever possible.



The show isn’t all about gunfights with aliens though, the stories are often at a very human level having to keep knowledge of the situation secret from the general public, even Ed Straker’s wife is unaware of his role in all of this, truly believing him to be the film producer he sets himself up as, a situation that comes to a head in the episodes ‘Confetti Check A-OK’ and ‘A Question Of Priorities’. In fact, there were several episodes with little alien interaction at all, instead the storylines dealing with those affected by alien incidents. One story (‘The Square Triangle’) features an extra-marital affair where the couple plan the murder of the woman’s husband only to find they’ve shot an alien. After administering the couple with an amnesia drug (disguised as a cup of coffee) Straker is left with the dilemma that he knows a murder will be committed, he can’t protect the unsuspecting husband for fear of blowing SHADO’s cover.

All of this, along with its setting in the not too distant future of 1980 made this a very believable scenario, everything was familiar and this could really be happening. This was a very serious programme and at times very eerie, compounded by an atmospheric closing theme Brian Eno would have been proud of, while the closing titles pull back from our solar system to reveal a representation of the alien planet keeping a close watch on our earth. It was a country mile away from its Supermarionation predecessors and was certainly not a children’s programme.

Despite all of this the series was handicapped from the moment it was scheduled for broadcast. It made its debut on Wednesday 16 September 1970 on ATV Midlands at 8pm, a slot usually kept for action adventure shows. ATV were the broadcast wing of Lew Grade’s ITC company, so were wise to the brief of this series. Unfortunately the grown up audience wasn’t ready for sci-fi in their action shows while many of the younger audience were baffled by the complex plotlines. The rest of the ITV companies seemed to be at a total loss as to where to put it and delayed running it until the following year.

Southern and London Weekend Television were among the companies who saw Gerry Anderson’s name attached along with the flying model planes and assumed it to be a children’s show, subsequently giving it a Saturday tea-time slot, others playing it on Sunday afternoons before the football. This was going to become very inconvenient with some of the later episodes, especially one featuring graphic use of illegal substances. These carried an advisory “NOT TO BE SHOWN BEFORE 10.30PM” label which should have been some sort of a clue. Some regions did in fact give it a late night slot but usually buried at the end of the day’s viewing and often abandoned part way through the run. Similarly, it would sometimes be picked up and resumed as a filler on Sunday mornings or in other strange and inappropriate slots. In fact, such was the erratic scheduling that the series never achieved a complete end-to-end run in any of the regions, consequently the show never received the attention it deserved and was quietly forgotten.

Then in 1988 with the spread of twenty-four hour television, along with the ITC comedy detective show Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), UFO found a niche in the schedules of regional ITV companies desperate to fill the extra hours during the night. For the first time the series was afforded the respect that was long overdue, being given a full uninterrupted run, TVS even inviting Ed Bishop into the studio to chat with the overnight continuity presenters on their ‘Late Night Late’ strand. BBC-2 took up the show for a run in the early nineties (the first time it would be seen nationally), but the 6pm slot was still not entirely suitable, so again it found itself being shunted around the schedules and being abandoned. By now though, many true fans had acquired it as a VHS collection, soon to be upgraded by a DVD box set.

A revival series or remake has been mooted on several occasions, as has a cinema feature movie, but there really is no need. The series improves and gets darker with each viewing and of course, like 1984, 2001: A Space Odyssey and of course Anderson’s next sci-fi series Space: 1999, UFO is now set firmly in the past. I never rule out alien visitations and there may be a fleet of airborne submarines to deal with them. Thankfully though, string vests for submariners are now history. Ladies in purple wigs though is another matter…

▶︎ Buy UFO on Blu-ray at Amazon

You Say

2 responses to this article

Westy 11 November 2021 at 4:09 pm

Must admit I don’t remember the BBC Two reruns.

I know they showed The Champions, as I still have some of the episodes from that run, filling the gaps more recently with the Itv 4 & Talking Pictures reruns.

I remember the mid 80’s reruns on Central, with Champions getting the post News At One slot & my unemployed brother taping Ufo later.

Harald Stelsen 17 November 2021 at 9:23 pm

QUOTE Others included a show dancer (Peter Gordino) UNQUOTE

The correct spelling is “Gordeno”, actual surname “Godenho”. He was born in Rangoon, Myanmar. Although he was a dancer, he was better probably known to the general public as a cabaret singer and choreographer.

And missing from the list is the renowned Polish actor Vladek Sheybal who played the part of the creepy Dr Jackson, a psychiatrist and trained interrogator, who appeared in ten of the twenty six episode.

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