‘The Swinging Sixties. Great Britain. Slough’. Perhaps not the most enticing sequence of title cards, but one that gives a perfect indication of the dry humour and charm of this nostalgic and affectionate look at the team that brought us the likes of Captain Scarlet, Stingray and Thunderbirds. For director Stephen La Rivière, this is obviously a work of immense love as he adapts his book, Filmed in Supermarionation: A History of the Future (2014). The doc features extensive interviews with the late Gerry Anderson and all his major collaborators, including his wife and business partner Sylvia Anderson, who also voiced Lady Penelope – perhaps their most iconic creation (“Our Emma Peel”, as one of the puppeteers calls her).
Along with cameraman Arthur Provis, Anderson formed a production company called AP Films in 1957 and set about producing a series of children’s programmes based on a character created by Roberta Leigh. The Adventures of Twizzle was a success, but something of a poisoned chalice for Anderson who desperately wanted to get into live action television but was always pulled back to working with puppets. Four Feathers Falls – a western with a talking horse – saw the development of the eponymous Supermarionation, a futuristic-sounding way of glossing over the fact that he was still essentially filming puppetry. The method came into its own with 1960’s Supercar, which also marked the beginning of a partnership with Lew Grade, who helped finance and distribute Anderson’s future work.
Advances in technological innovation, increasingly puppets and impressive special effects began to reap their rewards. Fireball XL5 was sold to an American station and merchandising from the series opened up another revenue stream. In 1964, Stingray became the first British television programme to be shot in colour. And all of this was before APF’s – soon to be renamed 21st Productions – biggest success (“Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Thunderbirds are go!”). As a behind the scenes look at the making of some of the most entertaining children’s programmes, Filmed in Supermarionation is certainly fun. Rather than rely only on his interviews and behind the scenes footage, he also has the old crew get back together and recreate some of the explosions and tricks that they employed at the time. Their obvious enjoyment is contagious and will have viewers of a certain age misting over.
The fact that Anderson was essentially dissatisfied with his lot – “When they said puppets I wanted to vomit” is one of his forthright statements – means that he was always driven to try and make his programmes exceed the limits imposed on him. He actually wanted to make a Bond and was hired at one point to write a treatment for Moonraker (1979) which unfortunately was never brought to fruition. Despite getting a big screen outing, Thunderbirds never quite translated. Furthermore, although Captain Scarlet and Joe 90 have their sometimes ludicrous charms, the apotheosis had been reached on Tracey Island. With workers coming in with sledgehammers to wreck the sets and puppets and dump them in a skip. One can’t help wonder if this wasn’t Anderson finally getting his revenge on the puppets that gave him success, but who he always feared pulled the strings.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty