We explore the science, technology and art of the still and moving image, and its impact on our lives.
UPDATE: Fifty years ago this week, on the 30 September 1965, the first ever episode of Thunderbirds “Trapped in the Sky” aired. Since this blog was released in 2012, we’ve discovered more exciting Thunderbirds content within our collection, including an interview with Gerry Anderson, recorded in Bradford in 2007. We’ve also plundered the collections of our sister museums, discovering that each museum in the Science Museum Group has a reason to collect items from this legendary television programme. Here’s our updated post…
Fireball XL5, Stingray, Captain Scarlet, and most notably Thunderbirds, made Gerry Anderson a big name in children’s television, but this was never his intention.
Gerry Anderson worked as a film editor before setting up his own film company called AP Films in the mid 1950s. His goal was to make live action films, but in 1957 he was asked to produce a series of puppet shows called The Adventures of Twizzle for ITV company Associated Rediffusion. “I nearly vomited on the spot, I had imagined I would become a Steven Spielberg and make big movies and suddenly here I am making puppet films.” Anderson’s ventures into live action film and television would never be as successful as his puppet productions.
After making a series called Torchy the Battery Boy (1960), AP Films created a new puppet series, Four Feather Falls (1960), in a converted warehouse on the Slough Trading Estate. These series were the first to use electronic lip synch, which made the puppets’ mouths open and close in time to dialogue. Gerry Anderson called this technique ‘Supermarionation’.
“My shows had a look of their own and I was beginning to think they were pretty damn good. I took the word Super, marionette and animation, strung them together to produce ‘Supermarionation’, I thought it would separate [my shows] out from the ordinary puppet shows. But I have to say I did it slightly tongue in cheek. It really amazes me when people will say ‘oh that was made in ‘Supermarionation’’ as if it was some sort of secret process.”
Although Anderson’s puppets were sophisticated, the major stumbling block was making them walk convincingly. Anderson’s next series Supercar in 1961 tackled this by creating a futuristic craft for his characters to pilot.
From this point on his series featured more and more science fiction devices and fantastic vehicles to move his slow moving heroes around.
“I used to read anything to do with machinery, aircraft, submarines and I thought a show about rescuing people would be a good idea. To make the show interesting, these people ought to be equipped with the most amazing machines, and if they’re equipped with these amazing machines, obviously spies from major military countries would try to get the secrets. Therefore, we’ll hide [them] on an uncharted island in the Pacific.”
If you’ve visited the Museum, you may have spotted some of Anderson’s heroes on display in TV Heaven. Studio standard replicas of Thunderbirds’ Scott Tracy and Brains, and Captain Scarlet, are on display alongside other characters from the history of British Television, but we also have some original Gerry Anderson puppets in the National Television Collection.
Not on display, but in the Collection, we have a robot puppet from Thunderbirds.
In this contact sheet frame, also from the Daily Herald Archive, you can see Thunderbirds Peter Hayward and other puppet makers at work at at AP Film Studios in Slough.
The importance and impact of Thunderbirds is illustrated by the fact that all four museums in the Science Museum Group – National Media Museum (Bradford), Science Museum (London), National Railway Museum (York), and Museum of Science and Industry (Manchester) – hold Thunderbirds items within their collections.
This nameplate and badge belong to the National Railway Museum collection. Up until 2011, Virgin Trains had a fleet of rescue trains named after characters from Thunderbirds.
These scale models were specially commissioned by the Museum of Science and Industry and are held in their Space Collection. They were created by model maker Martin Bower in 1991 when the BBC relaunched Thunderbirds.
In the 1960s, Dinky Toys, owned by Meccano Ltd beat rivals Corgi Toys to the signing of a lucrative licensing deal with Gerry Anderson’s new Century 21 Productions company.
This Dinky toy from 1973 is part of the Science Museum Toy Collection.
Finally, in 1970, Gerry Anderson accomplished what he set out to do at the start of his career as his first live action series UFO was aired. UFO retained the futuristic action of Anderson’s earlier puppet series, but it ended a thirteen year career with puppets.
Thunderbirds Are Go! A CGI series made in celebration of the classic Thunderbirds came to our screens earlier this year. Made by ITV and Pukeko Pictures, a second series is reported to be imminent.
If you can’t get enough of Supermarionation, three special episodes are being made by super Thunderbirds fan Stephen La Riviere. Filming in the original Thunderbirds studio and using Supermarionation techniques, the special programmes were crowd funded to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the first episode. Once finished, they will be available to buy on DVD or Blu-Ray and you can read more about the Thunderbirds 1965 project here.