Interview with Gerry Anderson, talking to Elise Harris in 2001 for an article in What Satellite TV magazine.
Gerry Anderson is no longer surprised at how phenomenally successful Thunderbirds has been.
He told What Satellite, ‘When it went out the first time I remember seeing the end of the series and as the titles faded out I thought, well, that was very difficult to make, and it took a long time and that’s the end of it. I thought it would go into some dusty vault never to be seen again.
‘As the years went by I became more surprised, but now it’s such a classic I think there will inevitably be a feature film or a remake in the course of time’
You can catch the original Thunderbirds all over the place.
‘I think it’s going to be around for a long time.’
Anderson always wanted to make films but the puppet thing was a bit of an accident.
In 1957 he set up APfilms production company with several colleagues.
‘Today that’s no big deal but at the time there were very, very few production companies. I got together with some friends and we all put what little money we had into a pot and we started a company. We all hoped a phone would ring and someone would say ‘good morning, we want you to make a film for us.’ Of course that didn’t happen.’
Eventually they were commissioned to make a 52-part series for TV, The Adventures of Twizzle. They were so excited they said yes before they discovered it was supposed to be a puppet show.
‘I had never seen a puppet in my life - I had an idea of becoming a sort of Steven Spielberg. And there I was making puppet shows. I was very distressed about this,’ Anderson said.
‘I was so ashamed to be making these films that I tried to make the puppet films look as close to live action as possible. But instead of seeing it and asking us to make live action everyone commissioned us for more puppet shows.’
It all worked out in the end though. The company went on to make classics like Stingray, Captain Scarlet and Joe-90. He has also had success in live action series including UFO, Space 1999, The Protectors and Space Precinct. But Thunderbirds will always be the best-loved and most talked about Gerry Anderson series. He thought of the concept on the way to see legendary producer (or is that mogul) Lou Grade – APfilms had just finished working on Stingray and Anderson knew he had to think of something new quickly.
There was a prominent story in the news at the time. A mine in Germany had flooded and a massive international rescue operation was set up to search for survivors. It took weeks to reach the bottom and eventually a few miners were rescued.
Anderson set it in 2065 and brought in some ‘marvellous machines”, and named the members of the team after the first five US astronauts in space – Scott Carpenter, Virgil Grisom, Alan Shepherd, Gordon Cooper and John Glenn.
‘I knew it was going to be fearfully expensive and when I got to Lou I told him “you may not want to back this one” he turned round and pointed at the ceiling and said “Gerry, you see that lightbulb? If you wanted to make a series about that lightbulb I would back you.”
Unlike something like Star Trek, where all the shows are based in the same fictional show universe, there’s no connection between the various supermarionation series.
‘Lou Grade was selling the shows around the world and we couldn’t incorporate a character from another series because it might have been shown at a time when there was a commercial featuring that character from the other series. So all the shows had to be kept separately,’ he said.
There are many rumours as to what the famous call sign FAB means, from the obscene to the ridiculous. Some people say it relates to Lady Penelope’s training as a secret agent, alongside The Angels from Captain Scarlet – at the Federal Agents Bureau. Gerry Anderson says this is rubbish – it doesn’t stand for anything.
“I’ll tell you exactly how that came about. I was writing a sequence for the very first episode where the ground controller radioed an airman.
‘The pilot had to reply. First of all I had him saying ‘Roger message received’, which is the standard reply, then I thought 'you can’t use that in a series set 100 years in the future.'
At the time the buzz-word was ‘fabulous’ which had become shortened to Fab,
‘Of course when you write dialogue you always say it to yourself to hear how it sounds. Fab didn’t sound very good, so then I tried F-A-B and I thought, yeah great. Nothing more to it than that.’
Anderson also insists there’s no backstory explaining how Lady Penelope came to be involved with International Rescue.
‘There are various stories that are made up for the comics, but I don’t want to muddy the waters. I could make something up and say, well Jeff Tracy was a bit of a letch, and he met her...’
He discretely leaves it at that. You’ll have to fill in the gaps.
Another memorable creations is the indestructible Captain Scarlet. You might be seeing a lot more of him soon.
Anderson said, ‘We are very close to a negotiation deal whereby we’ll be able to remake Captain Scarlet, but with CGI. There are a number of projects at the moment but that’s the only one that I can reveal.’
Anderson is often asked if there any sci-fi programmes and films that have really appealed to him over the years. The answer is no. He enjoys ‘quality programming’ more.
‘You know people ask me this question and they’re generally amazed at the answer. You see the odd thing is I’m not a science fiction fan. My programmes are set in the very near future so they relate very, very strongly to today. For instance Thunderbird One is a rocket when it takes off, then it changes to horizontal flight. Well, American destroyers now launch that way. So although my stuff is set in the future it’s not really hard science fiction.
‘I watch a lot of Discovery when they have shows that involve aircraft. Not so much Discovery Wings so much as any other show that features aircraft. I like Richard Wilson of course, and the series about the lady who carves up dead bodies.
‘Yes. That’s very, very good. Like I say really any kind of programme, same as with films, as long as it’s good. But I haven’t got time to watch them.’
This interview first appeared in What Satellite TV in July 2001, and also appeared in a different form in Pojo's Pokemon magazine.