Anderson, Gerry

Tagged: Film | TV | People

(1929-2012) UK television producer and writer, born Gerald Alexander Abrahams, who worked closely with his wife Sylvia Anderson; he was also an animator and she a voice artist. They will forever be remembered for a succession of 1960s children's puppet adventure shows on television that occasionally dealt with sf themes on a far more extensive scale than contemporary adult programming. Gerry Anderson's first two series, The Adventures of Twizzle (1958) and Torchy the Battery Boy (1959), were fairly conventional 15-minute puppet shows, albeit featuring characters whose gimmicks (respectively extensible limbs and electrical Superpowers) were notionally scientific. The Western series Four Feather Falls (1960) began his run of SuperMarionation shows, its magical feathers – two of which allow the sheriff hero's guns to aim and fire at his mental command – giving it a fantastical touch. With the half-hour series Supercar (1961-1962) Anderson was joined by his wife – who would provide female voices for and write for subsequent series – and made a first large step towards the format that continued for eight years in Fireball XL5 (1962-1963), Stingray (1964-1965), Thunderbirds (1965-1966) and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967-1968). Supercar introduced many of the basic elements: a wonderful vehicle, a catchy score suitable for spin-off records, impressively designed miniature sets, a family-like regular cast with a square-jawed hero, and a (here occasional) mysterious master villain with a bumbling accomplice. The final formula added a twenty-first century setting, an ongoing struggle with evil forces, a quasi-military organization of good guys, and a more extended family with, typically, a stammering boffin, a non-weedy girl, a crusty chief and a sidekick.

Stingray was the first in colour, and introduced marginally more adult characterizations: Mike Mercury and Steve Zodiac, the heroes of Supercar and Fireball XL5, were never as bad-tempered as Troy Tempest in Stingray could be, and they would certainly never have been caught up in a three-way romance. Thunderbirds experimented with a 50-minute running time and a less confrontational plot premise – the Tracy family were rescuing innocents, not fighting Aliens as Troy Tempest had done and Captain Scarlet would do – and became perhaps the highlight of the Andersons' career, spinning off two feature films, Thunderbirds are Go (1966) and Thunderbird Six (1968), and creating a set of characters – Lady Penelope, Parker, the Hood, Brains and Jeff Tracy and his sons – who would remain identifiable enough to crop up in television commercials as late as the early 1990s, when the series was also rerun on UK television by the BBC. Captain Scarlet, returning to the half-hour format, tried for a more realistic approach by scaling down the exaggerated features of the puppets and adding a premise – spun off from Thunderbirds are Go – about a war between Earth and the Mysterons of Mars that was less clear-cut than previous conflicts insofar as Earth (admittedly by accident) was the initial aggressor. Also, the device of resurrecting dead personnel and equipment for use in battle raised the level of violence beyond the cosy destructiveness of the earlier shows. In 1994 a new Anderson live-action television production appeared on the UK channel Sky One and in syndication in the US: Space Precinct (1994-1995), described by him as a New York cop show transferred to outer space, which received a not very favourable critical reception.

Captain Scarlet was as far as the Andersons' SuperMarionation format could be stretched, and their subsequent puppet shows – Joe 90 (1968-1969) and The Secret Service (1969) – were far less successful. The first, focusing on a boy genius with programmable skills, appeared childish to audiences who had become used to the increasing maturity of each new show – who had in effect grown up with SuperMarionation. The second, using live actors alongside puppets and the sf device of reversible Miniaturization, was seen by few and cancelled mid-season.

The Andersons had already produced a live-action film, Doppelganger (1969; vt Journey to the Far Side of the Sun), by the time they determined to abandon television puppets altogether and marry their skills with miniature effects to real-life actors – who, unfortunately, were almost always accused of being as wooden as their predecessors – in UFO (1970-1973). This was a marginally more realistic rerun of Captain Scarlet with elements also of The Invaders (1967-1968), in which a secret organization tried to fight off a plague of flying saucers.

After a nondescript non-sf series, The Protectors (1972-1974), the Andersons launched on their most elaborate venture yet, Space: 1999 (1975-1977), an internationally cast and impressively mounted attempt to produce a show with both mass and cult appeal along the lines of Star Trek (1966-1969). It is frequently and not entirely without justification remembered as the worst sf series ever aired. Also in 1975, Gerry Anderson produced the abortive series pilot The Day After Tomorrow (1975; vt Into Infinity). During the run of Space: 1999 the Andersons divorced, and Gerry Anderson, who remained on the series, gradually lost control to his varied UK and US backers. Subsequently he went back to puppetry with Terrahawks (1983-1986), a feeble imitation of his 1960s triumphs, and worked extensively in commercials, some re-using characters from his earlier shows. He was made an MBE in 2001.

In their heyday, the SuperMarionation shows – which overlapped to a degree, creating a detailed twenty-first-century universe as a backdrop – gave birth to TV 21, a successful and well drawn Comic, along with Toys, Games, annuals, books and other now-valued ephemera. [KN]

see also: Television.

Gerald Alexander Abrahams

born London: 14 April 1929

died 26 December 2012

Sylvia Anderson (née Thamm)

born 25 March 1937

died

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