The Catacombs Catacombs Credits Guide
Keith Wilson interview

Interview by Chris Bentley for FAB magazine; available from Fanderson
Space: 1999 copyright Granada Ventures
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Thanks to Paulo Jorge Morgado for scanning this article.
Part One: Fireball to Year 1 Part Two: Year 2 and after

DESIGNING THE FUTURE part 2

FAB: What was your brief on the sets for Year Two? Presumably you were told to scale things down.

KEITH WILSON: Yes, I was told I had to do that, I was told it had to be much smaller. I don't know why actually. The set was standing there, we could just as easily have made use of it instead of taking it down and making it smaller, but my memory fails me as to why it had to be done. I think it was an American decision. I don't believe it was Gerry's or mine. It may have been Freddie Freiberger, I suppose. That's where the influence came from.

Would it have been too expensive to make sets the size of Main Mission for Year Two?

Not really, because the set was there. It was all pieces, it just locked together, and it was very easy to put it up, But I went along with the decision - I had no choice. So it all became much smaller and lost its individuality I think. It just became like all the other shows.

In Tim Heald's book "The Making Of Space: 1999", there is a plan of the layout of L stage from Year Two, where the sets all inter-link. It's like a real base, laid out in the confines of the soundstage.

For the first series, we never built the sets like that unless we had to for example, if the camera had to go from one area to another, from the Medical Centre, down the corridor, in through the solarium, into the main control room. We did more of that on the second series, by joining the sets up, so the camera could go right the way through and you'd get a continuity of movement. I don't remember the drawing maybe it was done for a particular purpose, but it does show what was so good about that system. The sets were smaller, but you could get more sets on the stage.

You seemed to be able to do a lot more location filming on YearTwo.

Well, we tried to get outside a couple of times. Invariably, it was to give me time to get something else ready. In the script, it would say "Planet Surface" and during our script discussions, I would say "Look, I've got to build the interior of a spaceship, I've got to do the interior of this, how am I going to do this as well? I've only got the one stage, how can I get it all on one stage?" And they said "Well, we could make it an Earth-type situation, which means we can go outside," which gave me time to get the other sets ready. That was probably the only reason why we went outside.

But you did actually construct some sets outside, like the building in A Matter Of Balance. Is it more of a challenge having to deal with the elements, or is it pretty much the same kind of thing as you find working in the studio?

Pretty much, but there are obvious restrictions. You can do optical things to the sky in camera or post production, but grass and trees are grass and trees. There's not much I can do to them, so it's just a matter of putting what I do amongst that environment and hoping it looks believable. I didn't actually like going outside very much. When all the planet surfaces were done on the stage, you believed it. Because it had a strange look about it, you just accepted it. You had nothing to compare it with, It had a total look. As soon as you went outside that, to me you never accepted it. I think taking it outside probably took away that strangeness.

On the second series, there were at least four occasions when two episodes were shot simultaneously: Martin Landau would be in one, and Barbara Bain would be in another.

You're absolutely right. It didn't happen too often, if I remember correctly. But it had its own problems. Scripts had to be tailored to accommodate Martin or Barbara. He was in one and she was in the other and he'd pop into her episode and she'd pop into his. Do you know, I'd totally forgotten that we did that.

That must have made it...

A nightmare!

... more complicated.

It was a nightmare. That's when I had more say, because it had to work and it had to work quickly. If I was given a script that Barbara was in and Martin was in another one and I had a large number of new sets to come up with, I just couldn't do it. I had to even it out so that I didn't starve. So you'd get an episode that was very much set in Moonbase Alpha, and you'd get an episode that was outside. That was another reason why we went outside. But no, I didn't like it.

It must have been a similar situation on the puppet series, with two episodes shooting simultaneously.

Yes, that's absolutely right, it was. But it was much smaller. I could assemble the set myself. They were all a third scale, they were only about four feet tall, so it was very easy to take down the set and put up another one, They were all made so one man could build them, and dress them. But obviously Space was much bigger, and much more difficult.

Some of the episodes towards the end of the series tend to look as if they were done 'on the cheap, as it were - as if the money had run out. Was this a consideration when you were designing something - say, if one episode needed more money spending on it, you'd cut back somewhere else?

Well, because we worked that far ahead, I was able to look at the scripts well in advance and say to Gerry "I'm going to have to spend some money on this one, It's got to be a planet surface or a spaceship or whatever and it's going to be expensive. We really need an episode that we're not going to spend much money on." We would balance it like that.

We spent a lot of money at the beginning building Moonbase Alpha, the modular system. It was very expensive, but it was made to last. Then I covered the whole stage floor in cushioned vinyl flooring.

Nobody had ever done that before, or built all these surfaces that you could wash. You didn't have to repaint it, you could just wash it. They took a lot of building, but it paid off. I saved a lot of time in the end by building sets out of it. But I couldn't build big new sets every week, I had to have maybe a small set, the interior of a spaceship, which I could knock up quickly.

Once the set is finished, ready to shoot, I tend to walk out of it, because a film crew comes along and they destroy it. They've got no consideration for the people that put it together, and worked hard. Crews do not have any consideration at all. They sit on my furniture, they put cigarettes out on the floor, they say, "Take that all-out there, put a camera in there, take that off, get the lights in," and before you know it they've demolished it. So from that point on, I tend to lose a little bit of interest in the actual set.

Between seasons of Space: 1999 you worked on the series Star Maidens.

I know nothing about it.

Produced at Bray Studios in 1976?

1 was really hoping you weren't going to bring this up.

Well, everybody remembers it, it's not available on video, it's not been shown since and we want to know all about it.

I don't think I'm going to tell you.

Oh, go on.

It was a nightmare, to be quite honest, an absolute nightmare. They were trying to make a Gerry Anderson show, if you like, and they really didn't have the resources or the interest to do it properly. It was just a very bad show. The scripts were bad, everything about it was bad and I don't want to talk about it really! It wasn't a very happy experience, because it didn't have the atmosphere of Space,

How long were you on it?

It must have only been one season, because then we went back and did Year Two of Space. Luckily I was available to do the second series, I actually remember very little about Star Maidens because it was so awful and I don't really Mnt to be connected with it! What can I say?

It actually had some quite heavyweight acting talent in it, like Dawn Addams and Judy Geeson,

It certainly did. I think I took all the people I had on Space with me onto the series. It was very nice to work at Bray Studios, because it's just up the road from where I live. Now it's coming back to me. I did all the costumes and the make-up on this as well, but something I didn't like about it was the fact that there were German influences. There was some German money involved and we'd get directors in from Germany that really didn't know what we were doing and could hardly speak the language - there was a lot of friction. But again, it doesn't matter what I do, what it all boils down to in the end is the script work. It doesn't matter how fabulous it looks, if the script's no good, the show's no good.

What did you move onto after Space: 1999 finished?

Well, of course I did The New Avengers after that, but I only did the last series. I was finishing off Space: 1999 when The New Avengers was set up. Bob Bell designed the first series and then they came to do the second series. I'd met quite a few directors working on Space, people like Ray Austin, who I'm very good friends with. He used to live across the road from me here, but now he's in America. One day, he said to me, "We're going to do another series of The New Avengers. Would you be interested in doing it? I like your sets very much, they're imaginative."

So he was the influence in getting me involved in The New Avengers, but, of course, it provided me with a terrible problem. Bob wasn't that happy that I'd taken over what would, under other circumstances, been his job on Space:1999, and then he heard I'd been offered The New Avengers and it really looked like I was knocking him out of the way. I wasn't, it was just the way it looked. However, I wasn't going to turn down a major television series like The New Avengers, especially as the previous designer wasn't being offered the second season anyway, but it looked like I'd crawled underneath and got it, and it really wasn't like that. It was rather sad, because Bob was like a father to me: I came all the way through the business with him and we nearly fell out.

So I went on and did the last series of The New Avengers. Then I had this brief encounter with Gerry again, with Five Star Five, which never really got past the designing stage. David Lane was working on that as well and I think that was the last time I did science fiction. Then my career went in all sorts of different directions. I was in the theatre and I worked on films that I really enjoyed doing, Not that I didn't enjoy doing Space, I just liked doing other things by this stage.

The first big thing I did was A Man Called Intrepid, which was a World War 11 thing with Michael York and David Niven. Then I did International Velvet with Bryan Forbes which was my first feature film - a Royal Premiere - and I think it was the last big MGM film that was made in England. So by this time I was going in totally different directions, areas that I know nothing about, like horses. International Velvet was all about horses, three day eventing, and I knew nothing about it. It was a nice film and I became very good friends with Bryan Forbes and Nannette Newman. I actually worked with Anthony Hopkins twice. He was in International Velvet and then about six years ago I did Great Expectations, and he was in that too.

So I then went on and started to do more 7 things like that. I did Memoirs Of A Survivor with Julie Christie, based on the book by Doris Lessing. I suppose that was almost science fiction, it was certainly very strange. It's probably the only thing I've ever worked on where I actually didn't know what I was doing and nobody else did either. Nobody knew what the script was about, so you read the book and you certainly didn't know what it was about if you read the book. The script just confused you even more, so I was having to do things when really I didn't know why I was doing them. For example, you go into a room with giant elves. Why? And people can walk through walls. Why? You never know, it's never explained to you. But it was fun. I enjoyed doing it because it was strange.

From then on, I've worked a great deal abroad. One of my greatest friends is Kevin Connor who did The Land That Time Forgot and Warlords Of Atlantis. I met him when he was directing Space: 1999 - he did two episodes and we really got on well. Since then I've done eleven films with him and in fact the last film I did was with him, and we've become extremely good friends. He lives in America now, but anything he does outside America, I do it for him. I did Great Expectations for him, last year we did The Old Curiosity Shop, and I have to say, this is the stuff I really enjoy doing. To do Dickens really is wonderful.

Do you have to do a lot of research for those kinds of projects?

Yes, of course. Anything that I work on, I research it. I have to. But I grew up with Dickens. I lived in the town where Dickens lived. My Grandmother's house was next door to the house where Dickens grew up. When we did Great Expectations, I took it back to the town where he lived, and where I lived, and we did it in the streets in Rochester where it was meant to take place anyway. A lot of the actual buildings he wrote about are still there. So it was fun for me to go back to Kent to do Great Expectations.

This is the sort of work I do now, this type of film for America. They're usually television films for The Disney Channel, which we're just about to get here, so you might start seeing some of the stuff I've been doing over the last few years. The thing I've just finished in Amsterdam which will probably be on here quite soon is called The River Riders, which is rather a nice story with Paul Schofield in it, Again, that was for Disney. But you can see by looking at it, that my style has changed,

Your work for the Dickens films is so detailed, so rich and textured, compared with the rather spartan approach on Space: 1999. Your designs on Space: 1999 are very geometric -a lot of flat panels with circles cut out of them and that sort of thing:

Well, I suppose a lot of that is what I was into at the time, so Star Maidens tended to look very much the same. I was amazed to see that you'd printed some of my very, very early drawings from Space in the "Design File" book. I'd forgotten about them, but I'll tell you a story about those drawings. They were in black and white originally and they were quite basic. They were sent to Abe Mandell and some secretary coloured them in, and I mean badly: all pink, yellow and green - it ruined the drawings. Of course, my. original concept for Space was to take out as much colour as possible. It was a clinical, controlled environment, so no colour. That was why it was all cream and beige, so that when you went onto a planet surface, I could do what I liked with colour. And looking at the show again, it worked. It really did.

Looking at your career to date as a whole, you've now been working outside the Anderson fold for twice as long as you were in it. Looking back on it now, how important was that experience for you?

I don't know really. Working for Gerry was very important to me and for a lot of other people that were starting in the industry - we learnt the business. When I went there, I knew nothing about it. When I left Gerry, I was equipped to work on any other series or film. We may have worked in miniature, but the principles were exactly the same. You're still using lenses, you're still using lights, you still had all the same elements to make whatever type of show it was, so it set us all up and taught us how to make movies. Though I don't do that type of work any more, if I was approached, I could, and I would probably enjoy doing a one-off, say if Gerry asked me to do a Thunderbirds movie. He won't, and I probably wouldn't do it anyway, but it's a nice idea, isn't it?

Working for Gerry, the fact that you had everything close together was a big factor. I could go - and did, particularly at the beginning - into the cutting room at the end of the day and watch Alan Pattillo edit. So I learnt about editing. If you wanted to learn, you could learn, it was all there. And I learnt about special effects and cameras and all those different areas. We were all together, but nowadays, you don't know where the film that you're working on is being edited. It could be miles away. And the special effects are done at another studio.

Are you still in contact with anybody that you were working with at the time, either socially or professionally?

Yes, of course, I made life-long friends there. Des Saunders is probably the one I've kept in touch with most. He is one of my oldest friends and he worked on all the shows like I did. The only one he didn't do was Fireball. I first met him on Stingray - he was a director on Stingray, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet, but then he went into production.

I actually bumped into Alan Perry earlier this year, up at Yorkshire Television. I hadn't seen him for years, I've kept in touch with Ken Turner. He actually directed the Joe 90 episode Lone-Handed 90. He started in the art department working for me at one time, like a lot of them did. Many of them then went into special effects, Bill Camp for example, but Ken went into directing and he formed a film company called Clearwater Films. I then worked for hirn! I was their resident designer for two years, They specialise in stop-frame.

And, of course, Derek Meddings. He was a great friend of mine and because he didn't live far from me, he used to bring me to work and we were late every single day - but I was the one who used to get into trouble! Reg Hill was always taking me into the office and telling me off for being late but it was never my fault, it was all Derek's fault! I'd known Derek for a great many years and I'm very sad that he died.

I'd like to take this opportunity to say something about him. I happen to think he was one of the greatest special effects influences, not only in this country, but in the world. If you look at his career, he did things that had never been done before. He made miniature special effects legitimate. When he got his Oscar for Superman The Movie, that was really something. I was so happy, I cannot tell you a friend of mine had actually got an Oscar for his work on Superman.

So Derek has always been a great hero of mine, and always will be, and I miss him terribly. He saved the film industry, to a degree. Derek actually made it OK for people to think about doing shots with models. When you look at his work on the Bond films, you never know which shots are models and which are real. He was so good at it. He really was the best.

For a long time, when we were working with Gerry, we all played together as well. We were all very close, and all our social life was together. There was one point, I think when we were doing Thunderbirds, and four of us had a house in Cookham. There was myself, Ian Wingrove, Ian Scoones and Brian Lofthouse, and we had an amazing time. We lived not far from the studios, we all came into work together and we were always having parties. We'd invite everyone - the whole studio would come. We'd have costume parties, and people still talk about them twenty-five years later. The whole environment was a kind of party atmosphere, it was a fun atmosphere, so not only did we work together, we played together as well.

Our people pop up all over the place. If you look at the crew list for Alien, the little creature that comes out of John Hurt's stomach was made by Roger Dicken. He was one of our boys as well. Roger was always at our house in Cookham - he virtually lived theme He-was an extraordinary fellow. He looked like a rocker, all leather and black hair, a bit of a teddy boy to look at, but incredibly clever. He didn't drink, he didn't smoke, he'd come to our parties - our parties were exceptional because of the sort of atmosphere we created, and our costume parties were unbelievable. Roger was so involved in this type of thing, he would change costumes throughout the party, and at twelve o'clock at one particular party, he appeared as Frankenstein's monster. He'd spent hours building his head up with lard! Unbelievable makeup, and this is what he was like, his whole thinking involved monsters and creatures and aliens.

Has film-making changed significantly since your time on the Anderson shows?

Yes, I think it has. It's all done by accountants now. It's much harder to be creative. Occasionally you get it, like on these Dickens things. I'm given a lot of time to design it, and they know it's important to get the look right before they go on with it. So, I didn't used to get that luxury before, but I do now. But apart from that, everything else is all about money. Very little is about creative input.

Of all the work you have done to date, what are you most proud of?

Well, Space: 1999 was one of my greatest achievements, because it was new and fresh and different. I think at the time it was an achievement to do, to try to getaway from StarTrek and to try and give it a sophistication, a really slick, science fiction look that hadn't been seen before. I suppose the nearest to it were the sets on 2001: A Space Odyssey. A lot of perspex, a lot of white, all smooth shiny surfaces. But I didn't have that sort of money. I had very little compared with 2001, but we still did it, we still came up with a look. To me that was an achievement. To be able to do it for the sort of money we had, and still give it the quality that something like 2001 had, but had multi-millions to do it with. I think the art of my job is to achieve that, so that people don't think that it's cheap. It's still got to look fabulous, and if it does, then I've done my job. So I suppose Space was one of the most rewarding - not necessarily the most enjoyable, but certainly the most rewarding.

It you think about it, when you look at Aliens, and all those kinds of films that came after us, you can see the influence that we had. Of course, Stanley Kubrick had influence with 2001: A Space Odyssey but while they were making it he used to tell people every week, "Watch Thunderbirds," which is incredible really. I'm finding it extraordinary seeing Space again, because I haven't seen it for years and years, and I'm enjoying it very much.

I was watching a episode of Space last week with a young friend of mine who never knew the series because he's too young to remember it. Now, if you look behind Koenig or Alan when they're in the Eagle cockpit, there's a white grill behind them on the wall, like a ventilation grill, and I told him it was a bathroom soap rack. He was absolutely amazed. This is how we worked, and this is how I was trained working with Bob Bell. We were trained to look at things in a different way. So the caps from toothpaste tubes became knobs on computers, and things like plastic soap dishes would get turned around, sprayed, and become something else.

The things I do now, the Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop and all that, I love doing. I get such pleasure from it because, again, it has to be designed. Before anyone can do anything, they need to know what I'm going to do, so I produce drawings and everyone knows what the sets are going to look like. I get a great kick out of it. But at the time, Space was a great achievement and it really was my first big job. Though I was doing Captain Scarlet, Joe 90, and I was designing all those, Space was the one I was on my own with. It was down to me, if it failed or succeeded visually.

Keith, thank you.

You're very welcome.

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