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Gerry Anderson Interview

A 1992 interview with Gerry Anderson by Nicholas Briggs (Briggs is a writer and actor, known since 2005 as the voice of the Daleks in Doctor Who)

The Anderson Files:1

TV Zone Number 33 (Aug 1992)

Earlier this year, Gerry Anderson embarked upon what many people called a 'lecture tour' but woe betide anyone Gerry catches calling his informal 'talk' a 'lecture'. Largely scripted, but with notable improvised anecdotal passages, Gerry's talk encompassed a fairly comprehensive account of his career and how it became bound up in 'Supermarionation' ... that unique form of puppetry on film which made the likes of Stingray, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet such worthy cult television.

TV Zone caught up with Gerry just after his performance at the Poole Arts Centre in Dorset. Here, he discusses his career and expresses his views on the television and film industry. He' s suffering from the good old common cold and a touch of fatigue, but nevertheless he rises to the TV Zone challenge, first touching on the origins of his stage show.

"It was written by Simon Archer, who in fact writes the magazine Century 21, which deals with yours truly," he chuckles, "and I got to know him through that. But the reason he wrote the talk was because he was doing a biography, so we combined the tour with the book. He did something like 14 hours of interviewing.

"Quite honestly I sort of imagined myself walking into Women's Institutes, doing an hour's chat and saying, 'Lovely meeting you all and goodbye'. Then of course we had the old photographs... and, 'You know, a couple of video clips would be a good idea...' And it grew until really about three weeks before the tour started, it scared the hell out of me!"

My Kind of Work

Through virtually all the series he cocreated/created and worked on, Gerry was credited as 'producer'. Does this means he was an aloof finance man, or was his producer's technique more 'hands on'?

"Apart from the programme I'm doing at the moment, the cartoon series thing made in Russia, where I'm executive producer - I mean that show has its own director, Phil Littler, and its own producer, Bob McKie - I've always done everything 'hands on'. I find it almost impossible to delegate. Not because I'm not a delegater, but... if you look at television or cinema in this country, there are a lot of very very talented and very very clever people, but having said that, to try and find somebody who understands my kind of work is bloody nearly impossible.

"With writers... I can interview top writers and they really don't understand what I'm talking about. I'm a 'hands on' merchant really because I have to be."


Perhaps now we're touching on a possible definition of that inimitable 'Anderson style': Science Fiction, the hardware, the secret organization... ?

"I certainly didn't consciously develop it. I don't think I've ever done anything consciously in my life, actually. My life has been steered right from the word go by others. In as much as, for instance, I can't remotely be described as an economist, but I would dearly love to make some dramatized stories which would illustrate how the economy works... but there' s no way I could. If I went to a broadcaster and said I want to make that kind of film, they'd laugh. So I just know I've got to go in and say, 'I've got a film which is Science Fiction' and then they all sit up and listen.

"I've come to accept it now. I enjoy Science Fiction, don' t get me wrong, but I think we all tend to suffer from pigeon-holing. It's a shame...'

Back in search of the 'Anderson style'

"I kind of fell into puppets because I was hungry. They were dreadful things that could do really nothing, so we developed, developed and developed them. Eventually I reconciled myself to the fact that they were never going to be able to walk and run about, and here we were making children's films, where they want fast action, and we're really shooting with cripples, you know? So it was as simple as thinking, 'Well if we have a special car which could whiz around and do everything, we could just sit them in the car. They would appear to be moving very fast, but in fact they would just be sitting there doing nothing'. And so Supercar was born. It went on the air, and I really didn't think too much about it, then I would meet people and they'd say, 'Oh hi, Gerry. I see you're into Science Fiction now'. 'Oh, am I?' I don't think I even really knew what the hell Science Fiction was at the time.

"So from there on, of course, it was 'What's your next Science Fiction idea?'."

With the success of Supercar featuring the adventures of Mike Mercury, Midge, Doctor Beaker Popkiss and friends dashing to the rescue or fighting foreign spies - wouldn't it have been the most natural thing for ITV to commission another series of Supercar?

"No, because it was the early days of commercial television and as you probably gathered from the lecture, I've got a very high regard for Lord Lew Grade in those days, we really hadn't understood how a series could be repeated and repeated and repeated. We didn't know about such things as 'stripping' in America, where you make 65 episodes and they go out five times a week and so on.

"I remember quite clearly when we made Thunderbirds... it went on air and finished. And a little while later I read they were repeating it, and I remember thinking, 'Cheap-jacks, they're going to show it again!'. With that kind of thinking you wouldn't make a show again. Today it's all too easy to understand.'

Grade Success

Lord Lew Grade, of course, had been responsible for commissioning Gerry's puppet series.

"I had a very good relationship with him, but he was a very, very busy guy. He was running two TV stations, theatres, 'musac'... He was involved in hotels at one time. It was such a huge, huge organisation. I never knew him socially and our meetings were always half an hour or perhaps a brief telephone call. He didn't really have too much to say. He would say in his own particular way, 'Get a move on with the shows'. But he was very much 'hands off' , which was very nice. When I left Lew and went out on my own I realized just how difficult it was [without someone like him]. "

When something is successful, and there is no doubt Thunderbirds is certainly the most famous - a probably most successful - Anderson series, people always want to define the winning formula. How does Gerry account for the success of, for example, Thunderbirds? Why is it the one everyone remembers?

"I'll make a forecast, and that is, if they show Captain Scarlet again, I don' t think the audience will be as big as Thunderbirds, but it will be nearly as big. Those two shows both had a very strong following.

"I think it was because it was an hour long, so we were able to develop the characters. I mean, if you're going to worry about 'Are they going to save Fred or aren't they?' first of all you've got to like Fred. So we had the time to get to like Fred before we dropped him in the crap, as it were. So that was one reason. I think an hour show has a greater stature, usually goes on to a more important slot. It's looked upon as a bigger show, therefore people publicize it more. It had all the ingredients that kids love. You know... blood and guts and death and destruction, and yet it wasn't gratuitous violence, it was a story of saving life. So I think it had parental endorsement. It had fascinating machines, and of course very very good special effects and lovely characters."

Scarlet Format

So, following that argument, why didn't Captain Scarlet adopt the hour long format? "Thunderbirds started its life as a half hour. It was pumped up to an hour. And when we'd finished the 32 episodes, we then, for America, had to split it all down into half hours again. So there were 64 half hour two-parters. And the truth of the matter is that when it comes to finding available slots around the world, there are far many more half hour slots than there are one hour slots. The half hours are favoured by distributors, because it's easier to sell."

When TV Zone spoke to BBC effects man Peter Wragg [TV Zone Special #3] about his days on Thunderbirds, he spoke of shot quotas. Gerry explains his approach to the work. Did he crack the whip?

"I'm not a Mr Moneybags producer. Why am I a producer? Because when I came into the industry I didn't know what to call myself, so I called myself a producer. Maybe I should have used another title. I'm really a creative producer. And I'm very hot on keeping times and budgets, but not because I've got an accountant's mind, but because I want to stay in business and make more films. And if you just say, 'To hell with the budget and I don't care!' . well, you really are very lucky if you get another show to follow..."

Gerry Anderson talks in more detail about his other shows, including UFO and Space 1999, in the next issue of TV Zone.

Nicholas Briggs

The Anderson Files:2

TV Zone Number 34 (Sept 1992); p24-27

Following on from his point, last issue, about delivering a show within its budget, Gerry Anderson continues to give insights into his career and his forthright views on the film and television industry. "If you keep on schedule, that does tend to mean that all the money's going up on screen. If you drop behind schedule, you've got a lot of departments that start working three- quarters time [higher rates of pay], like cutting rooms, dubbing, editing, set building and so on. And then of course the costs go up, and if costs go up the money goes down the drain instead of on the screen.

"And if you care about what you're producing, you really want to get die last ounce of the money on the screen and not waste it. It' s not redly an accountancy approach that made me like that, it's just that I wanted to achieve as much as possible on the screen - and that meant very, very tight budgetary control."

Total Involvement

Was it this that necessitated his being involved in every level of production?

"I answer this very, very carefully. We and Christopher Burr had some 200 people on the payroll. We had some very, very clever people, and no, I didn't invent everything, and no, I didn't do everything. But in terms of either controlling people or inspiring people - which is extremely important in my view... I mean the difference between an inspired film unit and a unit that's just flogging along is the difference between a wonderful series and a very ordinary series - I really was involved in everything.

"I believed that everything was important, so I would involve myself in everything. I mean, just everything... from the initial storyline conference, to meticulously reading the scripts - even though we had script editors, I would finally go through it myself - visiting the floor to do a sort of 'Well done' and 'What a great shot', which is all part of keeping enthusiasm up..."

Video Assist

One part of Gerry's work was the invention of the 'Video Assist' technique for film-making, whereby a video camera is mounted with the film camera so that others on the set can .see on a monitor what is being shot. It was a development from using mirrors for the puppeteers to what their puppets were doing!

"When they were in the gantry overhead and I was directing, I would look through the camera and I would say, 'Okay, Torchy look to his right, and get him to look at the girl on the swing'. And of course all the puppeteer could see was the top of the puppet's head. If the puppet had a parting, for instance, I would tell them when it was looking at the character, and the puppeteers would take a sight line [using the parting]. Of course, characters were looking past each other... And one day, somebody came in with an industrial video camera and demonstrated it, and I suddenly thought, you know, 'What a marvellous idea'."

The camera was set up to look through the film camera's viewfinder, so the puppeteers could see the results of their labours, giving the characters accurate eye-lines.

Voices and Scripts

From puppets to voices... "This was something I always, always used to direct myself. We used to pre-record the dialogue and play it back on the floor over speakers, and the puppeteers would mime their puppets to the voice. Our scripts were very, very detailed. They would say 'Cut to close-up Tex Tucker' and he would speak a line. 'Cut to two-shot' two more lines, 'Cut to wide angle'... I mean they were literally cut actually in the scripts, because it was so painstaking getting the shot. In live action you do a whole scene in long-shot, then you start knocking off all the close- ups. We had to just shoot the bit required.

"I knew the scripts very, very well. When we recorded the dialogue, I was able to say, 'The aircraft is flying out of control. You've got to be shouting over the engine noise'... and so on. So in terms of projecting the voice, expressing the right degree of excitement and so on, I had to direct them. Otherwise when the films were finished, people would be saying things in conversational tone, and the other guy is sixty feet away, or chatting in a crashing aircraft to screaming engines and explosions. I directed meticulously every single picture we ever made."

Puppet Faces

What about the appearance of the puppets? Their facial characteristics... Were they based on particular people?

"I mean, you get an awful lot of codswallop spoken about these things. People sort of imagine things over the years. I mean, our puppets - and I don't say this in a derogatory sense - our puppets were... the girls were wonderful looking... the guys were tremendously handsome. We had a lot of clever girls and guys who used to sculpt the heads. And so they would come into a meeting. You're going to create a new character... You say. 'We want a really good-looking guy, athletic, a sense of fun in his face. One of these guys who always has a smile regardless of what's happening'. Sooner or later, somebody in the meeting will say, 'You mean, something like James Garner?'. You say. 'Yeah, that sort of thing.' Now the puppeteers might have gone away and that might have influenced them. They might have actually got Spotlight [the actors's directory] and turned the pages and actually copied a face. But in general I'm sure most of the puppets were just copied from other faces, possibly just members of the unit."

The next step was the casting...

"You have a clay head which has been painted, so you can make some kind of a judgement. And you now hold auditions. You go around with a head and show them all. In life you get the most peculiar voices from people that you don't expect to get. A big burly bloke with a squeaky voice, a tiny bloke with a gravel voice... So you can get some surprising results. It really was just a question of listening and. for whatever reason, saying, 'That sounds good'. But I'm sure that if Scott Tracy had had a Scottish accent, it would have been just as successful. Who's to say?"


Was it a relief or just a change to leave puppets behind and work with 'live' actors on UFO and Space: 1999.

"I had mixed feelings about it. It was lovely to move into a real film studio with big sounds stages and big sets. But then you are suddenly confronted with booze, drugs, people not turning up. and people being smashed out of their minds when you're trying to shoot. Questions like. 'What is my motivation? Why have you given me a yellow telephone? Is there some special significance to this?'. It got to the point where I very quickly thought, 'I don't know. Six of one and half a dozen of the other!'''

UFO 1999

Gerry's lecture briefly touches on the transformation from UFO to Space: 1999. Here he elaborates:

"We had to do a lot of redesigning and a lot of redevelopment. In principle, we did start to remake UFO and we did switch it to a new series. We were actually making another UFO. We certainly had a script. The design departments were all drawing up the new craft, the new Moonbase and all the rest of it, and then the brakes were put on. It was going to be revamped in terms of taking it one stage further. It wasn't going to be a different show. The Moonbase was now going to be very much larger. I mean, the Moonbase on Space: 1999. the exterior, was already designed as the UFO base. Then it suddenly occurred to me. 'Nobody's seen this. How would they possibly know?'. But of course there was a huge amount of redesigning and an awful lot of upheaval... and the whole thing was very disruptive, but it did save the show."

Gerry has some mixed feelings about Space: 1999: "Bearing in mind the legal position of slander, let me express this very carefully. We were told by the New York office - I'm not referring to any specific person - that we must get Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, because if we got them, that would mean network [nationwide screening] instantly. Well we got them, and we didn't get network. The New York office having recommended that if we had these two people we would get network. Lew [Grade] made this huge investment. Of course, they weren't big enough to take the blame themselves, so they had to put the blame somewhere else. They had a lot of power, because they were distributing in the biggest territory in the world. And then when it came to the next series, they introduced the new member of the cast. They had this bloody silly idea of Maya turning into different creatures. I mean if we could have done it with 'morphing' [a state-of-the-art transformation computer effect] fine, but that wasn't possible at the time. The scripts became very juvenile. For me - I mean. I've met people who prefer the second series - but for me the first series was infinitely better, and the second series was down-graded and almost 'comic cuts'."

During these problems, had Gerry every thought. 'Why don't I do Thunderbirds again'? He laughs, "All the time..."

He goes on to explain that the series belongs to ITC America, speculating that they might bring Thunderbirds back as. possibly, a live-action movie. But Gerry stresses that this is not an informed insight.


Asked about the positive things he's learned over the years. Gerry confesses it's easier to relate the negative aspects. After some thought, he says, "If we're talking about a perfect world, I would like to. probably, eliminate 91% of the people who control stations, who make this false claim that they understand what the public want... I think the decisions about what should be made should be in the hands of the film-makers and not the broadcasters."

"Obviously there are broadcasters who do know what the public want," he adds, diplomatically.

As for his best memory of Thunderbirds. the series for which he is largely remembered by the largest number of people? "Probably when I took the pilot film to Lew Grade. When the lights went up and his reaction to that... That was probably the best moment."

Nicholas Briggs