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Sylvia Anderson Interview

Sylvia Anderson Living in the future

Time Screen 18 (1992), p15-19. Extract of an interview with Steven Turner.

First screened in 1970, U.F.O. did not match the success of earlier Anderson productions. In Britain, scheduling policy was partly to blame as the ITV companies appeared to have little idea how to treat the series. Many stations considered it family entertainment, and were then forced to withdraw certain episodes while in the London area the series was held back until 1971. Unfavourable press reaction added to the show's problems, although Sylvia admits sone of the criticism may have been justified, particularly regarding some of the scripting.

"You've got to in mind that when you're doing a series you haven't got the luxury of a movie schedule. You've got to keep going, and you can't always use the best scripts because of the pressure of time. So what usually happens is that you have some episodes that are better than others. Sometimes the directors would complain, and I'd tell them to try and come up with an idea. But it's one thing having a script and saying "I don 't like this" and "I don 't like that", but when you have to sit down with a blank page and come up with something, it doesn't necessarily follow that they can do any better. "

In America U.F.O. had slightly better scheduling and viewers were initially more receptive. Due to the positive reaction a second season almost went into production, but when ratings started to slip pre—production work which would have seen action transferred to the moon, was carried through to a completely new series. The new series also developed a feature of later episodes of U.F.O., the relationship between Ed Straker and Colonel Virginia Lake, in Its central characters. In Space: 1999, Sylvia's first show as credited producer, the main characters were for the first time a couple, and this brought an entirely new angle to the concept of science fiction television. Instead of being independent figure, John Koenig was involved in a complex emotional relationship. But, for Sylvia, this relationship was compromised from the start due to the casting of the lead roles.

"We were interviewing lots of actors to play the leads when we got a call from Lew Grade saying we really needed someone that was very well known, like Mission: Impossible people. I wanted Robert Culp. We met him. He was quite outrageous, but he would have given the series a very interesting angle, He would not have been the stereotyped hero; he would have been scared at tines, he would have made the wrong decisions. But we had to cast Barbara Bain and Martin Landau, whom I freely admit I did not want. I battled very hard and stood up to Lew Grade and said "1 don't think they're right. They were okay in n**sror: but having seen then, I don't think we're going to get what we should get. But he said that they were very popular in Mission: Impossible, and that they were a good commercial bet, and that was that."

Having finalised the casting and started production, the Andersons and Grade then found themselves the victims of personnel changes in the network they were planning to sell the series to.

"The person that was going to buy it for the network left the network, so all the casting was really in vain. It was through him that we did it, and Lew Grade quite rightly had to go by that. But by the time weld finished the first episode the man had gone and the people coming in didn't want to inherit his decisions. So we actually had Martin Landau and Barbara Bain for no reason. I mean, I 'm not saying they were bad, I just think they could have been so much better. Further problems then arose when Grade 's Italian production partners became more actively involved.

"At that time Lew Grade was trying to break away from constantly having to deal with the Americans, and he quite rightly looked to Europe for commercial input. But the Italians were very slow at putting in the money. We'd actually shot six or seven episodes before there was any Italian finance. We hosted a luncheon here at Pinewood for the people from RAI, and after that some money appeared. Then Lew Grade rang me up and said he wanted me on the first plane to Rome with the casting director to get some Italian influence in the cast. So I rushed off to Rome and found some marvellous actors, but then I had a run in with Martin Landau because he'd been holding the fort until then. Eventually I got my way and cast people like Giancarlo Prette who treated it all with great humour, but they always knew they had to walk three paces behind Martin Landau."

In Sylvia's view, Martin Landau's attitude to his character was one of major faults, and even affected other cast regulars. "I remember one particular instance where Nick Tate was supposed to be giving an order, but Martin told me that he was the commander and that he should be giving the order. I said "Yes, but you're somewhere else and he's taken over". We argued and argued, and in the end Gerry and Lew agreed with him, and I had to give in. Nick Tate again had to walk three paces behind Martin Landau. In U.F.O. you had a conflict that gave the series an edge. You didn't have that with Space: 1999 because Koenig took all the lines and all the decisions. Other people were relegated to nothing. I think we had a marvellous opportunity, it looked good, but I think you underrate the audience's intelligence when you have a commander who's always right."

The creative and personal conflicts which marred the production of Space: 1999 also contributed to the break-up of the Andersons' already shaky marriage. By the time work started on the second season the couple had split up.

"By the time the second season happened, Gerry and I had separated, and they brought in this American, Fred Frelberger. Personally, trying not to be sour grapes about this, I just thought it became very silly. I looked at it and thought, "Do I really want my name on this?"

Space: 1999 marked the end of a creative partnership which had taken the Andersons from the obscurity of primitive children's puppets to peak-time international co-productions. Since then Gerry Anderson has continued to create new programmes using the same formula, although none has yet made the same impact as the productions he and Sylvia created together. After working for some time as an independent producer, Sylvia Anderson returned to writing and produced Love And Hisses, a novel told in diary form running world events in parallel with the story of an advertising woman's life during the Seventies. Sylvia was then offered a position with the Hone Box Office cable channel, and since the mid—Eighties has been with the company as production consultant and British representative. With the recent revival of interest in Thunderbirds, she is also back in the public eye, and after a decade during which Gerry Anderson has acquired a cult following, she has brought out Yes M'Lady, her story of the creation of Thunderbirds. Named after the catchphrase of the show's surprise favourite, Parker, the book captures the excitement of working on one of the Sixties' most successful and popular television programme and gives a new generation of viewers the chance to appreciate her input to one of British television's most enduring productions.