This week, a scant eighth of the way into the 21st century that had already been mapped out for many children – and adults – we lost a true icon of British television and film.
The hallmark of Gerry Anderson’s most famous and loved series was a setting one hundred years on. Now, at a halfway mark, we are in a unique position to see the past fifty years since series like Fireball XL5 must have opened eyes to the wonder of space, and wonder differently if now and in the next fifty years, the hope and optimism of Thunderbirds – his most human and accessible of series, speaking to every generation – is as much a fantasy as the universe of Steve Zodiac. in these dire social and economic times.
I only met Gerry once, briefly at a convention many years ago, and spoke to him on one other occasion, trying to arrange an interview for the Gerry Anderson Complete Comic History website – an interview that, unfortunately, never happened. Unlike others, I never got the chance to tell him how much his series, and particularly the comic and annual tie-ins I starting reading when only four years old (Joe 90: Top Secret), had meant, and continued to mean something and inspire well into adult life.
What that briefest of conversations confirmed is what many have already said, and probably far better. Quiet and modest, polite and gentlemanly. An incredible far cry from the action heroes he created but then, to other creatives, inspiration can also come from a quiet determination to do better, to raise the bar. Gerry’s shows did that not only for the whole British and television SF genre, but also his own. During the 1960s, each new series was technically more brilliant than the last, and tried to push the envelope. Not always successfully but at least he showed a willingness not to full into a rut.
Another strength of his was recognising talent and giving those people under him the chance to flourish, producing quality work – names like musician Barry Gray, effects expert Derek Meddings, scriptwriter and editor of TV Century 21 Alan Fennell. Names which, like Gerry himself now, are no longer with us and have left their own legacies.
It was Fennell himself, writing in the Thunderbirds Television Mail Supplement in December 1965, who perhaps put his finger on the reason for success: “All the old ‘do’s and don’ts’ of publishing had been ignored in one fell swoop. The originators asked why things could not be done… and then did them.”
Gerry Anderson was not a born maker of puppet films, it was a serendipitous event that he became involved when no other opportunities to produce were about. So his outsider approach, the question presumably being ‘Why can’t we make puppet films as well as any other?” and then doing just that, is what does make them stand out. No-one had made puppet film series with such utter conviction and daring, and, if we’re honest, no-one has ever come close to bettering them since. Which is why, close to the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of Thunderbirds, that series quite rightly lives on as the pinnacle of his success. It had real human values. It was a true family show. It put life above all else, in a world where – still evidently not learning from historic mistakes – it is sometimes placed last over commercial and political concerns.
Unfortunately, unlike the hero of his follow-up series Captain Scarlet, Gerry was not indestructible. It had been evident in recent years his health was failing. Even the heartening news that he was on the verge of making a new series of Thunderbirds could not push that to the background. As with all the most dramatic moments in his shows, the clock was ticking away…
But his legacy does live on, in every media conceivable. Hopefully, for at least another fifty years, until we reach those well-imagined and immaculately believable 2060s.
And hopefully, forever.
Thank you, Gerry. A lot of us are where we are now because of you and your team, because you all inspired, and made us believe not only what was possible – but more.
• Shaqui le Vesconte is webmaster for Gerry Anderson: The Complete Comic History
• Please consider making a donation to the Alzheimer’s Society in memory of Gerry via his son Jamie Anderson’s Just Giving Page:justgiving.com/Remembering GerrryAnderson