Happy Birthday, Thunderbirds! A look back at TV21, the show – and birthday cake!

TV Century 21 Issue 52 - Cover

Although Thunderbirds launched on ITV in September 1965, TV Century 21 did not begin running a dedicated strip, drawn by Frank Bellamy, until Issue 52, published in January 1966 – a month that also saw the launch of the successful Lady Penelope comic.

Fifty years ago today, millions of children (and their parents) sat down to watch the first ever episode of Thunderbirds, “Trapped in the Sky”, unaware that the series would have such a lasting legacy.

All many of us of a certain age watching knew was that this was a new “Supermarionation” show by the same people who had made Fireball XL5 and Stingray. We didn’t know what to expect – but it was quick to grab us.

In an age where most have heard of Thunderbirds (be it the original, the Japanese reboot, the flawed feature film or the new CGI Thunderbirds Are Go), it’s perhaps hard to understand how much of an impact the show had on its target audience in September 1965. Back then, there were few competitors to TV to grab our attention, besides books and comics. For myself, then living in rural Cornwall, the nearest cinema was miles away (we travelled to Plymouth to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang).

There were only three TV channels – BBC1, BBC2 and ITV. There was no means to record a TV show, so if you missed it, it was gone, perhaps forever; no videos, DVDs or Blu-Ray; no Internet; no social media. TV was at its height in terms of a guaranteed audience of millions, and any good show was assured of phenomenal success.

And Thunderbirds was – and is –  a good show in my book. In fact, in terms of its production values, it was so well made by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson and their incredible team that, when it was re-broadcast in the 1990s, one BBC executive told Marcus Hearn, the author of Thunderbirds: The Vault, that the Corporation had made new episodes.

(Like StingrayThunderbirds was shot on cinema-quality 35mm colour film, four years before ITV transferred from black-and-white. The far-sighted investment guaranteed the show an after-life in repeats for decades to come).

The original Thunderbird 2 Dinky Toy in its original box - sold for 12/6 on release in 1967 - could cost a collector about £600 today.

The original Thunderbird 2 Dinky Toy in its original box – sold for 12/6 on release in 1967 – could cost a collector about £600 today.

Once Thunderbirds had grabbed our attention; once children were chasing those imitating Daleks in Thunderbird 1 around the playground (“Changing to horizontal flight!”); then came the merchandise, alongside home made fare such as the Thunderbird 3 birthday cake my Mum made for one birthday, and the “Thunderbirds intel package” direct from Century 21,  two pages of information on yellow paper detailing cast and vehicles, and advising that FAB didn’t stand for anything, along with two black and white photograph postcards, one of the Tracys and the other of the craft.

For me, there wasn’t much of it, but it was much sought after. I didn’t get TV Century 21 comic regularly (those I did often came courtesy of grandparents) – and my awareness of what was out there (and there was a lot) was restricted to visits to the toy shops in Liskeard and Plymouth. Our local village newsagents didn’t have much of a display of comics (and when I tried to order TV21 I got TV Comic instead, much to my disappointment and my parents annoyance that I’d tried to stick it on their paper bill). The Sugar Smacks Thunderbirds cereal was still some months off, as was the first edition of the Dinky Toys Thunderbird 2 (which will now set you back a cool £600 in its original box and in good condition).

A page from the first episode of the "Lady Penelope" strip" in TV Century 21 Issue One

A page from the first episode of the “Lady Penelope” strip” in TV Century 21 Issue One

TV Century 21 Issue 41 - Century 21 Records Ad

Besides the “Lady Penelope” strip, this advertisement for Century 21 Records was the first time any of the Thunderbirds featured in TV21, in Issue 41, cover dated 30 October 2065.

Another teaser for Thunderbirds, in TV21 Issue 44, in the run up to the strip's eventual debut In Issue 52 in January 1966

Another teaser for Thunderbirds, in TV21 Issue 44, in the run up to the strip’s eventual debut In Issue 52 in January 1966

Looking back now, I’m surprised to see that despite the launch of Thunderbirds in September 1965, TV21 didn’t begin running a Thunderbirds strip until 1966, despite trailing the new show from its first issue. A “Lady Penelope” strip preceded it from Issue One, of course, and vehicles featured in the show, including the Fireflash jet and the Crab Logger, appear on the covers of early issues; but just like publishers today, perhaps City Magazines were cautious about running a strip based on the new show from the week of its release, given the title already had a winning formula.

The first ever Thunderbirds comic strip, drawn by Frank Bellamy, published in TV Century 21 Issue 52

The first ever Thunderbirds comic strip, written by TV series writer Alan Fennell, drawn by Frank Bellamy, published in TV Century 21 Issue 52

Whatever the reason, once the show began airing on TV, the amount of Thunderbirds teasers in TV21 began to increase, leading up to the strip debut in Issue 52, drawn by Frank Bellamy, and Lady Penelope’s migration to her own comic, which was a also an incredible success.

Lady Penelope Number 1 - with rare free gift

Lady Penelope Number 1 – with rare free gift. The comic launched in January 1966.

Again, if you thought the amount of non self-created entertainment was limited and the impact TV had on young minds at odds with today’s multimedia generation, then imagine what kind of effect Bellamy’s work had on impressionable Thunderbirds fans. Just like the other TV21 artists has eschewed a realistic version of the Fireball XL5 and Stingray puppets in favour of a more realistic look, Bellamy brought a gritty realism to his Thunderbirds-drawn stories that has had as much of a legacy on me as the show itself.

The lasting success of Thunderbirds – for all its quirks and often bizarre storylines – owes as much to its TV21 incarnation, for me, as the show itself. Without that additional strand to the show’s enduring legacy, I have to wonder if there would be an enthusiastic team beavering away in Slough as you read this, turning three Thunderbirds audio adventures records in the 1960s into ‘new’ episodes, utilising the same production techniques employed by Gerry Anderson back in the 1960s, their efforts backed by fans from around the world who invested thousands in the project. Without it, there would be no CGI Thunderbirds Are Go to capture today’s younger generation as it definitely has done.

So, thank you, Gerry Anderson, Thank you, Sylvia Anderson, Derek Meddings, David Lane, Shane Rimmer and many, many others. Thank you, Alan Fennell, Frank Bellamy and many more comic talents for creating a legend that still excites me today. Long may it continue.

Thank you, Thunderbirds – and Happy Birthday!

Web Links

The Thunderbirds 1965 Project on YouTube

Check out the Thunderbirds strip pages on he Gerry Anderson Complete Comic History web site

Read my review of Thunderbirds: The Vault

Lew Stringer looks back at Thunderbirds at 50

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