What Made Thunderbirds Go!: The Authorised Biography of Gerry Anderson

What Made Thunderbirds Go!: The Authorised Biography of Gerry Anderson was written by Marcus Hearn and published in 2002. I believe this book is an updated version of an earlier Anderson biography by other writers but I haven't read that one so I can't make any comparisons. The book is an enjoyable trawl through Anderson's up and down career taking in the many fondly remembered (and often quite eccentric) televisions shows he was responsible for. Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, UFO, Stingray, Space: 1999, and so on.
What I found interesting was that Anderson almost got into his famous sci-fi puppet shenanigans by accident. He had a film production company that hit the rocks and, in an effort to stay afloat, made a children's series called The Adventures of Twizzle in the late fifties. On the back of this, all powerful television impresario Lew Grade helped him to develop Supercar and Fireball XL5 and Anderson's 'Supermarionation' puppet adventure career was born. The book is a fun look at all of his famous projects, plans that never made it onto the screen, and serves as an interesting reminder too of some of his slightly more forgotten shows like The Protectors, Space Precinct, and Terrahawks.
One thing that does come across from the book is that Gerry Anderson probably never quite got his just due. Despite the incredible fame and success of Thunderbirds in the sixties (and beyond) he suffered from financial trouble and always had to battle to get anything on the screen. The book ends before the mediocre Thunderbirds live action feature film of several years ago but it was probably symbolic of Anderson's career that he was shut out of that and had nothing to do with it because he had no control over the Thunderbirds rights. Apparently, he had an office in the studio where they were making the film. It must have been like a form of torture.
Thunderbirds attracted millions of viewers in the sixties and had a hugely successful spin-off comic but it suffered in the end from ITC's failure to sell the show in the United States and ended quite abruptly. A new series to be called Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons was put into production instead. I think I like Captain Scarlet the best out of all of Anderson's shows and I really enjoyed reading about it here. I'm not that familar with Supercar or Fireball XL5 and Stingray was just a teensy bit dull. That was the one about the submarine and had the soppy ode to 'Marina' over the end credits.

Captain Scarlet was brilliant though and darker than Anderson's previous offerings - spooky Captain Black and Mysteron voices. It featured the indestructible Captain Scarlet battling mysterious ghost like aliens who are intent on revenge against Earth. The puppets in this one were proportioned differently to look more realistic and the series had some enjoyable futuristic cars and vehicles - although I never quite understood why they drove facing backwards looking at a visual monitor of the road ahead!
Interestingly, the book says Anderson was less involved in Captain Scarlet than previous shows because he was making a live action film called Doppelgänger (also known as Journey to the Far Side of the Sun). Anderson always yearned to do more films and live action projects despite the puppet adventure fare that became his stock in trade. Captain Scarlet failed to find an audience and Joe 90 (about a bespectacled boy spy) didn't fare much better despite the brilliant intro and music.
Two live action Anderson projects that are also great fun to read about are UFO and Space: 1999 - two seventies sci-fi shows and both candidates for any list that compiles the greatest television theme tunes of all time. UFO was absolutely bonkers with purple haired women wearing skimpy tin foil dresses and starred Michael Billington, an actor who came within a whisker of being cast as James Bond on at least two occasions.

Anderson was actually charged with coming up with a draft for a film version of Moonraker by the Bond producers in the late sixties but it never went into production and he was later rather unhappy when he felt that some of his ideas were being floated for the 1977 Roger Moore epic The Spy Who Loved Me. Despite Anderson's energy, UFO lasted only year but Lew Grade suggested he use it a foundation for his next series - Space: 1999.
Space: 1999 was a relatively bold if never completely successful attempt to combine Anderson's famed model work and miniature sets with live action and make a sort of British version of Star Trek. The series depicted the trials of the inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha, cast adrift when an explosion sent the moon floating off into the farthest reaches of space. No, it didn't really make any sense. The talented American actor Martin Landau was the stalwart hero (wonder if he ever talks about Space: 1999 in interviews these days?) and good old Barry Morse played the scientist Professor Victor Bergman.
The production of the series is fascinating to read about. Series one was too slow and pretentious so they just camped it up in series two. The theme tune was jazzed up, the series was much dafter, they had a woman who could turn into animals and monsters. It was all to no avail and Space: 1999, like many of Anderson's shows, proved rather short lived.

I suppose the happy twist in the story of Anderson's various ups and downs was that a rerun of Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet would always win him a new generation of young fans. Blue Peter famously drew an incredible response with their make your own Tracy Island item after repeat showings of Thunderbirds on BBC2 in the 1990s had been very successful with children who had never seen the series before.
Anderson's ability to keep plugging away is very apparent in the book. The eighties saw him return to the world of sci-fi puppets with Terrahawks but it never really caught on (this series did though have a fantastic theme tune and famous noughts & crosses closing title sequence featuring robot characters from the show). 'Dick Spanner', a series of shorts he did for a Channel 4 series called Network 7 proved to be very popular though.
It's fun too to read to about Space Precinct, another short lived Anderson show, this time from the nineties. It combined live action with puppets and models and was essentially Gerry Anderson meets Hill Street Blues. Like Space: 1999, an American lead actor was drafted in, in this case Ted Shackleford, one of the stars of soap opera Knots Landing. Knots Landing was a spin-off series from Dallas and Shackleford played a cousin of Bobby and JR but let's not get into Knots Landing now.
What Made Thunderbirds Go! is a lot of fun on the whole, primarily for the immense amount of detail on all of these shows and the affection for the work of Gerry Anderson. This is not a warts and all biography written by some neutral observer but more about the work than digging around too much in the personal life of the subject. You learn a lot about Anderson though as you chart the course of his films and career and get a strong sense of his fortitude and the constant enthusiasm he had for new projects and ideas. This is a fun read and worth a look if you are interested in science fiction and British television history.
- Jake

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