Hands up who had a model of Thunderbirds 2? Thought so. Anyone around my age (56 next birthday, cards to the usual address) would have a model of some description connected with the 1965 ITV series ‘Thunderbirds.’ Everyone I knew did. Christmas 1966 was even dubbed the ‘Thunderbirds Christmas’ as demand outstripped availability of merchandise.
It was simply massive at the time; viewing figures of over six million were commonplace and the programme was sold to 66 countries worldwide. And it has had an enduring lasting legacy.
I would have seen it a few years after it had started on TV, but it simply fired up my imagination at the time. The special effects work involved in each episode, seemed amazing to my young eyes. It was only as I got older later that I started to notice the wires and strings, but for the moment lets put the cynicism to one side and examine the story behind it.
‘Thunderbirds Are Go!’
It was the imagination of husband and wife team, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. Previous work from them had included TV shows ‘Fireball XL5’ and ‘Stingray’ with the cutting edge puppetry they had introduced named ‘Supermariontion’. This new series differed somewhat from their previous work however, in that it was aimed at kids andadults andan early evening TV slot.
It was all set in 2065 and featured the Tracy family who lived on a top-secret island in the Pacific Ocean. From this base they run ‘International Rescue’ which pretty much does what it says on the tin. I.e. providing assistance and ultimately rescue, be it by land, sea, air and even space, to anyone who needs it in any part of the world.
‘Ok Boys, that’s the brief, it’s our first assignment, so make it look good.’
The rescue part of the operation was reliant on a variety of marvellous looking vehicles and machines – the Thunderbirds – all operated by the five sons of head of the family, one time construction multi millionaire and former astronaut Jeff Tracy. The sons, Scott, John, Alan, Gordon, and Virgil were all named after the Mercury Astronauts. Scott Carpenter, John Glen, Alan Shepherd, Gordon Cooper and Virgil Grissom, better known as Gus.
‘Gee, thanks dad.’
Added to the family, is a cast of chief supporting actors including Brains, the chief engineer and well, the ‘brains’ of the outfit who sometimes used the alias of Hiram K. Hackenbacker and Lady Penelope (surname Creighton Ward) voiced by Sylvia Anderson (Lady P’s face was based on Sylvia too) and her reformed, one time safe cracker and now chauffeur and butler Parker, first name Aloysius. When needed, they were often contacted by ‘gee Mr. Tracy’ through the top of her silver teapot.
‘Parker, get out the Rolls Royce.’
Lady P’s mode of transport was a pink Rolls Royce, which had the number plate of FAB 1. The close up model of the car had to be big enough to accommodate the puppets and was built at a cost of £2,500, nearer to £50,000 in today’s money.
David Graham provided the voices for both Parker and Brains (as well as a Dalek in the early Doctor Who programmes.)
‘You rang, M’ lady?’
The main villain of the piece was the fiend ‘The Hood’, a dastardly master of disguise operating out of the Malaysian jungle.
The series of 32 episodes run until 1966 and there were also two spin off feature films ‘Thunderbirds Are Go’ and ‘Thunderbird 6’ in 1966 and 1968 respectively.
The actual name of Thunderbirds came from Gerry’s brother Lionel who had seen Thunderbird Field in Arizona, whilst serving overseas in the RAF in the Second World War.
The theme tune by Barry Gray, called ‘The Thunderbirds March’ is still instantly recognisable, as is the countdown at the start of each episode.
Altogether now. ‘5….’
The whole thing was made on a trading estate in Slough (who knew?) with a crew of a 100 people. They made an episode a month, some going when you look at the work involved. As well as the puppets acting out the scenes – each one costing between £250 to £350 back then – there was the occasional use of real live human hands when a more dexterous touch was required.
‘What an organisation! No one knows where they come from, but thank heavens they come! Yes, sir!’
I guess for many like me, the sight of Thunderbird 1 firing up and into the sky through the middle of a swimming pool will stay in the mind forever.
As I said earlier the special effects, like that, were simply staggering. So good in fact, that film director Stanley Kubrick used several members of the Thunderbirds crew to work on his film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ in 1970.
It had all come to an end in 1966 however, with the head of ITC Lew Grade unable to agree a deal to sell the series to America. In fact, all the major channels had bid for the series, but a price could not be agreed and he therefore cancelled the show.
Gerry Anderson went on to make ‘Captain Scarlet ‘and ‘Joe 90’ and ‘Space: 1999,’ but for me and countless others, his best work was and will always remain Thunderbirds and for that I say…
The Mumper of SE5