The Gerry Anderson Studios
Gerry passed away on Boxing Day 2012 following a couple of years suffering from dementia. By coincidence, I started writing this tribute to his work a few weeks before his death and finished it shortly afterwards. The TV and film industries owe him a great deal - as do many millions of kids and adults over several decades whose imaginations were fired by his extraordinary vision.
The rest of the website covers studios individually and the TV programmes that have been made in them. In this section I am taking a different approach: looking at the work of one man - Gerry Anderson - and briefly covering the studios he created or used. OK let's face it, the rustle of anoraks may possibly be detected in the background and if you are younger than about fifty you may wish to read no further. However, for those of a certain age, the various APF and Century 21 'Supermarionation' series shown on the ITV network helped to define the 1960s and with repeated transmissions continued to be popular well into the '90s.
To try to explain to people who weren't around in the '60s and '70s why these kids' puppet series were so successful is difficult - but try to imagine that at that time there simply were no shows on TV that came anywhere near being so exciting. There were no action adventure series starring live actors that involved flying cars, aliens, spaceships, secret bases filled with futuristic gadgets and vehicles but most of all... loads of stuff getting blown up! It was like watching a Bond movie on your TV every week and you simply ignored the fact that it was puppets. Shows like Stingray, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet were just as popular with adults as with children.
Some of the shows were repeated on BBC2 in the early 1990s and a new generation discovered them. (Remember the crisis leading up to Christmas in 1992 when the shops ran out of Tracy Islands and Blue Peter showed you how to make your own?)
The 'Supermarionation' series made between 1960 and 1969 were essentially created by two enthusiastic teams working side by side under the guidance of Gerry Anderson. One team was making TV movies with marionettes rather than actors. They used the same basic camera techniques as their contemporaries working on shows like The Avengers or The Saint at Elstree but with everything at one third scale.
However, it was in the special effects stages where the real ground-breaking work was done. The SFX department worked with miniature landscapes and buildings, model vehicles and flying craft. These had to explode, catch fire, be inundated with floods - you name it - and all the time remaining believable to a critical audience. As the years went by, through trial and error their efforts became more and more realistic until the results were almost indistinguishable from reality.
The young SFX designers and craftsmen working on these shows went on in future years to work on many blockbuster feature films made in studios all round London like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Batman, the Superman films, the Star Wars trilogy, the Alien movies, the Bond movies, Indiana Jones and many others. The reputation of British special effects teams spread all round the world and helped to attract these major movies to London during the '70s, '80s, '90s and beyond. Even today's movies utilising the latest in CGI techniques still use miniatures, built with techniques developed on these kids' puppet shows.
Gerry made the first British TV series to be sold to an American network (Supercar) and the first complete British TV series to be made in colour (Stingray) although of course it was first shown in black and white here. At one point his company was using more 35mm colour film than any in the UK. Thunderbirds was so successful that they even made two feature films - starring puppets! Probably best to ignore the dreadful live action movie of 2004, with which Gerry was not involved. According to the Guardian he described the film as "the biggest load of crap I have ever seen in my life."
And where were these glamorous studios? Slough Trading Estate. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
The puppet/Supermarionation studios:
The later TV series and the studios he used:
The man himself began his career with no desire whatsoever to either make sci-fi movies or to work with puppets. When aged 14 he thought he might become an architect. A few years later he trained as a plasterer, which he was rather good at. Fortunately for us he turned out to be allergic to plaster and developed dermatitis. Passionate about the movie world he tried to get into film-making by turning up at studio gates and asking for work. He didn't get any.
He wrote scores of letters to anyone in the industry who might be able to offer an opportunity and eventually at age 17 he was taken on by the Orwellian sounding 'Colonial Film Unit of the Ministry of Information'. He worked as an assistant in the cutting rooms and quickly learnt the visual language of films - their framing, editing and pacing.
He then became a second assistant editor with Gainsborough Films at Lime Grove studios. After National Service he went to work at Pinewood as a dubbing editor. Then after a brief spell at Elstree he worked at Shepperton, still as a dubbing editor.
In 1955, aged 26, he joined Polytechnic Films - a small company based in Taplow, between Maidenhead and Slough. This was his first job as a director. For several months he worked on a documentary entertainment TV series prophetically called You've Never Seen This - which unfortunately never was, it was so bad. Well, slight exaggeration but only a handful of episodes were ever transmitted by Associated-Rediffusion.
He felt that he didn't really fit with this company so in March 1956 he decided along with a few other employees including cameraman Arthur Provis to break away and form a new company. There were five of them so they called it Pentagon Films. They planned to make filmed programmes and adverts for the new ITV companies.
Initially they were based in the home of one of the partners but then they moved back into the recently vacated previous base of Polytechnic Films in a house called Stockwells in Berry Hill, Taplow. It was a large dilapidated old building, which conveniently had a small film stage in its grounds. Whether this was an outbuilding in the garden or a big room within the house I have yet to discover. (Can you help???) In any case, this could arguably be called the first studio Gerry Anderson at least partly owned.
(Stockwells is now the name of a cul-de-sac containing a small development of smart 1970s houses. No trace of the original big house remains, apart from the old garden wall.)
A popular children's series shown in the first few months of ITV was a puppet version of The Adventures of Noddy. Kelloggs bought the rights to use Noddy to sell breakfast cereal. They decided to make their ads for Ricicles in Pentagon's Berry Hill studio using the original puppets. This was Gerry's first encounter with a marionette. He was not impressed. They made the ads which turned out to be very successful, and the catchphrase shrieked by the shrill voice of Noddy - 'Ricicles are twicicles as nicicles!' (apologies for spelling) became as well known as any advertising slogan in its day.
As it happened, a children's writer called Roberta Leigh had just been commissioned by Associated-Rediffusion to make 52 fifteen-minute episodes of a story she had written called The Adventures of Twizzle. She saw the Noddy ads and decided to contact Pentagon, assuming they were experts in working with puppets.
In fact, Gerry and Arthur Provis had decided to break away from Pentagon and form their own company. They met her and told her that they were leaving and setting up a new business but were interested in making her films. Apparently, Gerry nearly 'vomited on the floor' when he discovered they would involve puppets. However, it represented months of work so of course he agreed.
The new company was called AP Films - named after Anderson and Provis obviously, although each would subsequently claim (tongue in cheek, naturally) that the name stood for 'Arthur Provis Films' or 'Anderson Productions' Films.
They looked for suitable premises to use as a studio and took out a lease on a wing of Islet Park House - a large, somewhat run-down Victorian gothic mansion on the bank of the Thames in Maidenhead. The house had a ballroom which could be used as a film stage and several other rooms which would become offices, cutting rooms, a sound recording studio and some rooms in which several of the company would sleep over after a very long day's work.
The ballroom had a ceiling that was only just high enough and two pillars within it - these had to be incorporated into some of the larger sets.
They employed a few staff - one of whom was secretary Sylvia Thamm (later to become Anderson's wife), Reg Hill - an artist and carpenter with special effects experience and John Read, an experienced rostrum cameraman. Christine Glanville was employed as a puppeteer contracted to work from 08.30 - 18.00 per day but she, like the rest of the crew, worked far longer hours than this. She stayed working with Gerry for some 40 years.
They began filming The Adventures of Twizzle on 1st September 1957 and the series wrapped in January 1958.
From what I have read, Roberta Leigh was not exactly popular with many of the APF crew, including Gerry. He considered that her stories were rather twee and thought that even though the series was for children, as viewers they deserved to be treated more intelligently. He had noticed that most kids like to watch exciting grown-up TV as much as programmes made specifically for them.
Roberta was highly influential in this series. It was very much her project, not Gerry Anderson's. She even wrote the songs - at least, she hummed them to the composer Barry Gray and he went away and arranged and recorded them. He would later become the writer of such classics as the Thunderbirds theme and would contribute hugely to the success of all Gerry's series.
Twizzle involved traditional string marionettes made from wood and the only way you knew who was talking was that the puppet waggled its head. In other words the puppets were similar to the BBC's Andy Pandy or Mr Turnip. Gerry hated it. He was embarrassed to admit to his contemporaries that this was what he was filming. All of the AP Films team decided that to keep their sanity they would make this series look different from a normal kids' puppet show so the sets were more realistic, the props more detailed, the shooting style more cinematic - anything to maintain their own self-esteem.
The traditional way of making puppet shows was to use a locked off camera and a flat background - the puppeteers would stand behind this and lean over. However, for Twizzle, in order to give more freedom of movement over a bigger area, Gerry built a Dexion bridge over the set so they were standing above it. The ballroom at Islet Park wasn't that high so the operators' heads were right up against the ceiling.
Incidentally, this was the only puppet series APF made in which the sets were painted in shades of grey. It was of course filmed in black and white. All subsequent series had the sets painted in colour, even though the film would still be black and white for a few more years, with pan glasses being used to check how they would look on black and white TVs.
The team working on Twizzle was about a dozen but they still needed more help. They contacted a special effects expert but he was busy and recommended his apprentice, a keen young lad called Derek Meddings. If you don't recognise the name, shame on you. He went on after many years working with Gerry Anderson to become one of the most highly regarded Oscar-winning special effects designers in the business.
Derek joined the APF team part time - moonlighting from his proper job as a special effects assistant with Anglo-Scottish Pictures. (No, me neither.) He mostly worked as a matte painter and helped with making props and building sets, as there wasn't a great demand to blow things up on Twizzle. His time would come in two or three years. Derek recalled some years later that the whole team were completely dedicated to making the show look as good as possible, and working till 2am at Islet Park was quite normal around that time.
Once Twizzle wrapped, the crew had to disband due to lack of work. Each found temporary jobs in other film studios working on such shows as The Adventures of Robin Hood at Walton Studios. Gerry was offered some directing work on a couple of episodes of a detective series called Martin Kane - Private Investigator, filmed at ABPC Elstree Studios. (This was produced by Harry Alan Towers - see the Highbury studios section on this website for more info about him.) At last, Gerry was working with people, not puppets. But this was not to last.
Following the success of Twizzle a new show was ordered by Granada from Roberta Leigh and AP Films - this one was called Torchy the Battery Boy. (That's battery - stop sniggering at the back.) Gerry was insistent that the sets were more detailed and that the puppets should become more realistic with opening mouths and moving eyes. These were operated by the puppeteer simply pulling yet more strings. Some years later, Leigh claimed that all this was due to her influence. Well, maybe. Whoever was responsible, as a discerning toddler around this time I can vouch for the enhanced production values in this series, which I certainly noticed, if nobody else did.
The puppets' mouths required a flap of flexible 'skin' below the lower lip. Christine Glanville was the chief puppeteer and she sent her father round every chemist's shop in Maidenhead to buy a selection of condoms so that various grades of rubber could be experimented with. As a young lad growing up in Maidenhead I had no idea that such things were going on. As it happened, a little chamois leather flap was found to work best. I think we should move swiftly on.
Sufficient finance had been secured to make only the first five episodes of Torchy and these were completed by August 1958. The team were out of work again and Gerry and Sylvia worked on a film called Further up the Creek starring David Tomlinson and Frankie Howerd. Shooting was at Shepperton but the Islet Park facilities were used for editing and dubbing.
The contract for the remaining episodes of Torchy at last came through and photography began in October 1958. Fortunately the budget was much higher so the team could begin to really develop their techniques. The twenty-six 15-minute episodes were delivered ahead of schedule in March 1959. Roberta immediately asked APF to make a second series but Gerry had had enough of working with her and declined. Arthur Provis was concerned at turning the work down but Gerry had his way. She made the second series with Associated British Pathe - this was the end of her working relationship with Gerry Anderson.
During the previous year, composer Barry Gray had been coming up with an idea of his own for a puppet series but rather than approaching Roberta Leigh he spoke to Gerry about it. It was a western with a hero called Tex Tucker who had 4 magic feathers in his hat - two enabled his dog and horse to speak and the other two made his guns fire without Tex touching them. It was to be called Four Feather Falls. Barry and Gerry developed the idea and even during the filming of Torchy, puppets and props were secretly made without Roberta Leigh's knowledge.
Once Torchy had wrapped it was full on at APF to produce the pilot episode. Now Gerry was fully in charge the first signs of 'Supermarionation' emerged. These puppets were more realistic in the way they were constructed. The strings were now made from incredibly thin tungsten steel chemically etched in matt black.
Cleverest of all, each puppet contained solenoid motors enabling the eyes to move and the mouth to open. An electric current was passed down the strings, which were connected via electronic circuitry to a multi-track tape deck with the dialogue pre-recorded. After some adjustment, the mouths opened in synchronisation with the dialogue. There were four separate tracks so therefore up to four puppets could speak in any one scene (although according to some accounts the signal was manually switched at first). According to Derek Meddings' book, this system was devised by John Read and Reg Hill. John was cameraman and Reg was production designer - both were founder members and directors of APF.
Tex (from Texas, obviously) was voiced by - you guessed it - Nicholas Parsons, of Radio 4's Just A Minute fame. An obvious choice to play the part I'm sure you'll agree.
The owner of Islet Park House now offered to sell it to AP Films for a reported £16,500 and Gerry was keen to buy. However, his business partner and cameraman Arthur Provis was not so sure. In the end they didn't buy the house but this disagreement added to the gradual break-up of the working relationship between the two men.
Having made the pilot of Four Feather Falls and been commissioned to make a 52 part series for Granada, Gerry decided that they would need bigger premises so in June 1959 APF took over a studio in Ipswich Road on the Slough Trading Estate.
Of course, when I say 'studio' I mean a fairly small industrial building/warehouse although it did provide about four times the space they had had at Islet Park. After spending six weeks adapting it to their use there was only one shooting stage but it was larger than the Islet Park ballroom, with a bit more headroom. There was also a reasonable amount of workshop space and rooms to be used as offices, a small 'theatre' for viewing rushes (also used as a dialogue recording studio), a sound dubbing room, cutting rooms etc. Ipswich Road is just past the B&Q retail park on the left if you're driving from Maidenhead, in case you happen to live locally. Turn left off the Bath Road and it is almost immediately on your right.
The contemporary accounts describe the building as being next to a railway bridge and not far from the noisy A4 Bath Road. It was said to have an 'annexe' running along the side of the building, in which was located the darkroom (for loading film canisters) and the workshop where the puppets and sets were constructed. There was a back yard where exterior model shots involving a small water tank were filmed that was in view of traffic queuing on the road. At one end was an area with small partitioned offices.
The building still exists although it has been a tyre fitters for a number of years. It is about 30ft wide and about 130ft long with the 10ft wide annexe running along one wall for about 70ft. The shooting stage was about 68 x 30ft.
A Dexion bridge was constructed for the puppeteers, attached to the roof structure. The sets were then built on moveable rostra and wheeled under the bridge when shooting. They now attempted to solve the problem of the operators seeing the puppets' faces - so ensuring that they were looking in the right direction, which up until now had been an on-going problem with the operators being so high overhead.
After some unsuccessful experiments with mirrors they introduced a bit of new technology that the whole industry would eventually adopt: video assist. (Not that it was called that back then). A small CCTV video camera supplied by a company based on the trading estate was linked to the film camera so it showed on monitors how the shot was being framed. The operators had a reverse-scan monitor so to them it was like looking in a mirror. This was a true breakthrough. Reverse-scan monitors have been used on every TV puppet show I can think of since then. (The Muppets, Spitting Image, Basil Brush, Roland Rat, Gordon the Gopher - even the Knitted Character on TV Burp had one.)
However, this prototype system was far from perfect. The video camera looked down the film camera's viewfinder so the cameraman couldn't use it to frame the shot but had to use the monitor. Unfortunately, the image was vignetted so the edges of the actual filmed frame were cut off. Therefore, shots often had to be retaken because the camera was shooting off the set or seeing operators' hands or other unwanted things in shot. It was pretty unreliable too, the picture often broke up or lost lock and the picture rolled - all of which was very frustrating and wasted time.
As well as the main shooting area, at one end of the stage was a back-projection screen, about 6 feet across. Sets would be built on rostra in front of this and it had its own small puppeteer's bridge over it. The projector had to be reflected off a mirror as there was so little space. The 35mm projector was ingeniously positioned in its own tiny room so that it could either shine onto the BP mirror or by turning it through ninety degrees it would project through a small window onto the screen in the little viewing theatre where the previous day's rushes were checked.
Background 'plates' for Supercar (more on this show in a moment) were filmed from an aircraft based at White Waltham and from a hired Jaguar driving at 100mph up the M1, which had just opened and had no speed limit - or traffic. They attempted to film a stormy sea at Brighton from a small boat but the cameraman was seasick so they shot it dangling off the end of the pier on ropes.
The Ipswich Road stage included a 'director's booth' at one end with a window overlooking the working area. Gerry sat in here looking at a monitor and gave instructions to the crew over an intercom. It was raised about three feet above floor level and also contained the dialogue playback equipment and its operator. In a small booth next to it sat Reg Hill, the designer, where he worked on the plans for future sets. Some might think it was a bit odd for the director to be in a separate room when only one camera was ever in use and usually each shot was relatively complex to set up. Most directors might have expected to be working on the floor amongst the crew. However, Gerry thought this was the way a TV studio should be so he had it built.
It was during the making of Four Feather Falls that Arthur Provis left the company, although they kept the name APF for the time being. I'm not sure who approached whom but having left, he seems to have gone straight to Roberta Leigh where he was co-producer and cameraman on Sara and Hoppity and then Space Patrol.
All 39 episodes of Four Feather Falls were completed in April 1960. The series had begun transmission on the ITV network in February of that year and even featured on the front cover of TV Times. It was very popular and Gerry assumed that a further series would be commissioned but if not, he did have plans for another show to offer Granada. In fact, astonishingly, they never contacted him again.
Now in the 1960s British television was dominated by two impresarios - Sydney Bernstein from Granada (who apparently had just gone off the idea of puppet series) and Lew Grade from ATV - who was soon to seriously buy into the idea - but not quite yet.
The APF team found themselves once more with no employment but soon picked up some unexpected work. Nicholas Parsons (yes, him again) had formed a production company and had just secured a deal to make three ads for Blue Car Travel. (Nope, I've never heard of them either.) He had some scripts but they were different from the style of the day - they were funny. We take comedy in advertisements for granted now but in those days selling stuff was serious business. Nicholas did a deal with Gerry (neither of them would make much money from it) and the ads were filmed in the Ipswich Road studio.
Unfortunately, the noise from the nearby Bath Road was an issue so 1,500 egg crates were purchased and stuck onto the walls to help deaden the sound. It wasn't terribly successful in reducing the traffic noise or the sound of the express trains running by on the GWR track a few yards away but it did apparently deaden the reverberation of sound within the room. Live sound of course had not been a problem previously - the puppet dialogue recordings were always done in the viewing theatre on a Sunday when the trading estate was much quieter. (Sunday was the day on the later shows too when the dialogue was recorded, even when they had more sophisticated facilities.)
The adverts were astonishingly successful and even won an award for best ad of the year. Gerry was confident that this would become a new source of income for APF but not a single further booking came. It turned out that because they had not used an ad agency but had dealt directly with the client they had broken the industry rules. Nobody wanted anything to do with them.
Anglo-Amalgamated then offered Gerry the chance to direct a B-movie called Crossroads to Crime. Shot partly on location around Slough it used the Ipswich Road stage in which to build the interior sets. The film includes a number of sequences shot in cars and lorries with rather obvious back projection behind them. One assumes that the vehicles were parked in front of the BP screen in the studio. Unfortunately, the film turned out not to be the greatest crime thriller ever made. I have watched a rather dodgy copy of it and was truly enriched by the experience. From what I have read, the location breakfasts were really good, so not all bad then.
So - back to Lew Grade. To cut a very long story short - he agreed to commission a series of Supercar. I can confirm - as the target audience of the day - that up to that date this was the most exciting, most utterly brilliant TV series for small boys of a certain age that had ever been made. Supercar was about a car that could drive on land (obviously), could fly, could even go underwater and - er - that's about it really.
After weeks of pre-production the puppets went in front of the camera.
During the filming of the 10th episode in November 1960 they decided to take some particularly spectacular shots to use in the opening titles. A small tank was built in the yard behind the studio and helpfully filled by the local fire brigade. They shot a sequence at night using the studio's lights with Supercar diving into the water and then emerging. It was by all accounts much harder to do than anyone expected and several cars on the road alongside stopped to witness their attempts. One car contained Gerry and Sylvia who had just quietly got married. Gerry sent Sylvia home and he spent his wedding night till the small hours helping to get the shot right. I won't mention that despite all their efforts you could still see the string pulling Supercar out of the water. Oh - I just have.
Supercar was like no other TV series that had ever been made. Despite being aimed at kids it was a huge hit with grownups too in the UK, the US and all over the world. It was for the second series of this show that Gerry invented the term 'Supermarionation.' He admitted in later years that the word actually meant nothing in particular - it was just a way of implying that the techniques they used were more sophisticated than traditional puppet shows but it certainly looked good on the opening titles of all the series he made. (He also used the expression 'filmed in Videcolor' on the titles of Stingray and Thunderbirds. This didn't mean anything either - they were made using Kodak Eastmancolor film - but again it looked impressive.)
Filming of the first series of 26 episodes was completed in April 1961. Another series of 13 eps would begin shooting from September. They finished it by Christmas, thanks to a more efficient way of working.
For the second series Lew Grade upped the budget and Gerry made the most of this. He took on Derek Meddings full time and made him Special Effects Director. Previously anything along those lines had been done on the puppet stages by the art department. Now Derek was going to have his own 'stage' to blow things up in. The small room previously used for sound dubbing became his little empire and he made the most of it. (Sound dubbing moved out to the Gate studios in Elstree - well, Borehamwood, actually.)
Thanks to Derek it was now possible to have shots involving models on realistic looking backgrounds - the scale was small but on camera it all looked huge. Derek began to experiment with very bright lighting increasing depth of field and high speed photography, which when slowed down makes the movement of small models look more lifelike.
There was a plan to produce another 26 episodes but Gerry preferred to move on. He had a couple of ideas, which he presented to Lew Grade and the one that was chosen was - Fireball XL5. Why XL? It was named after the Castrol motor oil, obviously.
Filming of Fireball XL5 commenced in April 1962. It was about a huge spaceship that explored the universe and sorted things out. If you've never seen it, think Star Trek but four years before that was made.
One of the features of this series was the launch sequence of the Fireball spaceship - which instead of taking off vertically, ran along a rail hundreds of metres long at high speed on a rocket powered sled and then launched itself into the sky using a ski-jump rather like the Royal Navy's Sea Harriers in the 1980s. This sequence fired the imagination of the target audience (me) who only wondered what happened to all the rocket powered sleds that flew off the end of the rail on each launch. The photography by Derek Meddings was very convincing and all the more impressive considering the tiny room in which he shot it.
The effective miniature rocket motors on Fireball and its disposable undercarriage that later also 'powered' the Thunderbird models were provided by a company called Schermuly, who also supplied distress flares and rockets to the Royal Navy. They were electrically fired - the current passed down the wires supporting the model craft which occasionally grew very hot and melted if the current was too great. The metal tubes that contained the rockets were initially provided by Gerry - they were his discarded cigar containers. Jetex motors were used in vehicles to direct a blast of air behind them, stirring up the 'dust' (usually Fuller's earth) on the road behind them. These were manually fired.
The art department and effects department really came into their own on this show. They scoured electronic component suppliers for any items that would look good on sets. Meters with needles that twitched, panels with lights that flashed - the more the merrier. Knobs on control surfaces were often toothpaste lids or similar - bought from one of the local factories. The crew were also not beyond delving into skips around the trading estate and pulling out anything that might be useful on a set or as part of a model vehicle. They were regular customers in the Slough branch of Woolworths - purchasing various small plastic and metal items like lemon squeezers, hair rollers, colanders, knitting needles, small footballs that could be cut in half and used as domes on a nuclear power plant. Stick a few small kitchen implements together and spray it all silver, dirty it down and - bingo - you have a futuristic looking spaceship.
They also purchased hundreds of pounds' worth of plastic Airfix, Monogram and Aurora kits. The tiny components of aircraft, ships and other models like railway bridges would be used in ways never intended by the manufacturers. They were stuck onto vehicles or spacecraft or used to dress launch pads or bases on remote planets. Derek Meddings was also very keen that buildings, vehicles and spacecraft should look dirty and well-used. These and other techniques were taken by the various people who started their careers in the APF effects department and then went on in later years to work on major feature films.
Lew Grade was very impressed with Fireball XL5. So impressed that he decided to buy APF from Gerry Anderson. Gerry was a bit put out at first until he was told how much Lew was going to pay him for the company.
At a stroke, Gerry didn't have to worry about money any more. He was still a director of the company but the new owner had very deep pockets so could provide the necessary funding for the next show which would be better and much more expensive to produce. It would also be shot in colour, at Lew's insistence so that it would be more likely to secure US sales. This new series was Stingray.
Gerry told Lew he would need a bigger studio so Lew said fine - go and find something suitable. This was soon located half a mile away in another part of the Slough trading estate, in the shadow of the local power station and a whiff of chocolate away from the Mars factory. Stirling Road is a cul-de-sac with a row of single storey industrial units with an office frontage to the road and a double 'shed' arrangement behind. Each shed was roughly 40ft wide and about 120ft long.
They were brand new in 1962 and seemed perfect. One double factory unit was purchased. In the right hand shed, two shooting stages were created for puppets and one other for use as the special effects stage. The puppet stages were each 40ft x 40ft. Surprisingly small considering how much had to fit in them. They were numbered 1 and 2, the SFX stage was stage 3. The offices at the front and the rest of the space in the left hand shed contained most of the other facilities required - editing rooms, props, puppet making, 'electrical mouth room', kitchen, preview theatre, production manager's office and director's office.
There is a publicity brochure issued by APF in 1964 that boasts about their Stirling Road studios. It states that there were seven cutting rooms, a large property department, a scene dock, a carpenters' shop, a paint shop, a dressmaking department, a puppet workshop and a viewing theatre. It refers to the two production stages, 'identical in every way' with mobile bridges for the ten puppeteers. It says that next to the main stages is a special effects studio in which 'violent explosions' regularly take place. It also mentions a large tank. Interestingly, it refers to an experimental section where new processes are developed.
The art department with its construction facilities was based in another building a short walk away in Edinburgh Avenue.
For Stingray, the special effects stage inevitably had several tanks within it. Due to lack of space these often had to be set and struck which was very time-consuming. For sequences involving Stingray on the surface of the sea, a wedge-shaped tank for static shots and a large rectangular tank for moving ones were built with a system which constantly pumped water over the edges into troughs that surrounded them. With the camera low on the water line, and a painted sky backing on the other side it looked like a real horizon on the sea. Incidentally, the very realistic skies that featured in all these shows were painted by Derek Meddings, who as well as being expert in special effects was an experienced and very talented matte artist.
In fact, APF had used an exterior tank with an artificial horizon for the shots of Supercar diving into the sea back in 1960. This arrangement has now become popular with swimming pools in glamorous locations of course where they are known as infinity pools.
The other technique used was to construct a tank that consisted of two large vertical sheets of glass a few centimetres apart. The tank was 8ft x 4ft and made of half inch plate glass. The water contained some pond weed, several small fish and an air line to produce bubbles. The fish were fed just before each take so they moved about rather than hiding in the corners. The camera looked through the glass and the water in the tank and the Stingray model was 'flown' behind the tank, keeping completely dry. Although this was built by a specialist company, it exploded one lunchtime sending gallons of water and several unfortunate fish all over the studio. Luckily, nobody was close by when it happened. A new tank with thicker glass was ordered. A similar technique had been used for underwater scenes in Supercar at Ipswich Road with a smaller tank and less exotic fish.
Arriflex 35mm cameras were used. Effects shots were usually photographed at very high speeds to make the water look natural on camera - 72 frames per second and sometimes even 120. (The norm was and still is 24fps.) This involved using phenomenal levels of light - and therefore heat.
As well as far more sophisticated effects shots, the puppets continued to develop. In Stingray each puppet had several heads (not at once you understand.) These were relatively easy to swap and had varying facial expressions - a 'smiler', a 'frowner', a 'blinker' and a neutral. This gave some opportunity for the director (no longer Gerry - he was only producing now) to give some variety to the puppets' performances.
The puppets also had teeth purchased from a dental technician in Maidenhead and realistic glass eyes made by a chap called William Shakespeare (no, really) who specialised in making prosthetic eyes for humans. This was the first time he had been asked to supply them in matching pairs.
39 episodes of Stingray were made from June 1963 into 1964. It was shot on 35mm Eastmancolor film and was the first complete British TV series to be made in colour. (Part of The Adventures of Sir Lancelot had been filmed in colour at Walton studios in 1956). The opening titles claimed that the show was shot in 'Videcolor' but this word was a pure invention of Gerry's just to look impressive.
After many months of pre-production, principal photography on Thunderbirds began in September 1964. Just before Christmas, with nine episodes in various stages of completion, Gerry showed episode 1 to Lew Grade. He was so impressed that he thought that it was more like a feature film than a half hour TV show. He told Gerry to increase the length of each episode to an hour - so 50 minutes of material allowing for ad breaks. The first episodes would therefore require extra material to be shot. The later scripts were hastily reworked too. The budget was increased to £40,000 per episode, making Thunderbirds one of the most expensive TV series in the world.
Two sets of identical puppets were created so that the 'actors' could be in two places at once - shooting different scenes on both puppet stages. I'll bet many a production manager has wished he or she could do that with the cast of EastEnders or Corrie. In fact, it proved impossible to make the two puppets identical and serious fans of the show can tell one from the other. (Not me, in case you were wondering.)
To cope with the additional effects work a second unit was set up under Brian Johnson. (He left APF after Thunderbirds to work on 2001: A Space Odyssey). Another SFX stage was created at the beginning of 1965 for this second unit. Peter Hitchcock tells me that there was a model shop with a small SFX stage ' in an old building about 8 minutes walk away'. The art department was based in Edinburgh Avenue which would have been about that distance away - they shared the same building as the small SFX stage.
Later, a third 'flying unit' was created led by Peter Wragg. This was for a while based in a separate building on the trading estate.
Peter Wragg was an ex-dancer and as such was thought to have the best sense of balance. He needed it. The model craft were suspended on thin wires with electricity flowing through them to trigger the rocket motors. He stood on a scaffold plank which was cantilevered out from an access tower over the set. Balanced about 6 feet in the air he held a short length of wood with a couple of cross-members screwed onto it. To this the thin tungsten wires were attached that supported whichever craft was being flown. Some were a considerable weight - for example, Thunderbird 2 was about a metre long and weighed several kilos. The wires were connected to the electric power that fired the Schermuly rockets and sometimes also tiny lights within the model. When the rockets fired it took a special kind of skill to keep the movement of the craft absolutely smooth.
Meanwhile the whole set was lit with several film lights only a few feet away producing incredible levels of heat. Ah - the heady days before the Health and Safety Executive put a stop to such fun activities.
The first episode was transmitted on Thursday September 30th 1965 on the ITV network - at 7pm. This was no ordinary kids' show to be hidden away in the afternoon. Series 1 would not be finished until a month or two into 1966 - by that time everyone knew they were working on a winner.
Before the first episode had even been transmitted, Lew Grade ordered APF to make a Thunderbirds feature film (Thunderbirds Are Go) - a very bold and brave decision. A second film was to be made a year or so later (Thunderbird 6). This would have two main consequences. To look acceptable on the big screen the puppets, sets and models would all have to be remade in greater detail. Also, more room would be required at Stirling Road to accommodate the movie shoot alongside the filming of series two.
An additional two buildings were leased to the left of the original one. The one on the far left would become the base for the SFX department whilst the puppet department would move to the middle building, along with some other new facilities such as a staff canteen. The original building kept the editing facilities and viewing theatre, whilst the original 3 stages had the dividing walls removed to form one large one - intended to be used mostly for the two Thunderbirds movies.
Reg Hill, deputy managing director of APF but a designer by trade, devised a system enabling backing cloths to be 'pulled down' in the new SFX stages so that various sky backings could be flown in or out depending on the scene being shot. It was in effect a small 'fly tower', built on the end of the building. This saved loads of time repainting the one backing cloth they had previously used. Reg had also designed the water tanks for Stingray and many other of the features that made the Supermarionation series so distinctive.
Various parts of the company's equipment were updated around his time, including the Arriflex cameras, which were replaced with Mitchells. Prowest Electronics who manufactured broadcast equipment for the BBC and other TV companies were based in Maidenhead. They were asked if they could supply an improved version of the video assist system and developed one that was properly integrated with the camera so it was much better quality. They called it 'Addavision' - it was subsequently marketed as a useful tool to the industry as a whole. The Avengers was one of the first series to use it at ABPC Elstree Studios. One advantage was that it was connected to a video tape recorder so shots could be reviewed seconds after they were taken. This was really useful and saved many expensive retakes.
Around the time of expanding the studios and making Thunderbirds are Go, Gerry decided to change the name of the company. Aware that with Arthur Provis long gone, 'AP Films' seemed to be no longer appropriate he took the name from their comic that was proving highly successful. Thus they became Century 21 Productions. (Pronounced 'two one' apparently.)
Let's picture the scene. The Century 21 gang know they are making the most successful TV show ever made. It's the X-Factor of its day. Lew Grade goes to America to sell it. He shows it to the networks one by one. Two of them love it and immediately offer millions of dollars. The third plays hard to get but then comes on board. Lew knows he's onto a winner so ups the price. The networks draw breath and two of them say OK but one says no, too much. The others hear that one has pulled out of the bid and assume that there is something wrong. So they all pull out. For once in his life, Lew Grade has screwed up. He could easily have made a really good deal but got greedy so came away with nothing. At least, this is what I have read.
So - Lew asked Gerry to meet him. Gerry was making the movie, was six episodes into series two, was loving the adulation of the public thanks to a huge UK success and had major international toy merchandising deals in place. He was brought into Lew's office and told in no uncertain terms that Thunderbirds was over. There would be one more movie (that was a signed deal) but no more TV shows would be made. Finish the six episodes of series two but that was it. Gerry and the whole of the Century 21 team were devastated. Thanks to Lew Grade screwing up the US network sales deal, they would have to move on to another show.
That other show was Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. Filming began on January 2nd, 1967.
Let's be honest - this was not as well received by the British public as Thunderbirds. That show had got the balance between kids show and something the Mums and Dads also enjoyed exactly right. Captain Scarlet was aimed at - well, who exactly? Children, surely, but what age? The show was dark, violent and nothing like the smash bang wallop of Thunderbirds. It would have made a very good sci-fi drama series for adults if it had used actors rather than puppets.
Gerry knew this. He wanted to move on from making children's television so insisted that the puppets became more lifelike. They were now proportioned exactly like humans. The Thunderbirds puppets had larger heads than normal because they had to incorporate the mechanism to make the mouths move. The Captain Scarlet puppets had the mechanism in the chest so the head could be smaller. Also, the new electronics made it possible to modulate the mouth with more subtlety - it could half open or stay open for longer on extended vowels - at least, that was the theory. Unfortunately, the eyes were of course smaller so the very realistic glass eyes of the Thunderbirds puppets were replaced with eyes that looked - well - perhaps dead is a bit harsh but let's say less 'sparkling'. Also, unfortunately, the small heads were more difficult for the puppeteers to control smoothly. Any movement ironically looked more artificial and less human than before. So the puppets hardly moved at all - which some critics felt led to even more 'wooden' performances.
Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons - to give it its full and correct title - began filming on January 2nd 1967. 32 episodes were made. The first one was transmitted in September 1967 and received luke-warm reviews. Good - but not as good as Thunderbirds. Principal photography was completed in the autumn.
Almost immediately, the next series - Joe 90 - occupied the puppet stage from November 13th. This was set in the near future and in theory with fewer demands on the special effects department. (But surely, that was what the viewers wanted to see?) The story was about a boy who could use a machine to program his brain to learn special skills. He had a vehicle - not unlike Supercar - to get about but that was more or less it really. Nevertheless, this series did pose some new challenges to the SFX dept. The exterior scenes which were all miniatures had to look even more life-like than ever, as the show was not set in some distant fantastic future.
During the second half of 1967, the next Thunderbirds movie - Thunderbird 6 - occupied most of the SFX stages and stage 1. It completed principal photography at the end of the year and was premiered the following summer. It wasn't a great success at the box office, despite the crew considering that the production values were the best they achieved in any Thunderbirds film or TV show.
Shooting of Joe 90 wrapped in August 1968, after 30 episodes. To be honest, this was a pretty low key series and was not widely publicised by the ITV companies. Often tucked away somewhere quiet in the schedules it never did particularly well. In fact, it was not bought by all the ITV companies so was only transmitted in some parts of the UK.
Maybe I had grown out of such things by then but I don't remember seeing a single episode.
In July 1968, Gerry began to shoot his first major feature film with live actors. Called Doppelgänger, it was about a parallel planet Earth that was a mirror image of ours, hidden on the far side of the sun. Live action was shot at Pinewood and the effects were done by Derek Meddings at Stirling Road. It was not a happy shoot - Gerry was producer, but fell out with the director who had been picked by the company who put up the money. It was modestly successful - not a great money-spinner for Universal but it persuaded Gerry that he definitely preferred making films or TV series with real actors.
Now we come to the most obscure of Gerry's puppet series - The Secret Service. This is the one hardly anyone has heard of. Gerry was a great fan of Stanley Unwin - the entertainer who amused audiences on variety shows by talking gobbledegook. (Actually, I thought he really was rather funny. Have a look on YouTube if you've never heard of him.) Gerry had the idea of casting him as a vicar who was also a secret agent. If ever taken to task by villains he would baffle them with his strange and confusing language. He had a gardener who could be shrunk down to a third normal size and carried around in a suitcase by the vicar so the pair of them could solve crimes and defeat villains. How Lew Grade ever gave the green light to this show is a mystery (did he ever read a script I wonder?) - but I'm afraid it gets even stranger.
Gerry was still trying to make his puppets look more life-like and was aware that one of the disadvantages was that they could not walk or run, stand up or sit down. He hit upon the idea of shooting parts of scenes with real actors - including Stanley Unwin - in long shot and then cutting to puppets for the close-ups. An interesting concept I'm sure you'll agree. Of course, with most of the locations being shot in the real world - and no spaceships or things being blown up - there was even less for the SFX department to do on this one. However, what there was had to look even more realistic as it was intercut with live action sequences.
13 episodes were in various stages of production. After the first few had been finished he showed one to Lew Grade in December 1968. Within a few minutes of it appearing on the viewing theatre screen Lew cancelled the series. He told Gerry to finish the first 13 but that was it. He wanted no more. And with that decision, Supermarionation came to an end. The puppet department closed on January 24th 1969.
However, the SFX department was very much still alive and would soon take over all the space available at Stirling Road for Gerry's next show - UFO.
UFO was made with live actors at MGM British Studios Borehamwood - until those studios closed. UFO was in fact the last production made at MGM before the gates closed for good in 1970. (The stages sat empty for three years until the site was turned into a storage facility. It remained in use by Christian Salvesen until 1986. The whole site was then cleared and a Sainsbury's distribution centre was built where the stages once stood, with a housing estate occupying the old back lot.)
This closure was not entirely unexpected but the timing was poor. It left Gerry in the lurch with 9 more episodes to film. After a few months of renegotiating contracts and bookings, the series was completed at Pinewood. 26 episodes were made in 1969 and 1970. The show appeared to be doing well in America, then ratings dropped and the second series was cancelled. The Stirling Road studios were closed for good and sold off.
Derek Meddings, under whose leadership an extraordinarily influential special effects department had been created over the previous decade, moved on to work on several major features. These included Tim Burton's Batman, the Superman movies and all the Bond movies from Live and Let Die to Goldeneye. He even worked with Pink Floyd on their tour in 1975. After a long career in which he won a Special Achievement Academy Award he sadly died aged only 64 in 1995.
Following the demise of Stirling Road, Gerry formed a new company along with Sylvia and Reg Hill called Group Three.
Between 1971 and 1973 Group Three were contracted by Lew Grade to produce The Protectors - a thriller detective series starring Robert Vaughn, Tony Anholt and Nyree Dawn Porter. It was not the sort of thing Gerry wanted to do at all but Lew told him to take it or leave it. It was work - and it did involve actors, not puppets, so he took it. It was made mostly on location all over Europe and also at EMI-MGM Elstree studios. 26 episodes were made and were pretty successful leading to a second series of 26 being commissioned.
Gerry then swiftly moved on to another series - taking some ideas from the cancelled second series of UFO. Space: 1999 was made at Pinewood on the L and M stages, starring Martin Landau and Barbara Bain. The effects department took over Bray Studios - starting shooting in November 1973. Brian Johnson was now in charge of SFX - since leaving Century 21 he had worked on Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey amongst other films. One technique he brought to this show was to keep the spacecraft models static and move the camera on tracks instead. This produced much smoother and more realistic results and had helped to create such stunning images on 2001.
The first series of Space: 1999 wrapped in March 1975. It also marked the end of Gerry and Sylvia's personal and professional relationship. The show however was relatively well-received and a second series was commissioned - albeit with several changes, insisted upon by the American sales team who had sold it to 155 syndicated US TV channels. Catherine Schell replaced Barry Morse as one of the leads and more American writers were brought in. Filming of series 2 began at Pinewood in January 1976. The final episode wrapped in December of the same year. 48 episodes in total were made.
In 1982 Gerry began to work on a show that marked his return to working with puppets. Terrahawks brought back some of the old Century 21 crew, including Christine Glanville, chief puppeteer. These were very different from the marionettes of old - they were operated from below and being made of rubber were more flexible and easier to animate. The series was still set in the future with the usual sci-fi components but the budget was much smaller than with the earlier famous shows. Puppets and SFX were all shot at Bray. Derek Meddings was not available for the series and Gerry instead used newcomer Steven Begg to lead the SFX department. 39 episodes were made between 1983 and 1984.
Gerry's last TV series with real actors was Space Precinct. Originally titled 'Space Police', the name had to be changed because there was already an unrelated Lego set with that name. At the time this was the most expensive TV show ever made in the UK. Work began on the L and M stages at Pinewood in 1994. The effects sequences were shot at Shepperton with Steven Begg once again in charge. The series was shown from September 1995 on BBC2. 24 episodes were made between 1994 and 1995. The show was relatively successful in Europe and the UK although some thought it too violent for a 6 o'clock slot. However, Gerry had always intended it to be watched by adults later in the evening. Unfortunately, when you are the man who made Thunderbirds, that's what people still expect.
I have read that the Americans unfortunately didn't know what to make of it. It looked to them like a kids show but the plot themes were very adult. A second series was therefore not ordered.
Between 2003 and 2005 Gerry worked on his final show. Returning to one of his classics he produced New Captain Scarlet - but this time using CGI animation techniques. At last freed from the limitations of those awful puppets he hated so much he could let his imagination roam. These 'actors' could walk, run, get up from a chair and their faces had actual expressions. Also, these actors didn't refuse to be photographed on one side of the face or have arguments about the size of dressing rooms. After all those years - at age 76 - he could create the kind of show he had always dreamt of. 26 episodes were made by a small company based at Pinewood, which had become his second home for many years.
In 2013/14/15 three interesting projects emerged. The first was that ITV have made a new version of Thunderbirds called Thunderbirds Are Go (they own the rights of course). It has been made with live action model sets and CGI characters courtesy of Weta Workshop. Initially 26 episodes were commissioned but towards the end of 2014 ITV added another 26. Quite a contrast to what Lew Grade did to Gerry! David Graham who voiced the original Parker returned to play the same part.
Meanwhile, in 2014 Gerry's son Jamie launched a project to create a new puppet series called Firestorm. This is based on development work carried out by Gerry before he died. Crowdfunded using Kickstarter, the pilot is using puppets (with the same proportions as in Thunderbirds) and real model effects and explosions - no CGI! However, the show will take advantage of developments in puppet technology and changes in film-making techniques so Jamie is nicely describing Firestorm as being made in 'Ultramarionation.' It has already unsurprisingly attracted a lot of support and hopefully, once the pilot is made, will get a commission from one of the major British TV companies. Come on BBC - surely this one is for you???
In 2015, Stephen La Rivière took on a very interesting project, funded by Kickstarter, called Thunderbirds 1965. During the show's period of great success, three audio recordings were released on vinyl records using the original voice artists. These recordings formed the basis of newly filmed episodes. The puppets were lovingly recreated - many were made for his superb 2014 documentary Filmed in Supermarionation. Sets and effects were made using the original techniques. Even better, the end unit at Stirling Road that previously occupied SFX stages 6 and 7 was empty in the late summer and autumn of 2015 so the filming of these three episodes took place where some of the original episodes were made. All very exciting and congratulations to Stephen for carrying out this project. The DVD was only released to those who contributed funds but is now available on eBay.
There is a bibliography page on this website that covers the rest of it but this section is so specific that it deserves its own.
There are several books that have been written over the years - some better than others and with a surprising number of contradictory accounts of what actually happened. On this website I have scratched the surface of the story aiming at a more general readership and focusing where I can on the studios themselves, since that is the theme of this site. However, if you wish to read more (and it is a fascinating story of a man's work) I would particularly recommend Stephen La Rivière's book 'Filmed In Supermarionation - A History of the Future.' It is extremely well researched and well written too. For fascinating photos of the SFX workshops you could not do better than Alan Shubrook's 2007 book. Unfortunately it is now out of print and very difficult to find second hand. Fortunately in 2015 he released a new book with even more photos, interviews and a fascinating account of a visit to the studio buildings in 2014.
These are the books I have read and drawn from:
21st Century Visions - Derek Meddings (1993)
Gerry Anderson's Fab Facts - Simon Archer (1993)
Gerry Anderson, The Authorised Biography - Simon Archer & Stan Nicholls (1996)
The Complete Book of Thunderbirds - Chris Bentley (2000)
The Complete Book of Captain Scarlet - Chris Bentley (2001)
What Made Thunderbirds Go - Simon Archer and Marcus Hearn (2002)
My Fab Years - Sylvia Anderson (2007)
Century 21 FX - Alan Shubrook (2007)
Filmed in Supermarionation - Stephen La Rivière (2009, revised edition 2014)
Century 21 FX Update - Alan Shubrook (2015)
I can also recommend the documentary made by Stephen La Rivière - Full Boost Vertical - The Supercar Story (which also contains a fascinating CGI 3D walk-through of the Ipswich Road studio) and if you want to see what a typical B-movie looked like in 1960 - try Crossroads to Crime.
However, for the serious enthusiast it has to be the 'Supermarionation' box set sold by Network On Air which was released towards the end of 2014. This is not cheap at £100 but frankly is worth every penny. It is beautifully presented and contains a revised, superbly printed new edition of Stephen La Rivière's book Filmed in Supermarionation. Most importantly, it includes a 2-hour documentary of the same title made by him containing interviews with everyone still alive connected with the series and some fascinating re-created footage using the original puppeteers and effects designers. There are also visits to the original studios. The box also contains Blu-ray discs with remastered high def editions of some episodes of all the shows from Four Feather Falls to The Secret Service and for good measure a new copy of Century 21 magazine. Go on - spoil yourself. You know you want to!
There are many websites and forums that deal with Gerry Anderson's work and several have been useful in researching this page on my site. Just Google the man's name or any of his shows and you will find much to read - or to buy if the fancy takes you. (Obscure model vehicles used on Thunderbirds have sold for £20,000 on eBay.)
One site I found particularly interesting was David Sisson's in which he interviews several of the effects guys who worked on the Anderson shows and subsequently on various feature films. You can find it on
Of course, you could also look at the website of the official fan organisation - 'Fanderson'. They naturally have loads of info on all his series, and things to purchase. I am not a member so can't vouch for them but it all looks well organised and with well supported forums. They are found at
You could also go to the Fanderson group on Facebook, which mostly deals with people who make models of the various craft and puppets. There is also an excellent website that covers the man's past work and his legacy, written by Gerry's son Jamie on
Copyright information: As on the rest of this website - please do not use or ask permission to use any of these images in books or other publications or on TV programmes or commercially run websites. Many of the illustrations are copyrighted by their respective copyright holders according to the original copyright or publication date as printed on the artwork or publication and are reproduced here for historical reference and research purposes. If you do own the copyright to any image displayed here and wish it to be credited or removed, please contact me and I shall of course be happy to oblige.
Finally - I have done my best to be as accurate as possible in my account of what buildings were in use at various times and the stages they contained in Stirling Road. Accounts differ significantly in the books and websites I have read but I have done my best to work out the most likely sequence of events. I confess I am still not 100% certain that I have got it right! If you are sure I am wrong - or indeed right - please let me know on email@example.com