Gerry Anderson of “Thunderbirds” on his TV success and movie catastrophes

Yesterday’s blog was an intro to a 1979 interview I had with TV and movie producer Gerry Anderson. This is the first part of that interview…

At last year’s Fantasy Film Convention, you said Thunderbirds was the highlight of your career to date.

Well, I think I would probably stand by that statement. When I was making Thunderbirds, it was not the highlight of my career. It was a terrible chore with horrible little puppets whose strings kept on breaking and whose eyes went cross-eyed and it constantly shortened my life. We got very little footage in the bag every day. It was a long, laborious, painful process. There were many films that didn’t work and were weeks in the cutting rooms being repaired and new shots being made.

So, at the time, I think my attitude was that puppets were a pain and the quicker I get out of this the better. But, looking back, people would say: “Gerry Anderson – Thunderbirds,” and there would immediately be a crowd wanting autographs. That series brought me real fame. I think it did more for me than anything before or since.

Lew Grade of ATV, who commissioned it, changed his mind about the format, didn’t he?

I think really what happened is that he ordered a half-hour show and, when we delivered the pilot, it was such a fast-moving, unusual and action-packed show that he obviously screened it to a few people and somebody must have said, “What a shame it isn’t an hour!” So he called me up and said: “Can you turn it into an hour?” And I said: “Look! We’ve completed the first one. We’ve got eight more shot. We’ve got about six more scripted! My God!” But he has a marvellous way with him inasmuch as he puts his arm round you and says: “Y’know, Gerry, I have such faith in you! I know that if I told you it meant a lot to me, you somehow or other would do it.” How can you resist that? So we did it.

And the three US Networks bid for it, but didn’t screen it.

I was not present at the meetings. I have never been involved in the sale of the programmes and therefore I don’t know the whole story. But certainly Lew went to America and came back with two of the three Networks having made an offer for it. When he got back to London Airport, he was tannoyed and when he went to the telephone it was the other Network saying they wanted to bid for it as well. I don’t know what happened, but the deal fell through.

Since this is going into print, I can only speculate. Whether he asked too much money or whether they had second thoughts or whether there are some politics I’m simply not aware of… I don’t know the reason, but I know that one Network dropped out and then, of course, panic set in – “I wonder why they’ve dropped out!” – and the next one went and then BANG all three went. And that was tragic. I say tragic for me – I mean, it must have been tragic for Lew. Let’s face it, he must have been bitterly upset about it.

You made two Thunderbirds feature films which seemed to be quite successful.

They weren’t successful. They were terrible failures.

How did they get financial backing?

Lew had made Thunderbirds Are Go on spec. United Artists saw it and picked it up immediately. They were so impressed with the picture. David Picker who, at the time, was with United Artists, when the lights went up turned to me and said, “Whatever subject you want to make, Mr Anderson, it’s yours.”

When it went out for its premiere, Piccadilly was blocked. It caused more of a stir in Piccadilly than the Abba premiere. It was a wonderful premiere and it was absolutely packed. Everybody cheered and I remember leaving the cinema and the manager said, “You get a picture like this and they start queuing up at four o’clock in the morning”. We went back to the Hilton, where they’d made all the vehicles in ice – a fabulous party. The head of UA at the time said to me, “I don’t know whether it’s going to make more money than Bond or not. I can’t decide.” I was sitting there (thinking I was) already a millionaire. I mean, all these experienced people: how could they all be wrong?

The next day, the Dominion, Tottenham Court Road (a large London cinema) had about ten people in it.

How was it promoted?

Well, I made a film called Doppelganger with Universal which had lousy promotion. But, I’ve got to be fair about this, Thunderbirds Are Go! was superbly promoted. The Dominion had all the vehicles made in fluorescent lights – a fantastic display. It was well-advertised. It went out over Christmas. But it failed. And I went to my local cinema and there were like five people in the back row and three down the front and that was it.

So why did they make Thunderbird 6?

I think the reason they made the second film was that nobody could believe that this thing had failed. They didn’t know what the mistake was but somewhere there was a mistake. Perhaps it was the wrong story. Perhaps it was released at the wrong time of year. Perhaps they built it up too much in the minds of the potential audience. I don’t know. Anyway, they had to try again. They tried again and the same thing happened!

Why did your film Doppelganger have its title changed for the American market?

Well, you know, I’m not too anxious to knock the Americans on this one. I thought Doppelganger was a fabulous title. A friend of mine thought of it and I thought it was a very, very good show, but I’m not exactly sure the Americans aren’t right inasmuch as they try very hard to get an immediacy into their titles, which gives you an idea of what it is you’re going to see. And, rightly or wrongly, they felt that the average person would not understand the title Doppelganger. So they changed it to Journey to the Far Side of the Sun.

The interesting thing about the whole exercise is that I insisted that it should be called Doppelganger over here because I thought it was an interesting word and, if people didn’t understand what it meant, they would find out. It made the film sound rather unusual. But it failed in Britain and America. Which goes to prove something or other. I’m not sure what it proves, but it certainly proves something.

Doppelganger got nasty reviews. ‘Puppets without strings’ reviews.

Well, generally speaking, I think critics (pause) like to write clever lines. And some subjects make it all too easy. What a great line – “The actors are wooden… Gerry was pulling the strings” and so on. (Pause) I don’t think that their criticism was unfounded. I just think it was wildly out of proportion.

Doppelganger was live-action. You were trying the same thing on TV with UFO.

Yes.

Was that because you had saturated the market for TV puppet series? You were competing with re-runs of your own series?

Well, I think we had saturated the market and I think Lew knew that I wanted to do live-action. I think people were beginning to say, “Lew, you can do this with puppets… If you can do it with live-action… you can clean up!” And so we did UFO and, like a lot of things, it was ahead of its time. I think if it was in production today, with all these UFO sightings going on, it would be marvellous.

We had a bit of bad luck on UFO because there were a lot of sightings at the time but, when the programme was halfway through being shot, the US Army Air Force issued the findings of an inquiry they’d been conducting for about two years. And they said categorically, “There are no UFOs”. It did tend to kill interest in the subject for quite a long time.

UFO almost went into a second series, I believe.

Well, the second series was really Space: 1999.

(…the conclusion of this interview is HERE)

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Filed under Children, Movies, Puppets, Science fiction, Television

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