Tag Archives: ITC

Lew Grade, Patrick McGoohan and bizarre cult TV series “The Prisoner”

Rupert Booth’s book about Patrick McGoohan

Booth tried to unmask McGoohan

In this blog recently, I have been slagging-off ITV’s misbegotten attempted revival of Sunday Night at The London Palladium. I have a feeling it was made by people attempting to create a populist show based on some highly-researched viewer ‘demographic’ and that the producers are making a programme which they would not themselves watch – a virtual definition of dumbing down shows and looking down on audiences.

The original Sunday Night at The London Palladium was made by ATV under its mega showman boss Lew Grade. Lew was seen as Mr Downmarket Populist Entertainment Showbiz but, in fact, opera and ballet and all sorts of odd stuff would crop up amid the jugglers and dancing showgirls on Sunday Night at The London Palladium.

This came to mind because, last night, the admirably quirky Sohemian Society had a meeting about Patrick McGoohan and his cult series The Prisoner.

The speaker was Rupert Booth, who was plugging his 2011 book Not a Number: Patrick McGoohan, a Life but who, in an admirable demonstration of individuality, did not bring any copies to sell.

Lew Grade commissioned The Prisoner for ATV/ITV through his ITC Films company.

LewGrade_FozzyBear

Lew Grade with Fozzy from his ATV series The Muppet Show

“I think it’s a misconception that Lew Grade was simply Mr Entertainment,” said Rupert Booth last night. “He made his money out of shows like Sunday Night at The London Palladium, but he would put an awful lot of money into pet projects, plays, operas – I think ATV broadcast the first colour live opera in Britain. He made Jesus of Nazareth. He always said: I should do something about the Bible; I’m Jewish!

“When The Prisoner was first pitched to him, with McGoohan waving his arms about and showing pictures of Portmeirion, Lew Grade ended up saying: I have no idea what you’re talking about, but here’s the money. Go away and make it. That may seem incredibly brave but, in a way, it wasn’t: McGoohan was a very bankable star. He had been Danger Man (another ITC/ATV series) and was, I think, at that point the highest-paid actor on British television. I don’t think Lew Grade saw Fall Out (The Prisoners’ final controversial episode) coming. But I don’t think Patrick McGoohan saw Fall Out coming.”

The way McGoohan remembered getting the OK from Lew Grade for The Prisoner was: “He got up, puffed on his cigar, marched around a little bit, then turned and said: Pat, you know, it’s so crazy it might work.

There is a YouTube clip in which McGoohan talks about Grade.

In the audience at the Sohemian Society last night was someone who had worked at ATV at that time (but not on The Prisoner).

“You could argue,” he said, “that there can sometimes be too much creative freedom. I was told The Prisoner was a chaotic programme to work on, particularly towards the end. The people who worked on the last episode said they didn’t know what was happening from one day to the next. There was no schedule, there were no scripts, no lines, it was chaos. It’s a very interesting way to make a television programme, but it’s probably not the best way.”

“Well,” said Rupert Booth, “to my mind, The Prisoner was the absolute finishing of him as McGoohan: The TV Star. It was a bit self-destructive. This is when he’s getting through about two bottles of whiskey and day and he’s been through, I think, his third nervous breakdown. He was taking so much of it on his own shoulders and taking it so seriously and would not compromise ever.”

According to Lew Grade, at the time The Prisoner was in production, the President of CBS asked him: “Do you have problems with Patrick McGoohan?” Lew told him: “I never have any problem at all with Patrick McGoohan. He’s wonderful”… “Well how do you do it?” asked the CBS President. Lew replied: “I always give in to what he wants.”

Part of the title sequence from The Prisoner

Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner‘s opening title sequence

“There were stories,” Rupert Booth said last night, “that McGoohan would not even have the word ‘television’ said on set. the word ‘film’ had to be used, because he thought people working on a television programme would potentially compromise their standards. It’s indicative, I think, of how much he was putting into it. Most of the stories about the filming of Fall Out are that it was either terrible chaos or glorious chaos, depending on what your role in it was. If you were an actor and were able to fall over chairs and dance around and sing Dry Bones: magnificent! If had to try to light and follow that with a camera: slightly more irritating. So, out of the chaos…”

After The Prisoner ended, McGoohan went to Lew Grade with other ideas.

“There’s one story which may be apocryphal,” said Rupert Booth, “that McGoohan took some ideas all nicely typed-up into Lew Grade and Lew basically said: No. Sorry. You’ve lost it. You’re too much of a risk and McGoohan absolutely spat the dummy out, stood on the table, kicked all the stuff off and stormed out and effectively destroyed his TV career in this country. Which (if true) was stupid and ungrateful, because Lew Grade had been tremendous to him. He had given him an awful lot of money. He had entrusted him. I think McGoohan was very unfair to Lew Grade in that way. It does seem from reports of that era that McGoohan was pissed off his face and spitting his dummy out and throwing all the toys out of his pram if he didn’t get his own way.”

According to Patrick McGoohan, talking about Lew Grade years later: “from the very moment he said Go (on production of The Prisoner) and shook my hand – we never had a contract – he never interfered in anything that I did. Never bothered me. It was marvellous. I can’t conceive of anybody else in the world, then or now, giving me that amount of freedom with a subject which, in many respects, I suppose you might say was outrageous. He has an instinct.”

Perhaps ITV could do with that now. People who take decisions – and responsibility – on instinct not on research figures from uncreative people. I oft quote the William Goldman sentence from his book Adventures in The Screen Trade: “Nobody knows anything.”

It means that creating TV programmes (and films) is an art involving gut instinct, not a science where you create ‘sure-fire winners’ from research intended to cover your ass if the show or the film fails.

There are some clips from Fall Out, the final episode of The Prisoner, on YouTube.

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Late producer Gerry Anderson on his TV success, movie catastrophes and the state of pre-Thatcher Britain

(This was also published by Indian news site WSN)

Yesterday, British TV and film producer Gerry Anderson died, aged 83.

Back in the media mists of 1979, I interviewed him. This was just  two years after Margaret Thatcher was elected for her first term as British Prime Minister. Earlier this year, I posted the interview in three of my daily blogs.

Below, those three blogs are combined, in their original, unchanged 1979 form.

* * *

Producer Gerry Anderson is best known for Thunderbirds and Space 1999, but his career dates back 23 years; it includes thirteen TV series and three feature films. For sixteen of those years, he worked for the expansive (Lord) Lew Grade, boss of ATV and its subsidiary ITC. The ending of that long working relationship seems to have left at least a trace of bitterness.

Anderson is a Londoner. He was born on 14th April 1929 in West Hampstead and educated in Kilburn, then Neasden – “I lived in Neasden,” he says. “What can I say? I can’t deny it.” His father supplied cigarette machines which ordinary people kept in their living rooms. The business was literally run from a cupboard under the stairs. Anderson Sr acquired customers by knocking on doors and asking: “Would you like this French-polished cigarette machine in your house?”

One of young Gerry’s first ambitions was to be an architect. In fact, he says, he would still like to design his own house but, whenever he’s had the money, he’s had no time… and whenever he’s had time he’s had no money. In his early days, he went to Building School and studied plastering. However, after an accident, he discovered he was allergic to plaster. So he went to work in a photographer’s studio in Regent Street and became interested in the visual medium.

He soon moved on to the post-war Colonial Film Unit at the Ministry of Information. He says that was “when we still had a British Empire – Before Lew Grade bought it all”. After that, Anderson moved to Gainsborough Pictures (at what is now BBC Lime Grove Studios). He worked in the cutting rooms on The Wicked Lady, So Long at The Fair, Jancy, Caravan and various other movies.

At this point, he was called up for National Service with the RAF and (he claims) his IQ was so low he “was offered the choice of the cookhouse or the military police”. In fact, he became a radio telephone operator, guiding aeroplanes in to land – this started his interest in flying.

After military service, he returned to the film industry and worked as a sound editor at Pinewood Studios, where director Lewis Milestone gave him the advice: “It’s impossible to please everybody, so please yourself”.

Anderson says: “I’ve tried to follow that advice without any success at all.”

Spreading his wings, he went to a small company, Polytechnic Films of Maidenhead. He worked for them on a series of documentaries about unusual people – a man in Austria who lived for a year in a bottle… a woman who could type in ten languages simultaneously… a man who hypnotised crocodiles. The series was called You’ve Never Seen This. No-one did; the company went bankrupt.

He stayed in Maidenhead to form AP Films with Arthur Provis in 1955. Their premises were a disused ballroom at Islet Park and, eventually, they were commissioned to make a 52-part series for the newly-created ITV. It was only after they agreed to the project that Anderson and Provis discovered it was to be a puppet series: The Adventures of Twizzle. This led to Torchy The Battery Boy, then Four Feather Falls for Granada TV (with Nicholas Parsons as the voice of Tex Tucker).

These series proved a success, so the Anderson company moved to a factory on the Slough Industrial Trading Estate. There they made Supercar for Lew Grade’s ATV. That was followed by Fireball XL-5, the only Anderson series to be networked in the US. Following that success, Lew Grade told Anderson: “I am going to buy your company”.

First series after the take-over was Stingray, which was also the first British TV film series made in colour. Then there was the world-wide success of Thunderbirds. Followed by what Anderson calls the “tragic error” of Captain Scarlet. – The heads and bodies were made in realistic proportion to each other, so the puppets stopped being caricatures and this, he thinks, was unacceptable to the viewers. Anderson’s last two Supermarionation series were Joe 90 and The Secret Service. He then went into live-action with UFOThe Protectors and Space 1999.

But, for all this success, Gerry Anderson is not a totally happy man. He’s had great success and everyone can understand success. But he’s also had sudden commercial failures which, to this day, he cannot explain. Also, three years ago, his marriage to Sylvia Anderson broke up. It happened between the two series of Space 1999 – a show which itself must have been tiring because of the much-publicised production and front-office problems.

Since then, in his own words, he has been “marking time”. His company Gerry Anderson Marketing currently has the lucrative European merchandising rights to pop group Abba. Last year, he also made a Supermarionation TV ad Alien Attack for Jif Dessert Topping – the only ad he has done apart from three award-winning ones for Blue Cars (a travel agent) in the late 1950s.

I interviewed Gerry Anderson in his office at Pinewood, the studios where he worked after National Service and where Space 1999 was shot. He is a surprisingly quiet man who is very polite and whose apparent policy in interviews is to be as helpful, honest and open as possible. He talks quietly and reasonably slowly, as if choosing his words carefully. Presumably, he is a man made wary by a great deal of contact with media corporations. He worked with Lew Grade and ATV/ITC for sixteen years and, as he says, “sometimes it’s better to be a big cog in a small machine, rather than a small cog in a big machine.”

* * *

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 Space:1999 series was refused by all three US Networks despite its very high production values. Why?

I think the reason is all too clear now. (Pause) It was ‘serious’ science fiction. On the other hand, so was Star Trek. But, you know, Star Trek got away with it because of (studio) politics. A studio (Desilu) was sold to a Network (NBC) and part of the condition was that they bought Star Trek with it. Then they took it off the air and 12,000 fans – who were probably the only people who watched it in the States – went to NBC and demanded its return. And then it became a cult show. But, I mean, it never had high ratings ever. It’s a show all on its own. I think Space: 1999 suffered from being British.

It didn’t get networked in Britain either. Why do you think that was?

I don’t know the answer to that. I wish you could tell me.

Well, at the time, programme planners for regional ITV companies were very jealously guarding their control over films and film series. There was a lot of resistance over networking film series.

I really don’t know. When I see some of the rubbish that is networked…

It was shoved away into Saturday morning slots on some ITV stations.

Well, I think we were killed before we even started. If you don’t get simultaneous networking, then the newspapers aren’t interested in commenting; if they don’t comment, people don’t watch; it’s like the hoola hoola bird going in ever-decreasing circles until you disappear up your own channel.

I heard somewhere that the original stars of Space: 1999 were to have been Katharine Ross and Robert Culp.

Not Katharine Ross. Robert Culp was interviewed. We met in Beverly Hills. I’m a great fan of his because he’s a very, very competent actor and has a very great charisma. He arrived and I said, “Right, I’ll tell you what the series is about…” And he said, “Look, before you tell me what the series is about, may I say a couple of things?” So I said, “Certainly.” He said, “First of all, I am a superb actor.” And I said, “Yes. That’s why we’ve invited you here.” He said, “Fine. But what is not generally known is that I am also an outstanding writer.” So I said, “Well that, I must confess, I didn’t know.” And he said, “Finally, I am an even better director.” Now all of those statements may well be true. But, knowing what television production means, where you’ve got one picture a fortnight going through – one hour every ten days – in my view the lead artist hasn’t got the time or the physical strength to cope with leading the series and be involved with the writing and also criticise the direction.

I felt that this would be a great danger and so, very politely, I said, “Thank you very much and goodbye.” And, equally politely, he said, “Thank you very much. Goodbye.” We didn’t have any kind of argument. I respected his point of view. Whether he respected me, I don’t know. But the interview terminated there.

That poster on your wall is for the new Space: 1999 film , isn’t it?

Yes. I think Destination – Moonbase Alpha, is going to be damn good entertainment, particularly for people who like science fiction. What I think is a great shame is that here we have Superman on screen with its $50 million or whatever budget. Close Encounters with its $20 million budget. We’ve got some mighty expensive pictures on the screen at the moment. Even Star Wars was almost $10 million when it was made and probably now the same picture would be $25 million. With Destination – Moonbase Alpha we have two television episodes (Bringers of Wonder, Parts 1 & 2) strung together and the title reads: Sir Lew Grade Presents a Gerry Anderson Production and it doesn’t say it’s two television episodes strung together. The damage it does is that people who’ve seen all these (other) fabulous pictures now go and see that and say, “I would’ve expected something a bit better than that from Gerry Anderson.”

I’ve heard you say you’d like to move more into theatrical presentations.

Well, hopefully I’ll never see television again. That means if I were offered a good television series this afternoon I would crack a bottle of champagne and celebrate and do it and love every minute of it. But it is such a terrible strain, producing one hour a week, that I would much prefer to do theatrical – that is cinema – pictures. At the time of this interview, I’m at the point of a very, very big breakthrough. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what it’s about or who’s involved because it would spoil the chances of the picture going.

Is it for a studio or for an independent?

It is a major subject with a major studio, a major director and a major star. And a fantasy subject. We’re right on the knife-edge at the moment.

If it works out, you’ll be producing again. Why do you produce rather than direct?

I always wanted to direct and I made the fatal mistake of thinking if I start my own film company and I’m making my own pictures, when it comes to the director, I will be able to direct. That’s how I hoped to become a director. Instead of which, you find you are so busy organising production that, when it comes to the crunch, you have to take somebody else on because you can’t handle it yourself.

You have directed, though.

When we first started, I directed 26 Twizzles, 26 Torchys, 52 Four Feather Falls, the pilot of UFO – I’ve directed an awful lot of our stuff.

Do you think you’re a bankable director?

No, certainly not. Because most of the films I’ve directed have been puppet films and bankable directors are directors who have directed theatrical (cinema) pictures that have made millions of dollars. I haven’t directed any theatricals, so I can’t be bankable.

You were saying there are a lot of big-budget films around at the moment. There’s a danger in big budgets, isn’t there? With a big budget you do what’s easiest whereas, with a small budget, you have to be more creative.

Well, this is Gerry Anderson feeling sorry for himself. I think, in an ideal world, people who have for years worked on a small budget and therefore got the very best out of each pound or dollar… when science fiction took off, those were the people who should have been given the chance to take the big budgets and produce something really sensational. But business doesn’t work that way. Americans are so much more adventurous than British people at the moment. They get the money and they arrive at London Airport with their sack containing $20 million and they’re certainly not going to come into a British studio and say, “Can you recommend a British producer to whom I can give this $20 million so that he can make himself a fortune?”

That is not going to happen so, consequently, people like myself have not benefitted from this tremendous book in science fiction. It is, in the main, American money. The profits, as in the case of Star Wars, which was shot in Britain, will go back to America to encourage further investment for new American producers. British technicians have gained, but that’s short-sighted. The profits are going back to America. They are not remaining here and they will not fund future British productions.

Why do you think it’s so difficult to get backing in Britain?

Why do I think that is? Why, as we sit here, are we likely to have a State of Emergency in the next 48 hours? Because, sadly, this lovely country of hours which, at one time, had so many wonderful qualities, is falling apart. People don’t think any more; people are lazy here; people don’t want to work; people don’t want to take chances; people are out of touch with new ideas. It’s a national disease.

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“Thunderbirds” producer Gerry Anderson wanted to be an architect

Back in the media mists of 1979, I interviewed TV and film producer Gerry Anderson. This was my introduction to the interview:

Producer Gerry Anderson is best known for Thunderbirds and Space 1999, but his career dates back 23 years; it includes thirteen TV series and three feature films. For sixteen of those years, he worked for the expansive (Lord) Lew Grade, boss of ATV and its subsidiary ITC. The ending of that long working relationship seems to have left at least a trace of bitterness.

Anderson is a Londoner. He was born on 14th April 1929 in West Hampstead and educated in Kilburn, then Neasden – “I lived in Neasden,” he says. “What can I say? I can’t deny it.” His father supplied cigarette machines which ordinary people kept in their living rooms. The business was literally run from a cupboard under the stairs. Anderson Sr acquired customers by knocking on doors and asking: “Would you like this French-polished cigarette machine in your house?”

One of young Gerry’s first ambitions was to be an architect. In fact, he says, he would still like to design his own house but, whenever he’s had the money, he’s had no time… and whenever he’s had time he’s had no money. In his early days, he went to Building School and studied plastering. However, after an accident, he discovered he was allergic to plaster. So he went to work in a photographer’s studio in Regent Street and became interested in the visual medium.

He soon moved on to the post-war Colonial Film Unit at the Ministry of Information. He says that was “when we still had a British Empire – Before Lew Grade bought it all”. After that, Anderson moved to Gainsborough Pictures (at what is now BBC Lime Grove Studios). He worked in the cutting rooms on The Wicked Lady, So Long at The Fair, Jancy, Caravan and various other movies.

At this point, he was called up for National Service with the RAF and (he claims) his IQ was so low he “was offered the choice of the cookhouse or the military police”. In fact, he became a radio telephone operator, guiding aeroplanes in to land – this started his interest in flying.

After military service, he returned to the film industry and worked as a sound editor at Pinewood Studios, where director Lewis Milestone gave him the advice: “It’s impossible to please everybody, so please yourself”.

Anderson says: “I’ve tried to follow that advice without any success at all.”

Spreading his wings, he went to a small company, Polytechnic Films of Maidenhead. He worked for them on a series of documentaries about unusual people – a man in Austria who lived for a year in a bottle… a woman who could type in ten languages simultaneously… a man who hypnotised crocodiles. The series was called You’ve Never Seen This. No-one did; the company went bankrupt.

He stayed in Maidenhead to form AP Films with Arthur Provis in 1955. Their premises were a disused ballroom at Islet Park and, eventually, they were commissioned to make a 52-part series for the newly-created ITV. It was only after they agreed to the project that Anderson and Provis discovered it was to be a puppet series: The Adventures of Twizzle. This led to Torchy The Battery Boy, then Four Feather Falls for Granada TV (with Nicholas Parsons as the voice of Tex Tucker).

These series proved a success, so the Anderson company moved to a factory on the Slough Industrial Trading Estate. There they made Supercar for Lew Grade’s ATV. That was followed by Fireball XL-5, the only Anderson series to be networked in the US. Following that success, Lew Grade told Anderson: “I am going to buy your company”.

First series after the take-over was Stingray, which was also the first British TV film series made in colour. Then there was the world-wide success of Thunderbirds. Followed by what Anderson calls the “tragic error” of Captain Scarlet. – The heads and bodies were made in realistic proportion to each other, so the puppets stopped being caricatures and this, he thinks, was unacceptable to the viewers. Anderson’s last two Supermarionation series were Joe 90 and The Secret Service. He then went into live-action with UFO, The Protectors and Space 1999.

But, for all this success, Gerry Anderson is not a totally happy man. He’s had great success and everyone can understand success. But he’s also had sudden commercial failures which, to this day, he cannot explain. Also, three years ago, his marriage to Sylvia Anderson broke up. It happened between the two series of Space 1999 – a show which itself must have been tiring because of the much-publicised production and front-office problems.

Since then, in his own words, he has been “marking time”. His company Gerry Anderson Marketing currently has the lucrative European merchandising rights to pop group Abba. Last year, he also made a Supermarionation TV ad Alien Attack for Jif Dessert Topping – the only ad he has done apart from three award-winning ones for Blue Cars (a travel agent) in the late 1950s.

I interviewed Gerry Anderson in his office at Pinewood, the studios where he worked after National Service and where Space 1999 was shot. He is a surprisingly quiet man who is very polite and whose apparent policy in interviews is to be as helpful, honest and open as possible. He talks quietly and reasonably slowly, as if choosing his words carefully. Presumably, he is a man made wary by a great deal of contact with media corporations. He worked with Lew Grade and ATV/ITC for sixteen years and, as he says, “sometimes it’s better to be a big cog in a small machine, rather than a small cog in a big machine.”

(My interview with Gerry Anderson appears in two parts HERE and HERE)

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“The Long Good Friday” – inside one of the two greatest British gangster films ever made

Last night I went to the Museum of London’s Docklands cinema for a special screening of the 1981 movie The Long Good Friday, introduced by its scriptwriter Barrie Keeffe. Very appropriate, as the film’s plot is partly about 1980s plans for Docklands’ re-development. In the film, there is a model of what Docklands might look like in the future. As Barrie Keeffe said last night: “We never imagined it would look like it does tonight – Manhattan…”

I am a great admirer of The Long Good Friday – it is on an equal footing with Get Carter as the greatest British gangster film ever made.

I have blogged before about The Long Good Friday – I was working at Lew Grade‘s ATV in Birmingham when the film encountered its post-production problems.

Both Barrie Keeffe and I assume that Lew Grade did not actually read the script before agreeing to finance the £1 million film but then – hey! – I never read the Killer Bitch script which I financed – I still haven’t. Not that the two movies are exactly comparable… Anyway…

When Lew Grade saw the completed movie of The Long Good Friday, he was so shocked by some of the plot details – especially the film’s climax – that he refused to release it as a feature film, refused to screen it on TV without massive cuts to the violence and the plot and even refused to allow anyone to buy it off him – until George Harrison (yes, the Beatle)’s Handmade Films made him an offer he felt he couldn’t refuse – a financial offer not involving any horse’s head.

It is difficult to discuss The Long Good Friday without mentioning the twist that most offended Lew Grade, but here goes…

It is a wonderful film partly because the crucial opening sequence is shot without audible dialogue – the only line clearly heard by the audience is someone saying something in an East London accent during an abduction… also partly because the audience is suckered into looking the wrong way in plot terms… and also partly because it has a triple ending.

There are two scenes at the end which feel like the rounding-off of a normal thriller but then there’s a sudden shock ending which should, in theory, have an equally sudden cut-to-black (as in French Connection II). Instead, director John Mackenzie uses a final static and very effective shot held on one character’s face for an extraordinarily long time.

Barrie Keeffe says his inspiration for The Long Good Friday was his love of film noir movies from the 1940s and 1950s. He wanted to make a black and white Humphrey Bogart film noir of the 1940s in colour in 1979 (when the film was written) – and he always had the then relatively inexperienced Bob Hoskins in mind for the central role of gangster Harold Shand; producer Barry Hanson had previously worked with Bob.

Barrie and Barry had a crucial script discussion with Bob shortly after he returned from filming Zulu Dawn in South Africa. They went to see him at the School of Tropical Medicine in London because he had managed to get ill with a 26-foot-long tapeworm inside him during the shooting. The film-making duo were told by medical staff not to get Bob excited about the Long Good Friday script because they were operating on him the next day and, if he got too excited, the tapeworm might split in two with dangerous consequences. Bob got excited but the tapeworm kept calm.

One format for film noirs is that the chief protagonist is a gangster who faces rivalry from another gangster. Barrie decided to make the opponent Harold Shand faces not a rival gangster with his own values but an opponent of an entirely different kind who does not share Shand’s values.

Perhaps mistakenly, Barrie revealed who that opponent was to the audience before last night’s screening and some members of the audience had not previously seen The Long Good Friday. A friend who was with me had not seen the movie before and told me afterwards that knowing whodunnit had not spoiled her enjoyment of the film (she said it was “brilliant”) but I still think audience ignorance is a good thing in The Long Good Friday.

The film was criticised by one newspaper for over-use of religious symbolism – in particular. the sequence in which one man is found crucified on a wooden warehouse floor. But, as Barrie explained, this was not uncommon as a punishment in London gangster circles at the time. As a young reporter on East End newspaper the Stratford Express, he was once sent to interview the victim of a crucifixion. The guy lay there in his hospital bed covered in bandages and, when Barrie asked him what had happened, his reply was: “It was a self-inflicted D.I.Y. accident.”

Barrie’s background was partly as a journalist on the Stratford Express during the heyday of the Kray Twins in 1960s London. As an innocent-eyed 18 year old, he once stood in the men’s toilet of an East End pub with notoriously violent and rampantly gay Ronnie Kray.

“Take a look at this,” Ronnie said to him standing at the urinal, looking down at his own groin. “Go on, son, look at this – the handle on it.”

Barrie reluctantly looked down.

It was a gun.

Barrie was relieved it was only a gun.

In The Long Good Friday, there is a scene in which a gangster is approached by a woman in black widow’s clothing who raises her veil and spits in his face. This was taken from a real incident in which a bereaved widow raised her veil and spat in Barrie’s face after he had pretended to be working for a newspaper rival of the Stratford Express.

After the screening, I was able to talk to Barrie briefly and ask if it was true that he had once been going to re-write John Osborne’s classic 1950s play The Entertainer with comedian Malcolm Hardee in the Laurence Olivier role.

“I wasn’t going to re-write it,” Barrie told me, “but we were going to adapt it to suit him.” He paused, then added: “But I don’t know what his discipline would have been like…”

Indeed.

Yes.

Indeed.

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A rubber Jesus Christ, fundamentalist Muslims and TV comedy censorship

On Sunday 11th October 1992, when Bill Dare was producer of the TV satire series Spitting Image, he put Jesus Christ into the show for the first time – as one of the latex puppets.

The production company involved, Central Television, told the Independent newspaper: “As with all Spitting Image material, this short item has been checked at the highest level for taste and legality and considered suitable for transmission. Spitting Image is renowned for being controversial and viewers must make up their own minds.”

Central received 380 complaints about the sketch before it was transmitted, but only 20 complaints after the broadcast. Overall, according to Bill Dare, ITV received about 70 complaints after the sketch was screened.

The Rev Eric Shegog, Church of England director of communications, said afterwards: “I would have thought, generally speaking, most Christians would not have taken much offence at it because it was so innocuous.”

Legendary moral campaigner and veteran complainer Mary Whitehouse said the puppet show’s sketch – which was about God looking high and low in heaven for a copy of the Bible and failing to find one until Jesus suggests that he look in Yellow Pages – was ‘tasteless’ and ‘silly’, but said that she would not be making a formal complaint.

Nonetheless, Bill Dare asked Central if it was OK to use the Jesus Christ puppet in another upcoming Spitting Image show and perhaps as a regular cast member. Bill was told there would be no problem with using the Jesus puppet again.

But then ITV got complaints from a fundamentalist Muslim group because Jesus, as well as being a Christian icon, is regarded as a Messenger of God by Muslims.

ITV reversed their decision and told Bill he could not use the Jesus puppet in Spitting Image again for fear of… causing offence.

What this shows I do not know. But this was back in 1992.

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