Sylvia and Gerry Anderson

From Academic Kids

For the radio and television presenter, see Gerry Anderson (broadcaster)

Gerry Anderson and Sylvia Anderson are most famous as the production team for several futuristic children's television shows involving specially modified marionettes, a process called "supermarionation". Their most famous production is Thunderbirds, which was produced by their production company, originally known as AP Films and later renamed Century 21 Productions in collaboration with partners Reg Hill and John Read.

Sylvia Anderson created the characters for most of the series, and voiced many of the female characters, most notably Lady Penelope in Thunderbirds. The couple married in 1960 and were divorced in 1980. Their creative partnership concluded during the production of Space: 1999 in the mid-1970s.



Anderson was born Gerald Alexander Abrahams on 14 April 1929 in Hampstead, London. The family name was changed by deed poll in 1939. When World War II broke out, Anderson's older brother Lionel volunteered for the RAF and was posted to the United States. He often he wrote to his family and one of these letters described a USAF airbase called Thunderbird Field, a name that stuck in his brother's memory.

Gerry Anderson began his career in photography and after the war he secured a traineeship with the British Colonial Film Unit. He developed an interest in film editing and moved on to Gainsborough Pictures, where he gained further experience.

In 1947, he was conscripted for national service with the RAF. After completing his military service, he returned to Gainsborough and remained there until the studio folded in 1950. He then worked freelance on a succession of feature films. During this time he married Betty Wrightman and they had two children.

In the mid-1950s Anderson joined independent television production company Polytechnic Studios, as a director, where he met cameraman Arthur Provis. After Polytechnic collapsed, Anderson, Provis, Reg Hill and John Read formed Pentagon Films in 1957; secretary Sylvia Thamm later became Anderson's second wife. Pentagon was wound up soon after and Anderson and Provis formed a new company, AP Films, with Hill and Read as partners. Anderson continued his freelance directing work to keep money coming in.

AP Films' first television venture was produced for Granada TV. Created by Roberta Leigh, The Adventures of Twizzle (1957-58) was a series for young children children about a doll with the ability to 'twizzle' his arms and legs to greater lengths. It was Anderson's first work with puppets, and the start of his long and successful collaborations with puppeteer Christine Glanville, special effects technician Derek Meddings and composer, arranger Barry Gray.

During production of Twizzle, Anderson began an affair with Thamm, and eventually left his wife and children. Following his divorce, Anderson and Thamm married, in November 1960. The Adventures of Twizzle was followed by another another low budget puppet series with Leigh, Torchy the Battery Boy (1958-59). Although the APF puppet productions made the Andersons world famous, Gerry Anderson was always unhappy about working with puppets, and made them primarily as a means of getting a foot in the door with TV networks, hoped to use them as a stepping stone to ihs desired goal -- making live action film and TV drama.

AP Films' third series was the children's western fantasy-adventure series Four Feather Falls (1959-60). During production Provis left the partnership (partly due to personal differences with Anderson) but the company retained the name 'AP Films' for several more years. Despite APF's success with Four Feather Falls, Granada did not commission another series from them, so Anderson took up the offer to direct a film for Anglo Amalgamated Studios. Crossroads to Crime was a low-budget B-grade crime thriller and although Anderson hoped that its success might enable him to move into mainstream film-making, it failed at the box office.

By this time, APF was in financial trouble and the company was struggling to find a buyer for their new puppet series. They were rescued by a fortuitous meeting with ATV boss Lew Grade who offered to buy the show. This began a long friendship and a very successful professional association between the two men, during which Anderson and his collaborators created some of their best work.

The new series, Supercar, (1960-61) was created by Anderson and Reg Hill) and it marked several important advances for APF. Sylvia Anderson took on a larger role and became a partner in APF. The series was also the debut of 'Supermarionation', the electronic system that made the marionettes more lifelike and convincing on screen. The system used the audio signal from the pre-recorded tapes of the actors' voices to trigger solenoids installed in the puppets' heads, enabling the puppets' lips to move in exact synchronisation with the voices of the actors.

One of Anderson's most successful ventures was inaugurated during the production of Supercar —the establishment of AP Films (Merchandising) Ltd, a separate company set up to handle the licensing of merchandising rights for APF properties; it was headed by Keith Shackleton, an old friend of Anderson's from their National Service days.

APF's innovative mechandising made them a world leader in the field and they licensed a huge range of toys, books, magazines and related items. The worldwide poularity of their TV shows was coupled with astute marketing, and the combination made APF one of the most successful merchandising ventures of the decade. The die-cast metal toys from series such as Thunderbirds were hugely popular at the time and they now number among the most collectible toys of their kind. Models from almost all their series have been produced ever since by companies throughout the world, notably in Japan, where the Anderson series have a dedicated following.

APF's next series was the futuristic space adventure Fireball XL5 (1962) and it was the company's biggest success yet, becoming the first series sold to a US TV network (NBC)—a rarity for British TV programs at that time. After the completion of the series, Lew Grade offered to buy AP Films. Although Anderson was initially reluctant, the deal eventually went ahead, with Grade becoming managing director, and the Andersons, Hill and Read becoming directors of the company.

Shortly after the buy-out, APF began production on a new puppet series, Stingray (1964), the first British children's series to be filmed in colour. For the new production APF moved to new studios in Slough. The new and bigger facilities allowed them to make major improvements in special effects, notably in the underwater sequences, as well as advances in puppetry, with the use of a variety of interchangeable heads for each character to convey different expressions. The series also consolidated Anderson's regular team of voice actors, including Australian actor Ray Barrett, who worked with Anderson until the early Seventies. The versatile, radio-trained actor voiced scores of featured and incidental characters, including Commander Shore and King Titan in Stingray and John Tracy and The Hood in Thunderbirds.

The remarkably effective underwater sequences, devised by Derek Meddings and his team, were shot on 'dry'; underwater sets and the underwater 'look' was created by filming through a thin fish tank, which was specially fitted with air pumps to create different-sized streams of bubbles and stocked with different-sized aquarium fish to enhance the illusion of depth. Additional realism was created with the use of smoke and specially-designed lighting, which simulated the effect of sunight filtering through water.

The special effects on Stingray were a major advance on previous efforts. Meddings and his team became skilled at shooting many kinds of miniature effects with the film running at high speed, giving a more realistic result when slowed down to normal speed. The spectacular shot in the title sequence, in which Stingray bursts out of the water, pursued by a 'mechanical fish', was captured on the first take. They also became very adept at creating spectacular and extremely convincing explosive and pyrotechnic effects (an APF 'trademark') as well as creating highly detailed, realistic miniature sets, landscapes and futuristic land, water and air craft of all kinds. They also pioneered a number of miniature now-standard model-making techniques, including the 'cannibalising' of commercial model kits for parts to add realistic detail to vehicles, and the 'aging' of model finishes to enhance the illusion that they were real vehicles in regular use. Stingray was the company's biggest success to date and remains extremely popular to this day.

APF's next project for ATV was based on a mining disaster that occurred in West Germany in October 1963. This real-life drama inspired Anderson to create a new program format about a rescue organisation, which eventually became his most famous and popular series, Thunderbirds (1964-66). The dramatic title was inspired by the letter Anderson's older brother Lionel had written to his family during WWII.

It followed the exploits of International Rescue, a secret rescue organisation based on a remote tropical island, set up by millionaire ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy. He is assisted by his five sons (who were named after five of the real-life Mercury astronauts), brilliant scientist 'Brains', who designed their rescue craft, their servant Kyrano and his daughter Tin Tin, and by their London agent Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward and her butler-chauffeur Parker. International Rescue jet around the world and even into space on rescue missions, and do battle with evil mastermind The Hood, who wants to steal the secrets of the Thunderbird craft.

Grade was very enthusiastic about the concept and agreed to back a series of 25-minute episodes (the same length as Stingray), so the Andersons scripted a pilot episode, "Trapped in the Sky", and began production. Gerry initially wanted actress Fenella Fielding to perform the voice of Lady Penelope, but Sylvia convinced her husband to let her play the role. Thunderbirds also marked the start of a long professional association with actor Shane Rimmer, who voiced Scott Tracy.

Production on Thunderbirds had been underway for several months when Grade saw the completed 25-minute version of "Trapped in the Sky". He so excited by the result that he insisted that the episodes be extended to fifty minutes. With a substantial increase in budget, the production was restructured to expand episodes already filmed or in pre-production, and create new 50-minute scripts for the remainder. Grade and others were so convinced that Thunderbirds would be a success that a feature-film version of the series was proposed even before the pilot episode went to air.

APF—now renamed Century 21 Productions—enjoyed its greatest success with Thunderbirds and the series made the Andersons world-famous. The 39-episode series was not initially successful in the United States because it was only given a limited release, although it later became hugely successful in syndication). But it was a major hit with young audiences in the UK, Australia and other countries and retains a huge and dedicated international following that spans several generations.

Thunderbirds also set new standards in special effects, and the work of Meddings and his team remains impressive even today. Among those at the time who were impressed with the SFX work on the series was director Stanley Kubrick, who was at the time in pre-production for his next feature 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick in fact approached Anderson to provide the miniature effects for the movie but Anderson declined, although Kubrick eventually managed to 'poach' a number of key Thunderbirds production staff, including Medding's assistant, Brian Johnson.

One of the notable innovations in Thunderbirds was Meddings' famous "rolling road" and 'rolling sky" system which used scenery elements (road or sky) built as a continuous motor-driven belt, which created a realistic illusion of cars moving along a road, or of aircraft taking off, flying or landing. Meddings' system also greatly improved the lighting and shooting these miniature effects, since it was only the background that moved -- the static model craft were suspended by invisible wires -- and it eliminated the obvious wobbling movements that plagued earlier miniature work of this kind. The first use of the system was in "Trapped In The Sky"; during filming of the climactic landing sequence, one of the radio-controlled models being used accidentally veered out of control and crashed, but Meddings was so impressed with the scene that the it was retained and edited in as part of the final cut of the sequence.

Barry Gray's superb theme and incidental music were another inextricable part of the series' appeal, and the stirring Thunderbirds march has become an enduring staple with brass and military bands throughout the world.

During the production of Thunderbirds the Andersons' marriage began to come under increasing strain, and the company also had a setback when the Thunderbirds Are Go feature film flopped. According to interviews published since, Anderson has said that he considered divorce, but this was halted when Sylvia announced that she was pregnant. Their son, Gerry Anderson Jr was born in July 1967.

By that time, production had started on a new series, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967), which saw the advent of more realistic puppet characters which, thanks to improvements in electronics, could now be built closer to normal human proportions; puppets in earlier series had to have larger-than-normal heads, to accompodate the bulky components. Reflecting Anderson's long-standing desire to tackle adult-oriented projects, Captain Scarlet had a much darker feel and a gritty realism not found in his earlier shows, and it featured considerably higher levels of violence than either Stingray or Thunderbirds. The plot concerned attempts by an Martian race called The Mysterons, who have the power to take over the bodies of humans after they kill them, but they are opposed by the defence organisation SPECTRUM and one of its officers, Captain Scarlet, who comes back to life and becomes indestrucible after being killed by The Mysterons. Although it was reasonably successful in first run and was very popular in later sydndication, Captain Scarlet was unable to reproduce the global popularity of Thunderbirds, although it remains a cult favourite with fans. Anderson is currently (2004) developing a computer-animated version of the series.

Century 21's second feature film, Thunderbird 6, was an even bigger failure than the first, and the problems were compounded by their next (and last) Supermarionation series, Joe 90 (1968). This series returned to more 'kid-friendly' territory, depicting the adventures of a young boy who is also a secret agent and whose scientist father uses a supercomputer called 'BIG RAT' which can 'program' Joe with special knowledge and abilities for his missions. Its relatively poor reception made it the last of the classic Anderson marionette shows.

Anderson's next project took the special effects expertise built up over previous TV projects and combined it with live action. Century 21's third feature film, Doppelganger (aka Journey to the Far Side of the Sun) was a dark, Twilight Zone style sci-fi project about an astronaut who travels to a newly discovered planet on the opposite side of the sun, which proves to be an exact mirror-image of Earth. It starred American actor Roy Thinnes. Although it was not a major commercial success, Doppelganger was nominated for an Academy Award for its superb special effects.

Century 21's return to television was the abortive series The Secret Service, which this time mixed live action with Supermarionation. The series was inspired by Anderson's love of British comedian Stanley Unwin, who was known for his nonsense language, 'Unwinese', which he created and used on radio, in film and most famously on the 1968 Small Faces LP Ogden's Nut Gone Flake. Despite Anderson's track record and Unwin's popularity, the series was cancelled before its first screening.

In 1969 the Anderson's began production of a new TV series, UFO, Century 21's first full live-action television series. This sci-fi action-adventure series starred American-born actor Ed Bishop as Commander Straker, head of a secret defence organisation set up to counter an alien invasion. Bishop had previously done voice work on Captain Scarlet and also played a small role (as a moon shuttle pilot) in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The plot of UFO is broadly similar to Captain Scarlet, depicting the invasion of Earth by a mysterious and hostile alien race from beyond the solar system, and the attempt to thwart the alien takeover by a top-secret military force, Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation (SHADO). With typical ingenuity, Century 21 was able to save a considerable amount of money on set construction by having SHADO's subterranean HQ concealed beneath a working film studio, enabling many exteriors to be shot in and around the very studios (Pinewood) where the series was being made.

UFO was decidedly more adult in tone than any of the previous puppet series, and it mixed the classic Century 21 futuristic action-adventure and special effects with some very serious dramatic elements: in one episode, Straker is forced to decide between using SHADO's resources to save his critically-injured son, and heading off an alien attack. Another sinister plot element, introduced in a later episode, was the suggestion that the beings manning the alien ships were in fact abducted humans who had been surgically altered to serve their alien masters. UFO was moderately successful on first release, but built up a strong cult following over the years, although it too fell short of the global success of Thunderbirds and was the last series made under the Century 21 Productions banner.

By this time the relationship between the Andersons had deteriorated, and Gerry Anderson decided not to work with his wife on his next project, the ITC action series The Protectors. It was one of Anderson's few non-original projects. Lew Grade himself was heavily involved in the programme, and cast both the lead actors, Robert Vaughn and Nyree Dawn Porter. The production was difficult for Anderson -- he clashed with the famously difficult Vaughn -- and there were many logistical problems arising from the Europe-wide filming of the show, but it was very successful in both the UK and America.

After The Protectors, Anderson worked on several new projects, none of which he was able to realise. A proposed second series of UFO was shelved, and a return to puppetry, a pilot for a series called The Investigator, failed to find a buyer. Elements of the abandoned second series of UFO were eventually turned into what became the most expensive television series ever made up to that time, Space: 1999.

Another futuristic sci-fi adventure, it was based on the implausible premise that a huge thermonuclear explosion on the Moon's surface (caused by dumping of nuclear waste) launches it out of orbit and into interstellar space. It starred American husband-and-wife actors Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, who had gained international TV fame in Mission: Impossible. They were cast at the insistence of Grade, and against Sylvia Anderson's strenuous objections. The series boasted Anderson's customary high production values and eye-catching special effects, and featured a solid supporting cast including Australian actor Nick Tate and British-Canadian actor Barry Morse (best known for his role as Lt. Gerard, the detective who relentlessly pursued Dr. David Kimball (David Janssen) in the famous TV series The Fugitive). Space: 1999 proved very popular in both the UK and America (where it premiered in September 1975) and Century 21 was asked to produce a second season.

The Andersons' marriage broke down irrevocably after the first season of Space: 1999 in 1975. Gerry left his wife and Sylvia severed her ties with Century 21. To alleviate his financial plight, Gerry Anderson signed away both his share of the profits from the APF/Century 21 shows and his holiday home in Portugal to Lew Grade in return for a one-off payment. It was a decision he later bitterly regretted, because he could not have then forseen the huge value the shows would have when eventually released on home video.

Between making the two series of Space: 1999, Anderson produced a one-off television special, The Day After Tomorrow, an unsuccessful pilot for a series about two spacefaring families en route to Alpha Centauri. While making this project Anderson met Mary Robins, a secretary working at the studios; they began a relationship and were married in April 1981.

A second season of Space: 1999 went into production in 1976 with American producer Fred Freiberger brought in to replace Sylvia Anderson. Freiberger's previous production credits included The Wild Wild West and the final season of Star Trek. The second series was considered by critics and fans to be inferior to the first, with much dissatisfaction expressed over the scripts, which even cast members complained had become increasingly trite and far-fetched. Freiberger also made adjustments to the format of the show. The major character of Victor Bergman was killed off without on-screen explanation (a line of dialogue was to have established that he had died in a freak spacesuit mishap, but this was cut), and several recurring characters disappeared. The cast was augmented with the addition of a super-intelligent 'resident alien' called Maya (Catherine Schell) who could change shape at will (she was "adopted" by the Alpha family and replaced Bergman as science officer), and by a Tony Verdeschi (Tony Anholt), a new chief of security who suddenly appeared in the cast without explanation. To the dismay of fans, Barry Gray's theme and incidental music were replaced with a new score by Derek Wadsworth and this ended Gray's long and fruitful association with Anderson. Plans for a third series of Space: 1999 were cancelled due to lack of American syndication sales, and this marked the end of Anderson's association with ATV.

By the late 1970s, Anderson's life and career was at a low point -- he was in financial difficulty, found it hard to get work, and was involved in a bitter custody battle with Sylvia over their son. But in the early 1980s, Anderson and businessman Christopher Burr formed a new partnership, Anderson Burr Pictures Ltd.

The new company's first production was based on an unrealised concept devised by Anderson in the late seventies for a Japanese cartoon series. Terrahawks marked Anderson's return to working with puppets, but rather than marionettes, this series used a new system dubbed 'Supermacromation', which used highly sophisticated glove puppets -- an approach undoubtedly inspired by the great advances in this form of puppetry made by Jim Henson and his colleagues. Terrahawks was successful, running from 1983 to 1986.

Anderson hoped to continue his renewed success with a series called Space Police a new show mixing live-action and puppets. A pilot film was made with Shane Rimmer, but it took almost ten years to get the concept to the screen. In the meantime, Anderson and Burr produced the cult stop-motion animated series Dick Spanner, which enjoyed many showings on Britain's Channel 4 in the late eighties and early nineties. It was the final project completed by Anderson Burr. Anderson then joined the Moving Picture Company as a commercials director, and provided special effects direction for the hit musical comedy Return to the Forbidden Planet.

The cult appeal of Thunderbirds and the other Supermarionation series grew steadily over the years and was celebrated by comedy and stage productions such as the hit two-man stage revue Thunderbirds FAB. In the early nineties, ITC began releasing home video versions of the Supermarionation shows, and the profile of the shows was further enhanced by productions such as the Dire Straits music video for their single Calling Elvis, which was made as an affectionate Thunderbirds pastiche (with Anderson co-producing), and by Lady Penelope and Parker appearing in a successful series of UK advertisements for an insurance company.

In 1991, BBC-2 in the UK began a repeat season of Thunderbirds, which rivalled the success of its original run. It became so popular in Britain that toy manufacturers were unable to keep up with the demand for the Tracy Island playset, leading one children's show to broadcast a segment showing children how to construct their own. The fan base for the Anderson shows was now worldwide and growing steadily, and Anderson found himself in demand for personal and media appearances.

By now, the original merchandising had become prized collector's items. The original props and puppets from the Supermarionation series grew enormously in value and now rank among the most valuable of all TV memorabilia. A 2002 auction of various items from Anderson shows fetched remarkable prices, with an original Parker marionette selling for UK £38,000. In July 2004, the original studio model of Lady Penelope's pink Rolls Royce 'FAB-1' (made for the original Thunderbirds Are Go film) sold on eBay for £80,000 (about US$143,000).

In 1992, Anderson performed a successful one-man show, An Evening with Gerry Anderson, in which he talked about his career. He also made numerous media and personal appearances to tie in with revivals and DVD releases of Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and Joe 90.

The renewed interest enabled Anderson to return to television production, but several projects including GFI (an animated update of Thunderbirds) did not make it into production. Finally, in 1994, Anderson was able to get the long-shelved Space Police project into production as Space Precinct. It was followed by Lavender Castle, a children's sci-fi fantasy series combining stop-motion animation and computer-generated imagery.

The same year, Thunderbirds was rescreened on the American Fox network, but this caused considerable controversy because the series was re-titled, and the episodes were re-edited, re-dubbed and shortened to 25 minutes. In a letter widely circulated on the Internet, ITV claimed that the cuts were made because of pressure from Fox's Standards and Practices office, which wanted to remove 'unsavory' or 'inappropriate' elements (drinking, smoking, subservient minorities, excessive violence). It was also claimed that the short attention span of American children made the hour-long format undesirable, and that the mid-1980s sale of the ITV music library to Michael Jackson meant that the music and vocal tracks had to be edited out and redubbed with new voices and music.

Gerry Anderson was awarded an MBE in 2001, and is still working on new projects, including the CGI version of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (which debuted in 2005). He was originally approached to be involved in the 2004 feature film adaptation of Thunderbirds, directed by Jonathan Frakes, but he soon distanced himself from the project; Sylvia Anderson, however, did become involved and received a "special thanks" credit in the film, which received mixed critical reviews and was a box-office failure in America.

Unlike her ex-husband, Sylvia Anderson tends to avoid the limelight. According to IMDb, she is currently the UK representative of American cable TV network HBO.

Gerry Anderson productions

TV series (and broadcast dates)

Feature films

(Gerry Anderson had no involvement in the 2004 live action film version of Thunderbirds, although Sylvia Anderson served as a consultant on that project.)

In addition, two UK comics featured strips that were closely based around Anderson's creations. These were TV21 during the 1960s and Countdown during the 1970s. There were also a number of tie-in annuals that were produced each year around Anderson's creations.

External links

  • Gerry Anderson biography (
  • S.I.G. ( 'Supermarionation Is Go' fan site
  • FANDERSON ( The official Gerry Anderson appreciation society site.
  • TV Century 21 ( A large site dedicated to the productions of Gerry Anderson, mainly Supermarionation.
  • official website of The New Captain Scarlet (

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