Joe 90 at 50

September 29, 2018

Fifty years on to the day from his television debut, Joe 90 makes his first appearance in the medium of blu-ray, with the quality of these newly-restored episodes coming as a revelation. And unlike the lad himself, you won’t need glasses to appreciate the difference. But how did he fare the first time around? As we celebrate the launch of our Joe 90 blu-rays, join us for a look back at that first broadcast of half a century ago.

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On September 11, 1968, readers of TV21 comic can’t have failed to notice a large, half-page advertisement promoting three of that year’s crop of annuals. Thunderbirds and Project Sword were familiar enough, but what of the third of these titles: Joe 90? For many, this would have been their first glimpse of a brand-new Gerry Anderson production, several weeks ahead of its debut on television. Most wouldn’t have long to wait to see the new series, but for some, Joe 90 would be a long time coming… a very long time.

When Joe 90 arrived on UK screens on 29 September 1969, it was with a minimum of fuss or promotion. These days, there would be online discussion and trailers weeks if not months ahead of the airdate. Back in 1968, the only advance notice most viewers received was a mention in the newly-restyled TV Times, published on September 18, or via the aforementioned advertisement in TV21. The trade press had been first with the news way back in the autumn of 1967, while consumer press promotions were referring to the series as early as spring of the following year: but stories such as these were hardly likely to connect with the young audience for the new Supermarionation series.

Even for the time, this lack of promotion was somewhat unusual: Thunderbirds had been heavily trailed on screen prior to its debut, and Captain Scarlet had been hinted at for months via the pages of TV21Joe 90 had received no such help from the de facto mouthpiece of the Century 21 organisation, although in retrospect, this may not have been so surprising, since a brand-new Joe 90 comic was already in the pipeline.

Filming had already been completed by the end of August 1968, and the Slough studios were now at work on the next Supermarionation series – which would also prove to be the last. Meanwhile, Joe 90 made his television debut on Sunday 29 September, with viewers in the Midlands and Tyne Tees tuning in for The Most Special Agent. For those in the Midlands, Sunday was a new day of the week for Supermarionation, the change coming in the wake of the recent franchise reshuffle at ITV which saw local operator ATV upgraded to seven-day working (replacing the previous weekday/weekend split with ABC).

In London, however, LWT had much more ambitious plans for WIN’s young superstar, whose adventures would go out on Saturdays at 5.15pm, in a direct challenge to the BBC’s Doctor Who. This was the first time that any Supermarionation series had gone head-to-head with the beloved time traveller, and LWT pulled no punches in the press, confident that the slick new puppet series would trounce the Doctor in the ratings. Only time would tell…

Equally gung-ho were Century 21’s press releases proudly outlining the merchandising deals that had been struck on their new property. But although the Joe 90 brand appeared on products as diverse as bubble gum and breakfast cereal, there would ultimately be less on offer in the way of toys and collectables. Where Captain Scarlet had provided a wide range of exciting vehicles and characters ripe for exploitation by toy manufacturers, there was considerably less hardware in Joe 90, with only Mac’s ‘Jet Air Car’ and Sam Loover’s drab grey saloon being offered as die-cast and plastic models. Pedigree (known for their traditional dolls and bears) produced a small Joe 90 doll, but its whimsical, almost kewpie-esque appearance had only limited appeal to fans. The must-have item of Joe 90 merchandise was a facsimile of his briefcase (seen in the end titles but barely glimpsed in the actual episodes). This came complete with plastic replicas of Joe’s radio, glasses and pistol, alongside a few small notebooks. Joe’s case, this time in cardboard, also formed the imaginative packaging for a dressing-up outfit, comprising the red tunic and trousers seen in Most Special Agent, together with a soft cap.

By January 1969, Joe 90 was being shown across much of the ITV network, although several regions were notably slow on the uptake. Border held out until September 1970, but Grampian viewers were left to wait a full ten years, with the most special agent finally reaching the highlands in October of 1978. This was as nothing compared to the situation in the Yorkshire area, where the series went unseen until the early 80s; by which time even Joe himself had grown up…

Next time, we take a look at Joe 90’s ventures into print…

Martin Cater

Joe 90: Volume 1 is available to order now


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