Supermarionation at 60

January 28, 2021

By Chris Dale

The word Supermarionation would have meant very little to viewers sitting down to watch the first episode of a new puppet adventure series on January 28th 1961. Some may simply have decided to watch Supercar as a result of enjoying a previous production from the same company that had completed its first run on British television just a few months earlier; 1960’s puppet western Four Feather Falls. A.P. Films were the team responsible for both series, although their experience with television puppetry had begun several years earlier.

Before there was an A.P. Films, there was a Pentagon Films, and two friends named Gerry Anderson and Arthur Provis growing frustrated with the company they were working for. Pentagon Films had recently been enjoying success producing commercials for everything from medicine to breakfast cereal, and among the most notable of these was a 1956 advert for Kellogg’s Ricicles. The star of this commercial was the popular children’s character Noddy, filmed using a puppet version of Noddy that was currently starring in a television series of his own.  Both this and a 15-minute cinema film entitled Here Comes Kandy (which also featured a puppet cast) caught the attention of children’s author Roberta Leigh, who came to Pentagon looking to produce a television series she had created and written scripts for; The Adventures of Twizzle. Leigh’s arrival coincided with Provis and Anderson’s departures from Pentagon, and they expressed an interest in taking the project on – despite the reluctance of both men to continue working with puppets!

Anderson and Provis founded a new company – A.P. Films – and after setting up a studio at the gothic mansion of Islet Park in Maidenhead the company produced 52 episodes of Twizzle which began airing in 1957, although sadly only the very first is known to survive today. The show’s success soon brought another commission from Leigh in the shape of 26 episodes of Torchy the Battery Boy. Both series shared a very similar storyline; toys that come to life banding together to build themselves a new community where they can be safe from the clutches of naughty little boys and girls. Despite the undeniable appeal and success of both shows the puppets and sets were naturally far cruder than any other productions to carry the Gerry Anderson name, although in comparing any episode of Torchy to the surviving episode of Twizzle we can get some idea of how that show must have evolved over the course of its missing installments. Neither show lacked for skill or creativity, but the ambition to do better is obvious throughout.

Twizzle hides with Jack-in-the-Box in the first episode of The Adventures of Twizzle.

Another 26 episodes of Torchy were soon commissioned, but would not be produced by A.P. Films. Having grown tired of the interference of Leigh, and eager to produce a series of their own, the company embarked on a new idea from Leigh’s musical arranger Barry Gray; a Wild West fantasy series named Four Feather Falls. Only the first episode of the new series would be filmed at Islet Park, before the production relocated to new premises on the Slough trading estate – where Anderson’s company would remain in one form or another until the early 1970s.

Keen to produce the best-looking series they could, A.P. Films turned their attention to refining the puppets themselves. The Twizzle characters were often modelled from papier-mâché, while those seen in Torchy were constructed from plastic wood. Lip movements were not possible for all the Twizzle characters, often instead requiring a puppeteer to wobble their puppet in order to indicate which character was talking, but Torchy and (most of) his friends could speak via a string-operated moveable lip. However, difficulties would often come in the editing room, as the spoken dialogue would often sync up poorly with the movement of the puppets. 

Thankfully, Four Feather Falls was to solve this problem with the introduction of a lip-syncing mechanism created by a small group led by sound engineer John Taylor. A tape deck playing the pre-recorded dialogue would send impulses down the puppet’s tungsten wires (which replaced the strings from previous productions) and into their head, where a solenoid would open and close their lip as required. This revolutionary process would be refined repeatedly over the following years, but even on Four Feather Falls it was already sophisticated enough to allow up to four characters to speak at any time.

The new solenoids would be fitted inside the hollow fibreglass heads of the puppets, with the features of the show’s regular characters also being created in fibreglass resin from a rubber mould cast of a plasticine original. Although also mounted on a fibreglass head, the faces of the guest characters were usually only sculpted in plasticine – and were therefore likely to make just a handful of appearances before the hot studio lights or their own wires caused unfortunate disfigurements!

Four Feather Falls was a success for A.P. Films when it first aired in 1960, but after Granada Television decided that they weren’t interested in further episodes the future of the company looked in doubt. Thankfully, their promotional brochure for a successor series – Supercar – appealed to ITC’s Lew Grade, who eventually gave the go-ahead for a series of 26 half hour installments. It was the beginning of an association between Anderson and Grade that was to last into the mid-1970s.

The Supercar regular cast (minus Zarin) and several guest puppets hanging around during the production of the show’s first season.

Supercar would bring the A.P. Films puppets from the old West to the present day, and to the technological world of a workshop in the Nevada desert which housed the ‘Marvel of the Age’, Supercar! This revolutionary machine could travel, according to the show’s theme song, in space, under the sea, on land, and through the skies, taking its puppet characters on adventures around the world. The show’s very concept seemed to be an acknowledgement that although the puppets had made great technological strides since the days of Twizzle, actual physical strides that approached anything like those of a real live human would forever be beyond their capabilities…but by placing them in the cockpit of an exciting vehicle, that needn’t be a hinderance to good storytelling.

The show was extremely well received, so much so that A.P. Films formed a new company just to handle the flurry of merchandising that went along with it. Over the next few years, an ever-expanding empire of books, toys, comics, records and more would develop around the studio’s puppet heroes, and much of the revenue they generated would be injected back into future productions – helping to further develop the technology that brought those puppets to life.

By the time Supercar returned for a second season of thirteen more episodes in 1962 this technology had acquired a name, as the caption ‘Filmed in Supermarionation’ appeared on the end titles between the credits for the voice actors and the final ATV and ITC logos. However, for 1963 space opera Fireball XL5 and the two A.P.F. shows that followed it that caption was moved to the opening titles, now presented in a dramatic font that boldly declared that the process was as legitimate a method of filmmaking as anything to be found in Hollywood. The term was coined by Gerry Anderson himself; a simple combination of the words ‘super’, ‘marionette’, and ‘animation’, but the word soon became a trademark of the studio itself. Much to their surprise, the AP Films team soon found that their contemporaries in the film and television industry went along with this conceit, often asking at social gatherings “So, what’s next for Supermarionation?”

Puppeteers would operate the marionettes from a bridge several feet directly over
the puppet stage.

With 1964’s underwater adventure series Stingray came not only the introduction of colour to the Supermarionation world (a move designed to catch the eye of American broadcasters, albeit one that also future-proofed the series for later repeat runs), but an idea to bring a greater expressiveness to the puppet characters themselves. Throughout Fireball XL5 and previous shows the puppets would retain the same neutral expression on their faces no matter what world-threatening disaster they were facing, with only the addition of sweat to their brows to highlight those particularly stressful moments. XL5 had however seen the introduction of special ‘blinking’ heads, and now most of the Stingray crew would also get a ‘frowner’ and a ‘smiler’ head to convey greater emotion. The process wasn’t always perfect (as witnessed by Troy Tempest’s malfunctioning smiler head in the episode Hostages of the Deep) but it nevertheless showed the A.P. Films team’s continuing determination to bringing the stars of their shows to life. The bodies of the puppets were also refined at this time with the production of gender-specific body types, and bendable rubber hands were fitted to the characters allowing them to be posed according to the requirements of the scene.

Although great attention had always been given to the look of the primary puppet stars of each series, comparatively less time was spent on the guest characters, with the result that Supercar, Fireball XL5 and Stingray had sometimes featured human guest characters who looked more alien than the alien ones! With 1965’s Thunderbirds however came equal focus on the puppets that would be cast in guest roles and populate the background of crowd scenes, with many now being produced to the same quality as those of the main characters in order to make regular repeat appearances. This was the beginning of what would come to be known as the puppet repertory company, an idea that would be expanded upon even further over the next few years.

Puppet sculptor John Blundall working on a guest character’s head during
the production of Thunderbirds.

Thunderbirds of course needs little introduction to any long-time visitors to this site, being one of the most popular British television series of all time and undoubtedly the jewel in the Supermarionation crown. The concept of the International Rescue organization operating from a secret island base and utilizing the very latest in rescue vehicles and equipment almost guaranteed that Thunderbirds would be a smash hit right from the very first episode, but the idea was brought to life with such flair and confidence that it surpassed all critical and commercial expectations. Thunderbirds would become the first (and ultimately only) Supermarionation series to be produced for a one-hour timeslot, and when it first aired in September 1965 the general public were instantly hooked.

Although the Thunderbirds puppets retained the disproportionately large heads and hands of their predecessors, their features were not as exaggerated as those of previous shows. By this time the puppet sculptors had started modelling certain characters on specific television and film stars of the day, and although the list of those who inspired them is too long to include here it was perhaps inevitable that in attempting to capture the heroic features of those famous faces the puppets themselves would start to look a little more like real people than they had previously.

Virgil, Gordon and Alan Tracy fly to the rescue aboard Thunderbird 2.

The success of Thunderbirds left all at A.P. Films (or as it would soon become known Century 21 Productions) feeling like they’d finally hit the big time, but following a failed attempt to sell the series to the American networks Lew Grade decided against commissioning further episodes. The exploits of International Rescue would come to an end after just thirty-two action-packed installments, but perhaps the blow could be softened just a little if a project that had been produced alongside the final six episodes of the series turned out to be a success; a feature film based on Thunderbirds that had been announced to the press before the first episode had even aired.

1966 saw International Rescue make the giant leap onto the cinema screen, for the first of two feature films. When Thunderbirds are Go premiered at the Pavilion Cinema in Leicester Square on December 12th 1966, all involved were certain that they had a box office hit on their hands – until the apathy of the general public proved them wrong over the subsequent weeks. A sequel, Thunderbird 6, was released in 1968 to an even more lukewarm public and critical response – but before that, the Supermarionation puppet was about to take a giant technological leap forward.

1967’s Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons saw Gerry Anderson’s dream of getting his puppet stars looking as close as possible to live actors reach its zenith, with the development of a new style of Supermarionation character. Developments in technology had allowed for the solenoids that created the lip movements of the puppets to be produced small enough that they could now be housed inside their chests, with a wire running from the chest to the lip mechanism, thus eliminating the need for larger heads entirely. Instead, these new puppets could be produced in humanlike proportions, albeit still one third life size.

Captain Scarlet-era puppets were often weighed down and/or held in place while standing to prevent any unrealistic movement.

The arrival of these new puppets would also lend a greater realism to the story of the new series, a war of nerves between the Earth and the invisible Mysterons on Mars in which the good guys didn’t always prevail by the end of the story. However, with the greater realism of the puppets came a tradeoff when it came to their movement. The puppets of Thunderbirds and Stingray weren’t capable of achieving a particularly humanlike walk, but their own particular style of walking somehow worked when matched with the caricatured look of the characters. For a more realistic looking puppet to have been seen moving in the same way would have immediately undermined the whole illusion, and so the Captain Scarlet puppets were now even more reliant on such visual devices as vehicles, jetpacks and moving walkways to get from A to B.

Around the same time, another innovation came in the form of so-called ‘under-control’ puppets, designed to do away with the wires completely and allow a puppet to be controlled from below. The technology had been used for several scenes in Thunderbirds are Go but would now be used frequently with puppets seen in vehicles, thus allowing the Spectrum Angels to fly their aircraft without the need to cut holes in the canopy of their cockpits for their wires. However, when used for characters who were merely standing up (such as in the Captain Scarlet episodes Winged Assassin and Expo 2068) these under-control puppets exhibited a stiffness of movement that made their movements just as unconvincing as those on wires. The switch to correctly proportioned puppets was a controversial move among the production team and viewers alike that is still hotly debated to this day.

An ‘under-control’ Melody Angel puppet poses for a photo on the Cloudbase flight deck.

This would also be the last major advancement in Supermarionation before the end of the decade, but the Century 21 team would still create challenges for their puppet department with their next two productions. 1968’s Joe 90 featured a nine-year old boy as its main character, necessitating the technology that brought him to life being reduced in size yet again, while 1969’s The Secret Service featured a main character who was regularly reduced to one third life size, allowing him to be filmed in the real world opposite real life human (and sometimes canine) performers.

With the cancellation of The Secret Service after just thirteen episodes also came the disbanding of the Century 21 puppet department, now surplus to requirements as the rest of the studio embarked on their first fully live action television series; UFO. Although the puppeteers were keen to continue, even contributing several ideas of their own for a new series, yet another new Supermarionation production hardly seemed a viable proposal while Supercar and all the rest could still be seen cruising around the regional schedules. With the end of Thunderbirds the studio required another smash hit of equal popularity to sustain the Supermarionation merchandising empire that had been built up around International Rescue’s exploits. Captain Scarlet, while massively popular, sadly never reached that level of international success, while Joe 90 and particularly The Secret Service saw even less interest from the general public and broadcasters alike. By this time Gerry Anderson in particular was also very keen to move on from puppets to the more grown-up live action productions he had always imagined himself making, and aside from an unscreened television pilot shot in Malta in 1972 he would never again return to the marionette universe he had helped bring to life. Throughout the 1970s he and many of his 1960s colleagues were otherwise firmly committed to live-action television projects; UFO, The Protectors, and Space:1999.

Joe 90 receives assistance from director Ken Turner during the filming of the episode Operation McClaine.

Supermarionation as an art form would however be revisited on occasion, with classic characters being brought back to life through the decades to do everything from hosting documentaries to promoting Kit-Kats. The process has recently enjoyed a significant revival thanks to the team behind the 2014 documentary Filmed in Supermarionation and 2015’s trilogy of 50th anniversary Thunderbirds episodes, who have also employed it in an episode of ITV series Endeavour and their own original lockdown YouTube series Nebula-75.

As for the classic catalogue of 1960s Supermarionation productions, interest remains as high as ever with DVD and Blu-ray sales remaining consistently strong and steady, while digital viewers are also enjoying revisiting or discovering the shows on streaming services such as BritBox. The passing of time has done nothing to diminish their appeal to younger viewers, with even the monochrome worlds of Supercar and Fireball XL5 still fully capable of capturing the imaginations of children who are introduced to them by previous generations. They were on first broadcast and still remain today an exciting family-friendly mix of action and adventure unlike anything to be found elsewhere.

At Network we are proud to count Four Feather Falls, Supercar, Fireball XL5 and The Secret Service among the Gerry Anderson titles we have available on DVD, and all are reduced in our current promotion. Also discounted are the complete series of both Captain Scarlet and Joe 90 on superbly restored High Definition Blu-ray (with Joe being crowned winner of the FOCAL award for Best Archive Restoration and Preservation Project of 2019) plus the equally well-received 2009 HD colourisation of the Fireball XL5 episode A Day in the Life of a Space General, which showed that the monochrome Supermarionation productions could potentially enjoy an alternative lease of life. Those looking to discover the history of the Supermarionation productions will also find Stephen La Rivière’s definitive book and companion film Filmed in Supermarionation to be a pair of must-purchase items.      

The continuing interest in the classic Supermarionation shows of the 1960s will last long into the 21st century, and although our real world may be a lot less exciting than the world of Century 21 we do at least have the technology to continue bringing more of those exciting adventures to High Definition Blu-ray – and anything could happen before this year is out!

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Comments:5

  1. John MacDonald Reply
    21/01/29

    An excellent summary of a vast body of work which still means a lot to so many people ( as ever, a massive Well Done U to Chris Dale for this FAB tribute)
    Keep up the good work Network as the film restoration you’re doing is amazing!

  2. John Black Reply
    21/01/29

    Excellent article.
    The Blu-ray editions of Captain Scarlet and Joe 90 are superb. Still waiting for a remastered Blu-ray edition of Stingray. We’re not getting any younger! (Quite literally).

    • Chris Harrup Reply
      21/02/14

      Totally agree with you, I would love to see Stingray and The Secret Service make it to Blu ray and of course a complete set of The Avengers done to the same standard as the Cybernauts trilogy, but little in the way of such things from Network over the last year or so, seems to be all films now and like you say time is marching on, have we seen the last of such releases Network ?

  3. Florian Reply
    21/01/30

    Timeless classics! I cannot wait until other series like The Secret Service will also be released in HD Blu-ray! FAB!

  4. Steven Bleek Reply
    21/02/06

    I concur where’s the Blu-ray of Stingray, the first British colour TV series. Your other Blu-ray’s of Gerry Anderson are exemplary.

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