By Chris Dale
28th January 2021 may have been Supercar’s 60th anniversary, but we couldn’t let the year pass without doing something very special to mark the occasion! With the help of a scientist who requests his identity be kept secret (but who describes the results of the project as “most satisfactory!”), all thirty-nine episodes of this Supermarionation classic have been restored in High Definition, and we’re delighted to announce Supercar is now available to pre-order on Blu-ray!
First airing in 1961, Supercar (the ‘Marvel of the Age’) took viewers around the world on an exciting series of adventures; from Africa to China to the North Pole – and all over the USA and UK! Housed at the Black Rock laboratory in the Nevada desert, this futuristic experimental vehicle was at the service of the ‘Supercar team’; fearless aeronaut Mike Mercury, scientists Doctor Beaker and Professor Popkiss, young Jimmy Gibson, and his pet monkey Mitch. Each week would bring a new situation needing the assistance of Supercar, that would push the machine to its limits and beyond – with each new refinement to Supercar usually being made just in time to be used in that week’s adventure!
Produced by AP Films, the show was originally devised by Gerry Anderson and Reg Hill as production on their puppet Western fantasy Four Feather Falls was winding down. In need of a concept for a new show to pitch to potential investors, they devised a series of fifteen-minute episodes following the adventures of Supercar test pilot Mike Mercury, his child sidekick Jimmy and pet monkey Mitch. Supercar itself (designed in real life by Reg Hill) would be vitally important to the series, as it would grant the puppets freedom to move without reliance on walking – which the AP Films team agreed was the least convincing part of their performances.
However, this new format would undergo a significant change thanks to the input of a pair of writers who would be instrumental in forming Supercar’s identity. Hugh Woodhouse had penned two episodes of Four Feather Falls late in the show’s run, and upon learning of the Supercar concept revealed that he too had an idea for a series. This was Beaker’s Bureau, which would follow the adventures of eccentric scientist Doctor Beaker and the problems caused by his newest inventions or latest hobby, as well as his entanglements with various dastardly villains. Feeling that the Supercar format would benefit from the addition of a more unpredictable hero character like Beaker, Woodhouse suggested adding both him and some regular antagonists. The two fifteen-minute shows were melded seamlessly into a single half hour, with Doctor Beaker fully integrated into the Supercar format. With the eventual backing of ITC and Lew Grade, the project was approved and the series entered production. To help him write the scripts, Hugh Woodhouse enlisted the aid of his brother Martin –although a handful of episodes would be written by newlyweds Gerry and Sylvia Anderson.
Surprisingly for a show aimed at children, the Woodhouse brothers brought an unusual scientific and technical credibility to Supercar’s dialogue that reflected their own backgrounds in science and engineering. Not only was such information relayed to the audience without overwhelming the show’s young viewers, it also provided crucial material to cover story beats that couldn’t be realised on screen with puppets. This is particularly noticeable in the show’s first episode, Rescue, in which Mike Mercury’s titular rescue of the stranded Gibson family occurs off-screen – while Beaker and Popkiss are arguing about Supercar’s engines!
Such technical limitations greatly focused the show on its characters and their interactions, with both Beaker’s antics and the inclusion of regular villains providing the series with greater appeal than the original Supercar format had offered. Chief among Supercar’s antagonists were the fiendish Masterspy and his snivelling sidekick Zarin, who regularly hatched plans to capture Supercar for themselves. Most of the show’s other villains would only appear in a single episode, with the exceptions of the duo of Harper (a disgruntled former employee of an electronics firm) and Judd, a cockney safecracker who could easily be a relative of Thunderbirds’ Parker! The entire voice cast have great fun with their roles, with the relationship between David Graham’s absent-minded Beaker and Graydon Gould’s criminally underrated Mike Mercury a particular highlight.
Unlike anything ever seen on television, Supercar was a hit both at home and abroad, and a second season began airing in the UK from February 1962 – albeit with some behind the scenes changes. Not only did the legendary words ‘Filmed in Supermarionation’ now appear on the end titles, Cyril Shaps replaced George Murcell as the voices of Popkiss and Masterspy, and Gerry and Sylvia Anderson took over all writing duties. While the scripts for Supercar’s second season exhibited little of the technical literacy seen throughout its first, and included increasingly outlandish elements, these final episodes also began to incorporate more sophisticated model effects that hinted at the futuristic and action-packed direction the Andersons would soon be taking their puppet creations.
Throughout the 1960s, AP Films would produce a line of phenomenally popular Supermarionation shows (Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds etc), each more technically sophisticated than the last – yet much of their success is due to the groundwork laid by Supercar. The series was a testbed for the techniques and processes that those later productions took for granted (particularly in the effects department), and the Supercar team’s pioneering adventures not only deserve the same attention as those of International Rescue, Spectrum and all the rest – they should be seen in the very best quality possible.
Supercar’s Blu-ray release will bring just that, offering new viewers the same sense of magic and wonder that the show’s original audiences would have enjoyed back in 1961 – as well as providing long-time fans with an opportunity to revisit this marvellous series and see details that they may never have spotted before!
So open the roof doors – Supercar on Blu-ray is “full boost vertical!”