Thunderbirds: Review: The Vault

Thunderbirds vaultBy Marcus Hearn

Virgin Books, out 10 September

A lavishly illustrated look at the creation of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s best-loved show…

Thunderbirds turns 50 this month and the celebrations have begun, with three new mini-episodes in production on the same trading estate at Slough as their illustrious predecessors, and the release of this official book on the show. Marcus Hearn is an acknowledged expert in the field of film and television history; he has written extensively about the Gerry Anderson productions in the past and brings that knowledge to bear on the adventures of Jeff Tracy and his sons.

Hearn explains the Andersons’ history prior to the creation of International Rescue and incorporates a lot of technical detail on the actual making of the puppet shows within these chapters (so don’t skip through them or you’ll miss important information!). Once into the Thunderbirds sections, there are plenty of quotes from those involved with the productions, taken from interviews old and new, with some familiar anecdotes getting a re-airing and some interesting assertions regarding the way in which the originally planned half-hour episodes were extended to a full hour. Box outs are dotted through the text focusing on each episode (in production order rather than first transmission) which contain perhaps the only authorial judgments on the various episodes (and with which I’m sure I won’t be the only person to disagree in places!). There’s also a whole chapter that notes where those responsible for the world-building in Thunderbirds got it right and wrong – ending with a very interesting theory as to why the show continues to be popular in the 21st century.

Comparisons are inevitably going to be made between this and Filmed in Supermarionation, and while the two projects do cover some of the same territory, La Riviere’s book and film deal with the entire Supermarionation canon, while Hearn has the space to deal with other elements of Thunderbirds – particularly the marketing of the show. In addition to some fascinating insights into the way Century 21 rose and fell, the book is liberally illustrated with all manner of merchandise alongside items from the archives, many of which I’ve not seen before. Designer Mike Jones has done a fantastic job with these – particularly in the case of reprints from scripts and pages from annuals, where the text has been reproduced at a readable size (not something that always happens in these sorts of books, where it sometimes seems as if the desire to show that the writer has had access to the material isn’t always matched with a wish to share it with the reader). The profile of the Tracys from the first Thunderbirds annual makes particularly interesting reading.

Hearn doesn’t try to extend the Thunderbirds story beyond the end of Thunderbird 6 – there’s nothing on Thunderbirds 2086, the revival of the show on the BBC in the 1990s, or such reworkings from the same period as Turbocharged Thunderbirds or the Fox Kids version, nor anything at all on the 2004 movie, all of which I would have expected to form part of an official history of the show. Nor, bar a couple of passing references, is there anything about the new series! There’s an intriguing comment by Jamie Anderson about his father spending 30 years trying to make a new series of the show, but sadly nothing further bar a quick canter through the shows from Captain Scarlet to Space: 1999. Of course on a project of this nature, space is limited, and while such items would have been nice for completeness’ sake, the decision to concentrate firmly on the 1964-1966 period was the right one.

Verdict: A fascinating and beautifully illustrated history of one of the key series of the 1960s. 8/10

Paul Simpson

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