The story of the Supermarionation shows – told by the people who made them.
There have been various accounts of the creation of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s puppet shows over the years, some dwelling on the technical wizardry that saw the basic marionettes of the Roberta Leigh shows metamorphose into the detailed human-dimension puppets of Captain Scarlet or Joe 90, others that have emphasised the role of Gerry Anderson, perhaps to the detriment of the many others whose talents contributed massively to the success of programmes like Stingray and Thunderbirds. Stephen La Rivière’s labour of love manages to incorporate as many sides of the story as he can, and in the process creates the most accessible version of Supermarionation history that we’re ever likely to see.
La Rivière is a fan first and foremost, and has created the documentary that he wanted to see as a fan – so it starts with a sequence that reunites David Graham and Sylvia Anderson in their most iconic roles: Parker and Lady Penelope. It sets the tone for the whole piece: there’s some gentle teasing of the limitations of the format or the unusual way history unfolded (the voicemail message on Tracy Island, for example) but also a lot of new information about the shows. The recreation of the sets is flawless – the one that made my jaw drop was the introduction of “Captain Black” that led into the section on Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons – and it’s great fun to see Penny and Parker back in action… as well as Brains (another of Graham’s vocal creations) and a member of the Thunderbirds team.
The conceit is that Parker is reading a history of Supermarionation and explaining to Lady P where they came from. This “fictional” thread runs throughout the movie, alongside interviews with a huge number of the key people from the shows (and the occasional subtitle to fill in the gaps where no-one made the necessary points in interviews!). Some of these are talking heads in front of coloured backgrounds; others are in their offices or homes; a few are on location.
The story picks up with Roberta Leigh’s approach to the Andersons and Arthur Provis to make a series of films (hooray!) with puppets (boo!). Gerry’s contempt for the puppets was never particularly well-hidden and La Rivière wisely doesn’t try to gloss over this at any stage – the long gestation of this movie is shown by the many interviews it contains with people who have since sadly passed away, most notably Gerry Anderson himself in an extensive piece from 2007 (if there are portions relating to the later shows, it would be fascinating to see his assessments of UFO, The Protectors and Space:1999).
Sylvia Anderson and her daughter Dee feature heavily in the talking head sections, while Gerry’s son Jamie, now masterminding his own generation of shows, gives some occasionally wry introductions to the concepts of the series, as well as interviewing a selection of the creative team as they tour two of the locations where the shows were filmed. Directors, puppeteers, script writers, voice artists, effects wizards – everyone has a chance to make their contributions. These 21st century interviews with the Century 21 personnel are matched with a plethora of clips from contemporary sources – some of them obviously from people’s personal collections (home movie footage showing some of the earliest series in colour), others from the television archives.
The “secrets” of Supermarionation are explained clearly and concisely (sometimes by Brains, but more often by those who actually used the equipment), and there are a couple of things in there that may come as a surprise (they did to me!). But we aren’t just told, “This is how we did it”; new footage featuring the Thunderbirds is created in front of us, as well as an extensive explosion.
Credit is duly given across the board to the creative minds, and as a musician and fan of soundtracks, I was delighted to see the amount of time devoted to Barry Gray’s music – no pressure on new Thunderbirds series composer Ben Foster who was in the audience for the premiere at the BFI! – as well as the footage of him at work. Where are those scores for the incidental music, I wonder? Talking of the sound, that is perhaps one area which the documentary didn’t delve into as much as it might (but I’m sure that the ten-hour cut will have it!): shooting the explosions or craft landing on high speed film helped to sell the illusion but it was the sound work accompanying them that sealed the deal.
The downsides of the Supermarionation shows aren’t glossed over either. The problems with puppets walking is demonstrated in a hilarious montage sequence (ending with Captain Brown and the World President on a travelator!) while the combination of live action and puppetry in The Secret Service got a huge laugh from the premiere audience (you’ll know the bit when you see it). The personal difficulties that occurred are mentioned in passing, but are, quite rightly, not dwelled upon; the rivalry between the effects team and the puppeteers likewise is dealt with in a lighthearted manner (a before and after shot from an early Captain Scarlet episode makes the point admirably).
Filmed in Supermarionation ends with those who have contributed to the documentary explaining how much fun they had working on the series, and what a wonderful time it was in their lives. It’s almost superfluous – their pleasure is palpable, and it’s not the “memory cheats” type of nostalgia: they recall the problems, and it’s clear that despite, or maybe even because of, them, they loved working on the Anderson shows. Anyone who’s watched any of the series may well have sensed that already – and it’s something that applies to this documentary too. La Rivière and his co-producers Andrew T. Smith and Justin Lee (whose graphics are simply brilliant) have put together the ultimate piece on these shows, and deserved the standing ovation they got from the audience at the premiere.
Verdict: Two hours of pure delight and nostalgia highly recommended to anyone with an interest in TV history, but particularly for fans of any of the Anderson shows! 10/10