(Conducted in 2009 to tie into the release of the Fireball XL5 DVD)
Before Thunderbirds, Stingray and Captain Scarlet, Gerry Anderson was behind another Supermarionation adventure show in the form of Fireball XL5. The series ran for 39 episodes in the early 1960s, and charted the exploits of the heroic crew of the titular rocket. Anderson spoke to Matt McAllister about the origins of the show and some of his other projects – including his doomed James Bond script.
Where did the idea behind Fireball XL5 come from? Presumably it had its roots in the interest in space exploration at the time…
Well, I’ve always been interested in the idea of space exploration. When I was younger it was just a dream, but the theory of rockets being able to travel through space was very much alive. I found it very exciting.
So we created a show with a spaceship. The interesting thing is that we called it Fireball XL5. A lot of people think the name ‘XL5’ was this great idea of mine. It wasn’t, in fact. I bought a can of motor oil for my car at the time, and it was ‘Castrol XL5’ – I thought, “That sounds really good that does!”. So I pinched it and put it on the end of the title, and that’s how the show got its name.
What do you think distinguishes Fireball XL5 from your later shows?
Well, of course, the later shows are much more sophisticated technically. I think what I like about XL5 is that, for the time it was made, it was quite ahead of its time. One of the things I had read, I remember clearly, was that the Russians were experimenting with horizontal launch instead of vertical launch for launch for rockets. And I thought this was going to be the latest thing, so this is why we used to launch Fireball XL5 along a rail horizontally and then go up a ramp, rather like they do on an aircraft carrier to get the thing into the air.
Kids used to say to me, “Fireball XL5 takes off and then drops its undercarriage.” I’d reply, “Yes, that’s right”. Then they would ask, “So is the sea under there full of undercarriages?”. I thought it was quite a charming idea!
Did you run into many technical problems while shooting Fireball XL5?
The main problem was that we were working with puppets and we didn’t have CGI at the time! So, for example, for Fireball XL5 to take off, a model maker had to be on an overhead bridge holding Fireball with wires, which we did our best to disguise. He then had to accelerate himself along the gantry, keeping his hand very, very steady, so that the Fireball didn’t wobble, and then he had to go up the ramp and actually climb out of picture. So it was terribly, terribly difficult. Some of the boys became experienced at doing this, but it was a sweat!
The other difficulty was to make the puppets fly along on the little motorcycles they had. More recently we’ve had that kind of thing in science fiction pictures, and now they glide along without touching the ground, but at the time everything we did was difficult because of the puppets.
You provided the voice of Robert the Robot yourself. Were you ever tempted to do more voice work after this?
No, I’ve got nothing of the voice artist in me at all! What happened was that the script called for a robotic voice. Now today, if you go into a film studio and ask for a robotic voice, they’d just start pushing keys and say, “What do you think of that one?” At the time it was impossible to do that, so what we did was we built a wooden box, and then we cut a hole in one end of the box, which allowed me to put my mouth into it, and inside the other end of the box there was a small microphone.
I also used to hold a vibrator underneath my chin – not the kind you might be thinking of! – and when I switched it on, of course, it made that vibrating noise. And then, when I mouthed the words, the noise of the vibrator was turned into words by the shape of my mouth. So the final thing that we recorded was something like (puts on robot voice): “ON OUR WAY…”
But no, I couldn’t have done that all the way through the show, and nor would I have wanted to. It was great for those sequences, but it never went any further.
What do you think of the new colourised version?
It’s absolutely brilliant. And how the hell they do it, I haven’t a clue! I don’t think years ago any of us dreamed that a black and white film could one day be turned into colour. It’s beyond me!
It was many years after Fireball XL5 that Eastman Colour came along and we were able to put a roll of film in a standard camera and it would come out in colour. And I did see some earlier attempts at colouring a black and white film, and they were sort of alright. But this I think is miraculous!
When you were making Fireball XL5 did you still see puppetry as a stepping stone into live action?
I started my technical life as a sound editor, and I put the sound on a few major feature films. When I started my own production company, well, I hadn’t even seen a puppet on television! I wanted to make live action films – to be the Steven Spielberg of that time!
We formed our company with a little office, and we waited for the telephone to ring – and nothing happened. We ended up going back to work and earning enough money to train us to keep the company afloat.
And then one day a woman by the name of Roberta Lee came in uninvited. She said she had 22 15-minute scripts entitled The Adventures of Twizzle, and asked if we’d be interested in making the series. And before she even got the scripts out we were saying, “Absolutely!” It was very exciting. And then she said, “It’s to be made using puppets.” Well, I nearly brought my breakfast up! And that’s how it begun.
I decided that we would use three-dimensional sets, put the puppeteers overhead so we wouldn’t see their bodies and make it look as close to live action as possible. Because I thought that the people with the money would say, “Christ, this guy’s making good puppet films here, we ought to give him some live action!” Instead of that they said, “Doesn’t he make good puppet films, let’s give him some more puppet films.”
So I became trapped. And all the way along the line I hated the bloody things. But when I look back now at shows like Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet I’m at long last really quite proud of them. But not at the time!
Do you think it’s easier to work with humans or puppets?
Well, the first time we swapped from puppets to humans was UFO. I stood on the set – because I was going to direct it – and I thought, “It’s quite amazing, here are the artists, and when they talk they look at each other automatically and their mouths open and shut as they’re speaking. And all you had to say to somebody was “sit down” and they would do it, which was wonderful. So I was absolutely in heaven!
Are you fan of CGI? Obviously you were involved in New Captain Scarlet in 2005…
Oh, I’m very much a fan of CGI. As a matter of fact I’ve got a new CG feature film called A Christmas Miracle. And it’s a science fiction Christmas story. All the creative design on the characters and sets will be done by Rodney Matthews, who does very bizarre paintings and characters.
And what stage is that project at?
We’re at the very long stage of trying to raise the money. It’s not expensive in film terms, but nevertheless it’s about eight million pounds. And that’s not easy these days. We’re thinking of approaching some of these MPs to see if they will fund it!
Terrahawks was one of my favourite shows as a kid, but I heard you weren’t entirely happy with that series. Is that true and how do you feel about it now?
It is true. We didn’t make it with marionettes, we made it with glove puppets. The idea was that they were flexible and so to an extent we could, if we got the manipulation right, get better expressions and better performances.
We were very short of money on that show, and it was very difficult to make. I wasn’t very happy with my idea basically – I don’t think it turned out very well. But just recently, after all these years, a lot of people are now saying, “Oh, I liked that show!” I’m very pleased they do, but at the time I didn’t think it would be successful. But then I have this saying – that my films are like a fine wine and improve with age!
What’s your opinion on the new Blu-ray version of Thunderbirds in which the strings have been digitally removed?
The strings, in fact, haven’t been digitally removed. What’s happened is that they’ve reformatted it for widescreen television. They’ve had to enlarge the picture and then cut off the top and the bottom to make it into widescreen. And I have to say I think they’ve done it very, very well. In doing it, in most cases, the puppet heads are very close to the top of the screen, and there’s nothing wrong with that. And what has happened is that, with a bit of luck, by enlarging the picture and pushing it up they’ve got rid of most of the strings.
So you don’t think that the strings were ever part of the show’s charm?
I’ve never subscribed to that.
Could you briefly talk about your involvement with the Bond franchise. You were hired to write a script weren’t you?
Yes. At the time Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were the two people who worked together to make the Bond pictures. What happened was that I was called up to Harry Saltzman’s office and he said, out of the blue, “I want you to make the next James Bond.” Well, I don’t know if you can realise how I felt, but I almost floated through the ceiling I was so excited. So I said, “OK, we’ll make a synopsis of the story.” So he gave me the Ian Fleming novel [Moonraker].
Well, we read the book and, while I’m sure it was great when it was first sold, it was pretty dull. And I worked with Tony Barwick, who was my best writer who I worked with for years. He and I wrote a synopsis, which ran for 70 pages.
As Harry Saltzman lived quite close to me, I drove over to his house and gave him the synopsis, had a chat and then I drove home. By the time I got home, he was on the telephone. He said, “Gerry, I’ve read the script, and it’s absolutely fantastic! I can’t believe it’s real, anyway I’ll read it again.” And then, just before I went to bed, the telephone rang and he said, “It’s Harry here. There’s no doubt about it – it’s brilliant, brilliant, brilliant!” And of course we were delighted.
The next morning the telephone rang, and I answered it, and it was Harry Saltzman. He said, “Gerry, I’ve got to tell you that I went to bed last night and I said to myself, ‘Harry, you’ve got to read that again in the morning because it can’t be as good as you think’. Well, I’ve got to tell you that I’ve just finished reading it and it bloody well is!” So we were both excited.
But unfortunately for us, shortly afterwards, Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman broke their partnership. And the whole idea went down the tube. So we had a very close one, but it would have completely altered my life obviously. It was heartbreaking.
What’s the status with the new UFO movie?
What happened was that I got a call from ITV America from a person who was extremely kind to me. She phoned me and said, “Look Gerry, Robert Evans has secured the rights to UFO and a press release is going out in a couple of days. I just thought I’d ring you so you heard the story from me and didn’t get it second hand.” Which was a very kind thing to do, because I would have been shattered if I hadn’t been told. So anyway we talked a bit about it and they’ve got a very good crew put together. It’s going to be a very big movie.
Fireball XL5: The Complete Series Special Edition is out now on Region 2 DVD (Network).