Thunderbirds (TV series)

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Series title, "Thunderbirds", set against thunderclouds
Genre Science fiction, Disaster,
Action, Adventure
Format Supermarionation
Created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson
Written by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, Tony Barwick, Martin Crump, Alan Fennell, Alan Pattillo, Donald Robertson, Dennis Spooner
Directed by Brian Burgess, David Elliott, David Lane, Alan Pattillo, Desmond Saunders
Voices of Peter Dyneley, Sylvia Anderson, Shane Rimmer, David Holliday, Jeremy Wilkin, Matt Zimmerman, David Graham, Ray Barrett, Christine Finn, Paul Maxwell, Charles Tingwell, John Tate
Composer(s) Barry Gray
Country of origin United Kingdom
Original language(s) English
No. of series 2
No. of episodes 32 (64 in half-hour format) (List of episodes)
Executive producer(s) Gerry Anderson
(Series Two)
Producer(s) Gerry Anderson (Series One)
Reg Hill (Series Two)
Editor(s) Peter Elliott, David Lane, Harry Ledger, Harry MacDonald, Len Walter
Cinematography John Read
Camera setup Single
Running time 49–51 minutes approx.
Production company(s) AP Films
Distributor ITC Entertainment
Original channel ATV
Picture format

35 mm film (VistaVision)[1]
4:3 aspect ratio

Blu-Ray Disc 1080p High Definition (2008-)
Audio format Mono
Original run 30 September 1965 (1965-09-30) – 25 December 1966 (1966-12-25)
Preceded by Stingray
Followed by Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons
Related shows Thunderbirds 2086
(1982 re-make)
Turbocharged Thunderbirds
(1994 re-edit)
Thunderbirds Are Go!
(2015 re-make)

Thunderbirds is a 1960s British science-fiction television series, created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, made by their production company AP Films, and distributed by ITC Entertainment. Filmed between 1964 and 1966, it was produced using marionette puppetry interwoven with scale-model special effects sequences, in the form of a mixed technique dubbed "Supermarionation". Two series, totalling thirty-two 50-minute episodes, were filmed; production was cancelled after the Andersons' financial backer, Lew Grade, failed in his bid to sell the programme to American network television.

Succeeding the previous Supermarionation productions Four Feather Falls, Supercar, Fireball XL5 and Stingray, Thunderbirds is set in 2065. It follows the exploits of International Rescue, a secret organisation established to save people who are in mortal danger with the aid of technologically advanced land-, sea-, air- and space-rescue vehicles and equipment, headed by the Thunderbird fleet and launched from a hidden island base in the South Pacific Ocean. The main characters are ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy (the founder of IR) and his five adult sons, who pilot the Thunderbird machines.

Thunderbirds premièred in the UK on ATV's franchises in 1965, and has since been broadcast in more than 30 other countries. Periodically repeated since its original 1965–66 broadcast by the BBC and on other channels, the series was adapted for radio in the early 1990s, and has influenced numerous other TV programmes (including a Japanese re-make), films and other media. It has entailed various merchandising campaigns, and has been followed by three feature-length films and a mimed stage adaptation.

Widely considered the most commercially successful and most popular series to have been created by the Andersons or produced by AP Films,[2][3][4][5][6][7][8] Thunderbirds has received particular praise for its effects (supervised by Derek Meddings) and score (composed by Barry Gray). The affirmative radio code used by the main characters, "F.A.B.", has been defined in the Collins English Dictionary. A new re-make, Thunderbirds Are Go!, will be broadcast in 2015 on CITV, 50 years after the original.[9]


As stated by the official scriptwriters' guide, the events of Thunderbirds open in 2065, a year consistent with the settings of the earlier AP Films series Fireball XL5 and Stingray.[10][11] The series finale, "Give or Take a Million", is in December 2067.[12] Gerry Anderson envisioned a setting "100 years into the future",[13] a timeframe supported by visual evidence in the episode "30 Minutes After Noon",[14] and also corroborated by tie-in media such as the TV Century 21 "Thunderbirds" comic strip[15] and the Century 21 mini-album "Thunderbird 3".[16] Some episodes point to earlier settings; for example, 1993 vintage champagne is referenced in "Alias Mr. Hackenbacker".[17] Although a prop calendar suggests that the events of "Give or Take a Million" occur in 2026, Anderson refuted the argument for this setting, stating that the year on the calendar was a continuity error and that Thunderbirds is "definitely" set in 2065.[12][13] He elaborated that design aspects occasionally overruled continuity concerns, and pointed out that, due to the scarcity of repeats in the 1960s, "no one expected these programmes to be watched even a second time".[13]

Thunderbirds follows the adventures of the Tracy family, headed by American multi-millionaire philanthropist Jeff Tracy. A widower, Jeff's adult sons – Scott, John, Virgil, Gordon and Alan[Note 1] – are named after Mercury Seven astronauts: Scott Carpenter, John Glenn, Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Gordon Cooper and Alan Shepard.[18]

Unknown to the public, the Tracys are the force behind International Rescue: a secret organisation committed to saving human life, founded and funded by Jeff. Assisting the family in this mission are technologically advanced land-, sea-, air- and space-rescue vehicles and equipment, deployed after conventional rescue techniques prove ineffective. Foremost are five machines called the Thunderbirds, each assigned to one of the five brothers:

The Tracy brothers wear a blue uniform comprising a polo-neck tunic, trousers, side cap and boots, with a sash (of a colour unique to each brother) carrying a gun holster, pouches and the IR insignia (an arm extended over the Earth's surface).

Along with "Brains" (birth name unknown), a scientist and the inventor of the Thunderbird machines, Malaysian manservant Kyrano,[21] Kyrano's daughter (and Alan's romantic interest) Tin-Tin, and Jeff's mother,[22] the Tracys reside in the luxurious Tracy Villa on an un-charted island[Note 2] in the South Pacific Ocean.[23] Here, IR is safe from criminals and spies envious of its technological superiority and desperate to acquire the secrets of its machines. That Tracy Island serves as IR's base of operations is not evident from the air, since the Thunderbirds and Pod Vehicles are housed in underground hangars accessible only via hidden launch chutes. Visitors to the island are kept ignorant of the Tracys' double life with the aid of the "Operation Cover-Up" security protocol, which physically erases evidence of IR's existence.

Although the organisation's principles are humanitarian, IR's rescue operations are sometimes necessitated not by misadventure, but by deliberate sabotage driven by human greed for power and money. For missions requiring criminal investigation or military intelligence, the organisation incorporates a network of undercover agents, headed by English aristocrat Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward and her Cockney butler and chauffeur Aloysius "Nosey" Parker. Based at Creighton-Ward Mansion in Kent, Penelope and Parker's primary mode of transport is FAB 1 – a pink, amphibious Rolls-Royce.

The most persistent of IR's enemies is the criminal known as the "Hood".[Note 2][24] Operating from a temple in the Malaysian jungle, and possessing powers of hypnosis and voodoo-like dark magic, he is a master of physical disguise and exerts a telepathic influence over his estranged half-brother, Kyrano. Exploiting Kyrano's weak-mindedness and inside knowledge of IR, the Hood regularly manoeuvres the Tracy brothers into rescues that unfold according to his own nefarious designs; this gives him opportunities to spy on the Thunderbird machines and, by selling their stolen secrets, become rich.

IR's call sign, "F.A.B." (defined by Collins English Dictionary 2002 as "an expression of agreement to, or acknowledgement of, a command"),[25] though spoken as an initialism, was not conceived as one.[26] When asked what the code abbreviated in 2000, Anderson responded: "... absolutely nothing! ... The abbreviation "fab", as in "fabulous", was all the rage and I just changed it a bit."[27] He had previously described "F.A.B." as the "futuristic equivalent for 'Roger', i.e. 'Message received and understood'".[28] Tie-ins interpreting the call sign as an initialism offer the unabbreviated form "Fully Advised and Briefed".[29]


I started to think that there really ought to be dumps around the world with rescue gear standing by, so that when a disaster happened, all these items of rescue equipment could be rushed to the disaster zone and used to help to get people out of trouble ... I was thinking, 'Rescue, yes, rescue, but how to make it science fiction? What about an international rescue organisation? They'll need to fly to the danger zone and they'll have to have a transporter to bring the heavy equipment up. But villains will be after their equipment, so they'll have to be located in a secret location – an island in the Pacific that hasn't been mapped yet ...'

— Gerry Anderson on the premise (2000)[30][31]

Pitched in late 1963, and commissioned by ITC's Lew Grade on the back of the positive response to Stingray, Thunderbirds was the fourth Supermarionation puppet TV series to be made by AP Films (founded by the husband-and-wife duo of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, with Reg Hill and John Read).[22][32] Co-creator Gerry Anderson's inspiration for the underlying concept was the West German mining disaster known as the Wunder von Lengede ("The Miracle of Lengede"). In October 1963, the collapse of a nearby dam flooded an iron mine in Lengede, Lower Saxony, killing 29 miners and trapping 21 more underground; two weeks passed before the last 11 survivors were rescued.[33][34] The heavy-duty bore required to drill a rescue shaft had had to be requisitioned from Bremen, many miles away, and the time needed to transport it to the accident zone had severely diminished the miners' prospects of returning to ground level alive.[30][35]

Anderson wanted to differentiate the concept for "International Rescue" from those of AP Films' previous productions, with plots that would appeal to both children and adults and a family primetime (as opposed to children's late-afternoon) timeslot.[36] He retired with Sylvia to their holiday villa in Portugal, where the couple developed the premise of the 26-episode series, scripted the pilot, and composed a scriptwriters' guide.[22][36][37] Sylvia remembers: "There was a division of labour, whereby I would create the characters and Gerry would devise the action sequences of the plot. The storyline was a blend of the two."[37] Of the wish to break with the past, she explains: "Our market had grown, and a 'kidult' show ... was the next step."[38] The use of a widower father and his adult sons as the main characters was influenced by the casting of the Western series Bonanza.[39][40] Perceiving an opportunity to broaden the series' appeal, Sylvia suggested that the scripts be written for more than one hero.[39]

The series' title was derived from a letter sent from Arizona by Gerry's brother, Lionel, while he was serving as an RAF flight sergeant overseas during the Second World War.[41] Lionel, who was killed in action in 1944, made reference to a nearby USAAF base – "Thunderbird Field".[41][42] Drawn to the "punchiness" of "Thunderbirds", Anderson dropped his working title, renaming both the series and the fleet of star rescue vehicles (which had originally been designated Rescues 1 to 5).[41] His inspiration for the complex launch sequences of the first three Thunderbirds was learning how the USAF Strategic Air Command kept its pilots on permanent standby, seated in the cockpits of their aircraft and ready for take-off at a few second's notice.[43]

In the DVD documentary The Thunderbirds Companion (2000), Anderson stated that Thunderbirds was effectively made as an "American show" because circumstances required it: AP Films' shooting costs had increased, with the result that the new series' financial viability could not be assured solely from domestic distribution revenue.[44] During the character development and voice casting process, the first priority was that Thunderbirds sustain trans-Atlantic appeal, to maximise the chances of securing the backing of an American network and the higher viewing figures that the US market had to offer.[36][45] Such was the investment in the illusion that scripts were typed in American English and printed on US-style quarto-size paper.[46] In 2003, Anderson commented that his company "went on to produce a show of which I am not in the least bit ashamed, because what we really did was to break into the American market in a way no other British producer had been able to do."[47]


In preparation for the new series, the AP Films crew was expanded to 100 full-time staff.[48] Thunderbirds was filmed at AP Films' Stirling Road and Edinburgh Avenue studios on the Slough Trading Estate on Arriflex cameras and 35 mm film.[49] Shooting commenced in September 1964 after five months of pre-production[22][50] (due to the series' technical complexity, a period longer than that for any of the Andersons' previous productions).[42][51] Pairs of episodes were filmed simultaneously, at a rate of two per month, on different soundstages and by different crews ("A" and "B") to speed up the shooting.[52][53] By 1964, AP Films was the UK's biggest consumer of colour film, making use of more than three million feet (570 mi; 910 km) of stock per year.[54]

Alan Pattillo, a veteran scriptwriter and director for AP Films, was appointed the company's first official script editor in late 1964.[55] This move was aimed to lighten the burden on Gerry Anderson who, while retaining his producer's right to overall storyline and editorial control, had grown weary of revising the scripts himself.[56][57] Direction of episodes was assigned in pairs: the seasoned Pattillo and David Elliott alternated with the less experienced Desmond Saunders and newcomer David Lane for every four weeks' filming.[55][58] Due to the challenges inherent in setting up takes, progress was slow: according to Elliott, no more than two minutes of puppet footage could be filmed even on a productive day.[59] Saunders commented, "When you've got to make a certain number of shots in that day, it just makes everything very tense."[59] In a press interview, Hill explained that Thunderbirds comprised many times the number of shots required for a live-action series with episodes of the same length; this was on account of the puppet characters' lack of expression, and their consequent inability to sustain viewer interest in shots lasting more than a few seconds.[60]

... Lew [Grade] watched ["Trapped in the Sky"], and at the end he jumped up shouting, 'Fantastic, absolutely fantastic! This isn't a television series – this is a feature film! You've got to make this as an hour!' ... Everything had been geared towards the 25-minute format and we had to continue shooting half-hour episodes until we could introduce the new regime and start producing hour-long episodes. We then went back and shot extra footage, which we added to the half-hour shows to convert them to run 50 minutes ... I'm glad we did it, because it made the series much bigger and much more important. But it was still a very, very difficult job.

— Gerry Anderson on the format change (2000)[61]

Thunderbirds became the first AP Films production to be broadcast in a one-hour timeslot.[61][62] In December 1964, Grade viewed the finished, half-hour pilot, "Trapped in the Sky", at a private screening at ATV's London headquarters.[60][61] So enthusiastic was he with the result that he ordered Anderson to double the episode length from 25 minutes to 50, and increased the series' budget per episode from £25,000 to £38,000.[22][61] This made Thunderbirds not only the highest-budgeted TV series to have been undertaken by AP Films, but also one of the most expensive series ever to have been filmed at the time.[63] The transition was challenging for the production staff, who had so far been filming at the rate of two 25-minute episodes per fortnight,[52] since eight episodes had already been filmed,[64] scripts for up to 10 more had been written,[61] and significant re-writing, re-mounting and re-editing would be necessary to satisfy the longer running time.[65] Anderson lamented, "Our time-scale was far too drawn out. ITC's New York office insisted that they should have one show a fortnight ... Everything had to move at twice the speed."[66] Altogether, more than seven months was spent extending the existing episodes.[67]

Pattillo and the Andersons recruited an uncredited Tony Barwick, who had impressed with an unsubmitted script for Danger Man, to assist in the writing of filler material and subplots.[68][69] The additional running time presented opportunities to strengthen the characterisation.[61][70] It is "small character touches", argues science-fiction writer John Peel, that make the puppet cast "much more rounded", and allow the audience to see "much more of the Tracys as characters than we ever were of the inhabitants of previous series"; he compares the scripting favourably to that of live-action drama.[71] Footage from the extended episodes proved useful to the writers during the development of the final episode of the first series, "Security Hazard": since "Attack of the Alligators!" and "The Cham-Cham" had considerably overspent their budgets, Pattillo devised a flashback clip show featuring only 17 minutes of bridging material to lower costs.[72][73] Filming of the series finale was completed in December 1965.[22] Before the series' TV première in September, Grade announced that Thunderbirds would be adapted into a feature-length film.[74]

A second series was commissioned in late 1965 and entered production in March the following year.[53][72] Barwick assumed the outgoing Pattillo's role of script editor and graduated to the rank of full-time writer.[75][76] The puppet department re-sculpted the main cast, while the art and effects crews re-built the main vehicles and expanded some of the standing sets, including the Tracy Villa lounge and the Thunderbird 5 control room.[77][78] To accommodate the simultaneous filming of both the TV series and the film, Thunderbirds Are Go, AP Films purchased two additional buildings on the Slough Trading Estate and converted them into extra studio space.[79][80] Since both staff and soundstages had been divided between the two productions, filming for the second series – mostly under the direction of "B" crew – progressed at only half the previous speed (with one episode completed per month).[53] "A" crew lighting cameraman Paddy Seale supervised the film shooting, while "B" crew's Julien Lugrin was appointed the series' new director of photography.[72] After filming on Thunderbirds Are Go concluded in June, "A" crew resumed their work on the series to film what would prove to be its penultimate episode, "Ricochet".[53]

Voice casting and characters[edit]

Regular Puppet Cast[18]
Name Role Other / Former Occupation(s) Voiced by
Jeff Tracy Head of IR Ex-lunar astronaut / Air Force colonel Peter Dyneley
Scott Tracy Thunderbird 1 pilot
Thunderbird 3 co-pilot[Note 3]
Ex-Air Force pilot Shane Rimmer
Virgil Tracy Thunderbird 2 pilot Painter, musician David Holliday
(Series One)
Jeremy Wilkin
(Series Two)
Alan Tracy Thunderbird 3 astronaut
Thunderbird 5 Space Monitor
Ex-motor racing champion Matt Zimmerman
[Note 4]
Gordon Tracy Thunderbird 4 aquanaut
Thunderbird 2 co-pilot
Olympic diving champion[22]
David Graham
John Tracy Thunderbird 5 Space Monitor
Thunderbird 3 astronaut[Note 5]
Astronomer, writer Ray Barrett
Brains Engineer, scientist, inventor David Graham
Tin-Tin Kyrano Maintenance technician, laboratory assistant[22] Christine Finn
Kyrano Manservant, cook Botanist, scientist David Graham
Grandma Tracy Housekeeper, cook[22] Christine Finn
Lady Penelope
IR's London agent Aristocrat, socialite Sylvia Anderson
Aloysius Parker Penelope's butler / chauffeur Ex-professional safe-cracker[22] David Graham
The Hood Criminal, dark magician Ray Barrett

Voice-acting sessions for the pre-recording of puppet dialogue were managed by the Andersons and Pattillo, with Sylvia Anderson in charge of casting.[37][81] Dialogue was recorded on a monthly basis at a rate of two scripts per session (on a Sunday, since many of the cast had other acting commitments during the week).[82] The actors did not memorise their lines, instead reading from their scripts; they also had the freedom to distribute any supporting parts among themselves on the day.[81] Two recordings would be made: one to be converted to electronic pulses for puppet filming, the other to be incorporated into the soundtrack during post-production.[83] Editing of the 35 mm tapes was performed at Gate Recording Theatre in Birmingham.[81][84]

In the interests of securing trans-Atlantic appeal, the main puppet cast was to be predominantly American and voiced by actors able to speak in convincing accents; the sole British regular characters were to be Lady Penelope and Parker.[36][45] British, Canadian and Australian actors, who satisfied the Andersons' requirements for accentual versatility and spontaneity, formed the majority of the cast.[85] Ultimately, the only American to be cast was expatriate stage actor David Holliday, who was noticed by Sylvia in the West End and hired as the voice of Virgil Tracy.[82][86] Following the completion of the first series, Holliday returned to the US; the part of Virgil was subsequently given to English-Canadian actor Jeremy Wilkin, who voiced the character for both the second series and the film sequels, Thunderbirds Are Go (1966) and Thunderbird 6 (1968).[87]

David Graham, whom Gerry Anderson had known since 1957, was one of the first two actors to be cast.[85][86] He had previously contributed to Four Feather Falls, Supercar, Fireball XL5 and Stingray, and had also served as one of the first Dalek voices for Doctor Who.[86] For Thunderbirds, Graham provided the voices of four main characters – Gordon Tracy, Brains, Kyrano and Parker. Of his casting, he commented, "I'd been with Gerry for so long that I think he already had me down for Parker and the others."[86]

Although Lady Penelope and Parker were among the first characters to be developed, neither was conceived as a central character.[88][89] Parker's Cockney manner was based on that of a waiter at a pub in Cookham, Berkshire, which was sometimes visited by the production staff; Anderson had Graham dine at the pub regularly to study the accent.[89][90] Anderson's first choice for the voice of Penelope was Fenella Fielding, but Sylvia insisted that she perform the role.[86][91] The series co-creator had previously voiced Jimmy Gibson in Supercar, Dr Venus in Fireball XL5 and (twice only) Marina in Stingray.[86] The Penelope character's voice was developed as an amalgamation of vocal characteristics of Fielding and a different actress, Joan Greenwood.[86] Of Penelope and Parker's secondary function as comic relief, Anderson remembered believing that he had "to do something for the home audience. Now, we British can laugh at ourselves, so therefore we had Penelope and Parker as this comedy team. And in America they love the British aristocracy too.'"[45] He added, "... but we didn't want an elderly Lady Thingummibob as International Rescue's London agent. We wanted a good-looking dish, and that's how Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward and her country mansion came about."[92] According to Bignell, Penelope and Parker's Britishness adds entertaining aspects of "Cool Britannia" into an otherwise exclusively American setting.[45]

Cast at the same time as Graham was Australian expatriate Ray Barrett.[85] As with Graham, the swiftness of Barrett's casting was attributable to the fact that he had worked for Anderson previously, having voiced both Commander Shore and Titan in Stingray.[93] Drawing on experience acquired from radio drama, Barrett was skilled at performing a variety of voices in quick succession and, further satisfying the Andersons' requirements, at persuasively affecting both British and American accents.[93][94] For Thunderbirds, he provided the regular voices of John Tracy and the Hood, as well as many supporting parts. Villains would typically be voiced by either Barrett or Graham, who determined responsibility among themselves prior to recording.[86] Of scenes that required two or more of his assigned characters to converse with one another, Barrett remembered, "I said, 'Just keep the tape going', and I changed the voices as I went along, talking to myself!"[85] Cognisant of the sensitive political climate of the Cold War, and desiring not to "perpetuate the idea that Russia was the enemy with a whole generation of children watching",[95] Gerry Anderson opted to assign the Hood an Oriental background, as well as a Far Eastern temple base removed from regions that 1960s viewers would have expected.[21][96]

As well as voicing the patriarch of the Tracy family, Jeff, English-Canadian actor Peter Dyneley had the recurring role of Commander Norman, chief of air traffic control at London International Airport. Dyneley's minor Thunderbirds parts included gentlemanly, upper-class Englishmen.[82] Canadian expatriate Shane Rimmer, the voice of Scott Tracy, went on to appear in – and sometimes write for – later Anderson productions. He was hired after impressing the producers with a performance in the BBC soap opera Compact.[85] Fellow Canadian Matt Zimmerman, while appearing in West End theatre, was selected as the voice of Alan Tracy at a late stage of the casting process.[82] He was hired on the recommendation of Holliday, a personal friend: "... they were having great difficulty casting the part of Alan as they wanted a certain sound for him, being the youngest brother. David, who [was] a bit older than I am, told them that he had this friend, me, who would be great."[84] Zimmerman's arrival followed the recording session for "Trapped in the Sky", for which Alan was voiced by Barrett.[97]

Bringing to life Tin-Tin and Grandma Tracy was Christine Finn, known to contemporary viewers as Barbara Judd from the BBC science-fiction serial Quatermass and the Pit.[86] Together, Finn and Sylvia Anderson were responsible for voicing most of the female and child guest characters. Paul Maxwell (the voice of Colonel Steve Zodiac for Fireball XL5), Charles Tingwell, and Australian actor John Tate (the father of Nick Tate) received no on-screen credit for their supporting contributions.[84][98] Maxwell and Tingwell would later give credited performances for Thunderbirds Are Go and Thunderbird 6.[99]

Design and effects[edit]

The puppet soundstages were only one-fifth the size of those used for a standard live-action production, typically measuring 12 by 14 metres (39 by 46 ft) and being no more than 3 metres (9.8 ft) deep.[100][101] Bob Bell directed the art department for the first series, assisted by Keith Wilson and Grenville Nott.[102] When filming for the second series and Thunderbirds Are Go started simultaneously in March 1966, Bell attended mainly to the film and served only in a supervisory capacity on the TV series.[53][103] Set design for the latter was managed by Wilson, who entrusted the more "technical" production design elements (such as vehicle interiors) to newcomer John Lageu.[103]

Since the art department's interior sets had to conform to the effects department's exterior plans, both teams carefully followed the other's work.[104] Sylvia Anderson explains how the pressures on the two departments differed: "[Bell] had limitations imposed on him by a very strict series budget ... it was more tricky to match the interior with an equally complicated puppet set. [The special effects director, Derek Meddings] would constantly push for a more extravagant match to his exteriors."[104] According to Meddings, it "took us a long time to work out a combined approach which resulted in a perfect match, but when we did, it made a big difference to the believability of the vehicle."[105] Interior design was complicated by the puppets' proportions, and Bell struggled in choosing whether to build sets to a scale that favoured their bodies or their over-sized heads and hands.[106] He used the example of FAB 1 to illustrate the problem: "... as soon as we positioned [the puppets] standing alongside [the FAB 1 model], they looked ridiculous, as the car towered over them."[107] Eventually, he adopted a "mix-and-match" approach to scaling.[106]

For the construction of the Creighton-Ward Mansion interiors, the Bell and his staff paid close attention to detail, ordering miniature Tudor paintings, 13-scale Georgian- and Regency-style furniture, and carpeting cropped to resemble a polar bear skin.[106][107] The realism was heightened by the addition of scrap items, acquired from sources including household waste and electronics shops; for example, a vacuum cleaner pipe serves as the launch chute that transfers Virgil Tracy from the lounge inside the Tracy Island Villa to the cockpit of Thunderbird 2.[102][108] The sequence, which sees the Virgil puppet being flipped backwards and then sliding feet-first, down a series of chutes, into the aircraft's cockpit, was one of the most complex filmed for the series.[109]


Man in his fifties with greying hair (black-and-white) Man in his thirties with dark hair Man in his thirties with dark hair (black-and-white)
Middle-aged man with greying, blond hair Man in his thirties with dark hair (black-and-white) Man in his twenties with dark hair (black-and-white)
Some of the personalities on whom the likenesses of the Thunderbirds puppet cast are based. Top row, left to right: Lorne Greene (Jeff Tracy), Sean Connery (Scott Tracy), Robert Reed (Alan and Virgil Tracy). Bottom row, left to right: Adam Faith and Charlton Heston (John Tracy), Anthony Perkins (Brains).

Heading puppet sculpting was Christine Glanville, the chief puppet operator or "Supermarionator".[55][94] The four-person department built the 13 members of the main cast in six months, at a cost of between £250 and £300 per puppet.[107][110] Since pairs of episodes were being filmed simultaneously on separate soundstages, the sculptors were required to build the characters in duplicate, with the result that minor physical differences are discernible between originals and copies.[52] The facial expressions of the main puppets were diversified via interchangeable heads: in addition to heads with neutral expressions, "smilers", "frowners" and "blinkers" were created, bringing the number of heads created for each principal character to five.[50][111] Finished puppets were approximately 22 inches (56 cm) tall (or 13 human size),[100][112] weighed between seven and nine pounds (3.2 and 4.1 kg),[50] and comprised more than 30 components.[113]

An essential component was the internal solenoid that powered the movements of the lips in synchronisation with the voice cast's pre-recorded dialogue. The design required that it be housed inside the head; consequently, the puppets' torsos and limbs appeared diminutive.[107] The Thunderbirds marionettes were in fact a product of increased realism: after the completion of Stingray, AP Films had down-scaled the size of the head and re-worked the body shape to render it more human-like.[94][106] The puppets' likenesses and mechanics are remembered favourably by operator Wanda Brown, who expresses a partiality to the Thunderbirds style of marionette over the accurately-proportioned type that debuted in Captain Scarlet: "The puppets were easier to operate and more enjoyable because they had more character to them ... Even some of the more normal-looking faces, such as Scott and Jeff, for me had more character than the puppets in the series that came afterwards."[110] Rimmer speaks positively of the puppets still being "very much caricatures", for it rendered them "more lovable and appealing ... There was a naive quality about them and nothing too complex. They all had their slight weaknesses and could make mistakes, and that was all part of their success."[114] Glanville considered the design used in Thunderbirds to strike a good balance between realism and caricature.[115]

Many of the characters' likenesses were based on contemporary actors and other entertainers, typically selected from the show business directory Spotlight.[110] According to Glanville, as part of the trend away from caricature, AP Films was "looking for more natural faces".[107] Jeff Tracy's likeness was based on Lorne Greene,[40][50] Scott's on Sean Connery,[107][110] Alan's on Robert Reed,[50] John's on Adam Faith and Charlton Heston,[116][117] Brains' on Anthony Perkins[94] and Parker's on comedian Ben Warris, a member of The Crazy Gang and cousin of Jimmy Jewel.[50][118] Sylvia Anderson was ultimately to bring the character of Lady Penelope to life in likeness as well as in voice: after a number of test models were rejected, sculptor Mary Turner elected to use Anderson herself as the template for the character's appearance.[119][120] Virgil was modelled partly on Alan; when John Brown experienced difficulty in realising the character, Glanville suggested that he incorporate elements of her Virgil design into his own.[50][94]

The heads of the main characters were initially sculpted in either Plasticine or clay.[50] Once the general aspect had been finalised, it was used as the template for a silicone rubber mould.[50] This was subsequently laminated in layers of quick-setting Bondaglass (fibreglass mixed with resin),[50] sometimes combined with Bondapaste (a putty-like substance) for the enhancement of contours.[94][121] Once detached from the mould, the Bondaglass shell was fitted with a solenoid, leather mouth parts, plastic eyes (moved by remote control)[112] and incisor teeth (a first for a Supermarionation series).[50][122] The heads of "revamp" puppets, which played supporting characters, were made of plastic.[123] Such puppets started their working lives equipped with only a mouth and eyes; their faces were re-moulded for each episode in which they appeared.[124][125] Particularly impressive moulds were retained and, as their numbers increased, photographed for the purposes of compiling an internal "casting directory".[126] The puppet bodies, which were made of porous plastic, came in three sizes: "large male" (for the Tracy family and the Hood), "small male" (for revamps) and "small female".[50][127] Male characters' wigs were composed of mohair; the Penelope puppet's used human hair, and cost approximately £30 each.[50][128] Sylvia Anderson, the head of costume design, devised the main characters' wardrobes.[37][129] Costumes avoided synthetic materials, which were less flexible; the wardrobe department preferred cotton, silk and wool for the increased mobility that they afforded to the puppets.[50] From 1964 to 1966, department's stock totalled more than 700 costumes.[130]

During the puppet filming, dialogue was played into the studio via EMI TR-90 tape recorders fitted with RC circuits, which converted the feed into electronic pulses.[81] All puppet heads were fitted with between nine and 11 high-tensile, tungsten steel wires.[128][131] These were no more than 0.005 inches (0.13 mm) wide (about twice the width of a human hair) and sprayed black to minimise their visibility.[121][132] Two of the wires relayed the pulses from the tape recorder to the solenoid, completing the Supermarionation process.[81] Floor puppeteers would go to considerable lengths to reduce the wires' on-screen visibility by applying powder paint that matched the background colours of the set.[52] Glanville explained the time-consuming nature of the preparation: "[The puppeteers] used to spend over half an hour on each shot getting rid of these wires, looking through the camera, puffing a bit more [paint] here, anti-flare there; and, I mean, it's very depressing when somebody will say to us, 'Of course the wires showed.'"[59] The puppet operators co-ordinated movements from a gantry 12 feet (3.7 m) above the studio floor using a hand-held cruciform, assisted by a viewfinder-powered CCTV feedback system.[49] It was essential that the puppets were neither too heavy nor too light: the former would require thicker, more visible wires, while the latter would be more difficult to operate from overhead.[133] As filming progressed, the operators started to dispense with overhead wires and control the puppets at closer range from the studio floor, using rods.[134][135]

It was difficult for puppets to get in and out of vehicles without a great deal of trouble. Since we always tried to minimise walking, we'd show the puppets taking one step only, then promptly cut. Through interspersing the programmes with "meanwhile" scenes – that is, showing what else was going on in the story at the same time – we would then cut back to the puppet who was now already in his craft.

— Alan Pattillo on puppet movement (1992)[136]

Since the puppets were unable to walk convincingly (they were too light, and their lower-body articulation was limited to one control wire per leg), scenes featuring such movements were filmed from the waist up, rather than in full shot: a floor puppeteer, holding the legs below the level of the camera, simulated motion using a "bobbing" action.[73][116] Alternatively, the requirement for complex shots was removed completely: in a 1965 interview with New Scientist, Read (the director of photography and a set designer)[88] spoke of the advantages of circumventing the puppet's lack of agility "so that they appear, for example, to walk through doors (although the control wires make this impossible) or pick up a coffee cup (although their fingers are not in fact jointed)."[137] Jointed hands and feet were impossible to build using 1960s puppet technology, necessitating live-action shots of human hands whenever scripts required increased dexterity, such as in the act of pushing a button.[138] Human-sized versions of puppet costumes were sometimes required for such shots, with the hands commonly belonging to a wardrobe assistant.[128] Another technique deployed to bypass the problem of mobility was in the characters' frequent use of vehicles, from the Thunderbird machines to IR's "Hover Bikes", which allow quick movement over rough terrain.[138]

Special effects[edit]

A typical episode of Thunderbirds contained roughly 100 special effects shots; according to Read, this accounted for up to half a finished episode's footage.[1][139] Ordinarily, the effects department completed at least a dozen shots per day.[140][141] The effects director for all the Andersons' series from Supercar to UFO was Derek Meddings, whose later works included the James Bond and Superman films.[142] Meddings welcomed Grade's decision to increase the series' budget, since it enabled the filming of more impressive effects.[143] However, he was cognisant that Thunderbirds would be the "biggest project [AP Films] had worked on", and found himself struggling to accommodate the effects requirements with the single filming unit that had served Stingray.[55][144] He therefore established a second unit under technician Brian Johncock, and a third exclusively for air-to-air flying sequences; this expansion brought the number of distinct crews and soundstages utilised for the filming of Thunderbirds to five.[55][67] The effects department totalled more than 50 staff.[145] A new addition was Mike Trim, who became Meddings' assistant and storyboard artist in the design of the vehicles and buildings that populate the world of Thunderbirds – in particular, the Pod Vehicles of Thunderbird 2.[55][146] Collaboration between the puppet and effects departments was rare, although the latter supplied the gunpowder necessary for the filming of puppet gunfights.[147]

Together, Meddings and Trim pioneered an "organic" technique, informally called "gubbins", of customising model and set exteriors with parts from model kits and other cannibalised, commercial products, such as children's toys.[148][149] Additionally, models and sets were "dirtied down" with powder paint or pencil lead to create a "used" appearance.[150][151] Toy cars and vans doubled as their full-sized counterparts in long shot, while for extra realism, scale vehicle models were equipped with basic steering and foam rubber suspension.[152][153] Small fans or Jetex chemical pellets (capable of issuing jets of air or chemical exhaust), were positioned on the undersides of models to produce imitation dust trails.[56][153] One of Meddings' innovations for Thunderbirds was a closed, cyclical effects stage called the "rolling road".[49][154] Comprising two or more loops of painted canvas running at different speeds on electric motors, this device enabled shots of moving aircraft and land vehicles to be filmed on a set that was essentially static; this was less difficult to light and film, and made more efficient use of the limited shooting space.[49][155] For airborne aircraft sequences set against the counterpart "rolling sky", smoke was fanned across the stage to simulate passing clouds.[49] Garland argues that the challenge facing the effects department during the production of Thunderbirds was securing a creative balance between the "conventional science-fiction imperative of the 'futuristic'" and the "seeping hyper-realist concerns mandated by the Andersons' approach to the puppets".[156]

A stately home with two adjacent wings, with a gravel drive and lawn in the foreground
Wide-angle photograph of Stourhead House, the inspiration for the fictional Creighton-Ward Mansion[157]

Among Meddings' first jobs during pre-production was to film stock footage of the Thunderbird machines (including their launches and flight) and the primary locations: Tracy Island and Creighton-Ward Mansion.[154][158] The finished island model was a composite of more than a dozen smaller sets, which could be separated from the whole and filmed individually.[159] Creighton-Ward Mansion's architecture was based on that of Stourhead House, located on the Stourhead Estate in Wiltshire.[157] Since designer Reg Hill was serving only as associate producer, Meddings was additionally charged with the design of the Thunderbirds fleet and FAB 1.[36] On arriving at AP Films Studios, Trim's first duty was to convert Meddings' three-dimensional concepts into plans and elevations.[4][150] The company Master Models of Middlesex was commissioned to build the scale models of the six major vehicles.[4][41] Effects models and puppet sets combined, more than 200 versions of the Thunderbirds were built for the series.[160]

With the exception of Thunderbird 5, the models were constructed to either three or four scales.[161] Credibility was Meddings' first priority in the designing and filming of the Thunderbirds.[162] The swing-wing design of Thunderbird 1 evolved from his intention that the vessel appear "more dynamic" than a fixed-wing, or rocket-like, aircraft.[163] In his memoir, 21st–Century Visions, Meddings commented: "I thought this model only looked right from certain angles, and as it was one of the most important vehicles in the series, I always tried to ensure we took special care filming it."[163] He was dissatisfied with the prototype of Thunderbird 2, which was originally to have been painted blue instead of green, until he inverted the aircraft's wings.[41] Meddings noted that "at the time, all aircraft had swept-back wings. I only did it to be different", and also that "people still ask me if I had any special aeronautical knowledge that influenced this design feature, but I have to admit that I didn't. The model just looked better that way."[164][165] Made of balsa wood, the 3.5-foot (1.1 m)-long Thunderbird 2 proved to be both Anderson's and Meddings' and favourite of all the models.[166][167] However, Meddings still considered it "less glamorous" than Thunderbird 1, which it "upstaged" whenever they both appeared in the same shot.[163] Meddings described the Thunderbird 2 launch as "probably the most memorable effects sequence" that he and his staff devised for any of the Andersons' productions.[165]

Schematic of a Soyuz space rocket
The shape of Thunderbird 3 was influenced by the Soviet Soyuz rocket (above).[41]

The largest model of Thunderbird 3, whose design was inspired by that of the Russian Soyuz rocket, measured six feet (1.8 m).[41] The shape of Thunderbird 5, the most difficult of the main vehicles for Meddings to visualise, was based on the Tracy Island Round House; since most of the space station's appearances were composed of the same stock footage, the model was rarely filmed.[106][168] Thunderbird 4 was especially problematic to shoot: since the submarine was of a scale incompatible with that of the water inside the filming tank, the maintaining of perspective depended heavily on inventive camera angles and fast editing.[169] The other Pod Vehicles were designed on an episode-by-episode basis and were built from balsa or Jelutong wood (or, if required to be fire-resistant, from fibreglass).[169][170] To save time and costs, other supporting vehicles were made in-house from 124-scale radio-controlled model kits.[41][150] The largest of all the filming models was the 13-scale FAB 1, since the puppets of Penelope and Parker were to be accommodated inside.[41] Sylvia Anderson determined both the colour and the name of the Rolls-Royce (which, like IR's radio code, was derived from "fabulous").[171] seven feet (2.1 m) long, the plywood FAB 1 cost £2,500 to build in 1964; post-decimalisation, this is equivalent to £30,000.[106] Rolls-Royce Ltd. oversaw the construction and provided AP Films with a genuine radiator grille for close-up shots.[172][173] In exchange, the company asked that the chassis display the Spirit of Ecstasy, and that characters refer to the car only by the full brand name (avoiding abbreviations such as "Rolls").[172][174] Meddings remembered the car for its "outrageous styling, which bore no resemblance to any Rolls-Royce ever produced".[152]

Scale explosions utilised substances such as fuller's earth, petrol jelly, magnesium strips and Cordtex explosive, activated by electronic detonators.[59][175] Originally filmed at up to 120 frames per second, shots were slowed down to the standard 24 f.p.s. during post-production to increase the apparent length and magnitude of explosions.[44][176] For rocket launchings and landings, the company Schermuly Pistol Rocket Apparatus was contracted to supply gunpowder canisters.[176] Rocket firing was accomplished electronically, by passing current down tungsten wires; the same wires enabled a crewmember, positioned on a gantry with a cruciform, to "fly" the model.[67] Remembering the precise timing that was necessary, sculptor "Wag" Evans explains: "It was a case of shifting your weight from one foot to another without going up or down, while keeping your hand and body on the same plane. If you got a slight twitch in the hand, it was accentuated on the model below, so you got an enormous lurch of the model."[67] By far the most unwieldy of the models was Thunderbird 2, which Meddings recalled as being "awful to 'fly'. You needed a very strong arm and you had to have a feel for it too ... You had to pretend you were flying it."[164][167] A combination of weak wiring and unpredictable rockets frequently resulted in damage, as Meddings elaborates: "Sometimes [the rockets] would ignite, but not together; so we kept the power running down the wire, which would get red-hot, glow and break".[164][177] A crewmember would be ready with a cushion not only to protect the model, but also to prevent a fire from being started.[177] Conditions above the studio floor proved hazardous due to the heat of the studio lights and the blinding smoke from burnt-out rocket canisters.[58] Although many of the exhaust sound effects were re-cycled from an audio library, some were recorded especially at a Red Arrows air display at RAF Little Rissington, Gloucestershire.[178][179]

By early 1966, Meddings' commitments were divided between the production of the second series and that of the first film sequel, Thunderbirds Are Go.[72] While Meddings worked on the film, responsibility for the TV effects passed to camera operator Jimmy Elliott.[103] By this time, the basic frame of Thunderbird 2, which was weaker when not fitted with a Pod, had undergone so many repairs that the whole model had had to be re-built.[180] Meddings regretted the result, stating that the replacement was "not only the wrong colour; it was a completely different shape. Although we had several more built in different scales, I never felt our model-makers managed to re-capture the look of the original."[180] Impressed by their work on Thunderbirds, director Stanley Kubrick employed several members of the AP Films effects department, including Johnson, as supervisors for his film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).[181][182]

Title sequence[edit]

The title sequence, storyboarded by Gerry Anderson, opens with a countdown by Peter Dyneley (in character as Jeff): "5–4–3–2–1! Thunderbirds Are Go!"[60] This is synchronised with zoom-out shots of the Thunderbird machines in reverse order, followed by a moving title superimposed on a stormy sky and accompanied by a thundering lightning bolt. In a departure from Stingray, in which the sequence centred on stock footage special effects shots, the Thunderbirds introduction comprises a montage of action shots that is unique to each episode and serves as a preview of its plot. Archer and Hearn compare this device favourably to "a feature-film trailer", while Peel praises the intercutting with lightning effects for producing "electrical tension".[6][60]

The remainder of the sequence focuses on portraits of the main puppet cast, superimposed on the vehicles and settings, and with their silhouettes colour-coded to their attire.[60] According to David Garland, this is realised in the style of "actors playing roles on live-action television programmes and films"; Peel describes it as "ostensibly a return to the 'series stars' concept long known in TV".[6] Garland also expresses the view that such images are characteristic of Anderson's commitment to "incremental realism", or the convergence of human and puppet qualities.[183] Jonathan Bignell writes that the use of portraits demonstrates Anderson's partiality to "visual revelation of machines and physical action".[184] The title sequence ends with a static effects shot of the destruction of an industrial facility, wracked by a chain of explosions; during the filming, the strength of the detonations was such that a section of the studio roof caught fire.[60][73]

According to Daniel O'Brien, the title sequence of Thunderbirds – with its "rousing, if slightly discordant brass" – encapsulates the reasons for which the series' popularity has endured.[185] Martin Anderson of the entertainment website Den of Geek judges it the best of any TV series, with the observation: "The score crashes rapid-fire out of the screen as all the very best bits of the following adventure are trotted out in a fusillade of dazzling edits".[186]


The music of Thunderbirds was composed and conducted by Barry Gray, who scored all the Anderson productions up to the first series of Space: 1999. For the theme music, Gerry Anderson's specific instruction was that the track have a "military feel"; Gray response was the brass-heavy "The Thunderbirds March", which was recorded on 8 December 1964 at London Olympic Studios.[61][187] The original, lyrical ending theme, "Flying High" – sung by Gary Miller, with supporting vocals by Ken Barrie and a background Spinetta – was ultimately dropped in favour of a variation of the march.[73][187] The closing theme for the pilot, "Trapped in the Sky", is unique to the episode; from the second instalment ("Pit of Peril"), the march was played in a revised form.[73] Incidental music was recorded from 18 March to 4 December 1965; since the allocation of Gray's budget was weighted towards the initial episodes, later ones drew heavily on recycled, pre-existing tracks.[187][188]

Peel considers the opening theme "one of the best TV themes ever written – perfect for the show and catchy when heard alone".[189][190] Reviewing the 2003 CD release for BBC Online, Morag Reavley argues that the track "still fizz[es] with excitement and anticipation" and is "up there with Bond, Sinatra, Elvis and the Beatles in the quintessential soundtrack of the Sixties".[191] Heather Phares of AllMusic praises "Thunderbirds Are Go!" (which plays during the title sequence, and the lift-offs of Thunderbirds 1, 2 and 3) as a reflection of the "flashy, mod side" of 1960s British spy fiction; Reavley deems it "heart-pumping stuff".[191][192] More generally, Reavley praises the series' "catchy, pulse-quickening tunes", as well as Gray's skill in mixing of genres and "musical nuance".[191] Phares highlights Gray's homage to, and divergence from, musical norms, observing that the score "sends up the spy and action/adventure conventions of the '60s very stylishly and subtly".[192]

David Huckvale identifies Wagnerian homage in both the series' theme music and plot aspects.[193] He considers the string ostinato in the former to be similar in purpose to a motif recurrent in Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries (from the opera Die Walküre), while judging the Thunderbird machines akin to Valkyries themselves: "Their function is more benevolent than those warrior maidens, but they do hover over danger, death and destruction."[193] According to Huckvale, Thunderbirds is typical of visual media that "inhabit a mythical realm ... consciously or unconsciously indebted to Wagnerian idioms."[193] University of Southampton academic Kevin J. Donnelly acknowledges a "big-sounding orchestral score", which is argued to be comparable to that of a live-action film.[194] He suggests, however, that the music is intended partly to draw the viewer's attention away from the puppets, and possibly conceal their deficiencies: a strong score is considered to indicate high production values, "and in a crowded television marketplace, Anderson knew the importance of the immediate impact of a show's surface."[194]


All our planning was geared towards a second series of Thunderbirds and that it would continue for a long time ... [The cancellation] came as a serious blow to the organisation. I was shattered. At the time, we had two studios, a weekly comic, a record company and a whole merchandising operation. We had just opened an office in Hong Kong and ordered a million pounds' worth of machine tools, all based on the success of Thunderbirds – and the series was cancelled ... We couldn't get an American sale with Thunderbirds, so it was cancelled and we had to do something new.

— Gerry Anderson on the cancellation (2001)[195]

In February 1966, it was reported that Grade had been unable to sell Thunderbirds in the United States due to disagreements over timeslots, and that the second series would run for only six episodes.[196][197] That July, Grade cancelled the programme after again failing to secure a US buyer.[76][198] All three major American networks of the day – NBC, CBS and ABC – had made bids for the series, with Grade driving up the price; when NBC withdrew, due to either Grade's increasing demands or a loss of interest in the series, the others immediately followed.[198][199] Anderson characterised the incident as "quite possibly an unprecedented opportunity in British television, and it slipped through [Grade's] fingers."[200]

The production of Thunderbirds ended in August 1966, with the completion of its 32nd episode.[22][198] By this time, Thunderbirds was massively popular in the UK and distributed widely overseas.[200][201] However, Grade had judged that without the financial backing of a US network, a full second series would fail to recoup its production costs; he therefore pressed Anderson for a new concept that, by his estimation, would stand a higher chance of sealing a deal between ITC and the profitable American market.[76][196]


Thunderbirds premiered on British television, in black-and-white, on 30 September 1965 in the ATV Midlands, Westward and Channel broadcasting areas.[202] Other areas, including London, followed on 2 October; Granada started broadcasts three weeks later, on 20 October.[200][202] The series finale, the Christmas-themed "Give or Take a Million", was first broadcast on 25 December 1966.[12] Despite Grade's decision to double the running time, episodes were divided into two parts for the Midlands and Granada broadcasts.[61][203] Both 25-minute instalments aired on the same day, separated by the ITN Evening News; the conclusion opened with a brief summary of the first part's action, provided by Shane Rimmer.[204]

Granada first broadcast Thunderbirds unedited with the start of repeats in 1966.[204] In 1968, due to timeslot restrictions, the franchise briefly split episodes into three parts.[204] The availability of repeats during the 1960s and 1970s was dependent on the region. ATV Midlands transmitted Thunderbirds regularly from 1966 to 1973; by contrast, Yorkshire viewers received no broadcasts between 1968 and 1976 (due to a decision by Yorkshire Television not to buy any of the Andersons' series).[198][205] Thunderbirds aired on the ITV franchises for the last time in 1981.[205]

In November 1990, Thunderbirds re-surfaced as a radio drama mini-series, based on eight of the 16 episode soundtrack adaptations released by APF Records and transmitted on BBC Radio 5.[204] Instalments were introduced by Gerry Anderson, with additional voice-overs by Rimmer.[204] It was not the series' radio debut: in 1987, Rimmer, Matt Zimmerman and David Graham had returned as the voices of Scott and Alan Tracy and Parker for a BBC Radio 2 comedy segment in support of Children in Need.[206] The success of the radio series prompted the BBC to acquire the rights to the original TV episodes from PolyGram, and from 20 September 1991, Thunderbirds was networked for the first time on BBC 2.[205][207]

Since the end of the first network run, which achieved average ratings in excess of six million,[77][208] the series has been repeated six times on BBC Two: from 1992 to 1993 (Series One only), in 1994 (seven episodes only), in 1995, from 2000 to 2001 (remastered by Carlton), and in 2003, 2005 and 2006.[209][210] Other channels screening repeats have included UK Gold (1994–95), Bravo (1995–97), Cartoon Network (2001–02), Boomerang (2001–03) and Syfy (2009). A Gaelic dub, Tairnearan Tar As ("Thunderbirds Are Go") was broadcast by BBC Scotland in 1993 and 1994.[211]

Prior to the series' UK debut, ITC distributed the series to 30 other countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan.[72][200] Pre-sales revenue totalled £350,000.[72][200] In Japan, where it was first broadcast by NHK in 1966, Thunderbirds generated a considerable following and influenced TV series such as Ultraman, Mighty Jack and Himitsu Sentai Gorenger.[212][213] The two-part episode format entered US first-run syndication to modest success in 1968.[40][196] In 1976, an Afrikaans dub titled Redding Internasionaal ("Rescue International") was transmitted in South Africa. Other overseas broadcasters have included RTÉ Two (Republic of Ireland), TechTV and Family Room HD (US), and Nine Network and Foxtel (Australia).


Thunderbirds was more adult than the other series had been. There was humour, but it was generally funny rather than silly ... However, it was the adventure that was stressed the most, and this is one reason why the show proved to be so popular: the stories are tightly plotted, gripping and convincing. Many of them were ahead of their time ... Everyone in the audience found something to love about it.

— John Peel (1993)[214][215]

In 1966, the Royal Television Society awarded Gerry Anderson the Silver Medal for Outstanding Artistic Achievement in acknowledgement of the series' success; the same year, he was appointed an honorary fellow of the British Kinematograph, Sound and Television Society.[198] According to a 2007 Radio Times magazine poll, Thunderbirds is the 19th best science-fiction programme.[216] It was ranked fourth in the 2013 Channel 5 list show 50 Greatest Kids' TV Shows.[217] The series is remembered for the quotation "5–4–3–2–1. Thunderbirds are go!"[218][219]

Science-fiction writer John Peel describes Thunderbirds as "without a doubt the peak of the Supermarionation achievement".[220] To director David Lane, it is "really the ultimate Gerry Anderson programme".[8] Voice actor Shane Rimmer comments that he is "still in awe at the punch, vision and pure entertainment [the episodes] still offer"; while conceding that "[you'll] never get the same answer twice regarding what has made Thunderbirds still tick", he adds, "[what] everybody is agreed upon, is the great affection in which International Rescue is still held around the world."[221] I.Q. Hunter, writer of British Science Fiction Cinema, states that the series has "inspired tremendous cult affection" for its "irreverence and kitsch cheapness".[222]

John Marriott expresses the opinion that the series "has sparked the imagination of a world public like no other puppet series before or since ... its influence, extending beyond millions of eager viewers, has also been both technical and ideological."[223] In his foreword to Marriott's book, Thunderbirds Are Go!, Anderson offered a number of explanations for the series' enduring popularity: "The show contains elements that appeal to most children – danger, jeopardy and destruction – but because International Rescue's mission is to save life there is no gratuitous violence."[224] According to Anderson, Thunderbirds conveys a "strong family atmosphere, where Dad reigns supreme. His sons are always in the forefront of the action and the audience share his concern for their safety."[224] O'Brien and script editor Alan Pattillo praise the series' positive "family values".[225][226] Pattillo comments that "With all our characters carefully worked on, and with the support of good vocal artists, we had Gerry's best mix so far";[226] O'Brien considers the series representative of the "ultimate in juvenile escapism".[46] Thunderbirds has also been recognised for its cross-generational appeal.[227]

Jeff Evans, writer of The Penguin TV Companion, comments that the longer, 50-minute format "provided plenty of scope for character development and tension-building".[228] O'Brien is less optimistic, stating that plots "tended towards the formulaic" and were sometimes "stretched to snapping point" by the extended running time.[185] Peel praises Thunderbirds for its plotting, characterisation and "strong role models", while suggesting that the series includes less of the "tongue-in-cheek" humour present in Stingray.[220][229] Where Thunderbirds improves on its precursor, argues Peel, is in its avoidance of fantasy plot devices, child and animal characters, "stereotyped" and "comically inclined" villains, and the "standard Anderson sexism": whereas in other Anderson series the minority of female characters are sidelined, in Thunderbirds they are instead given opportunities to prove their bravery.[214][230] Peel reserves particular praise for Lady Penelope, describing her as "the one character in the show who positively shone".[230] O'Brien offers similar views on the series' "intelligent and independent-minded" female regulars, including Tin-Tin and Grandma;[231] the Tracy men, however, are "not the most scintillating characters".[185] Peel characterises the transition to the next Anderson production, Captain Scarlet, as "better puppets" and "bigger action", but a "huge step backwards in stories", expressing disappointment that Thunderbirds allowed the viewer to "believe in the show. The characters (even if they were puppets) were so human."[215][232]

Evaluating the detail of the Thunderbirds 1, 2 and 3 launch sequences, Jonathan Bignell points out a "focus on vehicles", as well as a fixation on futuristic technology; he asserts that Thunderbirds exploits this partly to compensate for the limited mobility of the puppets.[184] The series' emphasis on machines has also been explored by cultural historian Nicholas J. Cull, who opines that, of all Anderson's series, Thunderbirds is the most evocative of his science fiction's recurring theme – the "necessity of the human component of the machine".[233] This is demonstrated by the dangers of technology that "over-reaches" itself.[43][233] Cull elaborates: "Almost all the stories in Thunderbirds deal with the flaws in technology as some new invention goes wrong ... though often the key flaw is human greed. Rescue is provided by the potent intervention of brave human beings and technology working together."[21] As a consequence, Thunderbirds projects a future that is "wonderfully humanistic and reassuring";[21] O'Brien also praises the series for its positive outlook, likening the Tracy family to guardian Übermensch.[185] Additionally, Cull judges the series an "American-style product in miniature", pointing to such aspects as the "quick, thriller editing, inventive and engaging camera angles ... and brassy, dynamic music".[40]

Critics including Bignell, Cull and O'Brien have also analysed Thunderbirds as a product of the Cold War era. Cold War attitudes are conveyed partly by the characters, especially the Hood:[185] Bignell notes that his Far Eastern appearance and arcane powers "associated him with James Bond villains of the period, and pervasive fears of China as a 'third force' antagonistic to the West."[234] Although some episodes focus on the dangers of errant nuclear technology, Cull perceives a reversal of the message in the nature of the Thunderbird machines: "... an image of technology associated with the threat of Cold War mass destruction – the rocket emerging from the hidden silo – was appropriated and deployed to save life rather than to take it."[43] Where Thunderbirds more freely adheres to convention, Cull argues, is in subscribing to the "cult of the secret agent whose skills defend the home from enemies unknown", for which the series may be considered a children's version of Danger Man or The Avengers.[235] He alludes to Lady Penelope, as well as the episode "The Man From MI.5" (featuring a British Secret Service agent called "Bondson") as evidence.[235] Similarly less original is the characterisation of many one-off villains, who are typically "corrupt businessmen, spivs and gangsters familiar from crime films".[21]

The series' presentation of tobacco smoking was the subject of a study published in the medical journal Tobacco Control in 2002. Kate Hunt of the University of Glasgow found examples in 26 of Thunderbirds' 32 episodes, observing that smoking on the part of the main puppet cast is "associated with high status, high self-esteem, social and sexual desirability, and pleasure and leisure". Lady Penelope smokes in 10 of the 17 episodes in which she appears; by contrast, the junior Tracy brothers appear to be non-smokers, possibly due to their "lack of maturity, their isolation from peers, or the closeness of their family set-up". In supporting characters, the selection of tobacco product is frequently an indication of social class: cigar-smoking, for example, is the preserve of high-ranking males; Hunt also notes that smoking is sometimes used "to 'mark' 'baddies'". She comments that Thunderbirds' attitude to women and smoking is difficult to ascertain due to the under-representation of female characters. Hunt concludes that Thunderbirds does not actively promote smoking, a view rejected by the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation at the time of the series' 2000s re-launch on BBC Two.[236]


Pink, angular toy car.
Konami 164-scale FAB 1 toy car. In the 1960s, die-cast Thunderbirds vehicle toys were manufactured by such companies as Matchbox and Dinky.[72]

Since the series' first appearance, more than 3,000 Thunderbirds tie-in products – including children's toys, print media and audio episodes – have been marketed.[209] To compensate for the high demand for Thunderbirds media, AP Films established three additional subsidiaries: AP Films Merchandising, AP Films Records (or AP Films Music) and AP Films Toys.[237][238] In late 1966, APF was re-branded Century 21 Organisation and the subsidiaries' names were changed accordingly.[62][239]

Reflecting the series' popularity among British children, some news commentators dubbed the 1966 end-of-year toy shopping season "Thunderbirds Christmas".[198] To coincide with the BBC repeats in the early 1990s, Matchbox launched a new Thunderbirds range.[205] Christmas 1992 sales were exceptionally high, and the series' tie-in merchandising campaign surpassed the success of that of the Star Wars trilogy.[207][240] For Matchbox's Tracy Island Playset, demand vastly overwhelmed supply; this gave rise to in-store fights and the circulation of black market copies.[205][241]

A comic strip featuring the characters of Lady Penelope and Parker debuted in the first issues of APF Publishing's children's title TV Century 21 in early 1965.[15][242] A full-length "Thunderbirds" strip appeared a year later, at which time "Lady Penelope" moved to a sister comic of the same title.[15][243] The late 1960s additionally saw the release of Thunderbirds, Lady Penelope and Captain Scarlet and Thunderbirds annuals.[244]

APF Records released 19 Thunderbirds audio episodes on vinyl EPs between 1965 and 1967.[16][245] Three are original stories;[245][246] the other sixteen are condensed from TV episode soundtracks, featuring in-character narration from one of the voice cast.[204][247] At the same time, APF Publishing released eight original novels, written by John William Jennison and Kevin McGarry.[248] In 2008, after author Joan Marie Verba secured a North American licence from then-copyright holder Granada Ventures, the Minnesota-based company FTL Publications launched a new series of Thunderbirds novels.[249]

The first Thunderbirds video game, developed by Firebird Software for the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum home computers, was released in 1985. Towards the end of the 1980s, the series was released on home video: Channel 5 issued episodes in pairs, PolyGram in the Super Space Theater format. After acquiring the Thunderbirds brand in 1999, Carlton International Media re-mastered the series in preparation for the first Region 2 DVDs, released concurrently with new VHS versions in 2000.[209] In 2008, Thunderbirds was released in high definition on Blu-ray Disc.[250][251]

Later productions[edit]


Thunderbirds was supplemented by two feature-length film sequels: Thunderbirds Are Go (1966) and Thunderbird 6 (1968). The first, concerning the Zero-X spacecraft's ill-fated manned mission to Mars, was commissioned by Lew Grade before the first episode of the TV series had aired in 1965.[74] Written and produced by the Andersons, and directed by David Lane, both films were distributed by United Artists; Thunderbirds Are Go premièred in London on December 1966, Thunderbird 6 in July 1968.[252][253] Neither film was a critical or commercial success, and Century 21 Cinema's plans for additional sequels were abandoned.[8][254]

In the early 1980s, episodes of Thunderbirds (as well as other Supermarionation series) were re-edited by ITC New York to create a series of made-for-TV compilation films.[255] Branded "Super Space Theater", the format was intended for family viewing and was sold to cable networks and into syndication in the United States.[255] Three Thunderbirds compilations, revised with new, animated title sequences, were produced: Thunderbirds To The Rescue (1980) Thunderbirds In Outer Space (1981) and Countdown to Disaster (1982).[256][257][257] The VHS releases proved to be a major commercial success for UK distributor Channel 5 Video.[255]

A live-action film adaptation – Thunderbirds, directed by Jonathan Frakes and produced by StudioCanal, Universal Pictures and Working Title Films – was released in July 2004. The plot concentrates primarily on the characters of Alan, Tin-Tin and a newcomer – Brains' son, Fermat – who must fight to save their families when the Hood and a band of mercenaries invade Tracy Island. Thunderbirds was poorly received both critically and commercially, and evoked a negative response from fans of the TV series.[233][258] Although Frakes' film did not enter production until 2003, plans for such a production had first been announced ten years previously.[259][260]


Main article: Thunderbirds 2086

The Andersons sold their intellectual and profit participation rights to both Thunderbirds and their other series in the 1970s.[261][262] Consequently, they had no developmental control over adaptations of their works.[263][233] The first major Thunderbirds adaptation, and currently the series' only remake, is Thunderbirds 2086 (1982).[209][233] It was adapted from Thunderhawks, a modernised story concept by Gerry Anderson.[264][265] In this anime re-imagining, set 20 years after the original Thunderbirds, the vastly expanded IR is based within a colossal arcology and the Thunderbird machines number 17.[266] Twenty-four episodes were filmed, but only the first 18 aired in Japan.[264]

Two re-edits, both based on condensed versions of 13 of the original episodes, premièred in the United States in 1994.[259] The first, Thunderbirds USA, featured new voices and dialogue, titles and music, and aired as part of the Fox Kids programming block; the second, Turbocharged Thunderbirds, was syndicated on UPN.[267][268] Developed as a comedy, Turbocharged Thunderbirds preserved most of Fox's changes while transferring the action to the planet Thunder-World; it also incorporated live-action footage featuring a pair of human teenagers, assistants to the Supermarionation puppet characters.[267][269] Neither series was renewed for a second season, and neither has been broadcast in the UK.[259][270]

Anderson himself put forward several proposals for a Thunderbirds remake between the 1970s and 90s, to little success. A 1976 concept, Inter-Galactic Rescue 4, was to have followed the exploits of a variable-configuration land-, sea-, air- and space-rescue vehicle; it was rejected by NBC in the United States.[255][271] A proposal dating from 1984 – T-Force, an updated version of Thunderbirds – could not be pursued initially due to a lack of funding.[272] In 1993, it was re-developed under the new title GFI, but production was cancelled (with only one episode completed) after the cel animation techniques being used for part of the filming yielded poor results and were determined to be cost-prohibitive.[273][274]

In 2005, Anderson announced a desire to remake Thunderbirds, but stated that he had been unable to secure the necessary rights from then-rights holder Granada Ventures.[210] Negotiations with Granada and its successor, ITV plc, continued for the next few years.[210][251][275] In 2008, Anderson expressed his commitment to producing an "updated" version, ideally to be filmed using CGI.[276] Such a production was confirmed by Anderson during a radio interview in 2011, less than two years before his death in December 2012.[277] In 2013, it was confirmed that ITV Studios and Pukeko Pictures were to remake Thunderbirds as a series of 26, half-hour episodes titled Thunderbirds Are Go!, to be filmed using a combination of CGI and live-action model sets.[9][278] It will be broadcast on CITV in 2015, the semi-centennial year of the original.[9][278]

References, parodies and imitations[edit]

A neon sign for a stage play at the Apollo Theatre reads "Andrew Dawson - Gavin Robertson - Thunderbirds FAB - A Forbidden Planet Production"
Billboard for the 1989 production of Thunderbirds: F.A.B. at the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, London

The mission of IR inspired the foundation of the International Rescue Corps, originally a brigade of British fire-fighters who volunteered humanitarian services to Italy following the 1980 Irpinia earthquake.[255] Still operational, the charity has since assisted at disaster zones in various other countries.[255] The conglomerate Virgin Group has used the series in the branding of its services: Virgin Trains operates a fleet of locomotives (all named after Thunderbirds characters or vehicles) specifically for railway "rescues", Virgin Atlantic a Boeing 747-400 airliner named Lady Penelope.[209]

Since its TV debut, Thunderbirds has made a significant impact on British popular culture, and has influenced other TV programming, films and various other media.[209] The marionette comedy of the film Team America: World Police (2004) was directly inspired by the idiosyncrasies of Thunderbirds-era Supermarionation techniques.[279][280] The 1960s BBC sketch comedy Not Only... But Also featured a segment titled "Superthunderstingcar", a parody of Thunderbirds as well as Supercar and Stingray.[209][281]

Visual and verbal homage and allusions have been acknowledged in the films Wallace and Gromit: A Close Shave (1995) and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999),[43][209] the sitcom Spaced (1999–2001),[279] and the character design of the TV series Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008–13).[282] In the 1980s, Anderson co-created Terrahawks, a science-fiction comedy that is thematically similar to Thunderbirds.[283]

A mime show tribute, Thunderbirds: F.A.B., has toured internationally and popularised a staccato-like style of movement known as the "Thunderbirds walk".[284][285] Having established a new London West End sales record during its 1989 run, the show has since been periodically revived for the stage under the title Thunderbirds: F.A.B. – The Next Generation.[266][284]

Cover versions of "The Thunderbirds March" have been released by various musicians and bands, including Billy Cotton, Joe Loss, Frank Sidebottom, The Rezillos and The Shadows.[209] Groups who have written songs inspired by the series include We've Got a Fuzzbox and We're Gonna Use It, TISM, Busted and V6.[209] In 1991, Anderson directed the music video for the Dire Straits single "Calling Elvis", which was composed partly of footage of Thunderbirds-style marionette puppets.[240][268]

In the 1960s, AP Films developed a series of Thunderbirds-themed TV advertisements for the brands Lyons Maid and Kellogg's.[286][287] Since then, elements of the series have been incorporated into advertising and publicity for Swinton Insurance, Nestlé Kit Kat, the UK Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and Specsavers, among others.[206][288][289]


  1. ^ Listed by age, in descending order, as stated in Bentley 2005, pp. 53–7. According to Marriott 1993, pp. 116–17, Virgil is the second-oldest son and John the third-oldest.
  2. ^ a b The names "Tracy Island" and "Hood" are not used in the TV series, appearing only in tie-in media.
  3. ^ It is stated in one episode, "The Uninvited", that Scott occasionally mans Thunderbird 5 (Bentley 2005, p. 53).
  4. ^ Matt Zimmerman's casting followed the dialogue recording for the pilot, "Trapped in the Sky", for which Alan was voiced by Ray Barrett (Bentley 2005, p. 63).
  5. ^ Although it is stated in the TV series that John and Alan switch roles from one month to the next, John is not seen to pilot Thunderbird 3 in any episodes.
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