Thunderbirds (TV series)
|Genre||Science fiction, action,
adventure, children's television
|Created by||Gerry and Sylvia Anderson|
|Written by||Gerry and Sylvia Anderson,
Tony Barwick, Martin Crump,
Alan Fennell, Dennis Spooner,
Alan Pattillo, Donald Robertson
|Directed by||Brian Burgess, David Elliott,
David Lane, Alan Pattillo,
|Voices of||Sylvia Anderson, Ray Barrett,
Peter Dyneley, Christine Finn,
David Graham, David Holliday,
Shane Rimmer, Matt Zimmerman,
Jeremy Wilkin, Paul Maxwell,
John Tate, Charles Tingwell
|Opening theme||"The Thunderbirds March"|
|Country of origin||United Kingdom|
|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)
|Running time||50 minutes approx.|
|Production company(s)||AP Films|
|Picture format||35 mm film (VistaVision)
4:3 aspect ratio
|Original release||30 September 1965– 25 December 1966|
|Followed by||Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons|
|Related shows||Thunderbirds 2086
Thunderbirds Are Go
Thunderbirds is a British science-fiction television series created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, filmed by their production company AP Films (APF), and distributed by ITC Entertainment. It was produced between 1964 and 1966 using a combination of marionette puppetry and scale-model special effects sequences – a hybrid filming technique known as "Supermarionation". Two series and thirty-two 50-minute episodes were filmed; production came to an end after the Andersons' financial backer, Lew Grade, failed in his bid to sell the programme to American network television.
A follow-up to Four Feather Falls, Supercar, Fireball XL5 and Stingray, Thunderbirds is set in 2065. It concerns the exploits of International Rescue (IR), a life-saving organisation equipped with technologically advanced land, sea, air and space rescue vehicles, which are headed by a fleet of five Thunderbird machines and launched from Tracy Island, a secret base in the 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 started its first UK run on the ATV franchises in 1965 and has since been broadcast in at least 66 other countries. Periodically repeated by the BBC and other networks, the series was adapted for radio in the early 1990s and has influenced many TV programmes (including a Japanese remake) and other media. It has been followed by two film sequels, a live-action film adaptation and a mimed stage show tribute; it has also inspired various merchandising campaigns. A charity, the International Rescue Corps, is named after the organisation depicted in the series.
Widely considered the most popular and commercially successful series created by the Andersons, Thunderbirds has received particular praise for its effects (directed by Derek Meddings) and musical score (composed by Barry Gray). The series is also remembered for its title sequence, which opens with an often-quoted countdown provided by voice actor Peter Dyneley: "5, 4, 3, 2, 1: Thunderbirds Are Go!" A computer-animated remake, Thunderbirds Are Go, premiered on ITV in April 2015.
Thunderbirds is set between 2065 and 2067 and follows the exploits of the Tracy family, headed by American ex-astronaut turned multi-millionaire philanthropist Jeff Tracy. He is a widower with five adult sons: Scott, John, Virgil, Gordon and Alan.[Note 1] The Tracys form International Rescue (IR), a secret organisation dedicated to saving human life. They are aided in this mission by technologically advanced land, sea, air and space vehicles, which are called into service when conventional rescue techniques prove ineffective. The most important of these are five machines named the "Thunderbirds", each assigned to one of the five Tracy brothers:
- Thunderbird 1: a hypersonic, variable-sweep wing rocket plane used for fast response and rescue-zone reconnaissance. Piloted by primary rescue co-ordinator Scott Tracy.
- Thunderbird 2: a supersonic, lifting body carrier aircraft that transports rescue vehicles and equipment to disaster zones in detachable capsules known as "Pods". Piloted by Virgil.
- Thunderbird 3: a re-usable, single-stage-to-orbit spacecraft. Piloted alternately by astronauts Alan and John (with Scott as co-pilot).
- Thunderbird 4: a utility submersible used for underwater rescue. Piloted by Gordon and typically launched from Thunderbird 2's Pod 4.
- Thunderbird 5: a space station that monitors SOS transmissions from around the world. Manned alternately by "Space Monitors" John and Alan.
With the engineer Brains (the inventor of the Thunderbird machines), the Malaysian manservant Kyrano, Kyrano's daughter Tin-Tin and Jeff's mother, the family reside in a luxurious villa on Tracy Island,[Note 2] their hidden base in the South Pacific Ocean. In this location, IR is safe from criminals and spies who envy the organisation's technological superiority and seek to acquire the secrets of its machines.
Despite its humanitarian principles, some of IR's operations are necessitated not by innocent misadventure, but deliberate sabotage motivated by greed for power and wealth. For missions that require criminal investigation or military intelligence, the organisation incorporates a network of undercover agents, headed by English aristocrat Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward and her butler Aloysius "Nosey" Parker. Based at Creighton-Ward Mansion in Kent, Penelope and Parker's primary mode of transport is FAB 1 – a specially-modified Rolls-Royce. The most persistent of IR's adversaries is the criminal known only as the "Hood".[Note 2] Operating from a temple in the Malaysian jungle, and possessing abilities of hypnosis and dark magic, he exerts a powerful telepathic control over his estranged half-brother, Kyrano. Exploiting Kyrano's inside knowledge of IR, the Hood manipulates the Tracy brothers into missions that unfold according to his own nefarious designs; this allows him to spy on the Thunderbird machines and – by selling their stolen secrets – make himself rich.
Thunderbirds was the fourth Supermarionation puppet TV series to be produced by APF, which was founded by the husband-and-wife duo of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson with their business partners Reg Hill and John Read. Pitched in late 1963, the series was commissioned by Lew Grade of ITC, APF's parent company, on the back of the positive viewer response to Stingray.
Gerry Anderson drew inspiration for the series' underlying concept from the West German mining disaster remembered as the Wunder von Lengede ("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. Lacking the equipment necessary to drill a rescue shaft, the authorities were forced to requisition a heavy-duty bore from Bremen; the time spent shipping the device by rail significantly reduced the trapped miners' chances of survival. Recognising the potential benefits of swifter crisis response, Anderson devised the concept of an "international rescue organisation" that could transport specialised rescue equipment over long distances using supersonic aircraft.
Seeking to distinguish his 26-episode proposal from APF's earlier productions, Anderson set out to pitch stories on a level that would appeal to both adults and children. Whereas previous series had been broadcast during the late afternoon, Anderson wanted a family-friendly primetime viewing slot for Thunderbirds. According to Sylvia, "our market had grown and a 'kidult' show ... was the next step." The Andersons retired to their holiday villa in Portugal to develop the premise, script the pilot episode and compose a scriptwriters' guide. Of the writing process, Sylvia explains: "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." The casting of a widower father and his sons as the main characters was influenced by the American series Bonanza; furthermore, Sylvia believed that featuring more than one heroic character would help to broaden the series' appeal. The Tracy brothers took their names from Mercury Seven astronauts Scott Carpenter, John Glenn, Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Gordon Cooper and Alan Shepard.
The series' title was derived from a letter written by Gerry's brother, Lionel, while he had been serving overseas as an RAF flight sergeant during World War II. While stationed in Arizona, Lionel, who was killed in action in 1944, had made reference to Thunderbird Field, a nearby United States Army Air Forces base. Drawn to the "punchiness" of "Thunderbirds", Anderson dropped his working title, "International Rescue", and renamed both the series and IR's rescue craft (which he had originally designated Rescues 1 to 5). His inspiration for the launch sequences of Thunderbirds 1, 2 and 3 originated from contemporary United States Air Force take-off procedure: Anderson had learnt how the US Strategic Air Command would keep its pilots on permanent standby, seated in the cockpits of their aircraft and ready for launch at a moment's notice.
In the DVD documentary The Thunderbirds Companion, Anderson explained how a rise in shooting costs had made overseas sources of distribution revenue all the more important, and essentially caused Thunderbirds to be filmed "as an American show". During the character development and voice-casting process, the Andersons' main priority was to ensure that the series had transatlantic appeal, maximising the chances of securing an American network deal and the higher viewing figures that this market had to offer. Such was the investment in this illusion that scripts were typed in American English and printed on American-style quarto-size paper.
Thunderbirds was shot at APF's studios on the Slough Trading Estate, Berkshire between 1964 and 1966. In preparation for the filming, the number of full-time crew was expanded to 100. Shooting commenced in September 1964 after five months of pre-production – due to the series' technical complexity, a longer period than for any of APF's earlier series. To speed up the filming, episodes were recorded in pairs, at a rate of one a month, on separate soundstages and by different crews (which were designated "A" and "B"). By 1964, APF was the UK's largest commercial user of colour film, consuming more than three million feet (570 miles or 910 kilometres) of stock per year.
Alan Pattillo, a veteran scriptwriter and director for APF, was appointed the company's first official script editor in late 1964. This move was aimed to reduce the burden on Gerry Anderson who, while reserving his producer's right to overall creative control, had grown weary of revising scripts himself. Direction of episodes was assigned in pairs: Pattillo and David Elliott alternated with the less experienced Desmond Saunders and newcomer David Lane for each month's filming. Due to the difficulties of setting up takes, progress was slow: even on a productive day, it was rare for the crew to complete more than two minutes of puppet footage In a contemporary interview, Hill noted that Thunderbirds contained several times as many shots as a typical live-action series; he explained that rapid editing was necessary on account of by the characters' lack of facial expression, which made it difficult to sustain viewer interest in shots lasting more than a few seconds.
After viewing the completed 25-minute pilot, "Trapped in the Sky", Lew Grade was so impressed by APF's work that he instructed Anderson to double the episode length and increased the series' budget per episode from £25,000 to £38,000 (approximately £452,000 and £688,000 today). As a result, Thunderbirds became not only the company's longest, highest-budgeted production to date but also among the most expensive TV series to have been made. The crew, who had so far been filming at a rate of two 25-minute episodes per fortnight, were to face significant challenges during the transition to the new format: eight episodes had already been completed, scripts for up to ten more had been written, and substantial rewrites would be necessary to satisfy the longer running time. 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." APF spent over seven months extending the existing episodes.
Tony Barwick, who had impressed Pattillo and the Andersons with an unsubmitted script that he had written for Danger Man, was recruited to assist in the writing of subplots and filler material. He found that the longer format created opportunities to strengthen the characterisation. Science-fiction writer John Peel argues that it is "small character touches" that make the puppet cast "much more rounded" and allow the viewer to see "much more of the Tracys as characters than we ever were of the inhabitants of previous series"; he compares the writing favourably to that of live-action drama. The newly filmed footage proved useful during the development of the first series finale, "Security Hazard": since the previous two episodes had overspent their budgets, Pattillo devised a flashback-dominated clip show containing only 17 minutes of new material to reduce costs.
Filming of Series One was completed in December 1965. A second series was also commissioned late that year and entered production in March 1966. Barwick became a full-time member of the writing staff and took over the role of script editor from the outgoing Pattillo The main puppet cast and vehicles were remade; in addition, the art department expanded some of the standing sets, including the Tracy Villa lounge and the Thunderbird 5 control room. To accommodate the simultaneous filming of the TV series and Thunderbirds Are Go, APF purchased a further two buildings on the Slough Trading Estate and converted them into new stages. As crew and studio space were divided between the two productions, filming of the TV series progressed at half the previous speed, with APF's "B" crew producing one new episode per month. Filming on Thunderbirds Are Go was completed by June, allowing "A" crew to resume work on the series to shoot what would prove to be its penultimate episode, "Ricochet".
Production of Thunderbirds ended in August 1966 with the completion of the sixth episode of its second series. In February that year, it had been reported that Grade had been unable to sell the series in the United States due to disagreements over timeslots. In July, he cancelled Thunderbirds after failing in his second attempt to secure an American buyer. The three major US networks of the time – NBC, CBS and ABC – had all bid for the series, with Grade repeatedly driving up the price. When NBC withdrew its offer, the other two immediately followed.
By the time of its cancellation, Thunderbirds had become widely popular in the UK and was being distributed extensively overseas. Grade, however, believed that without the financial boost of an American network sale, a full second series would fail to recover its production costs. He therefore asked Anderson to devise a new concept – which, in his estimation, stood a greater chance of winning over the profitable US market.
Casting and characters
|Name||Role(s)||Other occupation(s)||Voiced by|
|Jeff Tracy||Leader of IR||Ex-astronaut, Air Force colonel,
|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
|Alan Tracy||Thunderbird 3 astronaut
Thunderbird 5 Space Monitor
|Motor racing champion||Matt Zimmerman
|Gordon Tracy||Thunderbird 4 aquanaut
Thunderbird 2 co-pilot
Olympic diving champion,
|John Tracy||Thunderbird 5 Space Monitor
Thunderbird 3 astronaut
|Astronomer, writer||Ray Barrett|
|Brains||Engineer, scientist, inventor||David Graham|
|Tin-Tin Kyrano||Maintenance technician, laboratory assistant||Christine Finn|
|Kyrano||Manservant, cook||Botanist, scientist||David Graham|
|Grandma Tracy||Housekeeper, cook||Christine Finn|
|IR's London agent||Aristocrat, socialite||Sylvia Anderson|
|Aloysius Parker||Penelope's butler and chauffeur||Ex-professional safe-cracker||David Graham|
|The Hood||Criminal, dark magician||Ray Barrett|
Voice-recording sessions were supervised by Pattillo and the Andersons, with Sylvia Anderson in charge of casting. Dialogue was recorded once per month at a rate of two scripts per session. Supporting parts were not pre-assigned, but instead negotiated by the cast among themselves. Two recordings would be made at each session: one to be converted into electronic pulses for the puppet filming, the other to be added to the soundtrack during post-production. The tapes were edited at Gate Recording Theatre in Birmingham.
In the interest of transatlantic appeal, it was decided that the main puppet cast would be mostly American and therefore voiced by actors capable of producing an appropriate accent. British, Canadian and Australian actors formed the majority of the voice cast; the only American to become involved was stage actor David Holliday, who was noticed in London's West End and given the part of Virgil Tracy. Following the completion of the first series, Holliday returned to the United States; for Series Two, the character was voiced by English-Canadian actor Jeremy Wilkin.
British actor David Graham was among the first to be cast. He had previously voiced characters in Four Feather Falls, Supercar, Fireball XL5 and Stingray; beyond the APF productions, he had supplied one of the original Dalek voices on Doctor Who. Cast alongside Graham was Australian actor Ray Barrett. Like Graham, he had worked for the Andersons before, having voiced Titan and Commander Shore in Stingray. A veteran of radio drama, Barrett was skilled at performing a range of voices and accents in quick succession. Villains of the week would typically be voiced by either Barrett or Graham. Aware of the sensitive political climate of the Cold War and not wishing to "perpetuate the idea that Russia was the enemy with a whole generation of children watching", Gerry Anderson cast the Hood (voiced by Barrett) as Oriental and placed his temple hideout in Malaysia in an effort to go against viewer expectations.
Although Lady Penelope and Parker (the latter voiced by Graham) were among the first characters to be developed, neither was conceived as a major role. Parker's Cockney manner was based on that of a waiter at a Cookham pub that was sometimes visited by the crew. On Gerry Anderson's recommendation, Graham dined there regularly to study the accent. Anderson's first choice for the role of Penelope had been Fenella Fielding, but Sylvia insisted that she take the part. Her Penelope voice was intended to emulate Fielding and Joan Greenwood. On Penelope and Parker's secondary role as comic relief, Gerry explained: "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.'" According to commentator Jonathan Bignell, Penelope and Parker's Britishness inserts entertaining elements of "Cool Britannia" into an otherwise exclusively American setting.
As well as Jeff Tracy, English-Canadian actor Peter Dyneley voiced the recurring character of Commander Norman, chief of air traffic control at London International Airport. His supporting character voices were typically those of upper-class Englishmen. Shane Rimmer, the voice of Scott, was cast on the strength of his performance on the BBC soap opera Compact. Fellow Canadian Matt Zimmerman was cast as Alan at a late stage in the process. The expatriate West End actor was given the role of Alan on the recommendation of his friend, Holliday "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."
Christine Finn, known to contemporary viewers for her appearance in the science-fiction serial Quatermass and the Pit, provided the voices of Tin-Tin Kyrano and Grandma Tracy. With Sylvia Anderson, she was also responsible for voicing most of the female and child supporting characters. Other minor parts were voiced by Charles Tingwell, Paul Maxwell and John Tate (the father of Nick Tate), who were not credited for their contributions.
Design and effects
The puppet stages used for the filming of Thunderbirds were only one-fifth the size of those used for a standard live-action production, typically measuring 12 by 14 by 3 metres (39.4 by 45.9 by 9.8 ft) in length, width and depth. Bob Bell, assisted by Keith Wilson and Grenville Nott, headed the art department for Series One. During the simultaneous filming of Series Two and Thunderbirds Are Go in 1966, Bell attended mainly to the film, entrusting set design for the TV series to Wilson.
Since it was necessary for the art department's interior sets to conform to the effects department's exterior plans, each team closely monitored the other's work. According to Sylvia Anderson, Bell's challenge was to produce complex interiors on a limited budget while resisting the effect's department's push for "more extravagant" design. This task was complicated by the unnatural proportions of the puppets: Bell struggled to decide whether the sets should be built to a scale proportionate to their bodies or their over-sized heads and hands. He used the example of FAB 1 to illustrate the problem: "As soon as we positioned [the puppets] standing alongside [the model], they looked ridiculous, as the car towered over them." He ultimately adopted a "mix-and-match" approach, whereby smaller items, such as tableware, were scaled to their hands and furniture to their bodies.
While designing the Creighton-Ward Mansion sets, Bell and his staff paid close attention to detail, ordering miniature Tudor paintings, 1⁄3-scale Georgian- and Regency-style furniture and carpeting in the shape of a polar bear skin. This realism was enhanced by adding scrap items acquired from household waste and electronics shops; for example, a vacuum cleaner pipe serves as Virgil Tracy's launch chute.
The head puppet sculptor was Christine Glanville, who also served as the lead puppeteer. Glanville's four-person team built the 13 members of the main cast in six months at a cost of between £250 and £300 per puppet (approximately £4,525 and £5,430 today). Since pairs of episodes were being filmed simultaneously on separate stages, the characters needed to be sculpted in duplicate. Facial expressions were diversified by means of replaceable heads: as well as a head with a neutral expression, each main character was given a "smiler", a "frowner" and a "blinker". The finished puppets were approximately 22 inches (56 cm) tall, or 1⁄3 adult human height.
The puppets were made up of more than 30 individual components, the most important of which was the solenoid that synchronised lip movements with the characters' pre-recorded dialogue. This device was positioned inside the head unit; as a result, torsos and limbs appeared comparatively small. The puppets' likenesses and mechanics are remembered favourably by puppeteer Wanda Brown, who preferred the Thunderbirds marionettes over the accurately-proportioned ones that first appeared 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." Rimmer speaks positively of the puppets still being "very much caricatures", since it made them "more lovable and appealing ... There was a naive quality about them and nothing too complex."
The appearances of the main characters were inspired by those of actors and other entertainers, who were typically selected from the show business directory Spotlight. According to Glanville, as part of a trend away from the strong caricature of previous series, APF was seeking "more natural faces" for the puppets. The face of Jeff Tracy was based on that of Lorne Greene, Scott on Sean Connery, Alan on Robert Reed, John on Adam Faith and Charlton Heston, Brains on Anthony Perkins and Parker on Ben Warriss. Sylvia Anderson brought the character of Penelope to life in likeness as well as voice: after her test moulds were rejected, sculptor Mary Turner decided to use Anderson herself as a template.
|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), Robert Reed (Alan and Virgil). Bottom row, left to right: Adam Faith and Charlton Heston (John), Anthony Perkins (Brains).|
Main character heads were initially sculpted in either Plasticine or clay. Once the general aspect had been finalised, this served as the template for a silicone rubber mould. This was laminated with Bondaglass (fibreglass mixed with resin) and enhanced with Bondapaste, a putty-like substance, to accentuate contours. The Bondaglass shell was then fitted with a solenoid, mouth parts, plastic eyes and incisor teeth (a first for a Supermarionation production). Supporting characters were portrayed by puppets known as "revamps", which had plastic heads. These marionettes started their working lives with only a mouth and eyes; their faces were remoulded from one episode to the next. Particularly striking revamp moulds were retained and, as their numbers increased, photographed to compile an internal casting directory.
Wigs were made of mohair or, in the case of the Penelope puppet, human hair. Puppet bodies were built in three sizes: "large male" (specifically for the Tracys and the Hood), "small male" and "small female". Sylvia Anderson, the head costume designer, devised the main characters' attire. To give the puppets increased mobility, the costume department generally avoided stiff synthetic materials, instead working with cotton, silk and wool. Between 1964 and 1966, the department's stock numbered more than 700 costumes.
Each puppet's head was fitted with about 10 thin tungsten steel wires. During the filming, dialogue was played into the studio using modified tape recorders that converted the feed into electronic pulses. Two of the wires relayed these pulses to the internal solenoid, completing the Supermarionation process. The wires, which were sprayed black to reduce their visibility, were made even less noticeable through the application of powder paint matching the background colours of the set. Glanville explained the time-consuming nature of this process: "[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.'" Positioned on an overhead gantry with a hand-held cruciform, the puppeteers co-ordinated movements with the help of a viewfinder-powered CCTV feedback system. As filming progressed, the crew started to dispense with wires and instead manipulate the puppets from the studio floor using rods.
Due to their low weight and the fact that they had only one control wire per leg, the puppets were unable to walk convincingly. Therefore, scenes involving movement were filmed from the waist up, with a puppeteer holding the legs below the level of the camera and using a "bobbing" action to simulate motion. Alternatively, dynamic shots were eliminated altogether: in an interview with New Scientist, director of photography John Read discussed the advantages of circumventing the puppets' 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)." Live-action shots of human hands were inserted whenever scripts called for more dexterous actions to be performed.
Special effects for all the APF series from Supercar to UFO were directed by Derek Meddings, who later worked on the James Bond and Superman films. Aware that Thunderbirds would be the "biggest project [APF] had worked on", Meddings quickly found himself struggling to manage his workload with the single filming unit that had produced all the effects for Stingray. He therefore established a second unit under technician Brian Johncock, as well as a third exclusively for filming airborne effects sequences. This expansion increased the number of APF crews and stages to five each. A typical episode of Thunderbirds contains approximately 100 special effects shots and Meddings' 50-man team usually completed at least a dozen per day.
A new addition to the effects department was Mike Trim, who served as Meddings' assistant in designing the vehicles and buildings that populate the world of Thunderbirds. Meddings and Trim jointly pioneered an "organic" design technique, known informally as "gubbins", whereby the exteriors of models and sets were customised with parts taken from model kits and children's toys. Models and sets were also "dirtied down" with powder paint or pencil lead to create a used appearance. Toy cars and vans were used in long shot. For added realism, scale vehicles were even equipped with basic steering and suspension. To simulate vehicle dust trails, miniature fans and Jetex pellets (capable of issuing jets of air or chemical exhaust) were attached to their undersides. Another of Meddings' innovations was a closed, cyclical effects stage nicknamed the "rolling road": consisting of two or more loops of painted canvas running at different speeds, this invention allowed shots of moving vehicles to be filmed on a static set. This set-up was easier to light and film and made more efficient use of the limited studio space. Airborne aircraft sequences were mounted against a "rolling sky", with smoke fanned across the stage to simulate passing clouds.
One of Meddings' earliest tasks was to shoot stock footage of the Thunderbird machines (including their launches and flight) and the series' regular locations, Tracy Island and Creighton-Ward Mansion. The finished island model was a composite of more than a dozen smaller sets that could be detached from the whole and filmed separately. The architecture of Creighton-Ward Mansion was based on that of Stourhead House, located on the Stourhead Estate in Wiltshire. In the absence of designer Reg Hill, who was serving as the new series' associate producer, Meddings was further tasked with designing the Thunderbird fleet and FAB 1. On his arrival at APF, Trim's first duty was to convert Meddings' three-dimensional concepts into technical blueprints and side-view elevations. Scale models for the six main vehicles were built by a contractor, Master Models of Middlesex. Models and puppet sets combined, more than 200 versions of the Thunderbird machines were created for the series.
While designing and filming the Thunderbird machines, Meddings' main priorities were realism and credibility. With the exception of Thunderbird 5, each vehicle was constructed in three or four scales. Meddings' swing-wing design for Thunderbird 1 evolved from his wish to create an aircraft that appeared "more dynamic" than a rocket-like fixed-wing vehicle. He remained dissatisfied with the prototype of Thunderbird 2 (which was originally to have been blue instead of green) until he inverted the wings, later commenting: "... at the time, all aircraft had swept-back wings. I only did it to be different." This decision was not informed by any expert mechanical knowledge on Meddings' part: "The model just looked better that way." Made of balsa wood, the 3.5-foot (1.1 m)-long Thunderbird 2 was both Meddings' and Gerry Anderson's favourite of all the shooting models. Meddings described the launch of Thunderbird 2 as "probably the most memorable effects sequence" that his team devised for an Anderson production.
The large Thunderbird 3 model, whose design was inspired by the Russian Soyuz rocket, was six feet (1.8 m) tall. Thunderbird 4 was particularly difficult to shoot: since the scale of the model was inconsistent with the water inside the filming tank, inventive camera angles and rapid editing were deployed to create a sense of realistic perspective. Thunderbird 5, the hardest of the vehicles for Meddings to visualise, was based on the Tracy Island Round House. Since most of the space station's appearances were provided by stock footage, the model was rarely filmed. Other Pod Vehicles were designed on an episode-by-episode basis and built from balsa wood, Jelutong wood or fibreglass. To save time and costs, other minor vehicles were built in-house from 1⁄24-scale radio-controlled model kits.
Since the puppets of Lady Penelope and Parker would be required to fit inside, the largest of all the filming models was the 7-foot (2.1 m)-long FAB 1, which cost £2,500 (approximately £45,000 today) to make. The Rolls-Royce's name and colour were both chosen by Sylvia Anderson. Rolls-Royce Ltd. supervised the construction of the plywood model and supplied APF with an authentic radiator grille for close-up shots of the front of the car. In exchange for its cooperation, the company requested that a Spirit of Ecstasy be fitted to the chassis and that the characters avoid referring to its brand using abbreviations such as "Rolls".
Scale explosions were created with substances including fuller's earth, petrol jelly, magnesium strips and Cordtex explosive. Originally filmed at up to 120 frames per second (f.p.s.), explosions were slowed down to 24 f.p.s. during post-production to increase their apparent magnitude and length. Shots of rockets firing were accomplished using gunpowder canisters, which were ignited electronically by passing current down tungsten wires; the same wires enabled a member of the crew, equipped with a cruciform and positioned on an overhead gantry, to "fly" the model over the set. By far the most unwieldy model was Thunderbird 2, which Meddings remembered as being "awful" to fly. A combination of unreliable rockets and weak wiring frequently caused problems – should the former be slow to ignite, the current quickly caused the latter to overheat and snap, potentially damaging the model and even setting fire to the set. In addition, conditions above the studio floor were often hazardous due to the heat and smoke. Although many of the aircraft exhaust sound effects used in the series were taken from an audio library, some were specially recorded during a Red Arrows display at RAF Little Rissington, Gloucestershire.
By early 1966, Meddings' commitments were divided between Series Two and Thunderbirds Are Go. While Meddings worked on the film, handling of the TV effects passed to camera operator Jimmy Elliott. By this stage, the basic frame of Thunderbird 2 had been damaged so many times that the model had needed to be rebuilt from scratch. Meddings was displeased with the result, commenting that the replacement was "not only the wrong colour, it was a completely different shape ... I never felt our model-makers managed to recapture the look of the original."
Critic David Garland suggests that the challenge facing the Thunderbirds effects department was to strike a balance between the "conventional science-fiction imperative of the 'futuristic'" and the "seeping hyper-realist concerns mandated by the Andersons' approach to the puppets". Thunderbirds has been particularly well praised for the quality of its effects. Jim Sangster and Paul Condon, writers of Collins Telly Guide, consider the model work "uniformly impressive"; to Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping, writers of The Guinness Book of Classic British TV, the effects are "way beyond anything seen on TV previously". Impressed by their work on Thunderbirds, film director Stanley Kubrick recruited several members of Meddings' team to supervise the effects shooting for 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The series' title sequence, storyboarded by Gerry Anderson, is made up of two parts. It opens with a countdown of "5, 4, 3, 2, 1: Thunderbirds Are Go!", provided by voice actor Peter Dyneley in character as Jeff Tracy. In a departure from the style of Stingray, the Thunderbirds title sequence varies with each episode: the first part consists of a rapidly-edited action montage that serves as a preview of the plot. Simon Archer and Marcus Hearn, biographers of Gerry Anderson, compare this device favourably to a film trailer.
The second part, accompanied by series composer Barry Gray's "The Thunderbirds March", features portraits of the main puppet cast superimposed on various vehicles and settings. Peel describes this as "ostensibly a return to the 'series stars' concept long known in TV", while Garland considers such imagery indicative of Anderson's commitment to "incremental realism" through the convergence of human and puppet characteristics. Essayist Jonathan Bignell suggests that the use of portraits conveys Anderson's partiality to "visual revelation of machines and physical action".
According to Daniel O'Brien, writer of SF:UK: How British Science Fiction Changed the World, the Thunderbirds title sequence encapsulates the reasons for the series' enduring popularity. Dyneley's countdown is particularly well remembered and has been widely quoted. Dean Newman of the Syfy channel website ranks Thunderbirds eighth in a list of "Top 10 TV title sequences", while Martin Anderson of Den of Geek considers the sequence the best of any TV series.
The score was composed by Barry Gray, who served as musical director for all of the Anderson productions up to the first series of Space: 1999. In response to Gerry Anderson's request that the main theme have a "military feel", Gray produced a brass-dominated piece titled "The Thunderbirds March", which was recorded in December 1964 at Olympic Studios in London. Originally, the end titles were to have been accompanied by "Flying High", a lyrical track sung by Gary Miller with backing by Ken Barrie; ultimately, a variation of the march was used instead. Incidental music was recorded over nine months from March to December 1965. Since the series' music budget was heavily weighted towards earlier episodes, later ones featured pieces recycled from APF's ever-expanding music library.
Peel considers "The Thunderbirds March" to be "one of the best TV themes ever written – perfect for the show and catchy when heard alone". Morag Reavley of BBC Online argues that the piece is "up there with Bond, Sinatra, Elvis and the Beatles in the quintessential soundtrack of the Sixties". More generally, he praises the series' "catchy, pulse-quickening tunes", as well as Gray's aptitude for "musical nuance" and genre-mixing. "Thunderbirds Are Go!" – the track accompanying the launch sequences of Thunderbirds 1, 2 and 3 – is praised by AllMusic's Heather Phares as a reflection of the "flashy, mod side" of 1960s British spy fiction. She also highlights Gray's homage to – and divergence from – musical norms, commenting that his score "sends up the spy and action/adventure conventions of the '60s very stylishly and subtly".
Critic David Huckvale identifies Wagnerian homage in both the series' theme music and premise, arguing that Thunderbirds is an example of visual media "consciously or unconsciously indebted to Wagnerian idioms". He observes that the theme's opening string ostinato has an effect similar to that of a recurring motif in Ride of the Valkyries (from Wagner's opera Die Walküre) while likening the Thunderbird machines to Valkyries themselves: "Their function is more benevolent than those warrior maidens, but they do hover over danger, death and destruction." Kevin J. Donnelly of the University of Southampton acknowledges the series' "big-sounding orchestral score", which he compares to that of a live-action film. He also suggests, however, that the music serves partly at drawing the viewer's attention away from the physical imperfections of the puppet characters.
Thunderbirds premiered on British television on 30 September 1965 on the ITV franchises ATV Midlands, Westward and Channel. Other broadcasters, including ATV London and Granada, started transmissions the following month. The Christmas-themed series finale, "Give or Take a Million", was first broadcast on 25 December 1966. Despite Grade's decision to extend the running time, the Midlands and Granada broadcasts saw episodes split into two parts. In these areas, both 25-minute instalments were transmitted on the same day, separated by the ITN Evening News. The conclusion opened with a narration by Shane Rimmer summarising the first part's action.
Granada transmitted Thunderbirds in unedited form for the first time with the start of repeats in 1966. In 1968, the franchise briefly aired episodes in three parts due to timeslot restrictions. The availability of repeats during the 1960s and 1970s varied from region to region. ATV Midlands screened the series regularly into the early 1970s; by contrast, Thunderbirds was entirely absent from Yorkshire Television between 1968 and 1976. Thunderbirds was last transmitted on the ITV franchises in 1981.
In 1990, eight of the sixteen audio episodes released by APF Records were converted into radio dramas, which were transmitted on BBC Radio 5. The success of the radio series encouraged the BBC to acquire the rights to the TV episodes, which it networked (transmitted to all regions simultaneously) on BBC 2 from September 1991.
Since the end of the first network run, which achieved average viewing figures of more than six million, the BBC has repeated the series six times: between 1992 and 1993 (Series One only), 1994 and 1995 (nine episodes only), and 2000 and 2001 (remastered by Carlton), and in 2003, 2005 and 2006. Other channels that have shown repeats include UK Gold (1994–95), Bravo (1996–97), Cartoon Network (2001–02), Boomerang (2001–03) and Syfy (2009). In Scotland, the BBC screened a Gaelic dub, Tairnearan Tar As ("Thunderbirds Are Go") in the early 1990s.
Prior to its UK debut, Thunderbirds was distributed to 30 other countries including the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan; pre-sales revenue totalled £350,000 (approximately £6 million today). In the year following the series' first appearance, the number of countries increased to 66. In Japan, where it was first broadcast by NHK, Thunderbirds attracted a sizeable fan following and influenced the development of series such as Ultraman, Mighty Jack and Himitsu Sentai Gorenger. In the US, the two-part format entered first-run syndication, to modest success, in 1968. Other overseas broadcasters have included TechTV and Family Room HD (US), BBC Kids and YTV (Canada), Nine Network and Foxtel (Australia), TV3 (New Zealand), MediaCorp TV12 Kids Central (Singapore) and RTÉ Two (Republic of Ireland).
Thunderbirds is generally considered to be the Andersons' most popular series as well as their greatest critical and commercial success. In 1966, Gerry Anderson received two awards for his work on the series: a Royal Television Society Silver Medal for Outstanding Artistic Achievement and an honorary fellowship of the British Kinematograph, Sound and Television Society. In 2007, the series achieved 19th position in a Radio Times magazine reader poll to determine the best science-fiction TV programme of all time. It was ranked fourth in the Channel 5 list show 50 Greatest Kids' TV Shows in 2013.
For Peel, Thunderbirds is "without a doubt the peak of the Supermarionation achievement". Suggesting that the series is pitched at a "more adult" level than its precursors, he adds that its sense of adventure, effective humour and "gripping and convincing" episodes ensured that "everyone in the audience found something to love about it." Simon Heffer, a fan of the series in childhood, has commented positively on the series for The Daily Telegraph: "All the elements we children discerned in whatever grown-up television we had been allowed to watch were present in Thunderbirds: dramatic theme and incidental music; well-developed plots; goodies and baddies; swaggering Americans, at a time when the whole of Britain was in a cultural cringe to them; and, of course, glamorous locations ... Then, of course, there was the nail-biting tension of the rescues themselves ..." Film critic Kim Newman describes the series as a "television perennial".
John Marriott suggests that, beyond its large fan following, Thunderbirds has been both technologically and ideologically influential. In his foreword to Marriott's book, Thunderbirds Are Go!, Anderson put forward several explanations for the series' enduring popularity: it "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." According to Anderson, Thunderbirds incorporates a "strong family atmosphere, where Dad reigns supreme". Both O'Brien and script editor Alan Pattillo have praised the series' positive "family values"; in addition, Heffer and others have noted its cross-generational appeal. Prior to the series' 2000 return to the BBC, Brian Viner, writing for Radio Times, commented that it was on the point of "captivating yet another generation of viewers". At the time of the series' first run, Stuart Hood of The Spectator called it a "modern fairy tale"; he also recommended that children watch with their parents (since it "can sometimes be frightening"). Writing for Dreamwatch in 1994, Andrew Thomas described Thunderbirds as only "nominally" a children's programme: "Its themes are universal and speak as much to the adult in the child as the child in the adult."
Jeff Evans, writer of The Penguin TV Companion, argues that the series' 50-minute format allows for stronger character development and better "tension-building". O'Brien is less positive in his appraisal of the scriptwriting, asserting that the plots "tended towards the formulaic" and were sometimes "stretched to snapping point" by the extended running time. Cornell, Day and Topping are critical; they consider some of the writing "woefully poor" and argue that Thunderbirds as a whole is "often as clichéd as previous Anderson series". Peel praises the series' storylines and characterisation. However, he also opines regretfully that the "tongue-in-cheek" humour of Stingray is less evident. Where Thunderbirds improves on its precursor, Peel believes, is in its rejection of fantasy plot devices, child and animal characters, comic and stereotyped villains and the "standard Anderson sexism": female characters, marginalised in earlier series, are more commonly seen to play active and sometimes heroic roles.
Noting the attention to detail of the series' launch sequences, Jonathan Bignell argues that part of the motivation for dedicating large amounts of screen time to the Thunderbird craft is the need to compensate for the limited mobility of the puppet cast. The focus on futuristic machines has also been explored by cultural historian Nicholas J. Cull, who comments that of all the Andersons' series, Thunderbirds is the most evocative of a recurring theme: the "necessity of the human component of the machine", whereby the failings of new technology are overcome by "brave human beings and technology working together". The series' vision of the 2060s is therefore "wonderfully humanistic and reassuring"; O'Brien also praises this optimism, comparing the Tracy family to guardian Übermensch. Writing for Wired UK magazine, Warren Ellis suggests that the series' scientific vision could inspire the next generation of "mad and frightening engineers", adding that Thunderbirds "trades in vast, demented concepts ... immense and very beautiful ideas as solutions to problems."
Thomas argues that the world of Thunderbirds is broadly similar that of the 1960s in so far as contemporary capitalism and class structures have survived mostly unchanged. He also observes, however, that wealth and high social status are often depicted as character flaws, rather than strengths. According to Thomas, a contributing factor to the series' lasting popularity is the realism of IR's machines. Newman, for his part, suggests that "the point isn't realism. The 21st century of Thunderbirds is detailed ... but also de-populated, a high-tech toyland". He is more negative in his comparisons of contemporary and future values, noting the "square, almost 50s" attitudes to race, gender and class. With regard to stereotyping, Hood comments that he "would be happier if [villains] didn't seem to be recognisable by their pigmentation". Cull, by contrast, considers the series to be generally progressive on the subject of race, arguing that its rejection of stereotyping is most evident when it is actively used to positive effect – for example, in the characterisation of Kyrano and Tin-Tin, who are Malaysian. However, he deems many of the one-off villains derivative, remarking that these characters are typically presented as "corrupt businessmen, spivs and gangsters familiar from crime films".
Various critics – including Bignell, Cull and O'Brien – have also discussed Thunderbirds as a product of the Cold War era. Bignell comments that the Hood's Oriental appearance and mysterious powers draw parallels with James Bond villains and fears of China acting as "a 'third force' antagonistic to the West". Cull observes that, despite the series' focus on the dangers of nuclear technology, the Thunderbird machines are excluded from this theme: in their case, "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." He suggests that Thunderbirds adheres more closely to cultural norms in its subscription to the "cult of the secret agent whose skills defend the home from enemies unknown", for which it can be compared to The Avengers or Danger Man.
The series' presentation of smoking was the subject of a study published in the medical journal Tobacco Control in 2002. Despite identifying examples in 26 of its 32 episodes, Kate Hunt of the University of Glasgow concluded that Thunderbirds does not actively promote smoking – a view opposed by the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation (RCLCF) at the time of the series' relaunch on BBC 2. Rejecting the RCLCF's suggestion that all sight of cigarettes and cigars be digitally erased, the BBC maintained that the series "does not glorify or encourage smoking" and described the activity as "incidental to the plot".
Since the series' first appearance, more than 3,000 Thunderbirds-themed products have been marketed. To accommodate the high consumer demand for tie-ins, APF established three dedicated subsidiaries: AP Films Merchandising, AP Films Music and AP Films Toys. Some British commentators dubbed the 1966 end-of-year shopping season "Thunderbirds Christmas" on account of the series' popularity. In the early 1990s, Matchbox launched a new range of tie-in toys to coincide with the BBC 2 repeats. Sales figures for Christmas 1992 were exceptionally high, with the success of the series' revived merchandising campaign surpassing that of the Star Wars trilogy. Demand for Matchbox's Tracy Island Playset overwhelmed supply, resulting in shop fights and a substantial black market for the toy.
A comic strip featuring the characters of Lady Penelope and Parker debuted in the early issues of APF Publishing's children's title TV Century 21 in 1965. A full-length "Thunderbirds" strip appeared a year later, at which point the "Lady Penelope" strip was given its own comic. Thunderbirds, Lady Penelope and Captain Scarlet and Thunderbirds annuals appeared in the late 1960s; during the same period, eight original novels, written by John William Jennison and Kevin McGarry, were also released. In 2008, the Minnesota-based FTL Publications launched a new series of tie-in novels.
Between 1965 and 1967, APF Records released 19 audio episodes in the form of vinyl EPs. Three are original stories; the other sixteen are adapted from TV episode soundtracks, with additional narration provided by a member of the voice cast. The series' first video game tie-in, developed for the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum computers, was released by Firebird Software in 1985. Other titles have since been released for the Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance and PlayStation 2. During the late 1980s, the series was issued on home video for the first time by PolyGram and its subsidiary Channel 5. Following its acquisition by Carlton International Media in 1999, Thunderbirds was digitally remastered for the release of the first DVD versions in 2000. Blu-ray Disc editions followed in 2008.
Thunderbirds has been followed by two film sequels, a live-action film adaptation, two animated TV remakes and several re-edited presentations for TV broadcast and home video. The second of the remakes, Thunderbirds Are Go, premiered on ITV in 2015, the 50th anniversary year of the original.
The feature-length film sequels Thunderbirds Are Go and Thunderbird 6 were released in 1966 and 1968. The first was greenlit by Lew Grade before the first episode of the TV series had been broadcast. Written and produced by the Andersons and directed by David Lane, both films were distributed by United Artists. Neither was a critical or commercial success, and Century 21 Cinema's plans for additional sequels were abandoned.
In the early 1980s, episodes of Thunderbirds and various other Supermarionation series were re-edited by ITC's New York offices to create a series of compilation films. Branded "Super Space Theater", this format was mostly intended for family viewing on American cable and syndicated TV. Three Thunderbirds features were produced: Thunderbirds to the Rescue, Thunderbirds In Outer Space and Countdown to Disaster.
Plans for a live-action film adaptation were first announced in 1993. These culminated in the 2004 film Thunderbirds, directed by Jonathan Frakes and produced by StudioCanal and Working Title Films. It was a critical and commercial failure and was poorly received by fans of the TV series.
The Andersons sold their intellectual and profit participation rights to Thunderbirds and all of their other productions in the 1970s. Consequently, they had no developmental control over later adaptations of their works. Thunderbirds was first remade for TV in the early 1980s as Thunderbirds 2086. In this anime re-imagining, set 20 years after the original, the vastly expanded IR is based within an arcology and operates 17 Thunderbird machines. It was inspired by Thunderhawks, an updated story concept by Gerry Anderson and Reg Hill that later served as the basis for Anderson's Supermacromation series Terrahawks.
Two re-edited series, based on condensed versions of 13 of the original episodes, aired in the United States in 1994. The first, Thunderbirds USA, was broadcast as part of the Fox Kids programming block; the second, Turbocharged Thunderbirds, was syndicated by UPN. Developed as a comedy, Turbocharged Thunderbirds moved the plotlines to the planet "Thunder-World" and combined the original puppet footage with new live-action scenes featuring a pair of human teenagers.
As well as Thunderhawks, Anderson developed several other ideas for a remake. A 1976 concept, Inter-Galactic Rescue 4, was to have featured a variable-configuration craft capable of performing rescues on land and sea, in air and in space; Anderson pitched the idea to NBC, who rejected it. This was followed in 1984 by T-Force (like Thunderhawks, a modernised version of the original), which initially could not be pursued due to insufficient funding. Development resumed in 1993, when it was decided to produce the series (now titled GFI) using cel animation; however, Anderson was disappointed with the results and the production was abandoned.
In 2005, Anderson re-affirmed his wish to remake Thunderbirds but stated that he had been unable to secure the necessary rights from Granada Ventures. His negotiations with the company and its successor, ITV plc, continued for the next few years. In 2008, he expressed his commitment to creating an "updated" version, ideally using CGI; three years later, he announced that work on the series had commenced. Following Anderson's death in December 2012, it was confirmed that a deal had been struck between ITV Studios and Pukeko Pictures to remake Thunderbirds using a combination of CGI and live-action model sets.
References, parodies and imitations
Thunderbirds has influenced many TV programmes, films and various other media. The puppet comedy of the film Team America: World Police was directly inspired by the idiosyncrasies of Thunderbirds-era Supermarionation techniques. Allusion and homage are also evident in Wallace and Gromit: A Close Shave, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and Spaced, as well as the character design of Star Wars: The Clone Wars. The BBC sketch comedy Not Only... But Also included a segment titled "Superthunderstingcar", a parody of Thunderbirds, Supercar and Stingray.
The mission of IR inspired the founding of the volunteer International Rescue Corps, originally made up of a group of British firemen who contributed to the humanitarian effort following the 1980 Irpinia earthquake. Virgin Group has used the series in the branding of its services: Virgin Atlantic operates a Boeing 747-400 airliner named Lady Penelope while Virgin Trains owns a special fleet of locomotives (all named after the main characters and vehicles) that are used specifically for "rescuing" broken-down trains.
A mimed stage show, Thunderbirds: F.A.B., has toured internationally and popularised a staccato style of movement known colloquially as the "Thunderbirds walk". The production, which established a sales record during its 1989 run in London's West End, has been periodically revived under the title Thunderbirds: F.A.B. – The Next Generation.
Cover versions of "The Thunderbirds March" have been released by musicians and bands such as Billy Cotton, Joe Loss, Frank Sidebottom, The Rezillos and The Shadows. Groups who have written songs inspired by the series include Fuzzbox ("International Rescue"), TISM ("Thunderbirds Are Coming Out"), Busted ("Thunderbirds / 3AM") and V6 ("Thunderbirds – Your Voice"). In 1991, Anderson filmed the music video for the Dire Straits single "Calling Elvis" with a collection of Thunderbirds-style puppets.
In the 1960s, APF produced a number of themed TV advertisements for Lyons Maid and Kellogg's. Aspects of Thunderbirds have since been used in advertising for Swinton Insurance, Nestlé Kit Kat, Specsavers and the UK Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency.
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