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An Englishman In New York: Thunderbirds Are Go…….. Again!

...In a move that would gladden the heart of any 1960’s school-boy, master puppeteer Gerry Anderson announced this week that a new Thunderbirds series will be made...

David Thomasesson recalls an old-time TV favourite.

Do visit David's Web site http://www.britoninnewyork.com/

In a move that would gladden the heart of any 1960’s school-boy, master puppeteer Gerry Anderson announced this week that a new Thunderbirds series will be made. But, like the original show, there may be strings attached as Britain’s UK’s ITV, the show rights owner, has not yet confirmed that a new series will begin production. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerry_Anderson

Using 1/3rd scale puppets, cheesy hairdos, and ventriloquist-like moving lips, and a process Gerry pompously called Supermarionation (marionette puppetry), the show told the dramatic stories of the Tracy Family and International Rescue saving the world one disaster at a time, always battling against the clock. Missile road transporter crashed off the Golden Gate Bridge, no problem…call International Rescue. Supersonic jet Fireflash has landing gear problems, no problem…call International Rescue. Cue space music to a shot of John Tracy http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Tracy_%28Thunderbirds%29 in lonely vigil in Thunderbird 5, the orbiting space station and the eyes and ears of International Rescue on all worldwide communications.

Alerted by a flashing light on his desk, former astronaut and millionaire Jeff Tracy http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeff_Tracy, relaxing at the uncharted, remote, family island paradise, listens as John details the
problem. Right Scott, you take Thunderbird 1 and get there as fast as you can. Virgil, take Thunderbird 2 and whatever emergency kit you need and take Brains (big-rimmed spectacled science geek, and general nerd, even down to the sssstutter) in case you need assistance. It was just
wonderful; a dramatic 5-4-3-2-1 countdown at the start, memorable theme music, jet engine sounds, special effects, detailed models, and nail-biting tension; great stuff for young boys.

Thunderbird 1 was a hypersonic, variable-geometry rocket plane used for fast response and a mobile control base. Thunderbird 2 was a heavy, supersonic, VTOL carrier lifting-body aircraft used for the transport of major rescue equipment and vehicles, including Thunderbird 4, an underwater rescue craft. Thunderbird 3 was a space rocket. There was of course the usual tie-ins; scale models (toys for boys), bubble-gum and picture cards, hats, outfits and the like.

If ever there was a show to put a smile on the faces of male kids, this was it. Debuting in 1965 the 32 hour-long episodes were a huge success in the UK. Movie impresario Lew Grade wanted to sell it to the US TV networks but was unable to generate much interest, and so the series was cancelled. It was successfully syndicated in the US years later. Grade had
varied success with promoting TV shows and movies, and after the expensive “Raise the Titanic” flopped, is said to have said “It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic”. Nice one!

No surprise there after all, how could a 1965 puppet show compete with 1966 inter-galactic space travel, warp drives, and talking doors; the ones that go “shhh” as you approach. Ah yes, we’re talking Star Trek, and it’s intrepid commander James T. Kirk boldly going…or is it going boldly? Did you know that the T stands for Tiberius, not a lot of people know that.
Interestingly, this show was nearly cancelled, a fate only prevented by a mobilized fan-base. And the rest is history, or his story.

Of course we didn’t know any of this as kids. In fact my brother and I were lucky to see some of the episodes at all. You see our parents, in their infinite wisdom, elected to schedule swimming lessons for us at the local pool, inconveniently halfway through the show. Was this an example of subliminal messaging; boys don’t play with dolls? Never quite sure how we caught up on the second halves of the show, but we must have done.

We got our own back of course. Knowing that progress in swimming across the width of the pool would have us yanked out to try and swim the length of the pool, from the deep end, we sometimes made surprisingly little progress; play-acting, feet touching the bottom, coughing and spluttering. Like you do.

The show was praised for the quality of the miniatures; futuristic vehicles, models and sets. Many of the models were purpose-made by John Meddings and his team from radio-controlled vehicle kits, and customized by adding surface details. The Thunderbird models and specialist vehicles were also “aged” with paint and dust to create the illusion that they really were well-used vehicles. These techniques became standard practice in the special effects biz which led Director Stanley Kubrick, impressed by their work on the TV series, to poach several of Gerry’s special effects team to work on his science fiction masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. They
were also used to great effect in the building of the miniature spaceships and other vehicles for the first three Star Wars films. Meddings himself later worked on some of the James Bond movies receiving an Oscar nomination for Moonraker in 1980.

Other pioneering new techniques included the invention of the rolling road and sky which allowed static models to be filmed “in motion” whilst not requiring lengthy set pieces. To ensure accuracy Rolls-Royce lent a real RR grill for some shots of the big and pink, six-wheeled FAB1 registered personal transport of Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_Penelope_Creighton-Ward , the intriguing “London agent” and her chauffeur/butler. A cockney and former safe-cracking villain, Parker was known for his dropped ‘aitches.

Other clever ideas included using real hands in close-up shots, writing a letter for example, or opening a desk drawer. Each puppet also had alternate heads, portraying a different expression such as anger, or strain and exertion. Which, for those tense and nerve-wracking ends of show moments, were “dressed” by some spray-on water for that sweaty realism.

Thunderbirds was syndicated in 2004 on TechTV a now defunct US cable TV network. The broadcast shows were split into 30-minute episodes, and were filled with on-screen "pop up trivia" and arrows pointing at spots on the screen. Trivia such as “Look, there’s a broken string”. Or the fact that
each of the Tracy boys was named after the Mercury 7 astronauts. And that some of the faces were modeled after other film actors. Jeff Tracy after Lorne Greene, star of TV Western “Bonanza”. Virgil after Sean Connery, and John modeled on Charlton Heston. All very interesting. Also as joint creator of the show, with ex-wife Sylvia, they later developed
Space 1999 with Martin Landau, set on our Moon that had been dislodged from the Solar System.

So, will he do the new show? In the past Gerry has blown hot and cold on his creation, but has rightly been critical of attempts at copying the show including the awful live action film in 2004 that was panned by reviewers, as being wooden, badly scripted, and poorly directed. Internet comments
addressing this latest announcement are generally not in favor of PIXAR type cartooning using Computer Generated Imaging (CGI). Too real they claim. Lacks kitsch I say. After all, nothing screams the sixties like red quilted plastic fabric, adorning the inside of seemingly every model vehicle on the show. But surely the whole point was that it wasn’t realistic. Minutes into each show you didn’t think about the premise, talking resin heads and puppets on strings. It wasn’t necessarily that you
truly believed, just that you didn’t want not to believe it was real. A bit like watching Dr. Who and flimsy sets, it’s what you expected. We want to see the puppets “walk” with those jerky, staccato movements. So I would say, don’t hold your breath about a re-imagined Thunderbirds show. Sometimes it’s better to remember, than want to forget.

But wait, Gerry is pushing 80, will he remake it in time. And if not, who will come to his rescue?

Alerted by a flashing light on his desk, former astronaut and millionaire Jeff Tracy………….


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