Puppet master Gerry Anderson (1929-2012) in a promotional portrait taken in 1996. Photo copyright David Finchett 1996

Farewell Gerry Anderson-master of marionette magic and merchandising

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Puppet master Gerry Anderson (1929-2012) in a promotional portrait taken in 1996. Photo copyright David Finchett 1996

Puppet master Gerry Anderson (1929-2012) in a promotional portrait taken in 1996. Photo copyright David Finchett 1996

Readers of this blog post may not be familiar with the name Gerry Anderson, but you’ll almost certainly know his most famous television series Thunderbirds, which, after premiering in Australia in 1968, has been a staple of Saturday morning children’s television, screening almost non-stop since 1977.

So much a part of Australian popular culture has Thunderbirds become that during the Beaconsfield mine disaster in 2006, a national newsreader could express a wish for its “Mole” rescue excavation vehicle, knowing that the majority of his viewers would understand the reference.

While without doubt his best known television production in this country, Thunderbirds was only one of more than 20 television series and films, both marionette and live action, that Gerry Anderson produced in a career spanning more than 50 years. A full listing of his prodigious output can be found here.

After initially taking on a commission in 1957 to produce a children’s show using marionettes, The Adventures of Twizzle, Anderson found himself on the path to becoming a master of innovative, exciting marionette television productions that could delight and enthral children and adults alike. Unhappy with the low production values of traditional children’s television puppet shows, Gerry and his talented production team pioneered new puppetry techniques, such as electronically synching solenoids to move the puppet’s mouth in time to pre-recorded dialogue. Over the following decade they would produce ever more lifelike marionettes, reaching a pinnacle of miniaturised realism with Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (my personal favourite Anderson production) in 1967.
Moving into the science fiction genre with Supercar in 1960, Anderson’s production company also pioneered increasingly sophisticated special effects techniques. Many leading figures in the British special effects industry, such as Derek Meddings (best known for his work on the Roger Moore James Bond films) would begin their careers working on Gerry Anderson productions. So prominent was Anderson in the special effects field in the 160s that he actually turned down an invitation to produce the special effects for Stanley Kubrick’s iconic science fiction masterpiece 2001: a Space Odyssey due to the press of his other work. To describe the impact of his advanced marionette science fiction productions, Gerry coined the term “supermarionation”.
Despite the success of his supermarionation productions, Anderson always wanted to produce live action film and television, moving into this field in the late 1960s. For Australians, his best known live action television productions are UFO (1969) and Space: 1999 (1973), but in Britain Gerry was also known over several decades as an award-winning producer of television commercials, some of which featured his marionette creations.

A friction-powered plastic model of an Angel Interceptor aircraft from Anderson’s 1967 series Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. It was produced by New Zealand toy company, Lincoln International, which made toys based on several Anderson series.

A friction-powered plastic model of an Angel Interceptor aircraft from Anderson’s 1967 series Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. It was produced by New Zealand toy company, Lincoln International, which made toys based on several Anderson series.

An important aspect of Gerry Anderson’s career that is not so well known in Australia, is his role as one of the pioneers of tie-in merchandising for television programs. As a means of promoting his television series, during the 1960s Anderson established his own merchandising company, which produced or licensed a wide range of products relating to his shows. There were toys, dolls, games, jewellery, soft furnishing, crockery, novels, annuals, model kits, Dinky toy versions of vehicles, dress-up costumes, activity and fun books and even ice blocks all devoted to promoting Gerry’s supermationation series. All these products were cross-promoted in the UK through Anderson’s the flagship marketing tool, the children’s comic TV Century 21 and its sister publications Lady Penelope and Joe 90. In addition to merchandising his own products, Anderson also secured licenses to merchandise many other popular television programs of the day, such as the US series Burke’s Law and The Saint. In the 1970s he would also hold the merchandising licence for the pop group ABBA for some years.

Some examples of Anderson series merchandising products in the Powerhouse Museum collection. The colouring book and Eagle spacecraft model were associated with the 1973 live action series Space: 1999; the Dinky toy Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle is a highly sought after collectible from the Captain Scarlet series. 2003/111/10

Some examples of Anderson series merchandising products in the Powerhouse Museum collection. The colouring book and Eagle spacecraft model were associated with the 1973 live action series Space: 1999; the Dinky toy Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle is a highly sought after collectible from the Captain Scarlet series. 2003/111/10; 47; 48

Only a very limited range of the vast array of Anderson-relate merchandise ever made it to Australia, making those that did highly sought after collectables in this country. A few of these items have found their way into the museum’s collection of film and television-related memorabilia (much of it acquired for our 2006 exhibition On the Box: great moments in Australian television 1956-2006 celebrating the 50th anniversary of television in Australia), though the selection is far from comprehensive and does not yet include any items relating to Thunderbirds.
Gerry Anderson continued to produce television series, commercials and pilots for proposed programs through the 1980s, 900s and 2000s, though he was never able to reproduce the success of his earlier supermarionation productions. In 2010 he was diagnosed with mixed dementia, leading him to become involved with fundraising for the Alzheimer’s Society in the UK. He passed away on December 26, 2012, leaving an impressive legacy of television and film productions that have delighted and inspired generations of fans, including myself.