At 5:25pm on 29th September 1967, ITV viewers were introduced to a powerful hero unlike any other, in Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons.
An alleyway at night-time, the sound of footsteps, a kicked milk bottle and a cat shrieking… spotlights turn on a man in a red gilet and cap. The sound of machine-gun fire. He’s riddled with bullets but he doesn’t drop. Instead he lifts a pistol and shoots the unseen gunman.
The eponymous, red-outfitted agent was Earth’s first line of defence in a future war against Mars.
A darker, more violent follow-up to Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s global hit Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons ran to 32 episodes, following the efforts of colour-coded agents and women-only fighter pilots from Spectrum to thwart the mysterious Mysterons of Mars. And it premiered on the same day as yet another cult hit: The Prisoner!
Set in 2068, the series depicted a catastrophic confrontation on the Red Planet, after which its apparently invisible inhabitants vowed revenge against Earth, possessing the bodies of humans as their weapons – including the unfortunate Captain Black.
Their powers of renewal backfired, however, when Captain Scarlet (voiced by Francis Matthews) came back from the dead with his former loyalties intact – and he proved to be virtually indestructible.
The thing that fans remember is the weekly threat from the Martians in deathly deep tones – “This is the voice of the Mysterons!” – and two luminous green circles sweeping over the men and women of Spectrum like prying eyes. Also the terrifying sight of “Mysteron Agent” Captain Black standing outside a misty graveyard – and the fabulous end-credits artwork by Ron Embleton featuring Scarlet in a series of increasingly perilous predicaments.
It appealed to the children who’d grown up on the sunshine and wholesome adventures of International Rescue in Thunderbirds and now wanted something more grown up, and with the kind of horror element we were used to in Doctor Who.
The show marked a turning point in Supermarionation, the technique by which the Andersons brought puppets to the small screen. Previously the dolls had been more caricatured, with large heads and short legs; now they were correctly scaled with human proportions.
And as for the merchandising… Dinky Toys gave us the sleek red Spectrum Patrol Car, the mobile blue arsenal known as the Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle and the white-rhinocerous-on-wheels that was the Maximum Security Vehicle. (In good condition these fetch hundreds of pounds at auction today.) Then there were annuals, cereals containing Spectrum badges and Airfix model Angel Interceptors. One Christmas my gran even bought me a Captain Scarlet hat, which at the time I thought was the best thing ever.
To mark the 50th anniversary, you can add a barrage of additional goodies, including a Haynes Spectrum manual, board game, figurines and The Vault book.
But the legacy of Captain Scarlet has continued beyond mere merchandise. In 2005, ITV released a computer-generated version of the show called New Captain Scarlet. Gone were the puppets and their strings – now we had motion-captured characters – but some fans felt the essence of the show had been pixelated away.
And to celebrate the 50th anniversary, a series of remastered Captain Scarlet albums and newly adapted versions of the television stories and original 1967 novels are being released as audio adventures, featuring narrators including the first Captain Blue himself, Ed Bishop.
As for the impact the original show had on those of us who were children at the time…
“It took the kids who were growing up with Thunderbirds and made them grow up very quickly!” says Nick Williams, chairman of the Andersons’ fan club Fanderson. “It’s probably more graphically violent than any of the other Anderson productions, but the violence is treated realistically – not like much of today’s TV.
“Girls were left in no doubt that they could have an adult role other than housewife or mother. They could be fighter pilots and serve on the front line alongside the men.”
One viewer was so inspired by the Anderson puppet programmes that he grew up to make an acclaimed cinema documentary about them (Filmed in Supermarionation) and has reintroduced the techniques to a modern audience.
Director Stephen La Rivière tells Radio Times, “Because the shows are so well made, parents have been able to introduce their children to them across five decades without it being especially obvious that these are shows are of another age.
“Despite the fantastic nature of the storylines, Captain Scarlet is also grounded more in realism – something that suits the new generation of realistically proportioned puppets. The realism is aided by the voice cast, who give very natural performances. The style these days is so often to over-project voices, whereas Captain Scarlet feature a suitably dialled-back delivery that contrasts nicely with the puppets.”
Captain Scarlet’s anniversary comes just one day before the first International Thunderbirds Day on Saturday 30th. This will celebrate the Andersons’ other big TV hit with new episodes of CITV’s computer-animated Thunderbirds Are Go series. Plus cinema screenings in 52 venues nationwide with Vue, including a never-before nationally screened episode in the style of the classic series. It was filmed in Supermarionation by Stephen La Rivière and a team on the Slough Trading Estate (just as it was in the 60s), using audio recordings featuring the original cast.
“A few years back the general consensus was that the puppets would never come back,” says La Rivière. “But I’ve always believed that practical film-making still has an appeal – Wallace & Gromit proves that. So I’m very pleased that in addition to the puppets being seen up and down the high street as part of a Halifax ad campaign, the puppets will be back in action in a new episode that will be shown across the country. Supermarionation is still GO!”
As for Captain Scarlet, La Rivière says the show’s success lasted for a reason. “It marked a complete change for the Andersons. They made the right decision to go for a complete change of tone from Thunderbirds. After a colossal success like that it would have been easy just to try to make a clone, but they took the option not just to do something different, but to pursue the chance to do something a little more adult.”