Joe 90, the original schoolboy superspy, celebrates a big birthday

As classic puppet series Joe 90 turns 50, Mark Braxton examines the legacy of this miniature marvel

JOE 90

Mention Joe 90 to TV viewers of a certain age and they’ll probably remember special specs, a flying car, a revolving cage and a catchy theme tune. But to its many fans, the Supermarionation series was so much more than that.

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Making its debut on ITV on 29 September 1968, the show introduced us to Joe McClaine, an apparently ordinary nine-year-old boy with freckles and a cheeky smile. But Joe’s stepdad, Professor Ian (Mac) McClaine, has invented a machine, one that could turn Joe into a whizzkid superspy.

The BIG RAT device (Brain Impulse Galvanoscope Record and Transfer, since you ask), housed in a secret laboratory beneath their clifftop home in Dorset, can receive the brain patterns of an expert in any field and transfer them to the occupant of this cerebral Faraday Cage.

The head of World Intelligence Network’s London HQ, Shane Weston, persuades Mac via family friend Sam Loover to allow WIN to commandeer his machine, thereby making Joe their “most special agent” – one who will never be suspected by the enemy…

JOE 90
Team 90: from left, Joe McClaine (voiced by Len Jones), Shane Weston (David Healy), Ian “Mac” McClaine (Rupert Davies) and Sam Weston (Keith Alexander)

The 30-part series saw Joe become, variously, a fighter pilot, brain surgeon, explorer, concert pianist, astronaut, explosives expert, even the heir to a Middle Eastern throne. In many ways it was a dream format – what kid didn’t dream of having instant prowess in any discipline? Or having a tech-packed briefcase that even Q would be proud of? Seemingly stuffed with school stationery, Joe’s case had a plethora of secret pockets containing the “power-giving” spectacles, a receiver/transmitter linked to WIN’s satellite network and a pistol that can fire 200 times without reloading.

The imagination-firing format came from the powerhouse husband-and-wife team of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, who’d hit the big time with Fireball XL5, Stingray and smash-hit Thunderbirds. Those programmes featured caricatured puppets with big heads, before there was a move towards more realistically proportioned figures in Captain Scarlet, Joe 90 and Supermarionation’s swan song, The Secret Service, starring Stanley “gobbledegook” Unwin.

Although the emphasis was more on character and less on hardware than its predecessors, and in a present-day setting rather than the future, Joe 90 and his dad still travelled around in a souped-up Jet Car.

JOE 90

With special effects from a team established by Derek Meddings – who designed Joe’s car and went on to work wonders on films including Superman and the James Bond franchise – and music by composing genius Barry Gray (a remix of his theme became a club hit in the 1980s), Joe 90 is fondly remembered by those who were children when the show first aired – or when it was repeated.

Nick Williams, chairman of the fan club Fanderson, says Joe 90 is enjoying a renewed appreciation: “There’s real artistry in the models, the puppets and the sets. Take a look at the detail in Mac’s cottage – you’re quickly and easily convinced it’s a real home.

“With each successive show, the AP Films and then Century 21 teams perfected their art form. While Thunderbirds might have the edge on exciting stories, Joe 90 absolutely stands up as 30 great pieces of exciting storytelling.”

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Mac, Joe and Sam in the tastefully furnished sitting room of Mac’s Elizabethan-style cottage

For much of the 1960s and 70s, the Andersons were TV’s dream team, before tensions appeared in their marriage and they divorced in 1980. “They were a wonderful double act that has never, and I think will never, be repeated,” adds Williams. “Gerry’s very technical, hardware-oriented ideas would have been nothing without the people to inhabit the fictional worlds. But, by the same token, Sylvia’s characters would have been beautiful but lifeless without the purpose that Gerry gave them.”

By 1968 the Andersons’ production house had its own subsidiary company, Century 21 Props, enabling the interiors to be even more finely detailed than before. The craftsmen produced upholstered furniture for the puppets, telephones and table lamps. Miracle machine the Big Rat is a triumph of Sixties design, a Ken Adam in miniature, with revolving silver-and-orange cage at one end, a knobs-and-levers tape-spooling gizmo at the other, a glass-booth control area and even a chill-out zone.

EDITORIAL USE ONLY / NO MERCHANDISINGMandatory Credit: Photo by REX/Shutterstock (781352xg) 'Joe 90' - 1968 GTV ARCHIVE
Joe gaining instant knowledge in the Big Rat prior to another exciting mission

Such attention to detail is not lost on film-maker Stephen La Rivière, a fan of the Supermationation series who has brought its techniques into the 21st century in documentaries, adverts and new episodes of Thunderbirds.

“Joe 90 is a showcase for the team at the pinnacle of their talents, particularly over on the puppet department,” he says. “The sets are exquisite. The operating of the newly proportioned puppets – which caused the puppeteers some problems on Captain Scarlet – is really subtly and beautifully done here.

“For Scarlet the operating is a bit dead sometimes, but in Joe 90 you can tell everyone’s finally worked it all out. The voice acting is also terrific – unlike modern animation where the voices are quite over-produced – here everyone is underplaying it: a style which works very well for this type of animation.”

While the voice of Mac is provided by Rupert Davies, well known at the time for playing Maigret in the 1960s TV adaptations, the pint-sized hero was vocalised by Len Jones, 16 at the time, who disappeared from the acting scene in the mid-70s.

In a 2006 radio interview, Jones said, “I just went for an interview with Gerry and Sylvia Anderson and it went from there… I just read a couple of scripts.”

The “junior Bond” format paved the way for series like MI High, and films including Spy Kids and Stormbreaker. Gerry’s son Jamie Anderson has other comparisons to make: “When you look at shows like Ben 10 and Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse, you can’t deny that it’s possible that the shows’ creators have taken some level of inspiration from Joe 90. I also can’t help but imagine that there must be a few neuroscientists out there who one day hoped they might be able to implant memories.”

In common with the other Supermarionation series, merchandising is a key element in Joe 90’s longevity. But while Captain Scarlet, Thunderbirds, Stingray and Fireball XL5 were only given strips in the umbrella TV Century 21 comic, Joe 90 had his own bespoke weekly title, which ran for 34 issues.

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Issue number 7 of the “Joe 90 Top Secret” comic, from 1 March 1969. Picture Richard Leon PR

Many of the toys and publications surrounding the Anderson shows remain highly prized. For example, an original “Joe’s Car” Dinky Toy in good condition, and in its original box, now fetches up to £350.

Joe90Dinky
An advert showing the Dinky Toy versions of Joe’s Car and Sam’s Car. Picture Richard Leon PR

For a while it was hard to escape “Joe 90” – the name was used to describe almost any schoolchild who wore glasses, not just those who were blond. Jamie Anderson says, “I’m regularly shown old school photos of bespectacled boys, and told how they were always called Joe 90 at school. Sorry about that folks!”

But how is the show viewed today? Well, for one thing it’s very male-centric (housekeeper Ada Harris is the only semi-regular female character, voiced by Sylvia Anderson). And on paper, the set-up of a nine-year-old who is “brainwashed”, given a gun and sent on deadly escapades is hard to square with modern sensibilities.

But experts are united in their dismissal of postmodern overthinking. Fanderson’s Nick Williams says, “It’s easy to assume a po-faced attitude, and the current fad is to exclaim how social services would have had a field day with Professor McClaine! But put on the simplistic, rose-tinted specs of our childhood and Joe was just living out our dreams and ambitions. Let’s not try to make out it’s anything deeper than family entertainment from a more innocent age.”

Stephen La Rivière concurs: “I know it’s popular now to point out that the idea of sending a nine-year-old off into death-defying missions is ‘a bit wrong’, but it’s a fantasy show – like all of the Andersons’ shows.

“Saying, ‘You wouldn’t get away with that now’ implies that somehow we’re more sophisticated now – and that’s possibly true. But the Andersons were inviting you to join them on a fantasy. They knew what they were doing. It’s not real life. Regardless of whether it worked, Joe 90 is another variation on their, ‘This could be you’ ideas.”

EDITORIAL USE ONLY / NO MERCHANDISINGMandatory Credit: Photo by REX/Shutterstock (781352pf) 'Joe 90' - 1968 - 'Lone-Handed 90' GTV ARCHIVE
An example of the sophisticated modelwork used in the show, in a behind-the-scenes shot from the western-themed episode Lone-Handed 90

Joe 90 was made at the tail end of Supermarionation – even as they put their names to the show, the Andersons’ minds were elsewhere. La Rivière explains: “Gerry and Sylvia didn’t actually have as much input into Joe 90 as they did with their earlier shows. By this time they were having some success in movies [the science-fiction mind-bender Doppelgänger was in production at the time] and that’s where their hearts lay.

“Sadly, the Supermarionation stuff was now more a contractual nuisance for them – hence the ease with which Supermarionation died just months after Joe 90 finished. The will to keep it alive had gone.”

However, the legacy of such series has been revived by La Rivière, who has made three new Thunderbirds episodes in the style of the old shows – employing the same puppets-and-models techniques. They are being shown as part of a back-to-back Thunderbirds marathon on website Twitch on Sunday 30th September, together with La Rivière’s beautifully researched new documentary about the making of the Andersons’ hit shows.

Ultimately, while Joe 90 may not have had the impact of the other puppet outings, La Rivière says the time is ripe for a reassessment. “Interestingly, when Joe 90 premiered the newspapers carried stories that Doctor Who was in trouble with this new rival.

“In the end, that obviously didn’t happen. However, it’s a testament to the vision of the Andersons and their team that whereas Doctor Who in 1968 is firmly lodged in that era, there’s a technical and artistic sophistication to Joe 90 that makes it timeless. For a ‘lesser success’, it still managed to leave its mark on our culture and iconography in a way few shows do.”

Jamie Anderson confesses that though he personally didn’t like Joe 90 – “as a kid I always found Joe to be quite irritating” – he has since revisited the show and enjoyed it. “Technically Joe 90 is yet another step up from Captain Scarlet… the characterisation is much improved.”

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Jamie Anderson, 33, with Brains, a character from his father’s hit show Thunderbirds

Jamie, born in 1985 to Gerry and his third wife Mary Robins, says Joe 90 signalled the end of an era for his father. “I get the feeling that by 1968 his eyes were fixed firmly on the future – and for him at that time the future was live action. That’s what he really wanted to do, and would end up doing on Doppelgänger, UFO, The Protectors, and then Space:1999.”

And the future for Jamie is to not only promote his father’s series but to further his legacy and ideas. Anderson Entertainment, the company founded by Gerry, has just announced the premiere of a pilot episode of Firestorm, the first new Anderson production since 2005 and the first since Gerry died in 2012.

It will be held at 1pm on Saturday 27 October at the MCM Comic Convention, London, with a digital premiere to follow at 1.30 pm on the official Firestorm YouTube channel.

Firestorm is a sci-fi series of 26, 22-minute episodes, all filmed in “Ultramarionation”. This is described as “a real, physical way of making TV featuring advanced animatronic puppets, miniatures, physical sets, and real explosions”. The series is now in its final stage of financing.

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Jamie, who is producing the show, says, “We’ve updated the Firestorm concept my father created [in 2001] with the development of Ultramarionation, the next generation of production techniques to really bring the wow factor back to the small screen.”

It seems the fantastic world of adventure envisaged by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson all those years ago is alive and well…

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Joe 90 is available as a five-disc ITV Studios Global Entertainment DVD box set from Amazon.

Joe90 DVD 3Dpack