Endeavour episode Apollo is a love letter to the Supermarionation style of Thunderbirds and Stingray
Scenes from the drama will be fondly familiar to fans of the sci-fi puppet shows of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson - not least because an original puppeteer and director were involved. Film-maker Stephen La Rivière is the man who's been pulling the strings...
The latest series of Endeavour, set in 1969, sees Morse back in plain clothes, and in the second episode, Apollo, he investigates a murder with links to a TV studio that bears an uncanny resemblance to the real-life Supermarionation set-up of Thunderbirds and Stingray creators Gerry and Sylvia Anderson.
Production there is taking place on a show called Moon Rangers and film-maker Stephen La Rivière, the man responsible for these sequences, tells Radio Times, "The stars aligned for us with this mission to the Moon! It was a terrific job."
La Rivière is an expert in the puppets-and-models techniques employed by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, having made a documentary about their work called Filmed in Supermarionation in 2014 and three new episodes of Thunderbirds, made in the traditional way.
"Without giving too much away," he continues, "a large section of the drama unfolds at a film studio that bears a resemblance to Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's Supermarionation studios of the 60s that produced classics such as Thunderbirds and Stingray. This fictional studio is making their own puppet show and that's where we come in – both to help dress the studio itself, but also to make an actual two-minute section of this puppet series!"
It turns out that the episode is a love letter to the puppet era by Endeavour creator and writer Russell Lewis. "For me – and many of my vintage – Gerry really was the man," he tells Radio Times. "Without his imagination firing mine, I sincerely doubt I would be doing what I do today. In fact, I'm sure my earliest attempts at writing fiction as a kid were an act of imitation."
He adds, "Gerry Anderson and his team gave us new ways to dream. He was a true creative visionary. Our Walt Disney, Ray Harryhausen and Steven Spielberg all rolled into one. What he and his colleagues achieved in their studio at Slough with the tech and resources available at the time was ground-breaking and little short of miraculous.
"Week after week, like the great International Rescue, they pulled off the impossible, because nobody told them they couldn't."
In terms of re-creating that vibe, Lewis says he'd seen what Stephen and his crew at Century 21 Films had achieved with their recent productions and recommended that Mammoth Screen – the production team behind Endeavour – involve them at the earliest stages of making Apollo.
La Rivière explains that Shaun Evans, the story's director as well as star, was happy to hand over control for the TV studio scenes: "We worked closely with Shaun to make sure he was getting what he wanted, but this type of filming is very specialised and he was brilliant in handing over the reigns of his baby for this short bit. Not every director would have the confidence and lack of ego to do that, and that was reflected on set by how calm and happy the crew were."
The story is set in July 1969 against the optimism and excitement of the imminent first Moon landing by Apollo 11.
In real life, 1969 saw the filming of the final puppet show that the Andersons made together: The Secret Service, with Stanley Unwin playing a priest and super-spy. Prior to this the then married Gerry and Sylvia Anderson had scored a series of hits with young audiences including Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons.
Writer Russell Lewis is keen to point out: "The characters that people our fictional studio are not by any stretch of the imagination meant to represent Gerry or Sylvia Anderson or any of the original team. As always with Endeavour, we took a world and ran it through our own particular filter – to view it through a glass darkly."
In a neat touch when filming these specialist scenes for Endeavour (all of them filmed at Twickenham Film Studios), Stephen La Rivière had expert assistance. "We were blessed to have Anderson-royalty with us. Original Thunderbirds puppeteer Mary Turner came in to puppeteer, and original Thunderbirds director David Elliott co-directed with me. As a puppeteer myself, I'm often up on the bridge so it's good to have someone on the floor supervising – and David knows better than anyone when a shot is good!"
Russell Lewis adds, "For someone who'd grown up watching those shows, to be standing with Mary Turner and David Elliot – who had brought so many of the Andersons' creations to life – was inspirational, humbling, and profoundly moving.
"To see Mary climb to the gantry and work her art with the marionettes as she had done half a century earlier is a memory I shall cherish for ever."
Such was the attention to detail that, early on in the story, the fictional TV crew is seen filming a spectacular mini-explosion – a regular occurrence on the Andersons' shows, and not without a certain amount of danger, then as now! "We adhered faithfully to the traditional techniques for that sequence," insists La Rivière. "Each shot was done practically – no CG trickery. It was filmed on 35mm film at 120 frames per second.
"It's quite tricky ensuring that the model blows apart and that the explosion looks impressive on camera. Malcolm our pyrotechncian and Hilton our model maker worked it all out beautifully though. The worst bit is that we couldn't view the final shot until the next morning. Worth it, though, when we realised we'd got lucky and an enormous bit of debris hit the camera at about 100mph – looks good and the camera survived!
"One of the things that drew us to the project was Russell Lewis's writing of this fictional puppet series. The love shone through. In one minute he managed to capture the fun, the adventure and the downright silliness of the earlier Anderson productions."
In fact La Rivière and his colleagues can be spotted in the episode – "More out of necessity: during those sequences we're often actually working!" – and they helped Endeavour's design department by supplying them with appropriate puppet paraphernalia. "Look closely, and you'll see the odd fibreglass face from our previous productions."
The whole experience has been a joy for Russell Lewis – and is sure to be for fans of 60s television. "There have been many highlights working on Endeavour as we attempt to get within hand's reach of the past," says Lewis, "but those two days working with Stephen's crew under blazing lights in a stiflingly hot studio during a blistering heatwave last summer...
"For a brief and shining moment it felt as if we had really travelled back in time to the Age of Anderson.
"An attempt to create something as thrilling as the episodes of Stingray, Thunderbirds, Scarlet or Joe 90 that I'd just watched on TV... I'm still doing it 50 years later. That Stephen and his team have taken up the torch is a beautiful thing. We both share, I think, a genuine love for the worlds the Andersons created – and this Endeavour film was born of that true and abiding affection."
Endeavour continues on Sundays at 8pm on ITV