The man behind the magic: a new documentary profiles the creator of Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet
What drove producer Gerry Anderson to entertain the world? A personal and moving new BritBox special made by his son Jamie is about to reveal all.
Years before humans had set foot on the Moon, one man and his team of TV technicians were sending them out into deep space to keep peace in a teeming galaxy, plunging them into deep-sea danger and propelling them to Mars to meet terrifying aliens.
Post-69, he continued to enthral us, with swishing flying saucers, a wandering Moon, heroic Terrahawks and the officers of Space Precinct – and pushed the envelope in puppetry and special effects, then live action and CGI. But what inspired him to such technical and imaginative heights?
The answers may not be what fans are expecting, and can be found in a candid new BritBox documentary, Gerry Anderson: A Life Uncharted, released on what would have been his 93rd birthday, and nearly 10 years after his death following a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.
Among those to be surprised was its presenter and producer Jamie Anderson – Gerry’s son from his third marriage. "The whole process has remodelled my vision of, and my thoughts about, Dad," says Jamie, 37, during an online chat with Radio Times from his home in Abertysswg, south Wales.
So why did Jamie want to make it? "I go to conventions and have that lovely thing of people saying, 'Oh your dad was brilliant, he changed my life and he made my childhood.' I must have heard it 1,000-plus times and that’s amazing and I don’t want to stop hearing that... Same as I’m always happy to hear the Thunderbirds March when they play that on the radio and it’s never tiresome. But it’s about separating that public persona from the man behind it.
"Quite often people say, 'Where did he get his ideas from?' and I knew some of the stories, the Mine Disaster [in Germany in 1963] that inspired Thunderbirds and that kind of thing, but it’s the step beyond that."
The Gerry Anderson Podcast, which Jamie hosts with his friend, the actor Richard James, has also helped him look at his father's life and career in a different way by talking to guests including broadcasters Samira Ahmed and Matthew Sweet.
"So when [director] Benjamin Field approached me and said, ‘Why has nobody ever made a documentary about your dad and his life?’, I thought, ‘That’s weird you know.' I mean, there have been documentaries but they always tend to focus on the outcome and the process but not the person behind it…
"I had access to this archive which has either not been heard or not been seen before – or seen in a very limited way – and thought we could tell an honest story. And Ben from the very beginning said, 'I want this to be your dad’s story, it’s about his life.' This isn’t a list of achievements or a propaganda piece, this is: 'Who is this man who made so many childhoods?'"
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Anderson’s body of work is extraordinary and much loved: 18 TV series (including Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds, UFO and Space:1999) and four feature films. He also gained and lost a fortune twice over, and had four children from three marriages – to Betty, Sylvia (his professional partner during the golden-age Supermarionation period) and Jamie’s mother Mary.
The project has been a voyage of discovery for Jamie, who says he "didn’t really know" his father. "I always used to say he was a workaholic and I think the era in which he was born and raised had a lot to do with it – it’s very much that generation of children being seen and not heard. But I’ve learnt about the way that his childhood and parents impacted on him and that was echoed through his life… and two failed marriages and losing touch with those children.
"By the time I was born there were so many influences in his life about how he wanted to parent, he was overprotective but disconnected. He wanted to be there but was very busy and so he expressed his desire to parent in a very peculiar way.
"All these things have become really clear now and it’s been a wonderful experience. But sitting here now makes me very sad because I think in possibly an afternoon’s conversation, knowing what I know now, we could unpick so many things – which we have unpicked through this documentary."
A Life Uncharted is a balanced, warts-and-all profile with input from Gerry's two daughters Linda and Joy, his ex-wife Sylvia who died in 2016, his widow Mary, and colleagues who describe him variously as "one of the most honest chaps I’ve ever met" and "a very evil man". It’s also deeply moving, and Anderson’s journey from a poor and miserable childhood to a period in which he commanded huge TV budgets and created adored series is an astonishing one.
David Graham, who voiced Parker from Thunderbirds and was a long-time collaborator of Gerry's, sums up his contribution like this: "People like that don't come along very often who established a whole new genre in entertainment which is loved universally."
The film is an unflashy contrast to Anderson's big spectaculars, but one concession to hi-tech is the use of 'deepfake' to re-create the likeness of Gerry, for the practical reason of visually presenting his frank audio statements. "Dad was always pushing tech," says Jamie. "He would have loved the idea of this being done, so I think it was only fitting. If he was able to give his blessing on it, he absolutely would, probably from pure technical fascination if nothing else."
So what was the most surprising revelation for Jamie? "There are things that we learn about Dad’s relationship with his mum, and some of the ways that she behaved and things she said were just heartbreakingly awful. I don’t want to give it fully away but one in particular was just an awful thing to say to a child, and we kind of assumed that it’s the sort of thing that you’d never forget even as an adult.
"In fact we found archive footage of him repeating almost verbatim what was said to him, but 65 years later. So it's clear what a huge impact it had even though he never really actively recognised it..."
Born Gerald Abrahams in London in 1929, Anderson suffered dreadful antisemitism as a child. He idolised his older brother Lionel whose time in the RAF and training in the glamorous USA sparked Gerry’s love of both aviation and showbusiness. Lionel’s death in 1944 when his plane was shot down also had a lifelong effect on Gerry.
So is there a theme that runs through Gerry’s shows? "Certainly things like family units and a unified world," Jamie replies. "Positivity, utopian futures… those things came out of an escape from a pretty terrible childhood: imagined worlds, looking to the future, looking to the sky…"
As to which was Gerry’s favourite show, Jamie says: "Thunderbirds, because it was the pinnacle, it was the series that made his parents most proud of him, which was massively important to him. He had fondness for some of the later shows. He was always fond of [early 2000s stop-motion series] Lavender Castle, which is little known, not much spoken of, and had a sweetness to it, but he would never look back and be like, 'That was a brilliant show, I’m so amazing.' He would constantly find flaws."
Thunderbirds was an undoubted high spot for Supermarionation and for his creative partnership with second wife Sylvia. And for a time their chemistry produced hit after hit. "I don’t think anyone can profess to know why any particular combination of people or creative ideas works. At the time it did," says Jamie. And as one contributor to the documentary puts it, "Gerry was the king of hardware, Sylvia was the queen of software."
The disintegration of their marriage fed directly into their later shows including UFO. "The lead character, Ed Straker, is the head of a studio with his marriage collapsing," says Jamie. "It was Dad's art imitating Dad's life."
And which is Jamie's favourite of his father's shows? "Mine is Terrahawks and I know that doesn’t appear in a lot of people’s favourites but it was my first introduction to Anderson!"
Famously, Jamie was a big fan of Doctor Who, growing up. "Yeah, Dad hated it! Back in the early '90s when the BBC were reshowing Thunderbirds and Stingray, someone at the BBC got wind that I was a fan. He would go into the BBC for marketing meetings about the shows and quite often in the middle of a meeting someone would turn up with a box of Doctor Who VHS tapes for me [laughs]. Which I think they did on purpose just to wind him up.
"But in the documentary 30 Years in the TARDIS he says on camera, 'The greatest tragedy of my life is that my son is a Doctor Who fan.' He just didn’t get it because he went to all these lengths to create these incredible-looking shows and to him, Doctor Who always felt a bit wobbly and cardboard-y, with bug-eyed, bubble-wrap aliens. And for some reason, of all the things his bloody son likes, it’s that! [laughs]"
Today, Jamie straddles the two worlds: he's a producer, director and writer of audio plays for Doctor Who, but is also continuing the legacy of his father’s work. So how does it make Jamie feel that his father's shows have remained popular, decades later? "Oh it’s amazing. We get emails and messages all the time. People saying, 'I’ve just introduced my grandkids to it and they love it.' I mean that’s pretty incredible isn’t it?
"There is such a high degree of effort and love that went into those shows from everybody involved that it’s helped to keep them timeless."
And what are his hopes for Gerry Anderson: A Life Uncharted? "To get people to know Dad, really. Not just the name above the titles but Gerry Anderson the person. Suddenly you’ll see all sorts of things in every single series that are born of frustrations and tragedies and happiness and hopes within his own life. I can tell you now, if you watch the first episode of Thunderbirds after watching this documentary, it’ll be like watching it academically in 4K."
Gerry Anderson: A Life Uncharted is on BritBox from 14th April – you can sign up for a 7-day free BritBox trial here. Anyone affected by dementia can visit alzheimers.org.uk or call 0333 150 3456 for more information.