As UFO celebrates its 50th anniversary, family and fans look back on a dark sci-fi classic

Remembered for its purple wigs and cars with gull-wing doors, Gerry and Sylvia's scary and thrilling first live-action TV series debuted in September 1970, and can now be viewed by a new generation.

UFO

A kaleidoscope of childhood images play around my mind’s eye when remembering the science-fiction series UFO, all of them vivid…

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My friends and I re-enacting the Interceptor launches by hurtling down playground slides; rushing home from a Maidenhead United home game to watch an intense, underwater episode; silver women with purple hair; the mysterious spinning-top UFOs themselves with their haunting swishy noises…

One memory is overriding, and it terrified me: a horse rider is practising showjumping in a farmer’s field, and his spooked mount keeps rearing up. Cut to a close up of pinpoint pupils peering out from nearby bushes.

But then Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s UFO – their first live-action TV series after a string of puppet-show hits including Stingray, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons – was not only dark and more adult but properly frightening.

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The head of SHADO, Commander Ed Straker, was played by Ed Bishop, who had previously co-starred in the Anderson film Journey to the Far Side of the Sun

“You can see the desire to create something darker in Captain Scarlet, but now they really felt free,” says Gerry’s son Jamie Anderson of 1969, when filming began. “I certainly think there’s a sense of ‘We ain’t doing kiddies’ shows any more!'”

And in its 50th anniversary year, UFO has just been released on the BritBox streaming platform, so fans as well as newcomers can enjoy it. “Which is great,” says Jamie, who today is a producer and director.

Actor and singer Dee Anderson, daughter of Sylvia adds, “It is very exciting to introduce a new generation to the series.”

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Sylvia Anderson with Ed Bishop during the filming of the UFO episode Timelash. And rare photos of Joanna Lumley auditioning as Lieutenant Ellis, a role that went to Gabrielle Drake. Pictures: www.sylviaanderson.co.uk

UFO’s premise concerns visitors from a dying world who come to Earth to abduct humans and steal their organs for their own survival (they wear red spacesuits and tiny-pupil contact lenses to protect their eyes from the green oxygenated liquid in their helmets). And the efforts of SHADO, a massively resourced, quasi-military organisation operating covertly from beneath a film studio, to both repel alien incursions and keep them secret from the rest of the world.

SHADO has three main lines of defence against the laser-armed UFOs: single-missile Interceptor craft that take off from craters in a purpose-built Moonbase; Skydiver submarines that can launch jet fighters from beneath the waves; and a squadron of tank-like Mobiles for use in wooded terrain.

Much is made of the phrase “world-building” in relation to modern films, TV series and video games, and the Andersons were ahead of the game in that respect. But where does the series rank on their CV as far as the fans are concerned? Nick Williams, chairman of Fanderson, tells RadioTimes.com: “UFO is always in the top three Anderson productions among our members – alongside Thunderbirds and Space:1999.”

And Richard Farrell, editor of Andersonic fanzine, adds, “The combination of its retro-futuristic costumes and state-of-the-art special effects made it unique for the time and has contributed to its enduring appeal.”

TV presenter and journalist Samira Ahmed tells us, “UFO and particularly Commander Straker and the purple-haired women of SHADO Moonbase were my earliest TV memories. I’d have been about two in 1970.

“It’s the white heat of technology made flesh isn’t it? Watching it now, the show is this remarkable combination of late ’60s grooviness, extreme violence and this existential fight against the faceless threat of aliens. Commander Straker is a kind of Conradian hero holding true to his mission and humanity in the face of it all.

“I loved the combination of adult darkness and the pop outrageousness of the costumes and the design. The eerie closing titles are so chilling, and they contrast magnificently with the excellent Barry Gray theme tune.”

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Filming a sequence in which a UFO enters Earth’s atmosphere. The visual effects supervisor Derek Meddings (not pictured) went on to win an Oscar for Superman. Photo: Anderson Entertainment/The Gerry Anderson Archive

The Andersons were hitting the big time in the late 1960s, with two Thunderbirds feature films and in 1969 their first live-action movie, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (aka Doppelgänger) – from which a number of actors and props migrated to UFO.

Dee Anderson tells us: “I remember the series in preparation. My mother created all of the characters and visualisation for the storylines and the episodes, as well as the fashions. The purple wigs were an exclusive! Ed Bishop and Mike Billington were great leading actors, and Mum cast actors like Dolores Mantez and Peter Gordeno.”

UFO was unusual at the time for having women and black people occupying powerful positions. The role of Moonbase commander, for instance, was taken at different times by both Lieutenant Gay Ellis (Gabrielle Drake) and Mark Bradley (Guyanese-born Harry Baird), while SHADO’s first officer in later episodes was Colonel Virginia Lake (Wanda Ventham).

“I loved its deliberate internationalism in the casting and the prominence of strong women,” says Samira Ahmed, “even if they were clad in weird little outfits and with jokes about clouds offering ‘as much cover as a G-string on a belly dancer’.”

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Gabrielle Drake – the sister of singer-songwriter Nick – played Moonbase commander Lieutenant Gay Ellis

And the programme’s format enabled the TV-producing couple to explore more adult storylines. As Andersonic’s Richard Farrell puts it, “UFO saw the Andersons abandon the family-based formats of many of their puppet series and explore the darker aspects of the Cold War – abduction, brainwashing and attempted assassination. In many ways it’s Captain Scarlet for grown-ups with added emphasis on the human characters’ problems.”

So is there a sense in which UFO was a reaction against all their shows aimed at children – of the producers being let off the leash? “Absolutely,” says Jamie Anderson. “Gerry had basically spent the best part of a decade being a frustrated live-action producer stuck making puppet shows. Obviously that had a very positive effect on the end result – making the Supermarionation shows as ‘big’ and filmic as possible. But suddenly being given the playground of live action after wanting it for so long must have been incredibly exciting but also daunting.”

Sylvia and Gerry Anderson in their super-successful Supermarionation heyday
Sylvia and Gerry Anderson in their super-successful Supermarionation heyday
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Dee Anderson says of Sylvia, “My mum just loved Hollywood movies and her ambition as a young girl was to become an actress and star in Hollywood. She took another route as she was quite academic, and was accepted into LSE, quite an achievement in those days for a girl from a working-class background. But UFO was special to her as it gave her carte blanche to create a fantastical world of sci-fi.

“She has been described as a pioneer for women in television, and she was one of the first female creative film producers. It utilised many of her talents: writing, creating and casting.”

UFO made its debut on 16 September 1970 in the ATV (Midlands) region of ITV, but it soon became clear that this was no simple family-friendly show, with some episodes featuring adultery, drug use, murder and mutilation. So there was no consistency or uniformity to the time slots across the regions.

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UFO makes its September 1970 debut after World of Sport and before the evening news in the Yorkshire region of ITV. With thanks to Graeme Wood

As Fanderson’s Nick Williams explains, “It’s worth remembering that, for many of us, the Anderson shows grew with us through the ’60s and ’70s. By the time UFO came around, many of us were at secondary school and so ready for exciting but serious stories. We were even able to consume what some might see as the ‘soap opera’ storylines of Straker’s family problems, which actually just helped flesh the series out and make the world of UFO all the more real.” 

Nick is referring specifically to two episodes in which the personal cost to Ed Straker of protecting the Earth is rammed home – we see the pressure of work cause his marriage to disintegrate, and how putting the planet first leads to the tragic death of his son.

It’s no secret that Gerry and Sylvia’s own marriage was deteriorating at the time, but plot lines such as these were not something that interested Jamie Anderson as a youngster (born in 1985), who found UFO “a bit boring and impenetrable”.

He adds, “It’s something I’ve come to appreciate more as I’ve got older. As a grown-up you can see the strides they were making in terms of the character stuff. And today it’s doubly fascinating: as a human storyline, but also one that seems really interesting to me with the backdrop of Dad’s marriage to Sylvia starting to fail. How much of an effect did that have on stories like Straker’s, I wonder.”

Dee Anderson says, “It is my own favourite of all the series my parents made, except perhaps for Thunderbirds. By today’s standards it was not too dark, but that’s what made it revolutionary in its time – they were ahead of the curve. I think that is what made it memorable and edgy.”

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The Square Triangle, a chilling episode in which a plan by two lovers (Patrick Mower and Adrienne Corri) to murder the woman’s husband are complicated by an alien intruder.

Nick Williams explains that, in common with other Anderson shows, UFO didn’t talk down to younger audience members, “and that gave us really strong memories. We watched, frightened senseless, as Paul Foster’s helmet filled with green liquid during his alien abduction, and then the trauma on his body when he was released by his SHADO colleagues later in the episode.

“We weren’t always left with a happy ending, either. And when some episodes were held over for a late-night broadcast – as the content was deemed by some broadcasters as too adult – Dad would wake me from my sleep in time to go down and watch my favourite show!”

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A nightmare episode, Ordeal, in which Colonel Paul Foster (Michael Billington) has to be extracted from an alien spacesuit, including a helmet full of green liquid. Photo: Anderson Entertainment/The Gerry Anderson Archive

The downside to all the darkness was the haphazard scheduling, however – something that would spell the series’ downfall. “I guess broadcasters bought it on the basis of buying and showing series like Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet,” says Jamie. “Then you put this in front of them and they likely thought ‘Where the hell do we stick this?’ So it ended up in all sorts of strange slots.”

The shame is that when production moved from Borehamwood to Pinewood for the last nine of its 26 episodes before it was axed, UFO was really cooking on gas – those stories tend to be the most admired among fans. But every cloud has a silver lining, as Jamie elaborates.

“That was the way with Dad’s relationship with Lew [Grade, the financier and producer]. Lew always wanted to move on. Lew would have made what he considered to be the most commercial decision. By that point a lot of work had been done on development of UFO series two – so it was pretty smart of Dad and his team to repurpose and retool it into Space:1999. Without UFO’s cancellation, there wouldn’t be a Space:1999.”

So, these are exciting times for classic Anderson shows, with BritBox making them available once more. But might some sights and attitudes prove alien to the modern eye? “Obviously it contains some ‘of its time’ casual sexism, which I’m sure will draw criticism,” says Jamie. “But the show was still making great strides in terms of diversity and should be celebrated for that. This was 1969/70 after all. I’m sure there’s a brand new audience out there waiting to enjoy cult classics.”

Samira Ahmed, who won Celebrity Mastermind Champion of Champions last year when her specialist subject was Space: 1999, talks about UFO’s “shameless love of man-child gadgetry… Alec Freeman pouring whisky from a push-button bar while Commander Straker blows cigar smoke rings. The ogling and sexism stands out all the more now.”  

Meanwhile, in 2020, the Anderson universe continues to expand. Dee is working with Sherrie Hewson, Debbie Arnold and Harriet Thorpe on an online chat show called Wonderbirds, which they started in April. “We have already had over three million hits. It is a major success story in itself, and I am enjoying it immensely.”

And Jamie has written and created First Action Bureau, an audio drama series launching next month as part of a new “Anderverse” for Anderson Entertainment and available via all major podcast platforms. It stars Genevieve Gaunt, Sacha Dhawan, Paterson Joseph and Nicola Walker.

But back to UFO, and it’s a moot point as to whether a remake would work today. After all, one attempt in 2009 got a significant way into planning before the plug was finally pulled – and would have featured Fringe star Joshua Jackson and Ali Larter from Heroes.

Dee Anderson has no doubts: “UFO could and should be remade, it would lend itself to that.” And Nick Williams says: “I think it very much would. The premise is still plausible, and the film studios gave a great cover for the secret SHADO organisation” – although he does accept that remakes are seldom able to catch the original ‘lightning in a bottle’.

Richard Farrell puts it this way: “It captured the zeitgeist perfectly – which is precisely why any updated version for modern audiences would be unrecognisable, and UFO in name only. You can take UFO out of the ’60s but you can’t take the ’60s out of UFO!”

Samira Ahmed says, “The final episode, The Long Sleep, is perhaps the best template for a reboot, revisiting the anxieties of the present – hippies, drugs, terrorist bomb attacks and mass disasters – through an unsolved cold case. It’s so beautifully shot with filters and slow-mo. A lot is thanks to the great scriptwriters like David Tomblin.”

For Jamie, the remake question is a tough one: “The world has changed so much since 1969. There are so many elements of UFO’s setup that wouldn’t work in the modern world thanks to smartphones, GPS, AI, space travel, the internet… And yet it’s still a very cool central idea – with a great mix of characters and tech. So, you try to keep those concepts and then change the show enough to fit with the modern planet Earth and contemporary sensibilities. Do you end up losing the heart of UFO by doing that? I fear you might.”

UFO is available in its entirety on BritBox, as are many other classic Gerry and Sylvia Anderson shows

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