Gerry An­der­son leaves the pup­pets be­hind for live- ac­tion thrills – Stephen La Rivière re­calls the long SHADO of UFO

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What hap­pened af­ter Gerry An­der­son chucked the pup­pets into a skip.

Can­cel the se­ries, Gerry! They’ll never un­der­stand it in Amer­ica.”

It was an abrupt end to an em­pire. For a decade Gerry An­der­son had been at the helm of a se­ries of suc­cess­ful pup­pet shows which he had dreamt up with his wife Sylvia. In 1957 he and his team found them­selves hav­ing to take on a low- bud­get se­ries with prim­i­tive papier mâché mar­i­onettes. By the end of the ’ 60s their never- end­ing hard work, re­search and de­vel­op­ment had pro­duced so­phis­ti­cated minia­ture su­per­stars who were known through­out the world. How­ever, when tele­vi­sion mogul Lew Grade wit­nessed the first episode of Gerry and Sylvia’s lat­est idea, The Se­cret Ser­vice – a whim­si­cal, pe­cu­liar se­ries in which en­ter­tainer Stan­ley Un­win played a gob­bledy­gook- speak­ing se­cret agent priest (!) – he saw that time was up for the mar­i­onettes.

It was a blow to the crew of Cen­tury 21 Pro­duc­tions. The pup­peteers were given their no­tice, and the pup­pets were evicted from their homes into the skip. Gerry and Sylvia shed no tears. Fi­nally their dream had come true and they were able to work with ac­tors of flesh and blood rather than fi­bre­glass. “We were very ex­cited. We’d worked for this,” says Sylvia. “We didn’t start back in the late ’ 50s want­ing to make pup­pet films. We felt now, ‘ At last! We’re here. We’ve ar­rived.’”

The gen­e­sis of UFO – which Gerry and Sylvia then con­sid­ered to be their first re­spectable piece of film­mak­ing – can be traced back to 1967 when med­i­cal his­tory was made with the world’s first hu­man heart trans­plant. This planted the germ of an idea in Gerry’s mind, as he ex­plained in 2007: “UFO dealt with aliens who were land­ing on Earth. Doc­tor Barnard had just car­ried out the first heart trans­plant. So I thought, ‘ Well, that’s what they’re com­ing to Earth for – to steal or­gans.’ At that time peo­ple thought the heart was like the soul, not just a pump. We all won­dered what would hap­pen if you changed one per­son’s heart with an­other. Maybe their whole per­son­al­ity was go­ing to change.”

Gerry con­tin­ued: “So the aliens were in­vad­ing for or­gans. Well, that had to be dealt with. So there was an or­gan­i­sa­tion called SHADO. They had a base on the Moon with in­ter­cep­tor space­craft that could in­ter­cept in­com­ing UFOs long be­fore they reached Earth. And they had a base on Earth that con­trolled the whole op­er­a­tion. It had to be se­cret – so I set that base un­der a film stu­dio.” “Gerry An­der­son spent years mak­ing pup­pets look like ac­tors. Now he’s mak­ing ac­tors look like pup­pets!” – an oft- re­peated ob­ser­va­tion made by lazy hacks about the An­der­sons’ live- ac­tion shows. It’s a slight that, in act­ing terms, has no ba­sis in re­al­ity. How­ever, with UFO, the ob­ser­va­tion isn’t to­tally with­out merit as Sylvia An­der­son is happy to ac­knowl­edge. Af­ter a decade of one very spe­cific type of film­mak­ing, in which the crew had to­tal con­trol over the ap­pear­ance of ev­ery sin­gle as­pect of the pro­duc­tion, it’s un­sur­pris­ing that this chore­og­ra­phy of de­sign and fash­ion car­ried on over. When it came to cast­ing their lead, Sylvia looked back to her ear­lier se­ries Cap­tain Scar­let and cast ac­tor Ed Bishop who had pro­vided the voice of Cap­tain Blue. Gerry and Sylvia were taken with his abil­i­ties as an ac­tor ( Gerry of­ten said that he had hopes that Ed would be­come a big

I thought, ‘ It’s amaz­ing! They speak. And their mouth is in sync with their words’

movie star), but Sylvia felt he needed a lit­tle pol­ish­ing. “Ed wasn’t the way he seems on screen. I thought, ‘ Yeah, he’s got the right voice. But we’ll have to do some­thing about his looks.’ So that’s when I went to the wig mak­ers and got him a blond wig. Then we put some tan make- up on him which brought out his eyes. He had a good fig­ure so we put him in the fu­tur­is­tic out­fits and there he was. I knew he was a good ac­tor and made him into the im­age of a pup­pet!”

Sylvia was also, un­sur­pris­ingly, re­spon­si­ble for per­haps one of the best- re­mem­bered el­e­ments of the se­ries: the Moon­base girls in pur­ple wigs and form- fit­ting sil­ver suits. Sylvia notes that th­ese out­landish ideas weren’t just born out of the ’ 60s be­ing a time of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, but that she was ac­tively look­ing for ways to make her shows dif­fer­ent to any­thing else.

“I thought, ‘ Let’s do a pur­ple wig!’ I re­mem­ber com­ing to the stu­dio and sit­ting with a pur­ple wig on in the of­fice. No one took any no­tice! I thought, ‘ Why aren’t they say­ing some­thing!?’ They were prob­a­bly used to me do­ing crazy things like that! But I did some tests and I re­alised that it was go­ing to work re­ally well.”

Shoot­ing com­menced at El­stree dur­ing 1969. Gerry re­mem­bered the be­gin­nings of the se­ries vividly. “I thought, ‘ It’s amaz­ing! They speak. And their mouth is in sync with their words. And they can walk. Boy, this is go­ing to be ab­so­lutely fab­u­lous!’” How­ever, the se­ries faced nu­mer­ous teething trou­bles, most no­table of which was the cast­ing and re- cast­ing of Franco De Rosa as the Moon­base Con­troller. While the An­der­sons favoured find­ing ac­tors that fit­ted the im­age they wanted rather than us­ing es­tab­lished stars, in this in­stance cast­ing a tem­per­a­men­tal ac­tor with a less than na­tive com­mand of English was to be their un­do­ing. Think­ing on their feet – and with the need to keep the cam­eras rolling – they pro­moted ac­tress Gabrielle Drake who played new char­ac­ter Gay El­lis.

Gerry showed great loy­alty to his team. Al­though there was no place for pup­peteers on his new show, many of the old crew were brought across to El­stree where most of Lew Grade’s glossy ITC se­ries were pumped out at enor­mous speed. It was a bap­tism of fire for the young di­rec­tors who had only ever worked with the pup­pets. “It used to ter­rify me,” re­mem­bers di­rec­tor David Lane. “On the way to stu­dio I used to have a lit­tle spot where I would stop and throw up.”

The sit­u­a­tion was less trau­matic on the spe­cial ef­fects stages, which re­mained at Cen­tury 21’ s Slough stu­dios. “We knew we had fan­tas­tic spe­cial ef­fects. So that would be the linch­pin of the whole thing,” says Sylvia. Spe­cial ef­fects mae­stro Derek Med­dings – soon to find em­ploy­ment on a whole slew of big- hit­ting fea­ture films – over­saw the unit. Re­peat­ing a suc­cess­ful for­mula go­ing back to Thun­der­birds, UFO fea­tured sev­eral “star” su­per- ve­hi­cles in­clud­ing Sky­diver, the Moon­base

In­ter­cep­tors and the epony­mous UFOs. “Those damned fly­ing saucers!” Med­dings ex­claimed on more than one oc­ca­sion when re­mem­ber­ing the frus­tra­tion of get­ting the mod­els to a) spin, b) fly, and c) do so with­out gen­er­at­ing nu­mer­ous light re­flec­tions.

Five com­pleted ef­fects shots were ex­pected a day – and no one knew if the footage was okay un­til the fol­low­ing one when rushes came in. As Brian John­son re­called of the depart­ment: “It was our big­gest prob­lem. Do we strike the sets and move onto the next shot? Or hold out un­til we knew if we’d got it right?” The team had lit­tle to worry about – their ef­fects re­main among some of the best minia­ture work ever done for tele­vi­sion.

UFO is an in­ter­est­ing, if in­con­sis­tent se­ries. It cer­tainly doesn’t hit the ground run­ning and over the course of its ini­tial 17 episodes ex­plores and plays with dif­fer­ent adult themes. Part of this is down to the An­der­sons who were in a bid to free them­selves from their im­age as chil­dren’s en­ter­tain­ers. As a re­sult, UK broad­cast­ers seemed un­cer­tain how to sched­ule the se­ries, and in­deed found them­selves rel­e­gat­ing cer­tain episodes from later in the run to post- wa­ter­shed slots. The Amer­i­can dis­trib­u­tors also brought a dis­pro­por­tion­ate amount of in­flu­ence to bear. Un­able to see the pos­si­bil­i­ties for a sci­ence fic­tion se­ries to deal with grown- up drama, the ex­ecs asked Gerry to re­duce what they saw as the more soapy el­e­ments of the show. They also de­manded the loss of re­spected ac­tor Ge­orge Sewell. His pock- marked vis­age wasn’t per­fect enough for their au­di­ences.

The fi­nal nine episodes, which were shot at Pinewood, see the se­ries start­ing to find its feet, al­beit it in a slightly more sur­real di­rec­tion than per­haps had been ini­tially in­tended; more than one episode skates around the is­sues of hal­lu­cino­genic drugs, then a big source of de­bate.

The show seemed to be go­ing from strength to strength, and view­ing fig­ures from Amer­ica were ex­tremely favourable. As a re­sult, a se­cond se­ries was swiftly or­dered, and Gerry and Sylvia found them­selves with an of­fer to make a Bond film. Tele­vi­sion is a fickle busi­ness though, and when af­ter sev­eral weeks the rat­ings in Amer­ica started to drop the axe was brought down. Al­ready into pre­pro­duc­tion on a se­cond se­ries, Gerry swiftly pro­posed reworking the con­cept in a new show. The idea – Space: 1999 – was com­mis­sioned, and UFO joined its pup­pet pre­de­ces­sors on the scrap heap. Home en­ter­tain­ment re­leases and nu­mer­ous re­peats have al­lowed the se­ries to en­joy an ex­tended life and fol­low­ers of the show have of­ten lamented that the pro­gramme was cut down at the point it was hit­ting its stride.

As Ed Bishop noted in 1995, though, star­dom is of­ten brief. “I went back to New York af­ter the se­ries. I’m a very good DIY man. So I started to do dec­o­rat­ing in New York to help sup­ple­ment my­self. I went up to Brook­lyn and a fam­ily had a kitchen they wanted wall­pa­pered. I said, ‘ Okay, fine.’ Started about 10am and at 10pm I heard [ hums

UFO tune]. I thought, ‘ I know that mu­sic!’ So I peeked through the door and the fam­ily was sit­ting there watch­ing UFO. And here was me, out there in the kitchen, wall­pa­per­ing.

“That’s show busi­ness!”

There’s even time on the Moon for a sit­down.

That’s a good telly on the wall.

If any­one could pull off the pur­ple wig look it was Gabrielle Drake.

Now that’s just too easy.

That ’ 70s Sea Devil stringy vest look got ev­ery­where!

Neil Arm­strong a dis­tant mem­ory…

At least aliens would be greeted by very well- dressed hu­mans. Ed Bishop as Ed Straker. Not the other way round.

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