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