the most famous 60's puppet show is going through yet another
revival. Anthony Clark gives us a brief history to Thunderbirds...
Anderson, currently the most public face of the creative team
behind Thunderbirds, started making puppet shows in
the mid-1950s but it wasn't until Supercar in 1959
that he hit on the idea of combining marionettes with science
XL5 arrived in 1961, followed the next year by Stingray
- this time in colour. And although Anderson and his co-creator
wife, Sylvia, were sometimes frustrated by the limitation
of having their characters on strings, the "Supermarionation"
puppetry techniques developed over the shows continues to
captivate audiences around the world. The show has proved
to be a lasting success as its continuing popularity attests.
However, its inability to clinch a US network transmission
- probably the show's only real failure - resulted in it being
cancelled after just 32 episodes.
is tempting to imaging what would have happened if Thunderbirds
had secured a network sale, especially as it came so close.
All three US networks bid for the show but nothing was ever
finalised and as a result Thunderbirds was sold on
a station by station basis - albeit reaching a triumphant
total of 150.
basic premise for the show is simplicity itself. International
Rescue is a secret organisation dedicated to saving lives,
set up by Jeff Tracy, a millionaire ex-astronaut and space
exploration hero. It carries out its daring operations using
a range of highly advanced Thunderbird craft which are launched
from a hidden island base, piloted by Jeff's five sons, named
after the first Americans in space.
Thunderbird machines are only ever launched when conventional
methods fail, immediately placing their pilots in situations
considered too hazardous for the regular rescue services.
International Rescue are the last hope, operating against
the odds. And despite its fantastic equipment, its triumphs
are invariable achieved by a mix of daring, intelligence and
importantly, the show rarely lets its machines dwarf its characters
as it is the threat to their safety, and not the impending
destruction of the crippled passenger jet in which they are
travelling, that is the basis for the programme's excitement.
show has a number of elements that have helped ensure its
longevity. For example, by making International Rescue the
brainchild of one man, and by placing it on an isolated island
of indeterminate location, the organisation exists outside
of a political framework and free from geographical association,
thereby helping to make the show's world both international
what few references are made to the world of the viewer are
iconic such as the Empire State Building and the Bank of England.
We are rarely confronted with anything transient from the
time of the show's production that would associate Thunderbirds
with the era of its birth.
important, International Rescue's technological basis is never
explained - all we see are its results when combined with
the heroism of the Tracy brothers. It doesn't matter that
the world has undergone a digital revolution since Thunderbirds
was first launched as the programme never tries, or needs,
to explain what we see in terms of how it works. The fact
that its does - against the odds in a dangerous situation
- is all that's important.