As the 1960s favourite marks a half-century, Francine Wolfisz meets the son of creator Gerry Anderson – who was inspired by his Jewish pilot brother..
With a host of heroic brothers, female spies, spewing volcanoes and exploding rockets, Thunderbirds brought all the charm and excitement of puppet animation to a generation of youngsters when it first hit our screens in 1965.
Now, the enduring cult classic, based on a real-life Jewish fighter pilot, will be brought back to life for three new episodes to coincide with its 50th anniversary.
Thousands of fans have raised more than £150,000 to see Virgil Tracy, Brains and Lady Penelope return to their “spiritual home” at Slough Trading Estate, where Gerry Anderson wrote, produced and filmed the original series. The new shows will use audio recordings first released in 1966, which feature the original voice cast, as well as modified marionette puppets.
Anderson’s inspiration to create the popular children’s show stems from his admiration for older brother Lionel, who took part in perilous, low-flying missions for the Royal Air Force, during the Second World War.
When he was signed up for advanced training, Lionel was sent off to Arizona, United States, to an airbase called Thunderbird Field, which further fired the imagination of the would-be television producer.
While his heroic brother fought the enemy abroad, the young Jewish teenager faced his own enemies at home – anti-Semitic bullies at school – who left their own enduring impression on Anderson.
“The unpleasantness of the bullying was so bad that his mother decided to change the family name by deed poll, from Abrahams to Anderson,” explains Jamie Anderson, his youngest son and also a producer, director and writer.
“Religious persecution of any kind was something that dad really despised and you would never see any element of that in his shows. They were in fact always about tolerance and equality.”
He adds: “On the one hand he endured this terrible bullying and on the other he had this hero brother, who inspired all his hero characters.
“They were all based on Lionel, not just Scott Tracy, but also Troy Tempest in Stingray and Steve Zodiac in Fireball XL5. Dad created this response to the bullying by creating a utopian, heroic world that he would have liked to see. He used his creativity to channel his negative experiences into something positive.”
Sadly, Lionel never got to see the heroic characters that he inspired, having been shot down and killed in April 1944 during a mission over the Netherlands.
Prior to Thunderbirds, Anderson worked on The Adventures of Twizzle, Supercar and Fireball XL5, but it was his show about International Rescue that proved to be the most successful – something that he did not realise until many years after production had wrapped.
“He was surprised that fans continued to love the series, even when it was off air,” explains Jamie. “When it finished production in 1966, as far as he was concerned Thunderbirds was over. It was only when there was resurgence in interest during the 1990s when the BBC showed the episodes again, and some 30 years later, that he finally understood the enduring power of the show. Suddenly, my dad had become cool among my peers at school – and their parents! It became a cult hit.”
Gerry Anderson passed away aged 83 in 2012, but the legacy of Thunderbirds has lived on. Some producers have even tried to recapture that marionette magic from the 1960s by bringing the series up-to-date, first with real actors in a 2004 film and more recently as a computer-generated cartoon.
But neither proved as good as the original. The first, starring Ben Kingsley as arch-villain The Hood, endured a £20million loss at the box office, while the CGI series drew criticism from fans around the globe – and from Jamie himself.
Writing for the Sunday Telegraph in April, Jamie said: “The classic Thunderbirds shows have sometimes attracted fond criticism as ‘quaint’, ‘naff’ and ‘full of wobbly sets’.
“But there is something to be said for real-world physics, the constraints they bring to film-making, and the ingenuity and beauty that results as we grapple with them.
“There is something utterly magical about seeing a puppet come to life under the skilled operation of talented puppeteers.
“Sadly for fans old and new alike, that’s not going to be possible with the new series.”
This week, Jamie echoed those sentiments when I asked if there was still a place for marionettes in a world driven by technology.
“More than ever!” he enthuses. “Fans complained when the new CGI series came on, saying if you can’t see the strings, it’s not Thunderbirds! There’s a certain magic with puppets, something that pulls you in. With CGI characters, they just don’t have it and you just don’t care about them in the same way.”
More importantly, the explosions just aren’t the same either.
“Absolutely,” agrees Jamie. “Most eight-year-old pyromaniacs love Thunderbirds just for the explosions, even in the opening titles. All that smoke and debris flying towards the camera – that’s the real magic of real world animation.”