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Thunderbirds are still go

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Published on 29 September 2017

Scott Tracy prepares for his close up on the set of the Abominable Snowman
Scott Tracy prepares for his close up on the set of the Abominable Snowman

A Sunderland graduate has been instrumental in bringing a series of ‘lost’ classics back to the small screen, with three never before seen episodes of Thunderbirds – recreating the iconic show using the original techniques, right down to filming in the same studios and using the same cameras and lenses used in the 1960s. 

Andrew T. Smith graduated in MA Film and Cultural Studies in 2010, and worked as the associate producer on the three ‘lost’ Thunderbirds episodes. The three episodes, recreated using the same techniques as the 1960s originals (right down to filming them in the same location in Slough) are Introducing Thunderbirds, The Stately Home Robberies, and The Abominable Snowman.  

Andrew explained: “Thunderbirds came into my professional life when a friend of mine, Stephen La Rivière, was asked if he had any ideas for documentary about Gerry Anderson. We decided that the documentary should be hosted by Lady Penelope and Parker, with those characters discovering their own origins. 

“Of course that meant that we had to produce sequences in the same style as they did in the 1960s, so we began to work out how they were actually shot – the lighting conditions, the cameras they used, the way in which the puppets were built and operated.”

The resulting documentary, Filmed in Supermarionation, premiered at the BFI in 2014, and reignited ITV’s interest in producing a new series of shows.

“In the build up to the Thunderbirds’ 50th anniversary we pitched to ITV the idea to take some 1960s vinyl records, which were basically radio adventures starring the Thunderbirds cast, and put pictures to them – resulting in brand new episodes that felt as though they had been made 50 years ago.”

The team appealed directly to Thunderbirds fans to raise the money, and generated what was at that point the UK’s highest ever funded film-related Kickstarter project, over £218,000. But, as Andrew explained, they still had a long way to go before they could bring the Tracy brothers, and their iconic vehicles back to life.

“The records of the three adventures are very audio-driven, so for example there were no explosions in any of the episodes, which is one of the first things you think of when you think of Thunderbirds.  We had to deconstruct the stories, take out what didn’t work visually, and introduce some new scenes to give them more action moments. For example, at the start of The Abominable Snowman episode we created a disaster at a uranium plant where Thunderbird 2 could sweep in to help –none of that is in the original episode.

“I was on board right the way through, right from the first pitch to ITV. We moved into a studio in Slough, on the same road and in the same buildings where they had filmed the original episodes of Stingray and Thunderbirds, and for six months I lived there.  We started with absolutely nothing and brought in talented people to build the puppets, ships and sets, and bit by bit an empty warehouse became a studio exactly as they would have had in the 1960s. It was like Christmas every morning!”

John Paul Green, Principal Lecturer at the University of Sunderland, researches science fiction and horror television and our national identity. He admits that Thunderbirds continued success is in many ways quite unusual.

“In its original form it only ran for two seasons and consisted of just 32 episodes,” he explains.

“Developed in 1964, Thunderbirds arrived to the then monochrome world of British television as a very colourful action-adventure show and was the successor to equally loved Stingray. At least for American audiences it was colourful, as the UK didn’t get colour until 1967.

“But despite Thunderbirds initial limited TV run, it arguably never really went away. ITV regions would continue to screen the original show throughout the 1970s and 1980s. A forgettable live action reboot, animated remakes, both traditional and CGI have kept the brand alive.

“Lady Penelope has also stepped back into the spotlight in recent months as media attention has focused on strong female leads in TV fantasy and science fiction cinema.

“Now science fiction has finally caught up with the twenty-first century with the casting of the first female Doctor. Throughout this, Lady Penelope has prevailed. It may say something about our society that we’ve taken a puppet to our hearts – one whose strings are controlled by men no less, but it’s reassuring to know that things are getting more F.A.B. by the day.”

Despite his credentials as one of the team who saved a lost 1960s classic, Andrew T. Smith believe there is a place for both the modern and the classic Thunderbirds in young viewers’ hearts.

Thunderbirds Are Go, the new series, is definitely geared towards modern children’s television sensibilities, but we discovered that kids don’t really make a distinction between the old and new episodes; they were already watching the new series on CITV alongside their dad’s DVDs of the original series. To them it’s all just Thunderbirds.

“The pleasure of classic Thunderbirds is that it is a world of toys that have come life, maybe slightly better toys than you have at home, but it’s still a very tangible world that children feel they’re part of.”