Sylvia’s Interview in Time Screen magazine #18, Spring 1992
Throughout the 1960s Sylvia Anderson was a key member of one of British television’s most inventive and internationally successful production companies. But unlike her ex-husband and creative partner, Gerry Anderson, she has received little credit since then for her part in creating the company’s unmistakable worlds of futuristic technology and space-age adventure. Only now with the publication of her new book Yes, M’Lady, is Sylvia Anderson receiving renewed recognition for her contribution to productions that ranged from the caricatured puppet adventures of Supercar, to the epic spectacle of Space:1999. To mark the book’s publication and the return to the screens of the Andersons most popular production, Thunderbirds, Sylvia Anderson talked to Time Screen about her contribution to the world of British Telefantasy.
Since the break-up of the Andersons’ marriage, following production of the first season of Space:1999, Sylvia has remained closely involved with the world of film and television, currently as representative of the American cable channel, Home Box Office. To find her you have to enter the home of some of cinema’s most famous fantasy heroes — Buckinghamshire’s Pinewood studios. Here in her spacious office, which once overlooked the worlds of shado and Moonbase Alpha, she explained how her involvement with television production began after studying sociology at the London School of Economics.
I was always interested in acting and writing and when I left, I had the opportunity to join a small film company that made commercials and documentaries. That’s where it all started really. It was a marvellous opportunity to discover film work from the ground floor. I got the chance to work in the cutting rooms, write copy for the commercials, and do voice-overs. That’s where I met Gerry. We then formed a breakaway company with Reg Hill, John Read and Arthur Provis. Reg was the art director, the other two were cameramen, Gerry was the director, and I was sort of the writer and creative element. We felt we covered all aspects of the film business. But of course, no-one came knocking at our door — except Roberta Leigh.
On the verge of closing down, the team snapped up the opportunity to make The Adventures of Twizzle, a 52 part series based on Roberta Leigh’s childrens’ books for Associated Rediffusion television. Sylvia, then Sylvia Thamm, carried out a variety of production duties including continuity and tape editing for this and a second series the company produced for Leigh, Torchy the Battery Boy. When Leigh and Arthur Provis parted company from the rest of the team, the remaining members decided to capitalise on their experience to try and improve the technique of television puppetry and Sylvia then became more closely involved with the creative side of production. AP Films’ first original series, the western Four Feather Falls, saw her developing a colourful gallery of characters for the thirty-nine episodes. But why did the company choose a western?
We went on to Four Feather Falls simply because we thought ‘What can we make with puppets that we can’t afford to make – or is impossible to make – here?’ It was bit like science fiction later on. We could afford to make it because it was scaled down, so it was affordable, it was also popular. And we could have marvellous characters.
The choice was also influenced by the Andersons’ interest in cinema, particularly American movies.
That’s right. I was always an avid film-goer. We both were. Hitchcock, John Ford, Frank Capra. But I always loathed British films. I always thought they were corny, Other than things like In Which We Serve, or Brief Encounter, you’d walk across the road to avoid British films. I was very influenced by American movies.
The inspiration of Hollywood movie making would eventually influence every aspect of the Andersons’ creations, from character design to marketing, and must partly explain their shows’ international popularity but for a while it almost looked as if Four Feather Falls would be the company’s last series. Its successful sale to Granada television had not guaranteed the future of their new approach to puppetry.
We actually went out and mortgaged ourselves to the hilt to get more equipment, thinking we were going to be commissioned to do some more, but Granada said they didn’t want any more. We were totally amazed, because they loved the series! So we had this warehouse we’d taken a lease on and we’d got all this camera equipment on hire purchase and we were about to close down because we had no work at all. Then I rang a production manager we all knew called Frank Sherwin Green. I told him we were selling up and looking for jobs, and did he know anyone who wanted our equipment? He came over and we sat down in this deserted warehouse with just the cameras and a bottle of gin. He said it was terrible to waste all our talents and ideas and that he’d introduce us to someone who knew Lew Grade.
The eventual meeting with Grade would assure the company’s future, and provide the kind of financial security and creative freedom that few in the television world enjoyed. The key to this future was an idea which the company had already been trying to sell elsewhere, and not as a television series — Supercar. Sylvia remembers being more closely involved with the conception of this new project.
I’d even written a children’s book which we’d sent up to Collins and when Lew Grade asked us what our next idea was we rushed the manuscript back to make the series. We went to see Lew, did the deal and came out and started spending money, and suddenly we realised we didn’t have anything in writing. So we went back and asked for a contract, and he said ‘My word is my bond’, and it was, literally.
With Grade’s support A.P. Films produced thirty-nine episodes of Supercar from September 1960, for which Sylvia directed dialogue, supplied voices, including that of Jimmy Gibson, and developed storylines. The series proved to.be even more successful than Four Feather Falls, and established the basic formula for all the Andersons’ later television productions. To set the seal on this success, and their creative and business relationship, Gerry and Sylvia were married in November of the same year.
For the next fifteen years the Andersons built on this partnership, capitalising on Supercar’s success and their relationship with Lew Grade to perfect the art of television puppetry before eventually moving into live action. But throughout this time the creative approach they had established remained virtually unchanged. While Gerry Anderson concentrated on technical development and company management Sylvia Anderson supervised character visualisation and the look of the productions. Together they shared credit for most of the original concepts and for script supervision.
All the series we did were jointly created, from the early days right up to Space:1999. Most people ask me this, and it’s very difficult to say how the collaboration worked exactly, but basically Gerry was more on the technical side of things, and I was more on the character side. I would think up the human situations if you like, and the characters. We’d then supervise alternate scripts. You really had to do that to keep your sanity because we were turning out films every ten days. So I’d have my group and Gerry would have his, and you’ll probably find that mine were dealing more with human relationships. Although the best ones were probably the combination of the two.
After the concept for a series had been established and while the scripts were being written, Sylvia would then work with the production team on developing the visual look of the costumes, characters and sets, features of the productions which undoubtedly set the programmes she worked on apart from Gerry’s later work.
You see, when you create something you have to keep an eye on your baby. You establish a look. Obviously a lot of that is done before you turn any footage, but I think it’s essential to a series, and I like to pay attention to every detail. One person standing at a console who doesn’t look right is going to spoil the whole thing. So I’d be on set watching what’s going on. That’s the only place you can make sure it looks right. It’s too late once it’s up on the screen.
Sylvia’s most obvious contribution to the visual impact of the Supermarionation shows was to character design where the Hollywood touch can again be seen, as many of the characters she developed were inspired by established Hollywood stars, including Troy Tempest (James Garner), Jeff Tracy (Lorne Greene) and Captain Scarlet (Cary Grant). But to her own surprise, her most famous creation was actually based on herself. When the puppet workshop was asked to create the glamourous Lady Penelope for Thunderbirds, they found that none of the designs met with Sylvia’s approval.
We had a lot of trouble getting the character I wanted. Every time the sculptress, Mary Turner, brought in a face I said ‘No, that’s not right It’s not working.’ I told her to take it home over the weekend and play around with it. She came back on Monday morning and I said ‘That’s it — You’ve got it!’ Then when all the papers came down to interview us they asked who Penelope was based on. I said they’d better talk to the sculptress. So she said she’d gone home and seen her father who was an artist, and told him she couldn’t get it right, and held suggested basing it on me — which she did! It was the first time I’d heard the story!
Adding to the resemblance, Sylvia also provided Lady Penelope with the most memorable of many voices she created for the Supermarionation series. Others included futuristic heroines: Venus in Fireball XL5, Marina in the Raptures of the deep episode of Stingray and Captain Scarlet’s Melody Angel. Additional creations were housekeepers in Joe 90 and The Secret Service and, following her success with Jimmy Gibson in Supercar, several small boys in Stingray, and Thunderbirds. Like The Avenger’s Cathy Gale and Emma Peel, Sylvia’s heroines also proved that women on television could be accepted as independent equals to men, but she denies that this was an intentional attempt to change television’s image of female characters.
We didn’t talk that way in those days. If you’d said that word ‘sexist’ nobody would have known what the hell you were talking about. Women were women and men were men. It wasn’t the era of Women’s Lib. But in an adventure we didn’t want them sitting around doing the knitting, so they were possibly ahead of their time.
By the mid Sixties the Andersons had taken their approach to television puppetry almost as far as it could go. They had created a miniature film studio that utilised all Hollywood’s production and promotional techniques to bring perfectly proportioned puppet characters in imaginative and cinematic adventures to a world-wide audience. Now it was time to move on. For Sylvia the obvious step was full scale film production. Two technically impressive but commercially unsuccessful Thunderbirds features were the first attempts, and these were followed by Century 21’s first live action production, Doppelgänger (US: Journey to the Far Side of the Sun), fulfilling one of Sylvia’s long-standing ambitions for the company.
I always wanted to get into films, I bombarded Lew Grade with ideas all the time, and I campaigned very hard to try and make a really big movie. Journey to the Far Side of the Sun was the nearest we got to it. It was from an original idea we had a long time before. We’d had a call from Joe Douglas of atv who was looking for hour long dramas, so I pulled it out of the drawer, but I felt it was too good to give away, so I thought, ‘Let’s make it into a film.’ I saw it on TV a couple of years ago and I was very pleased with it. I thought it came over quite well, although I have to say that I don’t think Robert Parrish was a brilliant choice as director. They wanted an American so they could finance the film, but I think his direction was uninspired. We had a lot of trouble getting what we wanted from him.
Even though Doppelgänger did not lead to any further feature productions, Sylvia welcomed the move into live action as she was beginning to tire of the puppets’ limitations.
For me it was a marvellous breakthrough, as I was getting very fed up of working with puppets. There was no feedback! Now I was able to go out and cast interesting people, and I loved it because you could bounce off the actors. I loved discussing scripts with them. I mean, as a film-maker, what would you rather do, make films with wooden characters or real ones? For better or for worse? As a result she became less involved with the remaining puppet productions, and in retrospect, feels that they probably suffered from a lack of the feminine touch.
Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons should have been one of the most successful puppet shows and it wasn’t.
I think it was too perfect. There was a lack of humour. It was too mechanical and needed humanising.
And Joe 90?
I think the concept was a good one, but again there was a lack of humour and a lack of feminine influence. If you ever see anything that’s all male, apart from a war film, it’s a bit dull, isn’t it?
She believes that one of the main problems, which she tried to correct in the later productions, was Gerry’s approach to characterisation.
Gerry and I did not agree on a lot of the characterisation. He always wanted to make the characters a lot more rigid than I did. I wanted to start to give them human flaws, start to make them more important. He was more inclined to make them just say the lines and fit into a rigid pattern, but if you don’t care about the characters, it doesn’t really work. You can’t just have someone sitting behind a desk barking out orders and disappearing in his car at night. You don’t know a thing about him. You’ve got to see him alone, you’ve got to see him vulnerable. You’ve got to see him caring, indecisive, not knowing what to do about a situation. I had to fight a battle to get these human things in, but you’ve got to know something about the people. Just because they’re sitting behind a desk in a big futuristic set doesn’t mean they’re devoid of emotion.
This approach to characterisation worked most successfully in ufo, with its complex and unusual hero, Ed Straker. The apparently cold and ruthless commander of shado, brought an unexpected dimension to what appeared to be a straightforward science fiction adventure series, and in him the Andersons had created a unique character whose hidden depths paralleled those of the organisation he controlled, and who was a complete contrast to most film series heroes.
I was happy with Straker. There was something interesting there, and I’m certainly not ashamed of the series, I enjoyed being able to go out and cast interesting people, dress then well and give them a look.
Sylvia was almost entirely responsible for the look of ufo’s characters as, apart from casting, she also took on the role of costume designer. Among the memorable fashions she created for the series were the string vest Skydiver uniforms, the silver lurex catsuits and purple wigs issued to female Moonbase operatives, and the streamlined buttonless suits worn by Ed Straker and Alec Freeman. Her approach to casting was equally imaginative, but it would prove less easy to control the final result.
Originally we cast George Sewell as the second lead because we were always being accused of only having beautiful people in the series. I thought he would give an air of realism as the sidekick to Ed Straker, and it worked extremely well. He’s a very good actor, a charming person to work with, and was a good foil for Straker. But after two or three episodes I had a phone call from Lew Grade who said he’d shown the pictures to the Americans who were buying it and they said they hated the man with the pock-marked face. He told me we’d have to recast immediately and that he wanted someone by the following week. I had to ring round, and remember all the people I’d seen before we started casting. I recalled that I’d seen a young actor called Michael Billington, who’d impressed me, but I’d felt ‘I don’t know how to fit him in.’ because I’d already got the lead and was looking for a sidekick who wasn’t young necessarily, and who would add a bit of realism. So I tried to track him down, and I eventually discovered he was in the south of France. I think he was sleeping on a beach or something. Anyway, we managed to get him back, and rushed him into the studio, and everything went wrong with his test; the door fell down and he was terribly nervous, but when it came up on the screen I thought I was absolutely right. I’d tested about six actors by then and when Lew Grade saw the tests he turned to me and said, ‘That’s the one, Michael Billington.’ So we then built up his role and he proved to be one of the most popular characters.
Sylvia also tried to ensure that women played stronger roles as characters in ufo, and this would provide good parts for Jane Merrow, Suzanne Neve, Adrienne Corri and Tracy Reed among others, and also led to changes in the original, predominantly male, main cast. The most dramatic resulting in female Moonbase commander, Gay Ellis.
I fought for that one. A lot of the writers would come in and talk about this male character, and I said ‘Why does it have to be a man? Why can’t we have a woman doing it?’ The natural thing was to make it a man, but I didn’t want women just decorating the set.
First screened in 1970, ufo did not match the success of earlier Anderson productions. In Britain, scheduling policy was partly to blame as the itv companies appeared to have little idea how to treat the series. Many stations considered it family entertainment, and were then forced to withdraw certain episodes while in the London area the series was held back until 1971. Unfavourable press reaction added to the show’s problems, although Sylvia admits some of the criticism may have been justified, particularly regarding some of the scripting.
You’ve got to bear in mind that when you’re doing a series you haven’t got the luxury of a movie schedule. You’ve got to keep going, and you can’t always use the best scripts because of the pressure of time. So what usually happens is that you have some episodes that are better than others. Sometimes the directors would complain, and I’d tell them to try and come up with an idea. But it’s one thing having a script and saying ‘I don’t like this.’ and ‘I don’t like that.’ but when you have to sit down with a blank page and come up with something, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they can do any better.
In America ufo had slightly better scheduling and viewers were initially more receptive. Due to the positive reaction a second season almost went into production, but when ratings started to slip pre-production work which would have seen action transferred to the moon, was carried through to a completely new series. The new series also developed a feature of later episodes of ufo, the relationship between Ed Straker and Colonel Virginia Lake, in its central characters. In Space:1999, Sylvia’s first show as credited producer, the main characters were for the first time a couple, and this brought an entirely new angle to the concept of science fiction television. Instead of being an independent figure, John Koenig was involved in a complex emotional relationship. But, for Sylvia, this relationship was compromised from the start due to the casting of the lead roles.
We were interviewing lots of actors to play the leads when we got a call from Lew Grade saying we really needed someone that was very well known, like Mission Impossible people. I wanted Robert Culp. We met him. He was quite outrageous, but he would have given the series a very interesting angle. He would not have been the stereotyped hero; he would have been scared at times, he would have made the wrong decisions. But we had to cast Barbara Bain and Martin Landau, whom I freely admit I did not want. I battled very hard and stood up to Lew Grade and said ‘I don’t think they’re right. They were okay in Mission Impossible, but having seen them, I don’t think we’re going to get what we should get.’ But he said that they were very popular in Mission Impossible, and that they were a good commercial bet, and that was that.
Having finalised the casting and started production, the Andersons and Grade then found themselves the victims of personnel changes in the network they were planning to sell the series to.
The person that was going to buy it for the network left the network, so all the casting was really in vain. It was through him that we did it, and Lew Grade quite rightly had to go by that. But by the time we’d finished the first episode the man had gone and the people coming in didn’t want to inherit his decisions. So we actually had Martin Landau and Barbara Bain for no reason. I mean, I’m not saying they were bad, I just think they could have been so much better. Further problems then arose when Grade’s Italian production partners became more actively involved. At that time Lew Grade was trying to break away from constantly having to deal with the Americans, and he quite rightly looked to Europe for commercial input. But the Italians were very slow at putting in the money. We’d actually shot six or seven episodes before there was any Italian finance. We hosted a luncheon here at Pinewood for the people from rai, and after that some money appeared. Then Lew Grade rang me up and said he wanted me on the first plane to Rome with the casting director to get some Italian influence in the cast. So I rushed off to Rome and found some marvellous actors, but then I had a run in with Martin Landau because he’d been holding the fort until then. Eventually I got my way and cast people like Giancarlo Prette who treated it all with great humour, but they always knew they had to walk three paces behind Martin Landau.
In Sylvia’s view, Martin Landau’s attitude to his character was one of Space:1999’s major faults, and even affected other cast regulars.
I remember one particular instance where Nick Tate was supposed to be giving an order, but Martin told me that he was the commander and that he should be giving the order. I said ‘Yes, but you’re somewhere else and he’s taken over.’ We argued and argued, and in the end Gerry and Lew agreed with him, and I had to give in. Nick Tate again had to walk three paces behind Martin Landau. In ufo you had a conflict that gave the series an edge. You didn’t have that with Space:1999 because Koenig took all the lines and all the decisions. Other people were relegated to nothing. I think we had a marvellous opportunity, it looked good, but I think you underrate the audience’s intelligence when you have a commander who’s always right.
The creative and personal conflicts which marred the production of Space:1999 also contributed to the break-up of the Andersons’ already shaky marriage. By the time work started on the second season the couple had split up.
By the time the second season happened, Gerry and I had separated, and they brought in this American, Fred Freiburger. Personally, trying not to be sour grapes about this, I Just thought it became very silly. I looked at it and thought, ‘Do I really want my name on this?’
Space:1999 marked the end of a creative partnership which had taken the Andersons from the obscurity of primitive children’s puppets to peak-time international co-productions. Since then Gerry Anderson has continued to create new programmes using the same formula, although none has yet made the same impact as the productions he and Sylvia created together.
After working for some time as an independent producer, Sylvia Anderson returned to writing and produced Love and Hisses, a novel told in diary form running world events in parallel with the story of an advertising woman’s life during the Seventies.
Sylvia was then offered a position with the Home Box Office cable channel, and since the mid-Eighties has been with the company as production consultant and British representative.
With the recent revival of interest in Thunderbirds, she is also back in the public eye, and after a decade during which Gerry Anderson has acquired a cult following, she has brought out Yes M’Lady, her story of the creation of Thunderbirds. Named after the catchphrase of the show’s surprise favourite, Parker, the book captures the excitement of working on one of the Sixties’ most successful and popular television programmes and gives a new generation of viewers the chance to appreciate her input to one of British television’s most enduring productions.
(Interview conducted by Steven Turner)