Posts Tagged ‘Stephen la Riviere’

If you want to talk about figures with serious pop-cultural clout, you can’t do much better than Gerry Anderson. Literally generations of British children grew up watching the various TV series he made between the 1950s and the 2000s: a hugely distinguished career, and a seriously impressive legacy. So there is something entirely appropriate about Anderson’s glory days being the subject of a feature-length documentary, in the form of Stephen la Riviere’s Filmed in Supermarionation.


This is, shall we say, a somewhat niche production to receive even a limited cinema release, and I don’t think I will come as a surprise to many if I reveal that the screening I attended was made up almost entirely of men of a certain age (and girth). ‘Made by enthusiasts, for enthusiasts!’ proclaimed the guy in the seat next to me, who went on to sing along with the theme tune to Fireball XL5 and initiate a round of applause when the film finished. But this isn’t really surprising: Gerry Anderson’s shows inspire this kind of devotion – adoration, even. I wouldn’t even call myself one of the hard core, but I still recall coming across an unscheduled repeat of Thunderbirds at the age of about six and being instantly, almost painfully, hooked.

Anderson’s career is unique, and very British – that of a driven, hugely ambitious film-maker forced to work in a medium he despised, but who through sheer determination succeeded in lifting it to an unprecedented level of sophistication and success, in the process giving the first opportunities to a group of model-makers and special effects technicians who would come to define their industry. As the title suggests, Filmed in Supermarionation concentrates exclusively on the puppet series made by Anderson and his companies between 1957 and 1969, so there’s no UFO or Space: 1999, and certainly no sign of Terrahawks, but even so the film has to move fairly briskly to meet its remit.

Gerry Anderson died in 2012, but archive interviews mean he is a central presence in the film. Actual narrating duties, however, are handled by Lady Penelope and Parker, with technical exposition handled by Brains, all the characters appearing in newly-filmed (and rather charming) sequences. Elsewhere, a bevy of former APF/Century 21 puppeteers are taken on a tour of their former production facilities by the maestro’s son (and de facto keeper of the flame of all things Anderson), Jamie, and various special effects men and other luminaries pop up to either detonate the scenery or deliver an anecdote.

As I mentioned, the film has to hustle along to cover all the necessary ground, and there is perhaps a little more on the origins of Anderson’s operation and his very early series – The Adventures of Twizzle, Torchy the Battery Boy, and Four Feather Falls – than one might have expected. This seems to have come at the expense of a more in-depth look at his most famous, most celebrated series – there’s perhaps a bit less on Thunderbirds than you might expect, although the astonishing climactic sequence from Trapped in the Sky obviously makes an appearance, and to my mind a definite dearth of coverage of the engrossingly weird Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. Your mileage may differ, of course.

Then again, you could certainly argue that the film plays to the Anderson series’ strengths by focusing on the technical craftsmanship and behind-the-scenes wizardry involved, as opposed to examining the actual scripts and storytelling too closely. However, I don’t want to run the risk of sounding too negative about Gerry Anderson or his programmes, and I’m sure an opportunity to write about the series themselves will present itself before too long, so I will just say that the writing on these shows was perfectly pitched for the type of programmes they were.

Filmed in Supermarionation isn’t entirely hagiographical – the commercial failure of the two Thunderbirds feature films is acknowledged, while the acrimonious resolution to the relationship between Anderson and his long-time professional collaborator and wife Sylvia is delicately alluded to – but on the whole this is a celebratory endeavour, and why not? The family atmosphere amongst those working on the Anderson shows is evident throughout, and Gerry Anderson’s own kind of tongue-in-cheek humour also permeates the movie – ‘I┬ánearly vomited on the floor,’ the great man says, fondly recalling the moment he discovered he would be starting a career in puppet film-making, while the rather idiosyncratic working practices of long-time financial backer Lew Grade are the subject of a number of anecdotes. Due respect is also paid to the other resident genii of the Anderson operation, particularly special-effects guru Derek Meddings and composer Barry Gray.

I think in the end how you respond to this film is going to be entirely personal: if you know and love Gerry Anderson’s work, and there are a lot of people who do, then Filmed in Supermarionation is a bit of a treat, clearly a labour of love. If puppet SF shows from fifty years ago are not your thing, you are probably going to be better off staying away. But personally I had a really good time, and learned a few things too.


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