Strings in the Wind: Growing Up with Supermarionation in the 70s and 80s

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Throughout the 1960s, Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation ruled the television for a generation of children. The high-class puppetry technique produced such evergreen shows as Stingray, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and, of course, the immortal Thunderbirds. But although the rocket boosters of Supermarionation ran fast, far and bright, they burned out really quickly; and by the time The Secret Service limped onto our screens in 1969, its era was at an end.

I was born in 1970 and I missed a lot of things: The Beatles, The Avengers and, of course, all of the Supermarionation series. But the shadow of the 60s loomed large over the early 70s; television was expanding and, desperate to fill up those Saturday mornings and school holidays, the television networks reached into the archives. So, my childhood in the 70s was full of little bits of the 60s; The Monkees, The Banana Splits, those dreadful Beatles cartoons and, inevitably, the Supermarionation series of Gerry Anderson.

To understand how this experience might have differed to children in different parts of the country, you have to understand the television landscape of the time. Independent Television (ITV) – that’s television funded by advertising, rather than the public service BBC – was split into 14 regional channels. By and large, they showed the same stuff, but they were free to adjust their content as they saw fit. I grew up in the Tyne Tees region, serving the North East of England. Tyne Tees was one of a handful of networks that didn’t pick up Tiswas, the anarchic Saturday Morning show that was ITV’s answer to the BBC’s Multicoloured Swap Shop, so they had a lot more Saturday morning space to fill. A lot of that space was filled with Supermarionation.

Such was the scattershot nature of the programming of these series that I can’t possibly say where and when I saw each one; all I know is that by the end of the 1970s, I was familiar with Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and Joe 90. The only Gerry Anderson series that I saw as it premiered during this period was the live action Space: 1999 and, at 6 years of age, I was probably too young to really appreciate it. As time went on, other Supermarionation series came to my attention by this same process of repeats; Tyne Tees started showing Fireball XL5 very early on a Sunday morning in the early 80s – it was quite odd for a black and white show to get an outing on one of the main channels by that time. They also randomly showed the UFO episode Timelash at some point, only proceeding with the rest of the series much later.

The two Thunderbirds movies were also a mainstay of Saturday morning scheduling. Both the BBC and ITV showed ‘kids’ films on Saturday mornings at a certain part of the years and the four films that you could absolutely guarantee would get a showing every year were the two Dr. Who and the Daleks films with Peter Cushing and the two Thunderbirds films. Thunderbirds Are Go! definitely got shown more often than its sequel, and it’s the film that gains the most kudos, but looking back I really prefer Thunderbird 6. It’s lighter, less ponderous and explores the characters of Lady Penelope and Parker a lot more. It’s also dated much better; even by the early 80s it was quite clear that Thunderbirds Are Go’s Cliff Richard Jr. was never gonna happen!

With the turn of the 80s came another option for viewing Supermarionation – home video. The era of the ‘sell-through’ tape was still a few years off and you practically had to take out a mortgage to buy a pre-recorded film, but luckily video rental stores were keen to stock their shelves with anything they could lay their hands on. Lou Grades’s ITC had a massive catalogue of films and TV that they exploited to the max in the era of video rental, and Gerry Anderson’s shows were a big part of that. Anyone who remembers the ITC releases of the time will recall that they came in distinctive ‘cassette-style’ boxes that set them apart from the bulk of other tapes.

Many of the Gerry Anderson shows were re-edited into feature length releases with new titles and credits. These were a Godsend because breakfast television had arrived on ITV by the early 80s, diminishing the number of early morning repeat slots and Supermarionation had suffered as a consequence. Also, ITC wanted people to rent their tapes, so they were making their shows less available to television networks. Most of the shows I grew up with had vanished from the airways several years previously, which is why when I was asked which tape I would like to rent to watch on my birthday, I opted for The Amazing Adventures of Joe 90. I hadn’t seen Joe in a very long time and, even at such a young age, nostalgia was already starting to kick in. The compilation tapes were among the front line of releases when the sell-through market started at the end of the 80s and tapes were available to buy for under a tenner, but companies like Channel 5 (the video releasing company, not the TV station which came much later, soon started releasing them in episodic format.

TV Century 21, the official comic of Gerry Anderson’s series, had ceased printing when I was 1 year old and its successors Countdown and TV Action were gone by the time I was 3, so I had no access to Supermarionation outside of ITV’s whimsical repeat schedule. I recall a nostalgia feature in Marvel UK’s Starburst magazine which mentioned Supercar, The Secret Service and other shows that I’d never heard of. The internet was a long way off, so you had to rely on whatever information trickled down to you. The arrival of Terrahawks in 1983 was met with a great deal of excitement, not least by me! Listing magazines like the TV Times took this opportunity to wax lyrical about the Gerry Anderson shows of yesteryear, but the TV channels didn’t actually take up the baton and repeat any of them.

By the end of the 80s things looked grim for Supermarionation. Terrahawks had been cancelled after 3 series and although the sell-through VHS releases still trickled out, the series of Gerry Anderson were pretty much completely absent from TV. Surely this was the end for Supermarionation. It had had its day, a long hearty run, but any TV ‘expert’ you spoke to at the time would have bet the farm that it was too old-hat, too cliché, to ever appeal to children again. It had its supporters, of course, but they were ageing genre TV fans who’d grown up with it and enjoyed it with a mixture of nostalgia and irony. The very idea of any of Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation series being broadcast on TV and demanding an enormous audience again was utterly preposterous.

Wasn’t it…?

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