Filmed in Supermarionation (2014)
Trying to encapsulate any artists body of work is a difficult enough task in itself. To then attempt to distil all associated anecdotes, vignettes and legends, while dispensing with the apocrypha, complicates matters further. Yet that's exactly what film maker Stephen La Rivière has done. The documentary Filmed in Supermarionation, is possibly the definitive history of the work of Gerry Anderson from 1957 to 1968. This insightful, meticulously researched exploration charts the rise of AP Films from its humble beginnings, to the halcyon days of Thunderbirds and the studios transition to Century 21 Productions. It also sheds some light into how things rather rapidly came to an end at the end of the sixties.
Because Gerry Anderson is such an iconic figure in the world of popular culture there have been many attempts to delineate his career. Rather than simply retread familiar ground, Stephen La Rivière focuses upon the production crew and tells the story from their perspective. Over the course of two hours viewers are treated to an extremely interesting reunion of writers, directors, voice artists and puppeteers as they revists the Slough industrial unit that was once the home of AP Films. The interviews and various talking heads are linked by some wonder new material featuring Lady Penelope and Parker (lovingly voiced by the original artists Sylvia Anderson and David Graham). There is also extensive archive interviews with the late Gerry Anderson himself.
It is fascinating to consider that although making puppet shows for children was the farthest thing from Gerry's mind, when he formed a production company in 1957, it was still undertaken with great professionalism. Filmed in Supermaionation shows that the early shows, filmed at Islet Park in Maidenhead, were made on a wing and a prayer. Yet it was the team spirit and camaraderie that kept the business on track. By the time that Lew Grade became involved with the financing and the team had moved to Ipswich Road studios on the Slough Trading Estate, the entire production process had become a finely tuned machine. Yet the success and popularity of shows such as Fireball XL5 and Stingray did not seem to register with many of the cast and crew. It was still just an enjoyable, paying gig to them.
It is this quality that makes Filmed in Supermarionation so absorbing. There's a wealth of personal stories told from the voice artists perspective, such as Nicholas Parsons (Tex Tucker in Four Feather Falls), Shane Rimmer (Scott Tracy), Elizabeth Morgan (Destiny Angels) Matt Zimmerman (Alan Tracy) and even Robert Easton(Phones). The effects, art and directing departments are also well represented by Brian Johnson, Alan Pattillo, Desmond Saunders ( a total character), Alan Perry and Mike Trim. They also share some of their behind the scenes secrets and recreate some of the effects work for the viewers edification. The documentary also acknowledges the importance of Sylvia Andersons contributions to the studio output and pivotal role she played. It acknowledges the impact that breakdown of the Anderson's marriage had upon the business but it does not take sides or dish any dirt.
Sometimes films of this nature can be a little myopic when it comes to exploring some of the negative aspects of the matter in hand. This is not the case with Filmed in Supermaionation which tackles why the two Thunderbirds feature films failed at the box office. In fact some of the conjecture is very interesting and the simple fact that movie spinoffs were simply not "a thing" back then sounds very plausible in its simplicity. The fact that the final Supermarionation show, The Secret Service may have fallen victim to changing tastes and a studio over reaching itself is also honestly addressed. The closing anecdotes about Gerry Anderson taking up a suite of offices at Pinewood and the Slough studios being cleared and all contents destroyed is very poignant.
To effectively and efficiently tell a tale such as this, a film maker has to be realistic about what is and isn't covered. The two hour running time does not out stay it's welcome but director Stephen La Rivière has stated that about forty minutes of additional material had to excised from the documentary to accommodate a practical running time. The invaluable contribution that both Barry Gray and Derek Meddings made to the world of Supermarionation is unequivocally referenced. It's a shame that more time was not devoted to them but you just “can't get a quart in a pint pot”. As the documentary is exclusively about Gerry Anderson's Supermarionation shows, UFO, Space:1999, Terrahawks and Space Precinct are not referenced. The documentary focuses, quite rightly, on Thunderbirds which remains the jewel in the Anderson's crown.
Filmed in Supermarionation is subtle blend of a fan’s love for the object of their affection, as well as being a thorough critique of one of the UK's greatest technical innovators and consummate storytellers. Those who worked with the Andersons are still slightly bemused by the sheer impact their work had upon subsequent generations. Yet the documentary succinctly highlights all the reasons why these shows have remained so enduring. Perhaps the most important one is the sheer love that was poured into these productions by all involved. David Graham's closing ode to Parker regarding the impact the character had upon his life was very touching. I think it reflects the way the public continues to feel about Gerry Anderson’s unique and much loved body of work.