Steven Walton shares his perspective on Gerry Anderson fans during the remarkable revival in the 1990s, and explains why he thinks the series’ still hold up well over 50 years later.
In the 1960s, as we all know, some fiberglass and string took over the minds of many a child of the UK and in many cases overseas too. Years later in the 1990s those little programs for kids grew a new audience and in the early years of the new Millennium once again another new audience of Gerry Anderson fans was primed and ready for action.
Why are these programs so endearing? Why do they keep finding new Anderson fans through the generations? Why have they stood the test of time?
I’m a 90s child, quite definitively as I was born in 1990, growing up I watched a multitude of different children’s programmes: Playdays, Animals of Farthing Wood, Thomas the Tank Engine and the list goes on. But my favourite ones were all made before I was born: The Herbs, The Wombles and Stingray.
I took a shine to Stingray. There was something about the adventures of Troy Tempest that I enjoyed and over the next few years it would become my favourite show. I was bought the toys for Christmas, Marineville being a big win that year, the books and most importantly my Supermarionation VHS collection. It wasn’t just limited to Christmas and birthdays as it grew almost weekly. My dad recorded the repeat shows from the television but my love for the puppets really began when one by one the videos began appearing on my shelf from Polygram to Channel 5. My collection grew and grew, Fireball XL5 was the other main show for me at this point, and it purely came about when I bought a compilation of Stingray (The Ghost Ship) and Fireball XL5 (A Spy In Space). I was never a huge fan of Thunderbirds, although my matching backpack, lunchbox and flask would have argued against that. Can you imagine a 7 or 8 year old boy in the age of Pokémon, Power Rangers and Sonic the Hedgehog prefer the adventures of a puppet spaceman made over 30 years ago and in black and white? I wasn’t alone, as my friend at school was sporting a Captain Scarlet backpack and lunchbox, no flask though. In fact you know I wasn’t alone if I mention the Tracy Island play set. I didn’t get mine until I was about 10 or 11 but I was still just as excited (though many Anderson fans made their own!).
But back to my point, why were these programmes so popular? Why do they continue to be treasure? After my childhood, Thunderbirds received another revival just in time for my brother to become a fan (my sister did miss out, but her two older siblings filled her in with all the important bits.) Well I think I touched on the parts of the answer earlier, my dad recorded them from the television. Born in 1965, the year of Thunderbirds, he grew up loving the series well into the 1970s. The decade later, in the 1980s, his new toy, the video recorder, allowed him to record a lot of his favourite shows from Monty Python to Mr Magoo, even an episode of EastEnders slipped in. In the 1990s he had a son that he could share all of his childhood programmes with (I mentioned The Herbs and The Wombles!) I think he was a little disappointed when I said I didn’t really like Thunderbirds and preferred Stingray though. Up and down the country the children of the 1960s were relaying their childhoods to their children, I definitely believe the original fans help to revive the interest.
Of course we then start to wonder why other programs didn’t have the same effect, why were the children of the nineties not running around with Hector’s House toys or wearing a Mungo, Mary and Midge backpack. For this we need to look at the programs themselves. The sheer quality of every model, every puppet and every special effect is outstanding. In fact the quality, even by today’s standards over half a century later in most cases, is beyond perfect. Yes, okay, you can see that Fireball XL5 is a model on that runway. I’m sure it’s a goldfish swimming quite close to Supercar underwater and, we all know those hands do not belong to Lady Penelope, but these small (minute and insignificant are better words here) hiccups are almost invisible because everything around them was so perfect. I think it was a surprise in the 1990s with how good the programs were, it wasn’t just a clouded memory with the recollection being misjudged. These programs were made brilliantly, that much was obvious even to a child, the fact that they were older than daddy made no difference because you really couldn’t tell.
So after the reminiscent parents, good story, excellent production values and real life technology allowing the public to view their favourite programmes on VHS, what else could keep these programs returning for the next generation? Once again I turned to my dad – we sat and watched them together! He laughed at some things I didn’t understand and I laughed at others. We both sat on the edge of our seats with the hairs on our necks almost dancing to Barry Gray’s exciting soundtrack. We bonded just like Joe and Mac, Atlanta and Commander Shore, Jeff and his boys, it was something we did.
So when will the next generation of Anderson fans arrive? Owning VHS copies and watching repeats, the original generation passed their puppet love to their children. The quality was so good that they enjoyed it and enjoyed the family bonding. Now those kids have grown up and having children of their own. Something tells me quite soon Granddad is going to be sat on the sofa talking about how he had a Thunderbird 2 toy that was blue, Dad also saying how he made a Tracy Island from papier-mâché when he was young and the latest generation will be taking in all these characters that are brand new to them. I would say that perhaps they wouldn’t be bothered about Granddad’s toys and a disintegrated pile of green paper mush that used to be a Tracy Island, but they can definitely tell that their family has a great affection for each character and the programmes that they derive from. For they have known Phones, Venus, Tex Tucker, Mitch, Captain Blue, Gordon, Father Stanley Unwin and Uncle Sam for a very long time.
Our thanks to Steven Walton for sharing his thoughts and memories with us.
Calling all Gerry Anderson fans, what are your favourite memories of the series’ from the 1990s? Did you introduce your children to the series, or were you a child experiencing them for the first time? We want to hear all about it, so leave your favourite memories in the comments!