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Unlocking The Vault – An Interview With Chris Bentley

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With the 50th Anniversary of Captain Scarlet and The Mysterons drawing closer by the day, there’s no better time to be a fan of Spectrum’s indestructible agent. What better way to celebrate this impressive legacy than by checking out Captain Scarlet and The Mysterons: The Vault? This brand new book is a comprehensive guide to the production of the series and is packed with stunning photographs and fascinating facts. We spoke to Chris Bentley, author of Captain Scarlet and The Mysterons: The Vault to find out just what it was like working on the project.

Hi Chris! Many people will be aware of your valuable contributions to the worlds of Gerry Anderson over the years, but for those who aren’t, would you mind providing a little bit of background information on how you became involved in the Gerry Anderson Universe?

Captain Scarlet was the start of it all for me, watching the original run on Granada Television in black and white as a little kid. I don’t think I really understood what was going on but I liked the look of the whole thing – the characters, the costumes, the vehicles, that whole future world. It was the first TV series I can remember being really crazy about and desperately wanting whatever tie-in merchandise was available. Growing up in the early 1970s, I then became just as passionate about UFO, Thunderbirds and Space:1999 and that became a lifelong enthusiasm for the Gerry Anderson ‘brand’.

The ITV reruns of Captain Scarlet and UFO in the mid-80s prompted me to join Fanderson, the Official Gerry Anderson Appreciation Society as it was then, and I got involved with the club’s Leeds local group, helping out at club mailings and conventions, and doing bits and pieces of graphics and illustration work. Then one of my closest friends from the group, Neil Swain, had a fatal accident while on holiday abroad. He’d only recently become club chairman and never had a chance to implement his plans to raise the club’s game by improving the standards of its products and services. These were things we’d discussed and which, as a graphic designer working in the print industry, I knew I could help with, so I put my name forward for the vacant chairman’s post. The committee took me on and I ended up doing that for 16 years.

We started publishing FAB magazine and at first I was just designing the layout and organising the printing, but soon I was writing quite a lot of it too, and then editing the magazine as well. Over the years, I got to know Gerry quite well and he seemed to be very pleased with what I was doing for the club, so much so that when filming started on what turned out to be his last live-action production, Space Precinct, he asked me if I’d be interested in writing a book about the making of the series.

Chris spent a lot of time on the set of Space Precinct

Gerry arranged for me to have full access to every department at both Pinewood and Shepperton Studios to get to know all the key personnel, and also to spend weeks on set for the live-action and model filming at various points over the whole 12 months of principal photography – whenever I could get time off from my day job. Gerry made it possible for me to get a very real understanding of how a television series like that was made, in a way that many of the crewmembers, and even the producers, were never aware of. It was a real eye-opener, I can tell you!

For one reason or another, The Making of Space Precinct book never happened, but the experience was invaluable as an insight into filmed television production that was directly relateable to Gerry’s earlier work. Space Precinct was filmed on the very same soundstages at Pinewood where Space:1999 had been shot 20 years earlier and very few of the techniques and practices had changed in the interim. So I was then able to apply that knowledge in the articles and interviews I wrote for FAB about Gerry’s other productions.

One of the things I wrote was a serialised article on the making of Thunderbirds which came to the attention of an editor at Carlton Books. She invited me to expand the article into a book to tie-in with a big relaunch of the series in September 2000: the episodes were being remastered for DVD and the series was going to be reshown on BBC2. The Complete Book of Thunderbirds was my first book and it must have gone down quite well because the following year I was asked to do another one about Captain Scarlet with the same format, which tied into the DVD launch in September 2001. I seem to have been writing, editing or designing books about the various Gerry Anderson productions ever since.

Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons is of course 50 years old this year. Why do you think it’s still so popular with long-time fans and newcomers alike?

Stylish and elegant, with something for everyone!

I’m not sure I have any specific insight on that. I’ve had a great many conversations with a lot of Captain Scarlet fans over the last 30 years and everyone seems to like it for all sorts of different reasons. There doesn’t seem to be any one thing. For myself, it’s simply a beautifully designed and crafted show that really doesn’t look or sound like anything else on television.

I’m especially fond of the 1960s and early 70s ‘space age’ aesthetic – the fashions of Courrèges, Cardin, Rabanne and Gernreich, the furniture of Aarnio, Colombo, Mourgue and Saarinen, and typefaces like Microgramma, Compacta, Futura and Countdown. It’s the pre-Star Wars design style of sci-fi movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Moon Zero Two, Zero Population Growth, Rollerball and Logan’s Run, the world of tomorrow we imagined back then: pristine, geometric, uncluttered functionality. You can see that aesthetic in Anderson productions like Doppelgänger, UFO and Space:1999, and Captain Scarlet’s got it in spades.

Are there aspects of Captain Scarlet that are particularly relevant for the 21st century we find ourselves in today?

I think it’s very easy to read Captain Scarlet as an allegory for radicalisation and terrorism, and sadly, that’s as relevant now as it was in the latter half of the 20th century. I don’t believe that was something that Gerry and his colleagues ever intended though. Gerry often spoke of how his ideas for certain series or stories were sometimes influenced by real events, but it simply wasn’t in his mindset to use allegory in his work. I remember how surprised he was to be confronted by suggestions that Captain Scarlet could be seen as a religious allegory in which Colonel White on Cloudbase with his Angels represented God in Heaven with the heavenly host. As an atheist who had rejected his parents’ Jewish faith, the notion that he would set out to create a Biblical allegory left him totally nonplussed.

What’s your personal favourite episode of Captain Scarlet and what do you like most about it?

Captain Scarlet Crater 101
Crater 101, a firm favourite with Chris!

The standout for me is the Lunarville 7 / Crater 101 two-parter. The lunar setting tends to make it more memorable when all the other episodes are earthbound, and creatively there’s a clear line from those episodes to UFO. You’ve got the Lunarville/Moonbase concept, of course, but also the Lunar Controller’s circular console, a computer called SID, and the Moonmobile, which Mike Trim adapted for the design of the SHADO Moonmobiles in UFO.

I particularly like Crater 101, mainly for the weirdness of the Mysteron Lunar Complex interiors and how colourful it all looks, but also for the interaction between Scarlet, Blue and Green, the Spectrum colour-coded spacesuits, and the editing throughout, which really ramps up the tension when Scarlet’s struggling to release the pulsator crystal and get clear before the bomb explodes. It’s also an episode that nicely highlights how progressive Gerry and his team were by placing a decisive, intelligent woman in charge of Lunarville 6.

And what’s your most treasured piece of Captain Scarlet memorabilia?

Dinky’s Spectrum Patrol Car was a roaring success!

That would be the Dinky Spectrum Patrol Car I got when I was four years old, a bit scratched and missing a few paint chips here and there but still in relatively decent condition. Even as a little kid, I was very much taken with the design of that car and I still think it’s one of the very best Gerry Anderson vehicles. The Dinky car didn’t do very much other than give out that weird ‘turbo-jet engine’ noise when you pushed the back down, but it was a good size to fit in a blazer pocket.

I have my original 1968 Dinky SPV too and that was a work of genius of course. I don’t think we’d ever seen a toy with that level of functionality before and everyone wanted one. It fires a missile from the hatch at the front, the rear tracks hinge up and down, the aerials fold down, and the side hatch pops open and lowers Scarlet to the ground. It’s 50 years old but everything still works.

Given the wonderful reception for Marcus Hearn’s Thunderbirds: The Vault, was a follow-up featuring Spectrum’s finest always on the cards?

Scarlet was a quick draw on the viewing audience!

Not at all. In fact, it nearly didn’t happen and wouldn’t have done if Signum Books and ITV Ventures hadn’t had the faith in it as a viable property. Fortunately, we’d just done the 2016 edition of The Complete Book of UFO which was an Amazon Top 30 best-seller and completely sold out two print runs in about five minutes, so the success of that directly resulted in Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons: The Vault.

It certainly would have been a shame if the series’ 50th anniversary had passed by without an official book to celebrate the occasion, because there’s clearly still an enthusiastic and passionate following out there. There seems to be a common misconception these days that Captain Scarlet was considered a failure because it wasn’t as popular as Thunderbirds, but it’s a series that was regularly watched by almost 11 million viewers in the UK on its original broadcast in 1967. By comparison, Doctor Who at that time had an audience of around 7.4 million, so Captain Scarlet wasn’t a failure by any means.

Can fans of Thunderbirds: The Vault expect Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons: The Vault to broadly follow the same lines in terms of layout and design?

Episode summaries are just one of the many joys awaiting readers in The Vault

It depends how broadly you want to look at it. Readers shouldn’t simply expect a Captain Scarlet version of Thunderbirds: The Vault because we’ve taken a very different approach to the ‘vault book’ concept. The format of the Thunderbirds book followed a linear continuity relating the story of the series’ gestation, production, reception and legacy, and there was nothing wrong with that. But having already written The Complete Book of Captain Scarlet in that way 16 years ago, I felt that it would be too much like writing the same book again if we were to employ that type of narrative with the new book.

I was more interested in developing a format that presents the vault artefacts in the style of an exhibition display. The reader enters the vault and is guided through exhibits that focus on specific aspects of the series’ development, production, broadcast and merchandising, so we have individual display areas for production design, visual effects design, the puppets, scripts, fashion, The Spectrum pop group, typography, TV21, toy cars, games and so on. In between those sections, we have spreads running throughout the book that focus on the individual episodes, each relating their own part of the production story and highlighting different aspects to look out for on screen.

What are the most challenging aspects of assembling an incredibly detailed project like this one, and was it a daunting proposition?

Creating The Vault was a real team effort!

Creating a book is always daunting and the schedule on this one was quite punishing too, which made the whole thing a bit of a challenge. But a project like this is also a collaborative effort and I couldn’t have wished for a better team of collaborators in Mike and Marcus – that’s designer Mike Jones, who also designed Thunderbirds: The Vault and the 2016 edition of The Complete Book of UFO, and editor Marcus Hearn, who’s been editing my stuff for the last 14 years and always knows how to polish it up when it’s not looking its best. While I concentrated on the writing, they got stuck into gathering all the visual material – scouring the ITC photo archive and photographing as much of the merchandise, memorabilia and surviving studio puppets and props as we could cram in – so that between the three of us, it all eventually came together within the narrow timeframe we had available.

Aside from the tight schedule, I think the most challenging aspect going into it was whether we’d actually be able to find anything new to say or show that hasn’t been seen and heard umpteen times before. After 50 years, you’d imagine that everything there is to know about Captain Scarlet has already appeared in print or on the internet. Fortunately that turned out not to be the case. Certainly the whole thing would have been considerably more challenging if I didn’t have a great bunch of mates with stunning collections of Captain Scarlet memorabilia and original studio puppets, who were willing to get involved with the project and let us photograph it all.

Did you turn up anything in the course of your research that was completely unexpected or surprising?

Oh yes, quite a few things, but I think I’d rather that readers discover those things for themselves in the book than for me to go and spoil the surprises here. This comes back to what I was just saying about whether we’d find anything new to put in the book, and what was both unexpected and surprising was how much new material there was to write about.

One thing I can mention that did rather surprise me when it turned up was the Captain Scarlet Cut Out Clothes book, simply because I’d completely forgotten that it was one of the things I’d had a kid and long since lost. If you’ve not seen one, it was a doll dressing book for boys, which seems like such a bizarre thing for Century 21 to have published back then. There were already three doll dressing books for girls featuring the Angels but clearly there were enough of us boys who saw our sisters playing with those things and wanted to have a go too. So we got a press-out cardboard ‘doll’ of Scarlet in just his Spectrum pants together with a cut out Spectrum uniform and a variety of cut out menswear and leisure wear. The ‘clothes’ all had paper tabs to fold around the doll but somehow they never seemed to stay on for very long.

Of the many images that you sourced and included in the book, did you find any exciting lesser-seen or even brand new ones?

All of the photography of merchandise and other memorabilia is brand new, as that has all been shot especially for the book. The archive photos obviously can’t be ‘new’ as such, but we’ve certainly got quite a number of shots in the book that I don’t believe have ever been published before.

One of the things I’m especially delighted that we’ve been able to do for the first time is to print all of the existing formal portrait photos of the Captain Scarlet puppet repertory cast along with each puppet’s identification number. These are the pictures that the directors used for casting purposes when it came to deciding which puppets should play which characters in each episode. Only a handful of those shots have ever been seen before outside the studios. I’d already made high resolution scans of them all from large format negatives for The Complete Book of Captain Scarlet, but Carlton’s designer only used eight of them in the book – which was a bit disappointing after I’d spent about 150 hours digitally restoring them all. Seeing them all in print together 15 years later has finally made that effort worthwhile.

And to finish off, here’s one just for fun: You’re chasing down a fleeing Mysteron agent, but they’ve stolen a car and you need to requisition an SPV to continue the pursuit. Where would your hidden SPV be located?

Under a lido.

Well we can’t argue with that, the Mysterons would never think of looking there! Our sincere thanks to Chris for his intriguing insight into what promises to be the most S.I.G. book of the year! You can order your copy from the Official Gerry Anderson Store and if you’re very quick, you might even be able to grab a very limited edition copy featuring a Captain Black cover!

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Andrew Clements

A writer, film maker and self confessed Gerry Anderson fanatic. Free to good home.

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