BBC Four: All About Thunderbirds


Last week, BBC Four hosted a Thunderbirds Night, showing selected episodes from that classic series.


As part of the lineup was a documentary called All About Thunderbirds.


Thanks to a UK correspondent and the magic of P2P via AllPeers (the new essential tool for Firefox), I have a copy of it. (Those in the UK might be able to see it using the BBC’s online iPlayer.)

I’ve taken close to sixty screensnaps and along with captions and some commentary, they appear after the break.

Full-size FAB-1. Dramatizing the premiere of Thunderbirds Are Go movie.

Bad CGI overlay; Thunderbird 2 is huge and would span the screen!

Part of the documentary had reminiscences from those who worked on the series as well as those who were influenced by it…

Learn more about Dominic Sandbrook.

Fount of immortal television: Gerry Anderson.

He does Wallace and Gromit, which contained a Thunderbirds tribute sequence. Learn more about Nick Park.

Learn more about Steve Bennett.

Learn more about Stephen Cole.

I’ll have something specific to say about this guy later on.


Confusing title card. Wilson was a designer on that series. The Supercar vehicle was a Reg Hill design.


Best known as the voice of Parker. Learn more about David Graham. Here’s something I just found out: He was Big Brother in the classic Apple 1984 ad!

Gerry Anderson and Sylvia Thamm (then Anderson).



The first UK TV series to be filmed in color: Stingray.

That wonderful voice! Learn more about Shane Rimmer.

Learn more about Matt Zimmerman.

A poor facsimile of Thunderbird 3 at some park. Still, exciting for kids then!

They played a strangely significant part in the history of Thunderbirds. Mystery solved below.


An extremely rare appearance by Sylvia Anderson!

Pioneer and legend, Derek Meddings. Creator of the best explosions ever!


Mike Trim also has a blog here.

He also revealed that’s a lemon squeezer! I’d like to forget that now…

Look at the iconography on this gauge. Brilliant!


They featured a montage of real hand shots used. Many of them were Keith Wilson’s. This is Sylvia as Lady Penelope.

An incredible reverse-angle shot using a real hand that is toying with a pen!

This movie was an incredible failure. Sorry to everyone involved, but it deserved to be. It was too long, dull, and featured something that is deadly to boys looking for a big adrenaline rush: songs! Even watching it today makes my teeth ache.

Sylvia at the lavish big-budget movie premiere.

Gerry and Sylvia at premiere.

The guy on the left is Keith Wilson!


The balding fellow at left is the legendary …

Lord Lew Grade.

His decision-making process for approving proposed TV series apparently consisted of listening to a pitch and then saying, “Sounds good. Go do it.” I don’t know if he had an excellent instinct or if it was just phenomenal luck. But he gave the world some immortal series: all of Gerry Anderson’s, The Prisoner, Danger Man (aka Secret Agent), The Persuaders, Department S, The Saint, The Champions, and many more. Contrast that with our homogenized, bland and boring American TV that is “market researched,” “tested” to death, and which can’t survive one off-network rerun!

He did make one very big mistake, however. He failed to approve a second series of Thunderbirds! So we got Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons instead.

Mysteron Agent out to destroy Captain Scarlet.

The man who did destroy Captain Scarlet!

Phil Ford was the lead writer and script editor of Gerry Anderson’s New Captain Scarlet, a CGI revisioning of the classic Supermarionation series. I might be doing an entire article about this at some point, but the quick summary is that Phil Ford’s scripts were generally terrible, forgettable, and sometimes just embarrassing. I hold him responsible for half of that series’ failure. The other half of the failure was underutilizing the full capabilities of CGI and mimicking live-action too closely.

The evolution of the Supermarionation puppets:



Learn more about Francis Matthews.

A contrast in marionette development.

Some of the Space:1999 special effects team.

Derrek Meddings enjoying long-overdue industry recognition; holding a special Oscar for his work on the Superman movie.

Solution of mystery: They produced and starred in a play about Thunderbirds that became a bit of a pop-culutral phenomenon…



… oh yes, they also portrayed the vehicles …

… some people believe the popularity of this play led to a renewed interest in the series and caused the BBC …

… to repeat the entire series, announcing it on the evening news!

Unsurprisingly, it was a huge hit, spawning a new generation of fans and merchandise. The hottest toy that Christmas was Tracy Island, which sold out!

Even today, over forty years since the show debuted, fans use today’s technology to recreate 3D clips of their childhood memories.



Another recent program featuring Gerry Anderson has him stating that he wishes to remake Thunderbirds, using CGI as he did with Captain Scarlet.

I think that would be very, very big mistake.

In the 1980s, the Japanese did a cartoon series that was sold worldwide as Thunderbirds 2086. It was terrible. I tried to watch it, but it didn’t work because it was a cartoon. There was one sequence early on that I recall to this day. The rescuers had to cut through a wall using a sort of laser. They tried to pace it as if it was live-action. But it simply didn’t work — because this was a cartoon. It was a drawing. Drawings aren’t hard to cut through; we’ve all seen Bugs Bunny do it countless times.

I believe the same thing would happen with a CGIed Thunderbirds. A CGI wall cannot mimic a physical wall. And even though the Supermarionation wall might have been made of cardboard, within the scale of the series physical universe, we could suspend our debelief and enjoy it as if the wall was two-inch-thick rebar and concrete or reinforced steel. In New Captain Scarlet, everything had the feel of a videogame. Mass and physical tangibility were entirely lost.

If Gerry Anderson ever does get the call from BBC’s Michael Grade that he’s been hoping for, I hope Grade stipulates — and that Gerry will see the wisdom of — reviving Thunderbirds using marionettes. It’s the only way it could possibly succeed. (And, dear god almighty, keep Phil Ford out of it!)

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9 Comments on “BBC Four: All About Thunderbirds”

  1. Leonard R Permell Says:

    Hi I strongly belelive we need a new CGi Thunderbirds. I grew up with old pupert thunderbirds and now I have 4 yr old son who adores the show. Even he would like see a new Thunderbirds. The show actually installed human compassion to help those who are in life crisis. We need the thunderbirds to help our own inconscious of understanding why we exsists. Please for the sake of my love towards my son. This will help all the kids in the world.Thank You

    Lenny & little Lenny.(USA) We miss the thunderbirds are Go!!!!!

  2. Edward Tweddle Says:

    I totally agree with the comments on the CGI Captain Scarlett it was really poor but that’s not saying that a CGI version Thunderbird’s would be the same there have been some very good CGI movies and some such as Beowulf even had me believing I was watching real actors…I’m not saying that is what is needed in a new TB’s series it has to be true to the original yet fetch a new reality to it, we all know the faults of the original show with scale etc’ well these things can be overcome with CGI, TB2 needs to be bigger than the palm trees lining her runway for example. the proposed trailer which can be seen on Youtube would be a massive error if it were made in this style the look is more doll like than the marionettes, a CGI version done right would and should be a big hit go to the people a Pixar Mr Anderson they’ll show you how it’s done then get some decent writers on board then and only then do a pilot and show it to your original audience for approval we’re all in our fifties now but we know what’s what.

    • Prof Eric Taylor Says:

      Sorry to hear you think the CGI version of Captain Scarlet was poor, if you disect each episode and scramble it up placing it in a crap childrens Saturday morning show that got “booed off ” instead of looking at each episode for the clearly technicaly briliant mini masterpieces they were, you seem to have a badly blinkered perception

      • mikecane Says:

        Who do you think you’re trying to fool? I’m in the US. I didn’t see it sliced-up, inside a kid’s show. I saw them complete, uninterrupted by ads or anything else. They’re still far from Anderson’s best work and the CGI wasn’t even that good — and it looks more dated every day. Also, in the UK, it got a primetime repeat run too.

  3. mikecane Says:

    Eh, YouTube trailer??? Do you mean the one Carlton did a few years ago?

  4. Martin Cater Says:

    Interesting to see your analysis of why New Captain Scarlet failed. I knew Phil Ford when he worked as a PR writer in a tiny ad agency in Birmingham. He’d written a script for a detective series in his spare time, submitted it to an agent and got lucky. He did an episode of Taggart (which was ludicrous) then some Coronation Street…not your typical Anderson scriptwriter’s CV.

    Anderson got him on board at the time of his long forgotten attempt to get a new live action series off the ground, and liked his script because, apparently, there were lots of explosions. When that project failed I guess it was a case of right place, right time for New Captain Scarlet. I only saw five minutes of one episode and that was enough.

    Oddly enough, I also knew Stephen Cole when he worked at BBC magazines and I drew some of his comic strips – he would always try to get in sneaky references to Doctor Who even though the comic strip in question was for the Playdays series!

  5. mikecane Says:

    Short version: Ford inserted many “homages” in his scripts. The result came off looking like he was a cheap, untalented hack ripping off recent popcult hits and contemptuously passing them off to an audience he regarded as stupid kids. None of that had any place in New Scarlet.

    It was shocking what Tony Barwick did with Terrahawks, but at least those scripts were original. As low as Barwick sunk there, he still surpassed Ford’s tripe.

    There were other things wrong with New Scarlet, but the forgettable scripts doomed it. Hell, I can cite Terrahawks lines. Not one *original* line from New Scarlet (all I recall are Ford’s rip-off sentences!).

  6. A. Evans Says:

    After 40 years of no Thunderbirds , I cant keep my grandkids away from the TV watching them ,,,on DVD…….again I still love em!

    I would love to market the t-bird toys here in the States!
    They are timeless!!!!

  7. […] BBC Four: All About Thunderbirds « Mike Cane 2008 […]

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