Thunderbirds are Go!

Posted by in November's Magazine

Jeff Tracy lived with his five sons in a fabulous, modernist Richard Neutra inspired, home on a secret Pacific island. There was, this being the 60s, no mention of the mother of his children though Scott bears a close resemblance to Sean Connery and Gordon to Bobby Kennedy. The Tracy brothers were clean-cut boys who favoured fancy leisure suits that owed much to Carnaby Street.And there’s so much I want to tell you about, we have so much to discuss don’t we?

Also on the island was super geek Brains (the world’s first computer nerd) with his oversized specs, receding hairline and stammer. The Tracy family’s revered, if troubled, old retainer Kyoto. Who had a luscious daughter called Tin Tin (no relation to the Belgian boy detective). Quite where she fitted into this ménage was difficult to tell, a remnant of Polynesian concubinage possibly. Then there was grandma, whose appearances outside the kitchen were, at best, infrequent.



This unreconstructed world was, of course, TV puppet show Thunderbirds – now 60-years-old and the subject of a new book of exhaustive detail: Thunderbirds: The Vault by Marcus Hearn. The eponymous flying vehicles, designed by Brains, were part of the International Rescue Organisation whose avowed aim was to be on the spot at major disasters. How we tittered when it transpired in 2013 that David Miliband was giving up British politics to join the International Rescue Committee.

Other characters included arch villain The Hood. The baddies, foreigners, old people and working class had more grotesque faces than the heroes; a throwback, doubtless, to historical Punch and Judy days, not to mention the less than politically correct 1960s.

The undoubted star of Thunderbirds was the aristocratic English ‘agent’ Lady Penelope, whose assortment of blonde hair-dos owed much to the top female pop star of the time Dusty Springfield. Her fur coat was apparently made from real mink. Jeff seemed to be working off his unrequited passion for Lady Penelope on Tin Tin while youngest son, the gauche Alan, was prone to jealousy and clearly held a candle for both women. The sexuality of the other sons can only be guessed at – Virgil had a passion for painting and playing the piano and John drew the short straw, not only having to man the space station and miss out on rescue missions but also wear a pink sash.

The invention of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, Thunderbirds has undergone many incarnations – from comics and merchandise to the disastrous 2004 live-action movie, culminating in this year’s CGI animated TV reboot. There has also been talk of a new series using puppets and the original soundtracks to episodes that were never made. The original series, however, was undoubtedly the best. It ran for 32 hour-long colour episodes and spawned two big budget movies in 1966 and 1967.

What made Thunderbirds endearing to adults as well as children? Well, for a start, the Tracy boys et al behaved like adults, what with gambling, cocktails, champagne, celebratory cigars and Penelope’s famous fondness for cigarettes in a Holly Golightly holder – the smoking ban must have been rescinded sometime before 2065 when Thunderbirds was set.

I once asked Sylvia Anderson where the camp elements in Thunderbirds came from – the pink Rolls-Royce, the Pacific atoll home with its Balinese art, Barcelona chairs and white baby grand. Not to mention one episode where a character’s voice was modelled on Dame Edith Evans. “We didn’t think in those terms back then,” she answered.

The production values were high (the theme used a 70 piece orchestra) and huge realistic explosions and special effects. The show was also one of the first children’s TV shows to make the most of tie-in toy merchandising, at its high point it was earning £6 million. Penelope’s pink Roller was launched by toymaker Dinky a year after rival Corgi introduced its model of James Bond’s Aston Martin and it became the top selling toy of the two, showing just how important Lady Penelope’s character was. In the movie Thunderbirds Are Go it’s Penelope who gets the most screen time.

The puppets were built of fibreglass, standing about two feet high with virtually every last design detail, fashion, architecture, technology, interiors and props, made from scratch. Look closely and you’ll see some of the high-tech consoles were fashioned from toothpaste tube tops and the knobs from electric ovens. The bookshelves in the Tracy home housed nought but mini dictionaries, suggesting the Tracy family were either not voracious readers or dyslexic.

The show was however often prescient – whether reflecting the space race, horrors of the Cold War or terrorism – indeed long before the Apple iWatch Thunderbirds personnel were communicating via wristwatch and in one episode a New York skyscraper is reduced to rubble in a horrible echo of 9/11.

In 1965, TV Century 21, an expensive (at 7d) weekly comic for boys was launched, followed speedily by the Lady Penelope comic. Ironically they were printed and distributed by City Magazines, which included in its stable top shelf publications like Men Only and Girls International, rather blowing out of the water any proto-feminist credentials her ladyship may have had.

Info: Thunderbirds: The Vault by Marcus Hearn is published by Virgin Books priced £25
Twitter: @KenWilson84

5 responses to “Thunderbirds are Go!”

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