Illusory images of Britain

Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds

Robert Bentz Ashe

in 1962, American Secretary of State Dean Acheson commented, "Britain has lost an empire; she has not yet found a role." The sentiment was widely resented in Britain at the time, for events suggested that things had never been better. But the loss of Empire, and the subsequent overshadowing of Britain on the world stage by the United States and Russia caused British politicians and people alike to search anew for a place their nation could occupy under the sun. The search was to prove illusory, for in reality, Britain had been eclipsed as a world power — but the myth making would persevere.

This article introduces Thunderbirds as a cultural response to the historical context of 1950s and early 1960s Britain. Gerry Anderson's pop culture series implicitly reflects the decline of a great nation and promotes the reaction of those who decided to see things otherwise. Through the Thunderbirds example, I also hope to demonstrate the idea of hegemony at work — that is, the elaboration and penetration of an élite ideology (both ideas and assumptions) into the common sense and everyday practice of society. This article will hopefully leave you better acquainted with the ever-popular television series — where puppets and their gadgetry are the stars — and more knowledgeable about the post-war historical setting of Thunderbirds.

Introducing Thunderbirds

Blasting onto the screen in 1965, following the original success of the Stingray series two years earlier, came the crew of International Rescue (IR) and the Thunderbirds. While principally made with the lucrative American market in mind, Thunderbirds became a huge success in Britain and quickly gained a cult following across several generations — including mine.

Based upon the small island of millionaire Jeff Tracy, International Rescue operates as a family of talented young men and women, equipped with state-of-the-art machinery, combating world criminals and natural disasters. One enemy stands out as the foremost villain in this futuristic world of consensual peace, prosperity, and one (capitalist) world order. Named after his many disguises, the Hood's home is found deep in the jungles of South East Asia and is surrounded by the symbols or codes of the Orient — the supernatural, Eastern mysticism, and the occult. His one goal in life is to establish a despotic world order and see to the downfall of the IR team.

The Hood is never completely destroyed in his futile schemes. He always has recourse to his unwitting half-brother Kyrano, who labours as cook on the Tracy island. Under a mysterious voodoo spell, Kyrano can be unknowingly influenced to betray family secrets. Kyrano's conscious life displays a total fulfilment in his role as servant to the Tracys, rejecting the materialism and megalomania of his evil brother.

The leader of International Rescue and patriarch, Jeff Tracy, was moved by a 'basic decency' to set up the International Rescue concept. Made super wealthy from a background of involvement in scientific research for the military, Tracy raised his five sons to embody similar values. Scott, Virgil, John, Gordon and Alan are all highly educated in the sciences, have experience in either aeronautics, aquanautics, or astronautics, and amusingly resemble in looks popular Hollywood actors of the fifties and sixties. Scott, for instance, looks deliberately similar to James Bond star, Sean Connery.

Each son specialises in piloting a particular Thunderbird (numbered 1 through 5 for simplicity) tailored specifically for each disaster as it may arise. The rescue vehicles became more often than not the stars of each show. Recognising their popularity, Thunderbirds creator Gerry Anderson introduced ever more specialised machinery into each episode.

Perhaps most memorable and attractive of all the characters is Lady Penelope, her butler Parker, and her formidable six-wheeled Rolls-Royce registered 'FAB1'. Scrutinised by Rolls-Royce Inc., who offered their keen support for the vehicle, 'FAB1' is a fitting symbol for Lady Penelope's undiluted class against which is set Parker's Cockney comedy. For example, when under heavy machine-gun attack in The Duchess Assignment, Lady Penelope calmly understates, 'I do hope they don't scratch the paint.' The trio taps into powerful British codes setting off the highly Americanised island of Jeff Tracy and the Thunderbirds against an image of England largely unchanged since Victorian times.

Britain in the 1950s & 60s — setting the historical context

The 1950s were the American years. Wealthy, super-confident, and technologically innovative, the USA was at its peak of influence in the world during this time. To a lesser extent, Britain was also enjoying a boom time of full employment, rising affluence, and low inflation. These were 'ignorantly blissful years.' as one economist described it. But the timing was economically fortuitous with a worldwide post-war expansion. Britain's actual economic performance lagged well behind its war-devastated European counterparts. A heavy relative expenditure on defence commitments prevented an otherwise well-placed Britain from fully capitalising on the rapidly developing world economy. For the average Briton, living standards undoubtedly improved over this boom time era. The promise of owning your own house filled with high-tech gadgets such as televisions and washing machines became a reality for an ever growing number of people. Mass expectations for the decade were clearly on display for the eight and a half million visitors who crowded the South Bank to see the Festival of Britain in 1951. The state-sponsored expo was rich in drama and pageantry projecting an image of British society geared up for a future reaping the benefits of science, technology, and modern design. John Mackay, a visitor to the Festival, recollects:

On that visit to Algate we saw the past: [An uninterrupted desert of broken masonry still remaining from the Blitz.] The late evening of that same day, we stood on the Embankment, on the north side of the river Thames and, looking across the river at the myriad of lights on the South Bank mirrored in the water — there we saw the future.

The futuristic Festival of Britain contrasted widely with another important symbol of legitimation the following year. The pageantry surrounding the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth worked to reinforce within British society the values of continuity, order, tradition, and ultimately underline the continuing value of the aristocracy to British society. Britain was entering the space age while still embracing the seemingly timeless benefits of a privileged class.

Few voices of dissent were heard over the euphoria surrounding consumer prosperity. In fact, the 1950s and early 1960s have been described as a profoundly uncritical era. Consensus marked the temper of the times and the conservative politics that reigned during the 1950s both reflected and nurtured this phenomenon. The unswerving consensus within British society had unfortunate consequences in the area of foreign policy. Traditional assumptions concerning Britain's political and economic role in the world at large went largely unchallenged. The imperial gaze Britain had once cast over the world obstinately remained, despite the loss of Empire following the Second World War and the radically different geopolitical reality which emerged after Yalta. Britain's newly-earned nuclear status helped to cloud her real demise as a world power. Contemporary common sense suggested that the Bomb represented the way by which a small, but technically advanced country, could retain 'great nation' status. What was overlooked was the fundamental changes taking place in Europe as the European Economic Community (EEC) took shape. As President de Gaulle saw it, Britain had 'sold her birthright for Polaris missiles.'

The achievement of relative prosperity in Britain in the 1950s was continually affirmed by the electorate, returning the Conservatives to government for over a decade (1951-1964). Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's catchphrase, 'you've never had it so good', was universally endorsed. Yet by 1964, the appeal of the electoral slogan 'Thirteen wasted years' was strong enough to give Labour a slender majority. Domestic malaise had replaced the outwardly victorious Britain of the 1950s and early 1960s. The illusions of affluence at home and British world standing abroad had steadily been eroded. Noted historian Arthur Marwick suggests in his book British Society Since 1945 that the British public did not really come to a full understanding that their nation was no longer a major world power until the 1960s. Even then, attempts were still being made to continue the illusion of British greatness through the possession of nuclear weapons, through a continuing close relationship with the United States, but perhaps more subtly and persuasively, through the production and consumption of popular culture.

Tracing the past — the popular cultural text of Thunderbirds

In the non-puppet world of Cold War politics, the illusion of Britain's world standing was gradually being exposed through the 1960s. In the meantime, Thunderbirds creator Gerry Anderson was busily manufacturing his own world of illusion in the Thunderbirds series. Various allusions have already been made by cultural historians to the popularity of the James Bond series during this same period of British decline. Some have essentially seen the two as analogous. Thunderbirds provides a similar trace of meaning, shedding light upon a popular cultural narrative of 1950s and early 1960s Britain: The small island nation of Britain was searching for a new role to play in world politics. The futuristic puppet world of International Rescue presented a sympathetic analogy to Britain's current predicament and offered a daring alternative to decay.

Lady Penelope can therefore be seen as the most recent of a progression of images as diverse as Britannia, Rolls-Royce, and a recently coronated Queen which all operated to create a mythical idea of Britain's standing in the world. Technology, and the development of a nuclear capability, could be marketed as the way of the future and given the allure of youth, potency, and sophistication. Nuclear weapons allowed Britain a certain level of independence at the diplomatic level and raised the possibility of her playing the role of international peacemaker in the world. Importantly, a 1957 White Paper revealed the widespread belief among politicians that this was a role Britain saw herself well qualified to fulfil. The sentiment was further reinforced by a post-war expectation in the world community of an international police force able to assert a paternalistic influence over the world. What better nation could there be to take this burden of responsibility than a Britain which personified high standards of morality and the value of basic British decency?

It was this same implicit prompting that led Jeff Tracy to set up the International Rescue concept. Tracy Island can be seen as clearly analogous to the small island nation of Britain with the high technology of the Thunderbird craft bearing a close resemblance to that promised on such occassions as the Festival of Britain and that surrounding the build-up of a nuclear military force. As a vivid example, Thunderbird 1 was launched from an underground silo much like the Polaris missiles of the time.

Further Cold War links abound through the television series. Familiar to most Thunderbirds fans are the exhaustive launch sequences backed by the rousing Thunderbirds march. The pilots would be tipped from their settees and projected down a complex series of chutes and tunnels right into the seats of their respective craft. When asked about his inspiration for such an idea, Anderson commented, 'At the time, British, American, and Russian pilots were sitting in Atom Bombers day and night, so that if the call came, bang, they were away.'

The enemies to world stability neatly fit the Western Cold War narrative. The Hood's agents are a mixture of Eastern-Europeans and Asians who shoot with Russian-made revolvers. Posing as the eternal threat to a capitalist order, the faceless agents are destroyed with spectacular special effects while, in contrast, International Rescue will go to exhaustive ends to save the innocent. The dramas are typically played out in the spy thriller genre. For example, infiltrators attempt to photograph or steal top-secret technology but are countered by the most masterful of IR's agents, Lady Penelope. She behaves as a feminine Bond-type persona sporting high-tech gadgetry, an enchanting fashion consciousness (her costumes were identical copies of those featuring in contemporary Vogue magazines), and an idealised upper-class British sensibility to boot. Continual and timeless, the aristocracy are still there in the late 21st century and still driving Rolls-Royces.

The Tracy boys represented a new generation of professional, technologically literate, and dashing young people upon whom the future of Britain's greatness relied. Advanced education was fundamental to their predominance — all of them ascending from a military background. The superbrain character of Hiram K. Hackenbacker (alias Brains) was the embodiment of these values. His was the Einsteinian genius upon which Jeff Tracy's dream of International Rescue rested. At the same time in Britain, educational policy was shifting its emphasis in the 1950s as a consensus emerged around the idea of 'meritocracy' and its closely associated value of equality of educational opportunity. A heavy emphasis upon technological education as the way of the future was seen as crucial and was demonstrated by the Labour Party report of 1963 entitled Labour and the Scientific Revolution. Contained within it was a policy for 'a new deal for the scientist in government, and a new role for government-sponsored science in industrial development'. With it, Harold Wilson was able to appeal to middle-class technocrats (less glamorous than the Tracy boys but nonetheless the assumed foundations for a future 'great' Britain) to help secure election victory in 1964. Labour became identified with the seductiveness of science, technology, and education.

As part of the real Cold War against Communism, Britain found herself in conflict in South East Asia, successfully so in Malaya in 1958. Yet the tide towards decolonisation was unstoppable with independence movements sweeping quickly through these areas. The puppet characters of Kyrano and his evil half brother The Hood potentially reflect widespread xenophobic fears held at the time in Britain. In their worst form, Asian aspirations for wealth and independence posed a real threat to the established world order. So insatiable and demonic are the Hood's demands, that subjugation appears to be the only solution.

Asia was the 'unknown quantity' during the Cold War and became the real-life battlefield between two competing ideologies in the world — capitalism versus communism. Kyrano, whose name is not unlike the 1950 battlefield of Korea, could possibly represent the image of the 'good Asian' — a respected servant to the Tracy family. He is depicted as satisfied with his class position, having found an 'inner harmony' to replace any greater material or political desires that he might have. Eastern religion allows Kyrano to achieve this equilibrium, yet he constantly remains as an unknown internal threat to the supremacy of the International Rescue operation. Over this period in British history, large numbers of immigrants were beginning to enter the country. They represented a cheap source of labour, but also a potential destabilising force to the widespread level of consensus which had emerged from post-war Britain.

Revisionist interpretations of the post-war period of British history had not yet broken the consensus of British society which still believed in the pre-eminence of their nation facing a bright future. The Thunderbirds continued in the same uncritical tradition of bland 'news-speak' playing to an audience captivated by a devotion to technology which had already been well established by occasions such as The Festival of Britain. Thunderbirds, therefore, can readily be re-interpreted as an ideological construct interacting within the hegemonic context of late 1950s and early 1960s culture and politics. The signs and codes generated by the popular show served largely to reinforce the dominant paradigm pervasive in Britain at the time. Given that Thunderbirds was predominantly a children's television program, this suggests how early on in life the process of manufacturing consent can begin within a developed society.

Coming to conclusions

Few people in the 1950s were prepared to recognise that Britain must adjust herself to reduced circumstances. This had been a decade of unprecedented private affluence. Britain could still be great and carry her mantle in the world. Yet the fallout from the Suez crisis, the increasingly dependent relationship with the United States, and British rejection on initial application for entry into the EEC proved otherwise. Politicians and the people alike searched for new roles Britain could play in this rapidly changing world. New nuclear capabilities aligned with a policy of active deterrency suggested, for a brief moment, that Britain could still play a major role in world politics. Randolph Churchill summed up the conviction of the time by stating: "Britain can knock down twelve cities in the region of Stalingrad and Moscow from bases in Britain and another dozen in the Crimea from bases in Cyprus. We did not have that power at the time of Suez. We are a major power again." The illusion didn't last internationally, however. Rather, it was perpetuated at one level in British society through the production of illusion in popular culture. The Thunderbirds text provided for, along with entertainment and the pleasure of childish fantasy, the continuation of the myth of British world imperialism. On small budgets, stories resembling a larger Cold War reality were recreated based upon codes and discourses familiar to the British public. Ironically, the series was specifically created with a lucrative American audience in mind — hence the American accents and full-colour production. Yet the series failed in the United States, eclipsed by the bigger budget offerings from Hollywood. For the British, taking an imaginative leap over the accent problem and widespread lack of colour television at the time, Thunderbirds became an instant hit when released in 1965 and sales of accompanying merchandise more than covered any shortfall in profit lost by failure to penetrate into the American market. The idiosyncratic puppet series seemed to have tapped into a popular sentiment of the time — one of continued allusions to British pre-eminence. Meanwhile, back in the world of 1960s realpolitik, it was the United States that was pulling all the strings.

Suggested Reading / Bibliography

British Post-War History
M. Banham & B. Hillier, eds., A Tonic to the Nation: The Festival of Britain 1951, Thames & Hudson, London, 1976
V. Bogdanor & R. Skidelsky, editors, The Age of Affluence 1951 – 1964, Macmillan and Co., London, 1970
D. Dilks, editor, Retreat From Power: Studies in Britain's Foreign Policy of the 20th Century (Volume 2), Macmillan Press Ltd., London, 1981
A. Marwick, British Society Since 1945, Penguin, London, 1982
B. Porter, Britain, Europe and the World 1850-1982; Delusions of Grandeur, Allen & Unwin Ltd., London, 1983
D. Weigal, Britain and the World 1815-1986: A Dictionary of International Relations, B.T Batsford Ltd., London, 1987
B. Williamson, The Temper of the Times; British Society Since World War II, Basil Blackwell Ltd., Cambridge MA, 1990
Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds
D. Rogers et. al., Supermarionation Classics: Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, Boxtree Ltd., London, 1993
Cultural Studies
J. Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture, Unwin Hyman, Boston, 1989
T. Gitlin, The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1980
G. Turner, British Cultural Studies, Unwin Hyman, Boston, 1990
Other Source Material
M. Barasch, The Little Black Book of Atomic War, Angus & Robertson, 1983
E. Carr, What is History?, Routledge, London, 1991
J. Hill, Sex, Class and Realism: British Cinema 1956 – 1963, BFI Publishing, London, 1986
R. Kenna & W. Grandison, Somethin' Else – 50s Life and Style, Richard Drew Publishing, Glasgow, 1989
P. Vansittart, In the Fifties, John Murray, London, 1995
text ©1996 Robert Bentz Ashe