Gerry Anderson interview

Stan Nichols

what drives me? Gerry Anderson considers for a moment before replying. I don't think anybody will like my answer to that one. Oh, go on, give it a shot. I look at people who fly around in private jets and travel the world in first class accommodation; I see amazing motor cars or pass huge mansions surrounded by their own parkland. And these things make me think, 'Isn't that wonderful!' So what drives me, first and foremost, is the desire to be able to afford a similar lifestyle. That means I have to undertake some kind of work, and it just happens to be in films and TV, and of course I want my work to be successful because it can bring you all those benefits. And by a strange coincidence, we happen to sitting in just one of those benefits; a large, agreeable and only recently-acquired house in the Oxfordshire countryside. Outside, earth movers are noisily landscaping the vast gardens. Our conversation is punctuated by workmen wanting decisions and a stream of contractors delivering materials. Wherever I live, I like to create a little bit of heaven on earth. The new telephone system isn't working property – the answering machine won't kick in – so Anderson excuses himself, grabs one of the constantly ringing phones and spends half a minute giving directions to another lost truck driver.

I want to make successful shows and movies for the reason I've just stated, but there's something else. In the case of a feature film, I have a vision of attending a very big premiere, of millions of people going to see my film and enjoying it. I suppose it's just achievement that pushes me on.

What would he be doing if wasn't making films and television programmes?

Oh, that's simple. I'd be in the aviation business. I don't know what as, but anything to do with aircraft. I would prefer to do that than be in the film business.

It's a typically paradoxical statement from one of the industry's truly maverick characters. I've just spent eight months working with Gerry on his authorised biography, a project I inherited after his original biographer, Simon Archer, was tragically killed in a car crash. The experience left me more convinced than ever of Anderson's unique, almost iconic, status in the world of British TV. He's a one-off. His work has touched millions of people around the planet. And, in this country at least, his name is recognised by just about everybody. He achieved that level of recognition, and has lived the kind of life he covets for most of his career, thanks largely to puppet shows like Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray and, most famously, Thunderbirds. Yet he professes to loathe puppets. Why?

When I was making puppet films I was producing action adventures. Imagine a movie director in Hollywood today who's about to embark on a huge action picture being introduced to the star of the show and this star hobbles in on strings, semi-paralysed. That director's going to think, 'My God, how can I make the picture with him in the lead?' That's how I felt. So, yes, I was very anti-puppet; anti-puppet in as much as I didn't think they were good tools.

Granted, he stumbled blindly into puppet productions in the first place, reluctantly agreeing to take on The Adventures of Twizzle in the '50s because he couldn't find other work. It's no secret he resented the project and would rather have been shooting 'real' pictures. But doesn't he feel just a little grateful for what the puppets made possible?

Puppets made me create programmes few other people would contemplate because of the technical difficulties. In that sense they were unique and helped make me what I am today. Whatever that is. However, I tend to think 'What if I hadn't gone into puppets What if I'd made a movie in the same way Steven Spielberg made his first movie? Perhaps things would have been that much better than they are now.' So I can hardly look back and say, 'Wow, thank you, puppets, for what you've done for me.' I have this feeling I might have done very much better if I'd never been involved with them.

One can only speculate what life might have been like for Anderson without his puppets. There was a time, for instance, when it looked like he was going to produce the Bond picture Moonraker. And before that, the puppetmeister had a chance to be involved with one of the most influential SF movies ever made.

Anderson takes infinite pains to get things right – but to many, perfectionism of this sort can seem like authoritarianism. Does his single-mindedness leave him open to accusations of despotism?

I don't consider myself a tyrant. I do have an extremely bad temper, but it's very important to say that it only explodes once a year or so. Most of the time I treat people well and we get on together. But there are times, if somebody is openly trying to prevent me achieving something or being just damn difficult, when I can feel that temper welling up inside me. I know it's going to go, there's nothing I can do, and when it does go, God help the person facing me. But other than that, no, I'm not a despot at all. He does admit to being a chronic worrier, but insists this makes him no less easy to work with. I like people and I think I inspire them. From that point of view, working on my productions is a pleasant experience. The pressure comes from trying to achieve the impossible. But I find that most of the people who work with me, despite the stress and strain, quite enjoy the challenge.

Some hold that depression is a price to be paid for creativity. Gerry agrees that he pays that price.

I certainly wouldn't consider myself to be a depressive in the clinical sense. I suppose, however, that if you're trying to achieve something which is difficult, and it's important to you that you achieve it, it's understandable if you get depressed and think, 'I'm not going to make it.' But you must remember that what I do isn't like, say, an engineer. An engineer looks at a drawing, he's got specific measurements and knows how to do the job. There's no need for depression in that situation. But if you're trying to create something that doesn't exist, if you're trying to make the reality live up to the vision in your head, you're bound to have setbacks, which can cause depression.

Yet all his series have been characterised by optimism. Is he saying that this theme doesn't reflect his own view of the world?

My work enshrines an ideal. I don't think it mirrors my view of the world.

We move on to talking about whether his impulse as a creator derives from a storytelling or purely filmic impulse. A poll recently suggested that the single most important image of the 20th century for most people was that famous first shot of the Earth from space.

I agree with that image. But I have my own images too. When I see a 700 ton Boeing 747 lifting off the ground, for instance, that to me is an incredible, beautiful image. To explain why I find that image so remarkable, I'd have to get into talking about what's loosely termed religion. In the sense that to me it's a miracle aluminium is here for us to find and to use, that fuel is here for us to find and to use, and all the scientific principles are here for us to discover and employ. So I'm marvelling not just at the aircraft but the world as constituted that enables us to make such a thing. What amazes me on this subject is that just about everybody I've ever met has to have an answer to the question 'Is there a God?' You know, they have to say, 'Yes, there is' or 'No, there isn't.' There are very few people who say, 'I don't know.' I prefer to say I don't know. I don't say there is no God. I'm quite prepared to believe there is a God. But not as preached in a church, I hasten to add. (Anderson rejected his father's orthodox Jewish faith, and organised religion, in his early teens.) I believe there could be a force we don't even suspect yet. After all, it's not that long ago that if people had talked about radio nobody would have understood what the hell they were going on about. There are many things we have yet to discover. So I'll stick with 'I don't know.' We're a very arrogant species, given we know practically zero. That's right. it reminds me of the chap who said, 'You think I know f**k nothing, don't you? Well, let me tell you... I know f**k all.' I reckon that just about sums it up.

It's a small conversational step from there to the X-Files and the current boom in TV programmes centering on the paranormal. Does the present hunger for these subjects made the broadcasters more receptive to approaches from independent producers like himself.

No. My problem is that I'm a sort of oddball in the industry. I'm not one of television's golden boys, regularly visiting the studios and part of that scene. They tend to get a lot of the work. I've reached a point now where, surprisingly, I'm not that interested in the big productions any more. I'm currently working on Lavender Castle, a TV series for young viewers, and I've got a great sense of freedom. I'm working with a very nice bunch of people and I'm thoroughly enjoying what I'm doing. I wouldn't mind making children's pictures for the rest of my life.

So does he keep up with the SF genre, if only out of professional interest?

No. I go to the cinema because I want to be entertained. I did see Independence Day because I'd heard it was spectacular, and indeed it was. But I didn't go because I wanted to keep up with developments in special effects or to study the storyline or to see what was happening in the science fiction field. I'm just an ordinary cinema-goer. I thought Independence Day was so nationalistic, incidentally, that I felt I needed a sick bag by my seat. You know, Americans once again saving the world. But ignoring that, I thought it was a very impressive and exciting picture.

So if he were in the position of being able to make any TV series or film he wanted, it wouldn't necessarily be science fiction?

No, it almost certainly wouldn't. There are many things I would like to do other than science fiction. I'd love to make a picture about the First World War, for instance, bringing home the reality and the horrors of it. Equally, I'd like to make a television documentary series under the title And Then What Happened? The idea behind that would be to follow up items in the news that are terribly important and then just fade and we never hear about them again. During the Gulf War, for instance, some Iraqi aircraft left and flew to Iran. There was a great deal of discussion at the time about whether those planes were sent by Saddam Hussein into a safe area or if it was a mutiny. It filled the papers for several days. But then the war was over and the questions were never answered. I would love to do a consumer program, too; something like Watchdog.

A piece of door-stepping, investigative journalism in the Roger Cook mode?

Oh, no, absolutely not. I hate that. That's an invasion of people's privacy and he deserves to be punched on the nose. No, it would simply be investigating through proper channels. The difficulty with the media, and particularly news-oriented media, is that instead of saying, 'Aha! This we ought to investigate,' I imagine the producers saying, 'Who can we take apart next?' Because they've got a program to do, they've got to take somebody apart.

This may have a connection with his view that the media is a little too ambiguous when it comes to its coverage of overly violent movies.

This is something I have always taken extremely seriously. I mentioned the First World War a moment ago. When one visualises what can happen in a war, when you think of people maimed, blinded and killed, and all the suffering that goes on, clearly one doesn't want to contribute to that sort of situation. I've always been anti-war and against racism, and I'm acutely aware that my programs are seen by millions and millions of children. I've already told you that many people have said to me, 'I'm in the job I'm doing today because of your programs.' God forbid somebody should say, 'I've just been out in Africa machine-gunning people and thoroughly enjoying it. And it was your programs which set me on that path.'

This view is at odds with that held by a lot of people in the film and TV industries. Their usual line is that no causal link has been proved between what's shown on screen and the way people behave.

It may not be proved, but that doesn't mean we should discount it. It's a question of common sense. Think of the number of films where somebody takes a terrible beating, is left for dead covered in blood. Then, when the attackers have gone, the victim gets up and staggers to a telephone to call somebody. I think that sort of thing encourages some people to believe the human body can withstand this sort of treatment. I equally believe that in these real life brawls and fights the perpetrators are amazed to find they've actually killed someone. When I was a kid I used to think of people being run over and I always had a mental image of the wheel of a car literally bouncing over the body. Yes, they were killed, but it never occurred to me that the body would be crushed, that the eyes might pop out and the head explode. So I think these type of films can be very damaging.

The sackloads of mail Anderson still receives confirms that most of his audience is young. But his shows appeal to a much wider demographic than the teeny crowd.

I get a lot of letters from people who say how much pleasure they had as a child watching the programs, and asking me to sign the enclosed photograph for their child. It's very much a family thing. A lot of the resurgence of interest is definitely based on parental endorsement.

Then there are the more dedicated enthusiasts: the fans.

I'm truly not a fan myself. Of anyone. The only person in my life I've ever asked for an autograph was the American astronaut James Lovell. I therefore find it difficult to understand other people being fans, so when Fanderson, the appreciation society devoted to my work, was first formed, I was a bit wary. But they had obviously put so much effort into the conventions I felt I had to go along. I think the most important thing to say about them is that during the hard times they have always been prepared to stand by me and offer their help. They still do help out, in many ways. I've got a lot to be thankful to them for. They're all a thoroughly decent bunch of people and I've got the greatest admiration for them.

Something all Anderson fans wait for with baited breath is the much mooted live action Thunderbirds movie. Is this ever going to happen?

I don't know. The property is owned by PolyGram, and they certainly haven't talked to me about the picture going into preproduction, despite press reports to the contrary. So I'm in much the same position as everybody else.

But as the series creator surely he should at least be taken on as a consultant if the movie goes ahead?

Well, there's always the possibility that if one dug into all the agreements signed over the years, if one went into the history of the production, it may well be that I would have some legal rights. But so far I haven't bothered to go into that. Were PolyGram to make the movie, I believe it would enhance the chances of its success if my name was associated with it. Not so much in the US, but around the rest of the world.

The telephones are ringing again. That hole in the garden's getting deeper. And time is running out. It seems an appropriate point at which to ask what Gerry Anderson would like to be remembered for.

In all honesty, I don't believe I will be remembered. I don't believe my achievements are big enough to warrant remembering. If I were to be remembered, I suppose I'd like it to be as a thoroughly decent human being. I'm not saying I am, mind you, just that I've always tried to be.

And what about his influence on the world of TV or SF?

I don't know. But I would say that I've got a huge kick out of the enormous number of people over the years who have said to me, 'Thank you for all the enjoyment you've given me with your programs.' If I've brought some joy to a lot of people then that's great. I can't honestly say there's any particular programme or any particular film I've made that I'm desperately proud of.

Anderson has just embarked on the aforementioned Lavender Castle, an animated series for young viewers, based on a concept by SF/fantasy artist Rodney Matthews but after that his priority is to concentrate on writing. He's already written the first two volumes in a series of books called Regor the Rescue Dog, aimed at young readers and with an ingenious SF premise.

There's one last question before our interview is over. I know it isn't welcome. I remind Gerry that in a lot of people's minds his name is associated with his ex-wife and one time creative partner Sylvia. Would he like the opportunity to say a few words about her contribution? He considers a flat no, but finally settles on

As I have nothing nice to say about her, I'd rather not comment.

Sad.

interview orginally appeared in December 1996 issue of SFX magazine