Welcome to Slough – dream machine '66

Rod Allen visits the home of International Rescue in Slough

Rod Allen

i re-read The Last Tycoon in the train on my way down to Slough Safety Town where AP Films has its studio; and I drew a rather unfair comparison between Hollywood of the 30's as sketched by Fitzgerald and Slough Safety Town. Was this, I asked myself, the new Hollywood? Are we in an era of manufactured, assembly-line film-making on industrial estates in Slough? It was a depressing thought, and one which was not taken away by the welcoming visage of Slough Estates' vast industrial complex where in a road named for some completely unfathomable reason Stirling Road, AP Films' studio is situated.

But meeting Gerry Anderson in the shadow of the cooling tower and stepping into the unexpectedly large studio area completely dispelled any depression.

For AP Studios are every bit as much a dream machine as Hollywood was — and, with respect, a more satisfying and efficient dream machine than Hollywood ever was.

Good television is made of dreams, of course; and the man who creates the better dream is liable to do better on television than anyone else. And, paradoxically, the secret is to make your dream a credible dream. In this phrase is the whole key to the phenomenal success of AP Films and their latest series Thunderbirds.

Examine the situation set up by Thunderbirds for a moment.

The time is an unspecified point in the not-too-distant future. The environment is a united world enjoying the fruits of technological sophistication without cynicism. Most people are 'good' and happy; the forces of evil are weak and scattered, though they do exist.

But an advanced technology brings its hazards, for machines, like human beings, are fallible. So there must be a sort of super-machine to attend to the faults of the machines; and this super-machine must be run by superhuman beings, who are utterly good and completely altruistic.

Thunderbird 1 landing
All 'Thunderbirds' rocket launchings and jet motors really ARE rockets. Schermuly Pistol Rocket Apparatus Ltd. have developed special long-duration charges which give absolute realism

Hence International Rescue, an organisation armed with every advanced device the ingenuity of man can construct (and some that it can't) which exists to search out and rectify danger, to save life and to keep the ordinary machines going.

International Rescue must, of necessity, act in secret, and few must be aware of its existence. It operates under a facade of what one is tempted to call decadence, from a luxuriant island somewhere in a nice warm ocean, while one of its arms – a vast manned space satellite – monitors international radio messages, ever on the alert for peril and danger.

Next, the characters. Boss hero is a man named Tracey, who commands a team of five – all his sons, each named after an American astronaut (identification with present-day heroes). He is backed by a scientist, Brains, who designs and maintains International Rescue's equipment, and a network of agents, headed up by Lady Penelope in London, who is an absolutely delightful sketch of the flower of English womanhood, immensely attractive, enormously rich — and hence vastly powerful.

Unlike its AP predecessors, the crew of Fireball XL5 and World Aqua Security Patrol, International Rescue does not exist to fight evil specifically, for evil as a bloc has been wiped out in this world of the future. Rather, – and this is significant – it exists to do good.

This is the concept of Thunderbirds (the title is derived from the five vehicles which actually carry out the rescue tasks).

The question is: why thus? And this is what I asked Anderson when I met him in Slough.

The not surprising answer was commercial. AP Films' operations involve extremely large sums of money, and as the financial involvement has grown from series to series over the past eight years, the problem of finding a profitable story concept for the type of filmmaking at which AP excels has become more and more difficult.

It is important to take this question of motivation in its historical context. APF's series have always been concerned with the future and the technological future at that. And as the techniques of handling puppets have advanced, so has the potential of this particular medium.

It is thus logical progression to sophisticate the series as the techniques progress. Now that the technical potential is so great – as the technical articles in this publication will show – the possibility of attaining believability – or at least the possibility of suspending disbelief in the audience – has also grown.

So, at the end of 1963, when APF was planning a series to follow its already successful Stingray, it was decided to go for a more adult market. The new series would be transmitted in the UK in early evening time instead of children's hour and at least as much of the potential audience would be adult as it would be children.

The characters and environment were created – as they always are – by Gerry Anderson and his wife Sylvia, who wrote the first script and who would brief writers of ensuing scripts very closely indeed. The word is made flesh by a large team of designers, model makers and sculptors (there are over 100 full time staff in Slough alone, not to mention the large number of subcontractors working for APF). Reg Hill and John Read, the other two company directors, complete the APF team.

Let there be no mistake about this: Thunderbirds is a vast operation. APF is possibly the country's largest consumer of colour film – over a million feet in the past year went through its cameras, and each episode costs between £38,000 and £40,000 to produce – just under an hour each in full colour. The AP organisation, including its merchandising operations, reckons to turn over £1 million in a year, and the merchandising end is responsible for about £3 million in annual turnover at retail per year in the UK alone.

And the shop is expanding. At the end of January 1966, AP is to take over two new buildings on the Slough estate, one of which is being custom-built to the company's requirements at a cost, including above-the-line gear, not far short of a quarter of a million pounds.

These large sums of money could never be recouped in the UK alone. It is this financial fact which has let APF in for a good deal of criticism for what might be described as an aesthetic aspect of their work. The criticism is contained in the question: why are the APF series set across the Atlantic in the US?

Consider for a moment the world aspect of television. If you are producing series in the English language, your customers are divided into three parts: the UK, the Commonwealth and North America. And of these the greatest, in terms of money, population and power, is undoubtedly North America. Or to be more specific, the three American TV networks.

Now consider APF's dilema. Should they ignore this vast market and adjust their budgets so that costs could be recouped in UK and a few minor Commonwealth markets? It would mean cutting budgets by well over half, and producing a shoddy, shoestring job. The obvious answer was no, APF must not at any cost ignore this market.

So the films must be tailored to take into account American requirements. It is a sad fact that the average American viewer finds it difficult to understand English as she is spoken in England; answer: the characters must speak American (and make no mistake about this: the characters' accents are real American and not mid-Atlantic pastiches of the dialect). In the previous films, virtually all characters spoke in American, but Thunderbirds, with its essential internationality, has succeeded to introduce many English characters apart from Lady Penelope (who, it is thought, will wow them Stateside, as one might say).

That this policy has paid off is a proven fact. Stingray, which was syndicated in the US, has to date netted a figure in excess of £3 million in programme sales receipts to the independent TV stations. And negotiations are currently in progress with American networks for the sale of Thunderbirds for coast-to-coast transmission. Figures are not, of course, being publicly discussed, but the sale of Danger Man and two other series to the US for $10 million recently is an indication of the sort of money involved.

In any case, there is no real evidence that the transatlantic aspects of the programmes offend British viewers, though a cis-atlantic approach would, it is felt, seriously endanger any programme's American potential.

Puppets, after all, are universal. And they are universal no less to the men on the studio floor. How do the disclipines of shooting puppets differ from those of shooting 'real' people? The answer is practically not at all.

A full crew is employed, and it is reckoned that the shooting ratio is about 6:1. The only difference is the speed of shooting: it's about twice as long per minute in the can than for live-action TV series work, and about half as long per minute than for feature film work. There are, of course, technical problems involved in shooting in close, which are discussed fully elsewhere in this issue. It's worth noting that APF is one of the happiest film studios I have ever come across from the staff point of view, that staff turnover is relatively low, and that there is a great deal of promotion from within on the studio floor; first names are the rule all the way up and down the shop, and in an operation that depends to such an extent on team work, the team seems to be really united.

Film making is generally something unto itself. The film or series is made, shown, and remembered or forgotten. Not so with APF; all the company's series have created more and more activities.

And it is these activities which come under the heading of Merchandising. A separate company has been formed to handle these matters, called AP Merchandising Ltd, and is headed by Keith Shackleton.

I was frankly amazed at the possibilities which this offers. Stingray and Thunderbird models are, of course, obvious; but the merchandising aspect takes in biscuits, lollipops, and all sorts of in-store promotions. It has already been shown that the AP Merchandising expects to be responsible for £3 million of retail turnover. Not all of this, of course, reaches AP, though the merchandising operation does probably account for about half of the organisation's turnover.

AP Merchandising acts in two ways. Either it licences out the right to use the names and designs of the properties it handles (apart from the AP properties, it has franchises for Dr. Kildare and for The Man from UNCLE), or it goes into direct production itself. The company has just taken over the firm of Rosenthal Toys, and is marketing many lines through its new acquisition.

But possibly the most impressive byproduct of the AP operation so far is the publishing end. In conjunction with City Magazines, a children's comic has been established, and has been going for some months. Called TV Century 21, it features the characters from APF's films, together with characters from other TV series, in an easy-to-read strip cartoon format together with a novel 'newspaper of the future' front page concept.

This, it seems, was something of a gamble. Children's comics are a declining market, and many big publishers are hesitant about launching into this field. After toying with an idea suggested by a major food product manufacturer whereby the AP comic would be distributed free at retail under the manufacturer's sponsorship, it was decided that the only way to approach the problem was by taking the proverbial bull by the horns and leap with a flurry of mixed metaphors into the deep end. And the splash hasn't died down yet, so much so that in the New Year yet another AP/City Magazines publication is to be launched, this time into the even more difficult field of girls comics. Called Lady Penelope it will be backed by substantial Press and TV promotion.

Another by-product of the series is emerging in the form of Century 21 Records, a joint venture with ATV-controlled Pye Records. These take the form of 331/3 rpm 'mini-albums' each containing '21 minutes of adventure.'

The content of the records is simply specially written sound episodes featuring characters from the AP series Fireball XL5, Stingray and Thunderbirds, and in one instance a record of Barry Gray's splendid music for these series. Aimed primarily, of course, at the kid market, these records, newly released, have yet to make their mark in a market situation, complicated by the fact that parents tend not to like kids playing with record players. But the matter should transcend, as they say, and there is no reason at all why these lines should not represent yet another success for AP.

For the story of AP is a story of success, success in the grand old tradition. Gerry Anderson is no Monroe Stahr (for which we may be thankful), but he is in control of a celluloid empire every bit as important and large as the fictitious Stahr's. (And Anderson's empire is very real). Perhaps the biggest single problem facing him now is simply: what next?

In the immediate future, a full-length, colour and 'scope movie shot in Supermarionation featuring the Thunderbird characters and machines. Shooting will start when the new studios are complete at the end of January, and the schedule is expected to be some 16 weeks. For release later in the year on a major national circuit, the budget for the film will be around £200,000.

And then? Though Thunderbirds is continuing beyond the original 26 episodes, there will be another, new TV series. "I can't tell you anything about it yet," says Gerry Anderson; "but I can say this: it will be bigger and better than anything we have ever done before."

I, for one, can't wait.