John and Wanda Brown interview

Dave Smith and Barry Davies

Is it a surprise to you to find fans are still waxing lyrical over programmes made 20 years ago?

John: We know people are very interested because the shows are being repeated now. They were classics; we knew they were good at the time because there was nothing to match them. Other people tried; nobody could come up to them. We had a whole range of talent there to provide the goods, and that's where we were fortunate. I suppose we didn't realise, even then, that we were work­ing on classics of their kind.

What was your favourite series?

John: I would say, without a doubt, Thunderbirds was — just that bit different. I suppose we knew that we had got more money from Lew Grade, God bless him. Of course when you get more money you can do better things… it was costing a lot of money.

Can you remember what the budget was on Thunderbirds?

John: I could be way out, but I seem to remember it was £75,000 per episode; all right we were shooting in colour, 35mm, exactly as they would at Pinewood or Shepperton.

What series did you start on? I remember Wanda saying she started on picture #8 of Stingray?

John: I came down at the very end of Supercar and started on Fireball XL5.

About the same time as John Blundall?

John: No, he started before me, he was already there. I owe my start in films to John. I joined when I came out of the Army. I came from Birmingham where my father worked in the motor industry as a toolmaker, and I think he expected me to follow him, but I chose not to. John was keenly interested in puppets. Obratztsov, at that time, was an influence on him. He was interested in the puppets of the Iron Curtain because they took puppets more seriously and catered for adults as well as children.

He was also interested in the Japanese 'bunraku' puppets. He showed me one he had made using traditional methods.

John: They are considered to be among the best puppets, with operators on view on stage. John made Parker in a very caricatured style and he wouldn't be dissuaded from doing that, and he was proved right. He was a very popular character.

So, starting on Fireball? What would your role have been? Making puppets?

John: I would really just make ancillary bits and pieces, occasionally an odd character. On one occasion I had to operate Robert the Robot. He was built by John Blundall and very well designed, but the joints in the legs and arms etc. were just springs covered with perspex sections and he was very difficult to control because his legs would go this way, then that.

How long did it take to shoot an episode of Fireball?

John: Around two weeks. An enormous achievement, really.

Wanda, did you say you started on Stingray?

Wanda: I did, yes.

Did you always want to work in films?

Wanda: No, quite by accident. I was at Art College and after two years my parents informed me they could no longer afford to keep me in the luxury to which I'd become accustomed, would I like to go out and get myself a job?! Well, of course, I was enjoying myself at College; I didn't want to work for a living! I wrote away to three or four different places, not realising, in my youthful innocence, that you needed a union ticket to work in these places. Somebody said to me, "I don't know why you don't go and get yourself a job in that place on the Slough Estate?" "What place?" says I. "The place that makes the puppets!" So they were obvi­ously talking about Fireball and all these sorts of series. I said , "It's an American series, it's not made here!" "It's made on the Slough Trading Estate," she said.

Yes, a lot of people think it's made in America.

Wanda: The next time there was an episode on I looked at the address and, sure enough, there it was: A.P. Films, Slough Trading Estate, Bucks. I wrote away saying, "Student, 18½, 2 years Art College, interested in a job in the Art Department." I got a letter back from Sylvia saying, "Would you like to come and see us?" "Great," I thought, "work!" I trotted up to A.P. that day and the first thing she said was, "Well, we haven't actually got a job in the Art Department, what I have got is a job as a puppeteer." "What is a puppeteer?" I thought. "Don't worry," she said, "you’ll be given full training. It's more a question of if I like the look of you, really." So I thought, "I hope she does!"

It was Zena who was leaving because she had other commit­ments and it was arranged that when she left, in September, I would start work. Luckily, I was directly under Christine Glanville who simply took me in hand and just taught me everything. Then it was a series of good-luck accidents, if you like, in that I was a floor-puppeteer to start with which is, as you probably know, just titivating about and doing what puppeteers want, to save them keep coming down off the bridge.

Somebody left, I was given a bit of promotion and before I knew where I was I was in charge of my own unit. That was after about three years, I suppose. Then I got to do Thunderbird 6 being in charge of the whole thing. I must say that as John is grateful to John Blundall then I must say I'm grateful to Christine, because without her I wouldn't have done it. She taught me how to operate a puppet, all I know about puppets. I've never been in the same category as Christine in that I can't also make a puppet; I can help to make one, I can take the hands and sand them down, and sand down the fibreglass and put on a coat of paint, put on the eye make-up, do the wigs, whatever. No way could I actually model a face from scratch because it's not in me to do it, so I was basically just an operator.

When you were operating from the bridge, we've seen photographs of puppeteers not looking down at the puppets, but looking across at a monitor. Did that help?

Wanda: Yes. When you first start to operate you're inclined to look down at the puppet, but that can give you a false eye-line. Say we're two puppets and I turn to look at you and I'm looking down, and I turn my head to look at you, that eye-line looks right; but from where the camera is I might be miles out. By and by you gradually stop looking at the puppet and start referring more and more to the monitor.

Did you vary the height of the bridge at all?

Wanda: No, the bridge floor would be nine feet from the ground and the strings about 8'6". There were certain times when you had to clamber up higher, and I mean there was the bridge floor, and then there was the handrail which was about tummy height. There were times when you had to get on top of that handrail, there were times when we had to put a bit of planking out which we would borrow from Derek's special effects things. If you had got one puppet over here, and one out over there, there was no way the bridge could be moved in to such a position which could accommodate both puppets. There were times when we were in some jolly awkward positions.

The bridge was moveable, then?

shooting the Cham Cham episode
things on the puppeteering bridge could get pretty crowded as in this scene from the Cham Cham episode

Wanda: The bridges were, indeed, moveable. [referring to photograph] I think this gives a very good indication of the set-up; you can see the camera, there's our floor puppeteer, Yogi [the girl with long hair]. I think we're all up there, Chris­tine [bending, with glasses], me behind her, and Mary Turner [with pendant around neck]. Judging by this photograph I would say it was the episode Alan Patillo had written all our names in – he called Lady Penelope Wanda L'Amour after me!

That's right – The Cham Cham

Wanda: That's right, it was. Penelope had to start right at one end of the set and walk the whole length of it singing and waltzing around.

How did you achieve that effect?

Wanda: I was lying on the floor, just out of shot of the camera. I was just able to hold her by the bottom of her legs; it was extremely awkward.

Was the puppet stiffened up a bit?

Wanda: Her legs a little bit, so there wasn't too much bend in them. Christine would be still holding the strings so she could still be doing head and arm movements

How are the wires from the puppets plugged into the Supermarionation machine?

Wanda Webb Brown and Christine Glanville on the bridge shooting an unknown Thunderbirds episode
Wanda Webb Brown and Christine Glanville on the bridge shooting an unknown Thunderbirds episode

Wanda [referring to photograph]: You can just see [above, and running parallel to, the bridge] one sort of neutral line. I think that was the outside and 1, 2, 3, 4 lines for four lots of puppet dialogue and a couple of wires would be hooked on to those, the other ends being plugged in to the hand control. For example, Lady P. plugged into "1", Parker going into "2", Scott into "3", for each scene. The person who was operating the lip-sync would tell you which line he wanted them plugged into.

I think there were four switches on the lip-sync machine.

Wanda: Yes. This photo was obviously the "Cliff Richard Jnr. & The Shadows" puppets for the first feature film. All these are the people who made them, apart from Yogi and me; I did the wig on the drummer, Christine did the face.

What did you use to make the wigs?

Wanda: It's stuff called mohair, and it's very fine, which we got from a place in Lincolnshire. It's about half as fine again as human hair. Just take the mohair, brush off the loose bits and cut off the pieces you need.

John: Time consuming.

Wanda: Very. If you wanted to do a nice straight hair style you had to go to the trouble of straightening it out, by wetting it and putting it on some thick rollers. If you wanted to do a fairly short, ordinary, hair style you could take it straight off the length.

On Thunderbirds, the last six episodes seemed to change in style, and used the puppets they used on the feature films. Were the puppets a different size at all?

Wanda: No, they would all have been the same size. When you say the last six episodes are you referring to pictures like The Cham Cham?

I was thinking of episodes such as the one involving the crab-logger. You had a different style Scott and Virgil

Wanda: What a lot of people don't seem to realise is that we had two films going at once.

John: Two units.

There were different interiors of the craft. In Thunderbird Two different seating etc .

Wanda: I'm not saying they didn't tart them up a bit.

John: But the puppets themselves, they didn't change.

Wanda: There is a variation in faces between Unit 1 and Unit 2. You would have two normal heads, Unit 1 would have one and Unit 2 the other. I could always say straight away, "Oh, that's Mary's!" and they always used the best heads on the first episode and whoever got the first film got the best ones for #1, Picture #3, Picture #5, Picture #7 and so on.

The best ones were selected for the feature film – a clean-up, a repaint, wigs freshened-up and possibly new costumes. Thunderbird 1 would be smartened up a bit for the big screen, knowing that so much would be showing on the big screen that you couldn't see on the small screen.

John: It was the influence of the big screen, really. We held our breath because we shot film and then we went to one of the cinemas in Slough to show it, to see how it would stand up on the big screen. So now we've got a puppet face that we've been used to seeing on television and then, suddenly, there's a close-up on a big Cinerama screen!

You shot a pilot film?

Wanda: We shot a few scenes.

John: To see whether we were attacking it right, to see whether the sets, the lighting and the figures were right. It gave them the opportunity to say, "Well, we can hold a close-up," or "We're going to have to move back a bit." I mean, after all, it's a puppet.

It looked very polished on the screen.

Wanda: I thought it worked very well, actually.

None of us can understand why the film wasn't as succesful as they expected it to be.

John: Bring it out now, with the right publicity..?

Wanda: Which one did you prefer, David?

I liked them all, but I thought Thunderbirds Are GO! was absolutely tremendous because it packed so much in.

Wanda: We shared that; two units worked on that film as we would do a month on the feature, then a couple of episodes from the series, then back onto the feature, but I did Thunderbird 6 with just one Unit from start to finish.

Thunderbird 6 is very nice, but for high drama I think Thunderbirds Are GO! takes some beating – with a spectacular explosion at the end!

John: Well, that's Derek, you've got to hand that to Derek Meddings; that's all you can say.

When you consider some of the effects in Thunderbirds and the effects in Star Wars, Thunderbirds was done on a relatively low budget and the effects are spectacular.

John: Derek was ahead of his time. As far as I can say, as good as the figures and stories may have been, in truth it was the effects that held the films together. There are still a lot of people who haven't seen Thunder­birds in colour; have not seen those explosions in colour. Once they do, they're in another world.

Because they weren't optical effects, were they?

John: No.

They were actually happening, and that seems to be the difference. I think they've even got the edge on some of the Star Wars stuff because it 's integrated with the sets and you can actually see incendiaries coming away from the exploding vehicles.

John: I hope you don't meet the Effects Director from Star Wars!

Wanda: We had some very hairy moments, I can tell you. I well remember I was on the bridge one day and they'd over-done one of the explosions and we felt these 'things' thumping down onto the roof. The Director, who shall remain nameless, thinking something ghastly was happening outside, said, "Girls! Girls! Off the bridge, girls! Evacuate the building!" He went 'whoosh', straight out of the door and we were all still standing there, holding our puppets thinking, "Oh, hello, where's he gone?" Yes, we did have one or two hairy moments.

Did you make the Cliff Richard heads?

John: Yes, unfortunately!

It said in the Century21 magazine that it took three months to make one head…

John: It sometimes doesn't matter what you say it is what is written, the truth or not, that is publicity at the time. It could be that, at the same time as making a particular head, one is also doing other things as well, running the department and so on, but three months, no.

Was Thunderbirds your favourite show to work on?

John: It was a headache in a way because of the hours I used to spend there. I think because of the characters and special effects it was a better programme; it was shot and packaged right, its contents were right.

Would you concur, Wanda?

Wanda: Yes, without a doubt. The puppets were easier to operate and more enjoyable because they had more character to them, especially Parker and Grandma. Even some of the more normal-looking faces, such as Scott and Jeff, for me had more character than the series that came afterwards.

Did you stay on till the very end?

Wanda: Yes. We were laid-off in two batches, if my memory serves me right; one batch of us went one week and the other lot were left to clear-up the last remaining bits and pieces. Within a fortnight we were all gone and the place was closed down.

After Thunderbirds was the staff reduced on Captain Scarlet?

Wanda: No, increased if anything.

But it wasn't as long, though, only 25 minutes..?

Wanda: True, but having said that, it was more complex. The puppets had got more involved, there was more of them, and the effects had already reached the stage where a high standard was required. There was no way that, after having done Thunderbirds, you could go back to the sort of effects on Fireball XL5, because people would not accept that anymore. There was no way you could suddenly cut back on anything. If my memory serves me correctly, we did actually take more people on as time went on.

And the puppets were more difficult to operate?

Wanda: Yes, mainly because of that new neck mechanism that had to incorporate the solenoid mechanism. It was very delicate, as opposed to just a screw [used on Thunderirds and earlier shows] and it just made life awkward; head turns were extremely difficult. Often the floorpuppeteer would have to hold the wires as well, lower down, to make the head turn properly.

Can you remember the characters you made?

John: I made Phones, Commander Shore, Jeff Tracy, Virgil, The Hood and various other characters as required. I also made the prototype Captain Scarlet. Mary Turner made one which was used in the series, but I made the prototype. I think Terry Curtis, now a floormanager with STV, made Magenta.

Did you give the faces a screen test?

John: Oh, yes.

At what stage, the plasticene stage?

John: Yes, the plasticene head would be painted and given a screen test first.

What equipment did you have in the workshop?

John: Apart from the modelling tools, not a great deal. We had a lathe, which we used for any turning that was wanted. We used it for making the neck joints on the earlier puppets.

Did you have a monitor in the puppet workshop?

John: No.

Wanda: The Thunderbirds format changed very early on from what was intended originally. John was to be the main character, in the space station, but Sylvia decided she didn't really like the look of him. I mean, she passed the face after it was screen-tested, but she decided afterwards she didn't like him and decided to drop him almost completely and Jeff, Scott, Virgil and Alan became the main characters.

John: We were spending a lot of money at one stage on the leather for the mouth inserts. We were in the habit of buying expensive ladies' evening gloves which were cut up, and it was only a small portion of the gloves that we could use. I found an alternative source, a Yeovil supplier, who supplied the material itself.

When did you start using silicone rubber for purposes? It is rather expensive, isn 't it?

John: Yes. It was first used on Stingray, but when I first went there we used Vinamould.

The type you must heat up?

John: Yes. Then you've got the problem of heat against the plasticene which we used to use to make the master faces – you would get deformities that way. Besides, the stench of the rubber was unbelievable and there had to be something better. Silicone, at that time, was the answer. It's changed now, it's still silicone rubber, but I have a lot more problems with it now than I did then. I remember what it cost; I got it down to 19/6d a pound. That was 20 years ago!

Wanda: I've never come across anything as good as that old silicone.

John: No, for definition it would take the print off a £1 note.

At what stage did you start using mirrors for correcting models?

John: Well, it's an old established trick. One of the fathers of special effects, Les Bowie, would use it if he was painting a backing. He would hold up a mirror, after lunch, and just squint at it. We have all got one weak and one strong eye — most people don't know that. So, even today, if I'm working on something, if I want to try and get things as equal as I can, I'll use a mirror.

What sort of paint was used for the puppet faces? John Blundall mentioned a special flexible paint…

John: I can't remember it, but if John says that then I wouldn't contradict him. I do remember one of the suppliers being 'Parsons' and another being 'Trimite'. I'm pretty sure they weren't oil-based paints.

What material would be used for the masters of the hands?

John: It would depend on individual preference. John Blundall, Christine and Mary would make them in wood; I would make them in plasticene.

Did you ever get involved in setting-up the puppets for special still photographs?

Wanda: Oh, yes. I remember being involved in setting-up Lady Penelope for a special still of her with a spear in one hand and one foot on a live crocodile! We used one of the smaller reptiles from the Thunderbirds episode Attack of the Alligators.

First of all, Christine Glanville and I made a pair of pink leather sandals for Penelope, which was the sort of thing we liked doing because it was a change from operating. Penelope was positioned with one foot on the crocodile, which hadn't moved, and the stills photographer, Doug Luke, was about to take the photograph when, suddenly, this crocodile turned round and snapped off one of Penelope's legs and swallowed it, sandal and all! We never saw it again!

Fortunately, Christine had the presence of mind to quickly raise Penelope up on the wires to prevent any further damage being done to her.

John: I remember making a crocodile's tail for that episode, which was fully jointed, and filled with Fuller's Earth so that when we bashed it against the walls, it raised all this dust. I remember them saying, "Hit it harder, harder!" We quite enjoyed doing that.

Can you remember the evolution of the puppets? John Blundall said he was responsible for making a set of three prototype male figures, but can't remember which series they were used on.

John: The chances are that I will be unable to remember. This is the difference between followers of a cult and us – it was a job and it was 100% pressure. Sometimes I used to sleep in the studios because I would work until 1.30-2.00am and, rather than risk a crash in the car by driving home tired, I would sleep there.

With each new series that came out we had to have a new selling point to put to Lew Grade and ITC. For instance, as a simple explanation, no longer do we have wooden hands, we now have rubber hands! Hands which we can bend into any position; that became a selling point. Each series the question was, "Where can we improve, what can we change, what can we givet hem?"

Such as the plastic eyes on Stingray which superceded the wooden eyes?

John: They were another selling point, but also another presure point, to get them right. I suggested them but, at the time, I didn't realise what a pain they would be to make. For each eye you tried to make, you would probably waste five to get a good one.

They weren't bought-in, then?

John: No.

Wanda: The Thunderbirds ones were glass.

John: In Captain Scarlet, for the iris and pupils, we took colour photographs of people's eyes. For example, for Captain Scarlet I would want twelve-off of those, all exactly the same, exactly the same colour, exactly the same size and then mounted them inside the plastic bulb. You only needed a slight deflection of glue on the inside of the eye and we wouldn't be able to see them on-screen, so we would have to throw them away.

John mentioned that, in some instances, the heads were just shells covered with plasticene…

John: For quickness. The bigger we got the time to shoot was still the same, so we tried to find ways of saving time. We formulated a skull, with all the mechanics in, and then built-up the muscles in plasticene. You had to be careful, when operating these puppets. If you brought the wire across the face you could slice the nose off!

Could operating the puppets be very trying at times?

Wanda: Yes, one director in particular was very exacting. Sometimes we would lose our tempers and rush off to the loo and hide for a while. Christine very rarely lost her temper, except on one or two occasions. She kept a stack of old '78' records, the type that would break if you dropped them. When things became intolerable she would throw one off the bridge and it would shatter on the floor! She would let off steam by doing that.

Would the puppets have to be specially strung for certain shots – swimming or ice skating, for example?

Wanda: Yes, for instance Marina in swimming sequences. There would be two strings attached to the shoulders, two to the hips, one to the back and one each to the knees and ankles.

There is one episode in Stingray where a character is threatened by an alien and he backs off, walking backwards. How would that be achieved?

Wanda: There would be a string to each of the knees and one to the back of each leg. The bridge puppeteer would pull the knee strings, whilst the floor puppeteer would operate those attached to the back of the legs. Of course there was also the underneath control which was designed by Plugg Shutt and was operated from below. That was first used in Thunderbird 6, I think.

Did the puppets float on water? In an episode of Stingray a ship-wrecked character was seen to float.

Lady Penelope and the prototype Captain Scarlet
Lady Penelope and the prototype Captain Scarlet

John: No, he would have been supported underneath.

Wanda [Referring to photograph]: This is the first figure that John made when we were designing the new puppet.

John: The prototype Captain Scarlet.

Wanda: They put him next to Lady Penelope to see how they compared. Gerry wanted them to be precisely in proportion; not big heads on little bodies. That was the first figure that was ever made up that was in proportion. When we saw it next to Lady P. we were absolutely appalled. "It will never work," we said.

John: Some. Some said.

Did you make Penelope's wig there?

Wanda: Yes.

John: It's like what has been said, what happened to these things? Which people have got them? If I had them I know I'd never part with them.

Reg Hill has been quoted that the puppets weighed, on average, about 7lb. Why did they have to be so heavy?

Wanda: If you were operating puppets at the end of 8'6" strings you really needed something to pull against. Also, if the body wasn't heavy enough, when you turned the head the body would turn as well.

Cardboard cut-out figures were used, weren't they?

Wanda: As stand-ins.

John: It saved them holding the puppets up in shot. They could put a cut-out in position, set the lighting and cameras up and then say, "Right, now let's have the puppets in."

Unfortunately, for a lot of my reference photos I don't have the negatives. Now you did an interview with John Blundall, didn't you? I hope John forgives me, but I do have a negative of him in the puppet workshop at Ipswich Road, Slough, carving a bit of jellutong!

Wanda: Complete with striped shirt and bow-tie. Ha, he looks lovely!

John: And I've also got one of Keith Wilson with Venus. He's now a feature film art director! Like Derek Meddings said, "I'll drop them all in it!"

We have a photograph of Kate Kestrel!!???

Wanda: Funnily enough, she was the only puppet that I liked in Terrahawks. I can't really say why, but he had a more mobile face and you could get more express­ions in her face. Zelda was quite good in that she was really evil, but Kate was the only puppet I really took to.

She's more like the original Supermarionation puppets?

Wanda: Yes, you could do more things with her face. Jan [King] got annoyed with me at one point because I said that I didn't think that the hero of Terrahawks as a very strong face, it lacked a certain strength. He got rather ratty with me but I said, "No, I'm sorry, but it just hasn't got it. He doesn't come over to me, whereas Kate did."

Did you work on the Jif commercial?

John: Yes.

What sort of paint did you use on the puppets?

John: Just an oil; always hand-painted.

Were they lip-sync puppets?

John: Yes

So they still had the lip-sync machines?

John: I have! We built some things mall and portable which we took out to Malta for the pilot film The Investigator, which I've never seen!

Which never saw the light of day!

John: It was an entirely new concept. We were taking puppets outside and shooting them in natural lighting. Whether the format was right, I'm still not sure.

You were working with string puppets?

Wanda: Yes.

So you had bridges and things?

John: No, stepladders!

Wanda: The first shot that we did, which was down in a cave, I got the boys to build me a bridge but then when I saw how long it was going to take to build bridges for each shot, with scaffolding and a bit of planking, I then used simply to stand on boxes, which were no higher than a table, just leaning out as far as I could so that I was out of shot. The advantage was that we were using much shorter strings; no way could you do an 8'6" job. Almost invariably someone was holding on to me, to stop me from falling over! The boxes looked like those elephant boxes used in the circus ring. I used to say, "Where are the elephant boxes?!"

Why wasn't a series bought?

Wanda: No idea. Whether they ran out of money or couldn't get anymore backing, who knows?

John: It would have made money, without a doubt. Whether you call it a children's or adult programme there is a lot of stuff made today which is pure rubbish: badly written, badly shot.

What did you think of Star Fleet?

Wanda: Didn't quite work. There was something lacking.

John: It looked like somebody tried to copy and do a Thunderbirds-type thing, and it just didn't have the talent around to do it.

It seems one of the problems of getting into the film industry is getting the union card..?

Wanda: Yes, a lot depends, quite honestly, on which section you want to go into. It wouldn't be easy for me to apply for a ticket as a cameraman but when I applied for a ticket as a trainee puppeteer there weren't all that many about, so it wasn't a section that was already crowded with people. It was A.C.T.T. in those days, but now puppeteers are members of Equity, which is something Christine has always been fighting for.

John: When we're talking about making characters it's much easier to do a character face than a so-called handsome 'he-man'. I made this figure for the last Bond film, A View To a Kill, with a monocle on. It wasn't a puppet as such; it was a figure sitting in the gondola underneath a balloon.

Looking at it, you would think it was a real person.

John: All I can say is, "That's what they employ me for" In certain respects it can be a waste of time, but it can also make or break a shot and you can never know quite when. This is purely a character; I've made other heads, which are the same size, just dead faces, nothing in them. Because this character is now older, with a monocle, that makes him a character like the one John Blundall made – Parker.

Do you find that when you start to sculpt a face, you get so far with it and find you can't go any further and next morning you do a little bit more and it comes together?

Yes, without a doubt. One of the things that I used to do when I was at A.P. Films, Sylvia and I used to go through the script beforehand and say what type of character the puppet should look like for the part; the same as for a feature film. They would cast whoever and say it should be a David Niven-type, or a Lorne Greene-type character and I would surround myself with photos of that type of character.

Sometimes it just wouldn't come together and I used to jump in my car and drive to Heathrow Airport and I knew that I would see that person, whether it was coming off or going onto a 'plane. Within a matter of 15 or 20 minutes I would see that person. I would take in as much as I could, get back into my car and drive back to the studios with those bits of information in my mind.

What do you do now in Pinewood on the Bond films? Making miniature figures – models as well?

John: Figures, animals, anything like that.

I suppose the British film industry's looking up because, at one stage, it was at a very low ebb…

John: They tell me that. I've been fortunate because I have virtually gone from one film to another. It's only at a low ebb because we haven't got the entrepeneurs that America has. Our financial people, in one way or another, are reluctant to invest in films because there's no guarantee of success, but those who have invested generally come out on top in the end.

Even American production companies sometimes have to come to Britain for our technical expertise.

Wanda: In some cases, yes.

John: We haven't just got the name, I think we've got the proof because, for reasons of cost and our technicians, American productions have chosen to come to this country. We have tendered films which, especially on the effects side, have then taken the Oscar. I think out of the last nine years British special effects have taken seven effects Oscars.

For 2010 they spent quite a lot designing special harnesses for the astronauts to float through space. I bet A.P. Films could have done that for a fraction of the cost, using puppets!

John: Yes. It's just a fact that, because of the money situation, the Americans are ahead of us with the more technical equipment. Because there are people here in the industry who just won't invest that money.

I suppose, in the States, that if they want a special camera made…

John: They have it made! I can equate it to Derek Meddings. If he were working in America he would only have to say, "I want …," and he would get. Over here they say, "Do you have to have it?" The way I look at it, a man of Derek's standing, and provenability, as soon as he says, "I want…," that's good enough.

His rocket launchings look more real than the real thing!

John: He's the best as far as I'm concerned. I've worked with him on two films – I didn't work with him at A.P. Films because we were in seperate departments – but, obviously, I knew him. He's the best in the business for what he does, and I would go as far as to say there is nobody in the world who can touch him.

Were experiments ever made with radio-control puppets?

Wanda: Sore point! You've said the wrong thing now… Have to show you the door!

John: It's something that was always talked about. We still keep on trying with radio control. For everything you build there is a plus and there is a minus. There are various things that can affect it. Outside, you can have the steelwork in buildings, so you get false messages; things starting or stopping by themselves. Intermittent waves from overhead aircraft can affect it.

We were sent various ideas on how to make a puppet walk because you very rarely saw a puppet walk. There is that 'something' within us, that 'gyroscope', which keeps us upright when we lift one foot off the floor and put it down. You can't defeat God. I cannot, even with all the things available today, make a skin which behaves exactly like human skin. I can make the bones, joints and so on, but I cannot make the skin exactly the same.

Is that why the articulated hands, which we believe were hanging on the workshop wall for quite a while weren't adopted?

John: Yes; expensive.

Wanda: Various things were tried over the years. I remember once somebody walked into Gerry's office and said, "I've solved your walking problem," but it would have needed a puppet about four feet to put all the mechanism in.

John: It comes down to cost and time: time is cost. If it becomes expensive, it's irrelevant.

If it's a puppet show, I don't see what the harm is in keeping the puppets as puppets.

Wanda: We thought that, too, but unfortunately the puppets became so human, so humanoid, that a puppet walk was no longer acceptable. To see them plodding about a bit might have been allright on Fireball XL5, but the more human they became, the better and more advanced the faces and lip-sync became, the more puppet walks just wouldn't go with that any longer.

Some people say that's part of the charm of the shows, watching characters bob off…

Wanda: Yes. I think that was one of the reasons I didn't particularly care for Terrahawks, although it applies to other things as well. It isn't that Zelda & Co. don't walk, it's the fact that you know they don't have any legs. At least with the Thunderbirds puppets, alright they didn't walk very much, but we did at least do shots of them standing so you did at least see legs…

Or at least getting up, leaving a chair and now and again, seeing them start to walk…

Wanda: And then cut to something else.

Which gives the impression of the puppet racing across the room.

Wanda: That's one of the things I don't like about Terrahawks or a lot of the underneath-controlled puppet programmes we've got now.

Perhaps the same applies to experiments with rubber faces – it's very difficult to do and you may as well stick to a solid puppet.

John: Yes, and I can say this from experience, it's been one of my so-called 'failures', vis-a-vis the Cliff Richard heads: we were thinking of doing a rubber face. At that time, as far as we were concerned, rubber was a new technology. You can mould and cast that rubber into exactly the same face but then when you come to put the mechanics in, and you cut the lips and everything else, we found it wasn't pleasant to look at. You knew it was a rubber mask; much better to have a fibreglass character.

Not so long ago I was given something similar to do using foam rubber. To try and experiment in the time, and achieve the finished product, is almost impossible.

The Spitting Image-type characters are done with foam rubber, alright as cartoon characters, but they are not attractive.

John: The most superior characters are the ones made by Fluck and Law. They were the ones who made the original ones. So rubber, yes I failed on that and got my wrists slapped for it.

John Blundall prefers solid heads rather than rubber heads!

John: For him that is more traditional. Although I haven't seen John for so long I would be very surprised if he wasn't highly delighted with the puppet version of The Wind in the Willows. That was stop-frame, but the characters were so delightful, it was unbelie­vable. I was shown the original of the Judge's head that was half the size of the Bond film figure, and it spoke! Now that was skill.

Wanda: What was the rubber they used?

John: Various types, but foam rubber, latex-based, was used. If we say latex rubber we mean the pure form, as we get it from Malaya. If you pour it into a plaster mould, the plaster draws the water out of the latex itself. It will go hard and perish up to a point but then there are various grades; some will dry very hard and strong, others with an enormous amount of elasticity. It's finding the compound to suit you.

Wanda: You could go on ad infinitum with it, there are so many products on the market now… You have to be a near genius to keep up with it all.

John: I'm not opposed to using an Action Man figure because that's cheaper than having to make all the moulds, and there are a lot of moulds needed to make one body. They are available for £3 a time, so buy them.

Did you ever use action man figures in any of the Gerry Anderson shows? For long shots?

John: No, as far as I know.

Wanda: We did have a couple of foam bodies which we used from time to time, a Bendy Toy type of thing, just wire with some foam wrapped around it. We mostly used those on Joe90 and Secret Service. For the first time you could get a puppet to sit cross-legged.

What Bond films did you say you worked on?

John: I think the first one I did was with Derek, Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy and A View To a Kill.

What did you do on those?

John: It was various figures, in various scales. For Moonraker it was astronauts, when they were attacking the satellite, to having to make the hands for some of the dummies that were used in the helicopter sequence at Beckton gasworks that Derek talked about. When he was sending me to Beckton (and I'd heard horrifying stories about Beckton gasworks!) he wanted me to see that the figures looked good when they fell out of the helicopter. I said, "Look, once he goes out of the helicopter, he's on his own!"

Wanda: John's done a lovely film recently called Ladyhawk. He had to make some hawks with every feather laid on by hand, I might tell.

John: They were radio-controlled, and did everything but fly by themselves.

Wanda: They were lovely! A work of art! When he was out in Rome he'd left one of them on the workbench. The handler came in, with a real hawk on his wrist, and the real hawk took one look and started behaving as birds do when they feel threatened.

John: Because animals in films sometimes have a h abit of not doing what you want them to, I was asked to make one. From experimental stage to finish it took three months to make the first one. Afterwards it's Eureka time! After, when you have to make a further six, it's not so funny. Doing this, you suddenly become aware that the bird has left, right and centre feathers.

Where did you get the feathers from?

John: Visiting farms, which were plucking feathers, and various suppliers.

Wanda: Most birds are plucked by machine now and most of the feathers get mangled, so we had to find a farm that was doing hand plucking!

John: I needed short and long white feathers so that I could tint them. The bird involved, the red-tailed hawk, is a protected species in America.

Wanda: So it wasn't just a case of sending somebody out to shoot a couple and get the feathers that way!

Expect you got some funny replies from these farms when you said, "Excuse me, do you pluck your turkeys by hand?"

Wanda: "Certainly not Madam, it's all mechanical now!"

John: It's reminiscent of Gerry's situation. Because we didn't have that much money we were great ones for utilising things like toothpaste tube tops for knobs on radios; badges on costumes invariably were badges from cigarette packets, and so on. Very often you would be in a shop, like Woolworth's, with the shape of some­thing in mind, but not knowing what you wanted until you saw it. Shopkeepers would ask what you were looking for and you would say, "I don't know until I see it, but when I see it, it doesn't matter what's in it!" They got used to you, in Slough, in the end.

They would say, "Oh, it 's that funny lot from the film studios!"

Wanda: "It's that weird lot again. They want to use our bottles, but they don't want to use what's in inside!"

Did you say you designed the Thunderbirds badges?

John: No, that was Eddie Hunter.

Wanda: You did the W.A.S.P.

John: We used to have this thing, "We need a badge, knock-up some ideas between you." After reading the interview with Derek he couldn't remember, so it's just a matter of wanting to put the record straight, as it were. As far as the Martian rock snakes were concerned, Roger Dickens made those, and the Spectrum badge was made by Tony Dunsterville.

What do you think Gerry and Sylvia's talents were?

John: Gerry's talent was in recognising talent in others. He was primarily concerned with securing the finance for the shows and would meet with the money men, but he would be active and knew how to restore flagging enthusiasm by coming on the floor and giving people encouragement. Sylvia was more into characters and costumes; that was something she could relate to.

Do you think it would be easy to find finance for another series of Thunderbirds?

John: I don't think it would be as easy because Lew Grade, who was boss of ATV, was instrumental in promoting Gerry's shows and he is no longer in the position that he was. It's a shame because he did an enormous amount to help British television and feature films.

Have you ever wanted to direct a puppet film, John?

John: Yes, I would like to and I feel I could do it well. I'm not saying I could do any better than the other Directors but I certainly feel I could do as well as any of them and I would like that opportunity.

Why do you think that Gerry stopped making puppet shows?

John: I think his ambition was always to make live-action shows.

Wanda: We pleaded with him to keep the live-puppet going. We said, "By all means go into live action but at least keep making puppet films," because, after all, they were successful.

John: They were making money but I think it was that the puppet films had reached the stage where they were costing as much as the live-action shows and it was felt that a live-action show would be easier to sell world wide.

Surely a puppet show would be easier to dub languages?

John: Yes, it would be. It's strange, but there it is.

Wanda: At least one of the many pleasant things to come out of it all, if you haven't guessed it already, was that John and I married as a result of working together at the studios.

David and Barry would like to thank Wanda and John for their kindness and hospitality when the interview took place. From the editorial side, I would also like to thank both of them for their enthusiasm towards having the interview in SIG and, in particular, for the loan.
this interview originally appeared in SIG #14 and #15