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TV21

Graham Bleathman

to start at the most logical place; the beginning. It all started with Alan Fennell who, in 1959, while working on TV Express Weekly (later to become TV Comic), was writing scripts for Four Feather Falls, Supercar and, later, Fireball XL5 and Stingray. He soon became known to Gerry and Sylvia Anderson who asked him to submit scripts for the XL5 and Stingray television shows. While working on these, and later Thunderbirds as well, Alan and Keith Shackleton of A.P. Films Merchandising and later Century 21 Merchandising, came up with the idea of producing a quality comic publication. Alan began to assemble his staff and a deal was signed with City Magazines in 1964. His staff included Tod Sullivan (Assistant Editor & writer of the Joe 90 paperbacks), Angus Allan (Script Editor for the first year and writer on many Century 21 strips and other publications), Dennis Hooper (Art Editor, later Editor of Countdown comic), plus a number of script writers who included among their number Richard O'Neil, Scott Goodall and John Booth.

TV21 front page
The front cover of TV21 – issue 52 clickable map

The first issue went on sale on the 23rd of January, 1965. It was, of course, dated 2065 and designed, from the exterior at least, like a newspaper. Most, but not all issues, had 20 pages; at least eight were printed in four-colour photogravure and selling for 7d. These first issues contained Fireball XL5 and Supercar (transferred from TV Comic) with new artists, notably Mike Noble on XL5, from issue 6 onwards. Also on hand were Stingray, painted by Ron Embleton with photo insertions for the first 20 issues or so, Burke's Law by Paul Trevillion, Lady Penelope by Eric Eden and My Favourite Martian by Bill Tritcombe.

Lady Penelope appeared in TV21 before her screen debut in Thunderbirds and this is explained when it is realised that when Alan Fennell was producing scripts for the television series it gained publicity for the Andersons' upcoming production and helped boost sales for the comic when the series came on the air.

Also featured was a host of more sundry articles, such as The Truth About Space, by 'Roger Dunn', Orbit Over... (a geographic feature), Corgi Model Club News, The World We Share, Lady Penelope Investigates, Barry Gray's Music Box and Dateline 2065 which, on and off, detailed life in the 21st Century before becoming a Stop Press News section at Issue 52.

On the back cover, of course, was The Daleks, drawn by an artist I've yet to identify for the first 49 episodes, and written by Terry Nation (yes, he did actually write the script — it wasn't just an acknowledgement), with help from Angus Allen for 3 or 4 weeks.

That leaves the covers. These were designed by Dennis Hooper who had access to thousands of transparencies and stills taken by itc photographers during the shooting of the series. They were written by Angus Allen's wife, Gillian, who was Chief SubEditor. In the first few weeks of publication sales soared and, by issue 10, it had out-stripped its rivals. At issue 20 Secret Agent 21, a comic strip created by Fennell and illustrated by Rob Hamilton, was introduced.

This was an interesting strip for a number of reasons. Sullivan earned a good deal of derision from fellow script writers for masterminding a technique that involved long series of frames without any continuity or dialogue. It's a method of storytelling that would have worked well if the artwork had been of a good enough standard which, unfortunately, it wasn't.

Agent 21 was also set 'in the past', that is in 2046-48 as opposed to 2065, enabling Sullivan to add political details of how the world of the 21st Century came about and featuring such organisations as the World Space Patrol in its infancy. However, it did create a few problems with concept and continuity as we shall see later on. Agent 21 also served as an 'editor' — that is, a character created to answer letters, a widespread device used in comics published in Britain, and organise the Junior Secret Service Organisation which was basically a reader participation scheme whereby anyone who bought a copy of TV21 automatically became an Agent who could then receive codes, special prizes and 'missions' once he was registered officially.

A new look

Issue 52 saw a number of changes in line-up and a slight redesign in terms of layout on the front cover which basically entailed the logo being reduced in size to a more Daily Mirror look. Thunderbirds was introduced on the center pages, drawn in four-colour by Frank Bellamy and in black and white halftones on a third page each week. My Favourite Martian was joined by two new comedy strips of television origin, the famous Munsters by Paul Trevillion and Get Smart, a personal non-Anderson favourite of mine. Secret Agent 21 now had two pages a week instead of one as before. The Daleks was now drawn by Eric Eden up to issue 58 before handing over the chores to Roland Turner

To make room for the new strips, Supercar and Burke's Law were dropped and Lady Penelope was transferred to the new comic of the same name. All the old text features disappeared too, to be replaced by International Rescues, a series about real life disasters.

At issue 72, Ron Embleton's brother Gerry took over the Stingray strip and, in the following issues, The Investigator started, illustrated by ex-Eagle artist Ron Harley. This was a one-pager and should not be confused with the never shown pilot programme made in 1973. Like Agent 21, it was set in the 21st century and featured the exploits of Bob Devlin and Marc Carter, troubleshooters for Universal Engineering Incorporated, builders of the XL fleet, Fireflash and the very first Martian probe. This strip, however, was something of a non-starter and didn't appear to progress in any direction. it was replaced at issue 90 by the far more succesful Catch or Kill, a story I feel deserves special mention.

Catch or Kill was something of an oddity on TV21 for, not being based on a television series but still set in 2066, it allowed for characterisation that other strips couldn't indulge in. It concerned the adventures of one Curtis Raymond Alan Gorton, or 'Crag' to his friends, a lazy playboy who has come into some money — if he can capture a gaint snake in the Burmese jungle. He eventually gets his snake plus a sidekick and his money, and he sets up a sort of inter-galactic game hunting business. The script was well written and funny for, not having a television base, it gave more scope to the actual characters as opposed to machinery. The art work too, by John Burns, was superb. Interestingly, an edited version of one of the Catch or Kill stories appeared in the 1971 Countdown Holiday Special, re-scripted and re-titled as a full-length Countdown story!

By the end of 1966, Thunderbirds, now just two colour pages each week, was well established as the most popular strip. Bellamy illustrated every episode with the exception of issues 92 to 98 which were drawn by Don Harley.

It is between issues 100 and 200 that all major changes took place. Issues 101 to 104 saw a full colour 'photonovelisation' of the Thunderbirds Are Go! movie (not to be repeated, unfortunately, for Thunderbird Six in later years). This ran at the same time as the regular Bellamy strip on the centre spread and reprinted photographs from the Thunderbirds Are Go! film book which was produced by TV21 as a souvenir, a publication that interestingly told as much about how the film was made as the details of the plot.

Continuity problems

It is here that, for those concerned with continuity, the trouble started. The problem is that Thunderbirds Are Go! told of the first manned mission to Mars in Zero X. However, according to the Secret Agent 21 strip, Mars had been colonised for years. Indeed, the headquarters of the Universal Secret Service was in Kahra, the capital of Mars, and these adventures were set in 2047. If Thunderbirds was set, according to TV21 in 2064-69, then so must Zero X...

In later years an attempt was made to rectify the situation; the Thunderbirds/Captain Scarlet annual of 1969 stated, for instance, that the Zero X missions in the Thunderbirds movie and in the Captain Scarlet pilot did, in fact, take place in the mid-2060's and man first landed on Mars in 1990, which is at least a little more logical.

Of course, continuity played no part in the decision to run the Thunderbirds Are Go! adaptation and the subsequent Zero X strip in TV21 as the hard realities of publishing dictate that profit should come first, and there can be little doubt that Zero X paid dividends. The Zero X comic strip replaced the Fireball XL5 colour spreads drawn by Mike Noble and it detailed further explorations of the Red Planet, almost continuing where the film left off. Noble also drew the new, short, XL5 strip on the back page where it replaced The Daleks at issue 105. However, as three colour pages were too much to do in one week, (though months in advance obviously) he handed over the task of illustrating XL5 to Don Lawrence.

Lawrence, of course, was even then famous for the Trigan Empire yet, despite his excellent visuals, generally he never succeeded in painting Fireball XL5 accurately. Looking at Noble's work, then Lawrence's on the same story, one would be forgiven for thinking that they were entirely different strips. Machinery was never Lawrence's forte, as his Trigan Empire craft proved, good though the strip was.

In the issues that followed, more juggling of artists and strips took place. Gerry Embleton left Stingray to be replaced by Michael Strand. Gerry's work turned up again briefly on Catch or Kill before that was axed in issue 131, to be replaced by Front Page, a two page black and white strip by John Burns and about TV21 itself.

Front Page was, in some ways, rather like Catch or Kill. Other than the obvious visual similarities, it was also bizarre at times as stories included a robbery of the Crown Jewels by a 1920's style crook calling himself Al Capone, a camera that could make the objects it was photographing disappear, not to mention a plant growth that could only be prevented from spreading if there was absolute silence! The most ingenious story, though, involved the sighting of a UFO in France, above Nice. 'Lens' and Peter Tracker, TV21 reporters, finally discover what it is... Cloudbase and, in following up the story in a hired aircraft, they narrowly miss crashing into Captain Black's fateful Martian expedition, as it returned to Glenn Field.

Obviously, this was all part of a build-up to the latest Anderson production, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons which debuted in issue 141. In Lady Penelope, TV21's sister paper, five girl pilots were being put through an ordeal at around the same time... being tested to become the 'Angels' who, incidentally, debuted in their own strip afterwards, illustrated by Jon Davis.

From then on everything was geared to promoting the Captain Scarlet concept. From Issue 155 onwards, Scarlet appeared in comic strip form on the cover, replacing the newspaper format with one that was closely akin to the later Dan Dare stories in Eagle. The newspaper concept was not dropped altogether, though, as a 'Stop Press' section appeared on Page 5, in colour, until the slight reduction in page size with Issue l62. Various artists drew the four pages of Captain Scarlet required each issue, which included the cover and the fourth page in colour, With the page size reduction, the news section and that fourth page were henceforth printed in black and white, which was no doubt a relief to those working on it as well as being an economy measure.

The artists who drew Captain Scarlet were Mike Noble, Ron Embleton (who drew the end title paintings on the actual television series) Jim and Keith Wilson (not any relation, I believe) Don Harley and John Cooper. Frank Bellamy, on top of his regular Thunderbirds strip, also contributed a few covers which involved the first two or three panels of the Scarlet strip, the rest being done, for example,`by Don Harley (e.g. TV21 Issue 185).

The advent of Captain Scarlet brought about a number of changes in line up. XL5 became a text story, Stingray, still drawn by Michael Strand, was now in black & white and Secret Agent 21 became Mr. Magnet — his adventures now being set 'in the present' (early 2068) after his retirement from the U.S.S. A number of forgettable humour strips also came and went, these being Sergeant Bilko, W.R.I.G.H.T Charlie and R.E.Cord. Get Smart and My Favourite Martian were long gone, leaving The Munsters which remained in TV21 until the end of the first series.

Decline sets in

On September 21st, 1968, the first signs of decline could be detected. TV Tornado, an adventure comic published by Century 21 Publishing's parent company City Magazines, was merged with TV21 at Issue 199, bringing with it Tarzan, The Saint, and probably inspiring the introduction of Department S 20 or so issues later and drawn by Carlos Pine. No attempt was made to explain how these new stories fitted into the Century 21 chronology, because they couldn't! To make room for these XL5 and Stingray were cancelled, the latter after a long story involving Troy Tempest being framed, ending with Issue 189. It wouldn't be unreasonable to guess that the Editors disliked the inclusion of some of the TV Tornado strips but as it wasn't their decision they could do little about it.

One suspects that because of the merger a number of new moves were made to try and appease established readers. The first was the inclusion of Saturn Probe, detailing the first exploratory trip to the ringed planet. Saturn Probe was basically a good idea, though a number of things let it down. First was scientific inaccuracy, on several counts. Issue 213's feature stated that the distance between Earth and Saturn was two million miles (i.e. four times the distance to the Moon!), while issue 225, and others, gave varied accounts of Saturn's surface, ranging from oceans of acid to Grand Canyon-like gorges. Even in the 1960s, scientists had a reasonable idea of what Saturn might be like and to mix total scientific inaccuracy with factual articles on present-day space travel was a bit dangerous. This is probably the worst example of scientific inaccuracy; there are others to a lesser degree in a number of strips, notably Fireball XL5.

The second let-down was one of continuity and this time readers noticed and wrote in to complain. In an earlier (1967) Zero X story the craft of that name went to Saturn which incidentally looked like Antarctica. That aside, the same story mentioned that the ringed planet had been colonised fifty years previously which would tie in nicely with the concepts created in the Agent 21 strip and the discontinued Dateline news section. However, this Saturn Probe expedition was taking place in the here-and-now of 2069. In issue 223, James Ray, a reader from Ayr, pointed this out in the Shades of Opinion letters column. All the Editors could feebly reply was that 'there is a logical answer to this but I would like all Shades (readers) to write in and suggest a possible answer.' No logical explanation was given.

Complaints about the current line-up of TV21 started to appear around issue 200. Nicholas Honner's letter in issue 205 said: 'TV21 has lost that "something special" that used to distinguish it from other comics and this has happened since Spectrum took over! The merger with TV Tornado has decreased its value even further. I suggest that The Saint and Tarzan be ditched and Fireball XL5 and Stingray be put in its place.' The reply from the current letter answerer, Colonel White, was the usual: 'What do other Shades think?'

Not surprisingly, perhaps, it was a girl who answered Nicholas Honner. She seemed to prefer the heroic element of TV21 more evident, perhaps, in Lady Penelope saying – in issue 213 – 'I personally think The Saint is the best thing in the magazine.' Strangely enough, it was in same letters column that David Sauter of Sheffield said: 'I liked TV21 how it used to be in the old days with news on the front cover and a stop press inside. Could we have the magazine like that again?'

For once, Colonel White gave a more positive reply, stating that, as from issue 218, newspaper covers would return — effectively a compromise to keep the established readers happy.

Project S.W.O.R.D was also an attempt, I believe, to keep readers from leaving a declining TV21. Presented as TV21 Fiction, this was a story about Earth in 3031, having suffered a global catastrophe after getting in the way of rather large meteorite. Project S.W.O.R.D had the task of trying to rehouse the survivors, either on Earth or on the Solar System planets, and also fighting the so-called 'Casuals' who refused to co-operate in the emergency. S.W.O.R.D was a text story lasting one or two sides per week and written basically to support Century 21 Toys' new line of plastic space models which were supposedly based on the latest (1960s) space developments. An annual was published in 1969 featuring some nice paintings, good artwork by Malcolm Stokes (and others) plus still from 2001: A Space Odyssee.

Despite the gradual decline in TV21's popularity, readers were still interested in the old shows. Issue 197, for instance, contained a number of letters about the Andersons, including one I would like to quote from:

I am very interested in puppetry and visual effects. I think it is a most absorbing and interesting hobby. I am now 16 and have been making models since I was 8. For a long time I have been called baby-ish and stupid by my friends but I take no notice of them and continue to enjoy my hobby.

It was just as well he did for that letter was from Martin Bower!

The letters page in the last few months continued to showcase the arguments about TV21's line-up. One subject which earned a lot of debate was sport, and in particular football, which owed a lot to England's World Cup victory. Many Shades wanted to see a sports feature and even a comic strip about football and at issue 225 Football United commenced, a photos and text feature. Issue 231 saw the debut of Super League, a compromise strip as it was about a Manchester football team set in the 21st century. It was illustrated by Malcolm Stokes whose figure work was not particularly good but his Century 21 designs brilliant.

By mid-1969 sales of TV21 had gone down hill at such an alarming rate that through a decision made by Directors of City Magazines TV21 was merged with its recently established companion paper Joe90: Top Secret at issue 242, September 6th, 1969. Interestingly, the last four Captain Scarlet episodes had little to do with the Mysterons because, for those who like to know such items, the Mysterons left Mars in August, 2069 — in TV21 238. By now, many of TV21's original staff had left, including Alan Fenell who went freelance for a while before starting up Look-In for ITV Publications.

The Lady Penelope and Joe90 magazines

Lady Penelope magazine announcement
announcement for the Lady Penelope magazine

Before I go further with this history, I would like to deal briefly with Lady Penelope and Joe90. The latter started on January 18th, 1969 and finished 34 issues later when TV21 was merged with it as the beginning of its second series. The first issue featured a Frank Bellamy cover and the free gift of a cardboard model Jet Car. No continuitly was established between story and concepts here – the paper was dated 1969 – as it featured a number of unrelated strips including Star Trek (drawn by Harry Lindfield), Land of the Giants (Gerry Haylock), Ninepence + Twopence = Sport (a story about two Eskimo boys) plus, of course, Joe90 which occupied between three and four pages each week, including sometimes the cover, drawn by Keith Wilson or Martin Asbury.

One really wonders why this comic was started at all. Joe90, despite the huge merchandising campaign started to back the show up, never had the success of Captain Scarlet or Thunderbirds and its screen distribution wasn't particularly comprehensive. I am led to believe this was a case of creating a magazine with a deliberate intention to merge it with another to boost the other's sales — a policy that has been used occasionally at ipc. As it happened, the back-up strips (Star Trek and Land of the Giants) turned out to be more succesful than the character the comic was named after. Indeed, by the time TV21 was finally laid to rest, in September 1971, Star Trek was the only SF television strip left.

Lady Penelope began a year after TV21, edited by Gillian Allen and featuring her Ladyship's adventures drawn by Frank Langford, Michael Strand and, in early 1969, John Burns. Also featured was The Man from U.N.C.L.E., drawn for a period by Ron Embleton, which was replaced, quite naturally, by The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., drawn by Rob Hamilton, the Monkees, scripted by Angus Allen and drawn by Harry Lindfield, Marina, also by Rob Hamilton, Daktari, Jon Davis, Creighton–Ward and The Angels, also by Davis, prior to their appearance in Captain Scarlet. Like Joe90, no concepts continuity as such was established between the stories as there was no real need. Most girls knew that Anderson related stories were set in the future as many of them read TV21 and watched the originals on television.

That leaves TV2000, the Dutch counterpart to TV21. This reprinted stories, often in colour, from both TV21 and Lady Penelope plus a number of other sources. It was published weekly in a smaller 21cm x 28cm format but with 32 pages, half or more in colour. Like TV21, it later dropped the Anderson content and fell into obscurity.

TV21, meanwhile, had undergone a major change. Issue 1 of the new series, delayed by two weeks, featured Land of the Giants, Joe90 and Star Trek from Joe90: Top Secret, together with the Saint, Thunderbirds and Tarzan from TV21. The Tarzan strip had, in fact, been dropped towards the end of the first series but made a return here, drawn in black and white by Don Lawrence. A new football strip called Forward from the Back Streets began, illustrated by Martin Asbury. Frank Bellamy drew Thunderbirds for the first four episodes before leaving comic magazines altogether, transferring to the Daily Mirror's Garth strip. He was replaced by John Cooper of recent Johnny Red fame in Battle-Action comic.

The covers, too, changed. Gone were the newspaper designs and photographs, except a few football pin-ups. These were replaced by somewhat mediocre paintings by Alan Willow, illustrating various interior stories. Issue 26 saw a page size reduction to 22cm x 28cm and, by issue 40, Century 21 had pulled out of the operation entirely, taking with it Thunderbirds and Joe90. Mike Noble, meanwhile, began drawing Star Trek in colour, both on cover in strip form and within. He was replaced at issue 57 by Roland Turner and later H. Jones and Carlos Pino.

By the time City Magazines sold out to ipc in July 1971, TV21 contained doctored Marvel reprints (Spiderman, Silver Surfer and Ringo Kid) plus strips one would associate with Hotspur or Victor — titles such as Tuffs of Terror Island, Menace of the Black Museum, Wheels Moran and Clancy Clot. Only Star Trek remained from issue 1 and was the only story (along with the Tuffs of Terror Island) to survive the merger with Valiant on September 27th, 1971 at TV21 issue 105. By then, of course, Countdown was well under way, reprinting strips from TV21's first series as well as presenting new work from John Burns, Gerry Haylock and others.

The annuals

Mention has not yet been made of the annuals. As far as I can tell, there were over 60 annuals and storybooks produced which were a pretty accurate reflection of the comic itself. Today, annuals are produced cheaply (despite their prices!), often containing reprint material and, in many cases, dreadful artwork. In the 1960s, each Anderson series had at least one annual plus an appearance in the TV21 annual of that particular year. For instance, in 1968, there were six Century 21 annuals — Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, Joe90, Project S.W.O.R.D., Lady Penelope and TV21. This doesn't include, say, five or six assorted hardback books for various shows, some produced by Century 21, others by World Distributors. Most annuals contained many full colour photographs, cutaway diagrams of vehicles and buildings, and generally excellent art from the likes of Roland Turner, Malcolm Stokes and Keith and Jim Watson amongst others.

TV21's history was long and complex. It involved a continual juggling of artists and stories to suit current trends, some changes for the better, others (depending on your point of view) for the worse. Yet, unlike many comics, several things did remain constant — in the first series at least.

Other than the patchy continuity concept, the presentation was consistently high, thanks to the talents of Dennis Hooper. Each issue was well put together, containing generally excellent artwork and, more importantly, photographs. These gave an added touch of realism, particularly as many were in colour — a major selling advantage as most people could only watch the television programmes in black and white.

The most obvious aspects of this presentation were, of course, the newspaper-style covers discussed earlier which helped to create a plausible future. The idea may have come from Eagle, however, where a couple of issues in the early 1950s utilised newspaper designs and black and white photography to illustrate a number of Dan Dare stories. The text was not excessively dramatic but was intelligently written by Gillian Allen who never allowed it to become too overly enthusiastic.

The artwork, too, was of an exceedingly high standard — probably better than that of Eagle. The most famous was that of Bellamy, of course, who had worked on Eagle drawing Heroes the Spartan, Dan Dare, Life of Churchill and others. Dennis Hooper approached him with the offer of drawing Stingray but Bellamy wanted to finish his commitments first without breaking contract so the first thing he did for TV21 was Thunderbirds.

In general, the stories were kept relatively simple and very much to do with machines — like their counterparts on television. With the exception of Catch or Kill, any characterisation that had been developed was put in second place to what were essentially special effects. Unlike Dan Dare, the scripts were reduced down to what was most essential for a story and not padded out which, although it would have given the characters more depth, would have resulted in the stories lacking pace and becoming dull. Eagle's space hero would have taken three episodes to get from planet A to planet B — in TV21 it would have taken three panels. Children wanted action, not conversation and long explanations about the theory of faster-than-light travel. Dan Dare's stories may have been well plotted and scripted but they were dull in comparison.

Although sub-plots were virtually non-existent in TV21's strips, the front page newspaper format did much to make up for it. Issue 49, for instance, is devoted to a Stingray story but the supersub is mentioned only on passing. The actual text and photos concern flooding in various parts of the world and what the World Government is doing about it.

The first series of TV21 was a visual triumph — well printed, illustrated and marketed. In other areas it tried admirably but failed — particularly where inter-story continuity was concerned. Characterisation was shallow and two-dimensional at best. Looking back, it could almost be said that TV21 was a publishing experiment, one not likely to be tried again, even in the current (and hopefully future) Supermarionation revival, as any new series may well end up in Look-in, perhaps. Yes, an experiment which, despite its successes for three or four years, ultimately failed.

thanks to Angus Allen for his help in researching this article
text ©1982 Graham Bleathman
originally published in Supermarionation Is Go! #4 & 5