Thunderbirds (TV series)

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Series title, "Thunderbirds", set against thunderclouds
GenreScience fiction, Disaster, Action, Adventure
Created byGerry and Sylvia Anderson
Written byGerry and Sylvia Anderson, Tony Barwick, Martin Crump, Alan Fennell, Alan Pattillo, Donald Robertson, Dennis Spooner
Directed byBrian Burgess, David Elliott, David Lane, Alan Pattillo, Desmond Saunders
Voices ofPeter Dyneley, Shane Rimmer, Sylvia Anderson, Ray Barrett, David Holliday, Jeremy Wilkin, David Graham, Matt Zimmerman, Christine Finn, Paul Maxwell, Charles Tingwell, John Tate
Composer(s)Barry Gray
Country of originUnited Kingdom
Original language(s)English
No. of series2
No. of episodes32
(64 in half-hour format) (List of episodes)
Executive producer(s)Gerry Anderson
(Series Two)
Producer(s)Gerry Anderson (Series One)
Reg Hill (Series Two)
Editor(s)Peter Elliott, David Lane, Harry Ledger, Harry MacDonald, Len Walter
CinematographyJohn Read
Camera setupSingle
Running time49–51 minutes approx.
Production company(s)AP Films
DistributorITC Entertainment
Original channelATV
Picture format35 mm film (VistaVision)[1]
4:3 aspect ratio
Audio formatMono
Original run30 September 1965 (1965-09-30) – 25 December 1966 (1966-12-25)
Preceded byStingray
Followed byCaptain Scarlet and The Mysterons
Related showsThunderbirds 2086
(1982 re-make)
Turbocharged Thunderbirds
(1994 re-edit)
Thunderbirds Are Go!
(2015 re-make)
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Series title, "Thunderbirds", set against thunderclouds
GenreScience fiction, Disaster, Action, Adventure
Created byGerry and Sylvia Anderson
Written byGerry and Sylvia Anderson, Tony Barwick, Martin Crump, Alan Fennell, Alan Pattillo, Donald Robertson, Dennis Spooner
Directed byBrian Burgess, David Elliott, David Lane, Alan Pattillo, Desmond Saunders
Voices ofPeter Dyneley, Shane Rimmer, Sylvia Anderson, Ray Barrett, David Holliday, Jeremy Wilkin, David Graham, Matt Zimmerman, Christine Finn, Paul Maxwell, Charles Tingwell, John Tate
Composer(s)Barry Gray
Country of originUnited Kingdom
Original language(s)English
No. of series2
No. of episodes32
(64 in half-hour format) (List of episodes)
Executive producer(s)Gerry Anderson
(Series Two)
Producer(s)Gerry Anderson (Series One)
Reg Hill (Series Two)
Editor(s)Peter Elliott, David Lane, Harry Ledger, Harry MacDonald, Len Walter
CinematographyJohn Read
Camera setupSingle
Running time49–51 minutes approx.
Production company(s)AP Films
DistributorITC Entertainment
Original channelATV
Picture format35 mm film (VistaVision)[1]
4:3 aspect ratio
Audio formatMono
Original run30 September 1965 (1965-09-30) – 25 December 1966 (1966-12-25)
Preceded byStingray
Followed byCaptain Scarlet and The Mysterons
Related showsThunderbirds 2086
(1982 re-make)
Turbocharged Thunderbirds
(1994 re-edit)
Thunderbirds Are Go!
(2015 re-make)

Thunderbirds is a 1960s British science-fiction television series, created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, made by their production company AP Films, and distributed by ITC Entertainment. Filmed between 1964 and 1966, it was produced using marionette puppetry interwoven with scale-model special effects sequences, in the form of a mixed technique dubbed "Supermarionation". Two series, totalling thirty-two 50-minute episodes, were filmed; production was cancelled after the Andersons' financial backer, Lew Grade, failed in his bid to sell the programme to American network television. Thunderbirds premièred in the UK on ATV's franchises in 1965, and has since been broadcast in more than 30 other countries.

Succeeding the previous Supermarionation productions Four Feather Falls, Supercar, Fireball XL5 and Stingray, Thunderbirds is set in the 21st century. It follows the exploits of International Rescue, a top-secret organisation established to save people from mortal danger with the aid of technologically advanced land, sea, air and space rescue vehicles and equipment, launched from a hidden island base located in the South Pacific Ocean. The main puppet characters are multi-millionaire, retired astronaut Jeff Tracy (the founder of International Rescue) and his five adult sons, who operate the machines of the Thunderbirds fleet.

Periodically repeated since its original 1965–66 broadcast by the BBC and on other channels, Thunderbirds has influenced numerous TV programmes (including one re-make), films and other media. It has entailed various merchandising campaigns, and has been followed by three feature-length films and a mimed stage adaptation. Generally considered the most commercially successful and most popular series to have been created by the Andersons or produced by AP Films,[2][3][4][5][6][7][8] Thunderbirds has received particular praise for its effects (supervised by Derek Meddings) and score (composed by Barry Gray). The affirmative call code used by the main characters, "F.A.B.", has been defined in the Collins English Dictionary. A new re-make, Thunderbirds Are Go!, will be broadcast in 2015 on CITV, 50 years after the original.[9]


The events of Thunderbirds open in 2065, as stated in the official scriptwriters' guide.[10][11] The setting of the series finale, "Give or Take a Million", is Christmas 2067.[12] Series creator Gerry Anderson envisioned a setting "100 years into the future",[13] which is supported by visual evidence in the episode "30 Minutes After Noon"[14] and additionally corroborated by tie-in media, such as the TV Century 21 "Thunderbirds" comic strip[15] and the Century 21 mini-album "Thunderbird 3".[16] Some TV episodes point to earlier settings: 1993 vintage champagne is referenced in "Alias Mr. Hackenbacker",[17] while according to a calendar prop, "Give or Take a Million" is actually set in 2026.[11][12][notes 1] Anderson refuted the 2026 argument, stating that the year on the calendar was simply a continuity error caused by set designer oversight, and that the series was "definitely" intended to be set in 2065.[13] He elaborated that although the production staff were usually attentive to detail, continuity did not always precede design concerns, and also pointed out that at the time of series' production, "no one expected these programmes to be watched even a second time as, unbelievably, repeats were unheard of."[13] 2065 is consistent with the 2060s settings of the previous two AP Films series, Fireball XL5 and Stingray.[15]

Thunderbirds follows the adventures of the Tracy family, headed by American multi-millionaire philanthropist and ex-lunar astronaut Jeff Tracy.[18] Widower Jeff's adult sons and only children – Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John – are all named after Mercury Seven astronauts:[1] Scott Carpenter,[19][20] Virgil Grissom,[21][22] Alan Shepard,[23][24] Gordon Cooper[25][26] and John Glenn.[27][28][29] Unknown to the public, the Tracys are the force behind International Rescue: a top-secret organisation, founded and funded Jeff, which is committed to saving human life when in mortal danger. They are assisted in this mission by highly advanced land-, sea-, air- and space-rescue vehicles and equipment, which are typically ordered into action when conventional civilian or military rescue techniques have proven ineffective. Leading the IR fleet is a series of five machines known as the Thunderbirds, each assigned to one of the five Tracy brothers:

The Tracy brothers wear a common blue uniform that comprises a polo-neck tunic, trousers, boots and a simplified side cap, accompanied by a sash bearing the IR insignia (of an arm outstretched across the Earth's surface) and carrying a holster and two pouches. Every pilot's sash is a different colour, matching the cuffs on his boots:[37] Scott wears light blue, Virgil canary yellow, Alan white, Gordon orange and John lilac.[notes 2]

Along with "Brains", a scientist and engineer and the inventor of the Thunderbirds machines (birth name unknown, although in one episode he uses the alias "Hiram K. Hackenbacker"),[17][38] the Malaysian[39] manservant Kyrano, Kyrano's daughter Tin-Tin (Alan's romantic interest) and Jeff's mother,[40] Grandma Tracy, the Tracys reside in the luxurious Tracy Villa on an un-charted island ("Tracy Island" in tie-ins, although not designated as such in the series) somewhere in the South Pacific Ocean.[41] Here, IR is protected against the danger posed by underworld criminal, terrorist and spy elements that envy the organisation's technological superiority, and which would otherwise stop at nothing to acquire the secrets of the Thunderbirds machines (either for personal advantage, or to change the balance of world power). Tracy Island's purpose as IR's base of operations is not evident from the air, since the organisation's vehicles and equipment are stored in subterranean hangars that are accessible only via hidden launch tubes. Visitors from the outside world leave the island in ignorance of the Tracys' double life thanks to the "Operation Cover-Up" security protocol, which physically erases evidence of IR's presence.

Although the organisation's principles are humanitarian, IR's rescue operations are sometimes triggered not by misadventure, but by deliberate sabotage driven by human greed for power and wealth. For missions requiring criminal investigation or military intelligence, IR incorporates a global network of undercover agents, headed by English aristocrat Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward and her Cockney butler and chauffeur Aloysius "Nosey" Parker. Based at Creighton-Ward Mansion in Kent,[42] their primary mode of transport is FAB 1 – a pink, custom-built, amphibious Rolls-Royce. Foremost among IR's enemies is the arch-criminal known only as the "Hood" (named only in tie-ins). Operating from a temple in the Malaysian jungle,[43] and possessing hypnotic and voodoo-like powers of dark magic,[44] the Hood is a master of physical disguise and exercises a strong telepathic influence over his estranged half-brother, Kyrano. Exploiting Kyrano's weak-mindedness and inside knowledge of IR, he regularly manoeuvres the Tracy brothers into rescues that unfold according to his own nefarious design; this gives the Hood opportunities to spy on the Thunderbirds machines and, by selling their stolen secrets, become rich.

IR's radio code, "F.A.B." – defined by Collins English Dictionary 2002 as "an expression of agreement to, or acknowledgement of, a command". The 1960s youthful language often abbreviated the word 'Fabulous' to 'Fab' or 'F-A-B' [45] – was not conceived as an abbreviation.[46] When asked what the "initials" stood for in 2000, Anderson responded: "... absolutely nothing! ... The abbreviation "fab", as in "fabulous", was all the rage and I just changed it a bit."[47] He had defined it in 1993 as the "futuristic equivalent for 'Roger', i.e. 'Message received and understood'".[48] In tie-ins, it has sometimes been interpreted to stand for "Fully Advised and Briefed", in a manner similar to "P.W.O.R." ("Proceeding With Orders Received"), used in Stingray, and "S.I.G." ("Spectrum Is Green") and "S.I.R." ("Spectrum Is Red"), affirmative and negative codes used in Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons.[49]


I started to think that there really ought to be dumps around the world with rescue gear standing by, so that when a disaster happened, all these items of rescue equipment could be rushed to the disaster zone and used to help to get people out of trouble ... I was thinking, 'Rescue, yes, rescue, but how to make it science fiction? What about an international rescue organisation? They'll need to fly to the danger zone and they'll have to have a transporter to bring the heavy equipment up. But villains will be after their equipment, so they'll have to be located in a secret location – an island in the Pacific that hasn't been mapped yet ...'

— Gerry Anderson on the premise (2000)[50][51]

Pitched in late 1963,[52] and commissioned by Lew Grade on the back of the highly positive response to Stingray (broadcast from 1964 to 1965),[40] Thunderbirds was the fourth "Supermarionation" puppet TV series to be made by AP Films, jointly founded by husband-and-wife duo of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, Reg Hill and John Read, and distributed by ITC. The logo of Supermarionation had previously introduced episodes of Four Feather Falls (1960), Supercar (1961–62) and Fireball XL5 (1962–63). Co-creator Gerry Anderson's inspiration for the underlying concept was the West German mining disaster known as the Wunder von Lengede ("The Miracle of Lengede") – on 24 October 1963, the collapse of a nearby dam flooded an iron mine in Lengede, Lower Saxony, killing 29 miners and trapping 21 more underground; two weeks later, on 7 November, the final 11 survivors were rescued.[53][54] The heavy-duty bore required to drill a rescue shaft had needed to be requisitioned from distant Bremen, and the time required for transport to the accident zone had seriously endangered the survivors' chances of returning to ground level alive in an escape cylinder.[50][55]

Anderson wanted to differentiate the concept for "International Rescue" from those of AP Films' previous productions, with plots that would appeal to both child and adult viewers and a family primetime (rather than children's late-afternoon) timeslot.[56] He retired with Sylvia to their holiday villa in Portugal, where the couple developed the premise of the 26-episode series,[40] scripted the pilot,[56] and composed a scriptwriters' guide.[57] Sylvia remembers: "There was a division of labour, whereby I would create the characters and Gerry would devise the action sequences of the plot. The storyline was a blend of the two."[57] Of the wish to break with the past, she explains: "Our market had grown, and a 'kidult' show ... was the next step."[58] The casting of a widower father and his sons as the lead characters was reminiscent of the Western TV series Bonanza.[59][60] Writing for more than one hero, by adding a collection of sons to the premise, was a suggestion of Sylvia, who recognised an opportunity to widen the series' appeal.[59] She regrets that her back-stories for the characters of Kyrano and Tin-Tin mostly failed to make the transition from script to screen, and that the father-and-daughter pair's on-screen visibility was reduced, in her estimation, to the level of cameo appearances.[59]

The series' title was inspired by a letter sent from Arizona by Gerry's brother, Lionel, while he had been serving as an RAF flight sergeant overseas during the Second World War.[61] Lionel, who was killed in action in 1944,[62] had made reference to a nearby USAAF base – "Thunderbird Field".[61] Drawn to the "punchiness" of "Thunderbirds", Anderson dropped his working title, renaming both the series and the fleet of star rescue vehicles (which had originally been designated Rescues 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5).[61] His inspiration for the complex launch sequences of the first three Thunderbirds came from reading how the contemporary USAF Strategic Air Command kept its pilots on permanent standby, seated in the cockpits of their aircraft and ready for take-off at a moment's notice.[63] In the DVD mini-documentary The Thunderbirds Companion (2000), Anderson stated that wider circumstances required that Thunderbirds be made, effectively, "as an American show": filming costs had risen to such an extent that the series' financial survival could not be assured solely from home distribution revenue.[64] During the character development and voice casting process, the producers' top priority was that Thunderbirds have trans-Atlantic appeal, to maximise the chances of securing the backing of an American TV network and the larger viewing audiences that the lucrative American market had to offer.[56][65] In 2003, Anderson commented that his company "went on to produce a show of which I am not in the least bit ashamed, because what we really did was to break into the American market in a way no other British producer had been able to do."[66]


Many of the production staff for Thunderbirds had contributed to its immediate antecedent, Stingray. For the new series, the crew was expanded to 100 full-time staff.[67] Although he was credited as director of photography, John Read additionally supervised the set design and many other production aspects.[68] Thunderbirds was filmed at AP Films' Stirling Road and Edinburgh Avenue studios on the Slough Trading Estate on Arriflex cameras and 35 mm film.[69] Shooting commenced in September 1964 after five months of pre-production[40][70] – due to the series' technical complexity, a period longer than that for any of the Andersons' previous productions.[62][71] Pairs of episodes were filmed simultaneously, at a rate of two per month (with every episode being allocated four weeks), on different soundstages and by different crews ("A" and "B") to speed up the shooting.[1][72][73] By 1964, AP Films was the UK's biggest consumer of colour film, making use of more than three million feet (570 mi; 910 km) of stock per year.[74]

Alan Pattillo, a veteran scriptwriter and director for AP Films, became the company's first official script editor in late 1964.[75] This was to lighten the burden on Anderson who, despite retaining his right (as co-creator and producer) to overall storyline and editorial control, had grown weary of revising the scripts himself.[76][77] Direction of episodes was assigned in pairs: the more seasoned Pattillo and David Elliott made up one unit, alternating with the less experienced Desmond Saunders and newcomer David Lane for each month's filming.[75][78]

Due to the challenges inherent in setting up a take, progress on the filming was slow: according to Elliott, no more than two minutes of puppet footage was shot even on a productive day.[79] Saunders commented, "When you've got to make a certain number of shots in that day, it just makes everything very tense."[79] In a contemporary press interview, Hill, the associate producer, explained that Thunderbirds comprised many times the number of shots used in a live-action series of similar length; this was on account of the puppet characters' lack of expression, and their resulting inability to sustain viewer interest for shot lasting more than a few seconds.[80] One of the most complex sequences to film was Virgil Tracy's journey from the Tracy Island Villa to the underground hangar storing Thunderbird 2, which sees the puppet being flipped backwards and then sliding feet-first, along a series of chutes, into the aircraft's cockpit.[81]

... Lew [Grade] watched ["Trapped in the Sky"], and at the end he jumped up shouting, 'Fantastic, absolutely fantastic! This isn't a television series – this is a feature film! You've got to make this as an hour!' ... Everything had been geared towards the 25-minute format and we had to continue shooting half-hour episodes until we could introduce the new regime and start producing hour-long episodes. We then went back and shot extra footage, which we added to the half-hour shows to convert them to run 50 minutes ... I'm glad we did it, because it made the series much bigger and much more important. But it was still a very, very difficult job.

— Gerry Anderson on the format change (2000)[82]

Thunderbirds became the first AP Films production to be broadcast in a one-hour timeslot.[82][83][84] In December 1964, Grade viewed the finished, half-hour pilot, "Trapped in the Sky", at a private screening at ATV's London headquarters.[80][82] He was so enthusiastic with the result that he ordered Anderson to double the episode length from 25 to 50 minutes,[82] and increased the series' budget from £25,000 to £38,000 per episode.[40] This made Thunderbirds not only the highest-budgeted TV series to have been undertaken by AP Films by that time, but also one of the most expensive series ever to have been filmed.[85] The transition proved challenging for the production staff, who had originally been filming at the rate of two 25-minute episodes per fortnight,[72] since eight episodes had already been filmed,[86][87] scripts for up to 10 more had been written,[82] and significant re-writing, re-mounting and re-editing would be necessary to satisfy the longer running time.[88] Anderson lamented, "Our time-scale was far too drawn out. ITC's New York office insisted that they should have one show a fortnight ... Everything had to move at twice the speed."[89] Altogether, the time required to extend the existing episodes was more than seven months.[90]

Pattillo and the Andersons recruited an uncredited Tony Barwick, who had made an impression with an unsubmitted Danger Man script,[91] to assist in scripting filler material and subplots.[82][92] The additional running time presented opportunities to deepen the characterisation,[82][93] which, in time, Anderson regarded as of the series' major strengths.[89] It is "small character touches", argues science-fiction writer John Peel, that make the puppet cast "much more rounded", and allow the audience to see "much more of the Tracys as characters than we ever were of the inhabitants of previous series"; he compares the scriptwriting favourably to that of live-action drama.[94] Meddings welcomed the budget increase, since it enabled his department to film more impressive effects sequences.[95] Footage from the extended episodes proved useful to the scriptwriters during the development of the final Series One episode, "Security Hazard": since "Attack of the Alligators!" and "The Cham-Cham" had considerably over-spent their budgets, Pattillo devised a clip show (pioneered for the finale of Stingray, "Aquanaut of the Year")[96] whereby scenes from four early episodes would be re-cycled in the form of narrative flashbacks and linked by only 17 minutes of bridging material to lower production costs.[97][98] Production on the first season finale was completed in December 1965.[40] Prior to the series' British television première in September, Grade had announced that Thunderbirds would be adapted into a feature-length film.[99]

A second series was commissioned in late 1965[97] and entered production in March 1966 (at the same time as Thunderbirds Are Go).[73] Barwick assumed the outgoing Pattillo's role as script editor and graduated to the rank of full-time scriptwriter.[100][101][102] The puppet department re-sculpted the main cast,[103] while the art and effects departments re-built the main vehicles and expanded some of the standing sets, including the Tracy Villa lounge and the Thunderbird 5 control room.[104][105] To accommodate the increased workload, AP Films purchased two new buildings on the Slough Trading Estate and converted them into additional studio space.[106][107] Since both staff and soundstages had been divided between the two productions, filming for Series Two – mostly under the direction of "B" crew – progressed at only half the previous speed (with one episode being filmed per month).[73] While "A" crew lighting cameraman Paddy Seale supervised the film shooting, "B" crew's Julien Lugrin was appointed Series Two's director of photography.[97] With the completion of filming for Thunderbirds Are Go in June, "A" crew resumed their work on the TV series to film what would prove to be its penultimate episode, "Ricochet".[73]

Casting and characters[edit]

Regular Puppet Cast[108][notes 3]
NameDate of BirthRole(s)Voice actor(s)
Jeff Tracy2 January 2009Head of IR;
Ex-astronaut and Air Force colonel
Peter Dyneley
Scott Tracy4 April 2039Pilot of Thunderbird 1,
Co-pilot of Thunderbird 3;
Ex-Air Force pilot
Shane Rimmer
Virgil Tracy15 August 2041Pilot of Thunderbird 2;
Painter, musician
David Holliday
(Series One)
Jeremy Wilkin
(Series Two)
Alan Tracy12 March 2044Astronaut on Thunderbird 3,
Part-time Space Monitor on Thunderbird 5;
Ex-motor racing champion
Matt Zimmerman
Ray Barrett
(one episode)
Gordon Tracy14 February 2043Aquanaut in Thunderbird 4,
Co-pilot of Thunderbird 2;
Oceanographer, Olympic diving champion[40]
David Graham
John Tracy8 October 2040Space Monitor on Thunderbird 5,
Part-time astronaut in Thunderbird 3;
Astronomer, writer
Ray Barrett
Brains14 November 2040Scientist, engineer, inventorDavid Graham
Tin-Tin Kyrano20 June 2043Maintenance technician, Brains' assistant[40]Christine Finn
KyranoUnknownManservant, chef;
Botanist, scientist
David Graham
Grandma TracyLate 1980sHousekeeper, cook[40]Christine Finn
Lady Penelope
24 December 2039IR's London agent;
Aristocrat, socialite
Sylvia Anderson
Aloysius Parker30 May 2013Lady Penelope's butler and chauffeur;
Ex-professional safe-cracker[40]
David Graham
The Hood17 July 2018Master criminal, terrorist, dark magicianRay Barrett

Voice-acting sessions for the pre-recording of puppet dialogue were managed by the Andersons and script editor Alan Pattillo,[109] with Sylvia Anderson in overall charge of casting.[57] Dialogue was recorded on a monthly basis at a rate of two scripts per session (on a Sunday, since many of the cast had other acting commitments during the week).[110] Two recordings were made: one to be converted into electronic pulses for the puppet filming, the other to be incorporated into the soundtrack during post-production.[111] The 35 mm tapes were first delivered to the Gate Recording Theatre in Birmingham for editing.[109][112][113] The actors had no obligation to memorise their lines, instead reading from their scripts; they also had the freedom to distribute the supporting parts among themselves on the day.[109]

In the interests of ensuring the series' popularity with American audiences, the main puppet cast was to be predominantly of that nationality, voiced by actors who could speak persuasively in the corresponding accent; the sole English regular characters were to be Lady Penelope and Parker.[56][65] British, Canadian and Australian actors, who satisfied the Andersons' requirements for accentual versatility and spontaneity, made up the majority of the cast (who voiced supporting as well as regular characters).[114] Sylvia Anderson remembers that Australians especially had little difficulty in "adapting to a 'mid-Atlantic' accent that was acceptable to both British and American audiences."[115] Ultimately, the only American voice artist to be cast was expatriate stage actor David Holliday,[110] who was noticed by Sylvia in the West End and hired as the voice of Virgil Tracy.[116] Following the completion of Series One, Holliday returned to the United States; the part of Virgil was subsequently given to English-Canadian actor Jeremy Wilkin, who voiced the character for both Series Two and the film sequels, Thunderbirds Are Go (1966) and Thunderbird 6 (1968).[117]

David Graham, with whom Anderson had collaborated since 1957,[116] was one of the first two voice actors to be cast.[114] He had previously contributed to Four Feather Falls, Supercar, Fireball XL5 and Stingray, and had also been one of the first voices of the Daleks in Doctor Who (1963–present).[116] Graham supplied four main character voices for ThunderbirdsGordon Tracy, Brains, Kyrano and Parker. Of his casting, he commented, "I'd been with Gerry for so long that I think he already had me down for Parker and the others."[116] He added that Brains' stutter was a natural evolution of his characterisation: "It seems that with clever people the mind works faster than the mouth can speak."[82][118] Sylvia Anderson expresses similar views, summing up the part as "a young man pre-occupied and confident with his work and experiments, yet socially unsure of himself".[59] A negative effect of the character's "hesitant delivery" was the impact on pacing: Sylvia remembers that the stutter "held up the action", which potential distributors wanted to "move along fast, despite bearing in mind that puppet action was slow enough without any speech impediments".[59] The scriptwriters resolved the problem by shortening Brains' lines and limiting his appearances.[59]

Although Lady Penelope and Parker – Graham's joint favourite part, along with Brains[119] – were among the first characters to be developed, neither was initially conceived to be a central character.[68][120] The inspiration for Parker was put forward by director David Elliott, who had then recently finished reading a spy novel about a safecracker who is unwillingly enlisted as a government agent.[121] His Cockney patois (termed "Parkerese" by Anderson and Graham)[120] was based on that of a waiter at a pub in Berkshire, which was regularly frequented by the AP Films production staff.[122] Gerry Anderson remembered that Arthur, who had formerly been in the service of Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle, spoke with a "warm patter, dropping his 'aitches' and putting them back in the wrong places, and this intrigued me ... I thought [his] voice would be perfect."[120][123] He therefore had Graham dine at the pub especially to study the accent.[122] Anderson did not inform Arthur of his importance in the development of the character, concerned that the waiter would dislike the recognition that such information might bring if it were to become publicly known.[119][124] Sylvia Anderson summarises the character as a "lovable rogue with doubtful connections, who had gone straight."[68] Acknowledging Parker's role as a peripheral comic foil, as well as the heavy caricature of his puppet's design, David Garland likens him to the Victorian stock figure of the Pantaloon, "a low comic figure that functioned as a butt of jokes, and did not mix with regular dramatic characters."[125]

Anderson's first choice for Lady Penelope had been Fenella Fielding, but Sylvia Anderson insisted that her husband cancel the planned auditions in favour of her voice-acting.[116][126] Sylvia had previously provided the voices of Jimmy Gibson in Supercar, Dr Venus in Fireball XL5 and (twice only) the normally mute Marina in Stingray.[116] Penelope's voice was developed as a combination of the vocal characteristics of Fielding and fellow English actress Joan Greenwood.[116] Sylvia argues that the character evolved quickly from her early secondary role: "All the heroines in our previous series had been perfect foils to the action-man heroes, but now, with Lady Penelope, we had an action girl who was a personality in her own right."[127] She remembers writing the character to convey "not only the daring and panache of a secret agent, but also the poise of a cool and beautiful aristocrat".[68]

Of Penelope and Parker's capacity for comic relief, Anderson recalled thinking to himself: "'I've got to do something for the home audience. Now, we British can laugh at ourselves, so therefore we had Penelope and Parker as this comedy team. And in America they love the British aristocracy too.'"[65] He added, "... but we didn't want an elderly Lady Thingummibob as International Rescue's London agent. We wanted a good-looking dish, and that's how Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward and her country mansion came about."[128] According to Bignell, Penelope and Parker's Britishness injects entertaining elements of "Cool Britannia" into an otherwise exclusively American setting.

Cast at the same time as Graham was Australian expatriate Ray Barrett.[114] As with the former, the swiftness of Barrett's casting was attributable to the fact that he had worked for the Andersons previously, having voiced both Commander Shore and Titan in Stingray.[129] Drawing on experience acquired from radio work in Australia, Barrett was skilled at performing a wide variety of voices in quick succession and, further satisfying the Andersons' requirements for voice actors,[129][130] at persuasively affecting both British and American accents. For Thunderbirds, he provided the regular voices of John Tracy and the Hood, in addition to many supporting parts. Villains would typically be voiced by either Barrett or Graham, who would negotiate responsibility between themselves.[116] Of scenes that required two or more of his assigned characters to converse with one another, Barrett remembered, "I said, 'Just keep the tape going', and I changed the voices as I went along, talking to myself!"[114] Of John Tracy, Anderson remembered not being "totally happy" with either Barrett's voice or the puppet's appearance, and minimising the character's role in the series whenever possible:[131] "... the idea of bringing John down to Earth was constantly put on the table and I remember saying, 'No way! You leave him [on Thunderbird 5], and once that emergency call is taken, I don't want to see him again.'"[118] As a consequence, the character is seen to occupy Thunderbird 5 more frequently than Alan, despite the fact that the creators' intention had been that the two brothers regularly alternate "Space Monitor" duties.[131] Originally, John had been written as the pilot of one of the two main Thunderbirds aircraft.[132]

Aware of the sensitivity of West-East relations during the Cold War, and desiring not to typecast or "perpetuate the idea that Russia was the enemy with a whole generation of children watching",[113] Gerry Anderson assigned the Hood an Oriental background, and a temple hideaway geographically far removed from locations that contemporary viewers may have expected.[39][118] The point is defeated, Cull suggests, by two episodes ("Martian Invasion" and "Edge of Impact") in which the Hood is shown to be in the service of foreign powers, as well as "The Cham-Cham", whose military officer antagonists speak with "Central/Eastern European accents".[133] Cull describes the character as "an evil version of Yul Brynner [playing the King of Siam] in The King and I".[39] The name of the Hood is derived from "hoodlum"; furthermore, Anderson commented, the character was frequently masked, and a mask "could be described as a 'hood'."[118] Sylvia Anderson acknowledges that the Hood's appearances became more irregular towards the end of the series (by Series Two, the character is completely absent), with the explanation that, like Kyrano, the character "turned out to be less viable on the screen than on the page."[134]

As well as voicing the patriarch of the Tracy family, Jeff, English-Canadian actor Peter Dyneley had a recurring part as Commander Norman, the head of air traffic control at London International Airport. Dyneley's minor roles included upper-class, gentlemenly Englishmen.[110] Canadian expatriate Shane Rimmer, the voice of Scott Tracy, went on to appear in – and sometimes write for – later Anderson productions. Rimmer was hired after impressing the producers with his performance in the BBC soap opera Compact (1962–65); at the time of his casting, he had been touring as a variety show solo singer in Leeds.[114] While working on Thunderbirds, he acted alongside Graham in live action in the Doctor Who serial The Gunfighters (1966).[116] Fellow Canadian Matt Zimmerman, then appearing in West End theatre, was selected as the voice of Alan Tracy late in the casting process.[110] He was cast on the recommendation of Holliday, a friend: "... they were having great difficulty casting the part of Alan as they wanted a certain sound for him, being the youngest brother. David, who [was] a bit older than I am, told them that he had this friend, me, who would be great."[112] Zimmerman's arrival followed the voice-recording session for "Trapped in the Sky", in which Alan's voice had been provided by Barrett.[135]

Bringing Tin-Tin and Grandma Tracy to life was Christine Finn, well known to contemporary viewers as Barbara Judd in the BBC science-fiction serial Quatermass and the Pit (1958–59).[116] Together, Sylvia Anderson and Finn were also responsible for voicing most of the female and child guest characters; however, Barrett broke with the custom when, to the considerable amusement of the rest of the cast,[112] he voiced the elderly Duchess of Royston in impersonation of Dame Edith Evans for the episode "The Duchess Assignment".[129][136] Paul Maxwell (previously the voice of Colonel Steve Zodiac in Fireball XL5), Charles Tingwell, and Australian actor John Tate (the father of Nick Tate)[137] received no on-screen credit for their supporting contributions in Series One and Two.[112] Maxwell and Tingwell went on to provide credited performances in Thunderbirds Are Go and Thunderbird 6.[138]

Design and effects[edit]

Title sequence[edit]

The title sequence, storyboarded by Gerry Anderson, opens with a countdown of "5–4–3–2–1! Thunderbirds Are Go!" announced by Peter Dyneley, in character as Jeff Tracy.[80] This is synchronised with zoom-out shots of all the Thunderbirds machines in reverse numerical order, then a moving intertitle: it is superimposed on a stormy sky and rushes forwards, accompanied by a lightning flash and thunder. In a departure from the style of Stingray and earlier series, in which the centrepieces of the titles were fixed special effects sequences (comprising shots recycled from stock footage), the Thunderbirds titles contain a montage of action clips that is unique to each episode and serves as a preview of that episode's plot. Archer and Hearn compare this device to "a feature-film trailer";[80] Peel considers the intercutting with lightning and thunder visual and sound effects to produce "electrical tension".[6]

The second half of the sequence commences with a zoom-out of the title, which dissolves when hit by a second lightning bolt, and a change of music track, to "The Thunderbirds March" by Barry Gray. What follows is a series of portraits of the main puppet cast in their customary environments, with their names credited on-screen.[80] According to David Garland, in his essay on Supermarionation, this is accomplished in the style of "actors playing roles on live-action television programmes and films"; Peel describes it as "ostensibly a return to the 'series stars' concept long known in TV".[6] Garland additionally expresses the opinion that such visuals are characteristic of Anderson's commitment to "incremental realism": the convergence of puppet and human qualities.[139] The sequence finishes with an effects shot depicting the destruction of a complex of nondescript military or industrial buildings, which are wracked by a chain of explosions.[80] During the filming of the ending, the strength of the detonations was such that a section of the studio roof caught fire.[98]


Man in his fifties with greying hair (black-and-white)Man in his thirties with dark hairMan in his thirties with dark hair (black-and-white)
Middle-aged man with greying, blond hairMan in his thirties with dark hair (black-and-white)Man in his twenties with dark hair (black-and-white)
Some of the personalities on whom the likenesses of the Thunderbirds puppet cast are based. Top row, left to right: Lorne Greene (Jeff Tracy), Sean Connery (Scott Tracy), Robert Reed (Alan and Virgil Tracy). Bottom row, left to right: Adam Faith and Charlton Heston (John Tracy), Anthony Perkins (Brains).

Staffing the AP Films puppet sculpting department were Christine Glanville (also head puppet operator or "Supermarionator"),[75][140] John Blundall, John Brown and Mary Turner.[130] Together, they designed and built the 13 members of the main puppet cast in six months,[141] at a cost of between £250 and £300 per puppet.[142] Many of the characters' appearances were based on contemporary actors and other entertainers, whom the sculptors selected while browsing the showbusiness directory Spotlight.[141] According to Glanville, "we were looking for more natural faces, getting away from the earlier trend towards caricatures."[142] Jeff Tracy's likeness was based on Lorne Greene, known for his starring role in Bonanza,[60][70] Scott's on Sean Connery, the 1960s James Bond actor,[141][142] Alan's and (to a lesser extent) Virgil's on actor Robert Reed, star of courtroom drama The Defenders,[70][87] John's on British singer Adam Faith and American actor Charlton Heston,[131][143] Brains' on actor Anthony Perkins[130] and Parker's on British comedian Ben Warris, a member of The Crazy Gang and cousin of Jimmy Jewel.[70][125][144] Since the filming was divided between two soundstages and two crews, the sculptors were required to build the primary characters in duplicate, with the result that minor physical differences are discernable between the originals and their copies.[72]

Virgil's appearance was strongly influenced by Alan's, since Brown had initially experienced difficulties in realising the character and Glanville suggested that he base the design on the Tracy brother whose puppet she had already finished.[70][130] Blundall, the designer of the Parker, also used Miles Malleson, Ronald Shiner and "typical, clichéd butlers in black-and-white English comedy films" as points of reference,[121] commenting of the distinctive aspect that he "made Parker look so unlike the other puppets just to be bloody-minded, because I wanted to prove that to produce really strong characters in puppets, you need to stylise them and find two or three characteristics to combine and communicate with."[145] Sylvia Anderson was ultimately to bring the character of Lady Penelope to life in likeness as well as in voice: after several test models had been rejected,[145] Turner decided to use Anderson herself as the template for the character's appearance (a fact of which Anderson was not immediately apprised).[124][127][146][147] Interviewed by the Daily Mirror in 1968, Turner commented, "we wanted a glamorous blonde and [Anderson] was the obvious choice."[147] The character's likeness had initially been based on that of a model seen in the fashion magazine Vogue.[148]

In the case of the main characters, the puppet heads were initially sculpted in either Plasticine or clay; once the general aspect had been finalised, it was used as the template for a silicone rubber mould.[70] This was subsequently laminated in layers of quick-setting Bondaglass (fibreglass mixed with resin),[70] sometimes augmented with putty-like Bondapaste for the addition of contours.[130][140] Once detached from the mould, the Bondaglass or plasticine shell was fitted with leather mouth parts, plastic eyes (which moved via radio control),[149] incisor teeth (a first for a Supermarionation production),[142] and a solenoid (to drive lip movements synchronised with the pre-recorded dialogue).[70][150][151] The heads of "revamp" puppets, which played supporting and guest characters, did not contain fibreglass, instead being made of plastic (formerly plasticine).[152] Such puppets started their working lives equipped with only a mouth and eyes; their faces were re-moulded for each episode in which they were selected to appear.[145][153] Particularly striking moulds were retained and, as their numbers increased, photographed and catalogued for the purposes of compiling an internal casting directory.[154] As for the previous Supermarionation series, Stingray, the sculptors diversified the facial expressions of the main puppets via interchangeable heads: besides heads presenting neutral expressions, "smiler", "frowner" and "blinker" heads were created,[70][152] bringing the number of heads created for main characters to five.[155] The puppet bodies, which were made of a porous plastic,[156] were made in three types: "large male" (for the Tracy family, as well as the Hood), "small male" (for supporting characters) and "small female".[70] To enhance his antagonistic appearance, the puppet of the Hood was fitted with a head and hands that were over-sized to an extent greater than what was normal for a Supermarionation puppet.[157] Once finished, the puppets measured approximately 22 inches (56 cm)[158] (or 13 human size)[149] tall, weighed between seven and nine pounds (3.2 and 4.1 kg)[70] and consisted of 30 or more components.[159]

Male characters' wigs were composed of mohair.[160] The wigs fitted to the Lady Penelope puppet were composed of human hair and cost approximately £30 each.[70][161] In charge of costume design was Sylvia Anderson, who also designed the costumes of the main characters.[57][147] Costumes avoided less flexible synthetic materials, the wardrobe department instead opting for cotton, silk and wool on account of the increased mobility available to the puppet characters.[70] Lady Penelope's attire was inspired by contemporary Carnaby Street fashions,[162] as well as photo-spreads of the latest Parisian styles in Vogue and Harper's magazines.[161][163] Silks, leathers and furs were supplied by London department stores such as Liberty and Dickins & Jones.[164] Between 1964 and 1966, the stock maintained by the wardrobe department totalled more than 700 costumes.[165]

During filming, dialogue was played into the studio via EMI TR-90 tape recorders fitted with RC circuits, which converted the audio feed to electronic pulses.[109] All puppet heads were fitted with between nine and eleven high-tensile, tungsten steel wires.[152][161][166] These were up to 0.005 inches (0.13 mm) in width (about twice that of a human hair)[140][167] and sprayed black to minimise their visibility.[164] Two of the wires relayed the pulses from the tape recorder to the internal solenoid,[152] completing the Supermarionation process.[109] Floor puppeteers would go to considerable efforts to hide wires from the cameras by applying powder paint that matched the background colours of the set.[72] Glanville explained the time-consuming nature of the preparation: "The [floor puppeteers] used to spend over half an hour on each shot getting rid of these wires, looking through the camera, puffing a bit more [paint] here, anti-flare there; and, I mean, it's very depressing when somebody will say to us, 'Of course the wires showed.'"[79]

The puppet operators co-ordinated movements from a gantry 12 feet (3.7 m) above the studio floor using a hand-held cruciform, assisted by a viewfinder-powered CCTV feedback system.[69] It was therefore essential that puppets were neither too heavy nor too light: the former would require thicker, more visible wires, while the latter would become increasingly difficult to operate from overhead.[168] Since the puppets were unable to walk convincingly – they were too light, and their lower-body joint articulation was limited to one control wire per leg[131] – dynamic shots were filmed from the waist up instead of in full shot.[98] A floor puppeteer would hold the puppet's legs below the level of the camera and simulate movement using a "bobbing" action.[98] Alternatively, the requirement for complex shots was removed completely: in an interview with New Scientist, published in December 1965, John Read spoke of the advantage of manoeuvring "around the puppet's limitations so that they appear, for example, to walk through doors (although the control wires make this impossible) or pick up a coffee cup (although their fingers are not in fact jointed)."[169] Yet another method of bypassing the problem of the puppets' restricted mobility was presented by the vehicles that the characters are regularly seen to pilot, from the Thunderbirds machines themselves to the "Hover Bikes" that allow them to move quickly over uneven terrain.[170]

As filming progressed, the puppet operators started to dispense with overhead wires and manipulate the characters from the studio floor, where they were less difficult to control, using rods.[171][172] Bald characters, such as the Hood, were the prime candidates for this new technique:[154] when a puppet's wires snapped, the replacements had to be fitted internally, and the head sanded down and re-painted; repairs to a wigged puppet were far simpler to conceal.[154] Some episodes display live human hands in shots containing one or more scale puppets as part of an innovation in AP Films' camera work: a visual illusion, generated by forced perspective, gives the impression that the size of the hand is proportionate to that of the puppet body.[14][136][173] Since realistic, jointed puppet hands (or feet) were impossible to make using contemporary technology, live-action shots were essential when scripts called for characters to perform more dexterous actions, such as picking an object up from a table surface.[170] On occasion, human-sized versions of puppet costumes were required for such shots, in which case the hands normally belonged to one of the wardrobe assistants.[161]

It was difficult for puppets to get in and out of vehicles without a great deal of trouble. Since we always tried to minimise walking, we'd show the puppets taking one step only, then promptly cut. Through interspersing the programmes with "meanwhile" scenes – that is, showing what else was going on in the story at the same time – we would then cut back to the puppet who was now already in his craft.

— Alan Pattillo on puppet movement (1992)[174]

Since, by necessity, the solenoids responsible for the automatic lip movements were housed inside the heads, the torsos and limbs of Supermarionation puppets appeared unrealistically small on-camera.[142] In a form of incremental realism, after filming on Stingray had been completed, AP Films down-scaled the size of the head slightly to remove some of the design's unintentional caricature,[175] and re-worked the body shape to make the puppets appear more human.[130] The puppets' likenesses and mechanics are remembered favourably by operator Wanda Brown, who has expressed a partiality to the Thunderbirds generation of puppets over that which appeared in Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967–68) and later series, and which were modelled in realistic bodily proportions: "The puppets were easier to operate and more enjoyable because they had more character to them ... Even some of the more normal-looking faces, such as Scott and Jeff, for me had more character than the puppets in the series that came afterwards."[141] Shane Rimmer, the voice of Scott, speaks positively of the puppets being still "very much caricatures", for it rendered them "more lovable and appealing ... There was a naive quality about them and nothing too complex. They all had their slight weaknesses and could make mistakes, and that was all part of their success."[176] Glanville considered the puppet design for Thunderbirds to strike a good balance between realism and caricature.[177]

Production design[edit]

The puppet soundstages on which Thunderbirds was filmed measured one-fifth the size of those used for a standard live-action production, measuring 12 by 14 metres (39 by 46 ft) horizontally, and typically being no deeper than ten feet (3.0 m).[158][178] Bob Bell directed the art department during the production of Series One; he was assisted by Keith Wilson and Grenville Nott.[179] After filming for Series Two started in March 1966, concurrently with that of Thunderbirds Are Go,[73] Bell attended mainly to the film and served only in a supervisory capacity on the TV series.[180] Set design for the latter was then managed by Wilson, who entrusted the more "technical" production design elements (such as vehicle interiors) to newcomer John Lageu.[180]

Since the art department's interior sets had to be consistent with the effects department's exterior blueprints, Bell and Derek Meddings – and later Wilson and Meddings' assistant, Jimmy Elliott – each closely followed the other's work.[181] Sylvia Anderson explains how the pressures on the two crews differed: "[Bell] had limitations imposed on him by a very strict series budget ... it was more tricky to match the interior with an equally complicated puppet set. [Meddings] would constantly push for a more extravagant match to his exteriors."[181] According to Meddings, it "took us a long time to work out a combined approach which resulted in a perfect match, but when we did, it made a big difference to the believability of the vehicle."[182] Interior design was initially complicated by the puppets' proportions, with Bell struggling to choose whether to build the sets to a scale that favoured their bodies or their over-sized heads and hands.[175] He used the example of FAB 1 to illustrate the dilemma: "... as soon as we positioned [the puppets] standing alongside [the FAB 1 model], they looked ridiculous, as the car towered over them."[142] Eventually, he resolved to adopt a "mix-and-match" approach to scaling.[175]

For the construction of the Creighton-Ward Mansion interiors, the set designers attended closely to the visual detail, ordering miniature Tudor paintings, 13-scale Georgian- and Regency-style furniture, and carpeting cropped to resemble a polar bear skin.[142][175] Elsewhere, the sense of realism was augmented by the addition of scrap items, acquired from domestic waste and electronics shops.[179] A vacuum cleaner pipe appears as the launch chute that conveys Virgil Tracy from the lounge inside the Tracy Island Villa to the cockpit of Thunderbird 2.[183]

Special effects[edit]

Derek Meddings, who later supervised special effects for the James Bond and Superman film series,[184] was effects director for every Anderson production from Supercar to UFO. Having acknowledged as early as the pre-production stage that Thunderbirds would be "the biggest project [AP Films] had worked on",[185] Meddings quickly struggled to accommodate the effects demands with the single unit that had sufficed for all previous Supermarionation productions.[75] He therefore established a second unit, headed by Brian Johncock (later Johnson),[75] and a third, exclusively for air-to-air flying sequences, under Peter Wragg;[90] with the expansion, the crews and soundstages utilised for filming increased to five. A typical episode of Thunderbirds contained about 100 effects shots,[1][186] and the effects department normally completed more than a dozen per day.[187] According to Read, effects accounted for up to half of a completed episode's footage.[188] Garland argues that the challenge facing Meddings' department was finding a balance between the "conventional science-fiction imperative of the 'futuristic'" and the "seeping hyper-realist concerns mandated by the Andersons' approach to the puppets."[189] Collaboration between the puppet and effects departments was generally uncommon, although the latter supplied the small amounts of gunpowder necessary to effect puppet gunfights.[190]

In total, the effects staff numbered more than 50.[191] A new addition to the department was Mike Trim, who became Meddings' assistant and storyboard artist in the design of the vehicles and buildings that populate the world of Thunderbirds – in particular, the Thunderbird 2 Pod Vehicles.[75][189][192] Meddings and Trim pioneered an "organic" effects technique, known as "gubbins",[193][194] which involved customising model and set exteriors with the application of parts from bulk-ordered model kits and other cannibalised items, such as children's toys.[76][175][195] For example, the air-conditioning silos visible on either side of Thunderbird 1 in its hangar were originally toy periscopes manufactured by J & L Randall. Additionally, models and sets were "dirtied down" with powder paint or pencil lead to create a "used" appearance,[194][196] or the impression of weathering and disrepair.[179][197] Similar techniques later became standard practice in the effects industry.[198] Mass-produced toy cars and vans doubled as their full-sized counterparts in long shots.[199] For added realism, vehicle models were equipped with basic steering and foam rubber-based suspension.[200][201]

A stately home with two adjacent wings, with a gravel drive and lawn in the foreground
Wide-angle photograph of Stourhead House, the inspiration for the fictional Creighton-Ward Mansion[202]

Among Meddings' first jobs during pre-production in summer 1964 was to film stock footage of the Thunderbirds vehicles (including their launchings and flight)[203] as well as the primary locations: Tracy Island and Creighton-Ward Mansion.[204] He described his excitement in designing the former as "one of those feelings you get when you're a kid, imagining that you're Robinson Crusoe living on a lovely island."[201] Trim submitted blueprints for the Cliff House and Round House (the disguised launch points of Thunderbirds 2 and 3).[4] The completed shooting model was a composite of more than a dozen smaller sets, which could be separated from the whole and filmed individually.[205] Creighton-Ward Mansion's architecture was based on that of Stourhead House, located on the Stourhead Estate in Wiltshire.[202]

Meddings was additionally tasked with the design of the Thunderbirds fleet and FAB 1, due to AP Films' former chief designer Reg Hill serving only in the capacity of associate producer.[56] On his arrival at AP Films Studios, Trim's first task was to convert Meddings' three-dimensional concepts of the Thunderbirds machines into plans and elevations.[4][194] A Feltham-based company, Master Models of Middlesex, was commissioned to build scale models of the six major vehicles from Trim's blueprints.[4][61] To save time, supporting vehicles were custom-made in-house by AP Films, from commercially available, radio-controlled vehicle building kits.[61][194] With the exception of Thunderbird 5, the only major vehicle not seen to move in the series, three or four models were built – each to a different scale.[206] Since the templates for many of the less important vehicles were pre-existing model kits, they were normally only 124 scale (as was the smallest FAB 1 miniature).[194][207] Effects department models and art department sets combined, a total of more than 200 versions of the Thunderbirds machines were constructed for the series.[208]

For Meddings, believability was the first priority in the design and filming of the Thunderbirds machines.[209] The swing-wing design for Thunderbird 1 was motivated by his wish that it seem "more dynamic" than a fixed-wing or rocket-like aircraft.[210] In his memoir, 21st Century Visions, he wrote: "I thought this model only looked right from certain angles, and as it was one of the most important vehicles in the series, I always tried to ensure we took special care filming it."[210] Meddings was dissatisfied with the prototype Thunderbird 2, which was originally to have been blue instead of green, until he inverted the wings.[61] He commented, "At the time all aircraft had swept-back wings. I only did it to be different",[211] and elsewhere noted that "people still ask me if I had any special aeronautical knowledge that influenced this design feature, but I have to admit that I didn't. The model just looked better that way."[212] He also remembered the difficulty in making the aircraft appear aerodynamic, given its primary function as IR's heavy-duty transporter.[212] The 3.5 feet (1.1 m)-long, balsa wood Thunderbird 2 proved to be both Meddings' and Anderson's favourite of all the shooting models;[213][214] however, Meddings still considered it to be "less glamorous" than Thunderbird 1, which in his opinion was "upstaged" by the sister ship whenever both appeared in the same shot[62][78][210] (by contrast, Anderson believed that the Thunderbird 1 model suffered from a lack of surface detail).[213] Meddings described the Thunderbird 2 launch sequence as "probably the most memorable effects sequence we created for any of the Andersons' programmes".[212]

The largest-scale Thunderbird 3, whose appearance was inspired by the Russian Soyuz rocket, measured six feet (1.8 m).[61] The shape of Thunderbird 5, the final and most difficult of the main vehicles for Meddings to visualise, was based on the Tracy Island Round House;[175] with less on-screen presence than even the rarely used Thunderbird 3, it was filmed only a few times during the series' production.[215] Pod Vehicles were designed on an episode-by-episode basis, in accordance with the description provided by the script that was being filmed.[191][216] They were commonly built from balsa or Jelutong wood, or from fibreglass if (as in the cases of the Mole and Firefly) they were required to be fire-resistant.[217] Meddings remarked that "Part of the appeal of Thunderbird 2 was that we ever knew what was going to emerge from its Pod from one episode to the next".[217] Scenes of Thunderbird 4 at sea posed additional problems: since the submarine's scale was incompatible with that of the body of water inside the filming tank, sequences such as Thunderbird 4 exiting its Pod depended heavily on camera angles and fast editing to maintain some semblance of realistic perspective.[216]

The biggest model to be built for the series was the large, 13-scale FAB 1, which accommodated the puppets of Lady Penelope and Parker.[61] On the selection of make, Anderson explained that considering "[Lady Penelope's] personality, and the role she played in International Rescue, it could only be a Rolls-Royce."[213] Sylvia Anderson determined both the colour and the name (which, as was IR's call sign, was a derivation of "fabulous").[218] The six-wheel drive was purposely incorporated into the design to distinguish the car's look from that of contemporary, real-life vehicles.[219] Measuring seven feet (2.1 m) in length, the plywood model, equipped with working steering and headlights,[220][221] cost £2,500 to build in 1964; post-decimalisation, this is equivalent to £30,000.[175] Meddings remembered the car for its "outrageous styling, which bore no resemblance to any Rolls-Royce ever produced", adding that, since it was the most expensive Thunderbirds prop, security protocols were strict.[200] Rolls-Royce Ltd. supervised the sculpting and provided AP Films with an authentic radiator grille, costing £100,[221] for close-up shots (such as when the car's front-mounted machine guns are seen to fire, and for a stock photograph of the front that appears in the closing credits).[42][218][220][222] In exchange, the company requested that the chassis display the Spirit of Ecstasy, and that characters refer to the car by its full brand name only in dialogue (avoiding abbreviations such as "Rolls").[220][223]

Scale explosions utilised materials such as fuller's earth, petrol jelly, magnesium strips[79] and Cordtex explosive, activated by electronic detonators.[224] Originally filmed at between 72 and 120 frames per second, shots were slowed to the standard rate of 24 frames per second during post-production to increase the apparent size and length of explosions.[64][188][225] Jetex chemical pellets (capable of issuing jets of air) or small fans (which blasted up fuller's earth), were inserted underneath models to simulate dust trails.[76][201] For rocket lift-offs and landings, Schermuly Pistol Rocket Apparatus was commissioned to supply gunpowder canisters in a range of sizes;[225] they could be fitted inside models and would ignite for approximately ten seconds to provide a powerful exhaust effect. Although many of the sound effects used in Thunderbirds were re-cycled from an audio library, some of the exhaust effects were specially recorded at a Red Arrows air display at RAF Little Rissington, Gloucestershire.[226][227]

Rocket firing was accomplished electronically, by passing current down tungsten wires; the same wires enabled a crewmember, positioned on a gantry and holding a cruciform at arm's length, to "fly" a model.[90] Remembering the carefully timed arm and leg movements necessary to simulate flight effectively, "Wag" Evans (builder of the wooden Thunderbird 2 and FAB 1)[42][61] explained: "It was a case of shifting your weight from one foot to another without going up or down, while keeping your hand and body on the same plane. If you got a slight twitch in the hand, it was accentuated on the model below, so you got an enormous lurch of the model."[90] By far the most cumbersome model was Thunderbird 2,[211][214] which Meddings remembered was "awful to 'fly'. You needed a very strong arm and you had to have a feel for it too ... You had to pretend you were flying it."[213] A combination of weak wires and unpredictable rockets frequently resulted in damage, especially the heavy Thunderbird 2 model.[228] According to Meddings: "Sometimes [the rockets] would ignite, but not together; so we kept the power running down the wire, which would get red-hot, glow and break";[211] a crewmember was normally ready with a cushion not only to prevent damage to a model when it fell, but also to stop either the model or the set catching fire.[228] Due to the combined complexities of model flight and rocket ignition, take-off and landing sequences were among the most challenging for the effects department to film, frequently requiring multiple takes to accomplish satisfactorily.[228] As with the puppets, the wires fixed to the models were regularly painted and sprayed over to reduce their visibility;[79] alternatively, the sky backdrop was purposely overlit to outshine them.[229] Conditions above the studio floor frequently proved hazardous due to the intense heat of the studio lights and the blinding smoke from burnt-out rocket canisters.[78]

One of Meddings' innovations for Thunderbirds was a cyclical effects soundstage called the "rolling road", which he and Anderson developed from the "rolling sky" technique pioneered for Stingray.[69][204][230] The "rolling road" allowed shots of moving aircraft and ground vehicles to be filmed on a set that was essentially static;[231] this was simpler to film and light, and made more effective use of the limited studio space.[69] Meddings had judged the established method (pushing scale models – or pulling them on wires – over a static base or against a stationary background) to be visually disappointing as well as inefficient.[69] His solution was first tested during the filming of the pilot episode, in which International Rescue's Elevator Cars assist in the controlled landing of an airliner.[231] First, a moving belt of canvas, powered by an electric motor, was stretched over a horizontal bank of rollers. Additional rollers, painted to represent a sky background, were then erected at a right angle to the belt; the speeds of the two roller batteries were also synchronised, with the canvas foreground moving at a higher speed to maintain the viewer's sense of perspective.[197] Finally, the aircraft model was lowered onto the "rolling road" to simulate a descent, while the wired Elevator Car models remained stationary on the canvas below.[69] Intermediary roller systems, representing features such as fences or trees, could be added for further enhancement of the visual illusion.[197][232] For airborne aircraft sequences against the "rolling sky", smoke was fanned across the stage to simulate passing clouds, and the roller systems connected obliquely to conceal the otherwise plainly visible partitions.[69] Meddings revived the "rolling road" technique for the James Bond films on which he served as effects director.[197][214][230]

By early 1966, Meddings' commitments had been divided between the production of Series Two and that of the first film sequel, Thunderbirds Are Go, which was being filmed concurrently at AP Films Studios.[97] While Meddings developed effects for the film, work on the TV episodes was mostly handed down to former camera operator Jimmy Elliott.[180] By this time, the basic frame of Thunderbird 2, which was structurally weak when not fitted with a Pod, had undergone so many repairs that the whole model had had to be re-built – an outcome regretted by Meddings, who stated that its replacement was "not only the wrong colour; it was a completely different shape. Although we had several more built in different scales, I never felt our model-makers managed to re-capture the look of the original."[104] Impressed by their work on Thunderbirds, director Stanley Kubrick employed several members of the AP Films effects crew, including Johnson,[233] as supervisors for his science-fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).[234]


Music was composed and conducted by Barry Gray, who scored all series made by AP Films (known as Century 21 Organisation following the completion of Thunderbirds in 1966)[234] up to the first series of Space: 1999. Anderson's specific instruction for the theme music was that it have a "military feel".[235] The resulting brass-dominated track, "The Thunderbirds March", was recorded on 8 December 1964 at Olympic Studios in London, with an orchestra of 30 instrumentalists.[82] Gray's original ending theme, "Flying High" – with lyrics by Gary Miller, background vocals by Ken Barrie, and an accompanying Spinetta[235][236] – was ultimately dropped.[98] First recorded in August 1965, it was rejected by Gray in favour of a variation of "The Thunderbirds March" two weeks before the first episode was broadcast.[176][237][238] For the second episode, "Pit of Peril", the ending march was played in a revised form, which became the standard for all later episodes.[98] A song in the style of "Flying High" would have continued AP Films' tradition of contrasting the opening and closing titles themes (the former being instrumental, the latter lyrical);[98][176] a modified version was later recycled as incidental music for the Series Two episode "Ricochet".[237]

Incidental music studio sessions were conducted from 18 March to 4 December 1965.[239] Since the music budget was weighted towards the earlier episodes, later instalments drew more heavily on pre-existing, recycled incidental tracks.[235] Beyond the TV series, Gray's work for Thunderbirds included the composition of four original songs: "Lady Penelope", "Parker", "Parker Well Done" and "The Abominable Snowman", sung in character by Sylvia Anderson and David Graham exclusively for audio release.[235]

The first Thunderbirds-exclusive music record to be released was the Century 21 Records mini-album Great Themes from Thunderbirds (originally Requested Themes from Thunderbirds),[240] published in 1967.[16] Gray's lost master recordings for the Andersons' series were located at a storage facility in Chelsea in 1993, only to disappear again following their return to then-copyright holders Carlton Media International; they were subsequently re-discovered and used as the source for two albums by Silva Screen Records, released in 2003 and 2004.[241][242] The 40th-anniversary special The Best of Thunderbirds,[243] a double album featuring music from the first two CDs, in addition to three previously un-released tracks and exclusive CD-ROM content,[244][245] was released in 2005.[246]

Peel regards the opening theme as "one of the best TV themes ever written – perfect for the show and catchy when heard alone".[247][248] Morag Reavley, in a BBC Online CD album review, argues that the music "still fizz[es] with excitement and anticipation" and is "up there with Bond, Sinatra, Elvis and the Beatles in the quintessential soundtrack of the Sixties".[241] David Huckvale identifies unintentional Wagnerian homages in theme music and plot elements alike.[249] He considers the string ostinato of the former to be functionally similar to a recurring motif present in Ride of the Valkyries (from Wagner's Die Walküre), while likening the Thunderbirds machines to the eponymous Valkyries themselves: "Their function is more benevolent than those warrior maidens, but they do hover over danger, death and destruction."[249] Thunderbirds, according to Huckvale, is typical of visual arts media that "inhabit a mythical realm ... consciously or unconsiously indebted to Wagnerian idioms."[249] University of Southampton academic Kevin J. Donnelly, in an essay discussing Gray's work for Space: 1999, acknowledges a "big-sounding orchestral score", which is stated to be comparable to that of a live-action feature film.[250] He also proposes, however, that the music "misdirects" viewers away from the puppets, and may even conceal their weaknesses: a strong score is stated to be an immediate indicator of high production values, "and in a crowded television marketplace, Anderson knew the importance of the immediate impact of a show's surface."[250]

Marriott praises the incidental compositions: he argues that, while the significance of theme and incidental music may be minimised in other TV series, Gray's was an "integral part of the drama".[251] Reavley writes positively of the series' "catchy, pulse-quickening tunes", as well as Gray's aptitude for "musical nuance" and skill in mixing lighter elements of jazz and comedy into action-centric pieces.[241] Heather Phares, in a four-star review for Allmusic, highlights what she interprets as Gray's frequent homages to, and divergences from, contemporary standards: she observes that the score "sends up the spy and action/adventure conventions of the '60s very stylishly and subtly".[252] In particular, she praises "Thunderbirds Are Go!" (the motif accompanying the lift-offs of Thunderbirds 1, 2 and 3) as a reflection of the "flashy, mod side" of the spy fiction genre in contemporary British culture;[252] Reavley praises the track as "heart-pumping stuff".[241] Phares ends her review by crediting Gray's music as being "crafted with nearly as much affection and attention to detail as the show that inspired it."[252]


All our planning was geared towards a second series of Thunderbirds and that it would continue for a long time ... [The series' cancellation] came as a serious blow to the organisation. I was shattered. At the time, we had two studios, a weekly comic, a record company and a whole merchandising operation. We had just opened an office in Hong Kong and ordered a million pounds' worth of machine tools, all based on the success of Thunderbirds – and the series was cancelled ... We couldn't get an American sale with Thunderbirds, so it was cancelled and we had to do something new.

— Gerry Anderson on the cancellation (2001)[253]

Thunderbirds ceased production in August 1966, after six episodes of Series Two had been filmed.[40][84][254] Grade decided to cancel the series in July after an unsuccessful business trip to the United States to sell the programme.[84][102][254] The three major American TV networks of the time – NBC, CBS and ABC – had all made bids,[255][256] with Grade attempting to play them off against one other and raising the price.[84] When NBC withdrew from the process, either due to Grade's increasing demands or a loss of interest in the series,[60][254] the other two immediately followed.[84][255] Anderson characterised the episode as "quite possibly an unprecedented opportunity in British television, and it slipped through [Grade's] fingers."[255] It had been reported as early as February 1966 that Grade had been unable to secure a trans-Atlantic sale due to disagreements regarding timeslots,[257] and that Series Two would comprise only six episodes.[258]

By this time, Thunderbirds was highly popular in its country of origin,[254][259] and was being distributed widely overseas.[40][255] Grade's judgement, however, was that a full second series would fail to recoup its production costs without the support of a US network;[102] in his view, a brand-new story concept had a stronger likelihood of securing an ITC sale to the profitable American market.[102][257] The series' cancellation had serious consequences for the merchandising subsidiaries of AP Films, especially the London- and Hong Kong-based Century 21 Toys, which received large numbers of cancelled orders;[260] Anderson reflected, "the infrastructure was too big to sustain without a hit like Thunderbirds."[234]


Thunderbirds premièred on British television on 30 September 1965 at 7 p.m. in the ATV Midlands, Westward and Channel broadcasting regions.[261] Other ATV regions, including ATV London, followed on 2 October;[255] Granada Television three weeks later, on 20 October.[261] The final Series Two episode, and series finale – the Christmas-themed "Give or Take a Million" – was first broadcast on 25 December 1966.[12] Since colour TV was not introduced in the UK until 1969, the series debuted in black-and-white.[262]

Notwithstanding Grade's decision that Thunderbirds was to be a 50-minute programme, episodes were divided into two 25-minute parts for the ATV Midlands and Granada broadcasts[263] (as well as for syndication in the United States).[82][93] In the case of ATV Midlands and Granada, both parts aired on the same day, separated by the 10-minute ITN Evening News programme; the conclusion opened with a brief summary of the first part's action, provided by Shane Rimmer.[264] Granada first broadcast Thunderbirds in its unedited, 50-minute format when it started repeats in 1966.[264] Due to timeslot restrictions, for two months in 1968, the franchise split episodes into three instalments for repeats; this unique format has since been lost.[264]

The availability of repeats during the 1960s and 1970s was dependent on the region. ATV Midlands transmitted Thunderbirds regularly from 1966 to 1973.[254] By contrast, viewers in Yorkshire, previously served by Granada, received no broadcasts from 1968 to 1976 (due to a decision by Yorkshire Television not to buy any of the Andersons' series).[265] Thunderbirds aired on the ITV franchises for the last time in 1981.[265]

Network broadcast[edit]

From November to December 1990, the series re-surfaced in the form of a radio drama mini-series, based on eight of the 16 episode soundtrack adaptations released during the 1960s and transmitted weekly on BBC Radio 5.[264] Instalments were introduced by Gerry Anderson, with additional voice-over contributions by Rimmer.[264] It was not the first time that elements of Thunderbirds had been broadcast on BBC radio: in 1987, Rimmer, Matt Zimmerman and David Graham had reprised the voice roles of Scott Tracy, Alan Tracy and Parker for a comedy mini-series transmitted on BBC Radio 2 in support of that November's Children in Need telethon.[266]

The success of the radio version prompted the BBC to acquire the rights to the original TV episodes from PolyGram, and network Thunderbirds (i.e. broadcast simultaneously to all regions) on BBC 2, starting on 20 September 1991.[265][267] Since the end of the first network run, which was successful and achieved average viewing figures in excess of six million,[103][268] the channel has repeated the series six times: from October 1992 to May 1993 (Series One only), during the 1994 Christmas season (seven episodes only), from January to March 1995, from September 2000 to April 2001 (digitally remastered by Carlton International Media),[269] and in the summers of 2003, 2005 (the series' 40th anniversary year) and 2006.[269][270]

Thunderbirds was repeated in full on UK Gold from 1994 to 1995, on Bravo from 1995 to 1997, on Cartoon Network from 2001 to 2002, and on Boomerang from 2001 to 2003. The series was repeated opposite Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and Joe 90 on Syfy in 2009. A Gaelic-language dub, Tairnearan Tar As ("Thunderbirds Are Go") was broadcast weekly in five-minute instalments on BBC Scotland from 23 September to 2 December 1993; it was repeated in 1994 on BBC Two Scotland during school hours.[271]

Foreign broadcast[edit]

Thunderbirds was sold overseas to 30 other countries (including Canada, Australia, Japan) during the 1960s, attracting £350,000 in pre-sales revenue for ITC prior to the series' UK première.[40][97][255] The series entered first-run syndication in the United States in 1968, with episodes airing during primetime in the alternative, two-part format;[84][257][272] the broadcasts were moderately successful.[60] Thunderbirds has a sizeable following in Japan,[273][274] where it was first broadcast by NHK in 1966. The series was transmitted in South Africa in 1976, dubbed into Afrikaans and titled Redding Internasionaal ("Rescue International").

Today, Thunderbirds is repeated on RTÉ Two in the Republic of Ireland. In the United States, Thunderbirds was syndicated on TechTV from 2002 to 2004; episodes were again broadcast in the two-part, half-hour format, with "pop-up trivia" and arrows super-imposed on the screen. The series currently airs in High Definition on Family Room. In Australia, Nine Network broadcast Thunderbirds many times, from the 1970s to as recently as 2007, in a Saturday morning timeslot, and on weekdays during school holidays; the series also aired on Nine Network's digital station Go! on Saturday mornings. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the original, uncut series was repeated a number of times on the Foxtel cable network; most recently, Foxtel transmitted Thunderbirds on the SF Channel on weekdays.


Nothing was as successful as Thunderbirds. Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons was very successful, but once you've had a smash hit, everything tends to look less successful in comparison.

— Gerry Anderson (2000)[8]

Science-fiction writer John Peel has described Thunderbirds as "without a doubt the peak of the Supermarionation achievement";[275] for director David Lane, it is "really the ultimate Gerry Anderson programme".[8] In a 2007 reader poll conducted by British magazine Radio Times, the series was ranked the 19th greatest science-fiction TV programme in history.[276] Thunderbirds achieved 24th position in the 2001 Channel 4 list programme 100 Greatest Kids' TV Shows.[277] The series' cross-generational appeal has also been recognised.[278] Jeff Evans, writer of The Penguin TV Companion, praises Thunderbirds, commenting that its format "provided plenty of scope for character development and tension building".[279]

Similar views are expressed by Peel, who praises Thunderbirds for its attention to plotting and characterisation and its "strong role models"[7][280] while opining that it features less of the "tongue-in-cheek" humour deployed by its precursor.[275] Where Thunderbirds marks an improvement over Stingray, argues Peel, lies in that it mostly avoids fantasy plot devices, "silly, stereotyped" and "comically inclined" villains, child or animal characters, and what Peel defines as the "standard Anderson sexism": in contrast with both earlier and later Anderson series, Thunderbirds gives its minority of female characters, among them Lady Penelope and Tin-Tin, chances to prove their bravery and worth.[281][282] Peel singles out Lady Penelope for special praise as the "one character in the show who positively shone", approving her conception as a secret agent playing the role of a "bored aristocrat", and identifying parallels with male literary characters such as James Bond, the Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro.[282] That the narrative focus is provided by a top-secret organisation (as opposed to a government-sanctioned body, such as the World Aquanaut Security Patrol) also raises Peel's estimation of the series.[281] He sums up the transition from Thunderbirds to the Andersons' and Century 21's next production, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, as "better puppets" and "bigger action", yet a "huge step backwards in stories", lamenting that previously, in his view, "you could believe in the show. The characters (even if they were puppets) were so human."[283][284]

Thunderbirds was more adult than the other series had been. There was humour, but it was generally funny rather than silly ... However, it was the adventure that was stressed the most, and this is one reason why the show proved to be so popular: the stories are tightly plotted, gripping and convincing. Many of them were ahead of their time ... Everyone in the audience found something to love about it.

— John Peel (1993)[281][283]

In his foreword to John Marriott's book, Thunderbirds Are Go, Anderson offered a number of possible explanations of how the series maintained its popularity, stating: "The show contains elements that appeal to most children – danger, jeopardy and destruction – but because International Rescue's mission is to save life there is no gratuitous violence."[285] He also considered it to have a "strong family atmosphere, where Dad reigns supreme. His sons are always in the forefront of the action and the audience share his concern for their safety."[285] Of the format, Anderson noted that it was "an hour-long show which allows time to introduce new characters, giving the audience the opportunity to get to know and like them before they are put into seemly hopeless situations."[285] Script editor Alan Pattillo similarly praises the series' "family values", concluding that "With all our characters carefully worked on, and with the support of good vocal artists, we had Gerry's best mix so far."[100] Voice actor Shane Rimmer remarks in his autobiography that he has "gone through pots of popcorn watching old Thunderbirds episodes, still in awe at the punch, vision and pure entertainment they still offer after all these years."[286] He believes that "[you'll] never get the same answer twice regarding what has made Thunderbirds still tick after all these years," but goes onto state "[that what] everybody is agreed upon, is the great affection in which International Rescue is still held around the world."[286]

In an essay on Anderson's science fiction, Jonathan Bignell writes that the title sequence – in which the Tracy family's portraits are superimposed on the Thunderbirds machines, their silhouettes colour-coded to their uniform's sashes – reflects Anderson's partiality to "visual revelation of machines and physical action".[287] Evaluating the length and detail of the Thunderbird 1, 2 and 3 launch sequences, Bignell identifies a "focus on vehicles", as well as a fixation on futuristic technology in general; to some degree, this is exploited to compensate for the limited mobility on the part of the Supermarionation puppets, which could rarely be made to walk on-screen.[287] The series' emphasis on the mechanical has been explored further by Nicholas J. Cull, who opines that, of all Anderson's series, Thunderbirds is the most evocative of his science fiction's recurring theme – the "necessity of the human component of the machine", and individual courage triumphing over technology, as demonstrated in Thunderbirds by the dangers of technology that "over-reaches" itself,[288] or boasts " an innovation too far".[63] He elaborates: "Almost all the stories in Thunderbirds deal with the flaws in technology as some new invention goes wrong ... though often the key flaw is human greed. Rescue is provided by the potent intervention of brave human beings and technology working together."[39] As a consequence, the series projects a vision of the future that is "wonderfully humanistic and reassuring".[39] Elsewhere, Cull judges the series to be "American-style product in miniature", pointing to aspects such as its "quick, thriller editing, inventive and engaging camera angles ... and brassy, dynamic music".[60]

Critics including Bignell and Cull have also analysed Thunderbirds as a product of the Cold War era. While acknowledging that episodes such as "30 Minutes After Noon" negatively portray the dangers that may be caused by unsecured or malfunctioning nuclear technology, Cull also notes that, with reference the Thunderbirds machines, "an image of technology associated with the threat of Cold War mass destruction – the rocket emerging from the hidden silo – was appropriated and deployed to save life rather than to take it."[63] On characterisation, Bignell notes that the Hood's evil transcends the boundaries of geopolitical schisms: his Far Eastern appearance and exotic powers "associated him with James Bond villains of the period, and pervasive fears of China as a 'third force' antagonistic to the West."[289] According to Cull, the series' rejection of ethno-national stereotyping is most prominent where it is actively utilised for positive effect:[39] he cites the Malaysian nationality of the Hood's own relatives, Kyrano and Tin-Tin, and their status as benevolent, "positive non-white characters".[39] Where Thunderbirds more willingly adheres to convention, argues Cull, is in its subscription to the "Cold War cult of the secret agent whose skills defend the home from enemies unknown", for which the series may be considered a children's version of such 1960s espionage programmes as Danger Man and The Avengers.[290] He alludes to the character of Lady Penelope, and the episodes "30 Minutes After Noon" and "The Man From MI.5" (whose primary guest star is a British Secret Service agent called Bondson) as evidence.[290] Similarly less original is the characterisation of many of its non-recurring villains, who are "corrupt businessmen, spivs and gangsters familiar from crime films".[39]

The series' presentation of tobacco smoking was the subject of a study published in the medical journal Tobacco Control in 2002. Kate Hunt of the University of Glasgow records on-screen examples of tobacco consumption in 26 of Thunderbirds' 32 episodes, with "Martian Invasion" containing the highest number (eight). According to Hunt, smoking on the part of the primary puppet cast is "generally associated with high status, high self-esteem, social and sexual desirability, and pleasure and leisure". The character of Lady Penelope is shown to be a smoker in 10 of the 17 episodes in which she appears; by contrast, the three junior Tracy brothers (Alan, Gordon and John) appear to be non-smokers, possibly on account of their "lack of maturity, their isolation from peers, or the closeness of their family set-up". As for non-recurring minor characters, the selection and application of tobacco product is frequently a clear indication of social class, with high-ranking male characters likely to hold cigars in their hands, and characters "of most dubious social worth" sometimes puffing constantly on cigarettes fixed between their lips.[291]

Hunt further comments that Thunderbirds' attitude to women and smoking is difficult to ascertain due to the under-representation of female characters, a reflection of the "more marginal status of women in the mid-1960s"; Tin-Tin, a socially ambiguous young woman, is seen to smoke in only one episode. Hunt determines that the depictions of smoking in Thunderbirds mostly "concur with the tobacco industry's efforts to associate tobacco consumption with glamour and success, health and wealth", adding that it is occasionally used "to 'mark' 'baddies'". She concludes that Thunderbirds does not actively promote smoking, an opinion rejected by the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation at the time of the series' 2000s re-launch on BBC Two.[291] Sylvia Anderson, the voice of Lady Penelope, considers the character's habit to be one of several "stereotyped prejudices" that surfaced in Thunderbirds and which today's audiences may see as politically incorrect; another is Penelope's wearing of furs.[292] She comments: "We were limited by the age in which we lived, and although we prided ourselves on setting new boundaries, I suppose we were too obsessed with the Space Age, nuclear power and their consequences to be more aware of green and other, more down-to-earth issues."[292]

Still Gerry Anderson's most accomplished creation to date, Thunderbirds not only invented a wealth of special effects in order to realise the far-reaching scripts, but also never swamped credible story-lines, intriguing characters and exhilarating feats of daring with Thunderbirds 1–5 and an arsenal of heavy-duty machinery.

— John Marriott (1992)[293]

Summing up the series, John Marriott expresses the view that "Thunderbirds has sparked the imagination of a world public like no other puppet series before or since."[294] Of the effect that it has had on viewers, he believes that "its influence, extending beyond millions of eager viewers, has also been both technical and ideological."[294] Anderson agrees, suggesting that "it did excite a future generation of scientists and engineers, whose ideas have been shaped by the craft and their capabilities."[294] In acknowledgement of the series' success, the Royal Television Society awarded Anderson the Silver Medal for Outstanding Artistic Achievement in 1966; the same year, he was appointed an honorary fellow of the British Kinematograph, Sound and Television Society.[254]


Pink, angular toy car.
Konami 164-scale FAB 1 toy car. In the 1960s, die-cast Thunderbirds vehicle toys were manufactured by such companies as Matchbox and Dinky.[97]

Since the series' first appearance, more than 3,000 Thunderbirds tie-in products – including children's toys, print media and audio episodes – have been marketed.[269] To compensate for the high demand for Thunderbirds media, AP Films established three additional subsidiaries: AP Films Merchandising, AP Films Records (or AP Films Music) and AP Films Toys.[272][295] In late 1966, APF was re-branded Century 21 Organisation and the subsidiaries' names were changed accordingly.[84][296][297]

Reflecting the series' popularity among British children, some news commentators dubbed the 1966 end-of-year toy shopping season "Thunderbirds Christmas".[254] To coincide with the BBC repeats in the early 1990s, Matchbox launched a new Thunderbirds range.[265] Christmas 1992 sales were exceptionally high, and the series' tie-in merchandising campaign surpassed the success of that of the Star Wars trilogy.[265][267][296] For Matchbox's Tracy Island Playset, demand vastly overwhelmed supply; this gave rise to in-store fights and the circulation of black market copies.[265][298][299][300]

A comic strip featuring the characters of Lady Penelope and Parker debuted in the first issues of APF Publishing's children's title TV Century 21 in early 1965.[15][301] A full-length "Thunderbirds" strip appeared a year later, at which time "Lady Penelope" moved to a sister comic of the same title.[15][302] The late 1960s additionally saw the release of Thunderbirds, Lady Penelope and Captain Scarlet and Thunderbirds annuals.[303]

APF Records released 19 Thunderbirds audio episodes on vinyl EPs between 1965 and 1967.[16][304] Three are original stories;[304][305] the other sixteen are condensed from TV episode soundtracks, featuring in-character narration from one of the voice cast.[264][306][307] At the same time, APF Publishing released eight original novels, written by John William Jennison and Kevin McGarry.[308] In 2008, after author Joan Marie Verba secured a North American licence from then-copyright holder Granada Ventures, the Minnesota-based company FTL Publications launched a new series of Thunderbirds novels.[309]

The first Thunderbirds video game, developed by Firebird Software for the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum home computers, was released in 1985. Towards the end of the 1980s, the series was released on home video: Channel 5 issued episodes in pairs, PolyGram in the Super Space Theater format. After acquiring the Thunderbirds brand in 1999, Carlton International Media re-mastered the series in preparation for the first Region 2 DVDs, released concurrently with new VHS versions in 2000.[269] In 2008, Thunderbirds was released in high definition on Blu-ray Disc.[310][311]

Later productions[edit]


Thunderbirds was supplemented by two feature-length film sequels: Thunderbirds Are Go (1966) and Thunderbird 6 (1968). The first, concerning the Zero-X spacecraft's ill-fated manned mission to Mars, was commissioned by Lew Grade before the first episode of the TV series had aired in 1965.[99] Written and produced by the Andersons, and directed by David Lane, both films were distributed by United Artists;[312][313] Thunderbirds Are Go premièred in London on December 1966, Thunderbird 6 in July 1968.[314][315] Neither film was a critical or commercial success, and Century 21 Cinema's plans for additional sequels were abandoned.[8][316]

In the early 1980s, episodes of Thunderbirds (as well as other Supermarionation series) were re-edited by ITC New York to create a series of made-for-TV compilation films.[317] Branded "Super Space Theater", the format was intended for family viewing and was sold to cable networks and into syndication in the United States.[317] Three Thunderbirds compilations, revised with new, animated title sequences, were produced: Thunderbirds To The Rescue (1980)[318] Thunderbirds In Outer Space (1981)[319] and Countdown to Disaster (1982).[317][319] The VHS releases proved to be a major commercial success for UK distributor Channel 5 Video.[317]

A live-action film adaptation – Thunderbirds, directed by Jonathan Frakes and produced by StudioCanal, Universal Pictures and Working Title Films – was released in July 2004. The plot concentrates primarily on the characters of Alan, Tin-Tin and a newcomer – Brains' son, Fermat – who must fight to save their families when the Hood and a band of mercenaries invade Tracy Island. Thunderbirds was poorly received both critically and commercially, and evoked a negative response from fans of the TV series.[288][320] Although Frakes' film did not enter production until 2003, plans for such a production had first been announced ten years previously.[321][322]


The Andersons sold their intellectual and profit participation rights to both Thunderbirds and their other series in the 1970s;[288][323][324] consequently, they had no developmental control over adaptations of their works.[273][288] The first major Thunderbirds adaptation, and currently the series' only remake, is Thunderbirds 2086 (1982).[269][288] It was adapted from Thunderhawks, a modernised story concept by Gerry Anderson.[325][326] In this anime re-imagining, set 20 years after the original Thunderbirds, the vastly expanded IR is based within a colossal arcology and the Thunderbird machines number 17.[327] Twenty-four episodes were filmed, but only the first 18 aired in Japan.[325]

Two re-edits, both based on condensed versions of 13 of the original episodes, premièred in the United States in 1994.[321] The first, Thunderbirds USA, featured new voices and dialogue, titles and music, and aired as part of the Fox Kids programming block;[321][328] the second, Turbocharged Thunderbirds, was syndicated on UPN.[329][330] Developed as a comedy, Turbocharged Thunderbirds preserved most of Fox's changes while transferring the action to the planet Thunder-World; it also incorporated live-action footage featuring a pair of human teenagers, assistants to the Supermarionation puppet characters.[329][330] Neither series was renewed for a second season, and neither has been broadcast in the UK.[321][331]

Anderson himself put forward several proposals for a Thunderbirds remake between the 1970s and 90s, to little success. A 1976 concept, Inter-Galactic Rescue 4, was to have followed the exploits of the a variable-configuration land-, sea-, air- and space-rescue vehicle; it was rejected by NBC in the United States.[317][332] A proposal dating from 1984 – T-Force, an updated version of Thunderbirds – could not be pursued initially due to a lack of funding.[333] In 1993, it was re-developed under the new title GFI, but production was cancelled (with only one episode completed) after the cel animation techniques being used for part of the filming yielded poor results and were determined to be cost-prohibitive.[328][334][335]

In 2005, Anderson announced a desire to remake Thunderbirds, but stated that he had been unable to secure the necessary rights from then-rights holder Granada Ventures.[270] Negotiations with Granada and its successor, ITV plc, continued for the next few years.[270][311][336][337] In 2008, Anderson expressed his commitment to producing an "updated" version, ideally to be filmed using CGI.[338] Such a production was confirmed by Anderson during a radio interview in 2011, less than two years before his death in December 2012.[339] In 2013, it was confirmed that ITV Studios and Pukeko Pictures were to remake Thunderbirds as a series of 26, half-hour episodes titled Thunderbirds Are Go!, to be filmed using a combination of CGI and live-action model sets.[9][340] It will be broadcast on CITV in 2015, the semi-centennial year of the original.[9][340]

References, parodies and imitations[edit]

A neon sign for a stage play at the Apollo Theatre reads "Andrew Dawson - Gavin Robertson - Thunderbirds FAB - A Forbidden Planet Production"
Billboard for the 1989 production of Thunderbirds: F.A.B. at the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, London.

The mission of IR inspired the foundation of the International Rescue Corps, originally a brigade of British firefighters who volunteered humanitarian services to Italy following the 1980 Irpinia earthquake.[317] Still operational, the charity has since assisted at disaster zones in various other countries.[317] The conglomerate Virgin Group has used the series in the branding of its services: Virgin Trains operates a fleet of locomotives (all named after Thunderbirds characters or vehicles) specifically for railway "rescues", Virgin Atlantic a Boeing 747-400 airliner named Lady Penelope.[269]

Since its TV debut, Thunderbirds has made a significant impact on British popular culture, and has influenced other TV programming, films and various other media.[269] The marionette comedy of the film Team America: World Police (2004) was directly inspired by the idiosyncrasies of Thunderbirds-era Supermarionation techniques.[341][342] In the 1960s, the BBC sketch comedy Not Only... But Also featured a segment titled "Superthunderstingcar", a parody of Thunderbirds as well as Supercar and Stingray.[269][343]

Visual and verbal homages and allusions have been acknowledged in the films Wallace and Gromit: A Close Shave (1995) and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999),[63][269][341] the sitcom Spaced (1999–2001),[341] and the character design of the TV series Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008–13).[344] In the 1980s, Anderson co-created Terrahawks, a science-fiction comedy that is thematically similar to Thunderbirds.[345]

A mime show tribute, Thunderbirds: F.A.B., has toured internationally and popularised a staccato-like style of movement known as the "Thunderbirds walk".[346][347] Having established a new London West End sales record during its 1989 run, the show has since been periodically revived for the stage under the title Thunderbirds: F.A.B. – The Next Generation.[269][327][346][348][349]

Cover versions of "The Thunderbirds March" have been released by various musicians and bands, including Billy Cotton, Joe Loss, Frank Sidebottom, The Rezillos and The Shadows.[269] Groups who have written songs inspired by the series include We've Got a Fuzzbox and We're Gonna Use It, TISM, Busted and V6.[269] In 1991, Anderson directed the music video for the Dire Straits single "Calling Elvis", which was composed partly of footage of Thunderbirds-style marionette puppets.[296][328][350][351]

In the 1960s, AP Films developed a series of Thunderbirds-themed TV advertisements for the brands Lyons Maid and Kellogg's.[352][353] Since then, elements of the series have been incorporated into advertising and publicity for Swinton Insurance,[266] Nestlé Kit Kat,[354] the UK Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA)[355] and Specsavers,[355] among others.



  1. ^ Evidence for both sides of the year debate: "The Date Debate: 2026 or 2065? You Decide!". Archived from the original on 21 August 2013. Retrieved 1 January 2011. 
  2. ^ Other members of IR are sometimes shown in uniform. In Thunderbird 6 (1968), Brains wears a brown, leather-like sash; in "Sun Probe" and "The Uninvited", Tin-Tin wears a blue uniform without sash. In publicity for Thunderbirds Are Go (1966), the Jeff Tracy puppet was photographed wearing a gold sash with the logo of the Barnardo's children's charity ("FAB Mail" in FAB, Issue #65, March 2010).
  3. ^ Sources that interpret the events of the series as occurring in 2026 provide different character birth dates. According to Marriott 1993, pp. 112–27: Jeff, 1970; Scott, 1996; Virgil, 1999 (thus, depending on the source, either Virgil or John is Jeff's second son); Lady Penelope, 1999; John, 2001; Gordon, 2004; Alan, 2005.


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External links[edit]