Monday 9 February 2015

Stingray (1964)

The last thing Gerry Anderson wanted to do was to work with puppets. However, having set up his own production company (AP Films), he was facing financial ruin. His company had no work at all until a woman approached him and commissioned him to make a series called The Adventures of Twizzle. To Anderson’s shock and dismay this series was to a children’s puppet series. He was in no position to refuse the offer but the experience confirmed his intense dislike of puppet series. His misery was complete when his company was commissioned to make another series - yet another puppet series.

Anderson’s distaste for puppets was in fact to be the driving force behind the immense success of his puppet series. He hated puppet series because they were crude and looked absurdly and embarrassingly unrealistic. His solution was to make a puppet series that would not suffer from these egregious faults. Puppet series made up to that time had been so awful that he was sure he could do better. The first puppet series originated by APF would be a western adventure called Four Feather Falls. It was a success but the experience convinced Anderson that he could do even better. Since the biggest problem was in trying to get the puppets to walk he would create a series in which the puppets would not have to walk - they would go everywhere in a high-tech futuristic super car. Thus was Supercar born. And Gerry Anderson, who had had as little interest in science fiction as in puppets, found himself a very successful maker of science fiction puppet TV shows.

The enormous potential of science fiction and its obvious advantages for a puppet series soon kindled his enthusiasm. Supercar was a hit but it was still a little crude. Fireball XL-5 would be much more ambitious and much more polished technically.

By 1964 Anderson could rely on the enthusiastic backing of ITC chief Lew Grade and he was able to be even more ambitious. Colour television in Britain was still some years off but it was obviously the future in the US. If you wanted to sell a series to the US it was obvious to Anderson that it would have to be in colour. This would be much more expensive but Lew Grade could see Anderson’s point and this next series would be in colour. The series was Stingray and it would turn Gerry Anderson into a pop culture phenomenon.

If there was one thing Gerry Anderson hated it was the idea of repeating himself. He’d already done flying cars and spaceships so he needed to do something different. The adventures of the crew of a high-tech submarine seemed like the perfect solution.

Stingray would also introduce a recurring motif in Anderson’s TV series - the headquarters that was either ingeniously hidden or that could be made to vanish. Marineville was a city that could disappear beneath the Earth when under attack. A major innovation with this series was the use of multiple heads for each puppet, each head having a slightly different expression.

The Anderson hero was already well-established - handsome, square-jawed but sensitive and with a sense of humour. Stingray’s Troy Tempest was a logical development of Supercar’s Mike Mercury and Fireball XL-5’s Steve Zodiac. With Fireball XL-5 Anderson, no doubt at the prompting of his wife and collaborator Sylvia, had introduced another innovation, giving his spaceship a beautiful female crew member. Stingray would go one better, with not just one but two leading female characters. This would allow for the introduction of more dramatic tension and even the possibility of a romantic triangle. Sylvia’s instinct proved to be correct - not only did leading female characters give the series more appeal to female viewers it also made the characters far more human and realistic, with genuine human emotions. For a children’s TV adventure series this was a fairly revolutionary idea, and a very successful one.

In the 1960s British television makers became obsessed with the idea of making programs with a transatlantic feel. With the United States being the world’s largest television market it seemed like a sensible strategy. So second-string American stars, or American stars whose careers were fading, were imported to play leading roles in British TV series. Gerry Anderson felt that this was rather silly - why would you for instance have an American cop in a British TV series? Anderson accepted the need to appeal to the US market but his strategy was to go all the way - to make the whole series seem American. Whether this really had the desired effect or not is an open question - to many people Thunderbirds seems like the quintessence of British pop culture. But there’s no questioning Anderson’s ability to capture the imagination of American audiences (as well as audiences everywhere else). 

If Gerry Anderson had a genius, it was a genius for never being satisfied. He always felt that things could be done better, that the look of his programs could be improved. And he communicated this sense of dissatisfaction to the people who worked for him so that they were always trying to find ways to make the shows look more realistic and more exciting.

A good example of the imaginative and innovative approach taken by Anderson’s team was their solution to the problem of filming the submarine underwater. Anderson was initially intending to film the sub in a tank of water but a better way was found. A very thin tank filmed with small fish was placed in the foreground with Stingray suspended on wires behind, rather than in, the tank.

The episodes vary quite widely, with some being very whimsical and clearly aimed at the children’s audience while others deal with more serious science fictional themes and even with interesting interpersonal conflicts (the episode The Man from the Navy being a good example with inter-service jealousies and rivalries and with Troy Tempest having to make a very tough decision).

The gradual move towards more grown-up themes in Anderson’s series would culminate in the astonishingly dark Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons in 1967.

Stingray stands up pretty well. The miniatures work is excellent and the series is consistently entertaining. 

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