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Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet creator Gerry Anderson dies at 83

Supermarionation – the joke the industry never got

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Obituary Gerry Anderson, creator of classic children's television shows like Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and Joe 90, has died at the age of 83.

Anderson, in conjunction with his then-wife Sylvia, pioneered the use of puppets that had solenoid motors built into them to move the eyes and mouth – later dubbed supermarionation. The wires used to suspend the puppets also carried current and their lips could be synchronized with the actor's voices by using an audio filter that sent pulses of current to the puppet's motors.

"Supermarionation started as a tongue-in-cheek term," Anderson explained to the BBC. "But as the years rolled on people in the industry started asking us 'would you do it in supermarionation?' I would sit there and think 'if only you knew.'"

Although he originally trained as a cinematographer, Anderson started working with puppets in the late 1950s , debuting with The Adventures of Twizzle, the story of a doll that could stretch its arms to great lengths. During the making of the show he met his future wife Sylvia, and they first used supermarionation in Four Feather Falls, a puppet Western that didn't catch on.

But it was with a series of science fiction shows over the 1960s that Anderson cemented his position in popular culture. Fireball XL5, Stingray and, most famously, Thunderbirds became enormously popular, both within the UK and overseas. The tales of the Tracy family and their fleet of International Rescue craft still has a cult following to this day.

Incidentally, the name for the show came from the war-time experiences of Anderson's brother Lionel, who volunteered for the RAF at the start of the Second World War. While training in the US he sent his younger brother letters from the Thunderbird Field airbase in Arizona.

Anderson followed up the series with Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, a darker show about interplanetary war between Earth and Mars whose hero was indestructible, and the tales of Joe 90, a child prodigy who could upload skills via computer, and then access the information via his thick-framed glasses. This was the last series to solely use supermarionation and coincidentally spawned a ready nickname for any British schoolboy cursed with National Health Service glasses.

Subsequent projects saw the Andersons work more in standard television drama but the two split, with Gerry announcing the couple's divorce at the wrap party for the first series of the now rather-optimistically entitled Space: 1999. The subsequent divorce proved expensive and Anderson signed away the future rights to his shows of a cash payment, a decision that later cost him millions in video and DVD sales.

In the 1980s series like Terrahawks were less popular and the 2005 CGI show New Captain Scarlet only lasted for a couple of series. Anderson hoped to do more work, but funding was a major problem.

He was not involved with Hollywood's attempt at a film of Thunderbirds in 2004. Anderson said he turned down $750,000 to endorse a film and attend the premiere screening, although his ex-wife served as a consultant. The film was panned by the critics, lost the studio an estimated $30m, and Anderson was scathing in his criticism.

"It was the biggest load of crap I have ever seen in my life," he told The Guardian.

The technique of supermarionation received a new lease of life with the release of Team America: World Police by the creators of South Park, who cited Thunderbirds as an inspiration. Anderson pronounced himself satisfied with the result, although the puppet sex-scenes must have raised an eyebrow.

Anderson auctioned off most of his memorabilia in 2009 and was diagnosed with dementia a few years ago. His son Jamie has confirmed that Gerry died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 83. ®

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