15 THINGS YOU (PROBABLY) DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT THE THUNDERBIRDS
Never meet your heroes, they say. Nonsense. Last week, I met Scott Tracy and the man didn't put a foot wrong. Actually, that's not strictly true. As the Thunderbirds puppet pottered across the Symphony Hall floor he put pretty much every foot wrong, stumbling over his own legs on countless occasions, and that made the whole meeting all the more magical. Scott, his brother Virgil, Titan from Stingray, loads of vehicles and Jamie Anderson were in town to promote Stand By For Action! Gerry Anderson in Concert, a one-off musical celebration of the man behind Tracy Island, Captain Scarlet and loads more. Music from one of the most iconic back catalogues of all time, including Thunderbirds, will be celebrated at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall on Saturday 16 April, 2022. With Gerry no longer with us, I sat with his son and walking Thunderbirds encyclopedia, Jamie (below), for a conversation that quickly turned into a staggering "did you know?", of Gerry's most well-known creation, Thunderbirds — a show that had much closer ties to Brum than I ever knew.
1. Many of Gerry's most recognisable puppets were created in Birmingham
John Blundall was one of Britain’s foremost puppet masters and designers, who created memorable work in both theatre and TV. Born in Birmingham, Blundall had made his first puppets by the age of 14, before going on to train in puppet-making and theatre in Russia and Japan. In 1966, Blundall joined the staff of our own Midland Arts Centre, where he founded the Cannon Hill Puppet Theatre in 1968. Among the puppets designed by Blundall was the character of Aloysius Parker (below). Blundall was one of four puppet designers who worked with Gerry to create the characters for the series, as well as characters for Supercar, Stingray and Fireball XL5.
2. The original sound effects were created in Brum
Grosvenor Road Studios, formerly the renowned Hollick & Taylor Studios in Handsworth, has been Birmingham’s best keep secret for over sixty years. During that time, many firsts have been recorded, including all the original sound effects for Thunderbirds and Stingray. The effects were often improvised by studio owners John and Jean Taylor, placing Jean in a small group of women at the forefront of electronic music and sound effects. "John and Jean," says Jamie, "were making these high tech sounds in not very high tech ways. The sound of the injector tubes in Stingray [twin seats that were lowered into the submarine], was the noise of a tape machine spinning up. John would create the sound of ice forming on Stingray's hull by running his thumb down a tube of acetate. Just genius, really." Grosvenor Road Studios, where one of the studios is called the Thunderbird Suite, is now the home of B:Music’s Associate Artists Black Voices.
3. A Hollywood composer will conduct the show
The music for the one-nighter will be brought to life by a full symphony orchestra featuring Anderson composer, Crispin Merrell, on piano and conducted by BAFTA-winning composer and Anderson alumnus, Richard Harvey. Harvey has worked on a raft of big name movies including The Da Vinci Code, The Lion King, Enemy of the State and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. He's probably quite good then. Crispin Merrell worked on, among many things, the at times haunting soundtrack for American Psycho.
4. The puppets are rather big
...Well, depending on how big you think they are. At 22-inches tall they're about a third of the size of humans, which took me by surprise. But, apparently, people always go one way or another. "The most common thing I hear," says Jamie, "easily, is amazement at their height. Lots of people expect them to be smaller than they are, but then again many people comment on how big they are. Either way, everyone seems to be very taken aback. People turn into massive kids when they meet one of the puppets, though. Everyone wants a photo. We did a convention with the Red Dwarf crew and even they wanted photos. Chris Barrie was feeding Brains a biscuit at one point. And the music does the same thing! Whether you're eight or 88, it turns you into a kid when it kicks in."
5. Thunderbirds was inspired by tragedy
The show was inspired by the Wunder von Lengede ("Miracle of Lengede"), a famous mine collapse in West Germany. In 1963, 11 miners were rescued from the mine after surviving 14 days underground. Gerry Anderson was inspired by the rescue mission. "Dad was a newsaholic," says Jamie. "He was listening to the radio when that disaster happened. A lake collapsed in on a mine and trapped a lot of miners. Many died, sadly. They had to drill a borehole, send a capsule down and bring the survivors up. And Dad thought, 'wouldn't it be amazing if there was an international rescue team for such situations?' And it went from there. The show was going to be called International Rescue — it was only later he went with Thunderbirds."
6. Thunderbirds was called Thunderbirds because of Gerry's brother, Lionel
"My uncle, who died in the Second World War, trained for the RAF out in Arizona at an airfield called Falcon Field. At the time the Americans were making a propaganda movie and Lionel was involved. He was writing home saying he was going to be in it as an extra, how he had made friends with Hollywood A-Listers, Preston Foster and Gene Tierney, and how he hitchhiked to 20th Century Fox and had lunch with Judy Garland! Anyway, that film was called Thunderbirds and it must have stuck with Dad, who idolised his brother. Scott Tracy, for all intents and purposes, is a tribute to Lionel."
7. The eyes were made by a man called William Shakespeare
Not that one. "In the early days," says Jamie, "the eyes weren't at all realistic. So Dad went to a guy who made prosthetic eyes and said, 'how much for a pair?' William said, 'I don't know, nobody's ever needed two.'" Perhaps the biggest technological step for the puppets was the electromagnetic solenoids that controlled the mouth opening and closing. "Originally the puppeteers controlled that, but when they jolted the puppet to flap the mouth open, the entire body jerked, too. So they added solenoids to the mouth that would open and close with electric current, at the right points. It didn't always work, mind you."
8. Scott Tracy's appearance was modelled on Sean Connery
And although it has been mentioned, Jamie can't confirm if Brains is modelled on Anthony 'Norman Bates' Perkins. "Captain Scarlet was modelled on Cary Grant, though," he adds. "Dad was a huge film fan and as a kid would visit the cinema once a week. He even tried to get into showbiz as a plastering decorator, but he became allergic to plaster."
9. Thunderbirds only lasted two seasons
And what crazy seasons they were. Season one was 26 episodes long, while season two was cancelled after just six episodes, in favour of Captain Scarlet. Each episode was an hour long, a first for children's programming in the UK.
10. The characters were named after astronauts
The Tracy brothers are named after five of the Mercury Seven (above): Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Virgil 'Gus' Grissom and Alan Shepard. Members of the group flew on all of the NASA human spaceflight programs of the 20th century: Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and the Space Shuttle. Shepard became the first American to enter space in 1961, and later walked on the Moon on Apollo 14. Grissom flew the first manned Gemini mission in 1965, but died in 1967 in the Apollo 1 fire; the others all survived past retirement from service.
11. A crocodile once maimed Lady Penelope
For one episode, entitled Attack of the Alligators, live baby crocs were used around the puppets. "Someone complained to the RSPCA," says Jamie. "The crocs got their payback, though, when one of them ripped off Lady Penelope's leg. Lord of the Rings director, Peter Jackson, owns Lady Penelope's Rolls Royce now, by the way."
12. A request was made for Lady Penelope's smoking to be digitally removed
"Thunderbirds was re-shown on the BBC in 2000 and 2001 and there was this element of 'you can't have all these characters smoking and drinking on a kids show'. But it was 1965 when it was shot — a totally different time — and, in the end, the digital removal of the smoking never happened. Dad was keen, though, to have the visible strings removed. They went to great lengths to paint the strings the same colour as the backdrop when they first filmed, but they were only ever meant for showing on the old Standard Definition screens. So when they started doing the HD restorations, the wires were suddenly very, very visible. Again, they weren't removed either, but Dad did want them out. I'm glad, though, that they didn't get cut. There's something charming and amazing about them."
13. The revenue generated from merchandise was so huge in the UK, it wasn't surpassed until Star Wars
"Merchandise was handled by Keith Shackleton, who Dad knew from their RAF days. Keith had a really good eye for it. He was the guy who bought the Power Rangers to the UK. But yeah, Thunderbirds merchandising was absolutely huge — there was a magazine that sold a million a week. And it was big again in the 90s when they re-showed it. There were stories of mothers offering to sleep with shopkeepers to get Tracy Island for Christmas, which was sold out everywhere."
14. To make Thunderbirds today would cost about £1million per episode
"At least," says Jamie. "It took a team of 200 people to make it, so on salaries alone you're talking big money. It was a huge operation and sure, with modern technology it could be a small operation, but back then it took a lot. They would only manage to get about a minute of footage per day's work. And they would spend weeks making objects that would be blown to smithereens in seconds. Such a weird but wonderful way of working."
15. The guy who did the speaking clock did NOT do the Thunderbirds countdown
"The famous '5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Thunderbirds are go' was voiced by Peter Dyneley who played Jeff Tracy and not, as was claimed, by Brian Cobby who was the first voice of the Talking Clock. For the Birmingham show, impressionist Jon Culshaw will be taking that role as well as hosting the evening. It's going to be very, very cool."
'Stand By For Action! Gerry Anderson in Concert' takes place on April 16 at Symphony Hall with tickets from £38.
GO SEE THE DON (QUIXOTE)
Hold on to your hats and, if you're not wearing a hat, your most altitudinal item of clothing, because Birmingham Royal Ballet's Don Quixote has rocked the south coast with rave reviews and a rush of social meeejah love. Launching in Southampton and heading to our Hippodrome, tomorrow until February 26, Director Carlos Acosta brings an explosion of Spanish sun, spectacular dance and actual ballet lolz, in his new production created especially for the Company. Featuring all-new designs, so even the Quixote connoisseurs can't decline, this one includes — and we hate to have to talk this up too much — The Royal Ballet's Marianela Nunez and Vadim Muntagirov dancing the leading roles on the Tuesday and Wednesday (Feb 22 and 23), alongside the stars of Birmingham Royal Ballet. As the Don sets out on a quest to track down his true love, with his loyal pal, Sancho Panza, at his side, he finds himself embroiled in an unlikely adventure of love and dreams. We've all been there. The first UK performances of Acosta’s sparkling new 21st-century production of this 19th-century masterpiece, feature phat tunes by one of the founding fathers of Russian Ballet music Ludwig Minkus. Performed live by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, expect big beats and bags of bass. Carlos has pedigree, of course, having performed in Don Quixote since the age of 16 when he won the Prix de Lausanne. “For this new production," says the big fella, "I wanted to give it a completely new take and a new look to the one that I gave to the Royal Ballet so that Birmingham has its own. It’s a new production with a new concept and designs, re-orchestration, new elements of the choreography, new colours, a whole new palette.... It's a ballet for virtuosos. If you really have aspirations to become the best ballet dancer you can be, then you must have this ballet under your belt.” Which reminds me, hold on to your belts too. Tickets start from £22.
PADDLE UP AND RIDE
More miles than Venice, or so the sluggishly laboured fact goes. But have you actually seen much of it? Good news: you can now explore the sights of the Brum Riviera, on a Midlands gondola, no less. That’s right, kayak the waters for a mere £30 on a guided canal tour. Roundhouse Birmingham is back with its spring dips from mid-April, and their sell-out-fast bookings are now live. Launched last summer, they should be on every list of top ways to explore our city. We had firsthand experience of the Green Escape, five mile tour one sunny August Sunday. Pleased to report: no mishaps, capsizes, crashes or goose attacks. You’d assume you’d be heading out towards the Vale and the University of Birmingham— nope, stupid-head, there’s green space aplenty the other way, round the Soho Loop. We paddled out past the Port Loop development, as far as Winson Green (formerly an asylum) and the old canal access to the prison — blocked up these days; no escapes for them. The slightly shorter, three mile Bustling Birmingham tour is the recommended ‘beginner’ option and will take you through the heart of the city and Gas Street, giving you a new perspective of the historic buildings lining the waterways. Take your pick, or do both. They also offer group bookings for private kayak tours of six to 16, if you fancy forming a canal gang. It’s a perfect couple of hours to while away; floating past the fisherman, just about out-pacing walkers on the towpath, and stopping to learn some fascinating nuggets of history. Fear not if you’re a kayaking newbie. You get a full instructional before you get into the water, support throughout from two experienced guides, and help getting your soggy arse out and onto the terra firma, if upper body strength isn’t your strong suit. Which, of course, it absolutely is for us. Get paddling
The Lickeys might be your hilliest adventure this year, but that doesn't mean you can't watch other idio... I mean, adventurers risking life and limb for some fancy Insta snaps. The Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour rolls into Town Hall Saturday (February 19), and stars intrepid characters, extreme expeditions and stunning cinematography from the wildest corners of the planet. Take, for example, Exit the North Pole. In 24-hour darkness and with temperatures down to -40, polar explorers Børge Ousland and Mike Horn attempt the unimaginable: a 1,500km ski expedition across the frozen Arctic Ocean, via the North Pole. With drifting ice and the threat of polar bears, this gruelling journey has been described as the boldest polar expedition of modern times. Tickets are £13, with two sessions of different collections of shorts to choose from at 2.30pm and at 7.30pm. More
Birmingham Stationery Company is one of the small-scale manufacturers nestled in the JQ, and they’re doing a roaring trade in beautiful paper goods, sourcing and creating unique treasures. They manufacture their notebooks in-house, by hand, using silkscreened paper — and they are be-a-utiful. If you’re wondering if you can justify another notebook, the answer is always yes. Being handmade, you can tailor it to your needs, so choose your paper type and your personal monogram to make your nonsense scrawls feel luxurious. Prices start from £20. Alongside satisfying your notebook urges, they also commission and produce prints by Midlands artists. Their latest is with Soulless Earth, exploring Brum’s urban identity. With big Blade Runner vibes, these prints explore a futuristic city, showing recognisable Brum icons within a new landscape. Library of Birmingham, Grand Central and Oozells Square are all reimagined among space traffic and neon lights. More
URBAN HYMNS BY THE B-POETS
No longer just a cool person trope in a New York film, spoken word is now part of the zeitgeist — the finger on the political, social and cultural pulse — and comes in many guises. So head to the Hippodrome for an entire season to become acquainted, kicking off with the Verve Festival of Poetry and Spoken Word. Visit Verve from today to February 20 to hear, see and take part in exploring the power of words. It’s a lively, celebratory festival offering big performance po-po (as nobody calls it), open mics, music, readings and workshops. Festival highlights include Suhaiymah Mazoor-Khan’s workshop on the power of writing as resistance; Pen-Ting bring the best of hip hop and poetry and Not Understanding Poetry workshop will help us, well, you get the idea. Dancing to Music You Hate is introduced as: ‘Poetry. Beatbox. Celtic dubstep’. We’re there. You can also catch Brummie photographer and filmmaker, Paul Stringer’s, new exhibition, The City That Spoke To Me. Running from 17 February until May, it celebrates Brum’s spoken word scene in all its diversity. Other events to dip into are the UniSlam showcase, and seasonal poetry night, Hit The Ode, featuring world class spoken word artists, resident DJ, Psykhomantus and an open mic. You can sign-up on the night, with ten, three minute slots up for grabs, selected at random. Have a go? Maybe you’ll knock out the big Primark version of this Ode to Poundland.
WHAT TO DRINK AND WHEN: VOL 6
Brum's bartender-in-chief, Robert Wood, with this week's top tipple...
"You're about to be let into a secret. Not a state secret; you won't need go on the lam leaving loved ones behind. From the Yucatan peninsula via globetrotting barista, Rory McGhie, comes one of the most delicious things in the coffee world, all the way to Brum: The Hemingway, at Pause, in Verbena. Named after the boozy writer, this coffee lives in a similar world to the Spanish Bombon Café, Vietnamese Ca Phe and the Cafe Cubano. A hunk of molasses-rich sugar is whisked into the first few golden drops from the espresso, until it becomes an intensely sweet and delicious Ristretto of sorts. It's then lengthened with perfectly micro-foamed milk into a Piccolo (tiny Latté) and delicately finished with ground cinnamon — a practice used around the tropics to keep flying pests away from your beverage, which lends a beautiful spiced aromatic. The Hemingway might be blasphemy to coffee purists, but it's utterly worth the coffee pilgrimage to Stirchley for those less stuck in their ways. Plus, it'll likely be made by a previous World Champ. The perfect table partner to the Hemingway is their spectacular cinnabuffin. The blueberry is my personal favourite, but if they're ever making the mocha version, do not spare the horses."
Stirchley stalwart, Caneat, doesn’t make a song and dance. They don’t need to, the proof is in the pudding... The one problem? Drool-inducing star dishes burn out as quickly as they appear, to be replaced with more; so it’s a ‘use it or lose it’ mentality for us, and we order the lot. Mercifully, the menu will stay the same for a while, so we’ll finally walk, not waddle, out of the door. Hurray for Hedge opening up a permanent store just down the street, so it’s almost back to pre-pandemic business and size. New things: you can book online, and you really should — squeezing in on the off-chance seems to be getting harder. No to London queuing, though, no sir. Small plates are now defined starters and you’ll want to order the lot, veggie or rabid meat-eater. The mozzarella (£9) was at owner Dom’s behest, declaring himself ‘so over burrata’ (Stirchley gentrification complete). It perfectly topped the extra order of garlicky, oozingly good sourdough (£3.50), and we undermined the whole thing by piling on the pickles (£4), but YOLO, don't you? The artichoke and pistachio nuttiness with the sour mozzarella was surprisingly light, given that an entire one intended for sharing was gorged single-handedly. Satisfyingly creamy and sour on the inside, the teeniest bite was reluctantly shared in exchange for a mouthful of smoky salmon (£9), delicate and perfect with the salty yoghurt and fennel— a posh coleslaw. It’s the top notch ingredients that make Caneat’s unpretentious house style so worth the trip. Arctic temperatures meant we were only ever going two ends of the stew spectrum for mains. The three meat pork, venison and beef bonanza (£14) came with a perfect mash, truffle just whispering — no obnoxious yells. The vegan cabbage and chickpea stew (£11) had the standout addition of the night: a delicious coconut feta that was a lovely bit of business. Oh and if they’re on when you’re in, order the Anya potatoes for sheer indulgence—they are summink else. Topping it off, we shared the treacle cake with Stilton (£8) — it’s rich, fruity and salty with the cheese, and pretty darn perfect, serving you a dessert and cheese course finale in one. Sneaky. Dom and staff are such a part of the Caneat charm, flitting between tables, championing their favourite dishes and stopping like old mates to chat about the niche music choices— they are, as they say ‘a vibe’, and undeniably a favourite for many not just in the neighbourhood. Go, enjoy the current offering, before they renege on their promise and introduce something new and great again.
Multidisciplinary artist, Francesc Serra Vila, has unveiled a Brum map-cum-installation in the beautifully refurbed Exchange building (Centenary Square) as part of Be Festival. More —
A free spoken word and poetry event featuring Amerah Saleh and Anthony Anaxagorou will take place at the Centrala Gallery, March 11. More —
Reservations go live at midday today for Solihull-based Toff's, the fine-dining joint from former Peels head chef, Rob Palmer. —
The Electric Cinema is showing Oscar-drizzled 'The Power Of The Dog', March 5 and 6, if you fancy a two-hour long sense of total foreboding on the Big Screen. —
"LET'S! WATCH! DARTS!" —
Lichfield's Upstairs, from previous Adam's head chef, Tom Shepherd, won a Michelin star yesterday. Worth a trip north of the wall, then. —
Kevin Bridges has two Resorts World Arena dates at the tail-end of 2022. If you're looking for the best seats, Wednesday 9 November has the better availability. From £30.25 —
A kid-friendly and free candlelit walk around Moseley's private park seems like a nice thing to do, next week. —
Feb 26 and 27 are the dates for a super-exciting pop-up at Hockley Social Club. Online sensation, Adam Purnell, a.k.a Shropshire Lad, will be doing a two-dayer at Digbeth Dining Club's north Brum venue. Expect a menu that includes Shropshire hogget, tequila slammer oysters (??), honey jerk chicken and a scotch egg brunch. More
WORDS: Tom Cullen
PICTURES: Thunderbirds (Jonathan Williams), Verve (Thom Bartley)
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