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Puppet-master who went to war with his real Lady Penelope: How Gerry Anderson was haunted by his divorce from the beauty who voiced his leading lady in Thunderbirds
Gerry Anderson died yesterday aged 83 after battle with Alzheimer's diseaseBorn in 1929 and spent early life in a one-bedroom flat in north-west LondonMarried first wife Betty Wrightman in the Fifties and they had two daughtersBut he had affair with Sylvia Thamm and they were married from 1960-1975Sylvia voiced Lady Penelope but their split was acrimonious when son was 8
Wed Mary Robins, a secretary 20 years his junior, in 1981 and had one son
00:30 GMT, 27 December 2012
Each week a young Gerry Anderson waited eagerly for letters from his elder brother who was training to become an RAF pilot at an American airfield in Arizona during World War II.
Sergeant Pilot Lionel Anderson went on to fly two tours with 515 Squadron over occupied Europe. One day in 1944 his family received the letter everyone dreaded — they were told the pilot was missing in action over Holland. He never came back.
But those letters from the 22-year-old airman that told of his time at Thunderbird Field were to inspire the younger Anderson to create one of the most enduring children’s puppet TV programmes ever.
Pulling the strings: Gerry Anderson with some of his famous Thunderbirds creations, including Lady Penelope
Yesterday Gerry Anderson, the creative genius behind Thunderbirds, died after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 83 and leaves behind his wife, Mary, and two sons and two daughters.
The series that he created, including Joe 90, Captain Scarlet, Stingray, Fireball XL5 and Space 1999, were to re-define the future of children’s entertainment.
To this day, the dramatic catchphrases of ‘5-4-3-2-1 Thunderbirds are go!’ and ‘FAB’ evoke a revolutionary period in Sixties children’s programming.
Though often parodied in later decades, the ‘supermarionation’ technique he developed — the use of lip-synched marionettes, controlled by supposedly invisible wire-pulling on 3D sets — was pioneering.
The two series of Thunderbirds, originally screened for only two years from 1964 despite its popularity, were filmed in Slough at the run-down warehouse studio he soundproofed with 1,500 egg-boxes.
The show centres around the International Rescue team, who fly mighty rockets from their secret Tracy Island refuge to save those in peril.
Proud creation: Sylvia and Gerry Anderson on the set of Thunderbirds in the Sixties with Lady Penelope
The Tracy brothers who piloted the crafts were named after five leading U.S. astronauts: John Glenn, Gordon Cooper, Alan Shepard, Virgil Grissom and Scott Carpenter.
Anderson often based his puppets’ personalities on popular actors of the day: Stingray’s Troy Tempest was modelled on Great Escape star James Garner, Scott Tracy on Sean Connery.
More importantly, there was Lady Penelope Creigton-Ward, who brought a sense of glamour in her white mink fur coat with her cigarette holder as International Rescue’s cool London agent.
Even her butler, Parker (‘Yuss, milaydee’) the ex-con gone straight, was to acquire cult status.
Together they formed an ensemble of inspirational goodies and hissable baddies.
Thunderbirds was children’s TV with the Hollywood touch — chisel-jawed Americans, seemingly exotic locations (even though it was all filmed in Slough), action-packed rescues and a stirring orchestral soundtrack.
Born in 1929, its creator spent his early life in a one-bedroom apartment in Kilburn and then Neasden in north-west London.
Anderson’s ancestral name was Bieloglovski — his Jewish grandfather fled Eastern Europe to settle in London.
Much-loved: Thunderbird 2 prepares for lift-off on Tracy Island as International Rescue saves the day again
Gerry was still at school when war broke out and was too young to see action. In 1947, however, he did his national service with the RAF, following in the footsteps of the brother he had idolised.
During his time there he witnessed the drama of an aircraft crash, in which 20 people died.
It was an incident that was to have a profound effect on him and influenced the themes he explored in his programmes, which so often centred around disasters.
After his National Service he became a photographer, before becoming what he described as ‘a lowly cutting-room Herbert’ in film studios.
In the Fifties, he married his first wife Betty Wrightman and they had two daughters. In the late Fifties, he decided to pursue his ambition of making movies and set up his own company in Maidenhead.
But rather than living out his dreams of making conventional big-screen productions, his first commission was for a puppet series called The Adventures Of Twizzle, about a doll who could ‘twizzle’ his limbs to make them longer.
It was during the making of this series that he began an affair with Sylvia Thamm, a secretary for whom he left his wife and children. They married in 1960.
Remembered: Last year, the Royal Mail produced a series of stamps called 'FAB: The Genius of Gerry Anderson' to celebrate his work. They featured images from Supercar, Stingray, Captain Scarlet and Thunderbirds
In 1958, he created Torchy The Battery Boy, another low-budget puppet show. Two years later he made Supercar, a series about a rocket-propelled vehicle which could be flown as well as driven.
For this he used the audio signal from the pre-recorded tapes of actors’ voices to trigger movements in the lips of the puppets. And so ‘supermarionation’ was born.
However, it was the series of Thunderbirds that ensured he became a legend of children’s TV. Independent Television bosses were so impressed with the pilot programme that they doubled it in length from a 30-minute episode to an entire hour.
That in itself was a watershed moment for children’s programming.
As Anderson was to later note: ‘Kids like death, destruction and disaster — unfortunately.’
The use of catchphrases such as FAB, which many believed was short for ‘Fully Advised and Briefed’, helped to make it a cult programme.
‘FAB I’ was also the licence plate of Lady Penelope, as well as the real-life registration of the Rolls-Royce Anderson had to give up in a later divorce settlement with Sylvia.
However, as Anderson made clear in 1999,
‘FAB stands for absolutely nothing! In the Sixties when the series was
made the abbreviation “fab” as in “fabulous” was all the rage and I just
changed it a bit.’
Happy man: Gerry Anderson holds Thunderbird 2 on the 40th anniversary of Thunderbirds in January 2005
As his programmes became increasingly successful, he signed deals to ensure that each show had its own line of merchandise. To this day, the tin Thunderbirds rockets are highly-prized collectors’ items.
But Anderson always hoped his puppetry work would result in him being spotted by a serious filmmaker and he would fulfil his dream of making a movie.
This nearly happened when he was later approached to make the Bond film Moonraker, but the deal broke down.
While his professional career was largely successful, his personal life was dogged with problems. His second marriage to Sylvia, who was the voice of Lady Penelope, ended acrimoniously in 1975 when their son, Gerry Jnr, was just eight.
Anderson announced their separation at the end-of-filming party for the series Space 1999, about a crew manning an isolated space station. He was forced to sell much of his business interests to settle the divorce.
The former husband and wife were to become locked in a bitter commercial dispute, as Sylvia, who was a partner in Anderson’s company, insisted she had made a greater contribution to the Thunderbirds concept than he had credited her for.
Friends: Mr Anderson will be remembered worldwide for his astonishing contribution to children's TV
In 1981, Anderson married Mary Robins, a secretary 20 years his junior who was working at the Slough studios. They had a son called James.
‘There are some people in showbusiness who are proud of the number of marriages they’ve had,’ Anderson later reflected. ‘I am on my third marriage and I have to say that I am thoroughly ashamed of it. The reason I don’t discuss it is that I left behind an eight-year-old son.’
This was a reference to the court battle he fought with Sylvia over access to Gerry Jr. That was to end in great sadness. ‘I was told by this little boy that I adored and who adored me that he didn’t want to see me,’ he once recalled.
‘I haven’t seen him to this day, and I know he is now a doctor. When you go through something as desperately distressing as that, you don’t want to talk about it.’
In his later years, Anderson continued to explore different aspects of his work and made a series of adverts as well as producing a video for the rock group Dire Straits.
He even performed a one-man show re-counting his career to, among others, members of his fan club who called themselves Fandersons. In 2001, he was awarded the MBE.
In 2004, he was offered $750,000 by Universal Pictures to attend the premiere of the Hollywood film of Thunderbirds. He turned it down because ‘I couldn’t bring myself to accept it and make false reports about it’.
Last year, the Royal Mail produced a series of stamps called ‘FAB: The Genius of Gerry Anderson’ to celebrate his work. They featured images from Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and Joe 90.
'Yes m'lady': Thunderbirds creator Gerry Anderson with two of his most famous puppets, Lady Penelope and Parker, at Planet Hollywood in London in 2001
James Anderson yesterday announced his father’s death, saying he had died peacefully at noon. ‘I’m very sad to announce the death of my father, Thunderbirds creator Gerry Anderson,’ Mr Anderson wrote on his website.
‘He died peacefully in his sleep at midday today having suffered with mixed dementia for the past few years.’
Anderson had often spoken publicly about his illness and was eager to increase public awareness about people suffering from Alzheimer’s.
In some of his most harrowing and frank interviews he admitted he was so stricken with the disease that he could not even recall the name of the disease that was to lead to his death.
Asked how he came to realise he was suffering the condition, he said: ‘I don’t think I realised at all. It was my wife Mary who began to notice that I would do something quite daft like putting the kettle in the sink and waiting for it to boil.’
She became concerned when, in early 2010, he took hours to return to their Oxfordshire home in Henley-on-Thames after forgetting his route from Pinewood Studios, a journey he had made for decades.
Together: Alzheimer's Society supporter and Thunderbirds creator Gerry Anderson (left) with his son Jamie (right)
His wife persuaded him to visit a doctor, where he was asked to copy a series of simple geometric drawings. He thought it would be a simple task — only to realise he was hopeless at it.
Adjusting to his condition was a terrible ordeal. In particular, he was devastated that he could no longer drive. This meant he could not go to Pinewood to continue his work.
‘This depressed me enormously because my film work was my life. Suddenly, my life was cut off. My wife has to make the best of it and give me the right tablets every morning and evening, it is a big burden for her.’
Asked whether he recalled how he made Thunderbirds, one of the most famous children science fiction programmes, he said: ‘I can still remember making Thunderbirds like it was yesterday. But, I can’t remember everything about yesterday.’
Even as the illness took its full toll, he managed to find solace in the thing he did best — writing and creating adventures that enthralled children, even if these never made it to the small screen.
Six months ago he revealed how important this was to him as a means of coping with his deteriorating health: ‘My greatest asset, I think, is that I can still write stories. And I think that is helping me to cope with my illness.’