Venus, If You Will

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By James H. Burns: Sylvia Anderson has to be one of the first women I ever had a crush on, even if I didn’t recognize it as such.  And the fact that she was in wooden form makes it all the more unusual!

But Sylvia provided the voice for Doctor Venus, the beautiful blonde astronaut (space adventurer), on the early 1960s’ Fireball XL5, the series she co-produced with her husband, Gerry Anderson.  She’d enact many other gals throughout the 1960s, in their other Supermarionation marionette series; most famously, of course, Lady Penelope in Thunderbirds.

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If the Andersons were never quite able to make a successful transition to live-action, with UFO and Space:1999, it’s become clearer over the last several years how phenomenal an achievement their so-called “kids” series were.

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They had a rather bad marital breakup during the production of Space:1999, which led to a rather tragic development.

Beginning over thirty years ago, reportedly, if you wanted Gerry’s cooperation with any kind of fan project, Sylvia’s contributions to the series could not be mentioned in more than passing. Allegedly, he even insisted she be edited out of a “Making of”/behind-the-scenes documentary on Thunderbirds

There were other successes for Sylvia, as a writer, and as an executive with HBO in Great Britain.

EDITORIAL USE ONLY / NO MERCHANDISING nFor merchandising, please contact James Feltham, james.feltham@itv.comnMandatory Credit: Photo by ITV/REX/Shutterstock (811524hi)n'Fireball XL 5' - Sylvia Anderson with Venus.nGTV ARCHIVEnn

Finally, some years later, Sylvia was able to reclaim some of her fame, and the credit due her. For far too long, Sylvia’s status as a pioneering television producer had remained nearly unacknowledged. She had, of course, also been one of our very first space-women. (Who knows how man future scientists the couple helped inspire!)

Supercar, Stingray, Captain Scarlet and all the rest remain a cherished part of so many futures passed…

Here’s what I wrote, at the end of December, 2012, when Gerry Anderson died.

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One of my favorite memories of the space age, now–

And I may be framing this wrong–

One of my favorite memories of being a kid–

Was rushing home, walking home, from First Grade, to catch Captain Scarlet at 3:30, on WPIX, Channel 11, in suburban New York…

But after all, I had spent my childhood with the creations of Gerry AND Sylvia Anderson, and their so superbly talented collaborators, and puppeteers.

I was born after “Supermarionation” had made its debut, both in Great Britain, and America.

And, when I first saw the TV-news sub-headline, those ridiculous things that run at the bottom of the screen, that I’m pretty sure all of the Tracey boys (from Thunderbirds, of course) would have thought silly, that Anderson had passed:

I immediately reflected on a memory that often plays somewhere in my mind, one of my first solid memories, complete:

Sitting at the edge of my parents’ bed, on a Sunday or Saturday afternoon, with my folks watching along, some space behind, leaning against the headboard, still holding hands, as we enjoyed an episode of Fireball XL5. (It would run, in repeats, on its second go-round, locally following Rin-Tin-Tin.)

There was something magical, to me, about that old ITC logo, that magically emblazoned signage, that also evolved during the 1960s.

I learned to learn, when I saw it, that some enchantment would ensue.

Because the Andersons’ shows, followed me through my early years..

And helped emblazon them!

A year or two later, I’d catch Stingray, on Channel 11. Somehow I knew this was from the same folks who made the space show I had liked. (Hard to remember now, puppetry of all sorts was kind of everywhere in New York in the 1960s, on local kids shows, Captain Kangaroo, broadcasts of the George Pal Puppetoons…)

The mute gal disturbed me, a strange image for the Andersons and company to foster on children, but the imagination–and the great effects (still terrific!), kept me glued.

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And then there was Thunderbirds, early in the morning on WNEW in New York, shown in the half hour format, a lovely way to launch the day, just before heading off to school.

It startles me to realize that I saw all of these shows in black and white, and some episodes, I still haven’t seen as they were originally filmed. Because in my mind’s eye, these programs were always vibrant, brilliant in the aspect of a youngster’s wonder.

Remember, I wasn’t even seven when I first journeyed to the moon with Captain Scarlet, and Captain Blue.

Friends of mine from Britain are always amazed when they learn I grew up with the Andersons’ marionette shows, that everything from Supercar to before Joe 90 had a regular showcase in Manhattan, and other areas of the United States.

But think, now, what it was like, to have the space age unfolding, while these shows were first occurring!

There was some part of me, I’m pretty sure, that thought these series, and others, were actually preparing me for the future that we could have met, had our leaders had a bit more foresight, and faith in tomorrow.

And there we have it.

Just an inkling of the theme I was trying so hard to avoid, but which it seems is inevitable when thinking of Gerry Anderson:

So many elements of loss, of things that might have been, with what the 1960s partially promised, with what he could have been as a producer, what so many fun things were entirely possible.

It took me a long while to even remember my ancient involvement with covering ITC’s efforts, some years later. (To my surprise, I may well have been the first person to write a history of the Supermarionation shows, here in America, for Fantastic Films magazine, in the late 1970s.)

That was a result of one of my first loves, these shows that still can have so many remarkable moments.

Maybe some part of me was tuned in to what was going on during those last days of December (as Anderson was apparently ailing), although it is far more logical to attribute this to coincidence:

But, just before Christmas, I found myself surfing the net, looking at images of some British Supermarionation toys that I had somehow never seen before.

At times, I think, I am having other people’s childhoods, as I scan remembrances of another nation’s past.

But there was some kind of celluloid ebullience to many of those 1960s programs that simply transcends boundaries, and perhaps time.

Had we gone back to the moon, and built our cities in the stars, these ALWAYS would have been our memories.

Which is why with all the Anderson-associated controversies that are nipping at my brain —

I keep remembering how on a midweek in Autumn, I once bounded along the ranges of Mars, sitting safely besides such wonderful agents of Spectrum…

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[An earlier version of this article appeared at WWW.TVPARTY.COM]

7 thoughts on “Venus, If You Will

  1. Nice to hear that I’M not the ONLY Supermarionation fan in the U.S., much less the NY area (I’m from the Jersey shore area, also with WPIX and WNEW! Although I was 7 during Supercar’s 1962 American debut, a bit older than you!

  2. My six-year-old self was such a fan of Supercar that I tried to get my dad to buy a particular model of used Plymouth (he never bought new cars) because it had fins cut at exactly the angle as were those of the titular vehicle.

    Can I be forgiven for immediately thinking, when the first time I read Sam Cavanaugh’s offhand mention in Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters that he regretted having a duo rather than a triphib, of Supercar? Or thinking that Tom Swift, Jr.’s Tripuppian Triphibian Atomicar was an imitation of Supercar?

    Here’s a short sequence of colorized Fireball XL5, including most of the opening launch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u7LMlr9cWO4

    I figured out how to make a crude approximation of an XL starship out of Tinkertoys — at least enough so that I could understandably explain it to my parents, who had seen the show as I watched, rapt in front of the t.v. screen. It even had a detachable Fireball Junior.

  3. David K.M. Klaus: I wanted the family to join the Dodge Rebellion that Pamela Austin was advertising in the 1960s, though my reasons were not as pure as yours for wanting that Plymouth….

  4. We didn’t get super car, but I watched Fireball in first run and, later, Scarlet and Thnderbirds.

    I had a Fireball XL5 play set, XL5 shaped birthday cakes (5th, 6th and 18th birthdays, the latter meant as a parental joke that wasn’t a joke to me) and I mixed that Fireball play set with the Cape Canaveral one.

    You are spot on – that show was preparation and training for my future self. Unfortunately, the future decided to be pedestrian rather than adventurous.

  5. If you still want your own Fireball XL5 or Supercar without being gouged by collectibles dealers, try googling either crafts’ name and “paper model” or “paper modellers”; there are some really nice ones that are instantly downloadable and printable.

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