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Gerry Anderson – The Early Years

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Gerald Alexander Abrahams was born on April 14th 1929, at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Obstetric Hospital in Bloomsbury, London. His parents, Joseph and Deborah, were just two of the many thousands of Russian and Polish Jews who had found asylum in the UK and elsewhere after fleeing their anti-semitic governments at the turn of the century. Their original surname was Bieloglovski, but upon arrival at London’s East India Docks they were met with an immigration officer who refused to even attempt to spell the name – and thus the Bieloglovskis were rechristened the Abrahams family.

Joseph and Deborah’s marriage was not a happy one, and the young Gerry often found himself spending many long unhappy hours listening to arguments going on behind locked doors. Although his parents were extreme Orthodox Jews, Gerry himself felt no affinity to the faith that was the source of much bullying at his school. His mother too increasingly found herself feeling that their Judaism had been forced upon them by her husband, and in 1939 the family name was changed by deed poll to Anderson.

Also in 1939 came the outbreak of war. Gerry’s older brother Lionel was keen to join up, volunteering and being accepted into the Royal Air Force. Gerry too would face upheaval in his young life as the German bombing of London began, and he became one of the many thousands of children who were evacuated from the city. After stays in both Kettering and Northampton he returned to London and his parents, although wartime life would still not be easy – and the Andersons narrowly avoided death during a bombing raid that caused severe damage to their house.

Gerry’s elder brother – and hero – Lionel.

Throughout this time however Gerry could look forward to the regular visits home of Lionel Anderson, his elder brother by seven years. Flight Sergeant Lionel Anderson flew De Havilland Mosquito bombers in the RAF from late 1943 onwards, and Gerry’s imagination was fired by the tales of his adventures – and the idea that escape from his dreary homelife was indeed possible. Sadly, Lionel would be killed in action over Holland on April 27th 1944 at the age of 22, and although Lionel’s service would have a lasting effect on Gerry’s later work his death would further contribute to the young man’s unhappy teenage years.

Gerry had not enjoyed his time at school, and the backdrop of war did little to improve that. However, his mother was keen to support him in whatever profession he chose to pursue. His original ambition was to become an architect, but after enrolling at the local polytechnic he was disappointed to discover that architectural training was not quite what he had envisaged. For a short time he found himself excelling at plastering, until an unfortunate reaction to a batch of plaster caused an outbreak of dermatitis on both of his arms that brought that possible career option to a sudden halt too.

Inspired by a visit to the Borehamwood-based Pathé film laboratory Gerry attempted to contact almost every film studio in the South of England looking for work, including the British Colonial Film Unit following the suggestion of a family friend. The Unit had been established in 1939 to produce propaganda films, but by 1945 had switched to covering the British Empire’s involvement with development of its colonies. Upon joining the Unit as a trainee Gerry found himself spending six weeks operating the switchboard, but soon he began to receive broader training and finally found himself in the editing department. Here was where he could see how the films he and his mother had watched together at the cinema were actually assembled, and in the process of discovering how a film was constructed he was also learning how they were directed.

After a year with the Colonial Film Unit, Gerry secured a position as second assistant editor with Gainsborough Pictures, based in Shepherd’s Bush. During this time he and his mother finally left Joseph and their home in Neasden, but Gerry’s parents were not to be separated for long. In 1947 he was called up for National Service, and the thought of his mother living alone forced a reconciliation of sorts between Joseph and Deborah. Gerry’s RAF posting took him first to Padgate in Cheshire, and then (after some training) on to Manston in Kent.

Gerry and friend during his RAF National Service days.

Despite dreading the call up, Gerry found his National Service days more enjoyable than he had been expecting. He was trained as a radio telephone operator, which during his time at Manston often saw him on duty in the control tower. In his off-duty hours he was never short of friends, including a man named Keith Shackleton, who would later take charge of A.P. Films’ merchandising division during the 1960s.

Although Gerry would never actually take the controls of an aircraft he found himself fascinated by the machines, and was present for several unfortunate incidents that would later provide inspiration for events in Thunderbirds. One of these involved a pilot attempting to make a landing without realising that his undercarriage was not lowered, with disaster being narrowly averted thanks to the diligence of the airfield controller.

Gerry and Betty with family on their wedding day; 16th October 1952.

Upon being demobbed in 1948 Gerry returned to find the film industry much changed during his absence, and when Gainsborough closed in 1950 he worked freelance for multiple companies – always credited as Gerald Anderson. After marrying his first wife Betty in October 1952, and with two daughters arriving soon after (Linda in 1954 and Joy in 1957) Gerry found it necessary to take any job that he could get. This often led to him working on pictures that he otherwise wouldn’t have wanted to go anywhere near, such as the 1954 sci-fi B movie Devil Girl from Mars on which he is credited as sound editor. Thankfully, change was on the horizon for both Anderson and the British film industry – and that change would be television.

Devil Girl from Mars (1954)

The early 1950s had seen a rise in the British public’s uptake of television sets thanks to the coverage of the Queen’s coronation on June 2nd 1953. With a new commercial television network, ITV, opening for business in September 1955, there was now much opportunity for film companies to provide the programmes needed to fill the schedules. Gerry’s previous experience as an editor served him well as he was offered a directing assignment on a new series produced by Polytechnic Films, titled You’ve Never Seen This. It wouldn’t be long before names such as Arthur Provis, Roberta Leigh and Sylvia Thamm would enter his life, and a chain of events would be set in motion that would ultimately produce some of the most popular and successful British television shows of all time…

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