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Movie stars in miniature: celebrity influences on Supermarionation

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Between 1957’s The Adventures of Twizzle and 1969’s The Secret Service, the puppets used in the television shows and films produced by A. P. Films and Century 21 Productions were continually refined and improved, ultimately resulting in the more lifelike correctly proportioned marionettes seen in Captain Scarlet and onwards. However, in those early days of the late 1950s, the human characters seen in Twizzle and Torchy were a long way from anything ‘lifelike’. Although creativity abounded in the designs of the sentient toys that made up the casts of both Twizzle and Torchy, the puppets of the shows’ human characters were similar in design to other marionettes seen on British television around the same time; functional, but extremely crude.

“Ooh!” The first human puppet seen in an A.P. Films production, this unblinking little girl.
Looking more human than his predecessors, Sheriff Tex Tucker of Four Feather Falls fame.

However, with the (almost) entirely human cast of Four Feather Falls (as well as the show’s increased focus on action and drama) an attempt had to be made to produce more believable human faces for the puppets if the show’s stories were to prove credible. Although this would be a gradual process (with the show’s regular characters clearly being refined over the course of the show’s first ten episodes) by the end of the series the human characters were starting to look much closer to the ones seen in Stingray and Thunderbirds than those from Twizzle and Torchy. Not only was increasingly sophisticated technology starting to be employed in their construction, but the the puppet faces were becoming more believable.

As with all aspects of the Supermarionation process, this trend of producing more credible human faces continued through Supercar and Fireball XL5 – yet the puppet department sculptors who created these heads were not yet looking towards specific celebrities as sources of inspiration for their creations. For the most part, puppets would be sculpted with an archetypal look to fit their role in the stories – the heroic leading man, gangster, scientist, military officer etc – although some have compared the portly figure of Supercar villain Masterspy to that of Hollywood screen villain Sydney Greenstreet, and his snivelling sidekick Zarin to Peter Lorre!

Lord Titan, enemy of the Stingray crew – but fan of Laurence Olivier?

With Stingray however came the first clear attempts to model Supermarionation characters on recognisable film and television stars of the period. It was an understandable approach for the production to take, considering that each Supermarionation series since Four Feather Falls had featured a ‘starring’ credit for the show’s lead character in their opening credits as if these were live action productions. Since the show’s main characters were being treated as ‘stars’ in their own right, it only made sense to look towards the real world stars of the day for inspiration. For the main characters of Stingray, Mary Turner’s sculpt for Troy Tempest drew heavily on the facial features of James Garner, while Christine Glanville’s Titan was modelled on a young Laurence Olivier, her X-20 on Claude Rains and Atlanta Shore on her own voice artist Lois Maxwell. While this mentality certainly fitted the tone of the show, it could also be argued that this approach was one of the first steps made by the Anderson towards viewing their creations less as puppets and more as human performers in miniature – a view that would ultimately lead to the correctly proportioned characters of Captain Scarlet. As production began on Thunderbirds, copies of the actors directory Spotlight were kept around the puppet department to provide inspiration for the designs of new guest characters.

John Blundall at work on a guest character during production of Thunderbirds.

However, not everyone in the A.P. Films puppet department was enthused with the idea of modelling their creations on the stars of the day. Sculptor John Blundall, who had joined A.P.F. during production of Supercar and whose imagination had given life to some of the more outlandish aliens seen in Fireball XL5 and Stingray, would ultimately depart the company during production of Thunderbirds. Increasingly frustrated by the Andersons’ attempts to make him produce puppets that looked like specific actors instead of being allowed to create a character, Blundall produced for Thunderbirds one of the most iconic Supermarionation characters of all time; Lady Penelope’s faithful manservant Parker. His determination to place characterisation over recognisability paid off, with Parker remaining to this day one of the show’s most popular and iconic characters – even to the extent of his Thunderbirds are Go! CGI reincarnation in 2015 resembling the original Supermarionation puppet more closely than any other of the returning characters did theirs.

Occasionally inspiration for a puppet could be found much closer to home, as was the case with Parker’s employer Lady Penelope. Given the task of creating the character, but struggling with her ideas being continually rejected by Sylvia Anderson, Mary Turner eventually resorted to modelling the character on Sylvia herself – and in the process helped forge a close association between performer and puppet that would also filter into the public consciousness.

However, the Thunderbirds regular cast did feature several characters clearly modelled on more famous faces, most notably Scott (Sean Connery) and Alan (Robert Reed), while characters like Jeff Tracy and Brains took more subtle inspiration from Lorne Greene and Anthony Perkins respectively. Sean Connery was clearly Christine Glanville’s primary influence for the creation of Scott, although Terry Curtis (who had joined the A.P.F. puppet department near the end of the first season of Thunderbirds) was also particularly fond of Sean Connery, with Thunderbirds are Go’s Paul Travers and Captain Scarlet’s Captain Grey also being modelled on the James Bond star.

Cliff Richard realised in Supermarionation for 1966’s Thunderbirds are Go.

1966’s Thunderbirds are Go also offered the puppet sculptors the chance to deliberately create direct counterparts of real life stars, in the shape of Cliff Richard and the Shadows. The group would be realised in Supermarionation form for the film’s infamous dream sequence featuring Alan Tracy and Lady Penelope visiting space nightclub the Swinging Star, where they (but not necessarily the audience) would be entertained by a song from “none other than Cliff Richard Junior!” Legend has it that the likeness of his puppet counterpart was so impressive that a young woman in the audience at the film’s premiere screamed at the sight of the Cliff Richard puppet, and even today the puppets of Cliff and the Shadows remain impressive recreations of the real thing.

The idea of recreating celebrities in puppet form continued into 1967’s Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons – and was originally intended to be a prominent part of the series. No doubt inspired by the success of Cliff and the Shadows, the Andersons’ original conception of the show incorporated the idea of a weekly ‘special guest star’ who would provide the voice of a character modelled on their own facial features. In the case of the first episode of the series, The Mysterons, the script specified the actor they had in mind to portray the character of the World President; Danger Man and The Prisoner star Patrick McGoohan. Although McGoohan would not ultimately voice the character, nor did the ‘special guest voice’ idea survive into the series, there is certainly a vague resemblance to McGoohan in the puppet of the World President.

The first of an unrealised run of special guest stars for Captain Scarlet?

Among the show’s regular cast were several characters clearly inspired by celebrities of the period. In addition to the Connery-inspired Captain Grey, Terry Curtis also modelled Destiny Angel’s features on Ursula Andress, while Christine Glanville produced Destiny’s four colleagues; Symphony, Rhapsody (modelled on Jean Shrimpton), Melody (Eartha Kitt), and Harmony (Tsai Chin). Tim Cooksey created Colonel White and Lieutenant Green, with the latter’s face being modelled on the character’s voice artist Cy Grant. Many of the show’s guest puppets were also inspired by celebrities, from the Robert Mitchum-looking puppet that played Morton in The Trap to the Mike Pratt-inspired features of Real in the Joe 90 episode Breakout.

“Only you, Jeff!” A Mike Pratt-ish puppet in the Joe 90 episode Breakout.

In certain cases some actors came to believe that particular puppets had been modelled on themselves, with UFO and The Protectors guest star Derren Nesbitt claiming that both Alan Tracy and Joe 90 were based on him! Ed Bishop was also flattered that Captain Blue had been modelled on him, which came as news to sculptor Terry Curtis – who had modelled the character on himself!

With 1969’s The Secret Service came another chance to create a character directed modelled after a celebrity, in the shape of comedy performer and series star Stanley Unwin, and the result (as sculpted by Mary Turner) was perhaps the greatest likeness of a real human being ever captured in puppet form by Century 21. Once again inspiration for one of the show’s other regular characters came from a more personal source, as Christine Glanville modelled the facial features of Unwin’s housekeeper Mrs. Appleby on those of her own mother.

With the end of production on The Secret Service came the end of Supermarionation productions from Century 21 Productions – but today the process is kept alive by Century 21 Films, the team behind the 2015 Thunderbirds anniversary trilogy and Supermarionation series Nebula-75. They too have based certain puppets on recognisable faces (as with Sanjeev Bhaskar in The Abominable Snowman, Samira Ahmed in the Nebula-75 Christmas episode Grift of the Magi, and legendary Supermarionation director David Elliott in the The Incredible Voyage of Nebula-75) but only on special occasions, generally preferring instead to recognise the wisdom of John Blundall’s belief that a puppet should develop from the character on the page – rather than be created in the image of a famous face simply because they can!

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