The story of Gerry Anderson’s career is one that also encompasses the careers of the many other talented individuals who worked with him over the years to make his shows such a success. Some of those people are reasonably well known in their own right but others not so much, and one name that often gets overlooked in the Anderson story is one of his earliest collaborators – Arthur Provis. Although Provis parted ways with Anderson in 1959 he was one of the original directors of AP Films and was instrumental in laying the foundations that would ultimately lead to the Supermarionation success story of the 1960s, while also enjoying success in his own right throughout this period.
Born on March 10th 1925, Arthur Provis became a trainee rostrum cameraman after serving in the Royal Navy as a photographer. By the mid-1950s he was working for Polytechnic Films, as was a film editor in his mid-20s named Gerry Anderson. Anderson and Provis were thrown together when Polytechnic was asked by theatrical agent Pete Collins to produce a series named Pete’s Freaks (soon to be renamed You’ve Never Seen This) which would highlight the bizarre abilities and talents of people across Europe. You’ve Never Seen This would prove to be an extremely difficult shoot, and ultimately a series that lived up to its name since only three episodes are known to have ever been broadcast. During the troubled production however Anderson and his cameraman Provis formed a close friendship that saw them through the worst of the trip, but upon returning to England would leave Polytechnic to form a new company – Pentagon Films. The company’s name reflected the five men who founded it; Anderson, Provis, sound recordist Red Ferderer, Polytechnic owner Smith Morris and financier Douglas Dobbs.
With the launch of commercial television in 1955 Pentagon was well-placed to capitalise on the needs of companies looking to create commercials to promote their products. Much of the new company’s output would therefore be television commercials advertising everything from cigarettes to breakfast cereal – with a notable example of the latter coming in 1956 in the form of a commercial for Kelloggs Ricicles. This featured popular children’s character Noddy, currently starring in puppet form in his own television series as voiced by Denise Bryer, and was the first taste of working with puppets for Anderson and Provis. Both this and a later puppet production, Here Comes Kandy, brought Pentagon to the attention of author Roberta Leigh.
Leigh was looking to bring some of her own children’s stories to television, and her arrival at Pentagon coincided with Provis and Anderson’s increasing dissatisfaction with the direction the company was taking. Upon deciding to depart from Pentagon in 1957 to set up their own company, AP Films (Anderson Provis films, although it wasn’t unusual for the two men to refer to it as Anderson Productions or Arthur Provis Films respectively over the years), Anderson and Provis agreed to produce for Leigh 52 episodes of The Adventures of Twizzle. Despite a punishing production schedule and a steep learning curve Twizzle was a success, and would soon be followed by the equally popular Torchy the Battery Boy. Although APF was a joint venture between himself and Anderson (plus other directors such as Reg Hill and Sylvia Thamm) Provis was always happier behind the camera than managing the company itself, and so his primary role on these productions was as Director of Photography. Upon completion of the first 26 episodes of Torchy APF would cut ties with Roberta Leigh and set to work producing their own puppet series, the fantasy Western Four Feather Falls…but Provis would not be around to see the show through to its conclusion.
Throughout his association with Anderson, Provis was by far the more conservative side of APF. While Anderson was always keen to expand the company and try new things Provis was ever wary of pushing their luck too far, and while this served them well in the company’s earliest days it was clear that Anderson was determined to take risks in his desire to make bigger and better productions. Although neither man remembers any great dispute between them their differences gradually increased over APF’s first two years until October 1959, when Provis resigned his AP Films directorship and sold his shares back to APF for the sum of £3000.
AP Films would soon be enjoying a run of smash hit shows throughout the first half of the 1960s, beginning with their very next production, Supercar. The company’s name would appear on all of these until the final episode of the first season of Thunderbirds, but from 1967’s Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons onwards the Supermarionation shows were Century 21 Television Productions and the last trace of Provis’ previous involvement with the company was quietly removed.
After leaving APF Provis would however remain in the world of puppets by returning to his involvement with Roberta Leigh and directing the pilot for her next series, Sara and Hoppity. This long-running puppet series based on several of Leigh’s then-recently published story books would continue to explore the theme of terrifying toys, featuring a little girl called Sara and her naughty Goblin Toy named Hoppity – so named because one of his legs was longer than the other.
Leigh’s next puppet series would prove her most successful. Space Patrol (often mistaken for a Gerry Anderson series) would be a hit with audiences worldwide, and remains beloved by fans to this day. Provis would be co-producer of the series but also found himself behind the camera once again serving as Director of Photography, a role that he would continue to hold on all Leigh’s future puppet productions. In the years with Roberta Leigh following Space Patrol however good ideas were harder to come by. Provis was particularly proud of Paul Starr, a 1964 pilot featuring Ed Bishop as daring puppet space agent Paul Starr investigating sabotage at Martian power stations. Although a far slicker (and full color) production than Space Patrol it also feels much like an attempt to bring Leigh’s puppet television series more into line with Anderson’s output without quite understanding what it was that had made those (and Space Patrol) so popular.
Getting back to kid-friendly basics, Send for Dithers served up 13 uninspiring adventures of a generally useless odd-job man and his associate (a mouldy giant toy penguin named Mr Perkins) as they terrorised their local community with their incompetence. This was however positively pedestrian compared to the giant leap off the deep end that was Wonder Boy and Tiger, a truly baffling concept that featured a cat named Tiger and a boy named Boy doomed to permanently orbit the Earth on a magic carpet that could only land when someone needed their help.
Leigh would finally attempt a live-action production with the campy but enjoyable sci-fi pilot The Solarnauts, starring Derek Fowlds and Martine Beswick, for which Provis would film the model sequences. However, this was to be his final association with Leigh, before she largely retired from the frustrating world of television production to concentrate more on her artwork and her prolific career as a romance novelist.
Provis would continue to work in film and television, with his later credits include filming the model sequences for the Grimaldi sequence in 1981’s cult animated movie Heavy Metal, plus a few documentaries and many more commercials. He was also a guest at various conventions and was interviewed for several Anderson-related documentaries and articles over the years, until his passing at the age of 91 on May 17th 2016.
In his later years, Provis would look back on his association with Anderson with fondness, and thankfully no regrets at leaving the company just before their stratospherically successful period running from Supercar to Thunderbirds. In a 1992 interview with Gerry Hughes of BBC Radio Wiltshire (which you can hear in full in the video below), he summed up his own particular working style and the differences between himself and Anderson;
“I’ve always taken a rather easier way of life than Gerry. It worries me a lot if I’m under a lot of pressure. I can only really work well if I know that there’s money in the pot to do it. I don’t like taking risks, which is probably the wrong way but it’s just the way I am. It’s my nature not to really go into the heavy stuff. If somebody asks me to make a film or a puppet series or anything, I’m delighted to do it, but I prefer to be in that capacity rather than running it and finding finance and arguing with people. I find it very difficult to do that.”