In 1965, the merchandising arm of AP Films entered into a partnership with Pye Records to establish a children’s audio label named Century 21 Records. Launching in October 1965, the label was one way fans could continue to enjoy Thunderbirds, Stingray and Captain Scarlet during that long week between new episodes (or, once the show went off the air, to fill the void left by their cancellation) thanks to the range of thirty-seven 7″ extended play vinyl records they would release over the next two years. For just eight shillings, you could choose one from an assortment of audio titles, each running to around twenty-one minutes. The bulk of the range’s output would be audio versions of the popular Supermarionation series that were then airing on television, with either narrated soundtracks of television episodes or brand new audio adventures proving equally popular. These releases would be extremely authentic to the television shows they were based on, incorporating many of the voice artists from their respective series as well as all the familiar sound effects and Barry Gray music viewers were familiar with.
In the beginning, the range appeared to be working hard to appeal to the child audience it was no doubt mostly aimed at. Journey to the Moon saw the Fireball XL5 crew appearing in the dream of a small boy named Danny, while A Trip to Marineville featured a small boy named Johnny taking a tour of the installations from Stingray. Into Action with Troy Tempest even saw the fledgling range experiment with an interactive element, offering listeners the chance to perform the roles of Troy and Phones in a story that took sections of the soundtracks to the episodes Deep Heat and Subterranean Sea and added additional newly-recorded framing dialogue from Ray Barrett as Commander Shore and Lieutenant Fisher. Of the three Stingray stories however, of most interest to long-time fans is Marina Speaks, in which Marina (in the voice of Sylvia Anderson) recounts the events that led to the destruction of her home and her subsequent enforced silence, which would later be fleshed out still further in the Marina strip featured in the Lady Penelope comic.
It wasn’t only audio dramas that the mini albums offered. Across the life of the range five albums were released spotlighting the music of Barry Gray, featuring new cover versions of some of his most popular works – or in some cases, cover versions of tunes Gray enjoyed but didn’t compose, such as the themes to The Monkees, Man in a Suitcase and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
With Thunderbirds launching on television shortly before the range launched, it wasn’t long before International Rescue took centre stage in the mini albums collection starting with Introducing Thunderbirds, in which Lady Penelope and Parker are given a tour of Tracy Island just prior to International Rescue becoming operational. This was followed by two more original Thunderbirds audio dramas, F.A.B. (later to become more commonly known as The Abominable Snowman) and The Stately Homes Robberies, which also heavily focussed on Penelope and Parker.
MA 106 saw the only Doctor Who title of the range, no doubt possible thanks to the same deal that put the Daleks comic strip on the back page of TV Century 21. This was an edited version of The Planet of Decision, part six of the television story The Chase, narrated by David Graham (who had voiced many of the Daleks in the original production). In addition to Graham’s narration, extra sound effects and music were added – some of which will be familiar to Anderson fans! Other popular children’s puppet characters of the day, such as the mouse Topo Gigio and koala bears Tingha and Tucker, would also be heard in the range.
The popularity of the Thunderbirds television series led to sixteen further audio titles, each featuring the abridged soundtrack of an episode of the television series. This was a smart decision, as aside from editing the original episodes down to around twenty minutes the only other requirement would then be the recording of new narration to cover any gaps in the story. Each of these titles would be narrated by a member of the Thunderbirds cast, reprising one of their television roles. These releases gave eager fans the chance to revisit classic episodes of the television series whenever they wanted, in an era before regular repeats and home video releases.
The range concluded in November 1967 with a run of six Captain Scarlet titles; five audio dramas and one music album. The first audio drama was similar in style to the Thunderbirds narrated soundtrack albums, as it featured a World Security Council enquiry into the events of the first episode of the television show framed around clips from that story. The remaining four audio dramas featured all-new stories, albeit with several familiar roles from the television series recast if their original performers were unable to participate. The fifth and final Captain Scarlet audio drama, Captain Scarlet versus Captain Black, not only saw several new actors join the regular cast to portray the story’s child characters but upon completion was also found to significantly underrun its projected twenty-one minute length. Rather than record extra scenes, pad the album out with additional music or just release it as it was, the decision was made to gradually slow down the story in the second half in order to make it longer – resulting in an unpleasant listening experience where everyone sounds like a Mysteron by the episode’s end!
The range may have come to an end before the likes of Joe 90, The Secret Service or even UFO could receive the mini album treatment, but these vinyl releases remained highly sought after by fans and collectors into subsequent decades. In 1990, eight of the sixteen Thunderbirds narrated soundtrack mini albums were broadcast on BBC Radio 5, featuring new introductions by Gerry Anderson and bookended by opening and closing announcements from Shane Rimmer. Several of the Thunderbirds narrated soundtracks plus the Stingray and Captain Scarlet stories found their way onto audio cassette in the 1990s, while the Stingray and Scarlet titles were also included as extras on their respective DVD releases in the early 2000s.
In recent years, all of the Anderson titles have been made available on CD through Fanderson (although several are now out of print), with many of the music albums containing bonus tracks featuring alternate takes in addition to faithful reproductions of the original cover art. Unfortunately, titles like The Daleks, Topo Gigio and Tingha and Tucker Presents the New Wombaville Band have yet to make the leap to CD, likely due to rights issues. The Captain Scarlet audio dramas were also released on CD and download via Big Finish, as part of their boxset celebrating the show’s 50th anniversary. Both ranges would include Captain Scarlet vs Captain Black with the sound issue from the original vinyl release corrected.
In 2015 the three original Thunderbirds audio stories would be adapted for the screen in the classic Supermarionation style by Pod 4 Films (now known as Century 21 Films). These productions were more than just straight adaptations of the original audios, but instead reworked the material to fit the style of the television series. This included removing certain scenes that would be out of place on television (such as Lady Penelope and Parker’s song that opened F.A.B.) while also creating a more action-packed opening for F.A.B. and a more exciting conclusion to The Stately Homes Robberies. The result was three brand new episodes of the Thunderbirds television series featuring the original cast to celebrate the show’s fiftieth anniversary, and the same team would later produce similar ‘mini episodes’ based on several of the narrated mini albums (including Trapped in the Sky, End of the Road, and Vault of Death) for 2019’s Thunderbirds Day.
With the recent resurgence of interest in vinyl, the Century 21 mini-albums are still prized by collectors and fans alike. While many of the abridged narrated Thunderbirds episode soundtracks may seem slightly redundant today thanks to the availability of the show on DVD and Blu-ray they are still an interesting way to experience half of the show’s thirty-two episodes, while the audio-exclusive stories still have much of interest to offer – including Marina’s backstory, Penelope and Parker’s first trip to Tracy Island, and Captain Scarlet coming face to face with Captain Black! If you have yet to experience these adventures you can still purchase the Captain Scarlet collection on CD from our store – or get yourself a record player and start hunting for those old vinyls!
Excluding later compilation releases, the original thirty-seven mini album titles were released as follows;