Earlier this week, the creator of such classic children’s television shows as Thunderbirds, Stingray and Captain Scarlet, not forgetting Space 1999 and UFO among many others, Gerry Anderson, died at the age of 83. Suffering from Alzheimer’s for the last two or three years, it is reported the disease had worsened towards the end.
This is not an obituary for Gerry Anderson. This is a celebration of his achievements, and how he came to influence my young mind with what might be possible with small scale models.
I was—and still am, I suppose—quite unusual in being a girl in what is still seen as a boy’s world. I have always been fascinated by the real world recreated in miniature. As a child, I recall a booklet documenting the dolls’ house created for Queen Mary in the 1920s. The idea of a tiny house, complete in every detail, with running water, electric lighting, even real petrol engines in the cars, captured my imagination. Trips to museums, where models are often used to illustrate exhibitions, further fanned the flames of my imagination. I wanted to be able to recreate tiny but realistic bits of the world for myself.
Despite protestations from my parents, eventually I was allowed to build Airfix models. So a lifelong passion began, running alongside my continued love of seeing miniature models of all kinds. Models are still used to this day for exhibitions, or to show the construction of an oil platform, or a new building design. Models were used for advertising and promotion—scale models of ships were often used in agents’ shop windows, much as travel agents used to have model airliners on display. One of the greats of British model-making was Bassett-Lowke, a company formed in Northampton to not only build quite large scale models of ships, but also of vehicles and railways. I have a book on the company in my library, and I still sit in awe at the sheer scale and details of many of the models built for commission over the years. Later, I was to discover that the Bassett-Lowke family home, 78 Derngate, was remodelled by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and so, in a way, my fascination with scale models and art nouveau, art deco and design from the 1920s and 1930s came full circle!
Heading back to Anderson for a while, I was following up a trail started, as ever, in a forum which was discussing the man’s television productions. I found a whole forum dedicated to classic British sci-fi, and a thread in it discussing the off-the-shelf toys used in many of the shows. Thinking back to the shows, I often used to marvel at the model work, but never really had a sense of the scales that were used to create them. I could identify some parts from a kit somewhere, or a toy truck that dashed across a background. Some was scratchbuilt, but still used parts from numerous kits and components. Some was created by combining parts from several kits into a completely new model. All was then painted and weathered to a uniform standard, which only served to add to the realism. You still have to marvel at the modelmakers’ skill on display that brought those stories to life. To see more about the behind-the-scenes at Century 21 and Pinewood, I recommend a look around the website of Dennis Lowe.
Here’s a still from the EagleTransporter.com forum, which illustrates the kind of detail C21 managed to fit into relatively short scenes in their productions. The scale here is approximately 1/72nd, and uses kits and toy cars that have been adapted, repainted (or not) to fit the scene. Even today, this level of detail is remarkable.
Matchbox toys used in Thunderbirds — Space 1999 Eagle Transporter Forum.
Even as a child, I could watch a British war film from the 1950s, and I knew when I was looking at models. Some were more convincingly filmed than others, but I always did (and still do) try to work out how it was done, how large the models were and so on. In some ways I wish I could have been involved in that side of the film industry, but I never got the breaks. I am happy to build models to satisfy myself and my friends. Building models also helps me to understand how the real thing works.
Incidentally, don’t be fooled into thinking model and miniature work is no longer a part of film and television making since the arrival of computer graphics. The most recent Bond movie, Skyfall, used miniatures in many scenes, and the recently-aired Red Dwarf X used proper miniatures for the spaceship scenes. Sometimes, it’s simply quicker and more cost-effective to build, film and destroy a miniature, than to render it pixel by pixel.
So, rest in peace Gerry Anderson, and thank you for setting me on to a fulfilling and enjoyable path of creativity. I just wish I could live in a bigger home where I could display my creations properly!