Thunderbirds: the legend and legacy of the Anderson brand live on as we talk to Jamie Anderson

Jamie Anderson on serving brands that defined our childhoods

Thunderbirds. Captain Scarlet. Doctor Who… How does it feel, Jamie, to work on some of the longest-running, best-loved entertainment brands of all time?
I certainly feel very privileged to work on some of the best British brands that have probably ever existed. There’s a little bit of a natural clash there of course… Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet were ITV and probably direct Doctor Who competitors as that’s with the BBC. But to be working on elements connected to both is a real treat.

Let’s start with your latest project, First Action Bureau. What is that and how did it come about?
First Action Bureau is a full cast audio-drama podcast that we created, produced and released during 2020. It’s a spy-fi series on which I worked with Nicholas Briggs. Nicholas might best be known as the voice of the Daleks, but he’s also an award-winning writer and director of audio drama. For some time, we’d wanted to create something for Genevieve Gaunt, an actor we’ve worked with on several projects.

Genevieve Gaunt from The Family?
Yes; The Family, Harry Potter, Knightfall… Nick and I were very keen to create something that was Andersonesque, but more modern; something contemporary for an adult audience. And I think, batting ideas back and forth, we pretty much came up with it, via calls, text and email.

Jamie Anderson, Thunderbirds
Just pushing and pulling; talking things through?

Right – then, over a breakfast one morning, we really thrashed it out. We’d been out for a couple of cocktails the night before, which is always a good way to put together creative work. That was shortly before lockdown, so that then gave us a perfect opportunity. We worked on it remotely, came up with the story beats, and got a great cast involved.

So Genevieve Gaunt is on board, who else signed up?
We very lucky, actually, to work with Genevieve, Sacha Dhawan, Paterson Joseph and Nicola Walker. We got a couple of Anderson alumni in as well; Wayne Forrester and Richard James. They were all fantastic. And it was just really nice to be able to generate something brand new during a year that’s been very difficult for entertainment production.

Yes; a very testing year. You also work with Big Finish Productions for whom you’ve written and directed numerous Doctor Who audio adventures…
I’ve been very lucky there! I’ve been a fan of Doctor Who since I was a kid. So working on the audio adventures has been a real thrill! I’ve been lucky enough to write for Peter Davidson, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy. Most recently I’ve been doing a lot of work directing Tom Baker who was my absolute hero as a kid. He was the Doctor for me. So again, it makes me feel very lucky.

Jamie Anderson, Thunderbirds
And what, in your opinion, gives that brand such an extraordinary appeal? Why has it sustained for nearly 60 years?

I think if anybody could boil down any of these things into some sort of a formula, then everybody would be doing it! Part of the reason these things work so well is because there is a magic. I should say, by the way, that I don’t know what the formula is! But I think for me, it’s that you’re able to relate it back to a personal feeling.

In what way?
When I was younger, I always felt like I desperately wanted the Doctor to materialize outside my house; to reach out and say, “Come with me…” And the character of the Doctor has always been slightly contradictory: dangerous, but trustworthy… Exciting, but smart. And those elements make the character someone you want to spend time with. It’s beyond having a kind-of friend or a cool uncle or something like that.

I think you’re right about that. The most successful doctors seem to be walking type between conflicting qualities…
Right. There’s something otherworldly and enticing and exciting about spending time with the Doctor. And even if he couldn’t really turn up in the TARDIS, and take you with him, then at least you could watch his adventures and imagine that you could be one of his companions.

I think having human companions – or whatever they’re called now – friends, associates, traveling partners… They add a level of accessibility that really works. And then you’ve got all of time and space to play him or her… So it’s just a magic combination of ideas, which has evolved over time. And that’s part of its secret too, I think: it keeps evolving across the years.

Jamie Anderson, Thunderbirds
Big Finish Productions also releases audio plays based on some of your father’s creations; Terrahawks and Captain Scarlet…

Big Finish has put together quite a few Anderson productions. They’re planning to release Space 1999, Volume One in February. Which is three new Space 1999 stories on which I’ve been executive story editor. And I think they’re doing a great job!

And to that end, how do you see your role as the man that takes care of the Gerry Anderson’s legacy?
I think there’s a huge amount of pressure! I remember – very early days – telling somebody what I was doing, and what the plan was, and their response was, “Those are pretty big shoes to fill…” And, they’re right! But I’m not actually trying to fill those shoes. What I see is a huge body of work; one that’s made a lot of people very happy and inspired people to create their own shows, to create technology, to create art…

Jamie Anderson, Thunderbirds
I think Christopher Nolan is a fan, is he not?

Christopher Nolan, absolutely, and people like Edgar Wright and Peter Jackson; they were inspired by the worlds of Gerry Anderson. But I also speak to people who work at NASA, for example, who were inspired to go into space science because they watched Space 1999. So there’s a huge influence there. And part of my role is to protect those brands and maximize the sense of comfort and nostalgia and enjoyment that existing fans can get. But also I think my role goes far beyond that…

Jamie Anderson, Thunderbirds
To new fans?

Right. Because these shows are still exciting; they’re still enjoyed by audiences of all ages. And they’ve never really been under one roof in terms of the way they’re presented. Yes, in the sixties and seventies, they were ITC distributed… But they’ve never all sat under a single umbrella and that’s what we’ve been trying to do recently.

But that seems important now?
Yes, because that allows people to make the transition from one show to another. There might be people who were fans of Thunderbirds who’ve never heard of Space 1999, or people who are fans of UFO who’ve never heard of Joe 90. Or people who watched Fireball XL5 when they were kids and then never visited any further Anderson stuff.

That’s a really good point, actually. Even as you list those titles I see how hard it might be to join the dots if you don’t know the dots are there to be joined…
So now they might find one of our primers on YouTube and then find their way to Captain Scarlet, and then on to The Secret Service – and The Secret Service is a real curio… So there’s this sense of cross-pollination and growing that; adding in new layers, new bits of IP, new ways of presenting the shows.

Jamie Anderson, Thunderbirds
Is it fair to say, then, that while each of the individual brand names might have some strength, the current challenge is to pull them all together?

I think so, yes. There’s a natural under-serviced – or under-served – cross-pollination element between the shows, which I think is a massive advantage. But it is a huge challenge because we’re not the rights holders on many of the shows, and were not necessarily the rights controller on many others… And trying to bring those together over the last five years has been very difficult.

Is there also a challenge to develop new IP?
In terms of creating new IP, I think there is an element of people viewing Anderson as being something very specific. A lot of people will see Anderson as Thunderbirds, and that’s it… Or they’ll see it as retro sci-fi.

It’s slightly pigeonholed?
I think so, and part of the work we’ve been doing is to try and expand that and make it more accessible and say, “Hang on! This isn’t something that lives in a time capsule… This is a collection of timeless IP, which is living and breathing.”
We’re trying to let it live and breathe in the most visible way; connect the dots, keep presenting it to new audiences and keep servicing the classic nostalgia audiences. And actually that’s a broad demographic, of course, because there’s people who watched Thunderbirds in 1965, people who watched it in 1990 and people who watched it in the early two thousands.

Jamie Anderson, Thunderbirds
Right. The same IP with at least three different audiences…

Right – and you can’t serve those audiences in the same way… BUT they all share the love of something Anderson, and that means that we’re pushing at an open door there, to introduce them to other shows and other brands.

And with all those brands, those universes… Did you grow up immersed in them? Were you aware your dad was a producer?
I grew up yes, completely surrounded by everything Anderson. My dad wasn’t super nostalgic, but that was okay because I still had VHS tapes of Terrahawks and Thunderbirds, and Captain Scarlet all around me. But I didn’t really understand what it meant to be a producer, I suppose, and people still only really used the term producer in those days, rather than creator… I think probably creator probably is a better term these days but, either way, I had no idea what it meant, and I was falling in love with Doctor Who quite young…

So you were surrounded by it as a child, but actually your heart belonged to Doctor Who. Or hearts, possibly! How old were you then?
When I started loving Doctor Who? I was a youngster; four or five years old. But in the early nineties, Thunderbirds had its new showing on the BBC. It gained a whole new audience and suddenly all my school friends were watching it. They were falling in love with it, and their parents were bringing in old annuals to give to me, to take home to get my dad to sign them.

Jamie Anderson, Thunderbirds
That must be a bit disconcerting?

You don’t really get it; you don’t really understand why that’s happening as a kid, but I certainly realized that he’d created something that was important to people, and that people were enjoying this thing. That was fairly intoxicating as a kid.

At what point did you start to become more interested, then?
I think when he got into Space Precinct… Space Precinct was a live-action show in the 1990s, which was filmed at Pinewood. Then I spent a huge amount of time watching what he was doing. I spent a huge amount of time sat between Christine Glanville – who was one of the puppeteers on Thunderbirds; she worked with him for many years after – and the late Richard Gregory. Richard was an animatronics expert and worked with dad from Terrahawks onwards and actually ended up working with me later on, until his untimely passing a couple of years ago.

So that was really exciting as a child. Seeing a show created from the ground up; seeing all the stuff that goes into it, the teams, the development of stories… Then the troubles, the successes, the difficulties… Even though, as a kid, you’re not really aware of everything that’s going on, it’s still exciting.

How old would you have been about this time?
I must have been… My guess is eight, nine years old; something like that. And I decided: I’ve got to do this. This is so cool; I want to be involved in this. Unfortunately, dad had a really tough time on Space Precinct, and he didn’t want that for me! He wanted me to find an easier way in life. So he really spent the next ten years trying to persuade me to do something else.

Jamie Anderson, Thunderbirds
That’s interesting – he didn’t want you to produce, specifically?

Didn’t want me involved in the family business. Not through any malice, but purely as a sort of protection measure. He didn’t want me to experience the difficulties, the problems, the heartbreak – professional and personal – that he’d experienced. And I completely understand that.

And did that put you off? Of make you want to do it more?
There was a point where I basically decided I wasn’t going to be able to do it because he doesn’t want me to. So I went off and had another career, another life, until he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

And then I moved back home to help mum look after him. And it was then that he softened, finally.
I was going to ask about this because of your association with The Alzheimer’s Society – but, actually, the disease is a turning point?
In a way, I like to think that the Alzheimer’s sort of stripped away the worry in his mind. And he’d said to his biographer, “It’s such a shame that Jamie didn’t join the family business…” So we had a short period of time where I was able to try and help him write a novel series called Gemini Force One.

Sadly, he wasn’t able to complete it in his lifetime, but we were able to complete it after his death. And it was that transition period of finding that, actually, he did want this to happen. Then when he sadly passed away in December 2012, it seemed just crazy to let this whole thing disappear with him. It wouldn’t have done, as such, but I think the world of Anderson would be very different if we hadn’t grabbed the bull by the horns and tried to sort of connect everything up and bring it to a wider audience. So that’s been a great pleasure, but finding the best way to do that has been really tough.

Jamie Anderson, Thunderbirds
This can’t be easy to talk about, so I want to thank you for sharing that. And you’re right, of course, because the stories – the universes – can go on. Tricky question, but where did your father get his inspiration do you think?

Dad’s inspiration came from real life, always; right from his early days of being fascinated by aviation. His brother, Lionel – who was killed in the Second World War – was a pilot. Dad viewed him as an absolute hero. So you’ll see sort-of Lionel Anderson characters in most of the shows! There’s always a hero pilot, whether it’s Steve Zodiac or Scott Tracy.

Brilliant! Lovely tribute…
And there’s always something kind of echoing Lionel there. And so his personal life certainly informed the way the shows were structured. You’ll see, in most cases that there is no mother figure because he had a very difficult relationship with his mother. But I don’t think that’s where he necessarily found his inspiration, just to say that real life shaped what he was producing. So really, it will be items in the news, big leaps forward in technology, or sort of scary news stories that would get him inspired.

Jamie Anderson, Thunderbirds
Can you give me an example of that?

Sure! There was a mine disaster in Germany, in the early sixties where, a lake collapsed next to a mine. It flooded the mine, and a load of men were trapped underground. They had to be tunneled out. Then they dropped a borehole down and brought them up one by one. But all that equipment to rescue them was many hundreds of miles away and had to be brought in. So my dad thought: wouldn’t it be fantastic to have an international rescue organization that could do this in minutes? Or tens of minutes, rather than in hours or days.

So that is the actual origin of Thunderbirds?!
Right! It’s the origin of that thought: an International Rescue! And even in the first episode of Thunderbirds – Trapped in the Sky there’s another example… When dad was working as an RAF radio telephone operator in the mid-to-late 1940s; just after the Second World War. One day, he saw a plane come in, which had its landing gear stuck up… It had to do this very dramatic, bellyflop landing. And I’m pretty sure that would have been the inspiration for The Fireflash landing in Trapped in the Sky.

That’s great! I love creativity stories when they start where everyone can see them…
So yes; everywhere he was, basically, he was finding real-life inspiration. In later years he’d watch rolling news because he found all this sort of breaking news stuff very dramatic and exciting. He’d watch the Discovery Channel and find out about the latest scientific and technological advances. Those things would get him excited and he’d disappear into his office and start writing. And he was constantly creating, so it wasn’t really, “I’m going to sit down now and decide to develop a new show.” It was a constant process. He always had multiple ideas on the go – and he left behind him many unfinished ideas.

I gather he wasn’t a fan of the 2004 live-action Thunderbirds film…
Gosh! Yes, it gets a very hard time; justifiably so in many many respects. I think it was a great shame that they didn’t involve him in that. And I think, in general, not involving an Anderson in these projects and reboots is probably a foolish move…

It certainly was for the 2004 film because the person who created it, knows and understands its spirit – in a way that maybe they can’t even put into words, but just their presence and creative influence would keep the spirit of the show there… And if a show’s worth remaking, then surely the central idea, and the spirit of it, must be preserved. Otherwise you lose the thing that makes it worth remaking.

Jamie Anderson, Thunderbirds
If you had to guess where it went wrong, what would you suppose it was? Did it deviate too much from its roots?

I think at the time the 2004 movie was made, Spy Kids had been a recent success. Maybe they saw that as a cookie-cutter approach; let’s make this Spy Kids but dress it up as Thunderbirds… It really felt like it had gone in that direction. It actually brought in a new generation of fans!

Well – if you hadn’t seen Thunderbirds before, and you were a kid – five, six, seven, eight years old… I can totally see this would’ve been really exciting. But it wasn’t classic Thunderbirds. I think, had they involved dad, and given him some level of serious creative input, it would’ve been a very different film – and perhaps could’ve been a success that kicked off a whole new era of Thunderbirds and Thunderbirds fans and spinoffs. But sadly, that wasn’t to be.

I imagine, then, that part of the Anderson stable’s early success is due to the unique nature of the Supermarionation puppets. How easy is it to reinvent a brand built on such a thing?
Yes, Supermarionation and the puppets of the early shows is a really interesting thing because it’s not something that dad wanted to do. He felt he was stuck with it. He ended up working on only puppet shows like Twizzle and Torchy not because he wanted to, but because the opportunity came up and, and he took advantage of that.

But then they had the team and the technology and they were making improvements and so Supermarionation became a thing that dad wanted to make the shows respectable. But I think it’s quite… There’s a bit of a misunderstanding out there that it’s Supermarionation that made those shows successful.

There’s more to it than that…
Yes. It is a unique element of those shows, and a method of creation and filming that was pioneered by dad and his teams and, in a way, gives the shows a timeless quality… Because it hasn’t aged in the same way that perhaps CGI has over the last 30 years or so, for example. They ended up being in their own little time capsule…
But Anderson is much more than Supermarionation and it’s much more than puppetry. You just have to look at the breadth of content, including live-action shows like Space 1999 and UFO and Space Precinct. Then there are CGI shows like the New Captain Scarlet, and stop-motion shows like Lavender Castle and Dick Spanner, even though they’re less well known.

Jamie Anderson, Thunderbirds
Well, this goes back to something you were saying earlier… I do know Dick Spanner – but I didn’t join the dots… I didn’t know that was an Anderson project. That’s looks distinctly different…

Right… And it’s not Supermarionation that made Anderson. It was Anderson that made Supermarionation. So I don’t think we’re rebuilding a brand that’s built on Supermarionation… It’s a major part of those shows; the way they were made, the aspiration, the look, the style, the feel… Yes, absolutely. But that’s not the be all and end all.

So let me ask you this… What did make the shows?!
It was about the people and the team and the stories they were telling, and the characters they created… And also the way those characters behaved and did good and got through difficult plots and storylines to come out the other side and do the best for the world, and the best for their family and their teams.

So really the spirit of Anderson is what we’re rebuilding the brand based on, and not the methods by which things were made. It’s very easy to put the method on a pedestal, and say, “Oh, that’s the pinnacle.” No, they were doing the best they could making advances based on the technology at the time.

But if you took that team and brought them forward in time now and said, here’s the production toolbox, here’s the way you can make things, I’m pretty certain they’d not be making things using Supermarionation. I’m glad it exists. And it’s a fascinating method, really beautiful and really beautifully done… But it’s not the central thing that made Anderson.

Jamie Anderson, Thunderbirds
Looking ahead, what brands are you focusing on for licensing, and which categories do you think hold the most opportunities?

In terms of licensing, Thunderbirds is always viewed as the jewel in the crown and ITV Studios has referred to it as that for a long time, but I think there’s a great deal of scope for shows like Stingray and Captain Scarlet, right back to Fireball XL5 and they’ve generally been under-served… And I understand why, but it means that there’s a gap.

The nostalgic audience for those shows wants to relive their childhood and derive some pleasure from those classic shows. Equally, Space 1999 – as shown by what Big Finish are doing… There are clearly more stories to tell there. And there are more opportunities in terms of licensing, too.

I think, for us, publishing is a major element that we’ll be looking at over the coming couple of years. There was a huge amount of published material put out in the sixties and seventies and, in fact, in the 90s as well: books, novels, comics – all sorts of tie-in stuff and annuals, which haven’t really been delved in to that much. There’d been some kind of “light touch” collections put together of TV21 comic material.

Jamie Anderson, Thunderbirds
But beyond that?

Beyond that, these publications haven’t really had a second life. And I think that is quite an exciting thing! Digital and audio products too; I think there’s a lot of scope there… And toys and collectibles as well. Who doesn’t want to have a Thunderbird 2, or a Stingray or a Space 1999 Eagle on their desk? I think, it’s a dream for many office desks and man caves and rightly so!

With experiential licensing on the rise, what areas do you want to look at? Might we see escape rooms or musicals based on your brand portfolio?
Absolutely! There was a proposed Thunderbirds experience a couple of years ago, which unfortunately didn’t happen, but I think the natural kind of rescue and problem-solving elements of the shows lend themselves really well to something like an escape room. And it’s certainly a discussion that we’ve had with a couple of providers about an Anderson-based escape room.

So I think that could be really exciting, but there’s also the music content… Barry Gray’s music from the 60’s and 70’s show is pretty iconic. Richard Harvey’s music, too, from Terrahawks in the 80s…

Richard Harvey…
Yes! Richard is now Hans Zimmer’s right-hand man. He’s working with us still today, and Crispin Merrell – he did fantastic music in the 1990s when he worked with dad… There’s a lot of great stuff there. So it would be great to see it all come together. So perhaps there’s a concert on the way – who knows?

Jamie Anderson, Thunderbirds
And when looking for a licensing partner, then, do you factor in how they approach design as being important? If so, why is great design so important when it comes to extending your brands through licensing?

There are clearly a lot of fantastic visual elements that come with the shows… From typography – who doesn’t love futura and Euro style fonts; they’re just beautiful – through to the shows’ color palettes. Even something like Space 1999 – although it was quite gray and beige – had colour elements on the sleeves and control panels. There’s something rather beautiful there… And although retro, they’re still contemporary, beautiful colors. You just look at anything from dad’s Century 21 production company or earlier, through to the oranges and grays of Terrahawks. Beyond that, there’s even the spectrum of colors of Spectrum agents in 2005’s New Captain Scarlet.

Overall, I think there’s a certain sensibility there; a certain stylistic choice that fits really well together. So taking advantage of really-well laid down classic content and making sure we bring that through. I think it’s wrong to try and slap an entirely contemporary design aesthetic on these things…

So it has to be done sympathetically otherwise it doesn’t feel authentic; it won’t feel real to the shows, and then it doesn’t connect to a nostalgic audience in the same way. So I think as long as the licensee understands that, or as long as the manufacturing partner understands what the spirit of the show is, and has some love of it and isn’t just interested in doing logo slapping, then great. We’re just not interested in logo slapping. That’s not what these shows are about. They mean more to people than just whacking a logo on a t-shirt.

Jamie Anderson, Thunderbirds
So… No logo slapping, but you’re open to working with manufacturers and partners in many different ways?

Yes. I think we’re very lucky to have struck this deal with ITV Studios and have this broad cross-category license. It means that we can work with new manufacturers and partners who want to do something different. It’s key that their interest in doing it comes from a sympathetic point of view, and probably a nostalgic one, and they understand that we want to do something that fits with the shows. That’s it really, we’re open to anything that fits with our audience.

And just to be clear what is that audience?
The primary audience for Anderson nostalgia products is probably 40 plus. And it’s certainly male skewing. But we’re seeing more and more youngsters coming through: our 16 to 24 audience – and right up to that 45 age group – is growing. People are discovering the shows anew.

In fact, quite recently, we’ve had a spate of new fans appear from North America in their twenties and thirties… They’re finding Anderson properties and watching them, and loving them. So I think we’re open to new and interesting stuff. We like to work with creative partners and move fast, and try new things. And we’re not risk averse. I think we have a pretty-good feeling now for what works and doesn’t work with our fans, and that means we’re willing to try new things and identify things that might be a good fit because we just want people to keep enjoying, keep loving and keep falling in love with everything Anderson.

Ordinarily, Jamie, I’d start wrapping things up about now, but we touched on your father passing earlier and I wanted to explore the extraordinary work he did for the Alzheimer’s Society. Can you tell me about that?
Yes. So towards the end of dad’s life, he was diagnosed with vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. Initially, that was a very difficult time. His work was his life and he knew this diagnosis essentially meant the end of his career. And so – for the first few months – he railed against it, understandably.

Jamie Anderson, Thunderbirds
That changed, though?

One day, we had a chat and he said: look, if I’m going to have this thing, I might as well do something good about it. And the good thing he decided to do was to become an ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Society. And in his final year or so, he talked very openly about his diagnosis, about how it was to live with the disease, and attended and supported various events that then went on to raise about a million pounds.

So I think of everything, really, making TV shows is great and that’s made a lot of people very happy, but to take that diagnosis in one stride – despite knowing it would end your career – then doing something positive with it… I think that’s something that makes me extremely proud.

It’s amazing. My grandfather had dementia, so I can only imagine the fortitude it takes to do what your dad did. Alright! This has been wonderful, so let’s wrap it up with one last question: What’s the most interesting thing on your desk right now?
The most interesting thing on my office desk right now… Well! It’s completely cluttered and full of stuff! But I think probably the most interesting thing we’ve discovered recently is a previously unknown Anderson production from the early 1980s called The Hit Squad.

Previously unknown?!
Yes! We recently recovered it from an auction… So I’ve got that on my desk. Now I’m going through it, looking at if there’s anything there we could take forward for development for a new property. I think there probably is. We keep finding “new old stuff” like that. And I think because dad was such a prolific creator, we’ll keep finding it. There’ll be more and more to come.

Jamie, this has been tremendously interesting, and I really appreciate the time you’ve given us. Thank you so much.
Jamie Anderson, Thunderbirds

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