This is a transcription of a UFO article which appeared in issue #60 (1979) of the UK science fiction media magazine STARBURST.
What prompted Gerry Anderson and his team to tackle a live-action series after the phenomenal success of Thunderbirds and the other Supermarionation shows? John Fleming talks to some of the people involved in the series.
Live action was something Gerry Anderson Productions had been moving towards, starting with the use of live hands for close ups in their shows, continuing with the introduction of realistically proportioned marionettes in Captain Scarlet. This culminated in their series The Secret Service, which was basically a puppet show, but with the real Stanley Unwin and a real car used in various real locations for long shots.
I talked to David Lane about the changeover to live-action. He produced both Joe 90 and The Secret Service and has been described as the "boy wonder" of the Anderson operation, at one point running the studio while Anderson was busy on feature film work. On UFO, Lane scripted and directed several episodes. Like most people involved in the previous productions, he found puppet series a strain: "It was very frustrating working with puppets," he explained to me. "After a while, it really did drive you nuts because they were so restricting. The lip-synch went up the chute, they couldn't smile, they couldn't laugh and they couldn't turn their heads without something going wrong. All the time, you were working out technically how you could get round the problems of the puppets."
So live actors were, in some ways, easier to work with and humanoid puppets were only used on UFO in very rare cases--for example, if someone had to be seen in long-shot, crossing from one model craft to another. There was, of course, extensive use of modelwork, under the expert supervision of Derek Meddings (see Starburst 11 & 12).
The UFO storyline was that alien craft were continually trying to sneak up on us unawares and land on Earth for their own nefarious ends. To combat this, the world powers had set up SHADO--Supreme Headquarters, Alien Defence Organisation. The secret HQ was hidden under a bona fide film studio in the English countryside. (Exterior shots were actually of ATV, Elstree and MGM, Elstree) SHADO also had a moonbase with interceptor craft which could attack the alien UFOs before they entered the Earth's atmosphere. The approaching UFOs were spotted by a sophisticated satellite computer called SID (Space Intruder Detector). If a UFO got near or---disaster--actually into Earth's atmosphere, the Skydiver was used: a submarine with an interceptor attached. This one-man jet fighter could be launched from underwater and could destroy a UFO anywhere in or just above the Earth' atmosphere. If, despite all these precautions, a UFO actually landed, then a SHADO tank-like mobile vehicle would be sent to destroy it. To make many of these models, craft from previous Anderson series were cannibalised and their parts re-used, although this didn't show and the model work was spectacularly successful.
I wondered if maybe the actors and the actresses felt a bit upstaged by all the special effects. David Lane didn't think so: "If you go into the show thinking the special effects are more important than the actors, you're going to end up with a bad show, because it runs out of gas after a while. How many spectacular shots can you look at before you're bored and before they become the norm? The only thing that interests you when you watch a film is the characters: there's nothing else." Indeed this was something that occasionally cropped up in contemporary reviews of the series: that the production was spectacular but the acting was wooden: like puppets without strings.
Lane, like Anderson (see Starburst 8), thinks "this was a remark that just had to be made if they couldn't think of anything better to say. It was there to be had for the headline writers. It was easy." But does he think there was any justification? "I think we were slightly wooden with the actors and the characters," he says. "I don't want to be downbeat. We had a lot of fun on it and enjoyed it, but there was a certain justification in the comment." The Anderson team were very experienced in film-making techniques and, of course, actors had made voice recordings for the puppet series. But, with the exception of the Stanley Unwin sequences in The Secret Service, live actors had never appeared in starring roles and live actors' facial expressions had never before been used to further the plot, explain thought process and make the viewers sympathise with the heros of the show. So the Anderson personel were entering a new area in which they had little experience.
David Lane, now a seasoned, highly experienced director, is able to look back and be honest about what he felt when first faced with the prospect of directing live actors on UFO--"it worried me sick," he says. "It wasn't the first time, because I had directed the artists' recordings for the puppet series. But it's not the same thing at all. One is a voice and the other is a facial thing. It was somethig very big to move on to and it worried me." Presumably, other members of staff felt the same way.
From a design point of view though, UFO was simpler than the puppet series, because real props could be used. On the puppet films, everything was exactly one third scale. Everything down to cups, saucers and tea-spoons. As that scale was neither small enough for toy props nor big enough for real props, it meant virtually everything had to be specially made. However, on UFO, a live-action series, Art Director Bob Bell could just go out and buy whatever they needed in a shop.
There was also a change of atmosphere for the production personnel on the series. Although the special effects and the model work were still done at the Century 21 Studios in Slough, all the live-action interiors were shot at the MGM Studios in Elstree. Keith Wilson (see Starbusrt 13) was one of the designers on UFO and I asked him what it was like.
"It was like a family when I first worked with Gerry," he told me. "It was very close-knit and everyone knew everyone else intimately. When you went into the big bad studios (for UFO) nobody knew you and you knew no one. It was a different world at MGM. We had been allowed to do things at Slough that you weren't allowed to do at a big studio. We had special concessions from the unions because we were very specialized. But as soon as we started to do something at a major studio, we came under the rules of the unions and things that I had always been used to doing I couldn't do any more. But you soon got used to it. I mean, there were more people to do the job that you'd been doing by yourself, so it didn't delay production at all."
For the central role of the American commander of SHADO, Ed Bishop was chosen. He had appeared in the Anderson's only other foray into live-action, the 1969 feature film Doppelganger, (US title: Journey to the Far Side of the Sun); he had been the voice of Captain Blue in the Captain Scarlet series; and he had appeared briefly in 2001. For his UFO role his light brown hair was hidden under a tight-fitting platinum blond wig which the ITC publicity blurb described as "of futuristic cut". Up to that time his main claim to fame had been his protrayal of John F. Kennedy in Joan Littlewood's stage production of Macbird, a rather bizzare anti-Vietnam War parable based on Macbeth.
Co-star George Sewell had also been in Doppelganger and had also worked for Joan Littlewood's famous Theater Workshop in Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be, Sparrows Can't Sing and Oh! What a Lovely War. (He's now best-known for his starring role in TV's Special Branch.)
At the time, ITC made the rather dubious claim that UFO had "the largest resident cast ever assembled for a series", adding cautiously "though not all appear in every episode". That last phrase certainly seemed to refer to dancer Peter Gordeno, who made his straight-acting debut in UFO as Captain Carlin and who was supposedly going to be one of the lead stars, but who soon dropped from sight.
One person who almost didn't make it into the series at all was Micheal Billington, who played the central role of astronaut Paul Foster. He was only offered a screen test when Rose Tobias Shaw, who was casting the show, remembered interviewing him once before, for a small role in a fight scene with patrick McGoohan for The Prisoner. (Shot by UFO's lighting cameraman Brendon Stafford). Of such coincidences and accidents are television shows made.
UFO was well-received in Britian and, ironically, its ratings were picking up on the US when it was axed. That axing was bad news and good news. Coincidences and accidents again. The ending of the show meant a re-development of the proposed second series of UFO--and it finally evolved into Space 1999.
This article is 4 pages long and contains the following 14 photos, all in B&W:
- 1/8 page photo captioned: "A squadron of Interceptor craft on their moonbase launch pad."
- 1/8 page photo captioned: "The SHADO submarine, Skydiver."
- 1/8 page photo of Lt. Ellis & Harrington, captioned: "Two of the moonbase operatives."
- 1/9 page photo captioned: "Paul Roper (George Cole), armed to the teeth, awaits a UFO attack on the moon's surface."
- 1/9 page photo of Straker and Lake looking through a telecope (DESTRUCTION) captioned: "Col Virginia Lake (Wanda Ventham) and Commander Straker (Ed Bishop)."
- 1/9 page photo of Straker and Lt. Chin (SUBSMASH) captioned: "Straker aboard the submarine Skydiver."
- full page photo (with the above three photos covering parts of it) of a rocket liftoff (CLOSE UP) captioned: "An excellent example of the superb modelwork of Derek Meddings for UFO."
- 1/12 page photo of Straker in 1970 (IDENTIFIED) captioned: "Ed Bishop as Commander Straker."
- 1/12 page photo of Col. Lake (IDENTIFIED) captioned: "Wanda Ventham as Col Virginia Lake."
- 1/6 page photo captioned: "SHADO's moon base complex."
- 1/6 page photo of Alien holding gun captioned: "The occupant of a UFO."
- 1/2 page photo from CLOSE UP showing an astronaut floating from the lunar module to the space probe, captioned: "A rare example of the use of puppets in UFO."
- 1/6 page photo captioned: "A SHADO Mobile Unit would tackle any UFO that managed to land on Earth."
- 1/10 page photo captioned: "One of Keith Wilson's costume design's for the pilots of the Interceptor fighters."