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The mining disaster that inspired Gerry Anderson’s ‘Thunderbirds’

One of those FAQs of writers, directors, producers is “Where do you get your ideas from?” which always sounds as if there is a magic ideas tree from which creatives can harvest the fruit when needs want. In truth, ideas come from the most unlikely of sources—from dreams to the sayings of some well-beloved aunt. When Gerry Anderson, the producer and director of the hit puppet shows as Supercar, Fireball XL5, and Stingray, was thinking up ideas for his next series, his imagination was captured by the tragic events of a mining disaster in Germany.

In October 1963, a discharge lake situated over the Lengede-Broistedt mine flooded the shafts and tunnels deep underground. 129 workers were trapped by the flood water. During the first few hours, 79 of the miners managed to escape by climbing ladders in the mine’s ventilation shafts, but there were still 50 miners unaccounted for. Just when the rescuers had almost given up hope of finding the missing miners, a metallic sound was heard tapping out a signal deep underground. A small bore hole was drilled and microphones lowered to communicate with those miners trapped more than 190 feet down. It was then decided the only way to rescue these men was to use a special drill, however, this drill was eight hours away in Bremen. While they waited for it to arrive, food, coffee and medical supplies were lowered to the men trapped far underground.
Painting of the ‘Wunder von Lengede’ by Helmuth Ellgaard.
The whole rescue operation was fraught with difficulties—the excavation of rescue shaft took two weeks, removing four-and-half feet of rubble every hour. The rescuers were battling time and the constant threat of the flood waters rising underground because of depressurization. The pressure had to be kept artificially high underground, and a specially designed “bullet-shaped” decompression chamber was built which enabled the rescuers to bring men singly to the surface.  In total eleven men were eventually rescued by November 7, 1963—nineteen had died in the initial explosion and ten from wounds while awaiting rescue.

The “miracle of Lengede” was carried in newspapers and television reports across the world. Among those gripped by the rescue story was Gerry Anderson, who saw in it the idea for his next television production Thunderbirds. Anderson devised the idea of a team of international rescuers, who traveled across the world rescuing those in peril of major disasters. So, was born the Tracy family and International Rescue—F.A.B.


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Gerry Anderson: Creator of ‘Thunderbirds’, ‘Captain Scarlet’ and ‘UFO’ has died

Gerry Anderson the creator of Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and The Mysterons, Stingray and Joe 90 has died at the age of 83.

The announcement of his death was made by Jamie Anderson, on his blog site:

I’m very sad to announce the death of my father, Thunderbirds creator, Gerry Anderson. He died peacefully in his sleep at midday today (26th December 2012), having suffered with mixed dementia for the past few years. He was 83.

Please make donations in his memory to the Alzheimer’s Society via this just giving link

Gerry Anderson was a major influence on generations of youngsters growing-up in Britain during the late 1950s to mid-1970s. His programs shaped play activities, games, toys and inspired imaginations. Anderson was as influential as Walt Disney, if not more so to young Brits.

Anderson was born Gerald Alexander Abrahams in Bloomsbury, London on April 14th, 1929. Anderson’s family were refugees from Eastern Europe, and his mother changed the family name by deed poll from Abrahms to Anderson in 1939.

His older brother Lionel joined the Royal Air Force at the start of the Second World War. He was transfered to the United States for training and wrote back of his training at Thunderbird Field - a name that was to prove highly significant to the Lionel’s younger brother.

Anderson began his career at the young age of 14 as a film trainee for the Ministry of Information, working for the British Colonial Film Unit as photographer and editor. After National Service, he returned to work at Gainsborough Pictures in 1947, slowly beginning his career as writer and director.

In the mid-1950s, Anderson set up a series of companies with his cameraman Arthur Provis, leading to the eventual formation AP Films, which produced the successful children’s puppet series The Adventures of Twizzle - about a boy who could stretch his limbs to any size. Anderson met and worked with puppeteer Christine Glanville, special FX technician Derek Meddings, composer Barry Gray and Sylvia Tham, a secretary who became his wife. Together this talented group would make Fireball XL5, Stingray, and Thunderbirds, amongst many others.

After the success of Twizzle, Anderson produced Torchy the Battery Boy, which though successful left Anderson frustrated by the problems of working with puppets. This changed in 1960, when Anderson devised Supercar with Reg Hill, which used an electronic system that made the puppets or marionettes respond in a more realistic fashion. This process was called Supermarionation and became one of the defining characteristics of Anderson’s best work.

R.I.P. Gerry Anderson 1929-2012

Read more on Gerry Anderson, plus remainder of ‘Mr Thunderbird’, after the jump…

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For Sale: Thunderbirds’ Lady Penelope

A “super-rare” puppet of Thunderbirds’ Lady Penelope comes up for auction at the end of the month, when it is expected to fetch around $16,000.

Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward was the posh London agent for International Rescue, who held her own with the Tracy boys and their selection of incredible vehicles in the Thunderbird series. Lady P was also, if the Guardian is to be believed:

...the subject of many a schoolboy crush in the late sixties and seventies.

Personally, I preferred Wilma from The Flintstones and Elizabeth Montgomery from Bewitched, but each to their own.

The puppet or marionette is 20 inches high with a head full of electronics, which made the mouth to move. Lady Penelope’s face was based on a model from a shampoo advert, and her voice was supplied by Sylvia Anderson, co-creator with Gerry Anderson of Thunderbirds.

As Stephanie Connell an auctioneer at Bonhams explained:

“This puppet came from the collection of Christine Glanville, who died in 1999.

“She was the puppet maker for the series and this is super-rare and important. It was an important piece of TV history and although it was first shown in 1965 it has been repeated ever since and all generations are aware of it.

“This is an original Lady Penelope and there can be few, if any, left. She is wearing a 60s-style A-line dress and a cardigan. She has pink lipstick on and blue eyes and her hair is in a bob style.

“There are lots of genuine Thunderbirds fans and there will be lots of people who would love to have her.”

Bonhams are also selling Lady Penelope’s miniature writing desk, chair and bookcase from the original set, which is reckoned to fetch around $8,000.  The auction takes place on June 29 in London.

Here is “Parker - Well Done!” - a ‘Fab’ disc from 1965, which featured Lady Penelope (Sylvia Anderson), Parker (David Graham) and Jeff Tracy (Peter Dyneley).


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