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Do you remember? UFO

Although set in the near future, Gerry Anderson’s fondly-remembered TV series was very much a product of its time. By Simon Evans

Although had made his name with a string of successful puppet-based shows, including Fireball XL5, Stingray and the iconic Thunderbirds, Gerry Anderson had always wanted to work with real actors, emulating the Hollywood directors he had admired ever since he was a boy.

In 1968, with the appetite for his children’s shows seemingly waning, Anderson had a chance to realise his dream, producing and writing, with then-wife Sylvia, the science-fiction film Doppelganger, later known as Journey to the Far Side of the Sun. It was a flop but, undeterred, Anderson attempted a bizarre mixture of marionettes and live action with his TV series The Secret Service, starring gobbledygook king Stanley Unwin as a secret agent vicar, a cross between Father Brown and James Bond.

Not surprisingly it was an even bigger flop, but TV mogul Lew Grade, who had backed many of the earlier Anderson shows, came to his rescue and, liking Gerry’s idea of a series based around UFOs, gave the go-ahead for a full series, this time mixing real actors with the machines that had made Thunderbirds and its ilk such merchandising successes.

Although the move to live action, aimed at a slightly older audience than the puppet shows, was a departure for Anderson, UFO also marked a return to the ideas behind Captain Scarlet, Thunderbirds and Stingray, that of a benevolent organisation, blessed with the latest high-tech gadgets and machines, tasked with either protecting against an external, alien, threat or rescuing people in situations of extreme peril.

In the case of UFOit was SHADO, led by Col Ed Straker, a highly-secretive organisation that used a movie studio as cover for its operations. SHADO’s mission was to track, intercept, and hopefully destroy, alien UFOs from a dying planet that were attacking earth with the intention of harvesting human organs. Straker was played by Ed Bishop, a British based American actor who was already familiar to Gerry Anderson fans, having voiced Captain Blue for Captain Scarlet, and starred in the Doppelganger.

As with earlier Anderson shows, UFO took place in the future, although unlike Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet, which were set in the 2060s, the dateline was 1980, just ten years ahead of when it was made. As it turned out the real world of 1980 would not be that different to 1970, but at the time the show was made it still seemed a long way in the future.

Remember this was a period of our history when time seemed to be accelerating, with social and cultural changes happening so fast it was often difficult to keep up.

Britain in 1960 seemed a world away from the fashions and social mores of the early Seventies so it was reasonable to assume the early Eighties would be equally far removed from 1970.

That is perhaps why Sylvia Anderson’s fashion designs for the show seem so bizarre in retrospect. The women all appear to wear purple wigs while many of the men (and some women) parade in what appear to be string vests; not a good look. The sets and vehicles, however, could not be faulted, setting the kind of standards for science-fiction television normally only seen in big-budget movies. Apart from the highly-detailed models viewers had come to expect from previous Gerry Anderson productions, there were also some full-scale models, too, left over from the filming of Doppelganger.

The futuristic cars driven by Straker and his team were essentially just Ford Zodiacs with new body shells. They were very difficult to drive and could only be used on private roads as they were not licensed for public highways.

The models and effects were left in the hands of Derek Meddings, one of the most important and influential of Gerry Anderson’s team. Meddings had worked for Anderson since the late Fifties, from the early children’s shows Torchy, Four Feather Falls and Supercar up to the more recent Joe 90 and Secret Service. UFO would, however, mark the end of his collaboration with Anderson; Meddings would go on to work on many of the Seventies James Bond films as well as the early Superman movies and Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman.

Another returning stalwart was composer Barry Gray, who had been responsible for the music for every Anderson series since the 1956 Adventures of Twizzle. His music for the classic Anderson shows was as vital to their success as the plots, design and futuristic craft, and Gray’s theme music for UFO was equally as dramatic. He also displayed another side to his talents with the eerie electronic sounds that closed each episode, music that would not have been out of place on a Tangerine Dream LP.

Although the setting for UFO was the near future, the idea of a world under siege would have been all too familiar to a Britain for whom the Second World War and the Blitz were only just fading into memory. And, with a budget of £100,000 per episode, expensive for the time, it was those adults born during or just after the war that the show would have to win over if it was to satisfy the advertisers and network bosses.

To that end the series tackled more adult themes than would have been possible with the earlier child-orientated Anderson shows, including blackmail, adultery, sexism and racism.

One criticism often leveled at Gerry Anderson’s live action productions was that the actors were like bland, lifeless puppets and, in the case of UFO and its successor, Space 1999, all too easily overshadowed by the technology that surrounded them. It has some force; perhaps Anderson had become so used to dealing with marionettes that didn’t answer back that he would sometimes fall into the trap of treating his real-life actors and actresses the same way.

Whatever the cause, UFO lost its way towards the end of the show’s run. The American end of the production company, ITC, had got cold feet over the soap opera feel of certain episodes and demanded that there be more action and less talk. They did not seem to realise it was this human element that made the show so interesting in the first place. Also less than helpful was that filming for the final nine episodes of the series had to move from MGM-British Studios in Borehamwood, which had closed down at the end of 1969. Space only became available at Pinewood Studios in June 1970, which meant a 17-month gap between the two blocs of shows – and there is a quite discernible shift in both style and personnel.

George Sewell, who had played Straker’s rough diamond lieutenant, Alec Freeman, and Gabrielle Drake, who had been lumbered with one of those purple wigs as the SHADO Moonbase commander, did not return as they had found other work, in the TV series Special Branch. Drake, the sister of folk legend Nick Drake, would later find fame as part of the cast of The Brothers.

Despite ITC’s cold feet, ratings for the show had been good, especially in America, prompting the company to commission a second series, this time set mainly on the Moon.

Anderson set to work only for the production company to cancel the show after ratings dipped for later episodes.

Not wanting to see his efforts go to waste Anderson pitched a new show, Space 1999, which had the bizarre premise of the Moon being blown out of Earth’s orbit, taking the survivors of a research base with it. Space 1999would run for two seasons and prove to be one of Gerry Anderson’s most popular latter-day shows, but also his last hurrah.

There was no place for his technicolour creations in the bleak, monochrome world of the late Seventies – but his time would come again.

The digitally remastered UFO Complete Series box set is available through ITV Studios Entertainment.

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