On the approach of its 50th anniversary, Ken Wilson celebrates a time when everything was Scarlet, puppets fought the terrorists and life seemed simpler…
In the mid-1960s Gerry Anderson had huge success on children’s TV in Britain with Thunderbirds. Its combination of sub-Bond capers (secret volcano locations, glamorous characters and enormous explosions) and the dramatis personae being puppets gave it a camp self-knowingness that was quite unlike anything else on TV at the time or since. Thunderbirds’ charm rested partly in the marionettes’ rather freakish, doll-like proportions – enormous heads and huge eyes. The baddies were grotesquely caricatured as untrustworthy foreigners with an almost Punch and Judy physiognomy.
Anderson had long wanted to make live-action productions but Thunderbirds was so successful that he was forced to grind out puppet shows one after another. A foray into making two feature-length Thunderbirds films for cinema release did not make money and by 1967 the Thunderbirds brand needed refreshing. The powerful ITV mogul Lew Grade wanted another show but with a smaller budget and shorter runtime. So Captain Scarlet was born.
Transistorised solenoids meant that the mechanism (secreted inside of the puppets’ heads) that made the eyes blink and the mouths move were smaller and for the first time the puppets’ heads were more in proportion with the rest of their bodies and, subsequently, were more lifelike. The show was greenlighted by Grade and was widely trailed in Anderson’s weekly comics TV21 and Lady Penelope. By September 1967 there was a huge interest in the new show and fans were not disappointed. Captain Scarlet toys were high on every Christmas gift wishlist.
Captain Scarlet was darker than Thunderbirds. The world had, by the late 1960s been plagued by hijackings and acts of senseless terrorism. Groups like Baader-Meinhoff in Germany and the terrorist Leila Khaled gave the impression of terrorists being ordinary people not dissimilar to your neighbours. Captain Scarlet caught, even predicted, something of the zeitgeist. The premise was that space explorers had accidentally bombed an alien community on Mars, the mysterious Mysterons, who became dead set on wreaking their revenge on Earth. The Mysterons were never seen but depicted as two eerie rings of light. They were able to destroy people then replicate them (radicalise, if you will). These enemies from within, in turn, acted as their murderous agents. The Spectrum organisation was tasked with keeping world peace. It was based on a floating aircraft carrier called Cloudbase. The male personnel were code-named after colours of the rainbow while the female staff members (who flew white fighter jets) were the Angels with names like Rhapsody, Destiny and Symphony and looked like amalgams of stars of the day – Julie Christie, Nancy Kwan and Brigitte Bardot.
The male lead, Captain Scarlet, had been murdered by the Mysterons’ evil empire. However, in a freak accident he had been resurrected and ‘made indestructible’. The whole thing played out in 32 half hour episodes which ran from September 1967 to May 1968. What made the show gloomier was that Scarlet diced with death in almost every episode – but it was okay because he was indestructible. His nemesis was Captain Black who had completely gone over to the dark side and become the Mysterons’ Lucifer figure. A scene in the opening credits sees Black standing, as if risen from the dead, in a misty graveyard complete with wrought iron gates.
Naturally the good guys were all handsome bucks with clear eyes and square jaws and had the look of a rather aged-up boy band. Those corrupted by the Mysterons were just like the goodies too but, indoctrinated, they can do nothing more than follow the bidding of their masters. Meanwhile the Angels in white helmets and catsuits were like Miss World contestants on day release – beautiful and from different lands.
Anderson and his wife Sylvia (who worked mainly on the back stories and characterisation of the puppets) had wanted to get famous names to voice the characters – Dirk Bogarde and Patrick McGoohan were mooted – but the budget didn’t allow. Instead Scarlet was voiced by Francis Matthews who gave him a certain Cary Grant inflexion and other puppets were given faces that looked vaguely like film stars of the period like Robert Mitchum and Anthony Perkins.
Although Anderson’s puppet shows were not exactly future-proofed they have rather stood the test of time. It’s a real rainbow coalition on Cloudbase – black, white, Chinese, French, American, British – just like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise but with better bone-structure. The Captain Scarlet vehicles and special effects still look realistic. The female characters were no adjuncts to the men but jet pilots. But the show lacked the wit of Thunderbirds (at the end of rescuing victims of a particularly nasty disaster the boys would relax by the pool with cigarettes and schooners of brandy) and those dude-bros captains Scarlet, Blue, Ochre and so on had a certain sameness and were just too earnest. And in the show’s realism there was a lack of the same endearing qualities that Thunderbirds had in spades.
Thunderbirds retains a warm place in all babyboomers’ hearts. Thanks to its archness, wit and its spoofing, adults got the jokes even if children didn’t back then – you need only think of the recent viral ad for Halifax building society starring Lady Penelope and Parker. Thunderbirds’ hour-long format allowed it to explore stories like industrial espionage and bank heists, as well as major catastrophes. Captain Scarlet stories were too similar to each other.
And for all Thunderbirds longevity – there has been a live-action movie and a CGI-animated show for TV and, in 2004, a hilarious, big-budget satire from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Team America; the show’s toy rockets still feature in the Argos catalogue – Captain Scarlet’s predictions of the future do seem more accurate. There are TV monitors inside cars, the Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle with its backward facing seats is not so different to today’s suburban SUVs, by the 1980s every family saloon was an aerodynamic wedge not dissimilar to Scarlet’s red patrol car, a woman pilot is no longer as an outrageous a proposition as it was in 1967. There have been recent serious attempts to explore Mars. And, more tragically, back on Earth, a murderous enemy does strike fear and hide in plain sight.
Big Finish Productions, in association with ITV Studios Global Entertainment, will release a Captain Scarlet 50th Anniversary audio set in September. The bluedot festival, 7-9 July 2017 at Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, will include an exhibition of models and stage sets from Captain Scarlet and other Gerry Anderson shows.