Puppets with strings

In 2018, Blue Peter was voted best ever children’s television programme in the UK, in a poll for the Radio Times.

The educational show certainly has longevity. First broadcast on 16 October 1958, it is the world’s longest-running children’s TV series. It will be 60 this year. (Happy birthday for 16 October!) Maybe that’s why it took the prize.

For me, however, there were some glaring absences in that “best programme” list. Most particularly, the lack of any of the output from Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. Specifically, their 1960s television series Thunderbirds.

Thunderbirds first appeared in 1965 and used a form of electronic marionette puppetry called “Supermarionation” — a nifty little word that combined “super”, “marionette” and “animation” all in one go.

The puppets — the marionettes — were controlled by thin metal wires. Though the production team tried to hide them, you could often see the strings moving the puppets about. Did this matter? For today’s technologically sophisticated children growing up in a universe of CGI, maybe it would.

For us, in the 1960s, we’d already bought into an International Rescue organisation with land, sea, air and space rescue craft called the Thunderbirds, which launched from Tracy Island, their secret base in the Pacific Ocean. What did a few wires matter? Because they had only one control wire per leg, the puppets were unable to walk so that it looked like a proper walk, so they did most of their world-saving sitting down. We didn’t mind that, either. We were so glad to have any form of entertainment, visible strings on puppets were neither here nor there.

We also didn’t mind the strings in Stingray, Fireball XL5, or Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons.

When your protagonists are defending the Earth, week in, week out, you forget about the strings.

You would think, in the world of British children’s television programming, that the universes of Thunderbirds and Blue Peter would never intersect. What would a worthy educational programme have to do with puppets in spaceships?

After the BBC re-ran Thunderbirds in 1992, the popularity of the show led to a shortage of Tracy Island model toys in the run-up to Christmas. No Tracy Islands in the shops! What is a parent to do?

Step in Blue Peter. Presenter Anthea Turner showed, in one of the programme’s most famous “makes”, how to construct your own at home, using a mixture of cardboard, paint and sticky-backed plastic. Subsequently, the BBC received over 100,000 requests for the Tracy Island how-to instruction sheets.

(In those pre-Internet days, you had to write in for them by post. Nowadays, of course, you can just download them — PDF — or use the video link below for guidance.)

Just to prove that you can’t keep an earth-saving International Rescue organisation off our screens for long, in 2015, the Thunderbirds came back. This time, though, no strings. Thunderbirds Are Go uses computer-generated characters rather than puppets.

Strings no longer cut it, it seems. Or, rather, the strings have been cut.

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