Four Feather Falls was the third puppet television series produced by Gerry Anderson, and the first produced by his AP Films that wasn’t commissioned by author Roberta Leigh. Instead, the idea for the series (originally named Two Gun Tex Tucker) came from composer Barry Gray, who envisaged a show that capitalised on the popularity of television Westerns of the late 1950s but brought to life using the puppetry that had proven successful during their time with Leigh. After some refinement of Gray’s original concept (mostly to add the show’s magical elements) the first episode of the series was produced in 1959 on a budget of £6000 at Islet Park, the Victorian mansion that had served as the production home of both The Adventures of Twizzle and Torchy the Battery Boy. However, following the sale of the series to Granada Television and a need to expand the puppet stage in order to create a more fully realised town, the production was relocated to a converted building at Ipswich Road on the Slough trading estate – a place where the Supermarionation magic of the 1960s would be able to flourish, beginning with Four Feather Falls.
The first episode of the series explains that the town of Four Feather Falls came into being after Tex Tucker saved the life of little Makooya, son of Indian Chief Kallamakooya. To show his gratitude, Kallamakooya magically produced a waterfall and rendered the land around it fertile enough to grow crops, thus allowing for the construction of the town. Four Feather Falls would also get part of its name from the four magic feathers Kallamakooya gave Tex; one allows his dog Dusty to speak, another the same for his horse Rocky, while the final two feathers allow Tex’s guns to swivel and fire of their own accord – a useful ability for Tex to have in his new role as Sheriff of Four Feather Falls!
Among those who settled in the town were Grandpa Twink (who sometimes introduced earlier episodes of the show), his grandson Little Jake, Doc Haggerty, general store owner Ma Jones, bank manager Marvin Jackson, telegraph operator Dan Morse, and saloon owner Slim Jim. Every Western needs some no-good low-lifes for our hero to battle and these included the show’s most popular baddies, Mexican bandits Pedro and Fernando. This pair of bumbling crooks also often crossed paths with other recurring villains like horse rustler Big Ben and renegade Indian Red Scalp. Although all four characters were fully capable of being a genuinely dangerous threat on occasion they never seemed to learn from their brushes with the law, and the residents of Four Feather Falls just seem to have accepted that! Sometimes these regular villains would find themselves falsely accused, with more than one episode revolving around the importance of not jumping to conclusions and giving people a fair chance – an admirable lesson to teach young viewers.
Each of the show’s 39 13-minute episodes also managed to pack in a great amount of action; everything from shootouts on Main Street to the townsfolk taking up arms to defend their homes from attack, and as the show’s storytelling became more sophisticated so did the production itself. Although any major special effects sequences were still a way off yet the Four Feather Falls puppets represented a significant step forward for the world of Gerry Anderson puppetry. Unlike the previous stringed puppets of Twizzle and Torchy, the Four Feather Falls puppets would be operated by wires made of thin tungsten steel, with their more realistic heads sculpted from fibreglass rather than papier mâché or wood. Most significant of all however was the introduction of a new lip-syncing mechanism which allowed the puppets to speak in time with their pre-recorded dialogue. Many of the mouths of the characters in Twizzle and Torchy were manually operated by strings, but the Four Feather Falls characters would speak via electrical impulses that would travel down the puppet’s wires to a solenoid in their head that would move their lips in time with the recordings. Several of the puppets seen in the earliest episodes of the series demonstrate that the process was still in its infancy (as witnessed by Tex’s rather sluggish mouth movements during his song in the second episode Kidnapped), but it would continue to be refined through the run of the series and into subsequent productions. Although this new lip-sync process would not be named on screen until the second season of Supercar, Four Feather Falls was really where Supermarionation itself was born.
Among the voice cast were a host of names familiar from other APF series, including one who would remain associated with Anderson throughout both of their careers. David Graham provided the voices of Grandpa Twink, Fernando, Big Ben and Red Scalp in the first of many Anderson shows to carry his name, while returning from Torchy the Battery Boy for his final Anderson appearance was Kenneth Connor who provided the voices of Dusty, Rocky, Pedro, Marvin Jackson, Slim Jim, Doc Haggerty and Kallamakooya. Another returning voice artist was The Adventures of Twizzle’s Denise Bryer, who voiced Ma Jones and little boys Jake and Makooya. The final member of the cast was discovered quite by accident during Bryer’s audition, as her then-husband Nicholas Parsons was asked to read in for the role of Tex Tucker while she tried out various voices. Anderson was so impressed by Parsons’ take on the Sheriff that he immediately offered him the role, while singer Michael Holliday would provide the character’s singing voice.
The series received its television premiere on Thursday February 25th 1960, and earned itself a place on the cover of the TV Times for that week. Although Four Feather Falls was popular enough to see a plethora of spinoff merchandise Granada Television were not interested in financing any further adventures beyond the initial run of 39, and by the time the final episode aired on October 27th the AP Films team were already hard at work on their next series – the Marvel of the Age, Supercar!
Perhaps understandably given its historical setting very few elements of Four Feather Falls found their way into Anderson’s later more futuristic productions, although sections of Barry Gray’s musical score can occasionally be heard in Supermarionation shows up until The Secret Service. The series itself was occasionally seen on television screens in more than one episode of Fireball XL5, while the Red Scalp puppet appears to have been modified to play one of the Amazonian headhunters in the Supercar episode Amazonian Adventure. Rumoured to be the oldest known existing prop from any Gerry Anderson series, the piano from the Four Feather Falls saloon also survives to this day!
Four Feather Falls was repeated on television throughout the 1960s but fans of the show would then have to wait until 2005 for the return of Tex Tucker, when the series was finally released in its entirety on DVD. Those expecting a crude and simplistic children’s puppet series that couldn’t possibly compare to the more exciting worlds of Stingray and Thunderbirds soon found themselves confronted with a far more sophisticated series than many other television puppet shows of the same era, and one produced to an equally impressive standard as Supercar and Fireball XL5. In the six decades since it first graced our screens, each episode of Four Feather Falls still offers up an irresistible slice of action and adventure populated by a host of lovable characters, all crammed into just 13 minutes – and usually with time for a song! Many viewers who didn’t grow up with the show have still been able to fall in love with the series thanks to its DVD release, with one episode even making the impressive leap to High Definition on the blu-ray releases of the colourised Fireball XL5 episode A Day in the Life of a Space General and the This is Supermarionation compilation disc – we can only hope that it won’t be the last!
Although it lacks the high tech vehicles and dazzling spectacle of his later productions, Four Feather Falls is a hugely impressive series for its time that still deserves to be recognised alongside the finest Gerry Anderson works thanks to its emphasis on good storytelling and fun characters, with the magic that brought the show to life still very much in effect 60 years later!