In a career spanning more than fifty years, the films and television series produced by Gerry Anderson have enjoyed a lasting popularity both in Britain and all around the world. From Supercar to Thunderbirds to Space:1999, each of his series were not only hugely popular but also generated vast amounts of merchandising in the form of books, games, and of course toys.
It’s worth noting that such a vast merchandising empire as the one which sprang up around these shows was unheard of back in the mid-1960s when so many of his most popular series were being produced. Nowadays a successful children’s television series may be designed specifically to sell toys, but back in the era of shows like Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet, the merchandise evolved out of the program rather than the other way around – although it was certainly a useful way to recoup production costs too! It was the appealing designs of the vehicles themselves that captured the hearts and minds of the viewers, and in turn, created the desire for toys based on those craft – toys that would enable children to create new adventures of their own in the week-long gap between new tv episodes.
Unsurprisingly the earliest Gerry Anderson productions spawned very little merchandise. The Adventures of Twizzle and Torchy the Battery Boy arrived on British television in the latter half of the 1950s, long before television and film-based toys became big business in the 1960s, and while several storybooks and annuals based on these series were released the only other merchandise came from Pelham Puppets and their reproductions of the series stars. Pelham’s Twizzle puppet is a fair approximation of the character (one might argue it is perhaps slightly more sophisticated than the one that appeared in the television series!) but Pelham’s Torchy only manages a passing resemblance to the nightmarish television original. Likewise, although 1959’s Four Feather Falls was far more successful and technically accomplished than either of its predecessors no toys were produced for the series, with the only merchandise available being the usual variety of books, jigsaws and board games, plus an LP featuring Michael Holliday’s songs from the show.
Anderson’s next series, Supercar, would prove to be one of the most significant both in terms of his career and the explosion of associated merchandising. Although undeniably rather primitive-looking today the series introduces many of the traditional Anderson motifs, such as the secret base housing a sophisticated craft capable of incredible rescues, and the sheer volume of Supercar merchandise produced shows how popular this new format was. As well as numerous books and games the Supercar itself was the subject of a number of toys in varying scales and quality. Budgie models seem have to been closest to the mark with their diecast Supercar featuring retractable wings, but another highlight was the battery-operated Supercar from Remco Toys which was able to move in different directions thanks to several discs that slotted into the model.
Once again Pelham also produced puppets of several characters from the series, while in 1964 Cecil Coleman would produce a rare Supercar giftset featuring a model of the craft and several small figures that could be placed in front of a cartoon backdrop of the Black Rock laboratory. For those who fancied being Mike Mercury himself, Dekker also produced a reproduction of his costume, while for keeping in touch with base while out on a mission in Supercar you could do worse than invest in Merit’s Intercom set – being sure to keep the string that held the two tin cans together from getting tangled, of course.
After Supercar Anderson’s work moved further into the realms of science-fiction with Fireball XL5, featuring the adventures of the World Space Patrol’s flagship under the command of the heroic Colonel Steve Zodiac. With public interest in all things space-related on the increase, this series was another merchandising dream for potential licensors, featuring a beautifully-designed star craft in the XL5 and an assortment of fun characters to go along with it.
Several models of Fireball were produced; Fairylite brought out a friction drive model on wheels, while a limited edition Airfix kit of Fireball was available through a Lyons Maid promotional offer. Most fun of all, however, was the ‘flying’ Fireball rocket from Quercetti (released in the UK through J Rosenthal) which could be catapult-launched up to one hundred metres and returned safely to Earth on the end of a parachute.
One of the most impressive items released during this time was the Space City playset from MPC. In a sense this was two toys in one; a surprisingly accurate 21-inch model of Fireball XL5 itself with detachable Fireball Junior section and firing missiles, and a reproduction of the Space City complex complete with working launch ramp, control tower, and a whole host of support craft and other goodies. Although the majority of these were simple plastic vehicles with no extra action features there’s no denying the remarkable ambition behind this set – not to mention value for money! The Fireball model was also released separately.
Two ranges of XL5 miniature puppets were released by both Pelham and Coleman while Steve Zodiac’s trusty jet-mobile also received the pull-back-and-go toy treatment courtesy of Fairylite, and for the would-be World Space Patrol captains out there Merit produced a dart-firing ‘rocket gun’. Some of the XL5 merchandise also appeared on-screen on a couple of occasions, although not in the Fireball XL5 series itself. The flying XL5 model was launched to a raised eyebrow from Roger Moore at the start of The Saint episode The Man Who Liked Toys, while several of the Pelham puppets appeared in The Avengers episode Death at Bargain Prices.