Sophie Aldred has had a successful acting career both on screen and as a voice actor. You may know her as Ace from Doctor Who, or recognise her voice in series such as Bob the Builder and Dennis and Gnasher. But you may not know she is also a fan of Gerry Anderson’s work!
To find out more, we dispatched AC to a top secret London sound studio for an interview with Sophie.
Thanks for taking the time to be interviewed Sophie, it’s lovely to be able to speak with you.
For those who may be unfamiliar with your work, would you like to tell us a little about yourself and your career?
My name’s Sophie Aldred and I’m a Gerry Anderson fan. Sounds like it should be in sort of meeting with other people sitting around, but I’m proud to announce that I’m a huge Gerry Anderson fan. I’ve played Ace in Doctor Who for 30 years now and I look exactly the same as I did when I was 25, amazingly as I’m sure you’ll all agree. I’m so glad this isn’t a video interview(!) It’s great to talk about something that isn’t Doctor Who for a change, and if you want to know what I’ve been doing right up to date, then Strangeness in Space is the thing, and you’ll hear all about that later.
When did you first become a Gerry Anderson fan?
Oh goodness, I suppose it when I was about five. I was watching it on TV on a black and white set that you had to get up and change the channel with your hand! Can you remember those days? No, you’re too young! (Editor’s note – thanks Sophie!) It had an aerial at the back with bunny ears or maybe a coat hanger or something like that.
I just loved Thunderbirds! I can’t remember much about it, but my mum made me a Scott Tracy outfit because I had to be Scott Tracy. So mum made me a little belt holder with old cigar tubes my grandfather had and made me a little hat and I used to run around at my grandparent’s house, saving the universe. Plus ça change!
Wonderful! Saving the universe sort of became a full time occupation for you after that?
It did, exactly. Still doing it all these years later.
Glad to see that hasn’t changed! So what was it about Thunderbirds in particular that grabbed your attention?
I think it was just sort of the mixture of things really. The music, obviously, Barry Gray’s music. I loved the slowly unfolding model shots as well, not that I knew they were models of course. But the way that everything happened so beautifully like the launch sequence, and which pod was Thunderbird 2 going to choose, was it going to be the Mole, please let it be the Mole! And the characters, I think the scripts were great as well! I was really scared of the Hood, with his glowing eyes, I had some sleepless nights because of him.
He was rather scary! Do you think the characters were written with a family audience in mind, rather than being perhaps dumbed-down for younger viewers?
Definitely! When you look back, they weren’t kid-ified at all. It wasn’t even mild peril a lot of the time, it was peril peril, and how were they going to get out of that one? But it was very grown up, it wasn’t dumbed-down at all, no.
That’s probably one of the reasons that the series has gone on for as long as it has. What do you think makes a Gerry Anderson series quintessentially a Gerry Anderson series?
Well Supermarionation obviously is one thing, but I guess I never noticed the strings growing up. Maybe it’s because the TV was so fuzzy in those days. It’s the quality of the filming and the detail as well, the detail of the background shots and that everything has been really carefully thought through. It’s beautiful, it’s really beautifully made. The scripts are good, the characters are always great and you’re very fond of the characters as well, you get to know them very well, they’re well written.
That always helps and quite often in a Gerry Anderson series even minor characters are given quite a lot of background information too.
Yeah! Even the father and son characters at the beginning, who you know are going to get into terrible trouble, and are going to need to be rescued. You get to know their relationship and you get involved in their story. It’s not like the guy in Star Trek who’s the extra guy who goes down to the planet and you just know he’s going to get shot (laughs).
You mentioned the music, another very important aspect of the series. It’s rather unforgettable and I often find myself humming it occasionally.
Oh I just love it, it’s so fantastic because the tunes are great, yes, but the arrangements are so fabulous, the fact that symphony orchestras still play them nowadays just goes to show that. They’re fun for the musicians to play I’m sure, and they’re so heroic. In fact, our national anthem is so rubbish and so boring and someone said it should be the theme from The Archers, but I think it should be the Thunderbirds theme tune.
That would definitely get my vote! You actually wrote part of your dissertation on the work of Gerry Anderson, can you tell us a little bit about that?
I did, yeah! Well, we were thinking of subjects for our dissertation and we could have chosen pretty much anything to do with theatre, film and TV. I can’t remember exactly who mentioned it, but I know that SIG magazine had just started and there was a science fiction-type bookshop in the Oxford Road precinct centre. This was way before the days of Forbidden Planet or anything like that, so it was a very unusual thing, there weren’t many of those shops around. I wandered in there one day and was looking around, it wasn’t actually very well stocked either though, because there wasn’t much merchandise in there, and I saw this SIG magazine, which looked a bit like a sort of fan thing. It had been typed, again no computers, no desktop publishing, and I picked it up and I bought it and I took it back to my flat and I thought “This is great, a magazine devoted to Gerry Anderson!”.
I was looking through the letters page and I saw a letter from a guy and it said “I’ve just done a thesis on Gerry Anderson, if anyone is interested then get in touch”. I thought that was amazing, what a great idea for a dissertation! So I went to my lecturer and I asked if I could do something to do with Gerry Anderson puppets on TV. He said “Yeah sure, a history of puppets on television would be really fascinating, it’d be a really good one to do.”
So I wrote to this guy and we started corresponding. He sent me his dissertation and I looked through it and I was really intrigued because he said he was an artist, and he used to write these letters with pictures of Thunderbirds and things in the margins, and I thought this was really great. He turned out to be Graham Bleathman, who then went on to do all the cutaway model books and things like that. So then of course I went on to write my dissertation and I illustrated it as well. I thought you can’t have a Gerry Anderson oeuvre and not illustrate it, so I painted these paintings and not only that, I also painted Thunderbirds 1, 2 and 3 on the wall of our toilet in the flat in the house we were renting at university at the time. It’s quite funny because years later I was talking to someone who had been to the university and they said “Oh we had Thunderbirds on our wall!” and I said “I painted those!” (laughs).
So yeah, Graham and I started corresponding and of course then eventually I got into Doctor Who and there was a convention on, one of the very first ones I did, in Salisbury, and he lived in Salisbury and he asked if I wanted to come round for tea. So I went and actually met him for the first time, went to his house and for the first time actually saw a fan’s collection of stuff. I’ll never forget, he reached up and said “You’ll like this.” and he reached down a Lady Penelope in her box – the original toy! And I just thought “If only I’d kept all my stuff”, because I think I’d had Lady Penelope too. My best friend Catherine had a pink car, a Matchbox one I think it was, and you put these little white things in and you could fire them out of the front. So that was how I did my dissertation! It did very well and apparently it was the most read dissertation in the drama department , so I was very pleased with that.
You mentioned Doctor Who and of course you played Ace and indeed continue to play the character in Big Finish audio dramas with Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor. Am I right in thinking that Ace wore a Fanderson badge on her jacket? She did rather enjoy blowing things up in true Gerry Anderson style!
Absolutely yeah and she certainly did! It was quite funny because when we were putting the jacket together, I had this idea for the jacket with the badges on, based on pictures I’d seen of cool girls in clubs at the time wearing these jackets. So I thought I’d have as much of my own stuff on it as possible.
I had my Blue Peter badges and I had my Fanderson badge and I just thought that would be the perfect thing for her to have. All sorts of them were my own badges actually, which was a bit of a nightmare when they had to double them for the stunt jacket, but I’ve still got my Fanderson badge on my jacket in my wardrobe at home.
And keeping on the science-fiction theme, would you like to tell us about your latest project Strangeness in Space?
Well Strangeness in Space is a little bit different for me because it’s a comedy. I love comedy, I love people making laugh, I love all that, but I’ve never had a chance to do it with the iconic Trev and Simon, who were also at Manchester University with me. So they were some of the readers of my dissertation. So Clare Eden, who was also at university with us, produced a podcast called The Minister of Chance and Simon and I were doing an appearance at the Space Centre in Leicester and we were on stage together making each other laugh and she thought maybe we should do something together after all this time. Then we went to a reunion at Manchester and it was the day after the night before and we were sitting in a cafe and Clare said to me and Simon “Would you like to do something, maybe a podcast or a series?” and we said we’d love to do that.
Trev and Simon went away and wrote a pilot episode of Strangeness In Space, the idea being that I worked in a gift shop in a space centre, based loosely on the Leicester Space Centre, and inadvertently get blasted off into space with Trev and Simon, who are a 1980’s tribute pop-synth duo called Pink Custard, loosely based on Blancmange of course, but much better.
We end up having lots of adventures together, trying to get back to Earth and we’ve had real success. We crowd-funded for it and made our target within two weeks, which is amazing, and we’ve done six episodes now. We’ve come to the end of the first series and it’s really good fun, people seem to be loving it, we’ve had lots of great merchandise, she says plugging the merchandise! So yes, just go to the website at www.strangenessinspace.com
It’s free to listen to, which I love, the fact that anyone can listen to it, and it’s a real sort of family thing so kids enjoy it, grannies enjoy it, everyone enjoys it. A bit like Doctor Who we’ve had people queuing up to do it, Rufus Hound, Patterson Joseph, Carol Cleveland even came in and did a few lines for us. Sylvester McCoy is playing my dad, it’s great fun, and also we managed to persuade a really good friend of mine, Doon Mackichan, who was also at Manchester with us – it’s a Manchester University thing! – she’s our narrator, who’s called Bounty Flightingale, everybody’s nightmare narrator really, she’s great.
You’ve done all six episodes of series one now, will we be getting a second series?
Well I thought we’d talked about just finishing it off there and then and seeing what happens, but actually they’ve written such a massive cliff-hanger for the end of episode six that we’re going to have to see. We’re going to have to do another series I think!
We’d like to say a huge thanks to Sophie Aldred for taking time out of her busy schedule for this interview, we’re sure you’ll agree it was fascinating!
Have any of you worked on a Gerry Anderson-themed project for University, or maybe you’ve even read Sophie’s dissertation? Let us know in the comments section!
For an explosive range of Thunderbirds merchandise and plenty of other Gerry Anderson products, be sure to swing by the Gerry Anderson Store!