Thunderbirds visionary Gerry Anderson railed against the limitations of puppetry.

Although his genius was defined by a string of hits with his Supermarionation heroes – including Captain Scarlet, Stingray, Joe 90 and the Tracy brothers – he dreamt of something bigger, better and more human. Something that could walk from A to B without suggesting piles.

Anderson fell into puppetry early in his career in his quest to make “real” films. He was held there by acclaim and money and would inevitably break free but not before re-writing the rules of television.

If he was the driven, thorny genius, his wife Sylvia was the soothing balm of AP Films, which occupied anonymous warehouses in Slough. When the pressure was on, the cool tones of Lady Penelope would introduce effortless calm to the fractious heat.

Stephen Riviere’s affection and definitive documentary Filmed In Supermarionation is a witty, knowing retrospective charting the rise and fall of the Andersons’ empire, from their early days doing shorts to the fully-fledged mini-epics that were the hallmark of their ground-breaking output during the 1960s.

Along the way, we get to see the faces behind the voices, previously unseen excerpts from the shows and the secrets behind those Hollywood-style explosions.

Parker narrates

Lady Penelope herself and adenoidal sidekick Parker narrate much of the story.

(“Well milady, ‘ave you hever wondered ‘ow you came to be, why ham I ‘ere, what is the meanin’ of life hetcetera?” he asks. “Why Parker, having an existential crisis?”)

We travel with a band of former staff to revisit their old studio – now a garage – and share their memories of back-breaking toil in cramped conditions waiting hours for the strings to be made invisible.

We hear how their little adventures lit the eyes of children and turned the heads of TV moguls.

The ultimate demise of AP Films was written into that early Anderson frustration and signalled by the physiognomy of the puppets. After the caricatures of the Tracey brothers – big eyes, big heads – Anderson evolved his marionettes into the more human proportions.

Anderson even offered a curious, risible crossover The Secret Service in which long shots were human.

He finally made the jump into live action in the 1970s, without much success, ending his career reliving the Supermarionation days through its evergreen cult following.

Despite the gloomy trajectory of the final chapter, this is a delightful retelling of the tale. For those who took part – the voices, the actors, the FX guys – those were the days of their lives.

And those early fans, grown up now, will fidget excitedly in their seats like five-year-olds and delight again that such fitful figures could realise their slick dreams of adventure.

To a fully fired imagination, strings are always invisible.

ANDERSON’S OUTPUT

  • Adventures Of Twizzle 1957-59
  • Four Feather Falls 1959-60
  • Supercar 1960-61
  • Fireball XL5 1962
  • Stingray 1964
  • Thunderbirds 1964-66
  • Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons 1967
  • Joe 90 1968
  • The Secret Service 1969