Have you ever listened to The Stately Homes Robberies mini-album? It’s pretty awful. The dialogue couldn’t be clunkier, the action is absolutely minimal, and to have a Thunderbirds adventure witout any Thunderbirds in is rather bland. Fortunately, when shooting this episode for the Thunderbirds 1965 project, Stephen La Rivière and his team had the common sense to almost entirely tear apart the original audio and put it back together again with as much action and intrigue squeezed in as possible with the addition of dialogue from the television series. Any scenes in the original mini-album that didn’t work have been cut down or cut out and it makes for a much improved and much more genuine Thunderbirds episode.
One of the great treats that this episode has to offer is not what’s in front of the camera but who’s behind it. David Elliott returns to direct his first Thunderbirds episode in almost 50 years. His work on the original series produced a number of highly regarded episodes. Here’s a complete list of his directorial credits on Thunderbirds.
- City of Fire
- Vault of Death
- Martian Invasion
- Terror in New York City
- Day of Disaster
- 30 Minutes After Noon
- Cry Wolf
- The Duchess Assignment
- Path of Destruction
A great variety of episodes, all of them full of tension and suspense building up to some very dramatic rescues. Many of them feel like big-budget disaster movies but some episodes like Vault of Death or The Duchess Assignment are charming character pieces driven by Penelope and Parker’s involvement in the plot – The Stately Homes Robberies is very much closer to this particular style of episode.
Also returning to the puppet bridge is original series puppetry supervisor, Mary Turner. Alongside Christine Glanville, she was responsible for ensuring that the puppetry on the original series was of a high standard. Mary and the other puppeteers performed the marionettes in such a way that they were captivating to watch without steering away from Gerry Anderson’s quest for human-like behaviour. Mary was a great pioneer in making the puppets feel like real people, while also making them into fun characters, and her work on The Stately Homes Robberies reflects that superbly.
Let’s take a close look at what makes The Stately Homes Robberies an adventure which concludes the Thunderbirds 1965 project in style.
The Stately Homes Robberies
Based on the mini-album written by Alan Fennell
Directed by David Elliott
Another exciting opening teaser montage shows us immediately that we’re getting a far more action-packed episode than the original mini-album had to offer.
The episode opens with the camera panning across the lawn of a magnificent house built by model-maker David Tremont. The detail is superb, even with a little garden shed in front of the house.
The tree in the foreground looks wonderfully mossy. My theory is that, in-keeping with the original production team’s style of set-dressing, this is a real piece of a tree. If it isn’t, then they’ve done a very good job of making a prop that looks like a real tree.
A helijet, very similar in design to the helijets seen in Brink of Disaster, has landed in the overgrown garden, littered with rubbish – details which make the scene look all the more real. Barry Gray’s suspenseful music gives the viewer the feeling that the helijet isn’t supposed to be there and that misdeeds are afoot.
The camera moves through the doors in the hallway of the stately home in a style which echoes the introduction of the castle in David Elliott’s 30 Minutes After Noon. The next few shots are a great treat for eagle-eyed Gerry Anderson fans. The piano seen here is in fact believed to be the earliest surviving Supermarionation prop. Christine Glanville passed it on to Richard Gregory who recently restored it to it’s former glory. It was first seen in the saloon back in Four Feather Falls but even went on to appear in Joe 90. Little piece of trivia – I was actually lucky enough to carry this prop in and out of the second Andercon convention in 2015. It was very fragile and beaten up at the time so it looks like the restoration has worked a treat!
We continue to move through the seemingly deserted house. Note the Supermarionation head sculpt sitting on a pedestal. There are probably lots of other treats hidden in this sequence so if you spot any that I don’t point out, let me know in the comments below.
Portrait of a Gazelle as seen in The Duchess Assignment. Is this the Duchess of Royston’s place? Nice little mystery to solve there…
A very dramatic swing of the camera reveals a shady looking character robbing the safe! And another head sculpt!
What happens next will shock anyone that might be familiar with the tedium of the original mini-album. This statue says it all.
An almighty explosion. The beautifully crafted model is torn apart by huge fireballs. A great piece of work by Malcolm Smith whose pyrotechnics look stunning when shot at high-speed. Just the right amount of smoke and fire makes for some wonderfully gratuitous destruction. As with so many models on Thunderbirds the house was built to be destroyed in a spectacular fashion. This moment sets the tone of the episode perfectly – the original mini-album story has been injected with some genuine danger and tension. Whatever International Rescue are about to get involved with, they’re in for some deadly trouble.
This is just a small thing but it’s easy to take for granted. The font and layout used for all the captions across the three episodes is absolutely spot on. Imagine if people who didn’t know Thunderbirds had been given the job of making the episode title captions and used a font that was close to the original but wasn’t quite right. Its the sort of thing that one may not think particularly matters provided there are puppets and Thunderbird craft on the screen. But to truly re-create Thunderbirds little details like getting the font right and spacing out the lines of text correctly are also very important to immersing the viewer in the experience that these are episodes from the 1960s.
Stock footage of newspapers being printed is used in a couple of episodes of Thunderbirds and its almost like a code for: something big and dramatic is about to be announced or exposed which will probably put International Rescue into action. It may look like random stock footage of newspapers being printed, but it’s also a small device that builds tension for a big reveal.
Grandiose headlines are spread across the newspapers. Notice the Thunderbirds supplement from the Television Mail in the background with Lady P on the cover.
The newspaper seller and television reporter are brand new puppets made especially for this episode. They only make brief appearances but its great to see the world populated by new characters. The fog of London whips up around them in a way that echoes the opening of Vault of Death. It may look a tad melodramatic in both cases, but it produces a moody atmosphere which looks great on camera and gives the puppet performances more integrity.
News has spread to Tracy Island, with Jeff spotting the headline in his own newspaper. It’s a nice little scene and I like the idea that sometimes Brains and Jeff need to get away from it all by taking their chairs down to the beach for a private moment.
Jeff doesn’t quite seem to have managed to get out of his pyjamas in this episode. This is in-keeping with a number of ocassions in the original series where he dresses just a little too casually for a man hurtling towards 60 years of age. Liz Comstock-Smith cannot receive enough credit for not only perfectly capturing the beautiful costumes of Penelope from the series, but also some of Jeff’s uglier outfits. She could have made all of the costumes look fashionable, but instead fully took on the brief of making new costumes that were actually true to the characters wearing them. As a result, she’s skillfully managed to make Jeff’s choice in clothing as tasteless as it was in the original. That was supposed to be a compliment to her great talent although I realise it may not have sounded that way. I honestly love every single costume in this mini-series.
Aside from the Tracy Lounge, the only other set from the original series that needed to be rebuilt with meticulous detail was the interior of Lady Penelope’s mansion. It’s another triumph for the set building team who even had to paint the detailing on the wallpaper by hand. The set is dressed with furniture, curtains and a lovely carpet which could have come straight off of the original. Penelope and Parker discuss the recent robberies in a scene drastically cut down from the mini-album.
They are being overheard by means of this great looking listening device which uses lots of kit parts and everyday items to create a classic looking piece of Thunderbirds technology.
From their helijet, the villainous Mr Charles and Dawkins are listening in. These new puppets were sculpted by Stephen Mansfield and combined with the voices of Peter Dyneley and Ray Barrett make for two fantastic characters with a lot of personality. It’s comforting to know that there are artists out there who can look at the original Thunderbirds puppets and know exactly the right way to craft new characters in the same style after so many years.
Penelope and Parker drive off to the Wickfens store, leaving the way clear for the robbers to strike at her home. Fortunately the discussion from the mini-album between Elaine Wickfens and her model Cynthia has been cut here – anyone who has listened to it will know why that’s a good thing. The passage of time is marked by a simple clock wipe transition – I love classic editing techniques like this. They pop up every so often in the early Supermarionation series and they add to the almost comic book style and fast-paced action of the shows.
Mr Charles and Dawkins overfly the Creighton-Ward manor. This section of roof only appears once and yet has been beautifully made in a style that replicates what we see of the roof in Thunderbird 6.
Penelope’s servants are knocked out by gas capsules dropped down the chimney. Of course we never actually saw any such servants in the original series aside from Parker and Lil the cook. Nevertheless, much like the new areas of Tracy Island seen in Introducing Thunderbirds, the opportunity has been taken to briefly add something new to the canon of Thunderbirds.
The scene inside the Wickfens store is nicely decked out with a clothes rack full of other costumes seen in the Thunderbirds 1965 episodes.
Meanwhile Parker puts his feet up because apparently he doesn’t like “hanging around ladies’ shops.”
Charles and Dawkins have gained access to the house. The lighting in this shot, and indeed for the entire episode, is superb. Small amounts of light creeping in through windows create long, menacing shadows that make the atmosphere of the episode moody, mysterious, and a little bit scary, echoing episodes like Vault of Death and the climax of The Duchess Assignment. Thunderbirds does night scenes in a very particular way which, once again, the Thunderbirds 1965 team have captured just right in this episode.
Penelope and Parker are alerted to the break-in at Creighton-Ward manor and rush back there. While on the road they pass one of the Superon tankers seen in the episode Path of Destruction. Another lovely detail that closely ties in these new episodes with the original series. It also continues the practice of utilising whichever models are available from the workshop to populate the world.
Penelope and Parker watch as Charles’ helijet flees the scene. Such a great looking shot. The helijet has been made to look really far away and cloaked in darkness. Foliage overhangs the road in an almost gothic manner when combined with the large iron gates.
From FAB 1, a listening device is fired and attaches to the helijet with a satisfying clamp, allowing Penelope and Parker to see and hear Mr Charles plotting with Dawkins. Even though more modern editing techniques have been used, the video screen effect has been made to look exactly the same as it did in the original series. Shock horror, Mr Charles is planning to steal the crown jewels!
And now, just to annoy and divide fans of the series, here’s a calendar. Nothing gets Thunderbirds fans more riled up than a calendar. I’ll remain impartial here and just say well done to the production team for coming to an agreement with each other on this one at least. I wonder if a vote had to be taken before shooting this.
Stock footage of Big Ben also used in Vault of Death sets the scene as Charles and Dawkins land outside the Tower of London, ready to steal the crown jewels. The trees blow around in the wind as the helijet touches down. Lovely to watch.
Mr Charles and Dawkins are shown walking into the Tower of London. They bob up and down in a slightly more exaggerated way than a lot of characters do. It’s a very charming moment because it gives them even more personality and actually uses their limitations as puppets to give the impression that they are bumbling crooks. They’re not supposed to be taken seriously so they’re allowed to move in a more exaggerated and puppety way. It’s certainly not the way a more serious character like Jeff or Scott would walk into a room.
In contrast to this, Penelope and Parker are shown walking in using live action inserts. As our heroes they need to be taken more seriously so are shown walking in a much more realistic way.
Dawkins encounters a Beefeater and proceeds to knock him out with gas, and look who it is! That’s right, Ned Cook has retired from his career as a news reporter and taken up a post guarding the Tower of London. Such good fun to see characters reused in this way!
Parker and Penelope soon catch Mr Charles and Dawkins stealing the crown jewels. The jewels look superb and have clearly been made with great care. They don’t look like little plastic toys but a scaled down version of the real thing. That’s also true of a lot of the props and miniatures in Thunderbirds.
They spot the bomb on the ground and the camera rushes in dramatically on Parker as the music strikes up definite cause for concern. At this point the episode diverts even further from the mini-album as Lady Penelope sends International Rescue an emergency signal.
The Tracys receive news that there is a bomb in the Tower of London. Having departed from the mini-album, the Thunderbirds 1965 team have patched together pieces of dialogue where possible from the television series. It’s pretty seamless, and particularly when dialogue from different episodes has been combined together, viewers wouldn’t really notice unless they were listening out for it. In any case, it’s a small price to pay in the name of putting the International Rescue team into an otherwise Thunderbirds-less episode.
Thunderbirds 1 and 2 blast off and head for England. Only the minimum amount of the launch sequence is shown here, maximising the speed and urgency of the situation and indicating that we’re heading for a great, fast-paced climax to the episode.
Meanwhile, Penelope apprehends Mr Charles and delivers a wonderful line of dialogue: “I don’t like using guns, the bangs give me a headache.” Somehow Sylvia Anderson delivers that line in such a way that it sounds incredibly threatening.
Penelope and Parker are knocked out by one of Dawkins’ gas capsules and the bomb is set to explode in 5 minutes. The race against time has begun. This bomb prop is another instance where the production team have managed to capture the way the prop makers in the 60s thought future technology would look. Hence why it is bright blue and covered in little grilles and flashing lights. For dramatic effect, each bulb represents another minute of time running out.
Virgil and Gordon arrive on the scene and launch Thunderbird 4, making use of footage from the episode The Man From MI.5. As with the shot of Alan and Brains boarding Thunderbird 3 in Introducing Thunderbirds, the production team have had the common sense to use the only existing shot of Thunderbird 4 launching at night. It may sound like an obvious thing to include, but if they didn’t instinctively know these episodes inside out, they probably wouldn’t know that such a shot existed.
Here’s a great new model shot of Thunderbird 4 arriving at the Tower of London via Traitors’ Gate. It’s a lovely model of the submarine which, like the other Thunderbird machines, went through a great variation of markings and colours in the series. The version seen here is an amalgamation of those varations to create an instantly recognisable version of Thunderbrid 4 which closely matches all of the stock footage. Like many other models, the Traitors’ Gate is only seen once, made especially for this sequence.
From Thunderbird 1, Scott manages to scan the area and track down the bomb. The graphics that appear on the scanning screen are very in-keeping with the type of thing seen in the series. They are often simplistic designs which clearly illustrate something to the viewer. This is particularly important in the case of this sequence because there is so little dialogue available for the characters to explain the situation. Nevertheless, director David Elliott and the team that adapted the script still effectively communicate the drama and the situation to the viewer with carefully chosen stock dialogue and great visuals. It’s interesting to think that in amongst a project created to put visuals to audio recordings, the challenge of this climactic sequence would have been to put audio to the visuals.
The floor plan of the Tower is transmitted to Gordon’s video watch, a quick nod to another classic aspect of Thunderbirds. It’s a piece of fantastical technology that now exists in the 21st Century.
Without hesitation, Gordon begins work on deactivating the bomb. Connecting wires solves a lot of problems in Thunderbirds. It repaired the EPU of the Fireflash in Operation Crash-Dive and the escape unit of Zero-X in Thunderbirds Are Go (1966). Echoing his moment of heroism in Operation Crash-Dive, the cables spark and flare as Gordon tries to shut off the bomb. He remains silent in concentration while Scott desperately requests an update over the radio. Great tension builds up as the bomb starts to smoke, ready to blow. The picture fades to black for a commerical break.
With the bomb deactivated, Penelope and Parker wake up and immediately set off to pursue Mr Charles in an exciting chase sequence which expertly uses Barry Gray’s music. Once again, back projection is utilised for the interior shots of FAB 1 as the roadside whizzes past.
They detonate the listening device still attached to the hull of the helijet and the craft heads for a crash-landing.
Down it comes and up she goes in a nice big fireball. I’ve talked before about models being filmed in a fairly simplistic way in Thunderbirds compared to the way vehicles and aircraft are shown on screen in modern cinema. The helijet flies down from the top right hand corner of the screen and explodes in the bottom left corner. In terms of movement it’s a very simple shot and no more complex than any of the other flying shots seen in the series. They’re easy shots and movements for children to imitate in play, and it’s a part of what gives the series a ‘toys come to life’ quality which producer Stephen La Rivière often says accounts for part of the success of Thunderbirds.
Of course, as a family show, Thunderbirds doesn’t usually show characters getting seriously injured or killed, despite the number of highly combustable machines in the world of the future. If you think too hard about it of course there are a lot of people who die but it isn’t shown explicitly. Mr Charles and Dawkins sit in the wrecked cockpit, Dawkins still amusingly operating the controls. It’s a great source for light Thunderbirds humour, something that always remains charming and simple in amongst the enormous drama and visual spectacle. These moments of comedy often have a lovely little fanfare from Barry Gray to go with them and this one doesn’t disappoint.
Without his monacle and covered in dirt, Mr Charles looks a bit like a petulant child being told off by Lady Penelope. We learn a little about family history as Charles’ motivations for committing the robberies are revealed. Penelope plays it cool as always.
Parker and Penelope go back to the Tower of London and return the crown jewels. We’re treated to one more addition to the story from the Thunderbirds 1965 team.
Parker fantasises about being decked out in the crown jewels in a wonderfully surreal moment. It echoes Phones’ rather bizarre fantasy in the Stingray episode Loch Ness Monster when he dreams of being a true highlander. This moment is one last bit of fun thrown in by the production team who you can tell had a lot of fun in amongst the hard work making these episodes. Parker’s snobbishness is allowed to shine through magnificently. After all, we’ve had Lord Parker… why not King Parker?
The episode wraps up the adventure with a lovely scene back in Penelope’s house as she reads about the incident from The Foxley Heath Times, her local newspaper. It says of Lady Penelope that “no gentler or more charming person ever graced the earth.” At the end of these three episodes which heavily focus on the character of Penelope, it seems more than appropriate to end in this way. Prior to the release of the episodes, Sylvia Anderson, the creator and voice of Lady Penelope, sadly passed away. Her achievements as the co-creator of Thunderbirds were endless, but Lady Penelope is the role she was most famous for and incredibly proud of. This is the final scene to feature Sylvia playing the role, and she could not have given a gentler or more charming performance.
The Stately Homes Robberies surpasses all expectations and expertly uses extracts of the original mini-album and dialogue from the series to create an action-packed, suspenseful episode of Thunderbirds. It takes a very abnormal and unusual story and elevates it to stand alongside many Penelope-led adventures from the television series. David Elliott and the team do a superb job of capturing the style of specific episodes, many of which were also directed by Elliott. My hope is that he enjoyed the experience of going back to Stirling Road to make Thunderbirds again, as well as Mary Turner and all the other former crew who visited the studio during production. If it weren’t for their hard work back in the 60s, Thunderbirds wouldn’t be the phenomenon it is today.
This concludes my series of articles about the three Thunderbirds 1965 episodes. My thanks have to go out to the members of the Pod 4 Films team who have supported me in writing these in-depth posts. They have been working tirelessly on this project even before the Kickstarter campaign launched back in July 2015 and haven’t stopped for breath for almost an entire year. They have lived and breathed this project and it shows in the outstanding work they have done on the episodes themselves and the high standard of the reward items they produced for Kickstarter backers. Ultimately, a hugely ambitious dream for most Thunderbirds enthusiasts has been achieved through this project – three new episodes have been produced using the original voice artists and the original Supermarionation techniques. It’s a dream come true, and I sincerely hope that fans can appreciate just how lucky it is that this project has been completed to the incredible standard that it has. The people behind it have worked extremely hard and if you ever have the opportunity to thank them, please do.
Four words to sum up the achievements of the Thunderbirds 1965 project? Oh alright then…
“Thunderbirds Are DEFINITELY Go!”