Which scene from Thunderbirds is being filmed in this photo? Here’s the long answer…

For years I’ve looked at this behind the scenes photograph from Thunderbirds and tried to work out which episode/scene is being filmed. It’s been published in countless books, magazines, and websites over the years and I’ve never found a definitive answer. The puppet characters and the set being worked on are so brightly lit and generic that it’s difficult to make out any distinctive details to make it abundantly obvious which scene is being worked on. In the past I’ve seen some folks identify it as Pit of Peril, End of the Road, Edge of Impact, and a miriad of other alternatives – some of which seemed credible but didn’t quite sit right with me. So, I finally decided to undertake my own investigations. This article started life as an unpublished tweet that got out of hand. You folks know how I like to make a mountain out of a mole hill, so I’ve decided to convert my research into a blog post so that I’m not hampered by Twitter’s pesky character limits. But just like Twitter, the whole thing ended up turning into an argument…

A scene from Thunderbirds being filmed at the AP Films studio.

Now, it’s worth establishing that the production history of Thunderbirds doesn’t exactly follow a perfect chronological order. It’s extremely haphazard because multiple units were working simultaneously, and episodes which were originally shot in a 25-minute format were having additional footage shot for them at the same time as other episodes being completed in the new 50-minute format. Combine that with the fact that the puppet stages were usually working ahead of the special effects department, and you’ve got a recipe for absolute confusion when it comes to figuring out a definitive production order for Thunderbirds‘ first series of 26 episodes.

Behind the scenes photographs and footage from the AP Films studios often complicate matters because a whole host of puppets and sets can be identified hanging around from various episodes which have either just been shot, are currently in production, or are waiting in the wings for the next installment.

Context is quite important when looking at these photographs, but certain details get lost or mistranslated over the years as the images circulate from publication to publication and memories start to fade. So, let’s start with the source for this image – issue 177 of the magazine, Look and Learn from 5th June 1965.

Look and Learn was an educational magazine for children published by Fleetway from 1962 until 1982. With the publication covering a whole range of topics in science, history, and beyond, Look and Learn‘s young readership would have been very familiar with the futuristic stories coming out of the AP Films studio at the time.

The cover of Look and Learn, issue 177, June 5, 1965.
The cover of Look and Learn, issue 177, June 5, 1965.

When this issue was published in June 1965, Stingray was a few weeks away from the end of its first transmission run across certain ITV regions in the UK. Promotion for the series had been surprisingly sparse for a number of reasons, one of which was the fact that production had long since wrapped on Stingray back in June 1964. According to Stingray: Adventures in Videcolor by Andrew Pixley, June 18 and 19, 1964 were Stingray‘s final days in front of the camera, with Alan Pattillo shooting linking material for a feature film compilation being presented to Japanese television executives, alongside some additional material for the episode Eastern Eclipse. By the time Stingray was well and truly in the can, Thunderbirds – or International Rescue as it was originally titled – was already months into pre-production. When Stingray‘s first episode debuted on British television in October 1964, filming on Thunderbirds was well underway, albeit still in a 25-minute episode format. As a result, staging publicity exercises for Stingray at the studio wasn’t exactly a priority during Thunderbirds‘ chaotic shooting schedule. Photoshoots for Stingray often took place in the shadow of its successor.

Gerry and Sylvia Anderson posing with Stingray stars Troy Tempest and Marina on a set from the Thunderbirds episodes, Sun Probe and The Perils of Penelope.
Gerry and Sylvia Anderson posing with Stingray stars Troy Tempest and Marina on a set from the Thunderbirds episodes, Sun Probe and The Perils of Penelope.

The columns of the Look and Learn article focus on the broader aspects of the Supermarionation puppets’ electronic lip-sync technology, educating children on the basic principles of how their favourite television shows are produced. But taking up much more real estate on the pages are the accompanying photographs. Black and white images of Stingray, Troy, Phones, Atlanta and Commander Shore surround the columns on the first page, and dominating the spread in glorious colour are seven photographs detailing various aspects of the Supermarionation production process which is being used on “Thunderbird [sic.], a new series with hour-long instalments instead of half-hour.”

On the back of that quotation, it’s worth highlighting that the decision was taken to switch Thunderbirds from a half-hour format to an hour-long format around December 1964 when the first 9 episodes were already complete (plus another 2 were still in production). So, by June 1965 when this article was published, work would have been underway to shoot 50-minute episodes in tandem with additional material for the earlier 25-minute episodes.

Pages 6 & 7 of Look and Learn issue 177 - Electronic Puppets That Speak For Themselves
Pages 6 & 7 of Look and Learn issue 177 – Electronic Puppets That Speak For Themselves

Let’s study each of the images provided on these pages individually and try to judge which episode(s) of Thunderbirds might have been in production on the day that the photographs were taken… assuming, of course, that they were all taken on the same day. What we know for sure is that the photographs were definitely taken during Thunderbirds‘ production, and at some point prior to publication in June 1965. That immediately rules out any second series episodes that were being shot alongside the feature film Thunderbirds Are Go in 1966. One also assumes that the photographs were taken after the switch from half-hour to one-hour episodes, since the shift in format is referenced in the article.

Guest puppets from Thunderbirds hanging in the studio.

Firstly, we have several guest puppets (mostly heads) hanging up against the wall where puppets were often situated in between takes. The top row includes Stan from Edge of Impact; a headless body which likely belonged to either Johnny or Frank from Pit of Peril; Chuck from Day of Disaster, previously Chuck Taylor from End of the Road; a mustachioed chap seen as a guard in The Mighty Atom and The Impostors and as a police officer in Edge of Impact; Professor Borrender from The Perils of Penelope; behind him looks like the radar operator from Trapped In The Sky; Kenyon from 30 Minutes After Noon, also seen as Jenkins in The Impostors, the saboteur in Operation Crash-Dive, a police officer in Terror In New York City, and a road construction operative in End of the Road; up at the top we then have the disheveled camerman Joe from Terror In New York City; then an unidentifiable puppet in a flight helmet who might be the Interceptor One pilot from Trapped In The Sky; a grey-haired male that could have appeared in the audience of the Ned Cook Show in Terror In New York City; Alfred from The Perils of Penelope who was previously Colonel Harris from Sun Probe; Victor Gomez from Move – And You’re Dead who appears as an enemy lieutenant in The Cham-Cham, an enemy pilot in Edge of Impact, a spectator in The Impostors, and as an airline customer in The Duchess Assignment.

I’m not done yet.

On the bottom row we have the news reporter seen in Sun Probe, Operation Crash-Dive, in the background of The Mighty Atom, and as a film crew member in Martian Invasion; Bletcher from Martian Invasion who also appeared in the audience of the Ned Cook Show in Terror In New York City, and as both Maxie and the hotel receptionist in The Cham-Cham; Godber from The Perils of Penelope and another audience member at the Ned Cook Show from Terror In New York City; the Director of Photography from Martin Invasion also seen as Burroughs in Operation Crash-Dive, Asher in Sun Probe, a waiter in The Perils of Penelope, and a helijet pilot in both City of Fire and The Impostors; then a blonde head turned away from the camera who might be Frank from Day of Disaster; and finally the head that is presumably the other police officer from Terror In New York City.

Phew. What does all this tell us? We may have positively identified a lot of these guest characters but with so many of them making appearances in other episodes across the first series, it’s pretty darn tricky to use this image alone to pick out which episodes were in front of the cameras at the time. The general pattern I’m seeing, with some notable exceptions which might help us later, is that these are mostly characters who broadly appear in episodes 12 thru 16 in the commonly accepted Thunderbirds production order – The Perils of Penelope, Terror In New York City, End of the Road, Day of Disaster, and Edge of Impact. At least that provides us with a rough area to aim for.

John Blundall painting a guest puppet character.

Next, a much more straightforward photograph of legendary puppet maker John Blundall creating a new character. Without a wig or eyes it’s pretty difficult to identify who the character is going to be. We also don’t know whether this is the finished version of a character that actually appeared on-screen. If I had to take a wild guess, the rosey red cheeks and large hooked nose suggest General Bron from Edge of Impact, Professor Blakely from Desperate Intruder, Jeremiah Tuttle from The Impostors, or Ritter from The Man From MI.5. But that’s such a large stab in the dark, and I think it’s fairer to say that this image simply doesn’t tell us a whole lot.

The scene dock at AP Films.

Behold, the glorious organised chaos of the scene dock. There are far too many pieces of set from shows gone by to name them all individually. The focus of the image seems to be the yellow cockpit being carried in or out by members of the crew. There are two possibilities here – it’s either the puppet set for Tim Casey’s Skyhawk jet from Edge of Impact, or it’s Victor Gomez’s car from Move – And You’re Dead – the same set was used for both. The quality of the image leaves it open for debate, but I would argue that on the right-hand side of the set as it faces the camera, some red markings can be spotted which would match up with the ‘Skyhawk’ written on the side of Tim Casey’s jet. Since the set is being moved around in the scene dock, it’s fair to assume that it’s about to be used for filming, or was used recently.

The Skyhawk in action in the Thunderbirds episode, Edge of Impact.
The Skyhawk in action in the Thunderbirds episode, Edge of Impact.
The lip-sync operator taking notes.

This next image is doesn’t tell us a whole lot. It’s the lip-sync operator’s console, complete with the redundant head of former Stingray star, Troy Tempest now being used for testing… poor bloke…

Props, props, and more props. Far too many for to identify. You’ve got to admire the labels on the shelves providing the team with some way of navigating this veritable Aladdin’s cave of miniature items.

Now then, here’s an image which is very easy to identify. This is puppetry supervisor Christine Glanville and assistant director Ian Spurrier working on the puppet of Colonel Sweeney from the episode, Pit of Peril – supposedly the second episode of Thunderbirds to enter production. Colonel Sweeney’s head was also seen as Captain Hanson in Trapped In The Sky and Operation Crash-Dive. But the uniform on the puppet most definitely places him in his Colonel Sweeney guise. So, it’s safe to assume that scenes for Pit of Peril were being shot when these photographs were taken at the studio. That would also account for the headless puppet body we saw hanging up earlier that I mentioned was either Johnny or Frank from the same episode.

The Sidewider crew, including Colonel Sweeney, overwhelmed by the smoke in the Thunderbirds episode, Pit of Peril.
The Sidewider crew, including Colonel Sweeney, overwhelmed by the smoke in the Thunderbirds episode, Pit of Peril.
A scene from Thunderbirds being filmed at the AP Films studio.

Hopping back to our main image, and there’s a bit of a problem with simply concluding that it’s Pit of Peril being shot here as well. That set isn’t recognisable as anything from Pit of Peril, nor can the two puppets be clearly identified because of the harsh lighting and whacky colour saturation of the photograph.

But Pit of Peril‘s director, Desmond Saunders, can be positively identified standing on the left of the set. A few other crew members can be identified in this photograph which might also provide some answers. In addition to Saunders, we can also clearly see Christine Glanville, who is credited as puppetry supervisor on roughly half of the Thunderbirds episodes produced, essentially heading up one of the two teams operating the puppets while Mary Turner managed the other. Next to her up on the bridge is Wanda Webb, who worked closely with Christine and is credited on all the same episodes as her. The man wearing the black jumper is assistant director and lip-sync operator Ian Spurrier whom we spotted earlier with Colonel Sweeney, while lighting cameraman Paddy Seale is on the far right of the shot, and camera operator Alan Perry is seated behind the camera. Cross-examining these names with the credits of all the episodes of Thunderbirds‘ first season, we can see that, for the most part, this crew worked together as one unit for a significant number of episodes – assuming the end credits are a vaguely reliable source for who worked on what.

But we’ve mentioned previously the absolutely chaotic filming schedule that was in play at the studio in order to bring the first eleven episodes produced as half-hours up to full length, without losing time on the rest of the series. So it’s entirely possible that in the previous photograph, Colonel Sweeney was being prepared to film additional material for Pit of Peril, long after principal photography on the initial half-hour version of the episode had been completed. This might explain why Christine Glanville was seen working on the puppet despite not being credited as working on that particular episode because people must have stepped in as and when required to keep up with the shooting schedule regardless of whether they worked on the episode originally. On a similar note, surviving diaries from Alan Pattillo suggest he was the original, uncredited director of the half-hour versions of Sun Probe and The Mighty Atom, not David Lane who presumably filmed the additional material for both while Alan Pattillo was being script editing, writing, and directing other episodes.

Anyway, we’ve pretty positively established that additional material for Pit of Peril was being worked on at the time these photographs were taken, but that it likely isn’t a scene from Pit of Peril being filmed in the main image because the particular set being shown isn’t seen in the final episode.

So, studying the episode credits again to find all the crew members identified in that image, it would seem that the following episodes from the first series were worked on together by Desmond Saunders, Christine Glanville, Wanda Webb, Alan Perry, and Paddy Seale (Ian Spurrier’s contributions to the series were uncredited): The Perils of Penelope, Edge of Impact, and The Impostors.

Armed with that information, I took a look at the episodes themselves to try and find a scene with a set which matches the one in the photograph, using the few details that are actually clearly visible under the bright lighting.

And I found this – Brains, Alan, and Braman in the laboratory during Edge of Impact. The instruments on the wall match what’s shown in the behind the scenes image, as does the rounded console that Alan is standing next to.

There aren’t a whole lot of features to be made out from the puppets because they’re so brightly lit, out of focus, and the image is in such a low resolution. But one might deduce that the puppet on the left is wearing glasses, making it Brains, and the one of the right may be wearing a scarf or cravat, making it Alan.

So, we have some potential on-screen evidence, plus we’ve positively identified that all of the crew present in the photograph were credited as working on the episode, plus there are other traces in the other images we’ve looked at such as the set for the Skyhawk jet being moved, and various guest puppet heads floating around in the studio. It’s almost certainly Edge of Impact, being filmed in that behind the scenes photograph, and it’s almost certainly the scene in Brains’ laboratory when Tim Casey’s plane is first spotted. Eureka!

But! Yes, there’s a but. When I shared this delightful discovery with fellow Thunderbirds enthusiast Andrew Clements, he wasn’t convinced. He conceded that the set was Brains’ laboratory as it appeared in Edge of Impact, but simply would not buy my assumption that the puppets shown were Alan and Brains. “They do appear to be wearing a hat,” said he. “B****cks,” thought I. “Brains wore a hat in Desperate Intruder so maybe it’s in preparation for that since it was the next episode in production,” whimpered I. “Desperate Intruder would have been filmed by a different puppet unit using a different Brains puppet,” whispered the demon on my shoulder.

Mr. Clements then presented me with Ralph and General Peters from Pit of Peril.

“You can make out Ralph’s glasses, belt and hat and General Peter’s hat and binoculars,” theorised Andrew, “and you can juuuust make out some sort of definition in the lip that indicates a moustache.”

So we have two fully grown men who should know better debating and scrutinising over a few pixels from a scan of a photograph printed as cheaply as possible with wildly distorted and over-saturated colours nearly 60 years ago. How the heck does any of this help?

Well, as it stands, I don’t know for sure who is right. I can totally see Andrew’s argument that this is Ralph and General Peters from Pit of Peril, and it makes sense seeing as we’ve clearly identified Sweeney from the same episode being worked on in another photograph from the same article. But the set is a perfect match for Brains’ laboratory as shown in Edge of Impact, and both the finished scene and the photograph feature two puppets which could be mistaken for Brains and Alan.

It’s at this point we get back into the realm of theory and speculation. What if it’s Ralph and Peters standing on the set of Brains’ laboratory? We’ve already established that additional material from Pit of Peril was in production at the same time as Edge of Impact, so it’s not out of the question. But what’s the reason for it? Is there a deleted scene from Pit of Peril which inexplicably featured Ralph and Peters in some kind of laboratory set? Were the puppets for Ralph and Peters standing in for Brains and Alan while lighting tests were being conducted and the puppets were in wardrobe? Did the photographer just want any old set of puppets to be present on the set for the sake of the photograph and Ralph and Peters just happened to be the nearest ones available at that moment? All these things are within the realms of possibility and line up with similar stories and examples from photographs of random stuff which defies logic and goes against what we can see in the final episodes.

So the short answer to my original question, “Which scene from Thunderbirds is being filmed in this photo?” is: something from Edge of Impact, Pit of Peril, or neither, or both depending on how you interpret the findings. It’s possible that it’s not a scene at all but a random setup staged for the sake of the photograph, or a test for an upcoming scene, or just two puppets hanging over a set while the crew discuss what they had for lunch.

The question you’re probably left with now is… Why did I go to that much effort and tedious detail just to prove which scene from a particular Thunderbirds episode was being photographed at a particular point in time when I couldn’t even land on a definitive answer?

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have an obsessive fascination with the day-to-day activities of the AP Films studios. Many different departments working on all sorts of marvellous puppetry masterpieces and special effects extravaganzas all at once. On Thunderbirds, the atmosphere was reported to be frantic because of the wild shooting schedule. But very little documentation actually survives which details what was being done by who and when. And on a show where sets, puppets, models, and props were constantly being recycled and redesigned to become something else, that makes it extremely difficult to track the development of the series. I love appreciating the little improvements that were being made to the whole Supermarionation production process as the AP Films team grew and refined their craft.

Look at all the small details added to the Thunderbird 1 cockpit between Trapped In The Sky on the left, and The Duchess Assignment on the right. Look at the subtle changes to the Scott puppet’s head to make him that little bit more handsome. Look at the disappearance of those silly International Rescue hats.

All those little changes add up to make a television series which, in my opinion, just becomes richer and stronger as it goes on. But very few of those choices and decisions were reliably written down as far as we know. Nobody probably had time to write everything down. Someone just did it because of a simple desire to keep making things better. So I adore the few behind the scenes insights we have into the making of Thunderbirds and the other Supermarionation shows because it serves as a glimpse into a process of innovation that would otherwise be lost to history.

If you enjoyed this in-depth nerdy analysis of one otherwise insignificant photograph from the production of Thunderbirds, then good news! I’ve reviewed the entire Thunderbirds series and feature films from start to finish in excrutiating detail, as well as it’s predecessor, Stingray! And if you agree or disagree with any of the findings of this particular article, feel free to comment below. My thanks to Andrew Clements for daring to question my intelligence… but let’s hope he doesn’t make a habit of it.

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3 thoughts on “Which scene from Thunderbirds is being filmed in this photo? Here’s the long answer…

  1. Really interesting stuff as always Jack, i’m sure that the main photo was probably just a screen test one myself, but then we can debate it for ever and ever lol.
    As for that shot of the Sidewinders interior, i reckon that the cooling plant controls are probably from Trapped in The Depths.


  2. I have some additional evidence to share about a particular piece of puppet set. I present this link for discussion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l8NiazTbLyI

    In this behind the scenes clip taken during production of the show (the same piece of footage in which the Wadi from Star of the East was blown up in front of the Allington suspension bridge), at 1:41 we see the puppeteers bringing John Tracy onto a piece of set that features one of the very same walls used in both the enigmatic photo and Brains’ lab. It’s not in the same setup as the photo, with the wall abutting a different larger control room type area, but it is the same bit of scenery. One of the black swivel chairs is visible in both the photo and footage too. My abilities of recognition aren’t perfect, but some of the production crew milling around beside the set also seem to be wearing clothes similar in both, though someone who actually knows what the various crew looked like would know more. The puppeteers seen differ from the photo though (and there are three of them rather than two, to manipulate John, Scott, and Virgil).

    Now I’m not suggesting that this footage is of the same shoot as the photo, but the overlap of the set wall was enough for me to bring it up. Perhaps as you suggested, the photo was always just meant for a test shot or publicity using what was to hand in studio at the time. Additionally, at 1:08 in the clip, we see the same puppet sculptor, John Blundall, working on the very same mystery puppet you highlighted, at almost the exact same stage of construction, so it was probably filmed at the same time.

    I’d be interested to know how this affects your findings, though you’re probably correct about when roughly it was filmed.


  3. Here’s my two cents on the matter. I think the one on the left is wearing a button coat like an officer’s uniform, and the one on the right is wearing military fatigues. With that in mind, I dare say that the puppet on the left is Tim Casey; as seen here.

    And the puppet on the right is either General Peters or this other guy, both of which appeared as guest puppets in The Mighty Atom.


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