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Gerry Anderson: anything could have happened in the next half-hour!

March 10, 2011

Take off: or is it? The Thunderbirds films should have been the icing on Gerry Anderson’s 1960s, but like others of his projects they helped forge a creative career of as many downs as ups

5… First there was Thunderbirds4… Then we had Captain Scarlet… 3… Next it was Joe 90… 2… After that came Space 19991… And finally we got Terrahawks. Back in the day, Gerry Anderson was go!

Yes, from the mid-’60s through to the mid-’80s, that man ruled puppetry-driven family adventure drama on the gogglebox like no other. In fact, so unique and impressive a genre was it that nobody else really attempted it. In their day, Anderson’s amply entertaining and enormously inventive TV efforts were undeniably popular and nowadays have become utterly iconic and thus the stuff of warm, wonderful nostalgia. So much so, in fact, that this winter Royal Mail launched a special series of stamps to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Anderson’s first, top, truly popular show, Supercar.

Mind you, if you’re being pedantic, it actually all started long before Lady Penelope was even a pretty little twinkle in old Gerry’s eye. Unlikely it may seem (given the ‘Boy’s Own’ nature and titles of most of his TV escapades), but Anderson’s first foray on telly came in 1957 with a series named The Adventures Of Twizzle for former ITV company, Granada. Dreamt up by romance author Roberta Leigh, its title character was a pixie hat-wearing doll with extending (or ‘twizzling’) limbs. Its episodes mostly directed by Anderson, the series was the first venture of his brand new TV production company, AP Films. Boasting 52 episodes, Twizzle was a success and Gerry was on his way.

At first, puppetry had never been on Anderson’s radar, though. Born in London in 1929, he was of Russian-Jewish ancestry (his original family name was ‘Bieloglovski’, which was altered to ‘Abrahams’ by an immigration official upon his grandfather’s entrance to the UK in 1895 and then this was changed to ‘Anderson’ by his mother in 1939). When World War Two broke out that same year, Gerry’s older brother was conscripted into the RAF and stationed in the US at an airbase named Thunderbird Field – a moniker that Gerry remembered and, yes, would later make good use of.

Toy story and cover stars: Torchy The Battery Boy (left); Four Feather Falls on the cover of TV Times magazine from late February 1960 (middle) and its puppets in performance (right)

Before entering the RAF himself for national service, the young Anderson kick-started a planned career in photography by joining the British Colonial Film Unit on a traineeship, which led to a job with film studio Gainsborough Pictures. Following his time in the military, he returned to Gainsborough Pictures, where he stayed until its closure in 1950. Next, after freelancing as a director, he joined Polytechnic Studios, only for the latter, unfortunately, to fold quickly after his move there too. However, it was while with Polytechnic that Anderson made an important acquaintance, namely with cameraman Arthur Provis.

Tired of freelance work, Anderson – together with Provis and fellow film/TV professionals Reg Hill and John Read, founded Pentagon Films. Pentagon wound up quickly, but the four men’s next venture certainly didn’t – it was now that AP Films  was founded (whose full title thus was Anderson-Provis Films). With its success with Twizzle, AP Films was off and running and, eager to collaborate futher with new creative colleagues puppeter Christine Glanville, special effects whizz Derek Meddings and composer Barry Gray, Anderson was looking to his next TV project.

This came in the shape of Torchy The Battery Boy (1958-59), which itself was swiftly followed by western adventure series Four Feather Falls (1959-60). Both were popular with UK children, but – as would be the case throughout his career – Anderson was ambitious and immediately wanted to move on to the next thing: something bigger and better that would strive to be more popular, memorable and successful. The result was the first of his genuinely well-recalled puppetry efforts, Supercar (1960-61).

Those magnificent men (and woman) and their flying machine: Gerry and Sylvia Anderson and cohorts at work during the production of Supercar, the hit that really got them off and running

The progression to this new series hadn’t been easy, however. Not only was there a break between AP Films and Granada, as Lord Lew Grade (one of British television’s most powerful figures of the day) ensured his company ATV became AP’s new partner, but also Anderson’s personal life had become a mite complicated. Around 1950, he had married, only to begin an affair during the production of Twizzle with AP Films’ attractive secretary Sylvia Thamm; by which time he also had two children. Inevitably, he and his wife divorced, freeing him to marry Thamm in 1960.

As planned, though, Supercar was a bigger success than anything Anderson had tried before, so much so that it became the first of his series to break America, being shown in syndication in the States. It featured, yes, a ‘supercar’, a vehicle that – thanks to its rockets – both hovered when travelling on the ground and flew like a jet through the air. Boasting a total of 39 episodes, Supercar also featured two elements that were to become Anderson staples – a ‘launch sequence’ of the series’ eponymous vehicle over the opening titles and, perhaps more importantly, the ever so clever puppetry-performing technique that he loftily entitled ‘Supermarionation’ (the use of which would be boasted in the credits of all the shows in which it featured).

Make no mistake, though, Supermarionation was groundbreaking – and was critical to the effectiveness and success of all of Anderson’s puppet-based series from Supercar onwards. The technique worked by means of a puppet’s movements being controlled via thin metal wires connected to its head and limbs. These wires, however, doubled as conductors for an electric current, which on reaching a puppet’s head would activate a device contained therein that synchronised the puppet’s lip movements with its pre-recorded voice as the latter was played live on-set. Simple glove-puppet ventriloquism this most definitely was not.

Anderson followed up the success of Supercar with the  spaceship-featuring Fireball XL5 (1962). Still very fondly recalled, XL5 excelled specifically in two respects; it was the first Anderson show to feature a hummable and chart-entering theme tune and was the first – and only – to have been shown properly on a network in the US, rather than in syndication. NBC broadcast it during its Saturday morning block of children’s shows between 1963 and ’65.

Hot on the heels of this latest success came Stingray (1964). With this combat-submarine fuelled adventure, AP Films upped the ante further. Not only was it the first children’s show in British TV history to be filmed in colour, it also saw notable improvements over the last two Anderson efforts in terms of special effects (explosions and, in particular, underwater sequences) and puppet acting – each major puppet now had interchangeable heads so a variety of facial expressions could be achieved. Much of this was facilitated by the buy-out of AP Films by Grade’s ATV, ensuring the team moved to larger studios in Slough, Berkshire.

Stingray, though, is perhaps best remembered for its truly stonking opening theme tune, which featured the unforgettable line ‘Anything can happen in the next half-hour!’. Indeed, Anderson’s 25-minute-long marionette capers had now become unmissable slices of weekly TV for masses of kids on both sides of the pond. And this was never more true than with his next show – the big one. With Thunderbirds (1964-66), Anderson truly hit the jackpot. How big was Thunderbirds? Well, it may not be exaggerating it to say that with the kids of the day it was bigger than both Doctor Who – an unquestioned family TV triumph – and James Bond – an unquestioned king of cinema.

Flying high and diving for treasure: both Colonel Steve Zodiac of Fireball XL5 (left) and James Garner look-alike Troy Tempest of Stingray (right) were big hits with kids everywhere

In fact, it’s maybe impossible to imagine retro culture without it. It featured, of course, the exploits of the tropical island-based Tracy family, which, under the banner of ‘International Rescue’, used spectacular vehicles to save people around the world from terrible disasters. Headed up by former astronaut dad Jeff, there was Scott (Thunderbird 1 – rocket), Virgil (Thunderbird 2 – big green plane), Alan (Thunderbird 3 – space rocket), Gordon (Thunderbird 4 – miniature submarine despached from Thunderbird 2) and John (Thunderbird 5 – spacestation); all of whom were actually named after astronauts from NASA’s ’50s Mercury program.

Joining them, of course, were engineer extraordinaire ‘Brains’, evil saboteur The Hood and ‘London agent’ the oddly (for a puppet) sexy Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward with her Cockney butler Aloysius ‘Nosey’ Parker, whom also chauffered his employer around in her futuristic-looking, James Bond-like gadget laden, pink Rolls Royce that bore the number plate ‘FAB 1’. Ah yes, and then was ‘F.A.B.’ – who could forget the Tracys’ inimitable radio call-sign? In actual fact, it wasn’t supposed to be an acronym for anything; it merely was an attempt to be down with the kids by referencing that oh-so ’60s word ‘fab’.

But, as said, Thunderbirds was definitely down with the kids. In fact, it’s one of those children’s shows that thanks to hours and hours of repeats always seems to have been. Perhaps surprisingly, just 32 one-hour (or, without adverts, 50-minute) episodes were made. This was because, although a huge hit in the UK, the series wasn’t taken on by any of the three major US networks owing to Lew Grade playing each off against the other to get the highest possible price; his gamble didn’t work and the show was instead shown in syndication, resulting in Grade calling time on the costly programme before its time. Yet it was obviously costly; compared to Anderson’s previous efforts, the improved models, sets and special effects (in addition to the increased running time) ensured that each episode felt like a feature film.

Much credit for this must go to effects supervisor and chief model-builder Derek Meddings. Not only did Meddings master much improved explosions (filmed at double-speed so when slowed to normal-speed the look was even more impressive), vehicle take-offs and landings and road- and air-travel shots, he also created fantastic but credible-looking models that would imprint themselves on the masses’ minds for decades to come. Proof of his achievements lies in the fact his team was poached by Stanley Kubrick to work on the forthcoming sci-fi spectacular 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Meddings himself would go on to a highly successful career in Hollywood, contributing to many a Bond film and winning an Oscar for making audiences ‘believe a man can fly’ in Superman (1978).

Living doll: the original Lady Penelope in the Thunderbirds TV series (left) and the updated m’lady as played by the very much live-action Sophia Myles in the 2004 movie version (right)

Indeed, Meddings’ model work on Thunderbirds so captured the public’s imagination that Dinky- and Matchbox-produced replica toys and other paraphernalia based on the show sold like hotcakes during the ’60s. Nowadays Thunderbirds-related merchandise of the period is among the most collectable toys in existence. And, as he did for both XL5 and Stingray, Meddings’ fellow mainstay at AP Films (or Century 21 Productions, as it was now renamed) Barry Gray composed another classic theme for Thunderbirds.

In fact, it’s surely fair to say the Thunderbirds March is the classic Gerry Anderson theme. Instantly recognisable, especially when heard over the opening credits of each episode with the melodramatically marvellous ‘5-4-3-2-1’ countdown (see video above), it’s a favourite with brass bands the world over and became a staple ingredient of the live shows for both British band Level 42 and New York rappers The Beastie Boys.

Mind you, perhaps the most famous pop culture reference – or, to be precise, parody – of Thunderbirds came at the height of its popularity when, in a 1966 episode of their popular BBC show Not Only… But Also, legendary comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore delivered a thinly veiled parody of all-things-Anderson in the shape of the sketch Superthunderstingcar. A marvellous and utterly classic TV comedy moment, Pete and Dud hammed it up as wobbling puppets with wonky accents assisted by wonkier special effects (see video below). Hey, they say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?

For the highly ambitious Gerry and his wife Sylvia (now an important member of the creative team), the natural progression for Thunderbirds was into cinemas – if its future didn’t lie on TV surely it must lie in the movies? But, for the first time, the gods weren’t on Anderson’s side; in fact, this time they seemed to find him guilty of hubris. Perhaps he’d forgotten that the reason Thunderbirds had to move on from TV was because moneyman Lew Grade had decided it wasn’t financially viable anymore, not because it had become too big for the small screen – as it turned out, Thunderbirds definitely wasn’t big enough for the big screen.

There were two films; the first Thunderbirds Are Go was released at Christmas 1966. Running at 93 minutes, it featured all the usual impressive hardware and pyrotechnics, but was hampered by a  frankly daft plot involving Martians and a psychedelic dream sequence that featured ‘Cliff Richard Jr and The Shadows’ (yes, Cliff and co. all had their own puppets). Still, the movie studio that financed it, United Artists, were expectant and delighted with the preview they saw. Indeed, according to Anderson, at the premiere the head of UA apparently said: “I don’t know whether it’s going to make more money than Bond or not, I can’t decide”. It didn’t; it bombed.

As Anderson puts it: “the next day, The Dominion at Tottenham Court Road had about ten people in it [watching the film].” Ultimately, both he and Sylvia put the movie’s lack of success down to the fact that punters looked upon Thunderbirds as a television phenomenon – they watched it on TV, why would they go and watch the same thing in a cinema? Seemingly confused by Thunderbirds Are Go‘s failure, UA commisioned a sequel that was duly produced and released, but the oddly Tiger Moth byplane-featuring Thunderbird 6 (1968) fared no better than its predecessor – although, fair do’s, like the latter it did boast a spiffing poster.

The puppet master: Captain Scarlet – a lean, admittedly not green but red fighting machine

Somewhat chastened by their cinematic experiences, Gerry, Sylvia and their team returned to the terra firma of TV for their next project – but not entirely to earth. Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons (1967-68) went back to the idea of Martians as tried out in Thunderbirds Are Go. This time, though, they got it right. Set a hundred years into the future, as Thunderbirds more or less had been, this show centred around the eponymous Captain Scarlet, a freakishly unkillable agent of Spectrum, the international organisation that countered the moves of the evil Mysterons from Mars who had started a war with Earth.

Now, I have to admit, Captain Scarlet is definitely my favourite Anderson venture. Compared to Thunderbirds and many of his other efforts, it was more serious, sombre, eerie and simply cooler. With the enigmatic but heroic Scarlet, the faux glamorous female Angel jet pilots and a genuinely threatening villain, you could describe it as Intergalactic James Bond stuff. It’s as if Thunderbirds had grown up. Sort of. It was also more naturalistic, as the model makers painstakingly – and successfully – populated the adventures with less cartoonish, more human-looking puppets, both in terms of head and facial features and body dimensions. Plus, of all the Anderson shows, this one surely contained the greatest Barry Gray theme, replete with its irresistible staccato drum motif, of course.

Sadly, in some respects, but far from surprisingly, Captain Scarlet couldn’t match Thunderbirds‘ ginormous popularity and success (could anything?) and lasted one series. Plus, it was admittedly somewhat criticised for its darker tone, ‘violence’ and increased action and explosions. Gerry and Sylvia responded by grounding their next venture in far more character-driven stories. Joe 90 (1968) featured a nine-year-old hero, who when hooked up to his inventor dad’s clever-clever apparatus could take on the knowledge and capacities’ of others’ minds, ensuring him a career as an international spy (as it obviously would). As cult-friendly and wonderfully whimsically ’60s-silly as any of Anderson’s efforts, Joe 90 had definitely more ‘kid-appeal’ than Captain Scarlet, but with its emphasis on characters and plotting maybe went too far the other way – audiences and critics weren’t that crazy on its less-is-more style.

The final Anderson puppet-driven series of this period was The Secret Service (1969), a series that nowadays is almost forgotten. Like Joe 90, it too was strongly plot-driven, slightly bizarrely focusing on the espionage adventures of a countryside Church minister and his assistant. With its emphasis on increased naturalism – as with Joe 90, it contained puppets like those introduced in Captain Scarlet, while it also used human actors in long shots – it was a long way from the carefree fantasy of Stingray and Thunderbirds.

No strings attached: Ed Bishop in UFO (left); Vaughn and Porter in The Protectors (right)

As the ’60s slid into the ’70s, the Andersons were at a crossroads. Sensing that TV puppet action adventures may have had their time, they didn’t blink and went in totally the opposite direction. Century 21’s first project of its new era was a live-action, entirely human actor-populated feature film, Doppelgänger (1969). Known as Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun outside Europe, it was pretty typical-for-the-time sci-fi fare and didn’t exactly pull up trees at the box-office. More successful was the next venture, which re-used several actors and props from the movie. UFO (1970-71) was a return to the small-screen for the Andersons, but a continuation of live-action filming and, although only moderately popular back in the day, is nowadays very fondly recalled.

It memorably featured minor James Bond actor Ed Bishop (who had also voiced a major character in Captain Scarlet) sporting a peroxide mop as Commander Ed Straker, star member of the near-future SHADO organisation, whose aim was to thwart aliens looking to extract humans’ organs. As the premise suggests, despite featuring the usual Anderson-friendly sci-fi hardware, UFO was much more adult than previous Century 21 efforts; in fact, it explored themes such as adultery, divorce and drug use.

Talking of grown-up things, by this time the Anderson’s marriage was in trouble; so much so, that Sylvia wasn’t involved in Gerry’s next series at all. She may have kicked herself, she may not, for The Protectors (1972-74) was easily her husband’s most successful project since Thunderbirds (ironically, he didn’t come up with the concept, though). Live-action again, it was an adventure drama boasting Man From U.N.C.L.E. Robert Vaughn and The Forsyte Saga star Nyree Dawn Porter as a pair of intenational trouble-shooters. Featuring the ever popular Tony Christie tune Avenues And Alleyways over its end credits, it ran for two series and was widely watched on both sides of the Atlantic; rumours persist the reason there wasn’t a third was because the ‘difficult’ Vaughn couldn’t get on with either his fellow actors or Anderson and Grade.

By now it was the mid-’70s and you’d be forgiven for thinking Gerry Anderson may have slowed down, but nothing like it – in his latest project, he really went for the jugular. Why? He’d taken up an offer from legendary film producer Harry Saltzman to write the next Bond film, that’s why. As it turned out, though, it was one of the characters of the next 007 epic, Jaws, who went for the jugular; Gerry was left barely leaving a tooth-mark – although he claimed otherwise. Shortly after accepting Saltzman’s offer, the latter parted company with fellow Bond producer Albert R ‘Cubby’ Broccoli owing to financial problems and Anderson’s involvement in the writing process was no longer wanted. When the movie itself, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), came out though, rightly or wrongly, Anderson was apoplectic, claiming Broccoli’s Eon Productions had used ideas from his script in the flick without his consent. He started legal proceedings against them, but realising the considerably larger legal clout Broccoli had mustered up, dropped the case and accepted a mere £3,000 in compensation.

His brush with Bond no doubt leaving a sour taste in the mouth, Gerry went back to the familiar, namely TV and his wife. Working elements intended for the abandoned second series of UFO into a new show, the Andersons’ next offering then was Space: 1999 (1975-78). Nowadays looked upon as an iconic ’70s sci-fi series – everything from its music to its characters’ togs ache of that decade’s love-it-or-hate-it style (see video above) – this drama about a space base on a knocked-out-of-orbit Moon starring Mission: Impossible‘s husband-and-wife team Martin Landau and Barbara Bain didn’t fare quite so brilliantly as it might have when originally broadcast.

Indeed, owing to the first series’ disappointing viewing figures on American syndicated TV, Lew Grade needed convincing a second series was worthwhile. Oddly, despite the presence of delectable former Bond Girl and Return Of The Pink Panther (1975) co-star Catherine Schell, series two originally did better in Canada than anywhere else. Still, geeks the world over quietly lapped up each episode and, as mentioned, even more of them do so today.

Space – ’70s style: The Andersons and the Landaus on set – wonder if they ever had a key party? (l); the cast of Space: 1999 pose for Kay’s catalogue’s casual Moonbase-wear section (r)

Space: 1999, though, was the last straw for Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s professional and personal relationships. Halfway through the show’s run they split; indeed, another producer had to be found to replace Sylvia’s role for its second series. Newly divorced, Gerry now found the going tough – not only was he estranged from his son with Sylvia (and would remain so for another 20 years), but he had also run into financial trouble, what with Grade pulling the plug on a third series of Space: 1999 because, it seemed, the latter wanted instead to finance a return to TV of classic hero The Saint (in what turned out to be the risible The Return Of The Saint) and a big screen adaptation of bestselling novel Raise The Titanic (the resultant movie, released in 1980, would actually go down in history as one of cinema’s greatest ever flops).

It was now the 1980s and, like it or not, Anderson found himself going back to the future. Forming a new production company with businessman Christopher Burr (Anderson Burr Pictures), he decided to return to Thunderbirds territory by coming up with a new series populated by cartoonish-like puppet characters reminiscent of his most popular show. Indeed, the smart recognised Terrahawks (1983-86) as something of a ‘black comedy’ version of Thunderbirds, rather than simply the re-hash of the heroic-human-combat-force-protect-Earth-from-aliens ground Anderson had trod more than once before. Having been a child of the ’80s, I must confess Terrahawks was my introduction to all things Anderson and, at the time, I thought it great fun – and many still do, it’s garnered quite the cult following over the years. As Barry Norman had a wont to ask, and why not?

Anderson spent much of the rest of the decade trying to get new puppet-themed shows off the ground, but to little avail – yet he did find success in providing special effects direction for the popular ’50s sci-fi-themed rock ‘n’ roll stage musical Return To The Forbidden Planet. Mind you, if he’d pulled off a moderate return to form in the ’80s with Terrahawks, it was in the ’90s (the decade that wallowed in such warm nostalgia for the better aspects of the ’60s) that he enjoyed a genuine renaissance.

Fifty not out: Royal Mail’s limited edition collection of stamps featuring Gerry Anderson’s classic marionette action adventures to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Supercar

Sure, his Supermarionation-fuelled shows had been popular ever since they were first shown, but never were they more popular since then than in the ’90s, when Thunderbirds, especially, and the others enjoyed weekday teatime showings once more and new toys were produced to feed kids’ hunger for Scott, Virgil, Brains et al. Indeed, in 1993, beacon of children’s TV Blue Peter even demonstrated to its young viewers how they might construct their own version of Tracy Island in case the shops sold out of the proper toy – and many did.

The truth, I suppose, is that Gerry Anderson and the majority of his TV projects have always been popular. And, excepting their huge following when originally conceived and broadcast in the ’60s and the somewhat mirroring of that fanaticism in the ’90s, they’re still undeniably popular now. There’s something about the likes of Captain Scarlet, Joe 90 and Stingray that does and no doubt always will appeal to kids little and old. Is it the cool hardware, the comfy sci-fi fantasy, the funkily brilliant music or the puppets themselves? Perhaps it’s all of them that mix together into concocting an Anderson ‘x-factor’ that for so many is simply irresistible.

Indeed, the Gerry Anderson story goes on. Take the 2004 live-action Hollywood movie version of Thunderbirds – it was terrible, sure, but it was made and turned something of a profit. A CGI-re-invention of Captain Scarlet (Gerry Anderson’s New Captain Scarlet) emerged on TVs in 2005 too. And now, with the release this January of Royal Mail’s sleek looking ‘The Genius Of Gerry Anderson’ stamp collection, came the news from the man himself that he’s finally negotiated the rights to bring back Thunderbirds on his own terms. Parker, I’m sure, would be delighted at that news – and Penelope? Yes, m’lady, indeed. In fact, perhaps we all can toast a cup of her favourite tipple (tea, of course) to that.


Further reading

Royal Mail ~ Gerry Anderson stamps


12 Comments leave one →
  1. March 10, 2011 10:11 am

    Awesomeness. A well-researched, in-depth and entertaining article.

    Man, y’know I’m such a geek when it comes to things like this. I love all those Anderson shows. I must confess, I never saw Supercar, but I loved Fireball XL-5 and its “sing in the shower” theme tune. In fact, the music is such a huge part of those shows. As is the over-the-top drama and the rather brilliant hooks. Few shows can really deliver on the promise of “standby for action!” or “anything can happen in the next half hour!” The design ethic was fantastic, too. Tracy Island has to be in my top ten fictional abodes. The shows were all rather brilliant in their way, including Terrahawks.

    Thanks for enlightening me on the background to these shows, giving an insight into the history, and for showing me that Pete and Dud sketch – what a side-splitter!

  2. March 10, 2011 10:46 am

    I have been fortunate. From my pre-Infant school days, I vaguely remember “Torchy the Battery Boy” and “Twizzle”. Then there were “Supercar”, “Fireball XL5” and “Stingray”. Then during my upper Junior school years, “Thunderbirds”.
    Now over 45 years later, I still watch “Thunderbirds” on cable TV, with amazement. So MANY things predicted by Gerry Anderson are in common use today… except perhaps Tracy Island! Shame! Admittedly, the computers are substantially smaller, faster and better, but this was a programme for the much younger generation. 😎
    Gerry Anderson was awesome, without a doubt.
    I owe him for my childhood dreams!

    • March 10, 2011 9:19 pm

      Glad to find I hit a nerve with both of you, Pete and dublo, by writing about Anderson in this post. 🙂

      As I mentioned, there really is something quite special and different about arguably all of Anderson’s shows; it’s no small wonder they still have so many fans today.

      And, yes, nearly fifty years on and that Pete and Dud sketch is indeed still brilliant…!

  3. May 5, 2021 11:20 pm

    Great article. I loved those old shows, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet. CGI is good, but still miss these puppets in shows. Simon,


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