It is rather funny how an off-handed, goofy remark spurred on this essay of self-examination, so please bear with me while I puzzle this out: Recently, someone I ‘Internet’ know remarked to me that she could not fathom why a person of my gender and age had such an interest in the 1960s UK TV series “Thunderbirds. There was no real interest behind the line, the remark coming from someone who erroneously assumed that only small boys took an interest in such characters. It would be obvious to my actual friends that this came from someone who does not know me nor the subject matter at all. Admittedly, the bizarre query got under my skin. However, like a speck of irritating sand inside a mollusk that causes the creation of a pearl, that remark had a productive side effect, and what began as an annoyance gave me pause to consider a subject that has been a major part of my life for five decades.
Some background: On September 30,1965, British television producers Gerry and Sylvia Anderson enjoyed another major success when the ITV Network began airing their new series, “Thunderbirds,” in areas around the country. Featuring their, by then, internationally famous electronic marionettes, the action-packed adventure series was soon a hit in countries throughout Europe and the Commonwealth—nearly everywhere save the United States, since we were, as usual, out of step with the rest of the world. In short, Lord Lew Grade of ATV tried to play the three American TV networks against each other in a bidding war to air the series…and then he screwed it all up royally, leaving US viewers out of the global ‘rescue party.’ Over the course of the next few decades, the series became so enshrined in the hearts of the British public that when, on May 21,1997, newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair was proudly escorted into the Houses Of Parliament, with The Band Of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines assembled outside playing “The March Of The Thunderbirds” to the delight of fans worldwide. The “Anderson Generation” was ready for action!
By the time that “Thunderbirds” finally came to the US in 1967, it was shown in 25 minute increments in most markets. Here in Los Angeles, it aired in the 7:00a hour, which allowed us kids to get in our daily dose of half of an adventure before trudging off to school. Despite the typically bustling morning distractions, my siblings and I flipped for the heroics of the Tracys, just as our British counterparts had done two years before. Being the eldest or the ‘Scott Tracy’ of our brood, I remember being uniquely inspired by the theme of five brothers putting their lives on the line to rescue those in desperate need of aid. The year 1967 was a seminal year for me in other less pleasant ways. My siblings and I were trapped in the middle of our parents’ horrific divorce and desperately in need of a rescue of our own. The series’ tale of strong, selfless, capable brothers who could handle any disaster—young men who understood the value of protecting each other and working together—was an exceedingly appealing message to a little girl whose three younger siblings did nothing but fight with each other, while our estranged father was doing everything to endanger our home. I remember thinking that if the Tracys could be fearless, so could I.
Like the superhero comics of that age, the series never actively courted a female following, at least not until I got hold of it in 2002 (I’ll address that later!), though in Britain there had always been Lady Penelope dolls, books and magazines. Penny and her chauffeur, Aloysius (Nosey) Parker, were good fun, but we female fans knew that the most exciting assets of the show were those dishy Tracy boys—Scott, Virgil, John, Gordon and Alan (and YES, in that order!)—and their bright smiles, stylish hair and charming faces. As with our favorite afternoon cartoon hosts of the 1960s—Sheriff John, Jimmie Dodd and Engineer Bill, the Tracy brothers taught us kindness, humility, and selflessness and, in addition, they expressed a great care for humanity. Just as with the “Thunderbirds” TV series itself, that message can’t be beaten.
Strange as it might seem, my involvement and interest in the series did not end with that brief year or two when it aired in syndication, after which it disappeared from US airwaves for 35 years. I always tended to work with gents who shared similar fond memories of the series and often mentioned it as a favorite; therefore, the subject never left my mind for very long. Being a Film major at university, I became a huge fan of KTLA’s “Movies ‘Til Dawn” in those enjoyable late nights before ‘infomercials’ became an overnight hours staple. KTLA, originally owned by Paramount Pictures, possessed the library of all of the pre-1945 Paramount classic films, as well as a library of ITC’s theatrical releases, which included packaged episodes of “Thunderbirds,” “Stingray” and “Captain Scarlet.” One night in the mid-1980s, I was treated to a back-to-back of “Thunderbirds To The Rescue” and “Thunderbirds In Outer Space” and the love affair began anew. In Britain and Japan, the series returned to the airwaves every few years in one form or another, bringing with it a revival in popularity and some brilliant toys from Imai and Bandai, but during those dry years in the US, a late night movie marathon was the only way to revive that long-dead interest in the series. How lucky I felt having been reunited with my pint-sized heroes!
Flash forward to the real (TV) Century 21st, when I created a website in honor of “Thunderbirds,” called “Calling International Rescue.” It was mainly a place to practice coding, share images, post fan-fiction and delve into my admiration for these charming characters created by Sylvia Anderson four decades before. The series was soon afterward revived in the US and I was enlisted by TechTV to assist them with formatting notes for their attempt at a “Pop-Up Video” style of a “Thunderbirds” re-introduction for an American viewership who were completely unfamiliar with those characters. By the time I received their email, the folks at TechTV in charge of the project needed the information in a matter of two or three days—yes, my task was to refresh my memory of the 36 hour-long episodes in three days and draw on all manner of trivia about Jeff Tracy and his organization! I pulled trivia from the most remote recesses of my brain and was determined to add as much as I could to make my valiant heroes accessible to my fellow Yanks. I wanted new viewers to understand who they were and why I had loved them since childhood…and it worked! TechTV began to pull in a huge daily viewership for the series—many of those new fans being females—and they created a new wave of fandom that fueled interest in the (then) upcoming live action film, an international tour by Gerry Anderson, a gorgeous, comprehensive book by Sylvia Anderson and a new CGI TV series which eventually became the now popular “Thunderbirds Are Go.” When I hosted a related panel at Comic-Con in 2004, the long-neglected US fandom flooded into the conference room to overflow capacity, with some folks stating that they had walked out on Keanu Reeves’ “Constantine” panel to make it to our panel on time. (Sorry, Keanu)!
There were several other interesting outcomes from my Calling International Rescue website, one fortuitous instance being that A&E Home Videos had to pay me for the usage of my “Tracy Brothers Biographies,” which they had lifted from TechTV’s website without my permission. That worked out quite nicely—my first Big royalty payment—and paid for our ridiculously expensive Comic-Con hotel that year…yeeeaaa! The more emotional and long-lasting outcome: I became a flesh and blood International Rescue agent in charge of answering emails sent to the Tracy boys…!
Here’s the thing: Despite their unrealistic proportions and somewhat mechanical movement, quite a great many children around the world truly BELIEVE in International Rescue and their heroes, as do, surprisingly, many of the adults in their lives. These young people feel that they know their heroes and wish to share in the Tracys’ adventures and their lives more fully, similar to the children in the episode “Cry Wolf” from the original series. In 2004, when the live-action film entered the fray (much to the often apoplectic ire of the original fan base), those flesh-and-blood Tracys made it even easier to believe that the adventurous family, their friends and their vehicles were REAL and quite accessible, as reflected in the letters that I received.
Over the course of about two years, I responded to emails sent to me for the Tracys from around the world. Many of the notes were from some very charming adults, including mums and grandmums from the UK and Australia who were writing to the individual Tracy brothers or Grandma Tracy. Quite often, letters were prompted because it was nearing the birthday of their children’s favorite Tracy brother and they wished to throw said character a birthday party. (Everyone seemed to own those Thunderbirds calendars back then and fans knew the birthdays of the characters). They asked which brother liked what kind of cake, wanted to know the boys’ favorite colors and what each brother might prefer for a celebratory dinner. It was great fun to explore what I had learned over those decades of fandom, and what a joy to endulge the fantasies of these adorable young fans.
Just as enjoyable were the letters from children who wanted to check in on their heroes. Several young fans wrote to John Tracy, who has become a real fan favorite over the years in spite of Gerry Anderson having banished him to Thunderbird 5 in a jealous rage. These little angels inquired as to whether our intrepid but isolated Space Monitor was safe up there in Thunderbird 5. The children were concerned that he might be very lonely and wanted him to know that they were thinking of him. I also received letters from teenage girls, especially following the live-action film, with girls writing because they had crushes on the actors who played the boys. In every case, I responded as whichever character to whom the author had written, making sure that the writer felt valued and appreciated. I ended every letter with an encouraging note, sent little gifts if they had requested a book or a photo and thanked our future International Rescue members with a cheerful F.A.B.!
While most of these encounters were lighthearted and thoroughly engaging, some were decidedly distressing and tested my limits for conducting a few rescues of my own. Not long after launching the website, I began to hear from teens in trouble—girls who were enamored with Brady Corbet, who portrayed ‘Alan Tracy’ in the live-action film. One particularly concerning case was that of a fourteen year old girl who suffered from a degenerative disease. She requested advice and guidance from ‘Alan’ on how to handle boys who were attempting to take advantage of her low self-esteem and her ill-advised attempts to mature into the more dangerous realms of adult behavior that she feared she would never live long enough to experience naturally. As a very concerned adult acting incognito as a teenage boy she admired, I reviewed what information was available to me from the experts, consulted related reference materials and condensed it so that it sounded digestible to a kid from another kid. One constant in my communiques was for such teens to take their concerns to a local adult in whom they trusted—a parent, older sibling, teacher, guardian or healthcare professional. That message was primary in my commitment to help these children in their time of need.
I suppose that “Thunderbirds” became another of the many entertainment franchises from childhood that these kids likely tossed away as they neared adulthood, in the same way that I used to run through Rock bands in my own youth. The most troubled kids eventually stopped writing, while the younger ones continued to check in for several years. These experiences were very rewarding, at least from my end, and kids really seemed to respond to having that stronger shoulder of their heroes to cry on. I recall hoping, at the time, that Brady, Ben, Lex, Philip and Dominic would not have minded me hijacking their characters; I am sure they would have handled it just as I did. Thinking back, I hope that my dear young charges are all now leading happy and productive young adult lives, having had a bit of friendly, individualized guidance from International Rescue.
Somewhere, in the midst of that “Thunderbirds” blitz of 2004-05, I struck up a friendship with a chap who represented Iconograph Graphics in Britain, who held the license to create high-end art pieces based upon the original series. Dennis contacted me one day and said, “Sylvia Anderson and I were talking about you yesterday.” After I recovered from the shock, I read on: He said that he had acted on my request to ask Sylvia to sign the John Tracy portrait that Iconograph recreated, given that voice actor Ray Barrett could not be reached, while each of the other voice actors had signed his character’s portrait. While visiting with her, Ms. Anderson told Dennis about a letter that I had sent to her a few months before, one which accompanied the gift of a silver bracelet with a tag etched with “FAB.” In the enclosed note, I thanked her for creating such inspirational characters and told her about my exploits as International Rescue’s ‘secret secretary.’ It was very fulfilling to let her know about the many families I had heard from—fans, like myself, whose lives had been truly enriched by characters she imbued with life, heart and soul nearly fifty years before. That gift was my way of sending a grateful hug and respectful pat on the back to our real-life Lady Penelope for her legacy of enjoyable and memorable work. I will be forever in debt to her for all that she added to my life and my own legacy. Yes, I’m an adult fan of “Thunderbirds” and very proud and happy to still be one. “Thunderbirds” are forever GO!