Arguably the most famous 60's puppet show is going through yet another revival. Anthony Clark gives us a brief history to Thunderbirds...

Gerry Anderson, currently the most public face of the creative team behind Thunderbirds, started making puppet shows in the mid-1950s but it wasn't until Supercar in 1959 that he hit on the idea of combining marionettes with science fiction.

Fireball XL5 arrived in 1961, followed the next year by Stingray - this time in colour. And although Anderson and his co-creator wife, Sylvia, were sometimes frustrated by the limitation of having their characters on strings, the "Supermarionation" puppetry techniques developed over the shows continues to captivate audiences around the world. The show has proved to be a lasting success as its continuing popularity attests. However, its inability to clinch a US network transmission - probably the show's only real failure - resulted in it being cancelled after just 32 episodes.

It is tempting to imaging what would have happened if Thunderbirds had secured a network sale, especially as it came so close. All three US networks bid for the show but nothing was ever finalised and as a result Thunderbirds was sold on a station by station basis - albeit reaching a triumphant total of 150.

The basic premise for the show is simplicity itself. International Rescue is a secret organisation dedicated to saving lives, set up by Jeff Tracy, a millionaire ex-astronaut and space exploration hero. It carries out its daring operations using a range of highly advanced Thunderbird craft which are launched from a hidden island base, piloted by Jeff's five sons, named after the first Americans in space.

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The Thunderbird machines are only ever launched when conventional methods fail, immediately placing their pilots in situations considered too hazardous for the regular rescue services. International Rescue are the last hope, operating against the odds. And despite its fantastic equipment, its triumphs are invariable achieved by a mix of daring, intelligence and courage. Most importantly, the show rarely lets its machines dwarf its characters as it is the threat to their safety, and not the impending destruction of the crippled passenger jet in which they are travelling, that is the basis for the programme's excitement.

The show has a number of elements that have helped ensure its longevity. For example, by making International Rescue the brainchild of one man, and by placing it on an isolated island of indeterminate location, the organisation exists outside of a political framework and free from geographical association, thereby helping to make the show's world both international and timeless.

And what few references are made to the world of the viewer are iconic such as the Empire State Building and the Bank of England. We are rarely confronted with anything transient from the time of the show's production that would associate Thunderbirds with the era of its birth.

Equally important, International Rescue's technological basis is never explained - all we see are its results when combined with the heroism of the Tracy brothers. It doesn't matter that the world has undergone a digital revolution since Thunderbirds was first launched as the programme never tries, or needs, to explain what we see in terms of how it works. The fact that its does - against the odds in a dangerous situation - is all that's important.

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