Thunderbirds, circa 1965 (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Broadcasting anniversaries

The long cultural shadow of World War Two

Artillery Row

I note we have just passed the centenary of the first publication of Radio Times magazine. It has largely receded from my consciousness, being available online, but governed the weekly viewing and listening habits of my parents. Its contents were institutions, along with roast Sunday lunch and church services, around which their week was stitched. Six days after my father’s birth, on 28 September 1923, the journal began a weekly summary of broadcasts available on the new-fangled wireless. Public radio had been unknown before the First World War, the medium used principally for shipping. The first wireless distress signal had been sent in 1899, and 13 years later the liner RMS Titanic famously broadcast the first SOS call for help. Wireless technology was only gradually embraced by the armed forces during the Great War, from a few sets at military headquarters in 1914 to a multiplicity in most aircraft, tanks and ships by 1918. Servicemen considered it unthinkable that this new communications device would be abandoned once the fighting was over.

Private enterprise kick-started today’s much-bullied BBC. In June 1920 Guglielmo Marconi, considered the father of British radio, made the first live public broadcast from his Wireless Telegraph Company in Chelmsford. Sponsored by the Daily Mail’s Lord Northcliffe, it featured a famous voice of the era, Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba. Whilst received with rapture by an enthusiastic nation, officialdom was unimpressed, wanting to reserve the post-war airwaves for military and government communication. They banned further Marconi broadcasts, but the GPO (General Post Office, in charge of all communications, including mail and telegrams) was inundated with licence requests and gave way. Determined to avoid the chaotic expansion of commercial stations seen in America, it agreed to a sole player, the British Broadcasting Company in October 1922. The first radio receivers were enormous, causing cabinet-makers to rub their hands with glee, whilst recently-demobbed wireless technicians from the forces set up shop in every town.

Local BBC stations sprang up across Britain with Radio Times, priced at tuppence, following in their wake. It listed the offerings of six BBC radio transmitters broadcasting from London, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Cardiff and Glasgow. Newspapers of the era refused to acknowledge this new interloper, fearful that increased listenership might decrease their sales. On 21 October 1924, my grandparents and assorted great aunts and uncles made the inaugural wireless broadcast of what became BBC Stoke-on-Trent. I have a photograph of the moment. Naturally they played chamber music. Naturally they wore evening dress. Winged collars, the full rig for their invisible audience.

Across the Atlantic, 1923 also saw brothers Walter Elias and Roy relocate from Kansas to set up a new business in California. On America’s entry into the war in 1917, the older had tried to enlist in the US Army, but he was rejected as too young. After forging his date of birth, he joined the Red Cross and was shipped to France, but he arrived just after the armistice. For amusement, he drew cartoons on the side of his ambulance and had other sketches published in the army newspaper Stars and Stripes. From 16 October 1923, the two brothers made short silent films about Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, but it was only later, with Oswald’s successor Mickey Mouse, that Walt Disney was really in business.

Both Radio Times and Walt Disney, born within 18 days of each other, grew in importance and confidence as precocious teenagers during the interwar years then played a major role in sound and vision broadcasting during the Second World War. Their activities were best summed up by the original directive of John Reith (first General Manager, then Director General when the BBC became a corporation in 1927) to “inform, educate and entertain”. They raised morale and kept it high. Both experienced a “good war”. By June 1944, there was an Allied Expeditionary Forces edition of Radio Times for troops in France, Italy and Burma, listing all the BBC’s morale-boosting Home Service and Forces Overseas wireless programmes.

Meanwhile, Walt Disney Studios devoted the majority of its wartime output to animated training films, and it loaned its characters to US home-front advertisements promoting food recycling, rationing, war bond sales and farm production. Patriotic cartoons like Donald Gets Drafted followed the process of the ubiquitous duck joining the United States Army. In Der Fuehrer’s Face, the same creature detailed the nightmare of living a Nazi country. On waking up and realising it was all a dream, he embraced a model of the Statue of Liberty, exclaiming, “Boy, am I glad to be a citizen of the United States of America!” Crude, but not too crude to win the 1943 Academy Award for Best Cartoon Short Film.

The three lions in the Disney coat of arms were the real deal

In 1949, Walt set foot in what he reckoned to be his homeland and explored the village of Norton Disney in Lincolnshire. From the several brass and alabaster memorials in St Peter’s Church, Walt learned his ancestors were the d’Isignys, who had sailed with William the Conqueror in 1066 and been granted land in the new domain. Through the centuries, the d’Isigny knights became d’Iseny and finally Disney. Though there was little left of Isigny in Normandy (liberated by GIs in the first few days after D-Day), Norton Disney was the quintessential English village with its Roman mosaics, manor house and 11th century church. According to a charter of 1386, the family estate was named Disnayland. That castle and the three lions in the Disney coat of arms were the real deal. You couldn’t make it up.

A decade later, on 16 October 1958, Radio Times announced the advent of Blue Peter. It was commissioned to plug the gap in broadcasting demographics for youngsters aged five to eight, and it has since become the world’s longest-running children’s TV show. Octobers heralded colder, darker evenings, forcing children indoors. Although BBC propaganda has it that the name represented each programme’s “voyage of adventure”, coupling a popular colour with a child’s name, it was already familiar as a nautical signal flag. In 1941, the title was borne by a Supermarine Spitfire, the gift of Newmarket’s racing fraternity who raised the princely sum of £5,100 to sponsor “Blue Peter” in its battles against the Luftwaffe. In 1948, a Peppercorn Class locomotive was given the same moniker. As a rare survivor of the steam era, it later enjoyed a long association with the show. The show’s sailing ship logo was designed by Tony Hart, a former officer in the 1st Gurkha Rifles, who after service in Burma and Korea sought solace in paint pot and brush.

Blue Peter’s on-screen formulae included a programme pet (usually a dog), a show garden, children’s art, and letters, with the award of a Blue Peter badge for the best. I recall we were allowed the accolade of sporting them on our school blazers, alongside those of “Milk Monitor”, or “Form Prefect” (invariably the wearer’s first brush with the trappings of dictatorship), such was the prestige and respectability of the show. Also featured was a “make-at-home” segment, encouraging dextrous young hands to construct a spaceship, London bus or advent crown out of household items — typically cardboard tubes, coat hangers, squeezy washing-up bottles and sticky-backed plastic. There was obviously not enough of the latter to save the original “Blue Peter” Spitfire, which crashed whilst on escort duty over the Clyde in 1942. The series was tattooed deep into the DNA of an entire generation. It has resulted in a nation of pet-owning, vegetable-growing, badge-wearing Britons, familiar with the perils of self-assembly furniture.

On 23 November 1963, the world was still raw from the aftermath of a war which had finished 18 years earlier and from John F. Kennedy’s assassination of the day before. That day there appeared in Radio Times a television series that could have been created by Disney, but in fact was a BBC brainwave. It was Auntie’s (as the BBC was known) attempt to counteract the “bug-eyed monster and robot genre” of popular science fiction. Its initial baddies resembled a range of kitchen utensils and ping pong balls glued to an outsized silver pepper pot. They were the Daleks. Conceived by script writer Terry Nation, the metallic aliens were obsessed with obedience, conquest and destruction of inferior races. These attributes, together with their murderous catchphrase of “Exterminate, exterminate”, were derived directly from knowledge of Auschwitz, Belsen and Dachau.

H. G. Wells’ novel The Time Machine of 1895 provided the concept of a Time Lord, who travelled through Time and Relative Dimension in Space in a device disguised as a Victorian police telephone box, bequeathing the acronym TARDIS. They were then a common sight on British streets, like the one featured on the front cover of my Ladybird Book of The Policeman. When the BBC applied to the Patent Office to register the TARDIS as a trademark, it was challenged by the Metropolitan Police, which felt it owned the police box imagery. However, the Office found in favour of the Beeb and the series’ hero, Doctor Who.

Assisted by officialdom in the form of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart of UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce), an international organisation defending Earth from alien threats, the time-travelling Доктор Кто (Doctor Who in Russian), 닥터후 (Korean), Doktor Wer (German/Austrian) or Il Dottore (Italian) has been broadcast in fifty countries across the globe, in languages as varied as Chinese, French, German, Hungarian, Welsh and Japanese, where it is screened from Tokyo by Disney. It ran for 26 years then returned, via a 1996 feature film, to the small screen in 2005. The Doctor’s opponents were not just Daleks, but a wide range of Yeti, Sea Devils, giant maggots, stone statues and Cybermen, made all the more terrible for not speaking.

Thunderbirds gripped my generation and has never really let go

The series forced even the hardiest of young viewers to hide behind their sofas during the screening of the Doctor’s scary opponents. As early as 1964, Blue Peter was roped in to reassure an entire generation by assembling a model Dalek from egg boxes and, of course, a sink plunger. In fact, the two series are distantly connected. Four Blue Peter presenters played roles in Doctor Who, and several doctors were introduced to younger viewers on the show. Later K9, the Doctor’s robotic dog, met Blue Peter presenter John Noakes’ border collie Shep. A canine scrap of epic proportions ensued until Shep was restrained by Noakes. In October 2022, the BBC announced that it had licenced Disney to launch the TARDIS on their behalf around the rest of planet Earth, whilst Doctor Who’s UK screening home would remain with the BBC.

Another broadcasting milestone occurred on 30 September 1965, but it was absent from Radio Times. With the arrival of independent television, the organ that listed non-BBC visual entertainment was TV Times. By then, the Beeb’s first analogue terrestrial channel, launched as early as 1936, had been rebranded as BBC1. This reflected the arrival of BBC2 and the UK’s third channel, ITV. To break the BBC’s monopoly on viewing, Independent Television had been founded by Act of Parliament in 1955 as a network of fifteen regional television franchises funded by advertising. Alerted by TV Times, on that September Thursday in 1965, the nation’s children (including Your Humble Scribe) settled down to watch a man with a mid-Atlantic accent as he counted down a series of weird spaceships and aircraft with the sequence, “Five, Four, Three, Two One. Thunderbirds Are Go!”

Although there had been earlier offerings from the same stable, such as Supercar, Fireball XL5 and Stingray, and others which followed, it was Thunderbirds that gripped my generation and has never really let go. Set in the future, the genre devised by Gerry Anderson focused on the heroic exploits of secret but benevolent organisations operating from remote or hidden bases on land, in the sky or on the moon. Equipped with advanced technology, their missions were to protect civilisation from aggression, accident and sabotage, countering devious, often extra-terrestrial opponents. It was his brother’s service in the RAF that gave Anderson a life-long fascination with flying machines. Thunderbird Field at Glendale, Arizona, where his older brother learned to fly, provided a name for the series.

In his future worlds, planet Earth is generally united under a world president, in contrast to the traumas of the recently passed world war. Each programme featured life-like puppets, filmed in what Anderson dubbed “Supermarionation”. They were tributes to his brother. It was on 27 April 1944 that these future television series were really born. Flight Sergeant Lionel Anderson never got to pilot Stingray or Thunderbird One, or fly an Interceptor from Cloudbase, for during the early hours of that April Thursday, his twin-engined Mosquito was hit by flak on a night intruder raid and crashed near Deelen in Holland. Now he and his navigator, Sergeant Bert Hayward, lie in the corner of a cemetery in Arnhem, “Mourned by his devoted parents and brother Gerald”, as the Commonwealth War Grave headstone reads.

The war traumatised Gerry Anderson, whose Jewish grandparents had fled pogroms on the Polish–Russian frontier. He would complete his own national service in the RAF and experienced two more dramatic flying events. In 1948, he saw a Mosquito — his brother’s aircraft type — crash during an air display, killing many bystanders. Later a Spitfire came in to land without its undercarriage lowered. The helplessness he felt, and need for some divine intervention, such as that provided by the World Aquanaut Security Patrol (Stingray), International Rescue (Thunderbirds), Spectrum (Captain Scarlet) or Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation (UFO), provided more seeds for the future series, where the world was united and fought external foes. In German, the last was screened as Weltraumkommando SHADO, but the concept precisely echoed the UNIT organisation of Doctor Who.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s we were promised robots, space travel, lunar colonies and travel to Mars. Films, television series, science fiction short stories and magazines guaranteed it to the point of entitlement. Airfix plastic model kits, cardboard cut-outs on cereal packets, Matchbox, Corgi and Dinky diecast toys reinforced this expectation, underwritten by the real, manned Mercury missions of 1961–63, Gemini space launches of 1965–66 and Apollo craft of 1968–72. Gerry Anderson’s vision (shared by the American script writers of Star Trek, which debuted exactly a year after Thunderbirds on 8 September 1966) of a world government did not seem absurd to the young minds of 1965. It is partly the innocence of those years which touches us today. I, for one, still feel short-changed.

Being let into the private language of a clandestine organisation felt empowering

Manning various Thunderbirds craft were the Tracy brothers, named after the Mercury Seven astronauts Scott Carpenter, John Glenn, Virgil Grissom, Gordon Cooper and Alan Shepard. With Thunderbirds, however, it was the machines that were the stars of the show. There was one for every conceivable emergency. And the explosions. They were the handiwork of Derek Meddings, who would later work on the James Bond and Superman franchises. One of the story writers was the prolific Dennis Spooner, also responsible for Stingray, UFO and later Dr Who, Department S and Bergerac story lines. Anderson’s art director and chief model maker was former wartime RAF fitter Reg Hill, who knew his way around any airframe blindfold and had provided sound effects for The Dam Busters film of 1955.

Cementing each episode together were the vibrant scores of musician Bary Gray, who after serving in the RAF during World War Two had composed for Anderson since 1956. His music for each creation was a reflection of popular melodies of the day, progressing from the strident brass of the Thunderbirds march, via Samba and Bossa Nova Jazz, to the surreal numbers enabled by Hammond organ and ondes Martenot — an instrument that created the oscillating, wavering sounds found in many an episode. Words were just as important. For young minds, being let into the private language of a clandestine organisation felt empowering. My playground was awash with knowing whispers of sonic screwdrivers (Doctor Who), P.W.O.R. (“Proceeding With Orders Received”, from Stingray), F.A.B. (Thunderbirds) and S.I.G. (“Spectrum is Green”, Captain Scarlet).

Why did these programmes linger in popular imagination? Each friendly headquarters was disguised or concealed, a theme common to all Anderson dramas, which allowed viewers access to the excitement of a parallel universe. There were nail-biting plots and great machinery with futuristic names like Fireflash, Sunprobe and Zero-X. Good leaders — Commander Shore (Stingray), Jeff Tracy (Thunderbirds), Colonels White (Scarlet) and Straker (UFO) — ensured their teams always won. In each story, the heroes (Dr Who and the Anderson gang) triumphed using their initiative. All provided healthy role models in a binary world of good versus evil. As such, these series encapsulated the very best of British television production in the 1960s, slotting together many genres like award-winning jigsaw puzzles.

Promoted in Radio and TV Times, other children’s television series have come and gone, but the originality, music and scripts of Blue Peter, Dr Who and Thunderbirds generated generations of fans. They were sustained by a whole sub-industry of marketing spin-offs, which constantly reinvented each series. Anderson’s son Jamie keeps his father’s torch alight very effectively on social media and streaming services, and it was a delight to share my memories in a recent podcast with him. Above all, these autumnal shows are remembrances of the long shadow of the Second World War reaching down to our own times.

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