Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Mistress of puppets

Most Cult TV fans probably only know Roberta Leigh as a footnote to the career of Gerry Anderson. It was Leigh, an author of children’s books, who came to Anderson’s fledgling production company with her character Twizzle, a meeting that resulted in Anderson producing his first puppet series, The Adventures of Twizzle, in 1957. Thus launches the narrative of Anderson as the creator of Supermarionation and powerhouse of 1960’s British sci-fi television. But if one doesn’t take that detour, and instead follows Leigh along her own path, there is a lot to be found that is surprising, noteworthy and pretty delightful.

First off, one would find that Roberta Leigh was just one of several pseudonyms adopted by a woman born Janey Scott, who later, by marriage, became Janey Scott Lewin. This multiplicity of identities is just one telltale indication of Leigh’s restless, albeit resolutely commercial, creative spirit, the other being her work. Because Leigh was not only a children’s book author, but also a prolific author of romance novels, all written under a variety of names (Rachel Lindsay, Rozella Lake, even Janey Scott) and published by such industry mainstays as Harlequin. Alongside this and her work in television, she also found time to become an accomplished painter.

Leigh and Gerry Anderson collaborated on one more series, Torchy, the Battery Boy, before parting ways. Also parting ways around the same time were Anderson and his production partner, cinematographer Arthur Provis. Provis teamed up with Leigh and, under the banner Wonderama Productions, the two began making puppet series of their own. The first of these, Sarah & Hoppity, was moppet-friendly material in the same vein as Twizzle and Torchy and, like those shows, was based on a series of books written by Leigh. At the same time, with shows like Supercar and Fireball XL5, Gerry Anderson had made the leap to juvenile sci-fi with his puppet productions. Leigh soon followed suit with Space Patrol, a series that lasted 39 episodes, from 1963 to 1964, and was broadcast in multiple countries.

Given their proximity, it’s difficult to argue that Space Patrol was not influenced by Fireball XL5, though the dependence of both on so many classic 1960s space opera tropes makes tracing specific instances of that influence almost impossible. Still, it’s no stretch to say that Leigh’s series was by far the more innovative of the two. For starters, there is the titular Space Patrol’s flagship craft; bored with the unvaryingly vertical and (my word) phallic rocket ships of traditional sci-fi (Fireball XL5’s titular craft being a perfect example), Leigh created the Galasphere, a gyroscope-like vehicle that flits through space with hummingbird like movements. The skipper of the Galasphere represents a further departure; in contrast to Fireball’s square jawed Steve Zodiac, Captain Larry Dart sports a van dyke and shoulder length hair that makes him appear at once bohemian and like a puppet throwback to Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood.

Then there is Space Patrol’s electronic soundtrack, which was composed by Leigh herself using an assortment of machines purchased at the local electronics shop. While every bit as pioneering as the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s also electronically produced theme to Doctor Who, Leigh’s work eschews melody entirely in favor of something more purely industrial, and is at times even reminiscent of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. The effect is indescribably eerie, and all the more so when paired with the naïve aspects of the series, which, after all, is essentially a children’s puppet show about spacemen.

It should also be noted that Space Patrol is refreshingly light on the wanton ray gun blasting and looming cold war xenophobia of other juvenile space operas of the period, and instead whiffs of Kennedy era optimism toward cooperation across borders. In the intro, it is stressed that the Space Patrol are “guardians of peace” and it is not unusual to see its interplanetary members (the Patrol is made up of Martians, Venusians and Earthlings) reach out to the aliens they encounter in a spirit of curiosity and friendship. In one episode, when the patrol thwarts the latest invasion plot by their recurring nemesis, the Neptunians, they follow it up with an invitation for an exchange of knowledge and entry into the planetary alliance, which the Neptunians happily accept. The pilot episode features the Galasphere crew -- Dart, androgynous Venusian Slim, and Martian/dispenser of all food jokes Husky – protecting the wildlife of Jupiter from poachers.

Unfortunately, another one of the things that sets Space Patrol apart is the pitiful amount of capital that ITV allotted for its funding. The result is a production considerably less slick than those of Gerry Anderson, a sort of not-so-Supermarionation. The puppets are cruder looking, many of them sporting painted on eyes rather than the rolling and blinking models seen on Steve Zodiac and crew. This contributes both to the puppets naïve charm and also to that creepy haunted doll quality that, when combined with Leigh’s alien score and the murky black and white in which most of the surviving episodes are found, makes watching Space Patrol a dreamily surreal experience. Likewise, Space Patrol’s miniature sets are a cacophony of visible seams, brush strokes and the occasional oversized finger print, yet the art department still managed to build a diminutively massive futuristic city model that recalls a tabletop version of Metropolis.

Adding to the rickety nature of things is the fact that Leigh, unlike Anderson, was not afraid to show her puppets walking. I feel she should be commended for this, although the spastic capering that resulted goes some way toward proving Anderson’s point. It’s such that, a few episodes in, you can’t help but root for these odd, shaky limbed little people as they negotiate the baroque perils of walking up stairs, getting up from a chair, or entering a doorway from one room into the other.

In all seriousness, though, as a Supermarionation fan who long viewed Space Patrol as an off-brand, and inferior, version of Fireball XL5, I must confess to developing a real fondness for it. While one would expect from a knockoff a certain generic quality, Space Patrol has all over it the fingerprints of a quirky creative sensibility; one which I can only imagine belongs to Roberta Leigh. It also, like the best B movies, has all the enthusiasm and energy that comes when a group of people, upon surveying their woefully inadequate resources, decides to just go for it and give it their scrappy best.

Leigh’s planned follow up to Space Patrol, 1964’s Paul Starr, lacks much of the former’s high mindedness. Space agent Paul Starr’s sidekick, Lightning, is an egregious Asian stereotype and, at the end of the pilot episode, the duo gleefully nukes the bad guy’s compound, not sparing us a shot of the doomed villain puppet at its control panel, toppling pathetically under a hail of smoke and debris. That unsold pilot episode is as far as the series went, but it’s a doozy. Filmed in flush full color -- presumably to compete with its contemporary, Stingray, which was Gerry Anderson’s first color production -- the series gives us much of the spirited cheap-jackery of its predecessor, but this time in dazzling primary hues. Gone are many of Leigh’s innovative touches (Starr’s amphibious space ship allows her to further cop some of Stingray’s mojo), but compensating is an almost manic energy level. Of special note are the voice of Paul Starr, which is provided by a pre-UFO Ed Bishop, and the jaunty theme song, which was again composed by Leigh herself.

Following the failure of Paul Starr, Leigh and Provis’s puppet series returned to toddler territory with 1966’s odd Wonder Boy and Tiger, a thirteen part series of fifteen minute episodes co-produced by the Esso oil company, and the same year’s Send For Dithers. Following the adventures of a boy and his clairvoyant cat who travel around on a flying carpet helping people, Wonder Boy and Tiger employed the same core team -- cinematographer Provis, director Frank Goulding, and Leigh as producer -- who worked on all of Leigh’s puppet productions, and to whom she referred as her filmmaking “family”. The characters of Wonder Boy and Tiger also appeared in a comic strip in Wonder comics, which was edited by Leigh and distributed exclusively in Esso stations. Send For Dithers, which concerned a bumbling handyman whose best friend is a penguin, was similarly bathed in whimsy.

In 1967, Roberta Leigh -- who, by all available accounts, had an amicable split with Gerry Anderson -- finally got the jump on him by being the first to move into production on a live action science fiction series. Unfortunately, few people know this, because the result, a half hour pilot for The Solarnauts, remains unsold to this day. Of all of Leigh’s unsold pilots that are today available for our enjoyment, The Solarnauts is the gem. It’s pure 1960s pulp space opera, a time capsule that takes us back to those rarified days before audience expectations were raised by Kubrick, in terms of thinkyness, and Lucas, in terms of spectacle. Ray guns blast away, bald headed alien fiends cackle menacingly, and Martine Beswick shows up as a sexy space lady in a form fitting silver bodysuit. It’s like an issue of Planet comics come to life, with a hint of Margheriti’s Gamma One quadrilogy thrown in for an added dash of Euro-style. Added enjoyment can be found in spotting the household elements hidden within the thrifty set design; overturned ice cube trays make for viable control panel components, as does acoustical foam serve as the upholstery of the future. Dammit, why wasn’t this series made?!

With the recent anniversary of Doctor Who, attention has deservedly been focused on original Who producer Verity Lambert, and on her pioneering role as, not just a female producer in a male dominated medium, but a female producer of science fiction, a suspect genre, in a male dominated medium. I don’t think it’s disrespectful to Lambert to point out that Roberta Leigh, albeit on a smaller scale, was inhabiting the same role at virtually the same time. Leigh’s story, of course, played out to a much smaller array of eyes, and thus today is less likely to be celebrated. That, however, doesn’t mean that those of us who do know of her can’t have a small scale, YouTube abetted celebration of our own.

Watch Space Patrol on YouTube.

Watch the Paul Starr pilot on YouTube.

Watch Wonder Boy and Tiger on YouTube

Watch the Solarnauts pilot on YouTube


Mr. Cavin said...

Fantastic write up! Now I'm stuck watching twenty hours of television on YouTube. Again. Should I be embarrassed by giggling my way through the Uranus episode? "Take your positions boys, we're nearly there. See if you can get Uranus on the video screen, Husky."

Todd said...

Not at all. There is not a single reference to Uranus in that entire episode that is not funny. There was one about "lifeforms on Uranus" that practically killed me.

Mr. Cavin said...

"What's cool for a Venusian is hot for a Martian"

Todd said...

It's science.

Mr. Cavin said...

Not to beat a dead horse, but I happened to be cruising through Google images, minding my own business, when I discovered this page, with scans from a 1966 TV Comics Annual featuring two Space Patrolshorts. Without the production constraints of television, the ideas can veer off into even more surreal absurdity, demonstrated in the plot of the first story here (and the cool designs in the second). I hope there's more where this came from.

Even if second-string comic knockoffs of cool TV shows aren't really your thing, I though the link was worth leaving here for the lurid color photo spreads of the Galasphere crew. So exotic!

Todd said...

Very cool. Thanks for sharing those, Mr. Cavin. Reminds me a lot of the Thunderbirds comics that used to appear in TV21 mag.