The Enduring Appeal of Thunderbirds

By Martin Dean

F ew children's television series have had the impact and enduring appeal of Thunderbirds. A poster for the 1967 film adaptation goes on sale at Sotheby's Original Film Posters Online sale on 28 August.

Instantly recognisable today from its characteristic marionettes and iconic vehicles, Thunderbirds used a newly created form of automatic marionette animation known as Supermarionation, together with scale models, to create a captivating vision of an adventure-filled, technologically advanced future. Its world of high-speed flying machines, submersibles, spacecraft and secret island bases harnessed the popular narratives and technological developments of the mid-1960s, from the space race and early moon landings to the widespread use of jet-propulsion to the spycraft and espionage themes that abounded in popular culture during the Cold War.

Here was a British-made show that drew on very American-style content and characters, and yet had a particular subtlety and understated British humour, particularly noticeable in Lady Penelope's Cockney driver, Parker (even his name is a pun). In Thunderbirds, the stories revolved not around causing provocation or conflict, but around rescue - the heroes' organisation was called 'International Rescue', and the stories were about putting technology to use in fighting the power-hungry, and saving the innocent. It was a mission that would inspire the creation of a real organisation, the Scottish-based International Rescue Corps, through which volunteers could assist with providing aid in the wake of disasters.

The success of Thunderbirds inspired everything from a full length 1967 film, Thunderbirds Are Go, to toys, games, and myriad spin-off series launched throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Re-edited versions of the original series aired in the USA in the 1990s, and in 2015 a remake of the original series made using CGI was launched. In London in 2018, there's an immersive theatre production launching – Thunderbirds: Beyond the Horizon, where participants can step aboard Thunderbird 4 and take part in their own rescue mission.

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