THE SKY’S THE THE LIMIT

This article was originally published in FAB 69, July 2011.

 

Back in 2006’s FAB Anniversary Extra Chris Bentley took a look back at the club’s first decade. Long-promised, now seems the right time to continue that look back at our shared history so Nick Williams takes us back to the Nineties…

I just don’t know how biographers do it. Recounting stories from decades ago with a degree of accuracy that ensures no-one’s going to accuse you of getting it wrong. I suppose it’s easier when you remember that, for most of those stories, there are only a handful of people involved each time, so the chance of people chanting “Wrong!” on your doorstep is minimised. It’s a bit different writing the history of a club that’s had around 10,000 members through its doors. Members who avidly check data and devour facts…

Daunted, it is with this in mind that I set down some months ago to write the second part of the club’s history for FAB. You know what they say about the Sixties – if you can remember it then you weren’t there? I wish I could blame psychotropic drugs for my hazy memory of the Nineties but the fact is that so much happened it all merges into a big mass of ‘stuff’. Yes I was there – I was the club secretary – and wading through sets of committee minutes, photos, letters, convention books and FAB magazines has brought back many good memories, but I’ve still needed to call on a few people who were there with me at the time to help fill in the gaps. Nonetheless, I’m sure there will still be gaps, so feel free to write in to FAB Mail with the stories and things that you remember.

As you’ll remember, 1991 was Thunderbirds’ year, with a BBC broadcast and loads of accompanying merchandising and publicity having the knock-on effect of raising the profile of the club. The Thunderbirds Comic sold 90,000 copies in the first four days, Sylvia Anderson published her biography Yes M’Lady and Gerry Anderson had a new series – G Force – in production. It all felt rather like riding the crest of a wave, although the committee suddenly hit the beach and tumbled off our metaphorical surfboard when we realised that our bank balance was far from healthy. There was just about enough for a club membership, a can of Fresca and a packet of crisps. We knew we had to speculate to accumulate and believed that a ‘new’ Fanderson would encourage more members to join and swell our coffers. That September we re-launched the club with a new magazine, FAB, and an exclusive set of glossy postcards replaced the notorious Variations cassette.

 

FAB is fab!

We started 1992 buoyed up by the knowledge that a whopping 76% of members chose to renew their membership, compared to an average of 54% for Fanderson News. This was great news but we wanted members to renew their membership more quickly than before, so that mailings would be simpler and we’d have to carry smaller stocks of back issues. I thought that adding a ‘renew by’ date onto renewal forms would give members an idea of when to send us their cheque. It worked – members got the very latest magazine each mailing, rather than receiving a package full of back issues if they were very late. We also decided to save our tongues some serious overwork by having the UK packages franked by Royal Mail, meaning we no longer had to lick and stick thousands of fiddly stamps. Yuk!

Glenn Dooley returned from a short absence to see the fledgling Fanderson Sales operation progress from selling convention leftovers to producing high quality merchandise items such as stationery based on our favourite programmes. We even started talking about releasing the Century 21 mini-albums on CD.

Our total membership was racing towards 1700 but we noticed that many of these were children, something that Fanderson had never been set up for. This demographic change, and a complaint about the words “bloody” and “boob” in FAB 4, prompted us to seriously consider an offshoot specifically for children – and so Fanderson Junior was born. With Glenn back on Sales Stephen Brown was free to look after Junior and we were thrilled to get seven members in the first week. We had looked at other fan clubs designed for kids to get an idea what the package should include, and how much parents were prepared to pay. For their £5 our budding Troys and Atlantas received a colouring book, a special club badge, a letter from Jeff Tracy, three issues of Tracy Island News and a personalised birthday card from the extended Tracy family.

We didn’t forget the big kids either. We decided to be a little playful and started issuing membership cards emblazoned with ‘IR Agent’, ‘Eagle Pilot’ etc. Desert Island Anderson started in FAB, giving members the chance to state the episodes they’d just have to have if stranded on a desert island, shortly followed at one member’s suggestion by the Allington Bridge lists of things they’d happily discard to reduce weight and get themselves across said structure! This sense of playfulness would pervade the magazine over the next few years in a variety of guises. Probably most notable was the discovery of the UFO:1999 pilot script ‘No More Summers’, reported in FAB 4 that April…

 

Project Pox

By 1992 the UK was truly gripped by Anderson-mania. Stingray joined Thunderbirds on the BBC, Gerry embarked on a UK-wide tour, club members appeared on mainstream television entertainment shows Noel’s Telly Addicts and You Bet! and more Anderson productions were released on VHS video. For our part we had the audacity to stage three conventions that year. FAB1 was organised to accompany Dave Finchett’s fantastic exhibition at Wolverhampton Civic Hall and was a truly innovative affair with ideas like staging interviews as The Ned Cook Show. 

Preparation for PsyCon hadn’t been plain sailing but that October we celebrated Space:1999 in style at Sacha’s Hotel in Manchester with guests including a rare appearance by Reg Hill. But it had been at the Bradford Playhouse and Film Theatre in May when I realised just how special this groups of people really was. We were all enjoying probably the only convention built around a single guest who couldn’t actually attend – Project Straker celebrated Ed Bishop’s work and, boy, did we celebrate. All except Chris Bentley who (as co-chair of the event was rather important) suddenly came down with chicken pox on the Saturday afternoon and spent the rest of the weekend under the doctor. We rallied round to support co-chair Jackie Dear and for many of us it remains one of the best-remembered events of that era.

Our membership peaked at 2130 that December. Fanderson Junior had 762 members and the package was refreshed for its second year with a new birthday card and an activity book to replace the colouring book. Jackie took over running the Junior operation and Pam Brown came on board as editor of Tracy Island News. Another new face was Mel Rowlands who joined us to look after the Pen Pals, whilst Ralph Titterton stepped away from producing new merchandise to handle publicity for the club, which was fast becoming a full-time operation. 

The entire Sales operation moved back to become Stephen Brown’s domain as he not only took the day-to-day back from Glenn (permanently this time) but added the responsibility for new merchandise and quickly arranged binders for us to keep our treasured FAB magazines in – probably one of our best ever selling items. He also worked closely with Tim Mallett and Glenn Pearce at Kindred Productions to oversee the release of The UFO Documentary, the follow-up to our AlphaCon The Video programme. Clips from the series were merged with interviews taped during Fanderson 91 and other material (including an interview with Vladek Sheybal conducted shortly before he died) to present a retrospective of UFO which reviewers acclaimed as being better than similar material produced by the BBC! 

Ian Boyce’s brainchild, The UFO Design File, took pride of place as our exclusive membership item and started a short series of very popular books containing pre-production designs. As our confidence grew so did our playfulness although, having learnt nothing from the previous year, one member misunderstood and complained about three spoof personal ads in FAB 9 (yep, mailed in time for April 1st). It was the only complaint and we knew from correspondence that we were on the right track so we carried on with the Your Fabby Stars spoof horoscopes. FAB wasn’t turned wholesale over to becoming a MAD-alike, and members’ serious questions were answered by the BIG RAT computer. It all looked great until the committee finally realised the true extent of our financial mess. It had taken us a while to discover that our balance was four figures in the red, and I was asked to add treasury to my secretarial duties. 

Elsewhere, the Thunderbirds juggernaut continued to trounce everything in its path and generated Blue Peter’s most requested fact-sheet – how to build your own Tracy Island from household rubbish if your parents had been too tight to buy one (ahem, I mean unable to find one in the shops). The Tracys’ adventures were dubbed into Hindu for language lessons on BBC2 and Power Themes 90 brought less prominent Anderson productions like UFO and Space:1999 to the public. We laughed as the publicity machine for Captain Scarlet got into high gear by creating complaints of racism (‘cos the baddie was called Black, dontcha know, even though he was white) which hit the headlines everywhere. At auctions mere mortals watched, powerless, as those with deep pockets snapped up our shared heritage of Barry Gray’s music at Bonhams and puppets at Christie’s. Probably most exciting of all we watched as Space Police (as it was still known then) moved into Pinewood Studios – our first chance in a decade to follow the making of an Anderson production.

We continued to get together at conventions and took over the Dean Park Hotel in Watford, seen in UFO’s Confetti Check A-OK, for our Space City convention. We also worked together with other ITC clubs to stage Action 93 in Shepperton, preserved in an episode of ITV’s Movies Movies Movies including a clip of me slurring something totally incomprehensible during the evening party. The one thing I do remember from that convention is almost messing my pants. I was marking quiz papers in a nice quiet area with Chris Bentley when the lift doors opened and a Cyberman stepped out! Yes, a little alcohol had been consumed and looking back I should have expected that, it being a convention and all, there would be some costumes around but I was so engrossed in marking the quiz that I was shocked to see an armed alien coming towards me. Oh, how we laughed (later) and in quiet moments certain people are keen to remind me of it even to this day.

 

Fanderson screens world premieres!

Our convention innovations continued into 1994 as we returned to the Dean Park Hotel for Danger Zone, but this time our first three-day convention. Each day focussed on either Thunderbirds, UFO or Space:1999 as they were all enjoying anniversaries that year, but we were also privileged to screen the world premieres of Space Precinct episodes that had just been completed. Not only that but delegates were enthralled by the amount of props, costumes and models from the series in our exhibition, and the production crew members who joined us to talk about working on the programme. 

Later in the year we staged our first (and only) Fanderson Junior event. Margate was our host for FAB2 which mixed activities for the kids amongst more traditional convention fare but adults were only admitted if they brought a child with them. It was a real treat to see the look of wonderment on their faces as Christine Glanville demonstrated how to make a puppet come to life. In my little area I was bitterly disappointed that, having never seen the original show and therefore knowing nothing of the required deviousness, the kids simply didn’t understand my Runaround game and treated it as a straight quiz, just running to the correct answer each time. I bet the adults would have got it, had they been allowed to play. 

For many years Chris Bentley and I had enjoyed the annual Avengers Dead Man’s Treasure Hunt and so were convinced that a similar event based on The Secret Service would be popular. We thought that there would be loads of members keen to take a location tour and complete a devious car rally. Unfortunately, we were in a minority so Operation Priest was canned before we invested too much time or money in it.

In the States GTV, the American backers of Space Precinct, were running a huge publicity campaign for the series and we were chuffed when they ordered thousands of copies of FABs 17 and 18 as part of a package sent to broadcasters. These huge orders meant a much-needed injection of cash at just the right time and before long we were comfortably back in the black. The commitments required by his degree course meant that Ian Fryer handed over editorship of FAB to Chris and moved to manage the less intensive Tracy Island News. Sadly his tenure wasn’t to last very long as, with dwindling membership numbers, we decided to close the Junior operation in September. 

In the wider world we saw how the Anderson programmes might be ‘refreshed’ for new audiences, to differing degrees of success. A new process in the USA enabled black and white footage to be ‘colorized’ and short clips of Fireball XL5 that had undergone the treatment gave an exciting hint at what might be possible. Meanwhile, elsewhere on the continent ITC America decided the best way to make Thunderbirds acceptable to modern audiences was to cut each original episode down to about 20 minutes by speeding up the effects and cutting much of the characterisation. Fans were horrified at Thunderbirds Are Go! but worse would come the following year as Turbo-Charged Thunderbirds was unleashed on an unsuspecting public. I can’t bring myself to write about this travesty and such was the contempt for the original series and the people who made it that when Gerry Anderson insisted his name be removed from the credits it was clumsily airbrushed out. 

 

Musical rescue

Against all this hideousness probably the most joyful news, and that  which has continued to give joy ever since, was Ralph Titterton’s rescue of Barry Gray’s original master recordings. They were in a sorry state in a damp lock-up but careful restoration over the next few years would enable the club and Silva Screen to release soundtrack CDs. An unexpected bonus was the discovery of priceless colour home movie footage Gray filmed on the set of Four Feather Falls. 

Nowadays nearly everyone’s got a mobile phone but here in the UK, before SIM cards found their way into everyone’s bag or pocket, BT Phonecards were the way to call for help when in a scrape. A series of cards featuring International Rescue became extremely popular both to users and collectors, and are now a dim and distant memory to most of us. Just as unbelievable as a world without mobile phones, we only started hearing about the internet in the mid-90s and the club content was hosted then by member Austin Tate. It would be another couple of years before our own club website would be launched and become a critical way of getting news and information out to the world. 1995 was also the year when I set about transferring the membership database from an old DOS-based machine to one using Windows. The new functionality enabled us to include a number of improvements to the mailing labels, such as adding information about when your membership would expire, a return address so we didn’t have to stamp the back of every envelope and airmail/printed papers icons which saved time at mailings. Stephen Brown’s home would soon be overtaken by little polystyrene boxes as we embarked on anniversary mugs for Thunderbirds’ 30th and UFO’s 25th, and over the next few years the range would encompass the majority of Anderson series and there would be a special edition for the Fanderson Gold convention in 1996.

Lew Grade returned triumphantly as lifetime chairman of ITC, now owned by PolyGram, with plans to remake classic shows such as Thunderbirds, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and The Prisoner. Of course, we would all have to wait a long time for any of these to bear fruit, and many would report that the fruit had gone bad by the time it was finally tasted. Although this new company controlled the sale and development of our beloved programmes it really meant very little change for us as many of the same personnel were in place at PolyGram as had been at ITC. Elsewhere, our relationship with the Space Precinct team went from strength to strength as we were able to offer a competition prize in FAB for four lucky winners to visit the production at Pinewood. Many of us remembered the bitter disappointment of not winning the Look-in Space:1999 competition and so our competition was made deliberately difficult to ensure only the most deserving fans would go. For Andrew, Colin, Nick and Stephen this was surely the prize of a lifetime. 

One of the things that’s struck me over the years is the diversity of club members – from what they know, how they act, to what they believe. In FAB Mail Patrick Guiliano started a short series of frankly incomprehensible letters that seemed to suggest some divine guidance behind the Anderson productions. Even weirder were the letters from various companies, educational and industrial bodies to ‘Sylvia’ via the PO Box. From what we could understand ‘Sylvia’ had written to all these places about black holes and they were very kindly replying, but we couldn’t understand what ‘Sylvia’ hoped to achieve as the replies all went into a secure PO Box that only we had access to. Nonetheless the letters would continue for a few years before petering out. 

Being based in the UK where it was easy to get a cheque drawn up in virtually any currency, we’d blindly only ever accepted payment in Sterling. But it soon became apparent that not only was it difficult to get a Sterling draft in the States but expensive too, so in 1996 we started up a facility for US members to deposit a large value cheque with us (thus minimising the bank charges) and hold the funds in a credit account to be drawn upon when the membership renewal came up or when ordering merchandise. This would be our first tentative step towards making the club more accessible to overseas members, and would continue over the coming years as we looked to make things even easier. We also wanted to encourage some of our lapsed members to rejoin the club so embarked on mailing all 1063 of them who hadn’t renewed since FAB magazine started. The response rate was so good that the mailing soon paid for itself and we would repeat the exercise in 2000. 

After five years of relentless activity we were all getting a little tired after and so focussed our efforts into a single (albeit three-day) convention. Fanderson Gold took place in August 1996 in Weybridge. The highlight this time was Glo Thorogood’s Hood – those eyes, those hypnotic staring eyes!

As production on Space Precinct closed Gerry’s new series, Lavender Castle, went into production at Cosgrove Hall in Manchester. The team were undoubtedly buoyed up by Stingray being chosen to take pride of place on a Royal Mail postage stamp in a series about children’s television, alongside such luminaries as Muffin The Mule, The Clangers and Sooty.

 

Saved from infinity

I have to admit that I’ve never really ‘got’ fan fiction. All that I’ve tried to read is a little amateurish and tends to divert from what I know from the series. Various stories had circulated over the years via ‘round robin’ groups but feedback from members indicated that we should do more and so we gave writers a high-profile outlet with the launch of Century 21 Fiction in 1991. Sales of the books were never high and after three expensive volumes we’d moved to a print-on-demand option with the help of club member Ray Pluck. Although this was a much more cost-effective and successful way of presenting original stories, unfortunately, it was still not sustainable and so Century 21 Fiction closed its doors in 1997. Of course, now it’s easy to see why with the rise of the internet the ability to share your story, or find a story about a show or character you liked, had never been easier or cheaper and so fan fiction continues to thrive online. 

As news reached us that Derek Wadsworth had produced a promotional CD of his Space:1999 music we were preparing the first of what would become a series of soundtrack CDs using those rescued Barry Gray master recordings. The Supercar and Fireball XL5 soundtrack was surely the best response to anyone unsure of the value of fan clubs and a second example of our archive/restoration role would come as the sole known complete example of The Day After Tomorrow was rescued just before the master tape was wiped! Quick thinking by Andrew Frampton meant that the club was able to release the programme on VHS, for the first time ever in its uncut form. 

For the second year running we mounted a display for the Airbourne 98 event at the Martello Tower in Eastbourne, this time complete with specially-filmed introductions by the Captain Blue and Father Unwin puppets, and then another display at the Gillingham Movie Fair in Kent. Having lurked in the shadows for a while these events showed that Martin Gainsford had not only the contacts but also the organisational skills to mount terrific displays, and we were thrilled when he joined the committee as exhibitions co-ordinator. With him on board we made plans for another big convention, returning once again to the Dean Park Hotel for a multi-series extravaganza – Expo 2098. We would showcase the new Lavender Castle series (previewed in an exclusive members-only event at the Elveden Forest Center Parcs) and all that we’d recently managed to rescue of the Space Precinct props, models, costumes etc from the ‘storage facility’ in Llanelli. In actual fact, it was a leaky lock up, so insecure that we were heartbroken to see vandals had been using the place as a play area with empty beer cans and ciggie butts in the full-size police cruiser, but I digress. Anyway, back to Expo 2098 and we were perplexed as to why the registrations weren’t coming in. All became clear when we found out that instead of holding all the bedrooms for us as agreed the hotel were offering weekend breaks at a cheaper rate than we were offering delegates. Finding that the hotel was filling up fast members were choosing not to register for the convention. With few confirmed delegates we had no option but to cancel the convention. We complained to the hotel but they ignored us, so we took the unprecedented action of taking them to court. Their attitude in the Romford County Court chambers was very gung-ho and they obviously expected us to be a walkover. The court agreed that we had a valid case, although we had stupidly not got some details in writing, and determined a full court hearing. I returned home to a phone call offering an out-of-court settlement that covered our outlay on the convention to that point. It was a hairy few months, but it taught us some valuable lessons in maintaining a close relationship with the venue.

There was a minor committee reshuffle as pen pals and local groups moved to listings in FAB magazine and Mel took on the role of guest liaison from Ian Boyce. Then disaster struck – Stephen Brown had a heart attack whilst on holiday in Scotland. Showing true dedication, not only to Steve but also to the club, his partner Lynn Simpson seamlessly kept the Sales operation going whilst he recovered and the successful merchandising double-act continues to this day.

 

Bugs and Breakaway

As the Millennium Bug threatened to bring the world to its knees Fanderson had a bumper year. There was just so much going on in 1999! Our soundtrack CDs officially became a series as a second set – Space:1999 Year One – was released to an eager public. This, more than anything else, attracted hundreds of new members from the USA. We’d started our own series of original mini-albums with Ed Bishop narrating the all-new The Manhunt For Captain Black, and made plans for the first ever The Secret Service mini-album with Stanley Unwin agreeing to narrate using a script based on the ‘how it all began’ strip from Countdown comic. Somehow news of our endeavours reached the British Library and we were honoured when they asked if they could add our soundtrack CDs, Manhunt mini-album, The Day After Tomorrow, and UFO and Space:1999 Documentaries to their collection.

The ambitious Carlton Television bought the ITC catalogue from PolyGram and we were pleased to meet with Managing Director Rupert Dilnott-Cooper who assured us that, having been born out of Central Television (itself born out of ATV) the Anderson productions were finally back ‘home’ at Carlton. They understood the value of the properties they now owned. Not only did they plan to start releasing the Anderson catalogue on the new DVD home video format but there was also talk of a new series of Captain Scarlet. Rupert was also at pains to stress that he understood the importance of the club and that the support we had enjoyed from both ITC and PolyGram would continue. 

We registered the fanderson.org.uk domain name together with an e-mail address, making it much easier to keep in touch with members and vice versa. We continued to get good old-fashioned letters, though, and it appeared that ‘Sylvia’ had been replaced by ‘Jane Vespers’, still writing bizarre letters and giving the PO Box as the return address. Less amusing and more concerning was Richard Farrell’s letter in FAB 37 that accused Chris Bentley of having a “condescending and whingeing tone”. It was the first real criticism since the club had relaunched nine years earlier and is still the only case I can remember of a member seriously expressing dissatisfaction with what we were doing. Obviously, we took many of Richard’s points on board though, as a lone voice amongst hundreds of satisfied members, this didn’t indicate a wholesale overhaul was needed.

That September I travelled with a small group of members on Virgin Atlantic’s 747 ‘Lady Penelope’ (honestly, we didn’t plan it!) to Los Angeles for the Breakaway convention. We were amazed by the main set (a replica wall from Moonbase Alpha) and enjoyed learning the ways that US conventions differed to our own. It was a great chance to make new friends and understanding just how difficult it was for US fans to raise funds in anything other than the almighty dollar made me even more determined to get the facility to take debit/credit cards. For many the most memorable part was the closing ceremony as some of us had been involved in preparing a little surprise. Chris Paulsen gave his thank-yous on stage when the lights dramatically failed and a crackling noise accompanied static on the big screen. Sandra Benes broke through the static to give us her Message From Moonbase Alpha and the audience sat spellbound for eight minutes. Afterwards the room erupted and the joy on faces made all the hard work in the month beforehand worthwhile, as a small group of us had made Tim Mallett’s vision a reality. 

The short film sparked all kinds of rumours of a new Space:1999 series and everything was looking good for the new Millenium…