Bob Bell (1939-2009)

The death of Bob Bell brings to an end the life and career of a man who was artist, craftsman and war hero. When Bob first joined AP Films in 1958 as Assistant Art Director to Reg Hill (or Reginald E Hill as he was then billed) to work on Torchy The Battery Boy, he was a matte artist at Pinewood Studios. Previously though, he’d given his country heroic war service in North Africa, almost starving when surrounded by the Germans in the siege of Tobruk, then after World War 2 going to Malta to spy on suspected escaped Nazis,

Bob’s work with Reg Hill began helping to dress the puppet sets and finding the materials to make them with. He was taken on at the same time as Derek Meddings, who joined the company as an Art Assistant (part time) to help paint the sets. Like the rest of the AP Films team Bob didn’t work on the second season of Torchy (which was made by Associated British-Pathe) as Gerry Anderson and his team had moved on to their first production independent of Roberta Leigh, Four Feather Falls.

Although he only receives screen credit for the final twenty episodes, Bob worked on the series from the start as Assistant Art Director under Reg Hill. As the series became more elaborate he was given increased responsibility, designing and building props as well as more mundane activities such as cutting twigs from the trees at Burnham Beeches to help dress sets with. For this final activity he was arrested by the police and had to be rescued by ATV’s legal department.

By the time Supercar went into its second season Bob was promoted to Art Director on the series. With Reg Hill now credited as Art Supervisor, taking more responsibility for model design along with Derek Meddings, He now looked after the puppet sets, taking sole responsibility for them from Fireball XL5 onwards.

Like everyone on the AP Films’ staff, Bob took his work very seriously, treating the task as if he were working on a live action production, as was revealed in Gerry Anderson’s authorised biography, What Made Thunderbirds Go: “It taught me how to read a script and interpret a set. You have to learn to appreciate the kind of character it is that you are going to place in a room that you are designing. It has to be designed accordingly and all the props have Io relate to the man’s or woman’s character.”

It’s not surprising that he moved Io live action production with ease, his an direction on Doppelgänger still proving highly impressive forty years later. Although when making Fireball XL5 he was still collecting toothpaste tube tops from the crew to use on consoles it wasn’t long until he was being sent, along with Derek Meddings, to America to be steeped in American design as part of the shows’ all-important push to be accepted in the States. With his biggest budget yet, Thunderbirdsenabled Bob to spread his wings and really go to town on research and design, especially on sets such as the Tracy family lounge and the drawing room of Lady Penelope’s Creighton-Ward Mansion.

He was also able to inject a sense of sixties fashion into his work, with stunning sets including the fabulous Paradise Peaks hotel in The Cham-Cham.

When Thunderbirds grew to be a phenomenal success there was suddenly too much work for one Art Director, so for the series’ second season and the film Thunderbirds Are Go he was billed as Supervising Art director, with his Assistant Grenville Nott becoming Art Director. This arrangement remained in place for Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons as Bob was simultaneously Art Director on the feature film Thunderbird 6.

Busy on Century 21 ‘s feature film projects, Bob didn’t work on Joe 90 or The Secret Service, with his protégé Keith Wilson co-Art Director with Gren Nott on the former and Art Director on the latter. As previously mentioned, Bob was working on Doppelgänger, proving triumphantly that the principles of set design he first practiced on Fireball XL5 worked just as well in full size on a live action production.

He then worked on Century 21’s next two live action productions, UFO and The Protectors, even co-writing with David Lane the UFO script The Sound Of Silence. Bob proved he was just as comfortable designing Harry Rule’s plush London apartment as he was giving us the futuristic SHADO HQ and Moonbase sets that we saw in such detail in the episode Mindbender. Having demonstrated the ability to produce imaginative concepts of future décor, he was now showing that he could produce sets which didn’t call attention to themselves, but which were true to the story and characters. Bob was working on another project (which unfortunately fell through) when Space:1999 was set up so Keith Wilson got his big break and was given the job of Production Designer (as Art Directors were by now called).

Bob Bell was now established as being at the top of his profession and even in the reduced circumstances the British film and television industry now found itself in, he was in demand: Art directing films such as The Wild Geese (1978). He had also returned to television with his design work on the first season of The New Avengers, whilst a film job as Assistant Art Director on the 1980 film George And Mildred led to another major assignment when its production company Cinema Arts took over Hammer Films. He also worked on the TV series Hammer House Of Horror.

When Gerry Anderson made his long awaited early-1980s comeback with Terrahawks, Bob returned to serve as Associate Producer on both seasons, plus Anderson-Burr’s other productions Dick Spanner and the Space Police pilot film. Before his retirement Bob’s final official project was the 1991 Calling Elvis pop video for Dire Straits, which featured reproductions of the Thunderbirds craft and puppets.

Bob temporarily came out of retirement in 1990 to help out his old friend Cliff Culley, whom he had known since the 1950s, to do matte work on the Clive Barker horror movie Nightbreed. He was billed as Matte Painter, bringing his old-school skills to bear alongside another Anderson name, Dick Spanner‘s Terry Adlam. Bob Bell was a very much loved part of the Anderson production team and our thoughts and condolences go out to his friends and family.

Originally published in FAB 63.