Desmond Saunders (1926-2018)

The death has been announced of Desmond Saunders, one of the key crew-members of the Supermarionation productions, whose long career in the British film industry encompassed working on every series the Anderson produced from Supercar to The Protectors.

His career was, in some ways, similar to that of Gerry Anderson, both men having worked their way up from the editing rooms, which gave them an encyclopaedic knowledge of the nuts and bolts of filmmaking. By 1952 Saunders was First Assistant Editor on the huge Warner Brothers production The Crimson Pirate, which starred Burt Lancaster and was shot far away from Hollywood in Naples and at Teddington Studios in Middlesex. Here he was working under Jack Harris, one of the very top film editors in British films in the 1950s. Another notable early credit was on Stranger From Venus, a slightly cheeky 1954 attempt to cash in on the success of the science fiction hit The Day The Earth Stood Still. Here Saunders was assisting Peter Hunt, who was editing his first feature film but went on to revolutionise the pacing and visuals of cinema with his work on the first five James Bond films, leading to his direction of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969.

After a period as a Sound Editor at Pinewood, Desmond Saunders began working as a Film Editor in the somewhat less auspicious surroundings of New Elstree Studios (the only film studios to be actually located in the town of Elstree), the home of Edward and Harry Lee Danziger’s miniature production empire. The Danziger brothers hailed from New York, and moved to Britain in 1952, setting up a production facility to make cheap b-pictures and television series. In a four year period from 1958 to 1962 Saunders edited no less than nine of the company’s films, each lasting little more than an hour and made for £17,000 each. On top of this he also edited episodes of two of the company’s TV series, Man From Interpol and The Cheaters.

The factory methods of the Danzigers was ideal preparation for working on filmed television series – future The Avengersproducer Brian Clemens wrote dozens of scripts for the company – and Desmond took like a duck to water to the fast-moving methods of his next employer; AP Films. In 1961 he was taken on by Gerry Anderson to direct episodes of Supercar, joining the existing team of directors David Elliott and Alan Pattillo. Saunders quickly became one of the mainstays of the Supermarionation directing team, staying with the company to helm episodes of Stingray and Thunderbirds.

By 1967 he was so highly thought of that he was given the task of directing The Mysterons, the first episode of Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons. This was a series that represented a huge visual change for the products of the newly renamed Century 21 Productions, and as Supervising Director on the remaining episodes Desmond was one of the main guiding hands in creating and implementing the new style. He served in the same capacity on the following two Century 21 series, Joe 90 and The Secret Service, even co-writing an episode of the former along with Keith Wilson – the bizarre dream story Lone-Handed 90.

Despite the sudden and unexpected cancellation of The Secret Service, Desmond was still seen as a vital part of the Century 21 production team and was credited on the 17 episodes of UFO shot at Borehamwood as Assistant to the Producer. When production restarted at Pinewood his credit was as Post Production Supervisor, bringing all his vast experience as a Director and Editor to bear on what was a complex series to make. UFO was to be the last series to be made by Century 21 Productions, but Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, along with Reg Hill, returned as Group Three Productions in 1971. Finding themselves in the unfamiliar position of producing a contemporary detective series, The Protectors, they once again called upon the services of Desmond Saunders to supervise the post-production process. This was no small feat, as footage shot across Europe and Scandinavia had to be married convincingly to studio material shot at Elstree. Interestingly, Desmond’s car, a yellow MG, can also be seen in two episodes.

This was to be the final series he would make with Gerry Anderson for some years, as by the time the expected third series of The Protectors was cancelled the company’s other series, Space:1999 was fully crewed – the same fate befell long-time Anderson Art Director Bob Bell. Thus Desmond Saunders moved on to other projects with other producers, most notably as an uncredited second Film Editor, working alongside Tom Priestley, son of author JB Priestley, on the mammoth ITC film production Voyage Of The Damned. After seven long years without bringing a new project successfully to the screen, Gerry Anderson made his television comeback in 1983 with Terrahawks. Directing the first two-part episode himself, Anderson called upon his old colleague Desmond to direct three of the earliest episodes. As in the old days of Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons, he was helping to set the style of a series that would largely be directed by others.

Desmond Saunders continued working until the end of the 1980s, His later projects included directing a documentary in 1986 about the production of Jim Henson’s film Labyrinth, editing episodes of the horror anthology series Worlds Beyond and acting as visual consultant on Best Of British, a long-running series of documentaries about the history of British films.

Originally published in FAB 89.