John Read (1920-2006)

Supermarionation cinematographer John Read, who died in April, was one of the founding directors of AP Films. Initially the company’s sole camera operator on The Adventures Of Twizzle and Torchy The Battery Boy, he later became director of photography on all of the company’s film and television productions from Four Feather Falls to Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons – including Stingray, Thunderbirds and the live- action feature film Doppelgänger (1969). He later went on to produce the popular children’s puppet series The Adventures Of Rupert Bear, Here Comes Mumfie, Cloppa Castle and The Munch Bunch for ITC Entertainment.

Born in Chalfont St. Giles, Buckinghamshire, in 1920, Read began his film career making animated commercial films. After RAF service, he worked on training films and documentaries as a producer and scriptwriter for the BBC, and became involved with special effects working with the legendary George Blackwell on such films as Michael Anderson’sThe Dam Busters (1954). As both an artist and photographer with experience of rostrum camera work, he was introduced to Gerry Anderson by Reg Hill and invited to become a partner in Anderson and Arthur Provis’s short-lived commercials company Pentagon Films. With John as camera operator, the four partners made a commercial for Anadin headache tablets and then had their first experience with puppets when they produced a commercial for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes featuring Enid Blyton’s Noddy characters from an earlier ITV children’s series.

After Pentagon folded in 1957, Read joined Anderson, Provis and Hill as a partner in a film and television production venture, AP Films. Read was camera operator on their first television project, Roberta Leigh’s The Adventures Of Twizzle, and then the first series of its successor Torchy The Battery Boy. He also brought his special effects experience to the two productions, wiring up hundreds of sparklers to simulate the rocket engines of Torchy’s cardboard rocket-ship on the latter series. Despite these contributions, Read was not credited for his role on either programme. He only received his first on-screen credit after AP Films had parted company with Robert Leigh: he was special effects supervisor on the first 11 episodes of Four Feather Falls and director of photography thereafter (replacing Provis who left the company during production).

As DP, it was Read’s responsibility to ensure that each frame of film was correctly lit, framed and exposed so that its final appearance would be indistinguishable from the quality of material shot live-action on full-size sets. With sets and characters at a scale one-third life-size, depth of focus was his main headache, requiring him to stop down the exposure and illuminate at a much higher level than would be normally expected.

Read also had a talent for invention. For Four Feather Falls, he created a mobile bridge on which the puppeteers could stand to operate their marionettes on the sets below. However, his most significant innovation was the development of a revolutionary automated lip-sync system which utilised electromagnets (and, seven years later, solenoids) fitted inside the puppets’ fibre-glass heads: once activated, the system provided accurate mouth movement synchronised to pre-recorded dialogue. Refined and improved over the next decade, this system became a feature of each of the subsequent Supermarionation productions.

On the heels of Four Feather Falls, Read was again the director of photography on AP Films’ first live-action project, the B-movie Crossroads To Crime (1960), before returning to the puppet world as DP on 39 episodes of Supercar. When the decision was made to shoot separate episodes simultaneously on APF’s next series, Fireball XL5, principal photography was split between two puppet stages, so Read shared the workload with lan Struthers – Read was cinematographer on 20 of the series’ episodes while Struthers assumed the role on the other 19 instalments.

In 1963, Read made television history as cinematographer on APF’s next production, Stingray, shooting Britain’s first television series to be made entirely in colour (several earlier filmed series had experimented with making a number of episodes in colour prior to Stingray, but not a complete series). Here, his role was director of photography on all 39 episodes with overall responsibility for the camera and lighting crews, but he also doubled as lighting cameraman for one of the pair of puppet stages (20 episodes), coordinating lighting and filtration as separate from the work of the camera operator.

Although Stingray was enormously successful, the series which followed, Thunderbirds, proved to be a much bigger production with the length of a single episode doubled to 50 minutes. Read remained in overall charge as DP but deferred the shot-by-shot responsibilities to the members of the puppet and model stages’ three separate camera and lighting crews. He also engineered the famous ‘rolling road’ apparatus which enabled the model crew to create a convincing background perspective in shots featuring vehicles travelling at speed.

After the first 26 episodes of Thunderbirds had been completed, AP Films changed its name to Century 21 and although Read continued to act as director of photography on Thunderbirds Are Go (1966), a further six episodes of the Thunderbirds TV series, and 32 episodes of Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons, his job title became that of associate producer as a more accurate reflection of his position within the company. For Doppelgänger (1969), Read was once again director of photographer but he subsequently left Century 21 and did not work on the company’s later productions, The Secret Service and UFO.

However, Read continued to produce children’s television series for Lew Grade’s ITC Entertainment. In 1969, he established his own production company, Cinemation, in partnership with Century 21 puppet designer, sculptor and co-ordinator Mary Turner. The new company was based in a converted church hall in Southwark where Read and Turner co-produced their first (and arguably best) commission for ITC, the much-loved and fondly remembered puppet series The Adventures Of Rupert Bear.

Based on the popular newspaper strip created by Mary Tourtel in 1920 for the Daily Express, The Adventures Of Rupert Bear is generally acknowledged to be the definitive screen adaptation of between 1969 and 1974, the series translated Rupert Bear and his Nutwood friends and family into three dimensional form with a cast of beautifully-crafted puppets supervised and directed by Turner, shot against large-scale settings by Read who doubled as the series’ cinematographer. Rupert was also crewed by a number of Read and Turner’s former APF/C21 colleagues including David Elliott, Christine Glanville, Rowena White and John Jelly.

The Adventures Of Rupert Bear was a major success for ITC and generated a highly-successful worldwide franchise. The series’ catchy theme song, written by Ron Roker and Len Beadle (aka Frank Weston) and performed by Jackie Lee, became a UK chart hit reaching number 14 in January 1971 and remained in the singles chart for nearly four months.

When Rupert ended, Read and Turner moved straight on to produce their next ITC puppet series, Here Comes Mumfie, in very much the same style as Rupert. Based on the 1930s children’s books of Katharine Tozer, Mumfie followed the adventures of a little neliphant and his best friend Scarecrow, a talking scarecrow, through 52 episodes between 1975 and 1976.

On the strength of the success of Rupert and Mumfie, Read and Turner devised and created their own series formatCloppa Castle, the misadventures of the residents of a medieval fort who were permanently under siege from angry rebels desperate to get their hands on matriarchal Queen Ethelbruda’s extensive oil reserve es. Once again, all the key Read/Turner elements were apparent in this meticulously produced children’s comedy which spanned 53 episodes between 1978 and 1979.

Further success followed with Cinemation’s final production for ITC, The Munch Bunch, a bizarre series which followed the fortunes of a gang of walking, talking fruit and veg who ran away from a greengrocer’s shop and set up home at the bottom of a garden. Read and Turner produced 52 episodes between 1978 and 1980. They subsequently produced a short puppet series, Tree Top Tales, for Canadian television, and created figures for a Swiss museum of ventriloquism. In 1987, they made the life-size marionettes for Granada Television’s adaptation of Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop.

At the end of the Eighties, Cinemation relocated to the picturesque village of Thames Ditton in Surrey where Read and Turner continued to mechanise and develop limited edition automata for private clients and collectors. In recent years, Read had appeared in the independent documentary Full Boost Vertical – The Supercar Story and also spoke about his work at AP Films and Century 21 for Fanderson’s forthcoming The Supermarionation Story documentary programme.

John Read died on Thursday, 13th April, aged 85. He had been battling cancer for some time but died in hospital as a result of injuries sustained in a car accident. His sad passing will undoubtedly leave a void in the lives of his family, his many close friends and colleagues to whom he will be fondly remembered for his generosity, innovation and expertise.

With special thanks to Mary Turner and Darryl Worbey.

Originally published in FAB 55.