Keith Shackleton, one of the most significant figures in the growth of AP Films from a small independent company making children’s puppet films to a huge entertainment empire died on 17th April 2019 at the age of 90. With his passing we have lost the last surviving company director of the Century 21 Organisation. Although he was not greatly involved with the actual production of the Anderson shows, Keith headed the company’s revolutionary merchandising arm, which brought in huge amounts of revenue and played a vital role in publicising the series.
Born on March 25th 1929, Shackleton was plucked out of his career with Lever Brothers, the Liverpool-based soap manufacturer, and into the Royal Air Force to complete his mandatory National Service when in 1948 he found himself at the RAF Manston base. There he served alongside another young Non Commissioned Officer called Gerald Anderson, and thus was born a long friendship. On his return to civilian life, Keith settled back into his previous career but kept in touch with Gerry, even when a new job with a company which organised trade fairs led to him travelling the world.
Gerry was keen to work with his old friend Keith as AP Films expanded into an independent production company with the production of Four Feather Falls. In 1960 Keith finally accepted Gerry’s offer and became the managing director of AP Films’ new merchandising arm. He almost immediately exceeded all expectations, capitalising on the strong American sales of Supercar to gain for AP Films the UK merchandising rights to popular series The Man From UNCLE and Dr Kildare. He was also instrumental in the creation of a comic, with the working title Century 21, designed to publicise AP’s upcoming new series Thunderbirds. With the right editor in the shape of Alan Fennell and the best artists in the business, he sold the comic idea to The News of the World, parent company of City Magazines, and the result was a phenomenal success that outlasted the series it was designed to promote.
Shortly afterwards AP Films changed its name to match that which Keith’s merchandising arm was using: Century 21. As a result, the entire organisation operated under a single banner which better matched the productions they were making.
Keith grew disenchanted with the Supermarionation productions around the time of Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons, which he regarded as being too dark a concept and consequently too difficult to sell. He left the Century 21 Organisation, but later became head of a separate Century 21 merchandise company which outlived the Anderson production empire and went on to hold the merchandising rights for subjects as disparate as ABBA, Kate Bush and The Power Rangers.
The series that Gerry and Sylvia Anderson produced have lasted in popularity for six decades, generations of children being introduced to them not only via re-runs and home video releases of the series themselves, but through the incredible toys and publications which help them to be rediscovered anew. For that we can thank, in large part, the entrepreneurial genius of Keith Shackleton, who revolutionised the merchandising of television series.
Originally published in FAB 92.