Keith Wilson (1942-2011)

Keith Wilson was the prodigiously talented Production Designer best known among Gerry Anderson fans for his groundbreaking design work on Space:1999. A familiar face at Fanderson conventions, Keith’s amusing and frank recollections of his work on the Anderson productions from Fireball XL5 onwards made him a favourite among fans.

Keith’s talents were recognised early and lent themselves to set design, so much so that his Theatre Design training at Medway College of Art was specifically tailored around his abilities. He studied there with future Thunderbirds, Hammer and Doctor Who effects expert lan Scoones, who, having later found employment with special effects legend Les Bowie, tipped his old friend off that there was a a job going at AP Films. Keith was employed by Reg Hill as an art assistant though by the time he began work, on Fireball XL5, the art department had been taken over by Bob Bell. His first screen credit, as Designer, was on the movie Thunderbirds Are Go and the second season of Thunderbirds, gaining more opportunities as the Anderson empire expanded beyond the capabilities of one main designer.

Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons had a bold new look, which Keith Wilson is largely credited for creating, reflecting the best of cutting-edge design and architecture. By the time of Joe 90 Bob Bell was busy working on Doppelganger, and Keith gained a well-deserved promotion to Art Director for both Joe 90 and The Secret Service.

On Joe 90 Keith’s talents even stretched to writing, authoring with Desmond Saunders the in-joke filled Lone Handed 90. He handled the change to live action production with ease, working on the graphics for Doppelgänger and as Bob Bell’s Assistant Art Director on episodes of both UFO and the second season of The Protectors. By this time many of the duties Keith performed were well beyond those of an Assistant Art Director, designing entire sets, such as the interior of Skydiver and many of the costumes which were credited to Sylvia Anderson.

He also found work outside the Anderson fold, as the closure of Century 21 Productions meant the end of the regular production line of films and series from Slough. His non-Anderson live action feature film debut was as Set Decorator on director Jim Clark’s horror movie Madhouse, shot at Twickenham Studios and starring Vincent Price in the last of his American International Productions. The film’s Art Director was Tony Curtis, later to design the sets for Space Precinct.

Keith’s big break as a Production Designer came with Space:1999. Bob Bell chose to remain on The Protectors, which was fully expected to carry on for its third series and gave him scope to work on contemporary design after many years of working on science fiction subjects. The Andersons and Reg Hill chose Wilson for their massive project as he had done most of the initial design work for the original concept of UFO series 2. In spite of never having been the main designer on a live action project, his previous work for the company meant he was still one of Britain’s most experienced designers of science fiction films.

Wilson never looked back, his breathtaking Main Mission set becoming one of the series’ calling cards. AlthoughSpace:1999 was the most expensive television series made up to that point, Wilson’s set designs had an eye on economy and ease of use. The different parts of Moonbase Alpha had a uniform look and were constructed from interlocking modular panels. Thus different sets could be put together quickly and the number of permanent standing sets was reduced, saving on studio space. He also was responsible for turning Rudi Gernreich’s outlandish designs for the Moonbase Alpha uniforms into something wearable. As the first season went on, Wilson was able to have more influence over the regular cast’s costuming, softening them by introducing jackets whenever he could, a look he developed further when Space:1999 returned for a second season. As well as the regular sets, Space:1999‘s first season gave Wilson the opportunity to give full reign to his imagination with the design of alien landscapes, particularly the hugely impressive surface of Piri in The Guardian Of Piri.

The end of Space:1999’s first season was thought by most to represent the demise of the series and Keith, along with most of his art department staff, went on to design Star Maidens, an Anglo-German production which retained a certain professional gloss thanks to them carrying across the design ethos of Space:1999. Star Maidens has its supporters, but wasn’t destined to be a long runner, and Keith was available when Space:1999 unexpectedly received the go ahead for a second season. He found he had even more influence than before over the look of the series, but less money to work with. He was ordered to rework his stunning, multi-level Main Mission set into the much smaller Command Center, and other sets such as the Grove of Psyche and various wall units were reused often, sometimes in very clever ways.

The end of Space:1999 saw Keith headhunted for the British-shot episodes of The New Avengers second season (the peripatetic series then headed oft to France and Canada), replacing Bob Bell. After working briefly on Gerry Anderson’s abortive movie project Five Star Five, Keith finally left behind science fiction. His professional reputation was quite considerable by this time, and he had little difficulty finding work even in the reduced circumstances of the British film industry of the late 1970s. He worked on International Velvet for Bryan Forbes in 1978 and in 1980 Keith finally made his debut as a theatre designer when Forbes directed Macbeth at The Old Vic. He also worked extensively with director Kenneth Connor, who had directed two episodes of Space:1999, becoming Connor’s favourite designer and working with him on ten further productions. Keith Wilson remained an in-demand Production Designer, on such sigh profile productions as the television series Dinotopia in 2002 and his final film The Hills Have Eyes 2, released in 2007.

A true artist, Keith Wilson was both supremely talented and a very popular, well-liked man.  Our condolences go out to his family and friends.

Originally published in FAB 69.