21 Sep 2007

 … but no, no, no, no, no, you got me wrong. I’m not for one minute suggesting that An Taisce members jauntily propel themselves through D2 Georgian conservation areas as if controlled by an invisible puppeteer, passionlessly declaring an unpersuasive interest in brass door knockers, vocal utterances vaguely coinciding with the unconvincing movement of their lips. That’s totally not what I’m trying to say. Bear with me, it’s more complicated than that.

All men have secrets and here is mine, so let it be known. I’m a card carrying, fanatical lunatic member of the Thunderbirds Fan Club. You heard me.

I first discovered Thunderbirds in 1967 when the series was already a cult classic. I’ve been in love with it ever since. I don’t really know why. All I know is that when I was, say, about eight all I wanted to do in life was co-pilot Thunderbird 2 with Virgil Tracy and be his best ever friend. And when I’d say my bedside prayers at night, I’d ask Holy God that if I was good enough he might send me to Tracy Island instead of Heaven, if he didn’t mind, when I died.


Oh what I'd give to be sitting in that seat behind Virgil. What a man.

In my teens my focus had changed a little (no, I didn’t fancy Tintin, you perverts) and I began to notice how wonderfully designed everything in the series was. Then I read somewhere that Gerry Anderson, Thunderbirds’ creator, had studied architecture as a young man and my future was sealed. To this day I remain convinced that the Tracy House is an overlooked masterpiece, an underestimated icon of the mid 20th century International Style. In my view its right up there with anything by Mies or Neutra.

Gerry Anderson is a genius. Forget your Damien Hirsts your Jeff Koons, your Grayson Perrys: history will one day prove Anderson to be the greatest artist of the late 20th century. He was the man responsible not only for such other stunning ‘supermarionation’ TV series as Captain Scarlet, Supercar, Joe 90 and Stingray, but also live action classics like The Protectors and Space 1999 (remember that? With the incredible Martin Landau who, if memory serves me correctly, turned down the Spock role in Star Trek to play Hollins instead. And I bet he doesn’t regret it.)

Fast forward twenty years and my Thunderbird obsession if anything is getting worse. When I discovered the wonders of eBay, the first thing I tried to buy was one of the puppets from the original series. Turns out they’re almost as sought after as Van Gogh’s. Apparently, the most recent fully intact puppet to have changed hands was about ten or twelve years ago when, from what I’ve been told, an Alan Tracy made £75K at auction. I bought the complete set of Thunderbird episodes on DVD instead.

Then I discovered the Thunderbirds Fan Club. I signed up immediately. The cultural high point of my month is when the Thunderbirds newsletter arrives. I read it slowly to prolong the pleasure. And I’ve begun attending conferences too. As a rule, I don’t dress up. The look (that’s me on the right having a laugh with Eanna Ni Lamhna. I don’t know who the other guy was. I think he thought he was at the Night Of The Living Dead Thunderbird Zombies On Needle Drugs Conference) doesn’t suit me.

The conferences are fascinating. Some of the lectures would jjust blow your mind. Did you know, for example, that the whole premise of Captain Scarlet is that he’s actually supposed to be dead? At the last conference scriptwriters gave an amazing account of the difficulty they had in introducing a sense of jeopardy into storylines – how can Scarlet be in danger if he’s already dead?

I myself am preparing a fascinating paper for the next conference on the significance of the absence of the mother figure in Thunderbirds. Heavy Greek mythology vibe. If any of you are interested, I’ll post a draft on the next Dispatch.

Anyway, at the last conference I got into heated debate with some of my fellow conferees. It centred on two things. A new computer animated series of Captain Scarlet was about to be launched to the dismay of die hard Anderson fans who thought it would ruin the franchise. This was on the back of a live action big screen version of Thunderbirds which had failed miserably at the box office and upset fans (me included) desperately.

The upshot of it all was that a faction of my beleaguered colleagues were of the belief that any new media ventures based on Anderson brands should be put before the fan club first for approval.

I thought about my friends' idea for a bit. Tempted as I was to agree with them, ultimately I came down on the other side. As much as I felt that I had some special right to have my views taken on board about proposed changes to the most significant single strand of our cultural history, at the end of the day, I could understand how my state of fanatical elitism might impair me from making balanced judgments which would have an effect on the TV viewing habits of the wider community. I mean, what if the TV producers were obliged to send me, say, planning drawings of their proposed new Thunderbird 2 and I wrote back a stinging letter complaining ‘this is a disgrace. It looks nothing like a spaceship. I encourage you to look up some design proposals for extensions to listed buildings in South County Dublin where you’ll find plenty of inspiration.’

If there had to be a body charged with sitting in judgment on the quality of new TV programmes based on old puppet shows, perhaps the public would be better served if this organisation comprised people with genuine qualifications: folks with degrees in producing children’s television, broadcasting executives, model makers, puppeteers, and the like. People we could look up to. And then, if instead of writing their opinions and sending them back to the planning office sometimes unsigned, the body charged with deciding on new proposals met in public, put their opinions on the record and decided whether projects were suitable or not by majority vote. Then the TV viewing public would understand why exactly changes to Protected Structures were permitted or refused, there would be a feeling of consistency and standards would be upheld.

The other members didn’t agree with me – they believed that their intense interest alone qualified them to have a greater say in what happened to the built environment even if this intense interest hadn’t motivated them enough to get a formal qualification.

Things got really controversial when I went so far as to suggest that Local Authority conservation officers, planners and others involved in making planning decisions should resign their membership from the Thunderbirds Fan Club and be prevented from having direct contact with club members on specific planning applications. I explained to them that the fan club is sometimes seen by folks who inhabit the middle political ground as having a touch of the Opus Dei about it (all that ‘spaceship’ rhetoric) and some folk were not all the comfortable with the idea that when sitting down with a Conservation Officer to discuss their planning application, the CO might be keeping their membership of the fan club or, indeed, association with any other minority and/or extreme planning interest group a deliberate secret.

My intense interest in Thunderbirds will continue. But for some reason I feel I'll have to pursue my interest all on my own.             

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