Barry Gray – Supermarionation Expialidocious

“Five, Four, Three, Two, One … Thunderbirds are go!“.  Those dramatic lines from Gerry Anderson’s epic children’s series Thunderbirds (1965-1966), with their equally dramatic musical framing, are etched into the minds of an entire generation in the UK, and still command a special thrill and sense of wonderment for all ages.  From a time before computer-made illusions commoditized our imaginations, there was Anderson Productions and their minstrel Barry Gray, who brought daring and futurism to the lives of television viewers.

Call it the ravings of a grown child, mourning lost innocence, but here goes a bold opinion anyway: There has never been a collaboration between film, television and music that was so charged with raw excitement; with such nail-biting action, adult sophistication and child-like adventure, as the British independent television collaboration between producers Gerry Anderson and Sylvia Anderson and composer Barry Gray . During the 1960s and 70s, this trio researched, designed, and animated a number of science fiction series using marionette puppets (a technique they called supermarionation). Later they added live action casts too. The most successful of those series, in addition to Thunderbirds, included Stingray (1964-1965), Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967-1968), Joe 90 (1968-1969), UFO (1970-1973) and Space 1999 (1975-1977).

While we all know about Spielberg and Williams, or Miyazaki and Hisaishi, the Anderson and Gray works are of an altogether different character. There has probably never been a boys-and-girls’ action adventure quite so visionary or commercially savvy, as Anderson and Gray’s stories of our near future. Both visually and musically, their collaboration set a bar throughout the 1960s and 1970s for imagination and adventure.

As a child growing up during those years, it’s hard to fully explain to readers who didn’t the thrill and wonder that they inspired. Today, as an unwilling adult, with a firm sense of nostalgia, I claim that nothing like them exists anymore, or has existed since. Perhaps they could never exist again – we have lost that innocence. Indeed, despite some faltering attempts to reconstruct the series with modern CGI animation techniques, the unique qualities of the original series have never been equalled.

Gerry Anderson’s visionary technology designs and Sylvia Anderson’s stunning costumes were far ahead of their time. The iconic cars, planes, rockets and submarines were filmed using clever illusions to make photo-realistic scenes in high resolution, buildings that rose from underground dens or mountains that opened to reveal rockets and concealed ships – all this formed a legacy that has imprinted on a generation as a pillar of British culture, lovingly parodied in the clay animation hits of Wallace and Gromit.

Thunderbirds (1965-1966)

Your move, Mr. Anderson

Gerry Anderson was a technical genius who could animate puppets and models using sophisticated cinematic camera and lighting techniques. Sylvia Anderson provided not only design for puppet models and costumes, but also the voice for iconic Lady Penelope, the Bond-esque high society beauty of Thunderbirds with her nasally congested butler “Parker” and pink Rolls Royce. Her character played a key role in the action antics and spy intrigues of the stories.

The 1960s and 70s saw a number of action dramas, like Mission: Impossible, The Protectors or James Bond. Compared to other series from the same period, the unconscious male chauvinism of the period is less apparent in the Andersons’ series – probably because Sylvia Anderson played a larger role than is generally acknowledged in decision-making.

Some series made for television during those years were lost to antiquity, since they were made to be shown once only, and home video had not been invented (let alone the internet). Fortunately, the original materials for the Andersons’ projects have been preserved quite well, thanks in part to the foundation Fanderson that was formed to look after the materials and rights to these unique works. Like many cult series, they became more popular after they were cancelled by the networks. Moreover, the quality of the originals was also unusually high, both in image and sound, perhaps due to the team’s technical prowess, so modern technology has allowed us to reconstruct the legacy in high quality.

Most of the series are now available on all video formats, and the soundtracks have been collected into a small number of releases or nostalgia albums. CDs of the full soundtracks have been slower to appear, but we have at least three: Space 1999: Year 1, first released in 2004, Joe 90 in 2006, and UFO released in 2019. Almost nothing has been released in electronic formats.

In addition to these generally available releases, Fanderson has also produced extensive 3- and 4-CD sets with Gray’s scores from Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captains Scarlet and the Mysterons, Joe 90, and Space: 1999. However, you need to be a Fanderson member to get these.

On a story level, all the series up until Space 1999 took place in near future worlds, the dates for which have long since passed. They combine suave characters and lifestyles with fairly trite action storylines for half-hour to 45-minute episodes. The stories feature good guys and bad buys, foiled in their nefarious plots by heroes, and with happy endings. Although the series were British made, American actors were used to lend a big budget feel to the puppet-based shows, and to try to woo an American audience that might finance further productions in syndication.

Joe 90 (1968-1969)

FABulous music

Apart from design prowess, one of the most memorable components of the Anderson productions was its musical direction. From opening sequences that were cut, edited, and scored, with split-second timing to grip viewers, to the highly memorable themes that wrote the names of the characters into the music (e.g. Joe 90 and Captain Scarlet), to operational code speak: “FAB! SIG! Spectrum is Green!” , the level of research and detailing is impressive and probably could never be repeated in today’s commercial climate.

As a series-maker on commercial television, Anderson understood that his ability to capture an audience was not only essential for ratings, it was also the basis of storytelling in the impatient world of kids. Barry Gray’s music lent a mythical quality to that vision. Soundtracks for the early shows, like Stingray and Thunderbirds, consisted of giant romantic themes, in between the high energy action, writ largely on the canvas of jazz orchestras, with added songs crooned over cocktail bar settings to lend to the mood of sixties romance. Every home was a lush piano bar, with a personal sunset, and the characters were modelled on film stars.

As we move into the early 1970s, the baby boomer romance shifted to the more youthful hippie culture. Upbeat themes like the UFO opening theme mix pop with big band sounds, Hammond organs, Shadows-like guitars and possibly the most unique brass arrangements of any modern-age composer. The use of vibraphone and vibrato electric guitars (made famous by the new Vox amplifier) creates a period sound that – together with other electronic sounds, such as a kind of harpsichord – create a language of mystery and suspense that by now has entered the modern repertoire and now seems completely familiar to us.

In UFO, there’s also an almost Mantovani-like dreamy string section, with harp and mandatory flute, to carry the warm collegiality of the `UFO family’ cast. It featured several well known British actors (Gabrielle Drake, Michael Billington, George Sewell) and American Ed Bishop, who also lent his easily recognizable voice to the puppet character Captain Blue from the Captain Scarlet series. The music shifts from a warm safety to chilling suspense to a Bond-like swagger with exceptional ease.

The final series, Space 1999, was filmed as a high quality feature film, but with a somewhat bizarre, drug-induced storyline that felt like a bad psychedelic trip, with a distinct lack of hairstyling (and hair removal) that seemed to afflict the 1970s. The cast were older and chubbier than in the earlier series, led by star American actor duo  Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, who were married and had previously appeared together in Mission: Impossible. As a child, I remember being mainly fascinated by the design of the sets and the Eagle spacecraft – the technology and the moonbase control panels – all the time puzzled about how the designs could change from season to season, even though the moon had left earth’s orbit and they had no way of replacing anything!

Throughout all of these series, the common thread was a musical style held together by one of the forgotten greats in British film and television composition.

UFO (1970-1973)

The Barry Gray legacy

Barry Gray was nothing short of an astonishing composer. He mastered every imaginable style, from strikingly original marching band music to avant garde electronica and even disco. His music flips from major to minor, from anharmonic to harmonic, and all with such effortless ease that it’s easy to overlook just how skilled his compositions were. He has become known for his powerful and highly memorable central themes. These leitmotifs were repeated like brand identities throughout episodes, making the need for additional musical ideas largely unnecessary. While this could easily become repetitive and boring, Gray had the unnerving ability to write endless variations of a single phrase that were always true to the themes but were never dull. I can’t really think of another composer who was able to replicate that.

If there’s a pattern to Gray’s music, I would say that it’s an artful combination of a single theme, endlessly varied through instrumentation choices, coupled with rhythmical sections and sound effects. Jerry Goldsmith (who inhabited the same era, but with a markedly simpler tonal palette) is famous for saying that a movie should only have one theme, for example, but even a master like him couldn’t compare to the skill of Barry Gray at varying the language of variation.

It was my lament for 30 years that I couldn’t hear those memorable themes in their original form. Then one day, probably more than a couple of decades ago by now, Silva Screen Records sent me a newly released CD by mistake. I opened the package to find a massive surprise. To my knowledge, it was the only attempt to re-record a compilation of Barry Gray’s music. The album was FAB, Music from the TV Shows by Barry Gray (1992).

It was a high quality digital recording, covering the most beloved themes and recorded with a big orchestra in a venue that sounded like a giant cathedral inside the cavern of the ages (plenty of reverb, and the definition of the music gets lost somewhere in the cave). It sated my need for a little while, but there was nevertheless something wrong that I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time. With hindsight, it doesn’t reproduce the electronic sound effects and special instrumentation that Gray’s own production incorporated. The result is a bit of a mush of sound that lacks the crisp and stylish energy of Gray’s neatly orchestrated originals. Still – not bad. Definitely worth having (especially as a free gift).

Much more recently, the revival of the vinyl format has offered the record companies a marketing opportunity. Coloured teaser collectibles from Thunderbirds and Space 1999 have been put out as gimmick vinyl singles (shown in the photo below), with just two or three short tracks each. These have been lovingly produced, with very good sound quality, but it’s annoying for thirsty music lovers to have to dig out a turntable, and to be fleeced to the tune of up to fifty dollars for a short drip of musical history on a piece of coloured plastic.

As far as original soundtracks are concerned, there are only three by Barry Gray that I can find. I managed to hunt down a CD album release of the music from Joe 90 from 2006, released without any obvious fanfare. Although not the most popular show of the collection, the music for Joe 90 contained some of the most varied and beautifully orchestrated compositions. The show was a less militaristic affair – broader and more adventurous in its style – and the main theme calls out “Joe 90” from its brass entourage, just as the Captain Scarlet theme wrote the words into the music. There is no shortage of action in this collection, but also more campy slapstick moments from a more espionage-themed show, whose lead character was a precocious child.

An unexpected benison this year was the surprise release of the music from UFO. I confess, UFO was a series I didn’t understand as a child, but in later years I came to see it as the best of them all – rich in character and imagery, as well as the usual technology and mystery. It was, of course, aimed at adults, and so covered a wider range of themes. Luckily, the music can be understood today, whether one understands the show or not (I confess, on the other hand, to being uncertain whether listeners who don’t know the series would find the more incidental music after 1970 to be as interesting as the earlier childrens’ themes). The brand new CD release is a beautifully restored collection, with a whole 21 tracks of music.

The opening theme (the Shado organization intro) appears to be modelled rhythmically on the output of the teletype printer from the opening scene, and then previews all the characters and technology that the Andersons dreamed up in a tight burst of energy. Then it shifts down a gear into a laid back period vignette, as the camera follows the sexiest models and costumes in the Anderson career on the space defence organization’s headquarters, which is cunningly disguised as a film studio for added pezaz.

For the commission of UFO, Anderson had originally asked Barry Gray for a military-style theme, but the first attempt turned out to be too militaristic in the Thunderbirds mold, so it was scrapped and rewritten to match the more youthful adult audience and markedly sexier style of the show, employing a fusion of popular music instruments and funky 1970s pop rhythms, alongside a 17-piece orchestra. These pop rhythms, overlaid with brass, bass clarinet and Hammond organ energy, follow car chases and UFO battle sequences. The style is seductive and utterly unique, and the crisp recording matches the spot-on timing of the musicians. Barry Gray’s signature fanfares and vibraphone suspense are seamlessly integrated.

The final series in the Anderson history is Gray’s score for season one of Space 1999, written in 1973 and recorded using a 52-piece orchestra and a disco band. Later seasons were declined by Gray, and filled in by others. Also, a later film recut for Italian theatres replaced the music with a painful avant garde jazz backing by Ennio Morricone. Space 1999 is a much darker composition, though with plenty of warm moments – like the scoring for UFO, but with a greater sense of impending catastrophe, even madness. Gray’s signature bongos, harps, strings and vibraphone are all there to carry the rhythmical interludes, while the brass steps in with additional jeopardy as needed.

Space 1999 (1975-1977)

Remastered in 2004, a CD of Space 1999 has only existed since 2010, but is already a collector’s item and sells today at unreasonably high prices online. The opening is yet another high energy romp that covers a preview of cast and technological wizardry of the series, with split second cutting between explosions and spaceships. The CD metadata credits guitarist Vic Elmes with writing the opening theme, but the notes show that he only wrote the guitar part (catchy as it is). Vic Elmes went on to score some full episodes when Gray’s contributions were curbed by the introduction of draconian union rules to a maximum of five pieces in every thirteen.

Listening to the score now, I can’t help but wonder if Jerry Goldsmith’s music for Outland (1981) was inspired in some measure by the Space 1999 style and scoring. Both the mood and dark tonality seem to share a connection. Also the echoing sitar in the episode The Troubled Spirit is reminiscent of the echo effects used a couple of years later by Goldsmith in Alien.

The common thread that makes a score undeniably Barry Gray surely lies in his use of signature brass – sometimes light, sometimes dark, and mirrored by playful woodwinds, with edgy chromatic note intervals (no obvious thirds or fifths), and snare drum or bongo marching sections that build up to crescendos of action.  The heavily tremoloed vibraphones spell mystery, and other colours of the orchestra playfully join the dots with consummate skill.

Electronic pioneer

A short addendum is in order. Like several of the BBC composers, Barry Gray was an innovator in electronic music. Although best known for his work on the television action series, he also contributed his skill towards making electronic sound effects for other composers and films, such as the two Doctor Who films Doctor Who and the Daleks (1965) and The Dalek Invasion of Earth 2150 A.D. (1966). His contributions to that album are small, and yet it’s a measure of his renown that he receives album credit for these sounds.

Barry Gray died in hospital in 1984, after retiring from composition following the Space 1999 scoring. He left a legacy of memorable pieces from a memorable age of film and television music.


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  1. Mark says:

    Addendum: As part of my research on this article, I made some short mockup pieces in the style of Barry Gray, for the interest of readers:
    1. Ready for action!
    2. The confrontation
    3. Back to base
    4. Coming in hot!

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