Gerry Anderson: A Life Uncharted, Benjamin Field’s new feature documentary now streaming on Britbox, is a story of intense loss. A boy who lost his brother, a man who lost a family, a creative powerhouse who lost even the memory of his work to Alzheimer’s disease. At its heart however, it is also the story of how Gerry Anderson’s son, Jamie, rediscovered his father in the process.
Gerry Anderson is a television legend. He was the creative brain behind a wave of children’s TV and science fiction in the 60s, 70s and 80s that shaped generations of kids’ imaginations. From the “supermarionation” shows such as Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and Terrahawks and his live action series’ UFO and Space: 1999, his output rivals and often exceeded that of better known creators of that same era like Gene Roddenberry. It’s no wonder that Kenneth Branagh filled his 60s set Oscar-winning film Belfast with references to both Star Trek and Thunderbirds.
A Life Uncharted isn’t a retrospective of Anderson’s work, but a deep dive into the life of the man himself. How he idolised his older brother Lionel, who became the template for many of his heroic characters; his emotionally manipulative relationship with his mother; and the breakdown of his first marriage—the fact that the villain of Terrahawks is designed to resemble Anderson’s ex-wife Sylvia is more or less canon at this point—and the tragedy of how Alzheimer’s robbed him of the memory of his own creations before his passing in 2012.
Those wanting a nostalgia-fest may want to look elsewhere (the 2014 film Filmed in Supermarionation covers Anderson’s career in a lovely, rosy glow), while this biography does not shy away from harsher truths. The film’s real strength comes from the candor of those interviewed. Contrary views are aired, with colleagues and family quick to praise and criticize the man.
While not queer in any explicit way, Anderson’s work does of course have a fierce LGBTQIA+ following, particularly beloved are Thunderbirds’ handsome and daring Tracy brothers and the fabulous Lady Penelope in her pink Rolls Royce, a visual prototype for Absolutely Fabulous’ Patsy Stone. In his effort to uncover more about his father, Anderson’s gay son Jamie, who is at the center of the film’s narrative and one of the producers, explores how his father’s work reflected his life.
The film uses “deep fake” technology to bring Gerry Anderson back to life (clearly signposted at the start of the film), creating a new vision of him talking to accompany archive audio recordings. The effect gives the interviews an almost confessional quality, and while not quite seamless, it helps to give us a sense of the man rather than just his voice.
By sidestepping any retrospective of the details of Anderson’s programmes, the film doesn’t engage with discussions of race and colonialism that would naturally arise. While Gerry was undoubtedly a man of his era, it would have been enlightening to know his personal views on the topics that rocked the 60s, 70s and 80s – from Civil Rights, to gender equality and queer liberation. But suiting the personal nature of the journey, A Life Uncharted keeps the story close to Gerry’s relationships with his friends, family and colleagues.
Ultimately, we are left with a broader view of the man behind the pop culture iconography. Driven, creative, often tormented by life, Anderson is seen as a man who used his work as his escape and creative outlet. Behind the bright colours of his creations there lies a deep sadness. Thankfully, while he may not have remembered the details of it in his last days, the joyful legacy of his work lives on.
By Chad Armstrong
Gerry Anderson: A Life Uncharted is available to stream on Britbox in selected markets and is touring the UK in selected cinemas.