Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.

[33] Thunderbirds are Go!


In the world of Children’s television we follow on from  [29] ‘Was it Bill or Was it Ben?’,and come next to two programmes linked in my memory – I think they were shown one after the other, on Saturdays, from 1956 to 1958:

Champion the Wonder Horse

Champion the Wonder Horse was re-broadcast from an American Series, The Adventures of Champion. It was, not surprisingly, about a horse called Champion, always saving the day in an almost human way. I think that I was always drawn to programmes featuring animals. The main characters also included a 12-year-old boy, Ricky North, and an Alsatian [US: German Shepherd] dog, Rebel. Like many old television programmes, what remains in the memory is the signature tune, ‘… Champion! The Wonder Horse!’


Circus Boy

The format of basing a programme round a boy and his faithful animal friend came up often. (I won’t mention Lassie.) Circus Boy was another of this type, and another import from the US. It featured Micky Dolenz as Corky, an orphaned circus boy, whose parents had died in a trapeze accident. He was adopted by Joey the Clown, and often seen with a young circus elephant, Bimbo.

[Micky Dolenz was known at the time as Mickey Braddock. He later became the drummer and lead singer of the Monkees, in the late sixties.]

I was always told that the pianist Hoagy Carmichael appeared playing the piano, at least in the closing credits, but I cannot find confirmation of this on the Internet.


Captain Pugwash (1957-66)

This was a black-and-white cartoon, again narrated by Peter Hawkins. (The colour picture above is from a later series.) It was about the sailors on a pirate ship, the Black Pig, all of whom were far too timid to be real pirates. As well as the Captain, the main characters were the Master Mate, Barnabas, Willy and Tom the Cabin Boy. Cut-throat Jake on his ship the Flying Dustman, was the arch-enemy.

It was one of the first such series to use the theme of an inept eponymous hero and a minor character who secretly always saves the day. Tom was the most intelligent and resourceful member of the crew, the only one who could cook and the only one who could actually sail a ship. Although Pugwash would never admit it, Tom’s ability to think up schemes always stopped the Captain from being a total failure as a pirate.

Like most children’s programmes it had a catchy signature tune.

[There is a persistent urban legend about double entendres in the names and script of the series that was successfully disproved back in the nineties in a libel case against a now defunct newspaper.]

Blue Peter (from 1958)

I have to put in Blue Peter because it has been an iconic part of Children’s television (and now CBBC) for over fifty years. It just has not made an impression on me. I must have watched some its programmes but I can’t think of anything interesting to say about it. It did have a catchy signature tune.

Noggin the Nog (1959-65)

Noggin used simple stop-motion animation, mostly black-and-white with a few later ones in colour. It told the story, in the form of a Norse saga, of Noggin, the good-natured son of Knut, King of the Nogs, when King Knut dies. There are many adventures, always involving Noggin’s evil uncle, Nogbad the Bad. Other regular characters include: Thor Nogson – Noggin’s friend and Captain of the Royal Guard; Olaf the Lofty – an eccentric but well-meaning inventor; Graculus – a big green bird who arrives in the first episode; and Groliffe – a friendly ice dragon who Noggin befriends. Any trouble encountered is usually caused by Nogbad the Bad, who never gives up trying to claim Noggin’s throne for himself.

It was narrated by Oliver Postgate, whose voice was the sort of voice I could listen to all day. Noggin was my favourite, but he did other series such as Ivor the Engine (and, of course, Bagpuss, which sadly came too late for me to squeeze it into the sixties.)


Noggin received an accolade achieved by very few Norse characters, real or imaginary. He appeared, with the Ice Dragon reading him a note from Nogbad, on a commemorative stamp in 1994, one of a set of ten on the theme of ‘messages’, featuring characters from British children’s literature. All the characters were pictured holding a message. Noggin’s note reads: “I, Nogbad the Bad do hereby promise to be Good.” [It must be from a later series, but it is still Noggin.]

Doctor Who (1963-89. Not the later, continuing revival.)

It is not clear whether Doctor Who was aimed at children. It always seemed to be timed just after the main Children’s Hour, so perhaps it was aimed at both children and adults. In the first series, the Doctor was an older man and his main companion was his granddaughter, so it certainly seemed then to be aimed at children.

[I could say a lot about the revival series. Now, the Doctor’s companions are attractive young women, with a significant, almost romantic, role in the plot. I think it tries to attract young men and women as well as children. New versions of the Doctor are younger. Sorry, I seem to have used the word ‘plot’ in conjunction with the modern Doctor Who programmes! When I watch, I try to find two or more pieces of action, which are related logically into some plot. Just occasionally, I can do it, not often. That’s enough: Grumpy Old Man!]

I watched Doctor Who from the original episode and I loved it. When we see these episodes now, the sets and make-up look primitive and unbelievable, but at the time, they were forward looking showing worlds, characters and monsters we had never seen before. (I was always disappointed when they turned up on the Earth in the past. That was not exciting.)

They differed from many other programmes in that the plot covered a whole series. At the end of each episode, you wanted to see what happened next. (Links were sometimes contrived. Sometimes the next episode seemed to say that the previous ending had not quite happened in the same way.)

It did well to transition between the different Doctor characters, but I liked William Hartnell best. They seemed to want to deliberately make them all different, so they became a bit quirky.



I have to put these three together – Stingray (1964); Thunderbirds (1964-65) and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967-68) They were all produced by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, using the techniques of supermarionation, and in colour! The technique was hailed as revolutionary and brought great success for these British producers in the UK and America.

But they were still marionettes. The strings were less often openly visible but the characters looked like painted wooden puppets, move in a very stilted way (like puppets on strings), and spoke without doing anything more than opening and closing their puppet-like mouths!

What made the series were the futuristic themes. Thunderbirds was the best liked and most successful, based on the Tracy family. Jeff, an eccentric widowed multi-millionaire had five sons, named after successful astronauts of the time – Scott, John, Virgil, Gordon and Alan. They were the secret force, International Rescue, using advanced land, sea, air and space rescue vehicles (called, with great imagination, Thunderbird 1, Thunderbird 2, and Thunderbirds 3, 4 and 5) from their secret island base, hidden beneath Tracy Island.

They were ably assisted by the scientist, Brains, and a rich aristocrat, Lady Penelope with her cockney butler and chauffeur, Parker, driving an amphibious, pink Rolls-Royce:


The puppetry was still relatively crude but the futuristic vehicles always operated in tense situations, with dramatic background music. Not surprisingly, the Thunderbird machines always managed to save the day in a rescue that finally just succeeded against all odds, and the Tracy family was just as successful in maintaining the secrecy of International Rescue.

The other two used similar techniques but their scenarios did not maintain the same tense drama.

[I can’t take the thread of Children’s television beyond the mid sixties as I was then about twenty and off to University.]


As television advanced, and Children’s Television in particular, there are trends marked by developing technology, with marionettes becoming cartoons of gradually improving quality (and more modern computer generated animation.)

There are obvious similarities in all these programmes, some general themes in what the producers thought would make good television. They are nearly all episodic, with the ‘hero’ getting into some trouble, or stumbling into a nasty situation, with a happy ending – Good triumphing over Evil. (Perhaps that is a bit exaggerated for the Flower Pot Men!) Perhaps this was an educational aim, teaching all of us to be Good. (Doctor Who used a series instead of an episode, as explained above.)

There is another thread where the hero is a young boy, helped by a real or mythical animal friend. This is obviously aimed at appealing to boys who liked animals. It worked with me!

And there is an element of fantasy and imagination, developing in later years into Science Fiction. Perhaps those of who still love Star Trek, Doctor Who and The Hunger Games are just grown-up children at heart.

We all follow children’s television on our own, then with our children. My grandchildren have just grown beyond the stage where I can watch In the Night Garden with them. I will have to wait for the next generation …


Author: Alan

Retired, currently living in Cheltenham.

5 thoughts on “[33] Thunderbirds are Go!

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