I thought I’d write a more diversionary and entertaining piece as I am, like most people, heartily sick of the miserable and depressing news. I’ll be 66 in three weeks, joining the ranks of old age pensioners. It’s impossible not to look back sometimes.
Exactly 60 years ago Gerry (whom I met once) and Sylvia Anderson and their team of brilliant puppeteers and effects designers, among them the unmatched Derek Meddings, were completing their Stingray series for ITV. For those who don’t know, this involved the World Aquanaut Security Patrol (WASP), charged with keeping the oceans safe. These were treated much as modern science fiction shows deep space. Under water were lethal foes like King Titan of Titanica and his aquaphibian troops, but also more benign characters.
Leading the defences were Captain Troy Tempest with Lt. ‘Phones’, aided by the diaphanous and mute nymph Marina, an escapee from Titan’s domain. They operated out of Marineville, a futuristic city with buildings that dropped underground at the slightest prospect of trouble, and had subterranean silos where Stingray, a submarine that looked like a cross between a shark and a spaceship, waited to be launched with Tempest at the helm.
“Anything can happen in the next half hour,” snapped the handicapped and chipper CO, Commander Shore from his electric buggy in an interestingly far-sighted example of TV six decades hence. He was less woke in his enthusiasm to launch nuclear missiles the moment Titan sent his mechanical fish out to loose off rounds at Troy Tempest. Titan’s strike was usually based on intelligence from Surface Agent, a cloaked and vaguely reptilian figure who sounded a bit like a fishy version of James Mason and lived in a Daphne du Maurier novel style house at the top of a cliff.
There was something vaguely Cold War about it all. Now, I do remember my parents’ fear during the Cuban Missile Crisis and their distress when JFK was assassinated. But I watched Stingray with sheer exhilaration. Despite being populated by puppets with visible strings, it was fantastically exciting and came off the back of earlier series like Supercar.
I thought back to this today and the sort of world I was growing up in. It was grotty in many ways. Everyone smoked so almost all indoor areas were disgusting. The air stank from car, truck and bus fumes, coal gas, and even more so from coal fires. Few people had central heating. The village in which I now live was only just in the throes of acquiring electricity, sewage and mains water. My mother assured me constantly that Harold Wilson, who became leader of the Labour Party in 1963, and Prime Minister the following year, was a “crook”, which made me believe he was a literal thief who robbed people.
None of that mattered to me. I wasn’t being ground down by SATs tests or endless doom-laden Covid death porn, being locked inside my house on Government orders, or climate misery news items on the TV. Schools weren’t built round Ofsted inspections. The teaching was usually rotten of course and the facilities lousy but at least we had time to do our own thing. There wasn’t much TV anyway. Mostly, I played with the other kids in my street in Wimbledon where I grew up. I was allowed to do much as I pleased, and by the time I was seven I was travelling to school on my own by bus and train.
Highlights of the week were not only Stingray, and then its successor the epic and overwhelming Thunderbirds, but also The Man From Uncle and The Saint. They propelled me all in some way into an exciting world of sophistication, the celebration of new technology and an overwhelming sense of optimism. My father took me and my brother in 1965 to see the Beatles in the movie Help!, an experience so joyous and vivid it is hard to believe it was over 58 years ago.
But that paled compared to the day in 1966 in Cornwall where by some amazing freak of fate it was pouring with rain on the day we had been booked to see a Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Minack Open Air Theatre. In the week leading up to this I had been hag-ridden with horror at the dreadful prospect of having to sit through that for hours. But a miracle happened. The play was cancelled thanks to the horrible weather and we had to go to the cinema, a prospect presented to me and my brother as a very poor substitute.
“Unfortunately”, we were told, the only film was a James Bond film called Goldfinger and that it was a double bill with “something called Thunderball“. I can still recall an almost dizzying state of total disbelief that I had been plucked from the gates of hell and in an instant propelled towards paradise.
After two hours of Goldfinger, a reckless cavalcade of mind-boggling action and thrills beyond anything I had even imagined beforehand and involving an obviously petrol-powered Aston Martin, it was a choice moment indeed to think that there was another two hours yet to come. I was still only eight years old that summer. No-one in those heady days worried much about such niceties. I staggered out into the sun afterwards, dazed, my life changed forever.
Meanwhile, the Americans were well on the way to mastering space and before the decade was out, I was treated to the spectacle of Apollo 8 orbiting the Moon on Christmas Day. Within a few months they were walking on the Moon, an event I was woken in the middle of the night to watch.
Looking back now, I don’t think it’s rose-tinted spectacles to say how thrilling it was. TV science fiction was actually happening. In 1972 I even saw David Scott, commander of Apollo 15, in London. Right before my then teenage eyes I had seen man who had walked, even driven a car, on the Moon. The Voyager spacecraft were sent to the outer planets and into deep space around then too.
Of course, there was much wrong with how we lived back then. More people were a lot worse off. There were still bombsites in London. By the 1970s the doom was beginning to set in with those hell-bent on telling us the world was going to be destroyed by pollution and a new Ice Age caused by blotting out the sun. I can’t say I listened very much. I was more interested in David Bowie and T. Rex, which was just as well as the Ice Age never happened. Nor did the oil run out by 1980, another prediction by ‘experts’ that went nowhere.
As a teacher between 2007-16 I often used to think of the differences. My childhood was far from a paradise though we were comfortable and well fed. But in my 50s I saw mobile phones seeping into school like chlorine gas and poisoning relationships and discipline. I also saw the rising tide of apocalyptic predictions of all sorts, but far worse the dramatic, evil and devastating consequences of social media on adolescent minds in multifarious ways.
Worst of all, as a teacher I never once detected the sense of wonder I felt when Stingray launched, when Thunderbird 2 made its impossible leap into the air from its ramp, or when on a grainy black and white TV we watched a Saturn V lift off from what was then Cape Kennedy. I still have a boxful of the NASA Apollo publicity material I sent off for every week, and the sheets of paper covered with little squares on which I frantically tried to draw the live scenes of the TV broadcasts from the lunar surface. No video recorder, you see.
By 1973, as an RAF cadet at camp I saw the Concorde prototype fly overhead. It was only 28 years since the Second World War and there was this supersonic rapier in the sky, the living embodiment of the Fireflash in one of the most famous of all Thunderbirds episodes.
And, yes, I know those early 70s were the desperate days of strikes, three-day weeks, horrible news from Northern Ireland and dystopian movies like Soylent Green (when a world destroyed by pollution has to use the bodies of euthanised elderly people to feed the rest). But they were also still (just) exciting times and I didn’t spend my childhood or teenage years being bombarded with the sort of despair that every newspaper, every news bulletin, every documentary is filled with today – at least to anything like the same extent. I know it’s only natural for someone of my age to think that the past was better. Well, in many ways it wasn’t and often it was far worse.
But I’ll tell you what, I think there was more excitement and optimism, even if a lot of it was make-believe. Go on to YouTube and watch the 80-second long opening credits of Stingray if you don’t believe me. Unmatched to this day.
And the reason I know? I’ve watched the faces of my grandchildren, filled with the same wonder I felt 60 years ago, as Stingray bursts out from the sea. I only wish I could do what my father did and wake them in the middle of the night to watch the first men walk on the Moon.