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Why Mother’s Day was no cause to celebrate for creator of Thunderbirds | Documentary films

From Charles Dickens to Sylvia Plath to Eminen, many of the world’s most creative adults had a turbulent childhood. Now Gerry Anderson, the creator of Thunderbirds and Stingray, all of whose shows have no mother character, can be added to the list.

Previously unbroadcast interviews reveal that Anderson’s work lacked matriarchal figures because Anderson was so traumatised by his own relationship with his mother.

Troy Tempest in Stingray
Troy Tempest in Stingray. Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

A forthcoming documentary draws on more than 30 hours of interviews with Anderson, recorded years before his death in 2012, but not released until now.

He had found worldwide success, delighting generations of fans with 18 series and four feature films, which included Space: 1999 and Captain Scarlet. But Anderson had never got over the death of Lionel, his older brother, a handsome and heroic pilot who had died during the second world war; he also never recovered from the shock of hearing their mother, Debbie, say: “Why was it Lionel? It should have been you.”

Gerry was then 12, and had idolised his brother, who was 20 when his plane was shot down in 1942. Their mother had always focused her love on Lionel rather than on Gerry or her husband, Joe, whom she repeatedly humiliated during the course of their marriage.

Anderson recalled in those interviews: “My mother was … always saying how she … hated the marriage. The mixture was explosive. I had the most miserable childhood.”

He added: “My mother used to humiliate him and, when I was a kid, used to say to me jokingly, ‘come on, you ugly devil, you look more like your dad every day of the week.’ It used to break my heart because I was brought up to think my father was ugly, so when she’d say that to me, I used to get very upset.”

It took its toll on his confidence: “I always feel that I have failed.”

Anderson’s son, Jamie, appears in the documentary, Gerry Anderson: A Life Uncharted, and is one of its producers. He told the Observer that Anderson’s troubled childhood had had a profound effect on his work and that, while there are no mothers in any of his shows, the heroes are pilots and strong characters who embody elements of his brother.

Lady Penelope and chauffeur Parker in Thunderbirds
Lady Penelope and chauffeur Parker in Thunderbirds. Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

In those interviews, Anderson also recalled that his interest in space travel was inspired by Lionel: “I remember my brother [saying], ‘assuming it were possible to fly in a straight line across the universe, you must eventually come to the edge of the universe and if so, what is beyond?’. Well, of course, that kind of mind-boggling question really set me thinking and has kept me going until today.”

Jamie Anderson said that the recordings were never meant for publication: “It was my decision to allow them to be out in the world.”

He said that Debbie’s chilling remark to her son was “unforgivable”, adding: “You’ll never forget someone saying something like that, and we have got footage of him repeating it almost verbatim. He’d internalised it so much. In every single show, you’ve got a strong father figure, you’ve got Jeff Tracy and Colonel White. But there are no mothers.

“His mother manipulated him. She spent his entire childhood making out that Joe was useless, lazy and ugly. He grew up believing that was the case, essentially being gaslit by his own mother. His parents’ failings would see Dad try to create his perfect childhood on screen, filled with toys and gadgets, but no mothers.”

In the interviews, Anderson said: “My brother, and I’m quite serious when I say this, he really should have lived, and I should have been the one who was killed. I just feel that really he was more suited to go through this life than I was. I would happily have swapped places with him.”

Yet such is the following for Anderson’s work that it reaches up to 15 million people a month on social media, Jamie said: “We’ll see clips go across Facebook and suddenly they’ve got one million views. There are still loads of fans out there. The shows are amazingly timeless.”

The documentary, Gerry Anderson: A Life Uncharted, is available on BritBox from 14 April and receives its world premiere at the BFI Southbank on 9 April

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