Gerry Anderson. One name, two words, and a whole world of explosive adventure and excitement.
For generations, Gerry Anderson has been synonymous with entertainment and thrills for generations of children, mini-movies being delivered every week on a mere fraction of the budget of big screen fare, but no less gripping or compelling. However, when many people think of Anderson, they might well think of his public image, but will probably have far less of an idea about his life away from the soundstages, besides an acrimonious divorce from his second wife, Sylvia, whose name sat right alongside his on so many productions across the years.
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Other than that, his life may well be unknown to most who enjoyed his work, and – sometimes – even those who had shared professional credits or even personal relationships with him. In an age of both social and conventional media confessionalism, where every little detail of people’s lives is laid bare and made public for all to absorb and rake over ad nauseum, the notion of someone having carefully kept the different pieces of their life compartmentalised is quite an unfamiliar notion. Our modern world is a place where privacy can often – and sadly – be viewed as secrecy.
Beyond his prolific output, Anderson the man is probably far less well known than Anderson the artist. Yes, an authorised biography of Anderson was published back in 1998, and ex-wife Sylvia also published her memoirs, but this all seems to scratch the surface. The man who made Thunderbirds go in many ways still feels like an enigma, even to those closest to him. His youngest son Jamie, keeper of the Anderson flame and legacy, fronted a feature-length documentary released on BritBox in 2022 – a decade on from Anderson’s passing – which proved to be an unprecedentedly in-depth look at the man behind the marionettes.
As well as using archival footage, and speaking to colleagues and friends from throughout Anderson’s life and career, the documentary – Gerry Anderson: A Life Uncharted – was to employ ‘deepfake’ technology to bring visuals to extracts of more than 30 hours’ worth of audio interviews with the man himself. Having premiered online on Gerry Anderson Day – an annual celebration which coincides with his birthday – it would reveal so much that was not publicly or widely known about Anderson. Now, an extended ‘Director’s Cut’ hits home media, courtesy of Network Distributing, a company which has done so much to present his body of work all looking and sounding the best it ever has.
Gerry Anderson’s life story, particularly of his youth, is a true revelation and an eye opener. The young Gerry – born Gerald Alexander Abrahams – had a childhood which was especially unhappy, stuck in a household with the constant battles and rancour between his Jewish father and anti-Semitic mother, while living in the shadow of a beloved older brother, whom he idolised. The insight into this truly damaging upbringing does make you realise just how remarkable all of Anderson’s achievements really are, as well as explaining some of those areas in his life – both personally and professionally – where he was perhaps less accomplished.
For such a beloved figure as Gerry Anderson, especially in a documentary with such a strong involvement from his son, you would be forgiven for thinking this would simply be a glowing tribute, papering over the cracks and imperfections, and upholding his public image. All credit, then, for giving a frank and unvarnished appraisal of the man, refusing to shy away from any contentious aspects, or things which may be considered less than flattering. The young Gerry’s life does explain some of the difficulties he faced on many fronts, as well as shedding light on the recurrent themes found in his productions – strong fathers, absent mothers, a near-total absence of religion, etc.
Kudos should also be given for using extracts of an interview with Roberta Leigh, an early Anderson collaborator, as she describes him as being “an evil man”, and presents him in a far from favourable light. It would have been all too easy to just omit anything which had impinged upon the image of Anderson, so to present anything which features negative connotations is so remarkable in its candour and openness, and taking such an even-handed approach deserves applause. To describe Anderson as being flawed would seem unfair, as so many of us could potentially find some of his less-positive traits reflected in ourselves, so he instead comes over to the viewer as being deeply human, and very identifiable.
The whole endeavour is a deeply personal voyage, with Jamie Anderson learning more about his father, his heritage, and – as a result – himself. The man that he called ‘Dad’ is now, for Jamie, a fully fleshed-out individual, more than just his own personal experiences from when he was growing up, and also more than the image of the lauded public icon. We also come to experience so much of the pain and heartbreak felt when Anderson was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, with the gradual loss of him as Anderson slipped away into dementia. The climax of A Life Uncharted is deeply moving, and gives the audience pause to reflect upon the impact of this closing chapter in Anderson’s story.
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The use of ‘Deepfake’ technology is something which is still relatively new enough to be attracting controversy, due to its potential implications. The notion of bringing someone back to life has its own troubling aspects (look at the ‘appearance’ of Harold Ramis in Ghostbusters: Afterlife). However, any qualms over the ‘rightness’ of this will hopefully be dispelled by the involvement and approval of Anderson’s family. This digital resurrection of Anderson does somewhat fluctuate in its convincingness, with some feelings of the uncanny valley at points. Body double Roly Hyde’s physicality and miming to Anderson’s words is maybe a little too expressive at times, but the overall end product is done respectfully.
Gerry Anderson: A Life Uncharted is an exceptional piece of filmmaking, something which is not only set to become the truly definitive account of the subject, but also raises the bar considerably when it comes to biographical features. This is something which deserves every plaudit, as well as needing to be required viewing, not just by diehard ‘Fandersons’, but by anybody who has enjoyed the fruits of Anderson’s career. It might no longer be A Life Uncharted, but this is absolutely A Documentary Unsurpassed.
Gerry Anderson: A Life Uncharted – Extended Director’s Cut is out now on Blu-ray from Network Distributing.