“Not so long ago in a parallel universe not far from here…”
There have been many notable Gerry Anderson projects. From Fireball XL5 to Stingray to Thunderbirds and Terrahawks. However one Gerry Anderson project that seems to have fallen down the back of the sofa of time is Dick Spanner P.I..
First transmitted in 1986 on Channel 4, it would be fair to say that it hasn’t stuck in the memory as much as many other Anderson projects have. However for the children of the 1980s who loved animation and comedy (like me), it certainly made an impression. I for one was taken with one episode in which a John Wayne character made an appearance with the joke name “John Rain” – which obviously to a nine year old with that name, felt like a brush with fame.
The conceit of Spanner is a robot Phillip Marlowe investigating future space crime, the twist being that it is all done for laughs. The Goon-esque script is turned up to eleven, with a flurry of puntastic names, sight gags and jokes that will have your eyes rolling in the aisles. The animation, while looking mildly clunky in 2013, felt incredibly detailed and viewers were very often rewarded for rewinding the tape and studying some of the random posters on walls, or background action. It would certainly seem that a lot of fun was had while making it. With the sublime Shane Rimmer narration and the script machine gunning one liners, it is well worth a revisit.
I caught up with the creator and writer of Dick Spanner, Terry Adlam, to get the full story.
Hi Terry, how did Dick Spanner come into being?
I remember this one wet Sunday afternoon in the 80’s and with nothing better to do, I just did these sketches of a robot detective. I think I had recently watched ‘Blade Runner’ and was influenced by the happy go lucky Rick Deckard character and started doing my own comic version. I was just doodling at the time, just ideas. I called the robot ‘Dick Spanner’ as a play on the type of ‘Mike Hammer’, ‘Sam Spade’, ‘Walter Wateringcan’ names. My idea was ‘Dick’ as in ‘Detective’ and ‘Spanner’ as in a toolbox. I really didn’t think that much of it as I was always drawing, so these sketches just went into a portfolio I had, with all the rest of my work as recycling of rubbish hadn’t been invented yet.
At the time I was working on Gerry Anderson’s ‘Terrahawks’ on the Special Effect model unit and the series was coming to an end and Gerry was going to do some commercials and he was on the look out for some artists to help on designs and storyboards. Someone mentioned to him that I did a bit of drawing and he invited me up to his office to show him some of my artwork.
It was while he was looking through my work that he came across the Spanner scribblings “What are these?” he asked and I said, “Oh, just some sketches of a character I’ve made up called Dick Spanner.” “Tell me more,” Gerry said.
Now to be honest, there wasn’t much to tell him, as they were at that time just drawings and I hadn’t really done a character study on Spanner. So I busked it and said that Dick was an untypical robotic gumshoe in a parallel 40’s style universe who couldn’t follow a lead if it had a dog tied to it, he made Inspector Clouseau look like genius and was a parody on all the detective genre that had gone before. Not bad for an off the cuff pitch, I thought. Gerry called me a name that brought my parentage into question and I thought I saw my career fly out the window. Luckily, the window was shut and Gerry was very enthusiastic when he said, “Why didn’t you show me this before?” “Because I didn’t think anyone would be interested?” I stuttered somewhat surprised. “It’s a great idea.” beamed Gerry, “I think this could make a good series. let’s get it moving” And that was it. I had gone into Gerry office to show him some of my work and was walking out with the possibility of creating a series… I also got the storyboarding work as well!
Over the next couple of weeks there were lots of meetings with people like the scriptwriter Tony Barwick who worked a lot with Gerry on his series and a young Steve Begg – now the visual effect supremo on the recent Bond Films and other gems – to develop the idea. It wasn’t long before Gerry informed us that he had got some people interested in it, but we would have to make a pilot episode first… basically for nothing, beg, steal or borrow, though the only thing we really stole were the very, very old jokes. After many fun-filled script meetings, Tony came up with basic script and I ruined it with all the sight gags and off-the-wall humour and in-jokes.
We actually made the pilot in the Terrahawks model workshop in some downtime, with a very , very small but enthusiastic crew. It was shot on a workbench with cardboard sets, a very basic Dick Spanner armature model, lots of plasticine characters, left over models from Terrahawks and a wind up camera. Yes, forget about digital, we were clockwork!
To cut a not very long process even shorter we made the pilot and then Gerry did his magic on it and before you could say ‘Jumping Jehoshaphat’, we had a series of 26 episodes on the Channel 4 ‘yoof’ programme ‘Network 7’.
Was it an arduous process to get it on the screen?
I wouldn’t say it was arduous as we were having so much fun, but it did keep us busy as we had a tight deadline to deliver the episodes in just nine months. To give you an idea how tight the deadline was, say for example we were filming episode 8, well, we had two animators, the two Marks, Mark Harris and Mark Woollard with their own stage – not so much as ‘Stage’ but a table top in one of the sheds at Bray Studios.- they each had their own Dick Spanner and a set. Steve Begg was in charge of the photography and winding up the camera and I would be directing.
As you no doubt know, stop-motion is quite a time consuming business, so once I had giving the animators their instructions for two separate scenes, I would get on with storyboarding Episode 9, and work with Tony and Gerry on the scripts for episodes 1o and 11. Then I would check on the editing on Episode 6 and do the occasional voices and dubbing for episode 7 and then if time allowed watched the final edit complete with Christopher Burr’s music, of Episode 5. It was pretty full on and that was just on the animation stage, the model shop were working flat out as well and we did 26 episode like that and came in on time and on budget.
But do you know what, I never remember it being that stressful. I’m sure there were good days and bad, but we just got on with it and had a lot of laughs.
I can confirm that watching it as a child I laughed many times at the silly Goon show style jokes. Was it as fun to write as it was to watch?
It was and I was and still am a big Goons Fan, so thanks for the reference! As I said, Tony Barwick came up with the basic script which has its far amount of gags in it, then I would add my quirky visual humour and really, really bad puns and sight gags.
One of the first visuals gags that I suggested in the initial meeting and that I think won Gerry over, were the shots where the camera appears to be at strange slanting angle, but then everything in the scene begins to slide across the screen as if it’s the set that’s slanting. Also, the background gags and the posters were fun to create. The huge ‘Save Electricity’ sign was a belter.
As the series developed, so more and more ideas we being offered up from all of the crew. The two Marks would add some gags in the animation, Bob Bell and Barry Jones and the model shop would not only come up with some greats sets, but some wonderful characters. Steve would offer up some great gags especially around film parodies, culminating in the final scene from the final episode in series two when a circus tent took off like the Mothership in’ Close Encounters’ .
In fact, the second series we set in Ivywood, so that we could parody as many films as we could. Look closely and you can see a plasticine Gerry Anderson make a cameo appearance as a big Ivywood producer. I think every crew member was seen or heard somewhere in the series. The whole series was a great team effort, everybody, including Gerry or course, joined in the fun.
It was a fun time and cramming as many silly gags into one scene was brilliant. It’s always great to hear people say that they had to watch it a few times to get all the gags, which is what I wanted to achieve in the first place.
How perfect was Shane Rimmer’s voice for this part?!
Shane was brilliant. Obviously, he had worked with Gerry on a number of projects and was also very good friend of Tony Barwick , so when Gerry said that we were going to give Shane a try I was so pleased and excited. Blimey, Scott Tracey was going to audition for my project. He was perfect, he got the voice on the button straight away.
Was it 100% stop motion animation, or was there also some live action?
98.6436487% of the show was stop animation, though as a nod to the Anderson legacy for close ups, Dick Spanner’s hand was mine in a rubber kitchen glove sprayed silver. We also had a life-size pocket for the ‘What’s in the pocket this time’ gags.
How did you get involved with Gerry Anderson?
I had finished work as a Special Effect Trainee on ‘Revenge of the Jedi (As it was called then, before ‘Revenge‘ became ‘Return’) and there wasn’t any film work about, so I was working on the Slough Trading Estate for a company that made novelty food goods and plastic cooked chickens– don’t ask!
I’m not sure now how I heard, but heard I did about Gerry setting up a new series called ‘Terrahawks’ over at Bray Studio – a wooden stake throw from where I live. So without an appointment but a bit it cheek, I went over to Bray, where at the gate I made out I had an appointment and went in to the Anderson Burr offices and asked if I could see someone about possible work.
Amazingly, I got to speak to Bob Bell – the Art Director and Associate Producer – and explained to him what I had done in the biz and he told me that unfortunately the Special Effects team was all crewed up and that they didn’t need anybody else. Oh well, it was worth a try I thought as I walked out of his office. I was a couple of steps down the corridor when Bob called after me and said that they were looking for an Art Department Assistant, someone to help erect the sets on the puppet stage. Would I be interested in that? A nano-second passed while I thought and then said ‘Yes!’
I spent a few months on the puppet stage erecting the sets and helping out where I could, like rolling the Zeriods on to the set. This was done in reverse, where using compressed air I would blow them off the set and the film was reversed in the edit, so they always hit their mark.
I enjoyed my time on the puppet stage and as time went on I got to know more people and people got to know me and learned about my Special Effects background. There were some crew changes happening with people leaving and I was invited to go and join Steve Begg on the Special Effects stage and that’s where I stayed.
Starting work with Gerry for me was very much in the Del Boy ethos of ‘He who dares wins Rodney. He who dares.’
You have a fantastic CV. How did you come to get involved with working within the effects world?
That’s very kind of you. I would have liked more films on it, but I took another route and ended up working in the corporate world of video production and am still there after nearly 24 years. Going right back to the beginning, when I was a puppy, I wanted to be professional football player but I was let down by two things, my right foot and my left foot. I remember one match when I was on the subs bench and our team were doing so badly, the manager took one look at me… and sent the bench on.
I was always interested in film, writing and drawing and being a massive James Bond fan dreamed of working on a Bond film. So that got me thinking, If I couldn’t play for Manchester United, then maybe I could try a career in the film business, I was aiming at something in the Art Department, a set designer or a storyboard artist.
When I told my Careers Master that I wanted to get into the film business, he just laughed at me. (Remember this was back in the 70’s when ‘Media Studies’ hadn’t been invented and teachers were allowed to ridicule you.) Adding as he wiped the tears from his eyes, that kids from comprehensive schools in Slough don’t get into films. If I wanted to do something ‘Arty’ he suggested window dressing or map drawing. I was determined that working in films was what I wanted to do and told him so. ‘Well, you’ll have to get into Art College first.’ he grinned. ‘And you’ve got no chance with that either!’ A real ray of sunshine, he was.
I got into Art College through hard work and to prove that Careers Teacher wrong. I was studying 3D design and hoping to get a degree in architectural design that would help me become a set designer. It was a three-year course, but I only lasted one. Not because I was no good, but I had chance to throw it all away and work in the film business.
Backtracking a year, in the summer of 77, just before I was about to start Art College, Pinewood Studios had their one and only Open Day. With thousands of others, I went along with my Dad and my sister. During the day I visited one of the Special Effects stages owned by a company called Westbury Design & Optical and met the boss of the company Cliff Culley. Cliff was one of the country’s top Matte Artist having worked on a lot of the Bond films, Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang and others. I told him what I wanted to do as a career and he said that if I was to go off to Art College then contact him in years’ time he might be able to give me some work during the summer break helping out on the Matte Painting side.
Cliff kept to his word and in the summer holidays after my year at Art College, I was working at Pinewood Studios. Originally, I was going to assist on the matte painting, but Cliff was in need of some help in the Special Effects model shop where they were busy working on the films Arabian Adventure and Disney’s King Arthur and The Spaceman. I had a great time there and working in Special Effects nudge working in the Art Department to one side. Then at the end of the holidays, Cliff said that it was my choice, but I could either go back to college and do the correct thing and get my degree or drop out and stay on at Westbury Design and Optical as a Special Effects model maker. A big decision, but it was bye, bye college and hello film business! I was in!
What was the most exciting project you worked on?
As I’ve said, I didn’t work on as many films as I would have liked to, but working on both ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and ‘Return of the Jedi’ as a Special Effects Trainee and meeting both Spielberg and Lucas were very exciting times. Likewise working for Cliff and Gerry were great and of course, my time creating and directing Dick Spanner was pretty exciting too. I never did get to work on a Bond film, though I was offered work on ‘Never Say Never Again’ but was happily working for Gerry at the time. If I had to choose one project out of all the exciting ones I worked on, I guess it would have to be ‘Raiders’. A brilliant film and so proud to be part of it.
You worked on Clash of the Titans. What was that like? Did you see the remake?
That was while I was with Cliff. We were asked to do the destruction of the city caused by the tidal wave created by the Kraken. We did on the back lot at Pinewood with models. Big models so the water didn’t look too out of scale. I remember that I made the market stalls that got washed away and also all the individual tiles on the roof on the building that took the full force of the wave.
To be honest, I haven’t seen the remake, firstly because of CGI and the advancement of film technology is going to make the original look dated and secondly a friend who had seen it said it was rubbish!
I also see you worked on Nightbreed. How was that experience?
Once again, that was with Cliff. Owing to the nature of the film business. work isn’t always constant and I went freelance after my fist contract finished with Cliff, but if work ever came up, Cliff, who I still maintain is the best boss I’ve ever worked for, would let me know. I had not long finished on Spanner when Cliff invited me to help out on Nightbreed. This was a bit of a different experience for me as although I had been involved in the basics when I first started with him, I was assisting with some matte painting. Nothing major, just filling in, touching up and the odd gravestone and tomb, but I learnt such a lot and was really chuffed to get a credit as an assistant matte artist. Of course matte painting has all but gone from film production these days, well the painting on to glass form of matte painting has. It’s done by a computer now, but back in those days it was paint, brushes and talent and boy did Cliff have some talent. Apart from the matte painting, the other highlight working on ‘Nightbreed’ was getting to meet Clive Barker. A very creative chap and nice with it. I have one of his books at home which he signed and drew in. I have a piece of Clive Barker original artwork!.
What are you up to these days?
Not much in the film world anymore I’m afraid, but lots of creative writing. I’ve already said, the film business is great fun, but isn’t the most stable of occupations and although it’s great when you are in work and earning the money, there is also a lot of time out of work not earning money. This happened to me and I had got married and got a mortgage and a great family and needed something a bit more stable. Has luck would have it I happened to find a corporate video production company within walking distance of where I live and as already mentioned, I’ve been with them for almost 24 years, so still in the creative media business.
I went there as a storyboard artist and ended up as a director, editor, presenter and writer. I’m not involved with Special Effects anymore, but really involved in the writing side of things – over 700 training, promo and corporate scripts written to date – which is something I’ve always enjoyed, but my real love is writing comedy. In fact, a few years back I went from full time to part time with Friday’s off to concentrating on my own comedy writing.
I’ve written a few one act comedy plays that have been performed all over the UK and the World. I write regularly for a sketch show in Brighton called ‘The Treason Show’. I have a column in the local newspaper and I review local theatre. I’ve als0 been the Chair of the Slough Writers Group for the past 25 years and like most writers I have a novel and a sit-com on the go and lots of projects waiting to be picked up, lot of ideas and always on the lookout for more comedy writing opportunities
Recently, it has been great to see interest in Dick Spanner return, thanks to the excellent work that Gerry’s son Jamie is doing to keep the Anderson legacy going. I‘m not sure where it could lead to, but who knows? “Watch This Space!” as they say… or is “Mind The Gap?” Never too sure?
Thank you Terry Adlam for speaking with Cinetropolis.
Originally posted 2013-09-19 20:28:38. Republished by Blog Post Promoter