Filmed in Supermarionation (2014)

2015 #135
Stephen La Rivière | 119 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | UK / English | PG

For generations of people, the work of Gerry Anderson and AP Films / Century 21 are an irrevocable part of their childhood. For my part, I grew up during their big ’90s revival — the era of Anthea Turner’s make of Tracy Island on Blue Peter (though as no one in my family is particularly crafty (as it were) I had a Proper One), etc — so memories of Stingray, Captain Scarlet, Joe 90, and, most of all (of course), Thunderbirds are (more or less) as much a defining part of my childhood as they are for kids who grew up during their original airings in the ’60s. This documentary about the behind-the-scenes story of those iconic shows is an absolute nostalgia-fest, then; but it’s also more than that: a story of British endeavour, ambition and inventiveness, which perfected an art form and, in the process, revolutionised television and film. And all by a bunch of young Brits working out of a poky little industrial unit in Slough to make children’s TV programmes using puppets.

You may balk at such a claim, understandably, which is partly why this documentary’s very existence is a delight. However implausible it may sound, this gaggle of puppeteers were TV- and movie-making pioneers. For one thing, they were the first in Britain to spot the inevitable rise of colour TV, insisting Stingray be shot in colour (a full five years before ITV actually offered a colour service) to futureproof it, sales-wise. For another, their desire for realism and authenticity helped push forward the development of special effects. For various reasons they ended up making mostly sci-fi shows, laden with high-tech vehicles that were inevitably involved in exciting action sequences, requiring plenty of things like explosions and water — tricky to realise with models, but they did it anyway, and made it work too, and became experts in the field.

And finally (for this summary, at least), Anderson’s ever-present desire for realism led him to invent an aid system to aid his puppeteers. In order to control the puppets, the operators were positioned above the sets, afforded only a bird’s eye view — a hard position from which to make them perform well, considering they couldn’t see what they were actually doing as it appeared on camera. So Anderson devised a way for a video feed to be run from the film camera up to a TV monitor for the puppeteers. The process also meant the director and cinematographer could see exactly what the camera saw, including the ability to rewind and review footage, meaning that, if there was a worry about a mistake, it was no longer necessary to either wait for the film to be developed or shoot another take just in case. This system, if you aren’t familiar with it, is known as video assist and is an industry standard on film shoots (digital filming removes the need for it, of course, but that’s a very recent development).

Director Stephen La Rivière, from whose book this film is ‘adapted’, conveys these facts (and more) in amongst the narrative of the making of the programmes themselves. It’s a very well constructed documentary: smoothly told, never flagging, integrating what could be total asides as if they were a natural part of the story. Many key players are interviewed afresh, with archive interviews fill in for others (including Anderson, who passed away in 2012), meaning we’re getting the story firsthand. The result is full of admiration and respect for what was achieved by these iconic series, but isn’t adverse to revealing some of the truth behind their making.

For instance: for all his achievements in the field, Anderson never actually wanted to work with puppets — as a burgeoning TV production company desperate for work in the ’50s, AP Films were approached by a writer to produce a puppet series, so they did; that led to her commissioning another; they thought they could do better work by themselves, so they did; and it continued to spiral from there. Anderson constantly pushed for the puppets to be better — for their movements to be more realistic, for their lip-sync to be genuinely synced (again, innovating new technology to achieve this), for their proportions to be like humans rather than caricatures. But these advances eventually went too far, at times angering the puppeteers. They didn’t approve of the realistically-scaled puppet heads featured from Captain Scarlet onwards — they were harder to puppeteer convincingly, divorced of the margin of error that bigger heads allowed (and, arguably, needed); and they removed the puppet-ness of the puppets.

This culminated in Century 21’s final puppet series, The Secret Service, where all the scenes of people walking, driving, and so on, were performed by real humans in real locations with real props, while all the close-ups remained puppets. Many considered it ridiculous. Subsequently, Anderson was distracted into the world of moviemaking (with the flop Doppelgänger (now commonly known as Journey to the Far Side of the Sun)) and live-action TV (with UFO, for starters), and the puppet side of the business was violently shut down — an era-defining magic factory, dismantled with sledgehammers and thrown in a skip. Oh for hindsight, eh?

I’ve wound up telling interesting stories of Anderson & co rather than really reviewing Filmed in Supermarionation per se, but that’s because it’s an interesting story and the film tells it so very well (better than me. Oops.) For anyone who grew up with these programmes, this is an insightful, informative tribute to their ingenuity and quality. If you’re not familiar with them — if you don’t feel that ineffable childhood affection — I guess it doesn’t offer quite as much. Nonetheless, it remains the story of an incredible, pioneering endeavour that helped put the quality of British filmmaking on the map. It’s fun to think that, at a time when British culture was conquering the world and breaking new ground, through the likes of the grand extravagance of the James Bond movies and the subversive brilliance of the Beatles, standing toe to toe with them were a bunch of people in a tin shed with some puppets.

5 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Filmed in Supermarionation is on Sky Arts tonight at 9pm.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

2015 #76
Matthew Vaughn | 129 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | UK / English | 15* / R

Kingsman: The Secret ServiceThe team behind Kick-Ass bring that same reverent irreverence to the spy genre in this comedy-action-thriller that aims to bring the fun of ’60s/’70s spy-fi back to a genre that’s become oh so serious.

Developed alongside the Mark Millar/Dave Gibbons comic book The Secret Service, Matthew Vaughn’s film casts Colin Firth as Harry Hart, an agent for an independent intelligence operation, Kingsman, who recruits council estate kid Eggsy (Taron Egerton), the son of a fallen comrade, into the group’s elite training programme. As Eggsy battles tough training challenges and the snobbery of his Oxbridge-sourced competitors, Harry investigates suspicious tech mogul Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), who is secretly kidnapping people of importance and publicly giving away free SIM cards to everyone on the planet, but for what nefarious purpose?

There are several things going on in Kingsman that make it a uniquely entertaining proposition, especially in the current blockbuster climate. Part of the setup is “My Fair Lady with gentlemen spies”, as chavvy Eggsy is reshaped to be an old-fashioned besuited gent, inspired by the story of how Dr. No director Terence Young took a rough young Scottish chap called Sean Connery under his wing and taught him how to dress and behave as a gentlemen in preparation for his star-making role as the original superspy. It’s one of those ideas that you wonder why no one thought of developing into a fiction sooner. It could have come across as datedly classist, but Vaughn and co-screenwriter Jane Goldman nail it as a 21st Century character arc: being a gentlemen is not about speaking correctly or lording it over the lower classes, but about a universal level of good behaviour, politeness, and doing the right thing. It successfully and acutely dodges any potential accusations of classism.

Classy mealAn even bigger part of the film’s triumph, and what likely led it to over $400 million worldwide in spite of its higher-than-PG-13 classifications (it’s Vaughn’s highest-grossing film to date, incidentally; even more so than his X-Men instalment), is that it takes the ever-popular James Bond formula and brings it up to date. However much you might love Casino Royale and Skyfall (and I do), the Bourne influence is undeniable. They’re not Bond movies in the same mould as the Connery and Moore movies that established the franchise’s enduring popularity around the globe; they’re modern thrillers, faithful in their way to Ian Fleming’s creation, but also zeitgeisty. Vaughn and co have looked at the DNA of those ’60s and ’70s Bond classics and given them a fresh lick of paint. So we have just-beyond-possible gadgets, a megalomaniacal supervillain, complete with epic mountain base, his own personal army, a physical tic, a uniquely-gifted almost-superhuman henchwoman, and a tongue-in-cheek tone that isn’t all-out spoof but lets you know no one believes any of this could actually happen and that’s OK.

Despite the overall tone of modern blockbusters, I don’t think the appetite for movies like this ever went away; or if it did, it quite quickly made a resurgence: a similar itch has been scratched in recent years by superhero movies, especially the Marvel ones. Audiences — or, perhaps, studio execs — seem currently more ready to accept outlandish action sequences, melodramatic stakes, and an occasionally-humorous tone if they were dressed up in colourful suits and pitched in the realm of sci-fi/fantasy, A little swimrather than the supposed real-world universe of spy movies. What the worldwide success of Kingsman proves is that audiences don’t need the set-dressing of superpowers to accept an action movie that’s less than deadly serious. It’s a place I don’t think the Bond movies could go anymore — not without accusations of returning to the disliked Moore or late-Brosnan films — but it’s one many people clearly like, and Kingsman fulfils it.

Another clever move by Vaughn and co was to aim it at adults. Every blockbuster is PG-13 these days to keep the box office high, but Kingsman shows you can cut loose and still make good money. By specifically setting out to make an R-rated version of the classic Bond formula, everything gets ramped up to 11. On the one hand, that earns the controversy of That Joke in the final act (as Vaughn has said, not wrongly, it’s a variation on the classic Bond film finale; Mark Strong’s Merlin even closes his videoscreen, Q-style), but on the other it allows for crazed action sequences. The (faked-)single-take church massacre has to be seen to be believed; a highly-choreographed orgy of violence that is a marvellous assault on the senses, demonstrating the benefits of clear camerawork and highly-trained professional stunt- and effects-people over fast-cut close-up ShakyCam handwavery. Later on, a certain sequence set to Land of Hope and Glory would be inconceivable in any other movie. Things like this perfectly demonstrate why the world needs these less-than-serious kinds of film: they let creativity loose, crafting moments and sequences that are exciting, funny, unique, and memorable.

The first rule of Fight Church...Criticisms of the film tend to pan out to nought, in my opinion. Is there too much violence? There’s a lot, certainly, but part of the point of that church sequence (for instance) is just how long it goes on. Other excellent action sequences (the pub fight you might’ve seen in clips; the car chase in reverse gear; the skydiving) aren’t predicated on killing. Similarly, Samuel L. Jackson’s baseball-capped lisping billionaire is a perfect modern riff on the traditional Bond villain, not some kind of attack on Americans or people with speech impediments. Some have even attempted a political reading of the film, arguing it’s fundamentally conservative and right-wing because the villain is an environmentalist. Again, I don’t think the film really supports such an interpretation. In fact, I think it’s completely apolitical — just like its titular organisation, in fact — and such perspectives are being entirely read into it by the kind of people who read too much of this kind of thing into everything.

If there’s any fault, it’s perhaps in an overabundance of ideas. One fewer training sequence might’ve been better — but then, which would you lose? Based on the trailer, some scenes were cut as it is (sadly there’s no deleted scenes section on the Blu-ray), and the film doesn’t really outstay its welcome. For me, it wasn’t as balls-to-the-wall revolutionary as Kick-Ass and, when we have actually had lighter-toned action films in the past few years, it doesn’t reconstruct its genre quite as much as Vaughn and Goldman’s adaptation of Stardust did for fantasy.

Secret SocietyNot everything hinges on being wall-to-wall groundbreaking, though, and Kingsman has so much to recommend it. It ticks all the requisite boxes of being exciting and funny, and some of its sequences are executed breathtakingly. The plot may move along familiar tracks — deliberately so — but it pulls out a few mysteries and surprises along the way. There’s an array of likeable performances, particularly from Firth, Egerton (sure to get a lot of work off the back of this), Jackson and Strong, and Sofia Boutella’s blade-legged henchwoman is yet another why-has-no-one-done-that great idea.

I’m more than happy for the Bond series to carry on down its current, serious-minded path, but I’m ever so glad Kingsman has come along to provide the level of pure entertainment and unabashed fun that series used to do so well. If they can keep this quality up, may there be many sequels.

5 out of 5

Kingsman: The Secret Service is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today, and the US tomorrow.

It placed 13th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

* During editing, the BBFC advised the film would receive an 18 certificate unless changes were made. The submitted version was classified 15. Normally such edits are applied globally (despite what some websites like to claim), but this has been a less clear case: vastly different running times were posted by the BBFC and their German equivalent, but Vaughn stated in an interview that nothing was cut for the UK. Now, the UK and US Blu-rays have identical running times, so it seems likely he was (unsurprisingly) telling the truth. Another “the UK version is cut!” storm in a teacup? Yessir. ^