UFO Celebrates 50th Anniversary

This month celebrates the 50th Anniversary of Gerry & Sylvia Anderson’s first live-action television series, UFO.

First screened on British television screens in September 1970, UFO, centered around visitors from a dying world who have come to Earth to abduct humans and steal their organs for their own survival.  Earth’s protection was spearheaded by S.H.A.D.O., a massively resourced, quasi-military organisation operating covertly from beneath a film studio, to both stop the alien visitations and keep them secret from the rest of the world.

S.H.A.D.O. has three main lines of defense against the laser-armed UFOs: single-missile Interceptor craft that take off from craters in a purpose-built Moonbase; Skydiver submarines that can launch jet fighters from beneath the waves; and a squadron of tank-like Mobiles for use in wooded terrain.

The series starred Ed Bishop who played Commander Ed Straker (an ex-USAF Colonel); George Sewell as Colonel Ace Freeman, (who oversaw Earth operations); and Michael Billington who played Paul Foster, a civilian test pilot who was recruited by Straker and Freeman after witnessing a battle between Sky One and a UFO.

Moonbase Operations were manned by three female personnel – Lt. Gay Ellis (Gabrielle Drake); Lt. Nina Barry (Delores Mantez); and Lt. Joan Hardington (Antonia Ellis). They were responsible for the day to day running of the Moonbase and provided vital assistance as a forward base in detecting and eliminating the UFO menace.  Other S.H.A.D.O. personnel seen throughout the series include Lt. Ford (Keith Alexander) as S.H.A.D.O.’s Communications Co-ordinator; Miss Ealand (Norma Ronald), Straker’s secretary; Doctor Jackson (Vladek Sheybal) the resident doctor/psychiatrist. Also seen in the series is General Henderson played by Grant Taylor. General Henderson was S.H.A.D.O.’s governmental liaison – a tough, authoritative official who frequently does not see eye-to-eye with Straker.

UFO was Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s first live-action TV series after a string of puppet-show hits including: Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons.  By the late 1960s, with two Thunderbirds feature films and in 1969 their first live-action movie, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (aka Doppelgänger), UFO was a natural matter of progression for their first live-action television series.

The series was unusual at the time for having women and black people occupying powerful positions. The role of Moonbase commander, for instance, was taken at different times by both Lieutenant Gay Ellis (Gabrielle Drake) and Mark Bradley (Guyanese-born Harry Baird), while S.H.A.D.O.’s first officer in later episodes was Colonel Virginia Lake (Wanda Ventham).

The series was devised to be something completely different from what had been done before. Whereas, the puppet series were aimed at children, UFO was definitely aimed at adults.

The Anderson’s employed many of those who had worked previously with them. Sylvia Anderson was responsible for developing the characters, costuming designs and casting. Tony Barwick, who had written numerous scripts for the puppet series, was Script Editor. In addition to these duties, he would write 12 of the series 26 episodes. Many of the other episodes were written by such stablemates as David Lane, Alan Fennell, and Alan Patillo.

The plots contained “adult” themes covering such topics as: relationships, divorce, mental breakdown, claustrophobia, organ transplants, drugs, mind control, rape, racial prejudice, etc. These themes were the basis for some unique and sometimes unusual storylines.

The Anderson’s used some of Britain’s top directors on the series such as David Lane, David Tomblin, Jeremy Summers and Cyril Frankel. These directors were able to capitalize on their vast experience and help provide UFO with some very “alien” visuals.

Special Effects were provided by effects wizard, Derek Meddings, and his team. Together they provided an abundance of explosions, alien technology, and other marvels of technical wizardry. Meddings and his team, in conjunction with the Ford Motor Company, also designed the three full-size futuristic Delorean gull-wing door cars that were featured throughout the series. And rounding out the team, Barry Gray provided music for the series composing the series theme and incidentals.

An average episode took two weeks to film and had a budget of £100,000 ($171,000 CAD approximately today).

Today, the series is still remembered for being unique, well-made television, slightly ahead of its time. The unusual plots and superb special effects are often quoted as things that made the series stand out.

Article by Bob Furnell