How Not To Do Supermarionation: Roberta Leigh’s ‘Paul Starr’

Many of you will know the name Roberta Leigh for her role in giving Gerry Anderson and AP Films their first television series – The Adventures of Twizzle. This followed into a series of Torchy The Battery Boy. By the end of 26 episodes of Torchy, AP Films had just about enough money saved up to produce a pilot episode for their own series, Four Feather Falls. The formula of a charming idea and great writing along more sophisticated puppetry proved to be a tremendous success for the team who went on to find success with Lew Grade and the creation of Supermarionation.

Meanwhile, Arthur Provis decided to leave AP Films to go and work for Roberta Leigh, whom he considered to be a safer pair of hands than the ambitious Gerry Anderson. Leigh and Provis went on to produce some children’s puppet series of their own, most famously Sara and Hoppity (1960) and Space Patrol (1962).

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Space Patrol is often associated with Gerry Anderson because it’s a science fiction show made with puppets with moving mouths. There are just two major differences:
1) It was produced on a considerably smaller budget and looks like it too.
2) The writing talks down to children in such a huge way that I’d rather bang my head against a wall than watch another episode.

Many of Roberta Leigh’s puppet films and series can be found on YouTube and they all have one thing in common – terrible writing and a looking cheap.

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Roberta Leigh with some of the Space Patrol characters.

I can, however, just about forgive Space Patrol because despite being produced in a similar way to Fireball XL5, it does have an identity of its own. I actually really like the more avant-garde aspects of the show such as the electronic theme music, and the design of the galasphere which is unlike anything you would see flying around in a Gerry Anderson show. I still prefer the more traditional rockets of the Anderson shows, but I admire Space Patrol for trying to do something different.

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The Galasphere in flight.

The characters, though grating and horrendously flat stereotypes a lot of the time, could be considered likeable to children who grew up on the series. But when put up against its closest rival, Fireball XL5, in my opinion there’s no competition and Fireball, though suffering from some weak writing itself at times, is better produced, more exciting, and more likeable. And yes, the biggest argument surrounding this debate is that Space Patrol had a much smaller budget than Fireball XL5 and therefore they can’t be compared.

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But my main issue with the show is on a scripting level rather than with the production. Roberta Leigh wrote every single one of the 39 episodes. The dialogue is written so clunky, there are more stereotypical characters and jokes than you could shake a stick at, and the plots of the stories are simplistic and predictable. But at least it had a style and approach which made the show stand out from Fireball XL5, and I think that’s what ultimately made it successful in its own right. It was different enough.

After Space Patrol, Roberta Leigh and Arthur Provis made a pilot film in 1964 called Paul Starr. Unlike Space Patrol, this film isn’t even good at being corny and childish and has absolutely no special or unique attributes whatsoever. Everything about it feels like a cheap rip-off. I’m not saying Space Patrol was great, but at least it had something that made it stand out other than the fact it’s really bad. Space Patrol tried in some way to seperate itself from Fireball by being a bit weird. Paul Starr actually tries as hard as it can to copy the Supermarionation style. It’s as if Roberta Leigh took aspects of Fireball XL5 and Stingray, and threw them together with a dash of her trademark for bland characters and scientific nonsense.

screenshot_6The puppets are about the only thing that stick out about Paul Starr, not because they’re any good, but because their faces appear to be made out of rubber and are able to move their chins. Some refer to this as more realistic, and point out that its technique which Gerry Anderson didn’t utilise until the 80s with Terrahawks. Such people tend to ignore the fact that they really aren’t realistic, and the whole time you’re fixated on the fact they look like expressionless gasping fish. I’m just baffled by the fact that Roberta Leigh wanted to make the move towards more realistic puppets in the first place. When puppets with realistic proportions were introduced in Captain Scarlet and the Mysterson, it fitted the more grown-up and serious style of the series. You can’t convince anyone that the characters in Paul Starr are real people because the world they inhabit is still clearly artificial, so why bother? Maybe they thought technologically advanced puppets would make people ignore the bad script…

 

Screenshot_1.jpgThe characters are horrendous stereotypes. The ugly and expressionless Paul Starr has no personality whatsoever. And yes, much-loved Anderson actor, Ed Bishop voices the character. He later voiced Captain Blue and starred as Ed Straker in UFO. For some reason Ed’s performance is lacking any of the warmth we later heard in Captain Blue. And the reason is that there’s absolutely no warmth in the script, with nothing to learn about the character beyond the fact he’s supposed to be heroic – even though being heroic is an attribute placed on people by others, not something that can solely define a character’s personality. For example, Steve Zodiac isn’t just heroic. He’s charismatic, handsome and romantic. But he can also be rude and intolerant. So it is by the deeds that he performs that the audience and other characters consider him heroic, it’s not an intrinsic part of his personality. Paul Starr doesn’t have a personality so ‘heroic’ is about all that he has.

His sidekick, Lightning is an Asian stereotype. That’s about it, there’s nothing else note-worthy about him except for the fact he says and does stupid things. His dialogue, and the way it’s performed by the voice artist is monumentally cringe-inducing. As for all the other characters, well they pretty much fit the same description accept that they’re stereotypes of other nationalities or genders.

Oh and on the subject of gender, why does Roberta Leigh crack so many awful jokes about women in her shows? Yes, Fireball XL5, Stingray and even Thunderbirds had some sexist comments in them, but none of those stick out quite so badly as the way female characters are treated in Roberta Leigh’s shows. In Paul Starr, the chief is told he will be sent an assistant by the name of Dr. Man… but it turns out she’s a woman! Oh my aching sides! So then everyone just assumes she’ll be an absolute nightmare… because she’s a woman so she must be… of course…

Now let’s talk about the terrible special effects which have clearly been produced by people who know nothing about special effects. The model shots in Space Patrol are no-where near perfect, but at least the fact they’re shot in black and white gives them something to hide behind. Also, the fact that the galasphere was like no other spaceship seen in an Anderson show mean there’s nothing to compare it to. But in full and vibrant colour, the models in Paul Starr just look like toys. They’re poorly detailed, simplistically designed, and not given the slightest bit of dirtying down or added weight from high speed photography. Some of this is a result of budget restraints, and some of this is a result of people trying to copy the work of Derek Meddings without the faintest clue how to do it.

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Oh the base is under the sea? I wondered what all that water was doing here…

Let’s see, what else is ripped off from the Supermarionation shows? How about the ocean door from Stingray; a machine that can travel in space, in the air, and on the water just like Supercar; a remote controlled bird like the one seen in the Fireball XL5 episode, Wings of Danger; an organisation (the Space Bureau of Investigation) whose name is simplified down to an acronym just like the WASPs; wings that extend like Supercar; lots of explosions; and an over the top male singer performing the theme song at the end, just like SupercarFireball XL5, and Stingray.

Screenshot_7.jpgBut perhaps the worst rip-off in the entire show is the fact that the robots are clearly designed to look like Doctor Who‘s Daleks, which were reaching the peak of their popularity with children at the time Paul Starr was made. You can picture it now. Kids who couldn’t afford to spend their pocket money on Dalek toys could blow it all on cheap, nasty Paul Starr robot toys instead…

What’s the lesson to be learned from all this? Surely, with so many elements mercilessly ripped off from Supermarionation shows and beyond, Paul Starr could have ridden the success of its counterparts? Space Patrol managed to develop its own fan base, quite seperate from Gerry Anderson’s, despite being produced on a low budget and only being rediscovered relatively recently. But I think it’s fair to say that had Paul Starr ever gotten as far as a full series, it would have needed rather desperately to become more original and could not have survived solely on the basis that it sort-of looked like the Supermarionation shows.

People often wonder what it was about the Supermarionation shows that made them special, and I think Paul Starr does a lot to help narrow that down. Ultimately, the high production values associated with Supermarionation are crucial. This depended not only on their healthy budgets but also the wealth of knowledge brought by the talented and hard working production team at AP Films and Century 21. Paul Starr does look better than Space Patrol, but it still doesn’t look good, or like any of the people involved knew anything much about special effects photography.

Another very important key to it is the writing. I’ve spent a lot of this article criticising Roberta Leigh’s style, and while it is somewhat enjoyable in Space Patrol, in Paul Starr it’s just messy, contrived, and actually tries too hard to be aimed at children by dumbing things down to a level that just makes it utter drivel. “Paul Starr, lift off again,” is such a boring line to start off a space adventure with it’s actually comical. The opening narration is just so awkward. “Atomic explosions. Fire on land. Sabotage in the air. Introducing, Paul Starr – space agent.” It’s as if words that sound cool have been forced together into sentences that never wanted to exist. Compare this to: “Standby For Action!” It’s short, it’s snappy, it makes sense and it’s actually followed up by visuals that still look impressive over 50 years later. Paul Starr sounds like a 6-year-old child wrote it.

Which brings me to my next point, and probably the most important for ensuring a show has a decent legacy: Supermarionation shows appeal to all ages because they don’t talk down to children. Yes, there’s no denying that Gerry Anderson’s puppet series’ primary audience is children. But because the dialogue and stories don’t simplify situations or disasters they can still be watched and enjoyed by people as they grow older. Trapped in the Sky is about a plane that’s been sabotaged, and a team of people that try to save it. That can be understood and enjoyed by anyone whether you’re 6 or 96. Paul Starr, is about atomic stations being blown up… by robot birds carrying bombs controlled by a mad general in an ice-berg… It tries to be like a Supermarionation show but then fails by making it too silly and childish.

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A talking penguin, the star of one of Leigh and Provis’ next series, Send For Dithers. Yes, really, that’s a penguin. 

Mercifully after this Roberta Leigh stopped trying to do what the Andersons were doing and went on to produce puppet shows that were very definitely in her own style and made for really young children with brains made of cheese. She even moved into live action before Gerry did, albeit unsuccessfully, with a pilot called The Solarnauts (1967). The Solarnauts has some sort-of-good bits in it and is certainly worth watching to be tickled with pulp sci-fi goodness. Although I could state the theory that she knicked the name from the Thunderbirds episode, Sun Probe

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