A Correspondence with Look-In writer and TV21 script editor Angus Allan.
Photo: Angus Allan poses as Technician First Class Samual Brady for the Project SWORD annual in 1968, taken by art editor Roger Perry.
Angus Allan may not be a name immediately familiar to more recent fans of the Gerry Anderson series but in the 1960s, he held the position of script editor on TV Century 21 comic. His writing career spanned four decades and publications too numerous to mention.
In 1987, as part of research for a thesis on fandom and Gerry Anderson, Shaqui Le Vesconte corresponded with Angus Allan - at the time working as chief writer for the Junior TVTimes Look-In - and in a candid series of letters, he aired his views on the work he had done.
Owing to the long nature of the letters, Shaqui has filled in some of the gaps that would have formed the questions in the original letters sent to Angus Allan.
This correspondence initially appeared exclusively on the Supermarionation Is Go! website, and is reproduced with their permission.
Shaqui: My first letter to Angus Allan regarded the set up of TV Century 21, and his work in general for the comic.
29th January 1987:
Angus Allan: I have to tell you that my full-time employment with Century 21 Publications was rather brief; I preferred the surroundings of Fleet Street pubs to those of the office. This meant that, ere long, I went freelance to resume plain-and-simple scriptwriting. It was all very amicable, not least because Alan Fennell, the editor, and I had been office-boys and pals together at the old Amalgamated Press.
I think, however, that I can answer most of your queries - and hopefully with a degree of accuracy. Although one's memory becomes hazy after so many years and so many stories.
The major serials in TV Century 21 were written by Alan Fennell himself - and he had, of course, been writing scripts for the Anderson television series since the days of Fireball XL5. This meant that he was already in full command of verything to do with the stdio output. As for the artists, they were given stacks of 'stills' material from the Anderson productions*, and in some cases were taken down to the Slough studios to watch the series being made. Other scripts in the publication were handled by members of the staff in their spare time - Dennis Hooper, Tod Sullivan and myself sharing the main workload. We had no direct interference from the film studios, approval or (rarely) rejection depending entirely upon Alan Fennell's judgement. Because of this 'office-internal' set-up, scripts for TV Century 21 were begun almost as soon as the initial filming of series commenced. So it was that things like Captain Scarlet would appear in the magazine ahead of film release. I'm not sure, but that particular situation may have arisen by the film-release date having been put back.
The same would have been true for Countdown, since that publication's editor was Dennis Hooper, who had been TV Century 21's art-editor, and maintained connections with the Anderson setup. (I have a feeling Alan Fennell wrote the UFO series in Countdown but I could be wrong.)
Now - as for the Daleks, I would say that Terry Nation wrote the TV Century 21 series himself. The series, curiously, was not within my province as script-editor, since Terry Nation chose to insist upon working personally with Alan Fennell. Terry Nation was (naturally) paid well over the normal rate for his scripts, and there was no question at all of anything ever been rejected, nor even altered. I say that Terry Nation wrote the scripts himself, because at one time, he either fell ill, or was somehow indisposed, which meant that I had to fill in for a few weeeks right in the middle of a story. It was quite a task, since I had to 'keep the fill moving' yet advance the actual storyline not at all. So that he could take up more or less where he'd left off on his return to work. I undertook this as an 'on-staff' job, without payment, and it's a tribute to Terry Nation's integrity that, completely off his own bat, he subsequently sent me a cheque in full payment, at his rates, for the work I'd done. An unexpected and very welcome windfall at the time, as you can imagine. I never heard David Whitaker's name mentioned in any connection with the TV Century 21 strip - but that doesn't neessarily mean he wasn't involved. (Note - It is generally believed that the first script editor of the Doctor Who television series actually wrote the Dalek strips in TV21, rather than Dalek creator Terry Nation. Who fans are still divided on this issue.)
Photo: Introducing Captain Scarlet, an adaptation of 'The Mysterons' using new material by Angus Allan.
I'm afraid I can't help you much with the queries on product licensing. That was handled directly by Alan Fennell through a merchandising unit that may have been part of the Century 21 organisation. The chap there was Roger Caton, with whom I have regrettably lost touch. I would hazard a guess that such things as Thunderbirds toys and so forth were put into production right from scratch, so to speak. It was confidently assumed in the heyday of Anderson production that each new series would be a resounding success, and there was therefore no hanging around for public confirmation! Merchandising was highly organised, and I remember that Century 21 Records took studio space with us in Fleet Street during the Captain Scarlet days. Some of the records were adaptations of fim soundtrack, but others were specially written (I did two or three scripts myself) for recording by the 'voices' of Captains Scarlet, Green, Black etc. (Note - These are Introducing Captain Scarlet (an adaptation of the first TV episode) Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons, and Captain Scarlet Of Spectrum. These were re-released on tape in 1994 and are now available as extras on the DVDs)
I ought to mention what we called 'spin-off' publications - mainly the 'specials', 'annuals' and 'extras' - but also the paperback books. Scripting/story writing for these was often handled by outsiders, through Alan Fennell. In this instance, a writer would be given a stack of TV Century 21 magazines to study, and would have to come up with an initial synopsis, several pages long, of what he intended to do. This would be initially passed by myself (or returned for alterations) and given the final okay by Alan Fennell. As always, with outside writers, there would be minor errors of style that had to be corrected, An example - in the case of a Thunderbirds complete written by Scott Goodall. A splendid technician, Goodall made the mistake of having Scott Tracy refer in dialogue to Gordon as "Li'l brother" - which was totally out of character and had to be corrected.
(Laughably, I did the same sort of thing myself, some time later, when I had to step in hurriedly and write a Star Trek serial at zero notice - without ever having seen the series on TV. I had Spock referring to Kirk as 'skipper'! It got into print, too - and drew a storm of scorn from readers. I still blush at the thought of it.)
*I notice that... I alluded to stills etc, sent to artists as reference. I imagine, like all afficionados of Andersonis, you'll be eager to know what happened to these. Sadly, I have to tell you that all were returned to the studios in due course. Slough were very strict about that.
Shaqui: Angus ended his letter, as with all subsequent ones, with the polite and friendly offer that if he could be of any further assistance I should not hesitate to write again. And write again I did, enquiring further about whether any of the comic writers had ever been approached to write for the TV series (which was how Alan Fennell came to write for Fireball XL5), and because Angus had mentioned his work for Century 21 Records, writing an adaptation of the Captain Scarlet episode 'The Mysterons' and penning two original stories recorded by the original cast. As a fan of Space:1999, I also asked about Angus Allan's credits for the World Distributor annuals he wrote, based on the series.
5th February 1987:
Angus Allan: Century 21 Publications Ltd was a company owned jointly by Century 21 Productions and City Magazines. Century 21 Records were probably under the sole control of Century 21 Productions (meaning the film company). I couldn't be sure of that. I'm afraid the ins-and-outs of the various departments were not of any interest to me at the time, so I couldn't really tell you anything about the Century 21 business structure as a whole.
Writers for the magazines were never asked to submit any kind of material for the television series. The reason for using outside writers on the annuals was that the scriptwriters on the weeklies were too busy. Simply that. Actual production was handled, however, by the same team as that responsible for the weeklies (sub-editors, etc etc). City Magazines, per se, had no control over content. Their primary roles were in part of the finance and in distribution.
Illustration: The Space:1999 annual ©1976, the second of four Angus Allan wrote and produced for World Distributors. Cover art by Edgar Hodges.
Now to Space 1999. Alan Fennell joined the board of World Distributors when he left Century 21 Publishing upon that company's eventua demise. Therefore it was no surprise that he asked me to compile annuals for him. I think I did the first three annuals - any that followed being handled entirely 'in house' at World, after Alan Fennell moved on again. The procedure for annuals was that Alan and I would scheme out a pagination, allocating space for strips, features, 'pin-ups', quizzes, puzzles etc etc. Then I would write the scripts, Alan would engage artists to draw them, and I would write text stories and all the rest of the guff, liaising with a freelance art editor who would tackle the layouts and so forth. Thus, eventually Alan (and therefore, World Distributors) would end up with a complete package - an annual 'from soup to nuts', so to speak. As to the rights involved, World Distributrs would originally have approached Century 21 productions for these. What sort of fees they had to pay for the rights, I have no idea.
I have to say, by the way, that at all levels of production - of magazines, annuals and indeed everything else involved with the entire TV Century 21 set-up, there was no fan-like zeal! This may surprise you - even dismay you - but if you understand that everyone from Alan Fennell downwards was simply a professional journalist 'doing a job', you'll see what I mean. That is not to say that we didn't have enthusiasm for what we were doing, but enthusiasm was for the product rather than the content. Not one of us 'lived' Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and so forth. I sometimes come across fans who imagine that, on occasion, the staff of TV Century 21 would dress up in relevant costumes to produce the comic. I fear that nothing could be farther from the truth! Why, it was seldom that we even talked about any of the series once we'd quit the office for home or pub.
Shaqui: Just over a couple of weeks later, quite out of the blue, Angus wrote again:
18th February 1987:
Angus Allan: Something just occurred to me that might be of interest to you, since it concerns a curious offshoot of the Anderson 'machine'. I'm talking about Project Sword.
Early in 1968, Century 21 Merchandising, a company set up to handle the toys, puzzles and other film-spin off material (excluding, of course, publications) came up with the notion of producing toys NOT directly linked to any Century 21 Film production. The reasoning was probably that TV Century 21 was such a successful seller that anything Alan Fennell and his stalwart team could produce would generate its own popularity and therefore - sell toys. Accordingly, talks were held with Alan F, and the outcome was a set-up called Project Sword - dealing with the evacuation, as I'm sure you already know, of selected people from a doomed planet Earth.
I can't for the life of me remember whether we ran a 'Sword' strip in TV Century 21 itself - we possibly did. But Alan F approached me to compile a Project Sword annual - strips and text stories - from soup and nuts. It was catching sight of my copy of the annual on my shelves this morning that prompted me to write to you about it. I remember that I had great fun doing it, which perhaps goes against what I told you last time about the lack of staff 'involvement' in the product! I suppose it was because I was given virtually a free hand to create and develop characters - but in fact I did, in a manner of speaking 'live' the production. I wish I could say that the marketing experiment was an unqualified success - but it wasn't. It went to prove that, to make a real go of a marketing operation, you really do need the backing of a 'hit' TV series!
As a matter of passing interest, if you possess a copy of the Project Sword annual, or can lay your hands on one, you'll see various stills of various kinds used among the line illustrations. These stills look suspiciously like bits culled from all sorts of sources, to me. From other Anderson productions, and - in a couple of instances - from 2001 - A Space Odyssey!
Also, in two places towards the end of the annual, we had the idea of putting in biographies of main characters in the stories, using photos of real people. (No matter that the likenesses varied somewht from the arted characters!) Running through them, in sequence, we had Roger Perry (our art editor, annuals - who also took the photographs; his one by remote control), than Dennis Hooper (Chief Art Editor), then me, then a West Indian guy Roger pulled in off Fleet Street, than Laurie Kuhrt, one of our subs, then Tod Sullivan, assistant editor, then another bloke (an Indian also culled from the pavement), then a chap on City Mags called Len Flux. The final pair of portraits were Howard Elson, a TV21 editorial man, and then some Canadian guy who worked with us for a spell, and whose name I can't remember. Thus, at least some of us were immortalised!
Shaqui: In my reply to Angus' previous letter, I had casually asked what he could attribute the success of the Gerry Anderson series to. His response was impassioned, but I tend to sense a wry sense of humour in the answers...
9th March 1987:
Angus Allan: I am tempted to answer it in just one sentence, and sign off. The sentence would be: 'If I knew why Century 21 was a success, then I'd be a millionaire.' Really, you've bowled me a fast ball. I can call up all manner of reminiscences about TV21. I can close my eyes and picture myself back in those offices. But to give a reason for the popularity of Thunderbirds et al? Wow!
It was all very different. Okay, we'd had puppet stuff on telly before it - even Anderson stuff, like Four Feather Falls. But the whole business of Supermarionation was, I suppose, such a departure, then, that it caught the public imagination. And, I would opine, it caught the public imagination because there was plenty of publicity throughout the media to tell the public about it. Someone 'up there' thought Gerry Anderson was the up-and-coming thing, and made certain the publicity wheels began to turn. And whoever it was 'up there' - Lew Grade or whoever - happened to be right. I mean, with publicity campaigns, once you start the ball rolling, and as long as you have the power and money to keep the ball rolling, I suppose you're on a winner.
That said, other things have been hyped up like mad, and have gone down the pan. Maybe it was a combination of hype and a first-rate product that did the trick. You have, after all, got to have the back-up that makes the hype worthwhile. No use blowing off to the public about, say, Wizzy Wacksnatch and His Magic Fingers if Wizzy Wacksnatch turns out to be a low-budget minimum-animation accumulation of crap with soppy-sounding voice-overs. Honestly, I can't really say anything more about what makes a thing 'go'. Hang it, I wish I did know. Then, some of the abortive stuff I've done in the past few years might have taken off on screen.
What I said about Supermarionation a few years back, I still stand by. Both my wife Gillian (who was editor of Lady Penelope) and I thought that things began to slide when Gerry tried to make his puppets look more lifesize. I mean - anyone who dug the Thunderbirds stuff knew that the heads were oversize, etc. And it didn't matter. They were puppets, and that was the magic. Try and make 'em like real human beings, and you lose the appeal. Why not actually have humans? (Of course, that didn't work, because when Gerry saw the argument and went on to make UFO, he began to slide.) Why that? Because Thunderbirds-type situations, given human actors, became so far-fetched as to be ridiculous. Who, I ask you, would reckon 'Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs' to be anything if you had a real, live Snow White and seven midgets? It'd be dead creepy, rather than entertaining.
Illustration: The frontispiece for Thunderbirds - The Target, one of the few stories Angus Allan was credited with during his time working on Anderson related material in the 1960s.
Finally, all I can say about the things I've worked on is that in the main, they've been enjoyable 'jobs' - requiring no more than carefully applied thought, a dram or two of whiskey, and the eventual agreement of an editor. If I tell you that, during my thirty-plus years of writing for countless publications, I've had to turn out everything from 'Huckleberry Hound' to 'Billy Bunter', from 'Captain Hurricane' to 'Startrek', from 'Kit Carson' to 'Buck Rogers', etc etc etc - not forgetting 'Mr Wimpy', 'The Tony Blackburn Annual', 'The Avengers', 'Mr Jinks and The Meeces', 'Mission Impossible', 'Hazell' and 'Dangermouse' (both in comic and on TV), you'll understand that in truth, I am nothing but a hack. A machine. A device to be turned, with a handle by money-grubbing editorial entrepeneurs. Bless 'em!* I've never had the chance, nor the time, to produce anything that I can actually call my own, save well-buried and totally forgotten characters in IPC comics like SMASH. I might dream of giving birth to something like 'Superman', but the dream is as far as it'll go. Pity, but there you are!
And don't worry about it. Take succour from one who once had to compile 'Your Hair is Your Luck' for Clairol Shampoo - under the by-line, would you believe, of 'Gipsy Legretto'. I even had to have a photo taken with a headscarf and curtain-ring ear-rings. Luckily, it was never published with the series!
*They pay me!
Shaqui: I was curious about the Century 21 publications that had attempted to expand the market in the mid 1960s, which had seemingly come about owing to TV Century 21's high sales:
6th April 1987:
Angus Allan: I'm beginning to feel like 'the wise old Sage who knows all - tells all'.
But seriously! Regarding the sales figures brings back happy memories. Happy, because when a publication one happens to be writing for, sells well - then it's a great thing. Those were the days! When I could frequent the Fleet Street clubs in my best suit and swell out the old chest. 'Ah yes,' I could say. 'I write for TV21'. etc etc!
In fact, TV21 hit a half-million sale - and steadied at that - just shortly after its inception. It never went higher than that, but 500,000 was a superb figure for any comic. And is. Most of the publications that go out reckon to break even at around 150 thousand, and fold when they drop below the hundred thousand mark. So half a million - wow!
Curiously, when Lady Penelope hit the bookstalls, we were all surprised that it did as well as TV21. The girls' market was never reckoned to be quite as good. However, Lady P scored beautifully - and it actually came up to outdo TV21, rocketing to a fantastic three quarters of a million sale within the first year. Why? Nothing to do with the Anderson material, would you believe, but because we put the Monkees into it. Now, I don't know why - because although I'd seen the pilot episode of The Monkees, and liked it, I found that the run-on television series (they never actually showed the pilot) was awful. However, I wrote the scripts for the mag. At first they were drawn by a bloke called Tom Kerr. In black and white. And pretty poor, I thought. Then they went into colour, with an artist - a genius - called Harry Lindfield. If ever I had to choose something that I'd done, and was proud of, those strips would be the ones. Harry was brilliant, and it was a pleasure to write for him. And up went the sales. Not to a million, though. Not ever. But 750,000? That was money to Century 21 and City Magazines.
Photo: The novelisation of the film Thunderbirds Are Go - but attributed solely to Gerry and Sylvia Anderson on the cover.
The only comparable thing that ever came about - apart from the 1951 Eagle, (which I believe did crack the million mark at some point) was when Look-In's sales went through the roof, thanks to the TV popularity of Kung-Fu. And again, when they ran David Cassidy, in his heyday. I had the privilige of writing both of these efforts, too - so maybe my brilliant scripts had something to do with the lot! (or maybe not. History will judge me.)
To come back to ground, Solo was a feeble sort of thing that never really took off. We were threatened with a lawsuit from the word go, when we used Fatman and Sparrow, and the Batman people objected. Nobody up at Century 21 really believed in the publication, and it went the way of all flesh, in short order.
As for Candy, that was a big joke. We hired 'nursery' staff - that is, people who were supposed to know about teeny publications - and tried to sell the magazine with a lot of hype. We had an Austin Mini, done up with stripes and sent out on the road as the Candy 'N' Andymobile. It picked up parking tickets, went off the road, broke down, etc etc. A no-no. We also had 'Auntie Jean', a TV personality with puppets called Tingha and Tucker. Auntie Jean was a foul-mouthed Australian whose language practically turned my hair grey. What was left of it. (My hair, that is). Her puppets sank. And so did Candy.
Yes, we were trying, at the time, to broaden out into all the various markets - but by the time we did it, I'm afraid that the Anderson magic was already on the wane. 'Nuff said?
And now, I fear, I have to close this and get back to what is the work of the moment. I thought last week that I'd written my last instalment of The A-Team for Look-In, but they've decided to extend it for another six weeks, so it's back to the blessed typewriter for that. Horrible thing to do, when Look-In refuse to have even a pistol shown in their strips now. And you know what The A-Team is all about!
Shaqui: Angus' final letter came after I had completed my studies and sent him a copy of my thesis, and he returned from - in his words - 'a splendidly boozy/sunny fortnight motoring through France'. Most of the letter is complementary on the thesis' contents - which I won't bore you with - but he did have these final interesting comments:
15th July 1987:
Angus Allan: We who are involved with the production of things - let us in this instance call them, broadly, 'Andersonia' - tend to be blasé. Regard the whole business as trivial. Well, after reading your thesis, I was left with the notion that in fact, we have all contributed something to 'society' - in the broadest possible sense of the word. We have, in short, done something 'worthwhile'.
It is an unusual feeling, for someone involved in the U.K. comic-strip field. For most of us are at best tolerated. "Oh yes, Angus fills the bubbles. He writes UGH and EEK, you know." How different on the continent. Only last week I was in a bar in a remote little place in the Ariége. The landlord happened to ask what I did for a living. "Je suis un ecrivain des bandes desinées," I replied. And was instantly rewarded with - god dammit - respect! He said, to my utter astonishment, because he was my own age - fifty or so - that his favorite was Inspector Gadget. And I was able to tell him that I actually write the strip for a British magazine. He was - not to put too exaggerated a point on it - enthralled. And I was ten feet tall! Fandom over the Channel is, it seems, too much normality for a thesis!
Angus signed off with an offer that, if there was ever a comic convention he was attending, he would let me know and we could "commiserate with each other at the shackles that bind us" over a drink or two. "Even if you happen to be a T-totaller." he quipped.
Sadly, that never happened, and the correspondence has sat as a treasured item in my files for the better part of twenty years. When this correspondence was first published on the Supermarionation Is Go! website, it came as an enormous surprise when Angus Allan, now retired with Gillian in the South of France, emailed me to say 'bonjour', and renew our passing acquaintenance. Both he and Gillian have helped with queries too numerous to mention regarding their time on TV21 and Lady Penelope for this webiste.
Fondly recalled as a 'grand old man of comics', he now enjoys playing in a French jazz band (below).
Fans of Angus Allan's work on the Junior TVTimes magazine Look-In may also like to read Alistair McGown's more recent interview him at his website, where he discusses his work on that title.
The Gerry Anderson Complete Comic History would like to extend its thanks to Angus Allan, for taking the time to answer the many questions at the time, and to him and his wife Gillian for all the continuing help they have given this website filling in the many gaps.
The next round is definitely on me!
Any comments or notes about this interview, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
© This correspondence is exclusive to Shaqui Le Vesconte, and no part may be reproduced without permission.
All images © their respective copyright holders