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Thunderbirds are go with first presale

Thunderbirds_Tracey_IslandAustralia’s Nine Network has acquired the upcoming Thunderbirds reboot. The series, which will be distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, will go out on the free-to-air broadcaster’s youth-skewing digital channel GO! in its children’s programming block. It will also be available for viewers to catch-up via 9jumpin’s VOD service.

It is the first presale of the upcoming series, based upon the iconic puppet series. Nine’s director of commercial development, Martin Hersov, said: “The classic Thunderbirds episodes have been a regular feature on the Nine schedule since the very beginning, so we are extremely pleased to be working with ITV Studios Global Entertainment on this exciting new series.”

ITV Studios Global Entertainment is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Gerry Anderson’s genre-breaking puppet series Thunderbirds by relaunching the franchise to a new generation to children.

Those growing up in 1960s Britain will definitely remember the classic phrase, “Five… Four… Three… Two… One… Thunderbirds are go!”, which signalled the latest episode of action-adventure puppet series Thunderbirds.

Backed by Lew Grade, the British media investor and uncle to Michael (who would later run the BBC, ITV and Channel 4), Thunderbirds launched through ITC Entertainment in 1965 on ITV franchisee ATV. The Gerry and Sylvia Anderson-created show spawned two seasons comprising 32 44-minute episodes, and a new mixed-media style of production centred on its use of marionette puppets, suspended and controlled by thin wires dubbed ‘Supermarionation’.

Thunderbirds followed the International Rescue agency, a secret organisation led by the Tracy family committed to saving lives using land, sea and space vehicles and equipment.

Five decades on, ITV is bringing the brand back to television, having originally acquired the rights to Anderson’s catalogue after ITC was folded into the UK broadcaster following Grade Snr.’s death in 1998. Anderson himself passed away two years ago.

“We felt that with it being the fiftieth anniversary of the show, the time was right to re-engage with [Thunderbirds]: from a British perspective it’s a much-loved brand,” says Giles Ridge, who is executive producing Thunderbirds Are Go!, which is slated for launch in 2015 on kids channel CiTV.

“We also felt that where we are with animation technology meant the time was right for us, because you can achieve so much more technically now that you could do even ten years ago,” adds ITV Studios’ senior VP of content.

The new 26x30mins series – aimed at 5-11s with a sweet spot of 6-9s – will be a mix of CGI animation and live-action backgrounds. ITV Studios is working with New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures, which has A-grade set and prop design experience, having worked on the The Lord of the Rings features.

“If I could pinpoint one aspect of the physical production, it is the CGI combined with the miniatures that will give kids an aesthetic that is like nothing else in the television market at the moment”

The idea of returning to Supermarionation was floated, but contact with children and parents proved the concept lacked support. Ridge says the new design could be just as iconic: “If I could pinpoint one aspect of the physical production, it is the CGI combined with the miniatures that will give kids an aesthetic that is like nothing else in the television market at the moment,” he says.

ITVSGE has international distribution rights, and Ridge acknowledges that strategically a US deal is a “key priority” – a failure to sell the original to America is cited among the reasons it was cancelled. It will help that showrunner and lead writer Rob Hoegee is an experienced American-based action-adventure animation producer with credits including Teen Titans Go!, Slugterra and Generator Rex to his name. “He has an incredible track record in this space,” says Ridge, who EPs alongside former CITV controller Estelle Hughes.

A stellar voice cast has also been put together, including Rosamund Pike (Die Another Day) as Lady Penelope; Rasmus Hardiker (Saxondale), David Menkin (Thomas & Friends) and Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Love Actually) playing the five Tracy brothers between them; Kayvan Novak (Phone Jacker) as space-based scientist Brains; and, notably, David Graham reprising his Parker the chauffeur character from the original series.

Ridge says the voice recordings were made with as many cast members in the sounds booth together as possible, which is not usually the case with animated series, in order to create natural dialogue. “We felt strongly we wanted cast to bond, and that really showed in the performances.”

Another element setting it apart from the competition is Ridge’s assertion that most animated action-adventure series are “rooted in battle, conflict or superhero mythology. Thunderbirds doesn’t fit into any of that – in my eyes it’s in an exclusive sub-set of the action genre based around rescue, saving people and helping”.

He says the original series’ values of “heroism, bravery and ingenuity” remain “the values of today” and those that parents want to instil in their children. He adds that this will translate in the 2015 series: “Ultimately, there was no need to mess with the fundamental DNA,” he says.

Similarly, sets such as the iconic Tracy Island and the character line-up will stay faithful to the original. The main difference will be in pacing: each episode is about half the running time of the first series, which Grade had insisted run close to an hour. “This will feel more dynamic,” says Ridge.

ITVSGE will have a completed episode at MIPCOM and MIPJunior, at which point international buyers will decide whether Thunderbirds are go for their channels.