Birthday time! 29th September 1967 was an extraordinary day to be stuck in front of the telly in the UK because you would have witnessed the dawn of two of the most immortally strange fantasy series the genre will ever know – both courtesy of ITC. One was The Prisoner, the other Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons; both pilot episodes standing tall among the finest examples of the art of introduction. The only thing missing from Scarlet’s opener was the originally-planned cross-promotion to The Prisoner of Patrick McGoohan himself ‘voice guesting’ as the World President. Wouldn’t that have been something?
The Century 21 33rpm vinyl mini-albums were hugely popular Gerry Anderson spin-offs that not only gave kids a way to re-experience favourite episode soundtracks on audio but went one better by serving up a number of wholly original stories. These ground-breaking productions are as legitimately canonical to the Anderson universe as Big Finish plays are to the telly Whoniverse. Which makes it rather appropriate that it’s Big Finish who have pounced upon the opportunity to collect together all five of the original Scarlet audio stories for this anniversary collection. These are as brilliantly well-produced as the TV episodes, full of death, destruction and derring-do delivered utterly straight-faced by the familiar cast. Barry Gray’s music and effects top-off a frenetically deluxe listening experience, then and now.
Also included in this exquisitely tooled box are eight further narrated episode soundtracks that Fanderson (the brigade of official Ander-nuts since 1981) produced some years ago for internal absorption to the hive-brain, rather than the likes of us. Intended to sound like ‘new’ mini-albums, these are a sort of ‘what if?’ exercise that gives us the Captain Scarlet equivalent of the many Thunderbirds TV soundtracks Century 21 knocked out in the late 60s when demand for new product outstripped their ability to produce new audio stories. These are altogether less essential - if you get through them all without giving up and reaching for the DVDs you’re made of sterner stuff than us. Nice to hear the late, great Ed Bishop back in character as Captain Blue, though.
More worthwhile is the anniversary documentary included here. Clearly geared to the seasoned enthusiast (that’ll be us then), its treats include Gerry Anderson fluidly explaining the photographic and lighting challenges of miniature photography and SFX man Alan Shubrook revealing how the expanded Century 21 world seen in Captain Scarlet was achieved (in a nutshell, they moved everything onto the floor!). Mixing new insights from the increasingly few veterans of the TV series with archive soundbites from those now departed, it builds nicely to a final section that gets right under the skin of why the series remains so uniquely enduring.
Given that ITV have completely ignored Scarlet’s big birthday, it’s great that Big Finish have made this effort. A lot of love has gone into the reconstruction of the ‘60s material to get it sounding as good as possible in the absence of the original masters. Hardly essential if you already have these stories (and nothing beats the snap, crackle and pop of the original records), but still a great way to say Happy Birthday, you indestructible old bastard.
CAPTAIN SCARLET AND THE MYSTERONS: 50TH ANNIVERSARY LIMITED EDITION BOX SET / PUBLISHER: BIG FINISH / DIRECTOR: JAMIE ANDERSON / WRITERS: ANGUS P ALLAN, RICHARD O'NEILL, TONY BARWICK, ALAN PATILLO, BILL HEDLEY, PETER CURRAN, DAVID WILLIAMS / STARRING: FRANCIS MATTHEWS, ED BISHOP, DONALD GRAY, CY GRANT, LIZ MORGAN, SYLVIA ANDERSON / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW