The life of Gerry Anderson
"He absolutely flipped out, screaming at me down the phone."
In 2012, Thunderbirds creator Gerry Anderson died peacefully in his sleep after suffering from dementia for many years.
His son Jamie not only stepped in to complete his unfinished products, but his father’s illness also motivated him to do something to help other people suffering from dementia.
OX Magazine went along to meet Jamie to find out about an initiative called Dementia Friends which aims to give everybody the opportunity to help others living with the condition.
So your father had a long and very successful career in making animated children’s TV programmes, but was that what he set out to do from a young age?
Well, initially he just wanted to be a plasterer! He signed up to go to the architectural college, but turns out he was allergic to some element in plaster. So instead, he had to go and do something else and when he was fifteen he got a job at Regents photographic shop in London and then went into editing and sound production.
From that, he sort of stumbled into TV. It wasn’t intentionally what he wanted to do. He was kind of messing about with adverts and various bits and pieces and struggling to find the right project to get his teeth into. And then this woman, Roberta Leigh, came along and said ‘I want to make some children’s shows with puppets and here are 52 scripts’. He had actually done a couple of adverts with puppets before, so he had a bit of experience to draw on. So it just started there really. But traditionally puppet shows had a painted backdrop which puppeteers leaned over. He looked at that and thought ‘it is always going to look bad – it is always going to look like a painted backdrop’. He saw you could get some depth if you put the puppeteers on a bridge over the top of the set instead. He tried to make it look as realistic as he could with what he had available at the time.
Did you grow up hating puppets?
Actually, I grew up liking Dr Who. Dad described me liking Dr Who as the greatest tragedy of his life, which is fair enough! No, I always enjoyed his work and when I was growing up he had just finished Terrahawks and all the VHS tapes were there for me to watch. There were a few VHS tapes of Thunderbirds around the house as well and when I was about four or five years old Mum said to me, ‘you know, your Dad made these.’ And I thought she meant he had recorded them off the telly and made a nice cover for them! When you are a kid you have no idea that it takes a studio with 200 people to make this thing and it took another few years for me to realised he actually made these programmes for everybody to see, he made them happen, not just recorded the tapes for me!
So you are now a director of your father’s company – Anderson Entertainment. Did you imagine that one day you would be carrying on your father’s work?
I always wanted to do what Dad was doing, so when I was five or so, I was already at Pinewood quite a lot. Dad, at that point, was doing TV adverts and bits and pieces and there was a bit of a lull production wise. There was this massive, massive Bond stage at Pinewood, very impressive looking…and next to it was the little shed with the wind blowing through the cracks in the planks. It was called Shed 11, and that was where Dad’s office was!
So tell us a bit about how your father was first diagnosed.
I knew something was wrong with Dad as early as September 2002. He was driving me and friends and he was drifting between lanes and was totally unaware of this. He wasn’t distracted, it was just his special awareness was degrading. My friends and I sat there white knuckled, holding onto the seats. But then how do you say to your parents that you think there is something wrong? It is just not an easy thing to talk about, so I left it for a long time. Then 2004 or 2005 at the age of 76 he was just having more and more special awareness issues, scraping the car on the walls while parking and having other problems here and there and I think I flagged it up to Mum at that point, so it was still three or four years after it started.
At what point did you say, ‘Dad, you need to see the doctor’?
I became more aware that it was probably Alzheimer's after I saw Terry Pratchett’s documentary about it. At that point I started reading up about it, but it got a bit scary because basically the information was saying it was terminal, incurable. So I avoided it for a while until the point where Dad became just too dangerous when driving. So it was then I learnt even more about it to confirm what was going on in terms of his symptoms. I went to his GP and said I think he has got dementia and these are his symptoms. I said he is very sensitive about it and he won’t listen to me, but if you approach him subtly and delicately then he will probably listen to you. She said ‘okay, I understand’. I said ‘you can’t say I have been in’. He went in two days later for a diabetic screening and she said ‘your son has been in and thinks there is something wrong’. He absolutely flipped out, screaming at me down the phone. It wrecked our relationship for months. So I then had to go and look up more about the disease, because if I could talk to him about it, that would help a lot. I mean, for one thing he thought this was totally untreatable, which it is not. There are drug treatments available so eventually when he gathered himself and said to me ‘if it is this, which I am not saying it is, what can be done?’ I was able to say there are these two or three treatments which can slow it right down and almost halt it. When he was diagnosed it took six months to get him on the drugs. It should be instant, but it didn’t happen like that and often doesn’t. I was expecting leaflets or monthly appointments, but there was nothing like that. It was just the diagnosis and off you go.
So is dementia an inevitable part of old age?
You just expected people to get dementia, but that is the wrong way to look at it. It is a disease of the brain. We kind of have a view that dementia is just old age, cute old ladies being a bit funny rather than a disease. Because we should be aging really quite robustly and living well into our 80s and so to have major special awareness problems like not being able to dial numbers on the telephone or dial so slowly it would cut off we often make excuses for. Like with Dad, we said it was his age. I’m writing this new audio series of Terrahawks and we have Denise Bryer doing Zelda. She is 84 and she is as bright as a button. She is fantastic and that is the normal way to be, the un-diseased away.
Is it the case that Alzheimer's and dementia are always terminal?
Well, dementia is an umbrella term for degenerative brain function diseases and Alzheimer's is one of them. A good analogy of your brain is like string of fairy lights and dementia basically knocks out one light at a time. So the more of those lights go out, the less and less function your brain is able to maintain and it starts by affecting the newest parts of the brain, so newest memories. So the hippocampus is where most of the memories are stored and it is a really sensitive part of the brain and also it does the reasoning bits as well, which is why people suffering from dementia can get angry and anxious. But it takes a long time for the disease to affect the older parts of the brain and when it does, it affects the parts that control appetite and thirst and eventually just generally organ functions – it will kill you by destroying the parts of the brain that keeps you alive. So it strips away the person first and the functions second.
What is Dementia Friends?
It’s not just go along and get information and go home type of thing, the action from it can be a promise to become a champion and tell other people or to visit a relative who has dementia or it could be volunteering for the local dementia service. Really, Dementia Friends is a gateway so you just go to the website, put your code in and the distance you are willing to travel and it shows you the opportunities to help locally. There are quite a few memory Cafes around the country, which is a place where people with dementia and their carers can get information.
What problems did you come across that Dementia Friends could have helped with?
It would have been great to have found out more about how to treat a person with dementia. My dad would ask ‘why did you let those children dance around my bed?’ and I would reply ‘Sorry, I won’t let it happen again’ or he would ask ‘why did you move that door?’ and I’d say ‘sorry Dad, it just had to be moved’. It’s not a case of reminding them. You can’t pull them from their world back into ours and when we were told that, it made a big difference. But before that we spent months correcting him and having arguments with him. All it would have taken was the want of one of these Dementia Friends sessions and if that was the one thing we took away out of there, it would have made a massive difference much earlier. That is why volunteers are so important.
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