FOUR FEATHER FALLS (1960)

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Four Feather Falls

Whilst working on Roberta Leigh’s 'Torchy the Battery Boy', Gerry Anderson and Arthur Provis of AP Films, decided that they wanted to branch out and produce a puppet series of their own creation. With £6,000 in the bank and an idea given to them by their music composer, Barry Gray, they set about making a pilot episode for a western called 'Four Feather Falls.' However, fearing that Leigh would find out and cancel their contract for 'Torchy' and withhold payment, they began creating the puppets and sets for their new series under the utmost secrecy.

At this time, the owners of Islet Park, the mansion that AP Films rented to use as their film studios, offered to sell them the property for £16,500. Realising that this was a fantastic asking price from a buyer’s point of view, Anderson would have readily accepted. But Provis thought it too much of a gamble and wouldn’t agree to the purchase. Anderson was understandably frustrated at Provis’ reluctance to expand the company and eventually the pair decided to part company. In the event, they broke without acrimony, and Provis later joined forces with Roberta Leigh and together they produced another children’s puppet series called Space Patrol.

The pilot episode of Four Feather Falls was "in the can" by April 1959. Set in Kansas at the end of the 19th Century where pioneers of the West have settled into the frontier town of Four Feather Falls near Silver City, the series was intended to be a Western with certain fantasy elements. Tex Tucker is crossing the desert in company with his faithful dog, Dusty, and preparing to ride into town on his trusty steed, Rocky, when the trio come across a small lost Indian boy, Makooya –the son of a powerful chief called Kallamakooya.

After rescuing the boy they arrive at a watering hole only to discover that it has run dry. But Kallamakooya appears to them in a cloud of smoke and uses his mystical powers to replenish the waterfall before rewarding Tex for saving his sons life by presenting him with four magic feathers. The first two feathers give both Dusty and Rocky the power of speech (although only Tex can understand them), whilst the second two feathers bring Tex’s guns to life, enabling them to swivel and shoot of their own accord whenever danger threatened.

Tex arrives at Four Feather Falls to take up the post of Sheriff, using his unique abilities to protect the townsfolk from rustlers, robbers and swindlers –especially two desperate Mexican bandits called Pedro and Fernando. Meanwhile, our hero becomes a firm favourite with the law-abiding citizens of Four Feather Falls who include Grandpa Twink and his grandson Little Jake, saloon owner Slim Jim, telegraph operator Dan Morse, bank manager Marvin Jackson, store owner Ma Jones and Doc Haggerty –all of whom are happy to take time out to listen to one of Tex’s songs.

Preparing to shoot a sceneFour Feather Falls was AP Films’ most ambitious project to date, with much more detailed sets than used in The Adventures of Twizzle or Torchy the Battery Boy. The puppets became more sophisticated, too. The heads were now made from fibreglass, which was stronger and lighter than previous materials. This in itself caused more work because of the distribution of weight. If the puppets were too heavy they would require a thicker wire to operate them, which would make them more visible on screen. But Anderson was attempting to make his shows more realistic so this wasn’t really an option. Conversely, if the puppets were too light a thinner wire could be used but they wouldn’t respond to control. Anderson and his team had also experimented with electronics to match the puppets mouth movements to the dialogue. The head of the puppet was fitted with a solenoid connected to a tungsten wire 1/5,000th of an inch thick and pulses were fed down it from a tape recording of the actors’ voices. When each shot was ready, a switch was thrown and the pulses of direct current went out onto the stage, up the bridge and into power lines running in front of the puppeteers. The director would inform the control room staff which puppet was on which channel and with the use of crocodile clips the appropriate channel was selected. It was important that the operators didn’t touch these wires by hand because they had around sixty volts running through them. By the time the current reached the puppets head it was reduced to about twelve volts, which was just enough to activate the mouth movements. The electronic lip synch mechanism had, according to Gerry Anderson, about a 90 per cent success rate. This technique was one of the earliest developments for a process that Anderson eventually named Supermarionation.

The character of Tex Tucker was voiced by Nicholas Parsons, who had worked for years with Arthur Haynes as his ‘straight man’ on Haynes’ hit comedy series and Kenneth Connor returned once again to voice Rocky, Dusty, Marvin Jackson, Doc Haggerty, Slim Jim, Chief Kallamakooya and the villain, Pedro. Parsons also supplied the voice of Dan Morse. Denise Bryer was Little Jake, Ma Jones and Makooya. During the series another actor joined to give voice to Grandpa Twink, Fernando, Big Ben and Indian Chief Red Scalp. He was a friend of Gerry Anderson from his days working at Elstree Studios and he stayed with Anderson for many years. His name was David Graham.

Four Feather Falls puppets in storageFollowing the example of Roberta Leigh’s previous stories, Anderson decided to include a number of songs in the show. Michael Holliday was a popular recording artist who had a voice very similar to Bing Crosby. He had enjoyed chart success with a number of singles, the most popular of which was ‘The Story of My Life’, a Burt Bacharach and Hal David composition that had topped the UK singles charts. He cost Anderson £2,000 of his £6,000 budget for the pilot but Anderson ensured he got his money’s worth by signing Holiday to a contract that resulted in six songs for the series: ‘Four Feather Falls’, ‘The Phantom Rider’, ‘The Rick-Rick-A-Rackety Train’, ‘Happy Hearts and Friendly Faces’, ‘My Home Town’, and ‘Two Gun Tex of Texas’, which was used to close each episode. Contrary to popular belief, ‘Four Feather Falls’ was not the shows theme song and only appears in a few episodes when sung by Tex. Michael Holliday was a much troubled star, and after his career took a downturn in the early 1960s he committed suicide, his body was discovered at his Surrey home on October 29th 1963 – he was 34.

Four Feather Falls’ harmonica player was Tommy Reilly, a leading classical performer who had established a recording career in the 1950s at Parlophone where he was teamed up with a young producer named George Martin. Reilly soon became much in demand for radio, television and films and recorded themes for The Navy Lark, Dixon of Dock Green, Last Of The Summer Wine, The Singing Detective and the movies Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines and Midnight Cowboy, (both of which he scored). He was awarded an MBE in 1992 and passed away in September 2000, aged 81.

Anderson took the pilot to Granada Television who commissioned 34 episodes. But that pilot was the last filming AP Films did at Islet Park. Gerry wanted larger premises and with Arthur Provis now gone he decided to go ahead with the expansion of the business. As a result of this he took a lease on a former warehouse at Ipswich Road on the Slough Trading Estate, just four miles away. Les Bowie, an SFX man who Gerry Anderson had tried to entice to AP Films previously, had up to that time occupied the building. When Bowie declined the offer to join AP it was he who suggested Derek Meddings for the job. The benefit of Anderson taking over this place was that it needed very little work in the way of adaptation, was about four times larger than Islet Park and boasted space for offices, two cutting rooms, a screening theatre, special effects and stage areas, an area for set construction and a small reception area.

As mentioned previously, the idea for Four Feather Falls came from music composer Barry Gray, who also wrote the first episode. Anderson later admitted that he didn’t credit Gray as series creator for no other reason other than he did not know such a title existed. “It’s difficult to imagine,” said Gerry Anderson some years later, “but we were desperately naïve in those days.” Gray’s original idea was to be called 'Two Gun Tex Tucker.' The original setting was in the fictional wild-west town of Spelltown, Kansas. Tex Tucker was a lawman renowned for being able to hit two flying nickels with a double gun draw. He was aided by his obese assistant Buster and the story included two other characters called Slim Jim and Jake Jollymop. These ideas were later refined and the story was renamed 'Two Gun Tex Of Texas.' Jake was replaced by Timothy Twinkle known as Ole Twink, the town’s oldest resident, and the town was now known as Four Feather Falls. An element of fantasy was introduced for the first time, and Tex’s dog, Dusty, and his horse could both converse with him due to the town’s magical properties. Martha Lollipop was the storekeeper and she was assisted by Red Feather of the Kiowa tribe. The town’s doctor was Angus McDougall, known to residents as Jock the Doc, and he was also the storyteller for each episode. Other characters that didn’t make it into the final version were Merry Myrtle, Mary Lou, Big Chief Four Feather and Saucy Sal.

The first episode of Four Feather Falls was shown in the UK just two days after Anderson and Leigh’s previous series Torchy the Battery Boy had begun in the London area. It debuted on Thursday 25th February 1960 at 500pm and featured on the cover of that week’s edition of TV Times. With the success of Four Feather Falls to add to Anderson’s impressive CV of children’s puppet series, AP Films fully expected Granada to ask for more. Instead he recalls that on delivery of the last programme he was handed a cheque and met with stony silence. Anderson felt this was a great shame because he and his crew had already worked out a concept for their next series. They even had a name for it.

It was called...Supercar.

Review: February 2002