MATT ZIMMERMAN - The voice of Alan Tracy
Around six million viewers of BBC2 are currently watching Thunderbirds every week - but it is unlikely that many of them would recognise actor Matt Zimmerman if they passed him in the street. He bares little resemblance to Alan Tracy - pilot of Thunderbird 3 - the puppet he voices in Gerry Anderson's classic action series.
Matt Zimmerman began his acting career at a very early age. "My father had an orchestra and I started singing with them when I was about five years old, It just seems like a logical progression - I'd done singing as a boy on radio, and that led into radio plays and then stage shows, films and television. I then came to this country to go to LAMDA, where one of my class mates was Ed Bishop. I was hooked in the business, and there was no way of getting out!"
Auditioning for International Rescue
Thunderbirds was Zimmerman's first experience of working with Gerry Anderson, and he believes that he won the role largely because he is an American p and the series was to be specially tailored for the American market. "They had trouble casting Alan Tracy. My chum David Holiday had already been hired to play Virgil and he suggested me to Sylvia Anderson, I went along to see her, and believe it or not I got the job when I walked in because I had a dimple in my chin like Alan Tracy!"
So how was this rather bizarre idea for a television series explained to him by the producers? "They told me it was to be a half-hour series, and the lead characters were named after American astronauts. They also explained to me about International Rescue and their purpose.
"The show took off much bigger than we originally thought - at first Gerry was doing them as half hour episodes, and we completed about ten. However, then Lew Grade saw them and said they should be an hour long. We had to go back and do them again shooting extra footage, and I was doing a musical at the same time called High Spirits."
Having joined the regular tea, of voice artistes on the series, Zimmerman found working on the programme initially quite unnerving. "I had done some glove puppet work in America, but I'd never seen my voice coming out of a puppet. I remember an episode in which I played a helicopter pilot and we had to come into the studio to do a wild track. There was this little model on stage, and suddenly my voice came out of it - and I have to tell you my stomach turned over because it was very spooky. After a while I got used to that, and the wild tracks used to be fun.
"You know they used to cheat a lot, because the puppets couldn't grab things p so they used to come and film the actors hands, but you couldn't move your fingers because they were covered in a plastic substance."
Each episode of Thunderbirds featured numerous different characters, and yet the credits indicate only a mere eight voice artistes were involved. "We all had to double up and do lots of other voices," Zimmerman explains, "We also had to change our voices as much as we could. I remember Ray Barrett had to play a Duchess in an episode in which a painting is stolen (The Duchess Assignment), and he also regularly played the Hood and John Tracy. Ray would always find something funny and get the giggles during that episode. I played another lovely character who was the host of a television show in Terror in New York. He had a really thick accent - it was great fun to do. We also had to make crowd noises, and provide yelling and screaming."
Surprisingly enough, it was rare for the actors to witness the filming of the series, as their involvement was pre-recorded on audio tape and played back in the studio. "Originally we used a studio in Slough, which was located in Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's offices - we would do three episodes on a Sunday. That wasn't every Sunday - it was normally about once a month. It was like a living room with couches in and the microphones were hung above them - it was a very small area. The episodes were at first recorded as plays, as the puppets were electronically tuned to our voices and so their mouths would move as we spoke, We did the first fifteen or twenty episodes in Slough, and then we started doing them at Denham studios, which was much bigger. We also did two films Thunderbirds are Go! and Thunderbird Six at Denham."
There were, of course, some distinct advantages to this arrangement, particularly in that the cast were not required to learn any of their lines. "We would read the scripts through on the Sunday and allocate parts, so that we didn't end up talking to ourselves. Obviously, we all had our main characters to play as well. We would then begin the recordings in the afternoon, just reading from the scripts, so there was no necessity to memorize anything."
Thunderbirds remains the only Anderson series to credit Matt Zimmerman as a regular cast member, although he was involved with a couple of episodes of the live action series UFO and appeared in one instalment of Space:1999. "Thunderbirds was the only series I was available to appear in full time. In one UFO (Exposed) I played a pilot and I died in a place crash. They had to haul me up in this plane cockpit with all the gas rushing over my face to simulate G-Force, and then they dropped me. I thought "Oh God!" Wouldn't they rather have puppets doing this?"
Now that Thunderbirds is back with a vengeance and capturing a whole new generation. Matt Zimmerman is fascinated by its longevity. "I find it absolutely amazing how it's taken off. Like everyone else I thought that then we finished the series it would be over and forgotten, but it follows me around. We thought it would be quite successful at the time, but we weren't prepared for it becoming such a cult. But I'm very proud of the series - I think it is excellent."
"It's like The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, for which I appeared in the television version,. I still get feedback from that, because it is such a huge cult. I played a policeman (at the end of the fourth episode), and I was shooting at Zaphod Beeblebrox and blew up the computer bank."
Away from telefantasy, Zimmerman has a very busy working life. He frequently appears in West End musicals, and last year took over the lead in Anything Goes playing opposite Elaine Page. He has also starred in West Side Story, and hopes to work on another musical shortly. His television appearances include T-Bag, Mike and Angelo, Crazy Like a Fox, Never the Twain, Once in a Lifetime and numerous commercials. One regret is that he auditioned four times for the role of Count Duckula, but the role ultimately went to David Jason. With tongue firmly in cheek Matt Zimmerman claims "I hate him!"