As a boy, Duncan Willis’ favourite book was a tie-in with the TV show, Torchy the Battery Boy.
Although he wasn’t to know it at the time, it was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with the work of Gerry Anderson, best known as the creator of Thunderbirds, the 60s show which chronicled the adventures of the Tracy family and their International Rescue team
Using his process of Supermarionation, Anderson was behind a whole string of hit science fiction TV shows based around his increasingly life-like puppets, from Fireball XL5, to Stingray, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, Joe 90 and The Secret Service.
Anderson died on Boxing Day aged 83.
Duncan, now 55, has been making replicas of the puppets from the shows he grew up with for about seven years. And among the sci-fi memorabilia his home in Whiteley is packed with, are some of those puppets.
His first ever effort, a recreation of Colonel Steve Zodiac from XL5, sits astride his hoverbike on top of a DVD case in the living room, while Captains Brown and Blue from Captain Scarlet are on top of the wardrobe in a bedroom.
But it is in his conservatory, now effectively Duncan’s workshop, where he spends painstaking hours trying to make his replicas as authentic as possible.
There he is surrounded by his work – including a lifesize Dalek, the evil aliens from Doctor Who, which is not exactly tucked into a corner.
The table is covered with newly-cast bodyparts from his works in progress. He is getting ready to take some of his work to display at BritSciFi, a convention for science fiction fans, held at the national Space Centre in Leicester in March.
Placed in cabinets are some of his proudest efforts. Although he believes he has done better work since, his Parker – Lady Penelope’s distinctive driver from Thunderbirds, pictured right, is one he is particularly proud of. Underneath the buttoned up tunic, his torso is signed by Anderson, his wife and co-producer Sylvia Anderson and David Graham, who provided his voice.
Duncan says: ‘Gerry’s shows have been so important to me in my life. The first series I remember avidly following was Fireball XL5.
‘Those shows had a natural charm and unaffectedness to them that was fantastic.
‘I had always loved the shows, but never really been into the toys, they just didn’t seem that well made. But I loved the puppets, there was something about them.
‘I had always fancied owning one, but the originals are so expensive, I’ve seen them go in auctions for £30,000, upwards.
‘So I thought I would try and have a go myself.’
Self-taught, the former sales rep says it’s a time-consuming hobby and a puppet takes about three weeks to make from start to finish.
‘There’s been a lot of cock-ups along the way,’ he adds. ‘Plenty of trial and error and a lot of swearing, but I say if you’re going to do something, do it right.
‘There are better marionette makers, better prop makers and better costume makers, but not many who do it all themselves.’
EVEN BETTER THAN THE REAL TIN-TIN
TIN-Tin was not one of the major characters in Thunderbirds.
She was the daughter of Kyrano, the Tracy family’s manservant, but would often end up embroiled in the rescues.
And at the moment, she is Duncan Willis’ latest project.
He says: ‘She was never one of my favourite characters, but she’s definitely grown in my affections as I’ve been working on her.’
As Duncan’s skills have increased, so has his reputation in the world of Gerry Anderson fans. Through conventions and online forums Duncan’s work has become well-known in the fan community.
When the owner of an original Tin-Tin puppet allowed him to use a cast from the original’s head for his own piece, it was as close to the real thing as he could hope to get.
Whilest it is possible to get hold of second, third or fourth generation moulds of character body parts, few have come directly from an original.
A cupboard in Duncan’s conservatory is stacked with various moulds for the different characters, from heads, to torsos, to hands and legs.
And unlike many of the other replicas, Tin-Tin has got a human hair wig, most others have mohair. He even bought hair dye to get it the right shade.
‘I’m really proud of her,’ Duncan adds.
WHEN DUNCAN GOT TO MEET HIS PUPPET HERO
DUNCAN Willis got to meet his hero Gerry Anderson three times - the first of them when he did a talk at Ferneham Hall in Fareham in 1993.
The final time was at the BritSciFi convention in Leicester last March, pictured left, where Duncan was displaying some of his pieces.
Duncan says: ‘That last time he was clearly frail and unwell. I asked him if he minded posing for a picture, and I thought it would just be a quick thing, but he came around behind my display and lots of other people started taking pictures too.
‘After a while his helpers said it was time to move on, but he said: “No, not until everyone has got their pictures.”
‘It was very touching, very special.
‘He was the same at Ferneham Hall, he stayed in the foyer until midnight, making sure everyone who wanted to speak to him, or get an autograph, got the chance.’