Sunday 31 July 2011

Creator Gray Jolliffe on Stainless Steel and the Star Spies

(l to r) 'Compromise' crewmembers Gadget and Stainless Steel in Gray Jolliffe's Christmas 1980 sci-fi puppet extravanganza Stainless Steel and the Star Spies
Created by award-winning cartoonist Gray Jolliffe, live-action sci-fi puppet special Stainless Steel and the Star Spies was perhaps the most unusual project in Euston Films’ history.  Mr Jolliffe, best known today for his popular Daily Mail strip ‘Chloe & Co.’, was in 1980 creative director of an advertising agency - not to mention, the real scribe behind Eddie Shoestring’s caricatures in the BBC detective series starring Trevor Eve.

Stainless Steel chronicled the adventures of the crew of ‘SS Compromise’ – a race of robots called the Metaliens – and their quest to retrieve the Maguffin-esque Kleptonite Ball and return it to the tyrannical leader Kublai Chrome back on their home planet.  Commander Steel and his crew, amongst them Lieutenant Utensil, Professor Gizmo, Gadget and Canz, are transported through a Black Hole into a ‘Don’t Matter’ Universe and forced to search for the ball on a planet called Earth.

Voiced by a talented cast including Ed Bishop, Bob Hoskins and Graham Stark, and featuring Anna Karen and Fabia Drake as the human element, it is a lot of fun and Gray Jolliffe packs in the puns on the metallic nature of his protagonists with the same punch as a Pixar movie.

Shown by ITV on New Year’s Day 1981 at 4.45pm to an audience of 7.9 million, the show was unfortunately not deemed a success and a follow-up series never appeared.

Euston Films’ Chief Executive at the time, Verity Lambert, talks about the project in a BFI interview with Manuel Alvarado, conducted in January 1985, saying that what appealed about the idea was its originality – it was quite outside Euston’s usual remit.  She goes on to say that the intention was to make a half-hour pilot but, because of the expense, it was talked up to an hour for which it suffered.

Reaction was positive from many quarters however and novelist Hazel Holt, then critic for ‘The Stage and Television Today’, after describing it as “very stylish”, writes in the edition dated 8 Jan 1981: “Writer Gray Jolliffe took the principle of the Smash advertisement to look at Earth with alien eyes (the Earth is a Don’t Matter planet inhabited by non-ferrous life forms) and produced some memorable lines: “The people have no pig-iron”, “Let them eat platinum” and “What about the automatic pilot?”/”You are the automatic pilot!”

“As a parody the film was not limited in its appeal to the younger generation; the statutory Black robot reminded one of Alien and the villain Kublai Chrome looked rather like the baddie in Star Wars.

“It was a programme not only for children who would enjoy the ghastly puns.  It was for anyone who has seen Close Encounters or who has failed Physics with Chemistry O-level.”

An unusual project then and one which had somewhat disappeared from view.  Fortunately, the company Network has come to rescue of British TV history once more by releasing it on DVD earlier this year.

So having finally watched and enjoyed, I was curious to learn more about Stainless Steel and the Star Spies.  I contacted Gray Jolliffe via his website and he was kind enough to share his memories of the production:

I used to work in an advertising agency called BMP - Boase Massimi Pollitt - with a guy called John Webster and we did the Smash Martians, and they were fun.

Sometime after that a couple of guys from the company who actually made the Martians said “Why don’t we make them into a TV idea?  Could you write something?”  And I said “Yeah, I’d love to try that”.  So basically I wrote a pilot and two or three other episodes.  We just did it on spec.

But the Smash people and BMP didn’t want us to use the actual Martians.  That was no problem, because all the characters in Stainless Steel had to be totally different.
So we used the basic idea, but we changed the shape of the heads so they weren’t recognisable as ‘Smash’ Martians.  They were altogether more complicated.

Pete Richardson (of production design company BBRK Ltd, based at Shepperton Studios, who worked on many commercials) was the designer of the characters, he was a good guy.  I helped but he was the one who took them from paper designs and made them into three dimensions.  They were actually made of metal – aluminium and thing like that, all riveted together.  They made a nice model of the original spacecraft.

That’s a name I actually came up with, ‘Stainless Steel’.  I thought that’d be quite a good name for a metal hero.  It said everything really – that he was a ‘stainless’ character.

Other characters were Gadget; Professor Gizmo...  The villain was called Kublai Chrome; Rowbotham was his valet and he was always in fear of his life because Kublai Chrome was a real despot!

I happened to know a very nice woman [at Euston Films] called Linda Agran.  Linda was a very good friend of mine.  So I said to her “Linda, could I show you an idea I’ve got?” and she loved it and then she took it to show Verity Lambert.  Anyway, they phoned me soon after and said “Look, we want to make this – we want to make a pilot”.  So that’s what happened.

But everybody was committee-ing themselves.  It was my first foray into anything like that and so I wasn’t exactly going to start arguing with them – I just wanted to get it done.  Maybe I should’ve put my foot down, but I didn’t.

They wanted to change the script a lot.  They wanted to bring it back to earth - they got a lot of real people in there.  I wanted to make it a space romp with robots only but they thought there should be a human interest.

So I had to rewrite this and rewrite that. In the end, it all got a bit bogged down.  There were some good gags in it.  It was a curate’s egg of a thing but it was just too long.

I mean, I did it because it was worth doing but somehow it didn’t work - partly through my inexperience, and partly through the fact that Euston Films should have concentrated on the speed of the script more.

What happened was we got an hour long script that really could’ve been cut down to half an hour.  It was a bit slow, a bit repetitive.  When I look at it I think “Oh my God”.  What I know now!  Television has come on so much since then.  You look at this stuff and your inexperience shows.

And a lot of it at the end was unintelligible.  Looking at it now, I’m thinking “I didn’t write this, that doesn’t make any sense!”

I think it was about 6 weeks shooting, maybe 4, I can’t remember now.  It was slow-going, just about 3 minutes [filming] per day.

Originally, the whole script was read in the studio as if it was being played on radio. In animation, the first thing you start with is the script.

Later you’ve got the sound going on and the puppets are moving their mouths accordingly.  And of course there were all kinds of problems with the puppets, rolling their eyes, etc.  That was all [radio controlled].

So there was a lot of technical stuff going on.  And of course, unlike a TV commercial, where a company like Cadbury’s would throw a huge amount of money at the production, when you’re doing something like this for telly, money was very short so everything had to be done on a very tight budget.

(Three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer) Freddie Young was on it, he was a wonderful old guy.  It was quite a coup to get [him] to light it, we were amazed.  He was probably just not busy at that particular moment.

There were about three [more] scripts but I don’t think the ratings were that good and they said “No, I don’t think we’re going to make any more of those”.  Disappointing, but I wasn’t really surprised, it didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped it would.

It would’ve gone to different planets, different villains.  The Kleptonite Ball would have fallen into different hands; Kublai Chrome and his cohorts would have remained the major villains.

The other scripts probably involved more humans – they wanted interplay between humans and the Metaliens.

I don’t think it was for children, it was a little bit too sophisticated for children.  I put a lot of gags in there I don’t think children would’ve got.  It was designed, as far as I was concerned, for adults.  So it probably fell between two stools.

I’m not knocking Euston Films, they were very good.  They were in an area that they weren’t used to.  Nobody had ever done anything like that before, not for telly, not to that sort of scale.

It’s the kind of thing that they could do easily in Hollywood, but Euston were literally on a shoestring...

Many thanks to Gray Jolliffe.  As mentioned, Stainless Steel and the Star Spies was available on DVD courtesy of Network but appears to be deleted at present.
  Hopefully it will reappear soon.


  1. What a fascinating article, thank you! I'm old enough to have watched it, but clearly I missed it for I have no memory of it whatsoever. Happily, it is still available direct from Network DVD as a 'Web Exclusive' until 28 July 2012:
    Stainless Steel at Network DVD

  2. Hey, thanks for the kind words, glad you enjoyed. Yes, very good of Mr Jolliffe to talk about the show.

    Brilliant that it's still available, cheers for the info!

    All the best,

  3. I started to watch in on TV and loved it so much I video recorded the rest of it and kept it for years. I was very pleased to finally get the whole thing on DVD.