Before I’d actually seen Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons, I assumed that it was called Spectrum. I’d jumped to this conclusion when I found a copy of the 1969 TV21 annual – the comic that Gerry and Sylvia Anderson had astutely established to capitalise on their hit television shows – at a school fair, where it certainly stood out amongst the endless bound volumes of Look And Learn and those weird copyright-busting non-BBC Playschool annuals without a hint of anything even vaguely resembling Humpty. By this point I had seen Thunderbirds, Stingray and Joe 90 courtesy of the sporadic repeats that circled around the ITV regions – which sometimes involved retuning the television to pick up the output of adjoining ITV regions – and had become fairly obsessive about at least two of them, so you can imagine how thrilling it was to suddenly discover that there were even more Supermarionation shows out there.
Suddenly, I had three more programmes to scour that bit at the foot of the page in TV Times for. There was Fireball XL5, which I’d assumed on the basis of the annual would both be in colour and be a little more serious and thrill-packed than it actually turned out to be. There was Zero-X, which I later discovered wasn’t actually a programme at all, but simply the comic strip adventures of some supporting characters in the first Thunderbirds film. This was a particular shame as the deep space diplomatic excursions with added dragon snake things of Greg, Brad, Tony, Ray and ‘Skipper’ were by far my favourite strip in the annual, and Zero-X itself is a mighty creation; in fact there was a massive toy of it released at the time which separates down into endless smaller space exploration vehicles, and if I ever find some stray gold bullion that’s the very first thing I’m buying. And then there was… well I didn’t even know what the third one was called. It featured an assortment of colour-coded agents working for an organisation called ‘Spectrum’ battling Cold War-esque threats made by a mysterious bunch called ‘The Mysterons’, but any mention of it in the annual was simply preceded by a big stylised ‘S’ in a funny interlocking circle. So it had to be called Spectrum, right?
Well that’s what I thought, and that’s why I had to endure so much crashing disappointment on catching a stray reference to BBC1 arts programme Spectrum, doubly so when it featured a live performance filmed at the Spectrum Arena. I can’t remember how, where or why I found out that it was actually called – less excitingly, I thought at the time – Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons, but it was certainly before it finally showed up on the repeat circuit, as I can recall how genuinely thrilled I was to see that first episode. Not least because Zero-X put in a surprise cameo appearance in the unexpectedly eerie and sinister opening scene. Whatever this was going to be, it wasn’t the Tracy Brothers helping a suspiciously healthy-looking ‘sick’ child puppet to have a memorable Christmas.
The biggest thrills were to come right at the end, though, with those stunning paintings of the titular indestructible Spectrum agent fighting his way out of a burning room full of explosives, fending off an advancing tank, and, erm, looking slightly concerned as some boxes fell reasonably near to him, and that naggingly catchy sixties pop-styled closing theme, complete with the repeated-by-a-robot vocal refrain “Cap!Tain!Scar!Let!”, which must surely have informed Gary Numan’s cover of On Broadway. It only got more exciting still when, a couple of weeks in, the theme suddenly acquired lyrics, as apparently performed by ‘The Spectrum’. They passed by in a blur of excitement the first time that I heard them, but within a couple of weeks I could quite comfortably tell you that Captain Scarlet was the one who knows the Mysteron game and things they plan, and that to his Martian foes he was a dangerous name, and indeed a su-uperman. Whether you liked it or not.
I really wanted to own a copy of that song in something more decipherable than tape-recorder-held-up-to-the-telly quality, but it just didn’t seem to be anywhere to be found. It was conspicuous by its absence from a dramatically scratched Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons story record that I found in a charity shop, and no available reference works – which amounted to ‘barely any’, if we’re being honest about it – had anything to say about The Spectrum. The only hope, it seemed, was an a compilation called No Strings Attached, which gathered together the theme singles from Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons and Joe 90. The problem was that this was already a couple of years old, and had slipped out of easy availability in record shops; as this was back in the days when you had to put anything that wasn’t in stock ‘on order’, and then wait eleven weeks to be told that there weren’t any copies left in the warehouse after all, you can probably work out how successful that course of action was.
Eventually, I managed to get a copy of No Strings Attached taped for me, on one of those snazzy Maxell C60s with the red label, and was quite put out to discover that the single version of the Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons theme was a speeded-up instrumental with silly swooping noises and schmaltzy big band bits. In time I would come to really like it, but right then it seemed like a real ever-get-the-feeling-you’ve-been-cheated moment. There was plenty to enjoy elsewhere on the album, though, and not least another Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons-related piece that I really hadn’t been expecting very much of at all.
On screen, The Mysterons Theme was essentially more atmospherics than music, consisting of little more than four creepy notes repeated at a haphazardly increasing tempo until the camera zoomed in on Captain Black looking at an oil rig through binoculars or something. For the b-side of the theme single, however, composer Barry Gray had elected to turn it into a charmingly sinister slow cha-cha. A ballroom dance big band who sound like they’ve just heard the latest cryptic threat against a peace conference from The Mysterons nervously tap out a hypnotic yet trepidatious backing, with even the jazzy drum fills sounding like they’ve got one eye on the nearest available exit, while Barry Gray himself picks out an expanded variation on the familiar four-note motif on early electronic keyboard the Ondes Martenot (and not, as is commonly if understandably assumed, a Theremin), At the end, there’s a jittery call-and-response sprint for the finish line, almost as if the musicians can’t wait to get out of there, and an ominous unresolved chord as the electronic sounds spiral upwards beyond the range of human hearing. Seductive and threatening at the same time, it’s less a piece of music than it is an assembly of sounds hypnotising you and waiting to strike. It certainly put Parker – Well Done! into perspective.
The Mysterons Theme is better than any hastily-conceived b-side of a quickly-recorded cash-in television theme single has any right or reason to be, especially when the a-side itself wasn’t necessarily all that. In some ways, it surpassed even my love of Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons itself; I would regularly sneak it onto ‘proper’ compilations that I put together for like-minded music obsessives, and at the height of Britpop/Loungecore, I would often use it as chucking out music when DJing. This was around the time, of course, when any self-respecting young woman with a furry backpack and hairgrips who invited you back for coffee in the freezing cold kitchen of her shared house would discreetly slip on Mysterons by Portishead in the background as an aid to seduction. An obviously-inspired track which nonetheless used a Theremin instead of an Ondes Martenot. They’d have been better off using The Mysterons Theme. If it wasn’t for the fact that it always worked.
You can find a longer version of this article, with even more about those ridiculous unofficial Play School annuals, in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.