For anyone who thinks of Gerry Anderson as a purveyor of tech-heavy science fiction, Four Feather Falls can come as a bit of a surprise. The show can best be described as a comedy fantasy musical western. So that's a lot of genres covered in one go! And obviously, what it has in common with most of the Andersons' sixties output, is that it's also a children's puppet show. What's interesting, compared to the shows later on, is that there's very little attempt here to make the puppets appear to be anything other than puppets. In terms of the sculpting, all the characters are misshapen, almost grotesque caricatures: Grandpa Twink, for instance, looks more like a monkey than a human being! They look like toys or illustrations from children’s books. The only exception to this is our hero, Tex Tucker, who has more or less normal human features, correctly shaped if a little exaggerated. (His head is too large for his body of course, but at least it looks like a human head.) And yet, Tex is some way from being the square-jawed action hero character we’re used to seeing in the later shows. His face has an almost haunted, sunken look about it, as if he’s a man carrying a lot of emotional baggage.
I rather like the moody opening title sequence, a point of view shot as if of a character walking down a darkened western street, with ambient noise such as the tinkling of the saloon piano, puppet horses tethered to the hitching point (they even flick their tails – nice attention to detail) until we meet Tex partly in shadow. Cornered, he raises his hands, apparently at the mercy of his adversary – only for his magic guns to raise themselves in their holsters and open fire. Don’t worry, I’m not going to make the well-worn jokes about the self-firing guns – what’s really striking is how much darker this seems than the rest of the programme, and how much it reminds me of the Captain Scarlet titles 7 years later.
How it Began
The plot of the opening instalment is very simple – Tex Tucker runs Pedro the bandit out of town. That’s it! The bulk of the story is told in flashback, when young Jake asks his grandpa to recount how Tex acquired his magic feathers. Tex was crossing the wilderness with his horse and his dog – the food’s running out, they’ve got hardly any water left, and they’re never going to make it back to civilization. Where he’s going? Where’s he come from? Why’s he making this perilous trek all by himself? It’s all left very vague. Remember what I said about a lot of emotional baggage? Combined with that haunted look the puppet has, I do get the sense that Tex is drifting aimlessly, trying to get away from something. Am I just an adult reading too much into it? Yes, probably, but there’s a fascination in these things that holds the attention in the way that the simplistic plots aren’t going to.
Anyway, Tex finds an Indian boy, Makooya, lost in the wilderness, shares what little food is left with him and tries to take him back to his tribe. Makooya knows the way to a waterfall, where they hope to get some more water – but it’s dry when they get there. There’s a terrific visual joke in their trek across the desert. First Tex is on the horse with Makooya riding in front of him; in the subsequent shot, Tex is on foot leading the horse, with Makooya sitting in the saddle; in the third shot, Tex and Makooya are both on foot, and Dusty the dog is riding on the horse.
Things are looking pretty bleak when they bed down for the night, but Makooya wakes up in the night screaming his grandfather’s name – and lo and behold, a bush seems to catch fire, there’s a load of smoke, and Chief Kalamakooya appears out of nowhere. Tex doesn’t want any reward for saving Makooya, but he gets one anyway: the four magic feathers. The first two give Rocky the horse and Dusty the dog the ability to talk – but only to Tex (and it seems, to each other) – it doesn’t work with anyone else, so I presume there’s some sort of telepathy involved rather than the animals actually acquiring the power of speech. Dusty gains the creaky voice of an old-timer Western pioneer, which seems appropriate, but Rocky ends up with a stereotyped English upper-class accent, all “toodlepip old bean”, because as he says he’s a thoroughbred descended from original English bloodstock. It’s this slightly daft and surreal level of humour that gives the show more appeal to the modern adult viewer.
The chief also rewards them with water – by making the waterfall flow again, and an oasis to appear around it. And after this, he and Makooya both dematerialize. It’s pretty clear that Kalamakooya’s magic powers are absolutely real. He can even turn the night into day, which suggests some ability to speed up time. Now, at a time when most Westerns (or at least those kids would have been familiar with) were depicting Indians as the villains, all warcries and attacking the settlers, it’s quite refreshing to find Indians portrayed here not just as friendly, but as an ancient spiritual people with real mystical abilities.
What Tex Tucker really gains from all this is not his magical gimmicks, it’s a place to live and a sense of purpose. The restored waterfall becomes the watercourse around which the town of Four Feather Falls is built, and Tex remains here and becomes the sheriff. And as he declares in song, it’s “the only place on Earth to be” and “heaven on the range”. So that, I think, is Kalamakooya’s real reward to him.
I can’t let Ma Jones’s lax policy on selling tobacco to minors pass without comment. Yes, I know Jake wants the baccy for his grandpa, but it's still setting a bad example – you couldn’t imagine it being allowed in a children’s programme made today.
Trouble in Yellow Gulch
It’s Pedro the bandit again, and this time he’s got a sidekick, Fernando. Watching this, I’m beginning to get a sense that these two are going to be the real stars of the show. They’re stereotyped Mexican bandits of course, but their bickering and bitchy putdowns provide a lot of humour. Their plan here is to buy Yellow Gulch, one of the two passes that lead into Four Feather Falls, and charge a toll from anyone using it. People are too frightened to use the other approach, through Black Boulder Canyon – because as the name might suggest, there’s a bloody great black boulder perched precariously on top of it and threatening to come down on you at any moment. So, the town is perhaps not so pleasantly located as we’ve been led to believe. Thanks, Big Chief Kalamakooya!
Not content with a legal moneymaking scheme, Pedro and Fernando decide to go one further and topple the black boulder to block the canyon – then everyone will have to use Yellow Gulch. So they steal some dynamite from behind Ma Jones’s store. (She’s storing it for the mining company in the most unsecure yard imaginable – Tex really needs to do a premises inspection there!) Tex outwits the bandits by switching the dynamite to the other side of the boulder, so Yellow Gulch is buried and Black Boulder Canyon gets permanently opened as a safe route.
They must have liked Grandpa Twink narrating Tex’s story in the first episode, because in this and the subsequent episodes, Twink is actually talking directly to the viewer, and recounting this week’s story: Tex is summoned to Silver City to assist the new Sheriff Jamieson with some unspecified task. In an increasingly complex plot, Rocky gets stolen, forcing Tex and Dusty to continue on foot; they meet a man who’ll sell them a horse, but wants fifty bucks for it. It turns out some stolen loot is hidden in the saddle bag, so Tex ends up getting arrested by Sheriff Jamieson, who locks him up and tells him the judge is likely to hang him. But it’s all a big con. Jamieson is really a crook, and wants Tex out of the way so he can take control of Four Feather Falls himself. Fortunately, he leaves the bandit Big Ben to look after Tex, and he doesn’t know about the magic guns – so Tex easily disarms him and gets himself released. He races back to Four Feather Falls to have it out with Jamieson. Of course, for Tex, there’s nothing worse than a crooked lawman.
Pedro Has a Plan
How’s that for a title? Does exactly what it say on the tin! Pedro and Fernando are back, camper than ever. Pedro’s plan is really simple: to steal Tex’s magic feathers and replace them with duds. At first I wondered why no one’s thought of this before – but a more pertinent question is: how do they know about the feathers? (Unless they’ve been listening to the voiceover at the start of each episode.) It’s the one thing you’d think Tex would keep secret from his enemies – and Big Ben didn’t know about it last week – but now suddenly it’s common knowledge in the bandit community. Oh well… Just as Tex is cornered without magic guns, Rocky and Dusty save the day by riding in with the real feathers – in an amusingly anachronistic moment, Dusty regains his voice and says, “We’re back on the air!”
Sheriff for a Day
Tex has to go out and help the stagecoach or something, and rather foolishly leaves Jake behind as deputy – even more foolishly, he leaves him his guns and the magic feathers to control them. Has this man no sense of responsibility, leaving a kid in charge of deadly weapons? With a curious inevitability, Tex’s mission is a phoney and he’s captured by Big Ben, and left sitting on Rocky with a noose round his neck – which is pretty tough stuff for a kid’s show. But Big Ben’s attempts to take control of Four Feather Falls are thwarted by Jake and the magic guns; Jake then rushes to save Tex. There’s a lovely tense moment as a rattlesnake approaches Tex and Rocky – Tex urges Rocky to run for it, but Rocky won’t move, knowing that it’ll leave Tex swinging from the rope. Unfortunately, this character drama is completely undercut by the revelation that the whole episode is a dream Jake is having. Yes, five episodes in, and we’ve already had one of those “it was all just a dream” stories that really blight the Anderson series. I’m not a fan of them – can you tell? (Still, at least it means Tex wouldn’t be such a plank as to leave Jake in charge in real life.)
Twink’s just starting to tell this week’s story when he’s interrupted by Fernando, and suddenly the present takes precedence over the past. I love the way this series keeps subtly subverting itself – just when you’ve got a handle on the formula, they do something different. Even cleverer here is the moment when Fernando, held at gunpoint by Tex, tries to convince the sheriff that there’s something going on behind him – in this case, smoke signals indicating that Indians are massing for an attack. Tex isn’t about to fall for the oldest trick in the book – until Fernando throws down his own gun to convince him. Fernando then volunteers to stay and help Tex fight to protect the town. As complex as this characterization is, I was a little disappointed to find that the noble and mystical Indians were now being presented as more stereotypical Western villains. It’s a relief then to discover there aren’t any Indians – it’s Pedro hiding behind the rocks sending up smoke and banging tom-toms. It’s all part of a complicated plan to steal Tex’s feathers and replace them with duds. Come on, think of something else, guys! (Once again, Dusty saves the day by recovering the real feathers in time.)
I have to say, I'm rather surprised to have found so much to say about six 13 minute episodes of a kids puppet show. I've found it charming and a lot more intriguing than I thought I was going to. It certainly bodes well for the rest of the Anderthon…