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Countdown was a British comic published weekly by Polystyle Publications – ultimately, under several different titles – from 1971 to 1973. The pages in each issue were numbered in reverse order, with page 1 at the end – a gimmick which was derived from the comic's title in order to create a "countdown" to the number one every week.
Under the title Countdown, the comic ran for 58 weeks, beginning with the issue cover-dated 20 February 1971. It was re-launched as TV Action + Countdown from issue 59 in 1972, dropping many of the original strips from Countdown and substituting new ones based on contemporary television programmes. After 100 issues, its title became simply TV Action. The final issue, number 132, was cover-dated 25 August 1973; the title officially merged with TV Comic, with only the Doctor Who, Droopy and Dad’s Army strips initially surviving the merger.
Initially it was a high-quality (but expensive) publication, featuring full-colour art on the cover and on many of the inside pages, and was printed on coated paper. From issue 59, Countdown dropped the glossy printing that had distinguished it, and reverted to cheap newsprint-quality paper, also abandoning the photogravure printing that had also been a feature until then.
Countdown was unusual in carrying both weekly serials and complete stories, rotating the latter among the various TV programmes that it featured. In addition, it carried a totally original strip, "Countdown", drawn by John M. Burns and including spacecraft designs from the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Another remarkable feature of Countdown was the inclusion of non-fiction articles about current space exploration, mostly written by Arnold Kingston. These included a level of technical detail more typical of the technical trade journals aimed at adult professionals: for example, in a 1971 issue of Countdown, the fourth installment of a series on Unmanned satellites, entitled Space Lighthouses explained the Doppler effect and gave details of US and Soviet navigation satellite programmes.
Polystyle were uncertain as to the most effective name for the new comic (an uncertainty which was to lead to five changes of name for it), initially registering it as Countdown and Rocket, although publishing the first nineteen issues under the title Countdown.
It was launched on 20 February 1971. The magazine had a very small in-house staff of just four, and easy access to a wealth of ready-made artwork, created by the best continuity strip artists of the day – artwork which had been used just once before, in TV21, and was now filed away in the vaults beneath Farringdon Road, London.
Although the stories had already been seen in print, that was four or five years earlier. Those readers who had perused TV21 had now grown into young adulthood and were no longer reading comics. So to the intended new readership of Countdown, these reprint strips would appear entirely new.
Another asset of the new paper was that editor Dennis Hooper and art editor Roger Perry had for several years had a close professional association with Gerry Anderson and his wife Sylvia, and therefore had intimate knowledge of the "Supermarionation" TV shows. At the onset of TV21 magazine, Hooper had been art editor of the various spin off magazines including Lady Penelope and Candy, while Perry had been art editor overseeing the books and the Christmas annuals. Having been employees of Century 21 Publishing between 1964 and 1968, it had been natural for them to make regular visits to the parent company, Century 21 Productions, whose film studios were to the west of Greater London, near Windsor. With the idea of launching Countdown, it had been a simple matter to get Anderson's blessing and secure the appropriate franchising licenses.
Another piece of good fortune for Polystyle arose from another company’s misfortune. Sun Printers Ltd of Watford had been unable to find enough work to keep their own photogravure presses running. Before Eric Bemrose (Liverpool) eventually took over the job, in the twelve months it took Bemrose to design and build new ten-unit rotogravure machines, Sun temporarily handled the job. In April 1950 the boys’ comic Eagle first saw the light of day on Sun Printers' machines at Watford. With Sun already familiar with this type of work, a deal was struck between Sun and Polystyle to print Countdown for one calendar year (52 issues) for the cost of the materials only – all machine-time was free of charge.
During the 1960s, not only had there been huge advances in electronic technology – for TV was slowly metamorphosing from the post-war images consisting of 405-lines in black and white to that of 625 and in full colour. With this technological advancement, so too were boys and girls – once having been content with the stringed-puppet series Supercar (1960), Fireball XL5 (1962) and Stingray (1964) now they wanted something a good deal better to fire up their fertile imaginations. With the advent of Thunderbirds (1965) coming onto their screens and then, two years later Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967), this was surely a whole new ball game and had fitted the bill nicely. Maybe the draw had been due to the advancement of electronics, for with continual miniaturisation, the smaller lip-sync mechanism allowed the puppets to be built closer to normal human proportions. But when the more "kid-friendly" Joe 90 (1968) arrived, the magic had gone and it failed to satisfy. With viewing numbers dropping wildly, Joe 90 was to be the last but one in a long line of classic Anderson marionette series, the final being The Secret Service (1969) which only lasted for 13 episodes and wasn't even shown at all in some ITV regions.
Gerry Anderson's Supermarionation shows were declining in popularity (Joe 90 had not achieved the viewing figures expected for it). It was felt that what children wanted now was live-action series such as Doctor Who. With that in mind, in 1968, Century 21 Productions began to venture into the world of live-action – first with Doppelganger, followed by UFO and then with Space: 1999, this last project being the most expensive TV series ever to be made at that time.
Century 21 Productions became financially over-stretched and within a few short months, they had disbanded their three warehouse-sized studios on the Slough Trading Estate, and in June 1969 the entire staff of Century 21 Publishing were given a month's notice. TV21, Lady Penelope and Candy magazines struggled on for a few more months. They – together with a small nucleus of staff from the disbanded Century 21 Publishing company – were taken on by Leonard Matthews (ex-managing editor of Fleetway Juvenile Comics) and Alfred Wallace (ex-managing editor of Eagle magazine), who were now operating an independent studio off Fleet Street under the name of Martspress.
The non-appearance of Supermarionation programmes on TV and the sudden demise of Century 21 Publishing caused great problems in the comic industry. Wholesalers found themselves with huge stocks of comics, toys, books, games and other related merchandised items that could no longer be moved off their shelves. Understandably, when Countdown appeared, it was regarded as such a close relation to the TV21 disaster and wholesalers were reluctant to place large orders.
Another hindrance was that within one week of the first issue of Countdown being placed onto the news stands, TV Times had also launched their own "in-house" publication for juveniles, Tivvy – this was not exactly the same type of product, but TV Times had a print run of several million and was able to secure free air-time for advertising their new product. It had the further advantage of being regarded as TV Times' own club magazine for children. These advantages were reflected in sales of Tivvy, to the detriment of its competitor, Countdown.
Apart from Hooper and Perry, the other two staff members employed to work solely on Countdown were Peter Levy (assistant editor) and 54-year-old Bill Kidd (assistant art editor), who in the late summer of 1972 died of stomach cancer. He was replaced by a young balloon-lettering artist who had been working on Countdown's sister magazine TV Comic, 9-year-old Danny Fox.
Countdown was unique in that some of its content changed from week to week. This was not by intent, but purely from necessity. Hooper worked long hours writing scripts for many of the strips. Nonetheless, The problem was that Perry was not being given the scripts early enough for the artists to create and deliver the completed artwork on time.
Ideally there would be a five-week lead time between press day (the date on which all text and artwork was handed over to the printer) and the cover date (the day on which the magazine went on sale to the public). This five-week period allowed time for the typesetters to set the text copy, and for the planners to produce a visual "dummy" (an exact-size page-for-page mock up of what the magazine will look like, having followed the designer's layouts). This "dummy" is put together from cut-and-pasted pieces of paper that show all the pictures scaled to their correct size (using what used to be called "photostats") and with text and headings in their correct positions. The dummy is sent to the publisher for the editing staff to re-read the copy, to make sure there are no mistakes, and to make any changes necessary. As there were no computers in the publishing industry in those days, it was part of a designer's job to make sure the text fit the space allotted for it. Invariably it was either just too long or just too short to fit snugly, so extra writing or the cutting of some text had to be done. Once the "dummy" went back to the printer's, no more changes could be made.
Two weeks after returning the dummy to the printer (still several days before copies went on sale, thus allowing time for distribution of copies throughout the country), advance copies were made available to the staff. Although there was a small amount of leeway, such that if the printer had been warned some artwork could be up to a week or ten days late, Perry very often did not receive Hooper's script until press day itself ... and it still had to be illustrated by the artist and balloon-lettered before sending it off to the printer.
A second problem was that the artists being employed to create the continuity strips did not solely work on Countdown but often took on other work to fill their week's workload. One such artist used to deliver his work a day later with each succeeding week. The answer to this was to let the story run its course of four, five or six weeks, and then drop in something else for a couple of weeks, thus giving him the chance to"catch up. Leaving Hooper to carry on writing his scripts, this decision had been made by Perry; and it was being said (as first uttered by Dennis Bosdet, a representative from Linden Artists) that Countdown was no longer being edited by Hooper but by Perry.
Distribution was also a problem. Although matters improved after the first 26 weeks, initially the distribution of the new comic was patchy, with some issues failing to go on sale at all in some regions, as they could not be printed in sufficient quantities in time to reach the newsagents by the cover date, perhaps as a consequence of the production problems.
The "filler pages" typically took the form of a competition (giving away items such as Airfix construction kits), or something quick and easy to write such as a hastily penned "profile" by Peter Levy. Perry was often present at recordings of Doctor Who, and finding a suitable picture from the files to go with a feature written about the recording was easy, and also gave the magazine a feeling of greater flexibility.
One of these last-minute filler pages had come about after Perry needed to attend a funeral in Stuttgart. Several months earlier, on a particularly blustery day in late March 1972, Perry had driven down to Pegwell Bay in East Kent, taking with him science writer Dan Lloyd, who from 1959 through to 1968 had been Eagle magazine's chief sub-editor. It had been Lloyd's plan to create an in-depth feature on hovercraft but at Pegwell Bay, gale-force winds had prevented the hovercraft from flying. "Hoverlloyd" had been very cautious, as earlier that same month – on 4 March 1972 – an SR.N6 travelling from Ryde, Isle of Wight to Portsmouth had overturned in strong gale-force winds on the Solent killing five of the 27 passengers. The freak accident had happened just 400 yards off Southsea beach. To compensate for their disappointment, Lloyd's press officer suggested that when they next be in the vicinity, Lloyd and Perry would be most welcome to be given a free ride over to France.
Perry telephoned Lloyd's press officer and was immediately invited to the launching of the company's third SR.N4 craft. The launching would be blessed by the inventor of the hovercraft, Sir Christopher Cockerell, CBE. Taking assistant art editor Bill Kidd along as staff photographer, Perry found he had enough material to create the first in a long line of "The Man From Countdown" features.
This was not the first time that Perry had been involved in this type of informative journalism. In 1961, while employed as a designer on Eagle, Perry's image had been used in a weekly continuity strip called "The Roving Reporter". Although Perry never actually left the confines of his office, the illustrations created, by (amongst others) Countdown artists John M. Burns and Eric Kincaid (better known for his "Toad of Toad Hall" and "Riverbank Tales"), gave the impression that Perry (a.k.a. Larry Line) was always out and about somewhere in the ever-expanding world.
Countdown sought to benefit from the closure of TV21 and the consequent availability of the licence to publish strips based on Gerry Anderson's Supermarionation TV shows, which had been popular throughout the 1960s. So the comic featured a strip based on the latest Gerry Anderson TV programme, the live-action series UFO, along with reprints of strips from TV21 based on the earlier Anderson successes Stingray, Thunderbirds and Fireball XL5, in addition to some original material.
However, Polystyle Publications had only taken into account the fact that TV21 had been discontinued, which they looked upon merely as an opportunity to acquire the licence to use the Anderson shows, without noticing that the popularity of the puppet-based strips in TV21 had drastically declined because those shows were no longer in production, and were no longer being seen on TV every week. Furthermore, the expense of the high-quality paper and photogravure quality printing, needed for the colour pages and photo features, pushed the cover price up. With a cover price of one shilling (against 6d and 7d for competing IPC titles such as Valiant, Lion and Smash!), it was almost twice as expensive as any other boys comic on the market.
Re-launch as TV Action
After 58 weeks, the publisher cut its costs by re-launching the comic in a much cheaper format, on newsprint, by switching to new printers David Brockdorff Ltd of Walthamstow and Harlow, and by dropping all the Anderson Supermarionation shows, to avoid the licensing fee for using them, replacing them with strips based on then-current TV programmes which were being broadcast every week (and hence were thought to be potentially more popular than the discontinued Anderson shows). Strip versions of The Persuaders!, Hawaii Five-0 and Cannon duly appeared. With only a couple of continuing strips, one being Doctor Who, the result was virtually a new comic, and in recognition of this the name of the comic was now changed to TV Action.
To capitalise on the continuing popularity of the Doctor Who strip, featuring the likeness of Jon Pertwee (the actor who was then playing the Doctor on TV), that strip now became the regular cover feature. As an added inducement, for the first time the publisher obtained a licence to include popular villains the Daleks in the strip. Hence the first re-launch issue had a colour cover featuring the Third Doctor and the Daleks. Doctor Who had an unshakeable popularity; it had emerged from, and would ultimately return to, the pages of TV Action's sister publication, TV Comic.
Whether the changes were effective is open to question, as the new TV Action lasted just 74 issues, a run only slightly longer than that of the original Countdown, which had lasted 58 issues. Undoubtedly the reduction in production costs by dropping the expensive lithographic printing and magazine-quality paper played some part in TV Action lasting for as long as it did. Nevertheless, publication ceased in August 1973.
Like TV21, which had also tried to ride the coat-tails of the popularity of television, Countdown and TV Action had shown that the approach was not sustainable in the teenage market. Nevertheless, Polystyle did achieve a long-running success with the concept in a slightly younger market, with its all-humour title TV Comic, aimed at 5- to 10-year-olds, which ran for more than 30 years. In later years, one of Countdown's strips would demonstrate that a weekly TV-based comic could succeed in an older market, when Marvel UK launched Doctor Who Weekly in 1979 - this paper featured a single TV show and included factual coverage of the Dr Who programme and its production, alongside comic strips based on it.
The title was changed five times in the course of the comic's run:
- Issues 1-18: Countdown
- Issues 19-45: Countdown: The Space-Age Comic!
- Issues 46-56: Countdown for TV Action!
- Issues 57-58: TV Action in Countdown
- Issues 59-100: TV Action + Countdown
- Issues 101-132: TV Action
The strips included in issues 1 to 58, many of which were reprinted from TV21, included:
- "Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons"
- "Countdown" – the eponymous "Countdown" strip
- "Dastardly and Muttley"
- "Doctor Who"
- "Fireball XL5"
- "Joe 90"
- "Lady Penelope"
- "The Persuaders!"
- "The Secret Service"
Strips featured in issues 59 to 132 included:
- Countdown, issue 13, p. 22.
- TV Action + Countdown, issue 91, p. 22.