Being Lady Penelope: Thunderbirds co-creator Sylvia Anderson looks back on her extraordinary life

She co-created Stingray, Joe 90 and, of course, Thunderbirds, for which she was also the inspiration for its leading lady

Nathalie Olah
Saturday 02 November 2013 01:00

Forget Pattie Boyd, Twiggy and Anita Pallenberg. If there was one blonde who spearheaded British style in the Sixties, it was Lady Penelope, a woman who never let size, stature or latent patriarchy stand in her way of saving the planet.

Across the two series and two feature-length films that were made of Thunderbirds, she prevented the destruction of a dam, the take-down of United States Air Force and the detonation of an apocalyptic plutonium bomb, all the while teaching Jackie O a thing or two about how to wear a pillbox hat.

Earlier this month it was announced that British actress Rosamund Pike will be lending her voice to an ITV remake of the show, entitled Thunderbirds Are Go!. Penelope's loyal chauffeur, Parker, will be voiced by David Graham, who worked on the original show. But what of the original Penelope?

Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward was based on Sylvia Anderson, the co-creator of the show, who also lent the marionette her voice. After the new series was announced, she invited me to her Berkshire home to discuss her career pulling the strings of Thunderbirds, Joe 90 and others.

Situated at the end of a lane, through an overgrown wrought-iron gate somewhere in the vicinity of Maidenhead, it is only the bevy of garden-centre Aphrodites and Venus de Milos along the tree-lined path that give any indication Sylvia's house exists. Their state of limblessness serving to reinforce the spectacle of the original Lady P, Parker and Captain Scarlet dolls, who are stood in place at the end of the hallway as I step inside.

"I got them out for you!" she hollers in the same refined voice that once spoke to International Rescue via a Regency tea-pot, leading me into the kitchen. Today we drink Twinings infused with orange blossom – Sylvia liked the look of the packet so has bought three – before making our way into the lounge to eat ham and cheese sandwiches. Small, delicate and immaculately turned out in a multi-coloured blouse and beaded necklace, her hair in a carefully tousled bob, Sylvia is still every inch as glamorous as she was in the Sixties, if a little unsteady on her feet. A Lady Penelope birthday card is propped between family portraits on an oak dresser.

If there was one blonde who spearheaded British style in the Sixties, it was Lady Penelope

"The puppeteer Mary Turner and I struggled with Lady Penelope for a while," she explains, as we settle in. "It was easy to make the caricatures like Parker, but more difficult to create a human face. So Mary went away one weekend, came back on Monday morning and we'd finally got it – the plasticine model was moulded into silicone and then painted.

"Well, when the press heard that Thunderbirds was going to be an hour's show, they came knocking at the studio. Their first question was, 'Who is Lady Penelope based on?'. I called Mary in and to my amazement she said, 'I based her on Sylvia'."

Of course, Thunderbirds went on to be one of the most popular children's TV shows in history and Sylvia an international celebrity, but the production company that she and husband Gerry Anderson founded almost a decade before hadn't always been so successful.

"I was on a summer holiday from LSE [university] when my father told me I needed to go and find something to do. I saw a card that said, 'Small production company looking for holiday PA', so I rang them up and was told to come in for an interview on Berry Hill, in the small Buckinghamshire town of Taplow.

"It was a very hot day and I was wearing a suit. I climbed this wretched hill that went on forever to see a big gate and a really dilapidated old house at the top. I thought it was something weird, you never did know in those days, but I'd come that far, so I walked up and rang the bell. Seconds later a face appeared at the window and the door creaked open."

Sylvia stops and leans in, "This is just like a movie isn't it?". Drama still looms large in the mind of this storyteller, who widens her eyes for emphasis and howls after each punchline to reveal big dimples, which even in her mid-eighties, retain a certain doll-like quality.

The house wasn't haunted, she explains, or at least only by the company's shy and disorganised board of directors – "Oh they were like babies," she jokes, "didn't even know how to look after petty cash!

"But they gave me the job and we soon started having fun, using the great ballroom on the ground floor of the house to shoot titles and commercials for TV." Sylvia's role was providing tea, filing expenses and if she was lucky, doing the odd bit of logistical work on set; but it was here that she first met Gerry, who she would eventually marry.

Anderson says: 'It was easy to make the caricatures like Parker'

Together with co-founder Arthur Provis and two other colleagues – producer Reg Hill and cinematographer John Read – they formed Anderson Provis Films, the breakaway company that would go on to create Thunderbirds (whereupon it changed its name to Century 21 Productions), moving to an office in another house further down the river without the guarantee of any paid work. Until a woman called Roberta Leigh dropped by a few weeks later.

"It was just like something out of a very old movie, set in an orphanage or something, where the wealthy woman comes in a big car with a chauffeur and looks around and says 'Oh yes, I think I can do something here'. She said she'd written some children's books and wanted to make puppets of her characters. Well, we'd never thought about using puppets before, but because we were desperate we agreed to do it."

Cue the arrival of the rather sinister-looking and aptly titled, Torchy the Battery Boy. His vacant eyes and menacingly arched brows wouldn't get near a TV screen these days, but this was the Fifties and unbeknown to Sylvia and Gerry back then, creepy old Torchy was actually paving the way for Jeff Tracy and sons. "Once we had the idea to use puppets, we could make our first independent production, a puppet western called Four Feather Falls for Granada," Sylvia explains.

It wasn't until sci-fi TV-show producer, Frank Sherwin Green stepped up, and later commercial TV titan Lew Grade, that the team was able to fully utilise the creative skills that they were now acquiring by the day. A succession of half-hour shows went out on ATV including Supercar, Fireball XL5 and Stingray, for which Sylvia contributed plot development and voice work.

Gerry and Sylvia Anderson in 1966 with a model of Troy Tempest

"But characters were always my thing. I persuaded Lew Grade to give us an hour – because half an hour didn't really allow you to get to know any of the characters at all – and the result was Thunderbirds.

"Gerry and I wrote the bible, if you like. We'd write the first episode that was the key to the rest. I'd work on the characters and he would work on the adventures.

"I created Lady Penelope as something that would appeal to the Americans, and to Lew Grade, who'd given us so much. They thought everyone over here was either a Cockney or a lady living in her manor house. Well, Lady Penelope was both and neither. One of my favourite characters growing up was the Scarlet Pimpernel, someone who was very different by day – a bit of a fop – and a spy by night. So that was her back-story and Parker, the safe-cracker, was a part of that.

"We also wanted comedy, because we hadn't had a chance to use it before, and I could do so much more with the villains in an hour."

The show forced its audience to suspend disbelief. Here were real characters with motivations and internal lives. Graduates of the Stanislavski system, rather than contemporaries of Mary, Mungo or Midge.

The word 'children' doesn't crop up once in Sylvia's explanation of how Thunderbirds came about, and she is keen to remind me that creating a kids' show was never their intention. For the same reason I was more consumed by the goings on of Albert Square than of Farthing Wood as a child, the popularity of Thunderbirds lay in its sense of drama. Sure, most kids didn't understand the workings of a plutonium bomb, but the fact that the show was capable of sustaining their attention, as well as that of their older siblings' and parents', meant they had some idea by the end of said episode, "30 Minutes After Noon".

It was a chance for Sylvia, Gerry and the rest of their team to fulfil their dramatic potential and to explore wider interests. "It was the Sixties and London had become a very glamorous place, so I wanted to reflect that in the show."

Like the creation of Lady Penelope and the company's use of puppets in the first place, however, the fact that Thunderbirds lacked condescension was, in part, another happy coincidence; the result of an otherwise stifled team finally being granted more freedom than ever before. Hence why Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, Joe 90, The Secret Service, UFO, The Protectors and Space: 1999 were not as well received. Each occupies its own space in the canon of children's TV – with the exception, perhaps, of the final two – but as Sylvia explains: "Those shows did lack something. I felt we had achieved something quite remarkable with Thunderbirds. We'd put so much into the characters that I really didn't want to go through it all again".

British actress Rosamund Pike will be voicing Lady Penelope in an ITV remake of the show

With cracks also beginning to show in hers and Gerry's personal relationship, the company was only fated to last until the end of the 1970s. "Being a woman – probably one of the few successful female producers at the time – I did get a lot of attention. My husband found that hard because he was doing great work and creating wonderful effects. Whenever we were being interviewed, I always had to step back a bit. But that would only frustrate Gerry and he would say, 'Go on, you've got to speak to your reporters'. Later on, we started working with actors and there were probably some things that happened there which hurt the marriage.

"We got divorced in the Seventies. Things had changed. When we were both poor and working very hard, I was a help, and I was delighted when we finally got that success. It was heartbreaking at the time but Gerry and I had to break up. He quickly got someone else who was a secretary or something, because that's what he wanted. He didn't really want a woman who was going to compete in any way. Although I didn't realise I was competing at the time.

"I remember going to meet another producer about a film I was working on. He stared at my legs through the whole meeting before tapping me on the head and saying, 'Don't worry your pretty little head about that'. Well I wanted to slap him! Back then if you wanted to work as a woman, people assumed you were either tough or very flirtatious."

Sylvia went on to write an epistolary novel, Love and Hisses – a prototype Bridget Jones – which she cites as "saving her" following the break-up of the marriage. She then embarked on a long career sourcing UK content for American network HBO.

Gerry died last Boxing Day and Sylvia admits to feeling melancholy in the aftermath. "I got quite angry with myself thinking, why did it all go wrong?" Only a few years before, in 2010, he was publicly outraged when Working Title failed to credit him in their remake. Sylvia recalls how he "sulked". "I didn't expect to be involved, you see. You have to hand these things over, you can't hang on to them forever."

Anyone working to resurrect Thunderbirds and reinstate its legacy is a friend in her eyes. "Unless you accept that people are going to do it differently, you're always going to be disappointed." She grants Rosamund Pike her blessing and looks forward to seeing the show. "I am proud of what we have achieved and to see it being adapted by another group of people who are so talented."

She might not be colluding with intelligence agencies, but in her own quiet way, Sylvia exhibits all the poise of her best loved, and soon to be revived, heroine.

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