Lady Penelope from Thunderbirds was my great childhood role model. I adored her. She was clever, rich, posh, lovely, poised, she dressed beautifully, she had a huge country house, a big car and was driven everywhere by a man in uniform. To this day I still aspire to all of these things, particularly being driven everywhere in a big car by a man in uniform.
As a little girl I so badly wanted to be Lady Penelope, aristocrat and part-time secret agent for International Rescue, the boys on Tracy Island. Not just because she was in regular contact with the greatest love of my life, blue-titfered sex god and Thunderbird One pilot Scott Tracy, but because she was intelligent, no one told her what to do, and she was driven everywhere in a big car by a man in uniform (I really must let this go) wiping out generic evil foreigners.
It’s a testament to Lady Penelope and her creator/voice Sylvia Anderson that she never became lost in the mists of my childhood. The sands of time never closed over Lady P for me, and when I heard the announcement of Sylvia Anderson’s death, that voice instantly echoed in my head; “Home, Parker.” (He was the man in uniform, the driver of her pink Rolls Royce, FAB 1).
Lady Penelope is one of the reasons why I love television, why I’ve always loved television. There’s nothing very complicated about it, on the most pure and profound level Lady Penelope and Thunderbirds took me to so many lively and imaginative places in my own little six-year-old head.
This probably all sounds a bit pifflingly Proustian, though I’m pretty sure Marcel Proust didn’t have a Lady Penelope doll (with a red checked cloak!) and I’m almost certain his dad didn’t make him a plastic FAB 1 from a kit. If he did, Remembrance of Things Past would have been a very different book, with rockets and Rolls Royces that could fire guns from its headlight sockets.
Television transforms, which is why it’s the best thing in the world, apart from salted caramel chocolate and Durham Cathedral. The greatest characters – and Lady Penelope, thanks to Sylvia Anderson WAS a character, even though she was a puppet, live forever.
Because television, our invited guest, brings some great people into our homes. We’ll never forget Happy Valley’s Catherine Cawood, or The Good Wife’s Alicia Florrick, or The Killing’s Sarah Lund, or Doctor Gemma Foster. We’re so lucky, honestly, we are. Moan all you like about television (and there is much to moan about if you really want to look hard enough) but it enriches more than impoverishes, giving us people who remain lifelong companions. Like Lady Penelope.
And in an age when that deadly phrase “strong female characters” is bandied around by people wouldn’t know a “strong female character” if she took them out to dinner and paid the bill, those of us who grew up with Lady P can point to her and say “yes, we know.” And we have Sylvia Anderson to thank for that.