Thunderbirds' Lady Penelope is a fantastic creation, but there was so much more to Sylvia Anderson than that…
Anderson's star quality extended to character development, voice work and even costume design across a plethora of well-loved and ground-breaking shows, says Mark Braxton
With the sad passing of Sylvia Anderson, the media have perhaps inevitably gone big on the fact that she was the voice of Lady Penelope.
But in focusing on the elegant aristocrat who moonlighted as a secret agent, much of the press has overlooked Sylvia’s rich back catalogue of classic series for children and adults.
Yes, she was the voice of Lady P, and co-created Thunderbirds with her then husband Gerry, but her workload was immense in the 1960s and 70s – as creator, writer, producer and more – on a string of hit television shows.
Before Thunderbirds was even on the launchpad, children had thrilled to The Adventures of Twizzle (1957), Torchy the Battery Boy (1957–9) and Four Feather Falls (1960), on all of which Sylvia was a production assistant.
After she married Gerry in 1961 her contributions increased greatly on the ensuing science-fiction series including Supercar (1961–2), for which she was writer, dialogue director and voice artist (as Jimmy).
One hit co-creation followed another: Fireball XL5 (1962–3), for which she also provided the voice of glamorous doctor Venus; the submarine escapades of Stingray (1964–5), which held the distinction of being the first British TV show to be shot entirely in colour; and then, of course, the global smash Thunderbirds (1965–6), whose success is still being felt 50 years later.
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Fans of their shows will tell you that there was plenty more where that came from. Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967–8) was a darker production, with aliens from Mars posing a deadly threat to the Earth. Joe 90 (1968–9) saw a nine-year-old boy embarking on dangerous missions after adopting the brain patterns of adult experts via a device called the Big Rat. Hard to see that being green-lit today! And The Secret Service (1969) featured Stanley Unwin as an agent and priest who would baffle his detractors by spouting gobbledygook.
In all of these puppet extravaganzas, Sylvia was generally engaged in character development, while her husband was seen as the hardware man. Indeed, her daughter Dee says Sylvia had a “creativity and genuine love for her characters” that touched fans around the world.
The Andersons hit the big time in several movies, too: Thunderbirds Are Go (1966), Thunderbird 6 (1968) and the now critically acclaimed Twilight Zone-flavoured Doppelgänger (1969), distributed outside the UK as Journey to the Far Side of the Sun.
Doppelgänger was gritty and hard-edged, a move into the world of live action that would continue with the fondly remembered Space: 1999 (1975–7) and before that UFO (1970–3), on which Sylvia was also the costume designer, responsible for the famous purple wigs worn by Shado Moonbase personnel.
For me these were the Andersons’ masterworks: intelligent, philosophical and sometimes incredibly frightening. The Andersons’ marriage broke down during the production of series one of Space: 1999 in 1975. And sadly Sylvia’s absence from the inferior second series is all too visible.
In the 1980s she became a novelist and joined HBO during the US cable giant’s formative years. Based at Pinewood Studios, she was their Original Programming representative in the UK, setting up co-productions, researching material for drama, music, documentaries and film and assessing properties for the American marketplace.
Her story came full circle recently with the largely CGI-created TV series Thunderbirds Are Go, on which Sylvia provided guest vocals for the character of Lady Penelope's Great Aunt Sylvia, and the retro-tastic return to Supermarionation, Thunderbirds 1965, where Sylvia’s Lady P will be heard and seen again in three newly created adventures.
Last September Sylvia was guest of honour in Maidenhead, Berkshire, at “The Future Is Fantastic”. It was her first and last appearance at an Anderson convention, where hundreds of fans treated her to a superstar entrance and gave her a standing ovation.
On that occasion she told the audience, “I think I was always drawn to showbusiness.” And she was certainly well suited to it. Her glittering, pioneering career displayed many gifts including a real affinity for characterisation, and the many imaginative series on which she worked stimulated the minds of young and old alike.
The no-nonsense Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward (and her six-wheeled pink Rolls-Royce) is a superb legacy. But there are many other ways in which Sylvia Anderson was FAB.