Think Pink: The Enduring Appeal of Lady Penelope

ladyp01Last week I celebrated the 100th birthday of Orson Welles and this week I’m celebrating another milestone, the 50th anniversary of THUNDERBIRDS and the International Rescue team featuring secret agent extraordinaire, Lady Penelope.

This popular “Supermarionation” series of television shows and feature-length films debuted on British TV in September of 1965 but Lady Penelope made her first appearance nine months early within the pages of the comic book magazine, TV Century 21. Lady Penelope’s early introduction indirectly resulted in her becoming somewhat of a special ambassador for THUNDERBIRDS and she managed to entice both male and female comic readers with her stories of “Elegance, Charm and Deadly Danger.” This coming Saturday (May 9th) TCM viewers will be able to see Lady Penelope as well as her fellow International Rescue team members in THUNDERBIRD 6 (1968) airing at 8 AM EST – 5 AM PST. In anticipation of THUNDERBIRD 6 and in celebration of the THUNDERBIRDS 50th anniversary, I thought I would explore the enduring appeal of Lady Penelope who, along with her pink six-wheeled Rolls-Royce and trusty sidekick Parker, has managed to capture the imagination of children and adults for the past 50 years.

 

THUNDERBIRDS was the brainchild of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, a creative husband and wife team who wrote, directed, produced and co-designed many pioneering marionette shows such as SUPERCAR, FIREBALL XL5, STINGRAY, CAPTAIN SCARLET & THE MYSTERIONS, JOE 90, UFO and SPACE: 1999. The TV series followed the adventures of International Rescue (aka IR), a top-secret organization dedicated to protecting humanity and stopping criminal activity in the year 2065. The technologically advanced outfit is run by Jeff Tracy, a widower, multi-millionaire and ex-astronaut who, along with his 5 adult sons (Scott, John, Virgil, Gordon & Alan) and an engineer named Brains, manage the day-to-day activities of IR with help from an assortment of advanced air, land, sea & space vehicles they call Thunderbirds. IR also depends on the help of Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward, a secret agent posing as a renowned London fashion model and wealthy aristocrat. Much like James Bond and Batman, the well-educated Lady Penelope became bored with high-society and decided to use her fortune and numerous talents to fight crime and save lives as a member of IR. Lady Penelope relies on help from her reliable manservant, a former master thief named Parker, who serves as her butler and chauffeur. And despite the best efforts of the Tracy Family and numerous other characters that appeared in the THUNDERBIRDS series, the witty and wise Lady Penelope was often a show stealer.

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Top: Puppet designer Mary Turner with the marionettes for THUNDERBIRDS.
Middle: Sylvia Anderson setting up a shot with Lady Penelope & Parker.
Bottom: Sylvia Anderson, Lady Penelope & Gerry Anderson attend an award show.

Puppet designer Mary Turner, who produced many of the marionettes for THUNDERBIRDS, was originally asked to base her design for Lady Penelope on models seen in Vogue magazine but after her first proposals were rejected by the Anderson’s, Turner decided to base Lady Penelope on Sylvia Anderson herself. Anderson was an attractive and glamorous blonde as well as an independent hardworking woman, which made her the ideal Lady Penelope prototype. Sylvia Anderson also became the voice of Lady Penelope and besides creating the character, she was responsible for choosing her wardrobe, which included designs based on popular fashions found in Paris and London boutiques at the time. However, Lady Penelope was not just a pretty puppet face obsessed with the latest fashion trends and the color pink. Anderson emphasized the character’s intelligence and wit, suggesting that she spoke multiple languages and was an accomplished athlete as well as an expert shot. And although the Anderson’s had included female characters in their previous Supermarionation shows, Lady Penelope’s distinct personality and strong traits made her unique among characters found in children’s television shows at the time. Young women around the world eager for new role models became particularly enamored with the charming secret agent and her pink Rolls-Royce called Fab 1.

I loved the idea of an adventurous secret life, so Lady Penelope became the London agent for International Rescue. And as a female character on a children’s show, she really broke the mold. In our early series, the females were just there too look good. One of them, Marina from Stingray, didn’t even speak. That’s what society was like back then, but by the time we got to Thunderbirds, the role of women was changing and I knew Lady Penelope had to be out there with the boys.” – Sylvia Anderson

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Some examples of the Lady Penelope merchandise that’s been made available since her debut in 1965.

When THUNDERBIRDS debuted in 1965, Lady Penelope’s popularity quickly became apparent. According to an in interview with the Daily Express, hordes of reporters descended on the estate where the series was filmed eager to speak to Sylvia, who played Lady Penelope. Soon afterward, Lady Penelope was featured in her own comic magazine aimed at female readers that included fashion and beauty tips as well as interviews with British pop stars. This was followed by books that detailed Lady Penelope’s solo adventures and a steady stream of merchandise that included records, games, dolls, toys, jewelry, coloring books and stickers. Young women apparently couldn’t get enough of the puppet in pink and the Anderson’s were more than happy to accommodate their demands.

Besides being a hit with TV viewers and the press, THUNDERBIRDS won a number of awards and although Gerry Anderson took most of the credit for the creation of THUNDERBIRDS, Sylvia Anderson was acknowledged for her voice acting. We now know that Sylvia had much more creative input on the series as well as the films but for years she was forced to live in her husband’s shadow. Thankfully that wasn’t the case with the fictional Lady Penelope who held her own with the Tracy family and was arguably THUNDERBIRDS most interesting and beloved character.

ladp03Today there’s a lack of crime fighting female heroes on the big and small screen and audiences are becoming vocal about demanding that film and television programs start featuring more women in heroic roles. The limited focus on action orientated female characters is unusual considering the popularity of superhero films at the moment but during the mid-to-late sixties television was inundated with beautiful, smart, tough and innovative women who challenged the status quo and put an array of fictional bad guys behind bars. These characters included Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman), Emma Peel (Diana Rigg), Honey West (Anne Francis), Batgirl (Yvonne Craig), April Dancer (Stefanie Powers), Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon), Julie Barnes (Peggy Lipton) as well as the marionette, Lady Penelope. Unfortunately, none of these female characters made it to the big screen besides Lady Penelope, which makes her a unique exception to the rule. And with help and inspiration from the creative mind of Sylvia Anderson, the female member of International Rescue has managed to reinvent herself for a new generation.

The original series may have ended after the release of the final THUNDERBIRDS movie in 1968, but since then the show has been the subject of documentaries and was turned into a feature-length live action film in 2006, which featured actress Sophia Myles as Lady Penelope. Most recently, THUNDERBIRDS was revived as an animated series that borrows its title from the first film, THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO (1966). The show is currently only airing on British TV and the voice of Lady Penelope belongs to the Academy Award nominated actress Rosamund Pike (GONE GIRL; 2014).

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Thunderbirds empowers young people in an exciting way. International Rescue is made up of five boys and a girl and then, of course, there is Lady Penelope. They are all entirely self-reliant young people who are seen as trustworthy and heroic, who can handle themselves and their extraordinary crafts in the most challenging situations.” – Rosamund Pike

I don’t know what’s next for Lady Penelope but I, along with countless other fans, will undoubtedly be keeping track of her numerous adventures for years to come. And if you would like to see Lady Penelope along with other members of International Rescue in one of their feature-length escapades, remember to tune into TCM early Saturday morning for THUNDERBIRD 6!

15 Responses Think Pink: The Enduring Appeal of Lady Penelope
Posted By Ben Martin : May 7, 2015 8:03 pm

My favorite scene in Thunderbirds are Go is the dream date (literally) young, insecure Alan goes on with Lady Penelope. To Alan, Lady P is the perfect woman. (Cool, calm, strong, kind, brilliant, beautiful, confident, self-sufficient, witty…) Parker drives them to the outer space nightclub in the 6-wheel pink Rolls and they have a lovely time, highlighted by a rousing number about stalking (Shooting Star) sung by “the biggest star in the universe,” Cliff Richard, and backed by marionette versions of members of The Shadows (who also wrote the song). Priceless. (“Mind the gap.” “FAB”)

Posted By Autist : May 7, 2015 8:11 pm

Nice article! I remember Thunderbirds with great fondness. It was my second favorite show when I was a boy–Jonny Quest was first. By the way, the Rosamund Pike movie is just “Gone Girl”; I expect you got it confused with “Gone Baby Gone”.

Posted By Gamera2000 : May 8, 2015 1:39 pm

One of the great things about DVD’s is that they enable you to own the series you loved as a kid. This was one of my favorite shows growing up in the 60′s and Lady Penolope was my favorite character on it.

Posted By fantomex9 : May 9, 2015 3:36 am

Lack of of female crime-fighters (I prefer ‘adventurers’ and ‘heroes’ to just only crime fighters) on TV and in movies now? Hmm, let’s see…

Lara Croft (star of the video games and recent series of movies

Sydney Bristow (star of the TV series Alias

Peggy Carter (Marvel Comics character and female lead in Captain America-The First Avenger, as well as star of the TV spin-off Agent Carter

Kim Possible (star of one of the best animated TV shows in recent years, Kim Possible

Korra (main character of the TV series Avatar: The Legend of Korra

There are countless others, so I won’t list all of them, you can do a Google-search and unearth them. But unlike the supposedly populated-with-female-heroines 1960′s, there have been a lot more female heroines in the 1990′s and 2000′s.

Posted By george : May 9, 2015 8:17 pm

Too bad Marvel and its owner (Disney) and DC and its owner (Warner) are so reluctant to make a movie starring a female superhero. A leaked email showed Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter urging Sony executives to avoid movies with female protagonists, thanks to the box-office failures of SUPERGIRL (1984), CATWOMAN (2004) and ELEKTRA (2005).

You’d think that after 10 years, it would be time to give heroines another shot … especially after the massive successes of the female-centered Hunger Games and Twilight franchises.

Posted By fantomex9 : May 10, 2015 2:28 am

@ george: Marvel Studios is making a movie about Captain Marvel (the current version of Carol Danvers, aka Ms. Marvel-Captain Marvel: women writers hired for first female-fronted superhero movie) and Warner Bros./DC Entertainment is eventually going to make a Wonder Woman movie to be released in 2017-2018.

Even if they don’t released a sole female hero (super or not) movie, the fact that there are female superheroes fighting alongside the men in the Marvel movies and the ample plethora of female heroes in most action movies means that there has been a lot of them in recent decades, contrary to what you and the writer of this article believe.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : May 10, 2015 5:33 am

Ben, Autist & Gamera2000 – Glad to see that there are still plenty of Thunderbirds fans out there! Such a great show and I’m glad TCM continues to air the films.

Fantomex9 – I’m afraid your comments only strengthen my point and support the facts. In my post I refer to a very brief period in the mid-to-late sixties (roughly 5 years between 1964-1969) when (and I quote) “crime fighting female heroes” & “action orientated female characters” were prominent on TV. Frankly, it’s ridiculous that in 2015 – 50+ years later! – that there are just a handful of strong, “adventure seeking” or crime fighting female characters on TV at the moment & in current films playing *right now* in theaters. The last Laura Croft film was made in 2003 & Alias was cancelled nearly 15 yeas ago in 2006. There are exceptions of course, such as HAYWIRE (2012) with Gina Carano, which I enjoyed but at this point in history we should be seeing a hell of a lot more action focused TV shows & films featuring women besides just Scarlett Johansson (who I really like btw). That said, I’m looking forward to finally seeing a Wonder Women movie if it gets made. Especially after sitting through countless Superman/Batman/Spiderman/Hulk/Thor/Captain America films.

Posted By fantomex9 : May 10, 2015 7:04 am

My statements don’t support your facts, especially since I also said that you should search for a wider list of heroines in movies, TV and video games from the 1990′s and the 2000′s. There’s been a heck of a lot more than what you’ve said wasn’t there (come to think of it, there were a lot in the ’80′s too) and you only scratched the surface with the bit you mentioned. The people who told you (I presume you did hear from others about this) that there weren’t a lot of heroines on TV, movies and related visual media are full of themselves.

Posted By Susan Doll : May 10, 2015 9:28 pm

Sorry, Fantomex 9, I know that you want to support a genre you obviously love, and that is understandable. We all defend the movies we love; sometimes the hardest movies to defend are the ones we love. But, I also know what Kimberly is saying when she makes her points about the lack of female heroic protagonists. While women are better represented on television, they are generally the protagonists in dramas, albeit dramas with crime. They are generally not the protagonists of action-adventure or genre programming. As for film, the lack of female characters in the top money-making films has been the source of study by many institutes in the last ten years, including the Annenberg Center at USC, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, the New York Film Academy, and the Center for the Study of Women in Film and Television. According to New York Academy, about 31% of speaking roles in the top 500 films between 2009 and 2014 were women. If you narrow it down to family films (G, PG, PG-13), it falls to 28% (Annengberg). If you want to talk protagonists, here is a direct quote from a report by the Center for the Study of Women in Film & Television: “In 2014, females comprised 12% of protagonists, 29% of major characters, and 30% of all speaking characters in the top 100 grossing films.” These organizations use a wide list of films — either the top-grossing 100 or 500 films — and employ professional statisticians.

Considering 51% of movie tickets are purchased by women, their perspectives are not being represented by the studios, or even the indie market.

Posted By george : May 11, 2015 12:13 am

By the time Marvel/Disney releases a Captain Marvel movie (in 2018 at the earliest)there will have been 3 solo films each for Thor, Iron Man and Capt. America. Heck, there will have been an Ant-Man movie (only without his female partner of the ’60s and ’70s, the Wasp).

As for Wonder Woman … as Mark Harris noted in a Grantland article, it currently exists only as a release date (in 2017). There is no production-ready script and only one person (Gal Gadot) has been cast.

I saw AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON last week and couldn’t help but notice that Scarlett Johansson and Elizabeth Olsen stole every shot they appeared in. So why isn’t Marvel rushing to make a Black Widow solo film and a Scarlet Witch solo film?

When (if) Marvel finally does make a Black Widow film, I’m afraid it will look something like this SNL spoof:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_5KgpN38hM

“Marvel: We Know Girls”

Posted By george : May 11, 2015 2:18 am

I think a lot of this has to do with a Hollywood mentality that has held, ever since the ’80s, that young males are the key to box office success. And young males won’t go to a movie with a female protagonist, while women and girls WILL go to a movie with a male protagonist.

Looking back, the mid to late ’60s does look like a golden age for action heroines, especially on TV: Honey West, the Girl from UNCLE, Batgirl and the good-bad Catwoman on “Batman,” and — best of all — Emma Peel on “The Avengers.”

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : May 11, 2015 7:19 pm

I know the numbers support the one or two sentences in my post that seem to have ruffled some feathers, but thanks for sharing them, Susan!

To be clear(er), never once in my post did I suggest that if you combined all the film & TV roles that featured action focused women characters in the last 3 decades (1980s-2000s) would you see less heroines than you did in 5 to 6 years of network TV during the late 1960s. My post references the surprising trend that occurred at the time and today (in 2015 – not in the 80s, 90s or 2000s) if you follow entertainment news you’ll find plenty of stories about viewers (particularly women) who are eager to see more female heroines & protagonists on TV and in movies. It’s just a fact I highlighted in my post.

And one other important fact worth mentioning in regards to late era 1960s TV programming. On average, households at the time only had 4-6 channels. 3 were the big networks (ABC, NBC & CBS) along with PBS and if you were lucky you got some local channels that often showed reruns & public access shows. Today we have *hundreds* of channels to chose from, many more networks as well as premium channels, access to international programming, etc. I know that there are shows on TV at the moment that feature smart, tough & interesting action oriented heroines such as Orphan Black, The Americans, Fargo & Agent Carter because I’ve watched & enjoyed them. Obviously they exist today but those numbers should be much, much higher in 2015.

I worked at a comic shop throughout most of the 1990s and I love action films. Haven’t seen the latest Avengers movie yet but I’m really looking forward to the new Mad Max movie featuring Charlize Theron obviously kicking some booty. Despite this, I can’t deny that women are seriously underrepresented in the genre.

Posted By george : May 11, 2015 8:19 pm

One story I’ve heard is that Disney bought Marvel so they’d have properties that appealed to boys. They already ruled the young girl market with their princess merchandise and girl-centric animated films and Disney channel shows.

And now people want superhero movies that appeal to girls? That’s not why they bought Marvel!

From what I’ve read (and observed in my years as a comics geek), the market for superhero comics was overwhelmingly male for a long, long time. Girls read Archie or manga, not Marvel or DC. That is changing, but the corporate owners will be the last to get the message.

Posted By swac44 : May 25, 2015 7:43 pm

I was always hoping that we’d see more of H.K. action star Michelle Yeoh in Western titles after she turned up in one of the Pierce Brosnan James Bond entries, and managed to make the most of an underwritten part, but sadly it wasn’t to be the case, apart from the success of the Chinese-language Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Although I’m glad to see she’ll be back in theatres later this summer for the long-awaited sequel to that epic, CT, HD II: The Green Legend.

Posted By fantomex9 : May 25, 2015 8:47 pm

@george: It’s possible that she’s not that interesting a character on her own, and is only great withing a group-that’s why there’s only been Agent Carter and the upcoming Captain Marvel movie. I agree that there should be more female Marvel heroines on screen, but quality should matter more than quantity.

@Kimberly Lindbergs: Just because you could only focus on 2015 (and there were just as many action heroines this year too) doesn’t meant that there weren’t any recently. There have been so many in the past years, but frankly, most of the people complaining seem to believe that history starts when they notice it first. Having a low number only in 2015 shouldn’t negate the fact that the past years have seen an explosion of heroines (so much so that a group like is angry at that and wants Hollywood to ‘redress the balance’-and no, I don’t agree with them.) The movies with female super-heroines will come from Marvel-it just won’t be the Black Widow that’s front and center (and to be frank, between its Phase 3 movie slate, multiple Netflix series, and Agents of SHIELD, Marvel Studios has a lot on its plate.)

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