Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on May 7, 2015
Last 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.
Top: Puppet designer Mary Turner with the marionettes for THUNDERBIRDS.
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.
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.
Today 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).
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!
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