Thunderbirds co-creator Sylvia Anderson has said it is “strange” to hear her character Lady Penelope voiced by Rosamund Pike in the ITV remake.
The 88-year-old producer and writer portrayed Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward in the Supermarionation puppet series from its debut in 1965 until 1968.
Thunderbirds was the brainchild of then husband and wife team, Gerry and Sylvia. It revolved around the adventures of the Tracy family, who jetted around the world in a variety of amazing vehicles, performing daredevil rescues.
In total defiance of its relatively short run, the show has been part of British popular culture for half a century.
In April this year, a new version, called Thunderbirds Are Go, launched on ITV featuring Oscar nominee Pike and with David Graham reprising his original part as Lady Penelope’s driver, Parker.
Speaking about the Thunderbirds Classic 50th Anniversary DVD, Anderson reflected on the role for which she remains best known: “It’s a little bit strange hearing today’s Lady Penelope.”
The producers of the new CGI incarnation asked the mother-of-two if she would like a guest part.
“I said ‘Yes, of course’. I went up to do the recording and I sat next to today’s Lady Penelope, who’s fantastic – very graceful, very elegant, lovely. I’m her sort of dotty great-aunt. We had fun doing it actually,” she enthused.
In both versions, the aristocrat is employed by secret organisation International Rescue as its London field agent. In addition to voicing the glamorous blonde, Anderson was the inspiration for Lady Penelope’s features – the puppet was modelled on her face.
“I didn’t start off by saying ‘Lady Penelope, that must be me’. I worked very closely with Mary Turner, a very talented lady who is still around and we still talk,” she said.
“Mary and I were having difficulties getting the right face and the right look. When you’re doing a character like Parker, it’s very easy because you can make a red nose and the funny look and the Cockney accent.
“But when you’re doing something that’s more life-like, it’s more difficult. So we worked quite hard on this and I kept saying to Mary ‘No, it’s not quite there’. I told her to work on it over the weekend.
“She came back on Monday morning and said ‘Look – what do you think about this?’ I said ‘Oh yes, I think you’ve got it!’ What she didn’t say is that her father had said ‘Why don’t you model it on Sylvia?’ And that’s what she did. And I didn’t know that until a lot, lot later.”
Even in those early days, the makers of Thunderbirds were conscious of the need to appeal to international markets, but there was a particular satisfaction following the success of Lady Penelope.
“I just knew the character I created was good for the Americans, and we had to bear in mind the American market and so on,” Anderson said. “They didn’t like puppets really, but I knew they would quite like the idea of a lady, an English lady, living in a stately home.”
Behind the camera, the Londoner took on many roles for Thunderbirds including character development and costume design. When asked if she saw herself as a pioneer for women in television during the 1960s, Anderson’s response was modest.
“I never waved the flag or anything about being a woman, but I was a woman with a group of men. Now and again I would get a director and I would go on set, one in particular, no names of course, and he was very, very huffy because I was a woman giving him notes on what he had shot the previous day, and I tried to do it very carefully,” she revealed.
The new DVD contains 32 action-packed classic episodes and a documentary on the making of Thunderbirds Are Go presented by Reggie Yates.
Anderson is excited to see the old and the new celebrated together: “The new one is fun, it’s different. I’m thrilled that it’s still going, even in a different way. I think it’s a great compliment to all of us.”
Lady Penelope in a new publicity shot for Thunderbirds 1965. She's 50 next week... pic.twitter.com/PeTipzGHuo— Thunderbirds 1965 (@Thunderbirds65) September 24, 2015
Thunderbirds fans continue to lavish praise on Anderson for her innovative creation: “To this day I still get letters from people, I really do. We had such a fabulous group of people. I can’t emphasise that enough.
“Over the years, people have said ‘It was so and so’s thing’. No. It was a group effort. But it was fun, really fun, and I look back at it with great affection and I don’t regret any of it at all.”
Thunderbirds Classic Complete Collection Limited Edition DVD, ITV Studios Global Entertainment