Stephen La Rivière remembers the life and career of a legend of British sci- fi television
We bid farewell to the Thunderbirds co- creator – and Lady Penelope.
Producer and actress Sylvia Anderson, who has died aged 88, will forever be remembered as Lady Penelope from Thunderbirds. The series, filmed using sophisticated puppets and special effects, was one of several era- defining “Supermarionation” productions dreamt up by herself and husband Gerry, including Stingray, Captain Scarlet and Joe 90. However, the Andersons never dreamt of making puppet films; they were always very honest that it was a means to an end.
Sylvia didn’t make her first foray into the film business until she was 30. An innocuous classified ad led her to a new job and to future husband Gerry, while a chance encounter with novelist Roberta Leigh resulted in the puppet series Twizzle.
Gerry, keen to escape this low- grade form of filmmaking, pushed to improve the puppet technology, while Sylvia wanted them to develop their own stories. They moved into science fiction with Supercar and began their golden- association with Lew Grade, who saw enormous potential in these puppet epics.
Sylvia oversaw every aspect of what they dubbed “Character Visualisation” – which included sculpting, voices and clothing. As a glamorous ’ 60s- gal, Sylvia was key to making the shows reflect the colourful era in which they were made.
For their first feature film Thunderbirds Are Go, Sylvia found herself thrust into the producer’s chair – one of the few women undertaking such a job at that time. This was a role she relished and her no- nonsense attitude made her well suited to it.
The Andersons’ success led them to their dream of producing shows with real actors. UFO and Space: 1999 resulted. However, the pressures of huge success caused the collapse of their marriage. The divorce was acrimonious and Sylvia found her contribution to the shows largely airbrushed out of history by her ex- husband.
After a difficult time spent trying to re- establish herself, Sylvia became the British Programming Representative for HBO. She remained proud of her Supermarionation shows and continued to support new ventures to do with her best- known creations. She played Lady Penelope one final time for the documentary Filmed In Supermarionation ( 2014), and Aunt Sylvia in the CGI revival Thunderbirds Are Go ( 2015). She was also part of Thunderbirds 1965 – three new episodes of the series produced using old techniques and voice recordings from the ’ 60s. “When you make something like Thunderbirds it becomes bigger than any one person,” she said. “It’s just marvellous to see it continuing.”