Sylvia Anderson obituary: co-creator of Thunderbirds
Voice of Lady Penelope who with her husband Gerry produced classic puppet series of the 60s
Wednesday 16 March 2016
With her then husband, Gerry, Sylvia Anderson, who has died aged 88, brought to television some of the best-loved children’s puppet series of the 1960s, remembered for their groundbreaking animation and spectacular special effects. While he produced the programmes, she was responsible for character development, storylines, costume design, providing voices and directing other voice actors’ dialogue. Her most famous creation was Lady Penelope, International Rescue’s London agent in Thunderbirds (1965-66), whom she gave “not only the daring and panache of a secret agent, but also the poise of a cool and beautiful aristocrat”.
The Andersons’ aim was to find British characters for Thunderbirds that would have specific appeal for an American audience, to feature alongside Jeff Tracy, the US head of International Rescue, and his five sons, who launch land, sea, air and space missions in their hi-tech craft from Tracy Island, in the Pacific. Sylvia explained in 2014: “I thought to myself, ‘They think we’re either cockneys or posh ladies in stately homes. OK, that’s what we’ll give them.’ So you’ve got Parker, the cockney chauffeur, and Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward, who lives this glamorous life in her big house.”
Lady Penelope, voiced by Sylvia, modelled to look like her and driven around the English countryside in a pink Rolls-Royce with the number plate FAB 1, provided a strong female character for the first time in the Andersons’ animated productions. Sylvia became synonymous with Lady Penelope, making public appearances in an identical outfit, driving her own FAB 1 Rolls-Royce and even recording the song Parker – Well Done! in 1965 as the B-side of the Thunderbirds theme.
Although the programme ran to only two series, it was the couple’s most popular and commercially successful production, supported by an array of merchandise such as toys, books and games. Stingray (1964-65), Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967-68) and Joe 90 (1968-69) were other Anderson creations that became the staple of many childhoods.
While carefully crafting the marionettes and sets – and destroying them with explosions and other special effects – the couple were also at the forefront of technology. The audio signals from pre-recorded dialogue passed through the puppets’ wires to trigger solonoids in their heads, providing synchronised lip movement. This technique was trademarked as Supermarionation.
The Andersons moved on to live-action productions, which had always been Gerry’s ambition, but UFO (1969-73) and Space: 1999 (1975-76) flopped. Not only was the pair’s peak period of creativity over by then, so was their marriage.
Sylvia was born in south London, daughter of Sidney Thomas, a boxing promoter who owned a gym, and his wife, Beatrice (nee Aberdeen), a dressmaker. As a child, she enjoyed visits to the cinema and acting in school plays. She married Jack Brooks in 1946 and had a daughter, Dee. That and her 1952 marriage to George Thamm both ended in divorce.
In 1955, while studying economics and sociology at the London School of Economics, she became a part-time secretary at Polytechnic Studios, where Gerry Anderson directed documentaries. The job became full-time and she never returned to university. The following year, she joined Anderson and one of Polytechnic’s camera operators, Arthur Provis, to form Pentagon Films, making television commercials.
They then formed AP Films in 1957, with Sylvia as a company director and production assistant, and were commissioned by ITV to make The Adventures of Twizzle (1957-59), from Roberta Leigh’s children’s stories, followed by the first run of Leigh’s Torchy the Battery Boy (1958-59). Both featured traditional marionettes, but Gerry devised innovative filming and puppetry techniques.
Sylvia and Gerry married in 1960 while making the western puppet series Four Feather Falls. Supermarionation began with Supercar (1961-62) and Fireball XL5 (1962-63), then Stingray, the Andersons’ first production to be filmed in colour.
Already a writer of some episodes of the television programmes, Sylvia was elevated to producer for two feature-film versions of the Andersons’ biggest worldwide hit – Thunderbirds Are Go (1966) and Thunderbird 6 (1968) – but both bombed at the box office. Their marriage began to falter around the same time, although thoughts of separation were averted by the birth in 1967 of their son, also called Gerry.
Thunderbirds proved hard to follow. Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and Joe 90 were less popular, and signalled the end of a golden era. The Secret Service (1969) saw the merger of puppets and live action, but ITV pulled the show after 13 episodes.
Following UFO, the Andersons had a trial separation. They were reunited and together created Space: 1999, which Sylvia produced. However, at the end of the first series, the couple parted for good – Sylvia claimed Gerry hated sharing the limelight – and they divorced in 1981.
Sylvia was briefly head of production for a video company before spending 20 years as the US cable television channel HBO’s UK programming representative, researching talent and co-production deals. She also acted as a consultant for the 2004 live-action Thunderbirds film and voiced Lady Penelope’s Aunt Sylvia (2015) in the CGI television revival Thunderbirds Are Go!
She wrote a semi-autobiographical novel, Love and Hisses (1983), and a volume of memoirs, Yes M’Lady (1991), updated in 2007 as My FAB Years.
She is survived by Dee and Andy, four grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.
• Sylvia Beatrice Anderson, television producer, writer and actor, born 25 March 1927; died 15 March 2016