As well as having a large part in devising some of the world famous Supermarionation series, the late Sylvia Anderson also utilised her talents as a voice artist and played many of the roles which she felt suited her. This of course culminated in her portrayal of Lady Penelope in Thunderbirds. However, her involvement in recording dialogue for goes far beyond this role with her playing a number of starring characters across the Supermarionation era. In her memory, let’s take a look back at some of the voices Sylvia brought to the puppet stars.
Jimmy Gibson (Supercar)
When the dialogue recording team were at a loss as to who could convincingly portray a small American boy, it was Sylvia who stepped up to the microphone and gave it a go. In the first series of Supercar her efforts went uncredited but it cannot be ignored that she gives a credible performance as Jimmy Gibson.
The character of Jimmy was rescued by the Supercar team in the first episode and went on to join them in their work along with his pet chimpanzee, Mitch the Monkey. Jimmy represented the audience in the series and would often ask the questions that children watching at home wanted to ask. At times his limitations as a child character in a scientific and dangerous environment are more than a little clear, but Sylvia’s portrayal still makes him endearing and gives him an emotional range which the drama and action of the series required.
Dr Venus (Fireball XL5)
In a complete change from her character in Supercar, Sylvia’s voice for Fireball XL5‘s doctor of space medicine, Venus, oozes femininity and charm, all wrapped up in a French accent. Venus was the first woman to take a prominent role in a Supermarionation series and it is unfortunate that while Sylvia clearly had in mind for her to be a perfectly competent and professional doctor, some of the writing for the series completely ignores this characterisation and mocks her position on the basis of her being a woman. With more control later on, Sylvia was better able to show women being able to take on important roles without a second thought.
As the series progresses, Venus becomes better able to stand shoulder to shoulder with Steve Zodiac, rather than one step behind. The romantic attraction between them becomes less about Venus fawning over Steve’s good looks and bravery and more of a mutual respect between the two of them and the work they do for the World Space Patrol. Sylvia portrays her with a confidence and intelligence which makes her an interesting character in her own right, rather than just being Steve Zodiac’s love interest.
Marina is of course silent for the majority of Stingray. Her voice is heard in the television series only once when Troy falls into an oxygen-starved hallucination in the episode Raptures of the Deep, and arguably this is not Marina’s actual voice but what Troy believes it to sound like.
This, however, was not the only time that the beautiful girl from the under the sea spoke. The Century 21 Mini Album ‘Marina Speaks’ does what it says on the tin. This audio episode released on LP reveals through a letter from Marina that she is not mute as everyone believed, but that she and all of her people are under an evil curse by Titan. A flashback sequence reveals Marina speaking with her father Aphony, and how the curse came to be.
The voice Sylvia gives her for this episode is similar to the one Troy imagines in Raptures of the Deep: elegant and charming but with a certain glamour and intelligence which formed the basis of her next character…
Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward (Thunderbirds)
Gerry’s original preference for the casting of Lady Penelope’s voice was Fenella Fielding, but Sylvia insisted that this part was important to her and she wanted to play it herself. Sylvia’s portrayal of Penelope is something very special because it brings together so many opposing qualities. She has all the composure and superiority of a stereotypical lady of the aristocracy, but underneath is able to demonstrate Penelope’s youthful exuberance and desire for danger and excitement. Sylvia never over-plays the humour in the character’s dialogue, often making a small joke go a long way as a result.
In Penelope, Sylvia also created a character who was able to function and participate in stories in her own right, not just as “the woman” of the organisation who did what women at the time were expected to be doing, but as International Rescue’s fully fledged London Agent who could join in with the action as well as any of the Tracy boys without a second thought. The character is extremely refreshing in that she is given a fully rounded personality and purpose in the series beyond being an attractive and wealthy lady. At the end of 30 Minutes After Noon, the secret agent Southern encourages Penelope to “just be what you are, a very beautiful lady.” Penelope gives a knowing look to the viewer because it is abundantly clear that she is far more than this. Sylvia would often talk about how it was initially difficult for the writers to share in her vision of Penelope as a three-dimensional character but eventually they picked up on the idea and put Penelope at the centre of the action on several occasions.
The story of how Lady Penelope bears more than a passing resemblance to Sylvia is often told. Sculptor and puppeteer Mary Turner was struggling with Sylvia to create a face that they were both happy with. Mary was encouraged to take it home over the weekend to work on it. As she worked on it, the face started to look more and more like Sylvia. She was not made aware of the deliberate attempt base Penelope on her until the press were speaking to Mary later on. It was a fantastic marketing opportunity for the series and with many of the public appearances Penelope made, Sylvia would be wearing a life-size replica of the puppet’s costume. Sylvia’s strong association with the character continued until her death and will continue for as long as people remember Thunderbirds.
Melody Angel (Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons)
Partly due to the birth of Gerry and Sylvia’s son, as well as her other important roles both in and out of the studio, Sylvia was less involved with the production of the Supermarionation series on a day-to-day basis by the time Captain Scarlet was being made. Her only recurring role in the series was Melody Angel who along with the 4 other angels form the elite fighter pilots that defend the Earth from the ongoing Mysteron threat. Once again it is refreshing that without a second thought the Angels are viewed by the other characters in the series as highly skilled pilots and not thought to be out of their depth just because they are women. As the sixties progressed so did attitudes towards women and it cannot be ignored how influential Sylvia Anderson’s female characters were in showing families what the future could be like with women being given the same opportunities and respect as men.
Ada Harris (Joe 90) and Mrs Appleby (The Secret Service)
Unfortunately it seems that as Supermarionation attempted to move away from the distant future and tried to ground itself in a more recognisable world, Sylvia was less able to create and portray women with an important role to play in the main action of the series. The housekeeper characters of Ada Harris and Mrs Appleby in Joe 90 and The Secret Service do nothing more than look after the main characters and do little to get involved in the actual story. Nevertheless, Sylvia shows her versatility and is able to portray them as older, more motherly figures who are endearing and often provide warmth and humour in the episodes.
Ultimately, Sylvia Anderson’s talent for creating and voicing her puppet heroes makes her stand out as a pioneer of characterisation for television. Her desire to make sure the writing of the series was up to date with the progression of society at the time is what makes so many of the later Supermarionation shows so timeless. She is quite rightly singled out for her globally recognised performance as the voice of Lady Penelope. Although her contributions go far beyond this, her portrayal of Penelope sums up everything that she was trying to do with the way she created her characters. They were able to carry an exciting story full of action and adventure, and were being taken seriously by their fellow characters and the audience watching at home. Lady Penelope has this quality in the way Sylvia characterised and plays her, and it is for this reason that Thunderbirds has found success with generations of families for over 50 years.