Sylvia’s Interview for The Sunday Times – 17 February, 2008
Best of Times, Worst of Times: By Sylvia Anderson
“Sylvia Anderson is best known as the voice of Lady Penelope in the cult TV show Thunderbirds, which she created with her former husband, Gerry.
She recalls how she coped with being diagnosed with cancer, which had already claimed the life of her sister
I was interviewing writers for a new puppet series after Thunderbirds when my sister, Betty, rang me.
She’d noticed an indent in her breast. She said: “You’ve got to come.” I jumped up and left the meeting.
You have times when you’re juggling priorities, but here was no question in my mind I had to be there for her.
My family always come first. She was in hospital the next day.
Later, I remember going to the specialist’s office with her. He said: “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, it’s not good news.” I froze and Betty looked at me, and then the specialist crossed his legs and Betty and I both noticed he had the most outrageous striped socks on.
He said: “I’ve done all I can, just don’t lose hope, etc, etc.” Afterwards we went into the ladies’ room and Betty said, “Did you see the socks?” and we laughed our heads off. It was like: do you laugh or do you cry? I had a wonderful relationship with her. We had our own language.
Until 2000, my whole life had been charmed. I’d had my children. I’d had my career. My marriage didn’t work, but you get over that. And then I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was absolutely floored by this. Betty had died 15 years before – I’d nursed her all the way through. But I’m an optimist. I didn’t think I’d get cancer too.
When I did, I was in shock. I said to myself: “This can’t be happening to me.” At the same time, my mother was seriously ill in hospital. She died on December 23, a month after I was diagnosed, and we had to have the funeral at the weekend, so I could start my radiation immediately after Christmas.
So, I saw my family go – my sister from cancer, then my mother, and then my father. I saw myself as not being strong any more, and you can’t do much about that — you’re in the hands of the medical people. As my father, who was a boxing promoter, would have said, it was a “knockout blow”.
When I first got the news that the tests they’d done on me weren’t good, I thought: “I’m not going to think about this, I’m going to do some ironing.”
I spent a whole weekend at home on my own. It was the worst possible thing I could have done, but I was determined that somehow I was going to get over it. It does set you thinking. There’s no doubt that when you have an all-absorbing career, things get left behind.
One thing I might have changed was that I’d have nursed my son Andy for longer than three months. But the production line was rolling and demanded my attention. I remember that pang of thinking: “I just want some quiet time with my baby.
I really should be with him.” But it’s difficult to get the balance right when you’re struggling and you’ve got ambition and you’re nearly there.
I’d been given a fantastic opportunity with Thunderbirds, but that was the ’60s, when anything could happen. All of England’s barriers were down. You couldn’t have a setup like that today. You’d be hemmed in by rules. And Lew Grade was the head of the television channel ATV — a man who was Hollywood, really. We could walk in and say: “We’ve got this idea.” He’d hear it — wouldn’t read it — and say: “Right, go and do it.”
Things went well in Gerry’s and my marriage when we were struggling. Then, when we got a bit of money and success, things were not so good. It’s a familiar story. I was a woman in a man’s world, and you’re only allowed to get so far before it’s: “Get back to your place.” The power balance changes. I was getting attention because I was Lady Penelope, and suddenly you’re a threat. I never sought any of that. I was just doing my job and I loved it. I don’t think women have the ego of men, to be honest. Sweeping statement, but it’s what I think.
That’s when the rot set in. Jealousy is a terrible thing. I became the enemy, because I was hogging the limelight.
It was all a long time ago, but I have to admit that when I was written out of everything, with my name never to be mentioned in publicity, that really hurt.
If Gerry’s honest, he’ll realise we had everything together. We had success; we were working together; we had a big house. But sometimes that’s not enough. You get spoilt. It’s almost as if the gods are saying: “You’ve got too much. Get back to Earth.”
When I finished my cancer treatment, I remember feeling absolutely floored again. I thought: “Oh no, I’ve got to face everything.” And I felt really afraid. But then you get through six months, a year, and so on, and hopefully that’s it. My children and grandchildren make me happy now. I don’t feel guilty if I pop off to New Zealand to see them for a month. I’ve done all the rushing around. I’m very content, because I feel it’s time that I had a bit of a breather. You get your priorities right when you become ill.
Well, if I don’t now, I never will.
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