Sylvia’s Interview in TV Zone issue 20 July 1991
THE POWER BEHIND THE ROLLS
One of the undying of images 1960s pop culture must be the marvellous pink Rolls Royce FAB 1, and its owner, Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward from Thunderbirds. Created and voiced by Sylvia Anderson.
Lady Penelope was just one of the, many characters Sylvia had sole responsibility for dreaming up. But Thunderbirds was not the start of the story… “I saw an advert to be a Girl Friday for a small film company and jumped at the opportunity. I joined them, but after a while there was a breakaway group from that, consisting of Gerry, myself, Reg Hill, John Read and Arthur Provis. This covered cameras, art direction, direction and scripting.
We formed A P Films and waited for work. I have to say that we didn’t get any and all our dreams of making big productions seemed to be fading away. One day we had a visit from a lady who had written some children’s books and was hawking them around to see who could give her a decent, in other words cheap, quote to do them as a puppet show. We gave the cheapest quote, because we were probably the hungriest. We were working out of a sort of country house and we turned a ballroom into a small studio and made this lady’s series, called Twizzle.
“After that we made Torchy for the same lady, we began to think we could do these puppet things in a more sophisticated way and do our own ideas and stories. So, we did Four Feather Falls for Granada, which was a Western. Westerns were popular then and we had to do it with puppets because obviously we couldn’t afford to go on location. We created lots of great characters, Tex the Sheriff, the Mexican baddies, Dan Morse the Telegraphist and on the strength of that we moved into a warehouse on the Slough Trading Estate. We converted it into a studio for our own needs, rather naively thinking that having done Four Feather Falls we would go on to do more things for Granada. But the ’phone didn’t ring —
Four Feather Falls, being a kids’ series, could be repeated again and again so they didn’t need anything else from us. “I started ringing around friends in the industry for work. One friend said he couldn’t give us any work directly but that he would introduce us the Lew Grade. The rest is history. We went on for the next fifteen or so years making series from Supercar, Fireball XL5 etc through to Space: 1999.
So why was it that Sylvia voiced so many characters, as well as being heavily involved on the production side? “I really think we all just took on the jobs we were best at. Reg did Art, John did cameras and Gerry did direction and editing. I did scripts and voice casting. I created all the characters, so I had everything to do with them, the look, the voices and so on. I had done stuff like that when we made commercials, it was my side of the business.
I did lots of weird voices and accents for the shows, although I wrote myself out of a main part in Stingray, but I directed the dialogue so it was quite easy to add odd voices when necessary.” Nearly every Anderson series has an organisation in which the lead characters work. Was it difficult thinking up all these different teams and characters? “It really wasn’t as difficult as one might imagine because you’re in the rhythm and atmosphere of creativity and therefore you really just extended the characters on.
So, Steve Zodiac was the hero, he would then go on to be one of the Tracy boys; Doctor Beaker in another form was Brains, and they were all stereotypes really. You had the hero, the brilliant one, the boss, the woman. What I did find difficult at times was making the women’s roles more interesting. At that time a heroine still had to walk a few paces behind the men — still does really — but Lady Penelope, I think, broke all that. She became a character in her own right.
“In the beginning I was working in a male-dominated team, so there was resistance against her. The men concentrated on the sets, Derek Meddings’s wonderful explosions and the aircraft, but I proved you couldn’t have just that, you needed the characters to care about. So really Lady Penelope was very neglected in the first few episodes and I fought hard to get her involved more, and by the time we did the films she was a ‘star’. There was even a magazine devoted to her called Lady Penelope in which I did a column called ‘Lady Penelope Investigates…’ which gave me a chance to get out of the studio and meet all the famous people I ever wanted to meet, like Roger Moore!
“Thunderbirds was an hour, not twenty-five minutes, like the other programmes had been, so you could develop the story and characters more, you could give more humour. I was inspired really by Bonanza, the big Western series with Ben Cartwright [Lorne Greene] and all his sons. It occurred to me that you could have more than one hero, so that if viewers didn’t like one, well, next week, their favourite might star. That worked well and so Scott and Alan became the most popular. But that realisation only came with time, once we’d seen the first few, we could see which way things were going. Once the characters were created, given a look, you could see how they were going to go and quite soon I could say to the rest of the team ‘Look, Scott’s got to do this’ and ‘Hey, Scott really ought to do that!’.
Again, The Hood goes back to our past, to all the villains we’d had before, like Masterspy from Supercar. We didn’t’ t want to make him Russian, though, so I decided he was Oriental and made him the half-brother to Kyrano, who worked for Jeff Tracy and was under The Hood’s spell.”
Bearing in mind the popular and commercial success of Lady Penelope and Parker, were there ever plans for a spinoff series? “At that time, we wanted to make more Thunderbirds. If I had suggested it, being the lone woman, I think Gerry and the others would have hated it. It would have looked like I was trying to hog the whole show, but in retrospect it might have been a very good idea. Recently I have been in discussion with ITC about doing a new series with them, but probably in another format, perhaps animation. ITC have the copyright on the characters, because very early on Gerry — and I have to blame him because he was in charge of that side of the company — sold out all the rights to ITC and we don’t get a penny. Even now, with all the videos and interest. But it’s one of those things, it happened and you can’t change it. I’m reticent about doing the possible series with puppets again because the temptation would be to try and improve them, and once you do that you lose the charm. And to leave the puppets as they were, might, in this day and age, be difficult.”
Following on from Thunderbirds was the more realistic, and perhaps more adult, Captain Scarlet and The Mysterons. “The puppets for Captain Scarlet were the best we ever did. The heads were in proportion and we thought we had everything right. But we weren’t what I call ‘hands on’ producers on that. We were off doing a movie called Doppelgänger at the same time, and although the team that did it were excellent, we rather let it get away from us and the result was that the puppets were too perfect and the cast too big. There was a coldness about the show and have been a very good idea.
It didn’t work. But I am proud of the fact that I created the Angels way ahead of Charlie’s Angels. I sometimes wonder if they got the idea for that programme from Captain Scarlet! “The Angels were a good mixture, we had a coloured girl mixing with an American Southern girl, a Chinese girl, all working together — strong characterisation. I think I should have concentrated more on the series’ concept and got more humanity out of it.
When I saw the puppet of Captain Scarlet, I thought this was going to be the series, because the character was beautifully made, perfectly proportioned and I thought the whole show would overtake Thunderbirds. The ‘look’ did, but we didn’t have the humour and there was a sameness with everyone in the same uniform.” Nevertheless, the show was another success, especially for toy ranges. So, were spin-offs in Sylvia’s mind when she created the concepts of Spectrum? “Yes, you have to be commercially minded. After the success of the Thunderbirds merchandise, the most successful of all, we had a whole merchandise operation to feed. There are so many different aspects to that, we kept an eye on things like accuracy of costumes. We oversaw and approved everything.”
After that was Joe 90, perhaps not as well received as the previous shows. “It was charming — going back a little towards Supercar. We realised that we’d maybe gone too far with Captain Scarlet with the look, the uniforms. It was all rather mechanical. We went for charm in Joe 90. Then we did The Secret Service. I don’t know exactly why it failed. Once again, we weren’t ‘hands on’ producers. Gerry and I were setting up UFO. That meant you were leaving very talented people to make it, but without your supervision. We weren’t there to say no to anything and change it. If we had been, we’d probably have done something drastic half way though to liven it up, but by that time I was getting bored of puppets anyway.
We were in a rut — and of course we only started doing puppet shows by accident, it certainly wasn’t what we’d intended all those years earlier — and we lost interest in The Secret Service very early on. It had always been a bugbear of Gerry’s that we couldn’t mix live action and puppets successfully and we thought The Secret Service was a good thing to try it out on, but it just didn’t work.”
After that was the first fully live action series, UFO, sadly destined to run for just one series, but was it a good experiment? “Yes, and because it was live action, and made by us, all the critics immediately said the cast looked like puppets! But I’m enormously proud of UFO and I think it’ll have a comeback in popularity. I think everything worked on that show and it was the most popular, next to Thunderbirds. Although the cast was large, they weren’t all in it at the same time, only a few episodes each, bar the main three or four. Everything worked on that and I even made a brief appearance dancing at a party or something! “
I liked those costumes. We didn’t have too much money and so at one point I hit on the idea of getting a load of Army surplus string vests which were discreetly lined for the ladies and padded for the men. The purple wigs for Moonbase came about simply because I liked them and I was the designer! I thought they were fun. I sat one day in my office with one on, people coming in and out all the time, and no one said a thing! I thought they were something different and everyone remembers them!”
The Protectors saw a different direction for Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. How involved was Sylvia in it? “I wrote an episode, but really that was Lew Grade’s show with Gerry. It wasn’t really my sort of thing at all.
Sylvia’s final foray into the worlds of Fantasy was Space:1999, starring the husband and wife team of Martin Landau and Barbara Bain “It was an extension of the ideas from UFO, but was by no means a revamp or replacement of UFO’s second season. Space: 1999 simply didn’t have the charm or appeal of UFO — mainly because we didn’t have the right cast. They were wooden and certainly weren’t my choice at all. They had been very popular in Mission: Impossible, but were totally wrong for Space:1999. I wrote the opening episode of that and then put together a strong writing team to carry the show, but I left before the second series went into production.”
Does it surprise Sylvia Anderson that Stingray and all its successors are still being enjoyed on video or on tv reruns? “Yes and no. The stuff dredged up today is so awful that I’m not surprised all our older stuff is popular again. It is very gratifying that all that hard work is still watched and enjoyed. I think, bearing in mind the technology we were dealing with back then, we all did some very good work.”
Finally, is there any special series and/or character Sylvia is particularly fond of? “Well, I don’t think that’s too difficult to guess — Thunderbirds of course, and therefore Lady Penelope!”
Gary Russell TV Zone issue 20 – July 1991