Thunderbirds Thursday: The Evolution of Lady Penelope

It’s rare for the core premise of a television series to become almost totally eclipsed by secondary characters who may have initially been envisioned as providing little more than narrative support. However, that’s the status which quickly enveloped Thunderbirds in 1965. The series’ premise of a secret international rescue organisation using advanced technology to soar to the rescue of whoever needed it most soon had to allow room for two of its background characters, who rapidly became stars in their own right. The glamourous aristocrat Lady Penelope and her loyal chauffer Parker, she one of International Rescue’s secret agents and he an ex-safecracker with questionable criminal connections, are as iconic to Thunderbirds as the series’ opening countdown.

This Thunderbirds Thursday, we’re celebrating how her ladyship came to be and how she evolved over the course of the series!

Elegance, Charm & Deadly Danger

Penelope and Parker were envisioned during early production on Thunderbirds as ideas for extra characters outside of the core Tracy family were being fleshed out. Parker in particular emerged from series director David Elliott, inspired by a novel he had read about a real-life ex-safecracker who’d been imprisoned for his crimes, but offered release if he worked for the government behind enemy lines in wartime. Lady Penelope came from Thunderbirds co-creator Sylvia Anderson, inspired by the need for characters with trans-Atlantic appeal, but also her fondness for The Scarlet Pimpernel, the doppelganger lifestyle of maintaining dual adventurous identities providing ample inspiration.

The stage quickly became set for the pair, with the icing on the cake being that Penelope and Parker would be even more distinct from their International Rescue counterparts by being British to increase Thunderbirds‘ international commercial viability. Penelope and Parker bring a character-driven and often comedic spy-fi tone to the otherwise straight-faced and handwear-heavy aesthetic of Thunderbirds, but Lady Penelope in particular delivers an alluring feminine charm amidst the male-dominated cast.

Lady Penelope herself is clearly cut from a sort of evolving cloth of puppet heroine which A.P. Films were now specialising in. From there being little substantial female presence in Supercar (1961) to the early seeds sown by Doctor Venus in Fireball XL5 (1962) to the dual female stars of Stingray (1964) with Atlanta and Marina, Lady Penelope is clearly the next and largest step yet taken. She brings a cool, daring charisma to Thunderbirds, breaking away from the all-American heroes of the core International Rescue crew. As a character, she proves how Thunderbirds doesn’t require to be a totally mecha-heavy sci-fi adventure epic to deliver on quality storytelling and characterisation. She doesn’t just stand apart simply for being female, but for clearly being a source of great enjoyment and experimentation for Thunderbirds‘ writers and directors. Episodes centring on Penelope and Parker can often be counted upon to break the mould which early efforts like Trapped in the Sky, Pit of Peril and City of Fire establish.

The inclusion of Lady Penelope and Parker further prompted the idea that International Rescue weren’t entirely restricted to Tracy Island in their operations, that they in fact had entire network of global undercover operatives who were able to perform various espionage activities which would otherwise have been outside of I.R.’s jurisdiction. This is the primary role Penelope and Parker serve in the series, with her ladyship herself quickly maintaining the spotlight.

The parallels between Lady Penelope in Thunderbirds and Sylvia Anderson in A.P. Films aren’t entirely by accident. Finding herself within her own male-dominated team, Sylvia became the company’s central flag-flyer for the character, ensuring that she wasn’t left behind, particularly when it became obvious that Lady Penelope and Parker were proving to be a substantial hit with viewers. With her personal and professional relationship with Gerry blossoming from series to series, by the time we reach Thunderbirds, Sylvia was having a sizeable impact on the direction of the company’s output.

Where Gerry tended to the more technical aspects of Thunderbirds‘ production, it fell to Sylvia to be the senior point of contact in her role as ‘character visualisation’, as she’s credited during Thunderbirds‘ end titles. Dialogue, costumes, scripts, and generally everything falling under the wider of umbrella of characterisation became her responsibility. Her growing importance within the company ranks allowed her to take advantage of the great leaps Thunderbirds presented compared to the past puppet series, and ensure that Lady Penelope became a cool, suave, daring action heroine in her own right.

When you witness Lady Penelope’s appearances throughout Thunderbirds, you come to understand just why Sylvia perhaps felt compelled to step in and improve her ladyship’s image!

The Perils of Penelope’s Early Episodes

Tracing a 100% linear timeline of Thunderbirds‘ episodes in production order proves a little tricky to unravel. The series’ early making was a sort of controlled chaos as A.P. Films were jumping back and forth between stretching pre-made episodes from 25-minutes in length to 50-minutes and operating multiple puppet/special effects stages to produce other episodes simultaneously. But watching Thunderbirds in as close proximity to its production order as we’re able to, a clear sense of Lady Penelope’s contribution to the series’ dynamic becomes readily apparent – and how that dynamic evolved over time. She and Parker receive a solid enough debut within Trapped in the Sky, an appropriately action-filled debut that offers little hint as to the comedic foil the pair would present the series over time.

Following on in ITC’s recommended broadcast order of Thunderbirds then (which mostly matches the production order), two noteworthy adventures come back to back in the form of The Mighty Atom and Vault of Death. Both of these were some of the earlier episodes of Thunderbirds to be produced, and certainly capture the unfortunately negative tendencies with which Lady Penelope was saddled with by the series’ writers. It’s not every Thunderbirds episode that marries the horror of nuclear fallout with awkwardly light-hearted scenes of your series’ rising female star petrified by mice (albeit robotic ones!). Nonetheless, the infamous scenes of the Hood’s plans to finally capture the secrets of International Rescue’s machines being thwarted by Penelope’s disdain for rodents shows that the series was at least thinking of how Penelope and Parker could offer lighter, more comedic angles to Thunderbirds‘ techno-disaster themes. However, the episode doesn’t entirely portray Penelope in a flattering light, and wouldn’t be improved by her bizarrely poor driving abilities in Vault of Death.

It’s perhaps not by coincidence that two of her ladyship’s redeeming adventures, Brink of Disaster and The Man from MI.5, also occur side by side. Brink of Disaster‘s dual plots of Warren Grafton’s disastrous display of his safety-averse monorail enterprise and his fellow crooks attempting to break into Creighton-Ward Manor don’t entirely dovetail around each other, but the episode at least elevates Penelope’s capabilities as a superbly effective spy-fi heroine. The episode’s early scenes of Penelope easily dispensing with a pair of murderous villains don’t have any impact on the rest of the episode at all, yet they feel a hugely pointed effort to improve Penelope’s standing in the series.

Likewise, with The Man from MI.5, Penelope embarks on an undercover mission singlehandedly, which proves to be her deadliest adventure yet. The set-up of her posing as a glamourous yet vulnerable model, Gayle Williams, to entice a gang of thieves who’ve made off with plans for a nuclear device feel like a delightful subversion of how female characters were often treated in Supermarionation series. Penelope’s dim-witted demure as Williams is all a ruse to put an end to the criminal’s operation. Penelope is in riveting form throughout the episode, and with its exotic location and seductive soundtrack, The Man from MI.5 shows how the Andersons weren’t just matching the atomic age and the Space Race, but the Bond craze of the 1960s, too.

Another of Penelope’s best adventures has an intriguing history within Thunderbirds‘ timeline. When Thunderbirds was first broadcast throughout late 1965 and early 1966, several episodes produced later in the series’ production were brought forward in the running order, presumably to highlight the stronger efforts now that the series was being filmed as 50-minutes. One of these remains one of the series’ entertaining and assured efforts – The Perils of Penelope, another robust espionage-flavoured adventure. By the time this episode was produced, Penelope was clearly ascending to superstar status, eventually reflected in Thunderbirds‘ vast merchandise operation, in which Penelope became something of an entirely separate media success within Thunderbirds itself.

Intriguingly, Thunderbirds‘ original broadcast order and subsequent episode orderings on contemporary DVD releases and streaming platforms scrambles the episode order, creating a warped view of Penelope’s portrayal throughout the series. The Mighty Atom and Vault of Death are shunted to around the mid-point of the series, a knock-on effect of having the significantly stronger The Perils of Penelope brought forward. The production order surely remains the definitive method to experience Lady Penelope’s growth as a character.

Supermarionation’s Star Heroine

From here, Lady Penelope’s status as one of Thunderbirds‘ lead characters would be safely assured. Series 1 finale The Cham Cham (not counting the inevitable clip episode Security Hazard), both of Thunderbirds‘ cinematic outings and nearly all of the series’ short-lived second series place the character, closely followed by Parker, front and centre. The Cham Cham remains one of Thunderbirds‘ most delightful outings, with its quirky premise of secret military codes disguised within pop songs, breath-taking production designs, and genius pairing of Penelope with Tin-Tin, along with Parker bringing plenty of physical humour. Penelope was now proving that she could carry entire episodes under her wing as the lead heroine.

A marked evolution for the character continues with the brief second series. Whilst there’s little in the second series in which Penelope quite claims the spotlight like she had before, she and Parker are effortlessly hardwired into most of the episodes, another example of their integral standing to the series. Penelope serves as a voice of reason for Jeff’s temperament in Atlantic Inferno, a reliable spy in Path of Destruction, glamourous undercover model once again in Alias Mr. Hackenbacker, and a vital part of the rescue operation in Lord Parker’s ‘Oliday.

There’s little difficulty in seeing why Lady Penelope remains one of Thunderbirds‘ best-loved characters. Her portrayal over the course of the series offers an eye-opening insight into how she was initially perceived by the creative team, and how Sylvia’s influence enabled the character to become a global sensation. Perhaps more crucially, Lady Penelope remains a standard setter for female characters of the Anderson’s creative output.

What do you think of Lady Penelope’s portrayal in Thunderbirds? Does she feature in your favourite Thunderbirds episodes? Let us know in the comments section or on our social media channels! To be the first to hear about the latest news, exclusive releases and show announcements sign up for our newsletter here.

Written by
Fred McNamara

Atomic-powered writer/editor. Website editor at Official Gerry Anderson. Author of Flaming Thunderbolts: The Definitive Story of Terrahawks. Also runs Gerry Anderson comic book blog Sequential 21.

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