Gareth Gorman can hardly contain himself as he meets the real life Lady Penelope – Sophia Myles – and discovers that she’s a lady
Lady Penelope was my first crush. When I watched Thunderbirds I sure enough got thrills out of all the fierce, fiery explosions. All the vehicles were pretty cool too, especially Thunderbird 2. Even the bad, jokey humour and the secret island base which opened up to send the vehicles off impressed and easily paved the way for a later Bond fixation. But it was the immaculate demeanour and iron coiffeur of Lady P that really got me going. Sure Tin-Tin was OK too, but you just didn’t get to see enough of her. Lady Penelope was always getting down and dirty in the name of spying. Tied up here, disguised there and even singing like Marlene Dietrich in one memorable episode. Then there was that hoity-toity vocal delivery that enunciated orders I only wanted to obey – all delivered with those remarkably icy, baby blues. It was a shocking and horrifying discovery to find out I would have got splinters if I went anywhere near her pink, pampered puppety form.
So what a thrill it is to find Sophia Myles has brought the splendid Lady P to life in the all new, all live actors, all action, Thunderbirds movie.
Myles has slowly been impressing in supporting roles in reasonably noticed films such as Mansfield Park, From Hell and Underworld, but now she hits pay dirt, stealing the role away from Rosamund Pike who seemed a cert for the role after Die Another Day. Sophie Dahl was also in the running, even though she surely never stood a chance.
Sophia’s splendid turn as Lady P more than makes up for the fact that Bill Paxton and his boys have less charisma and expression than the original puppets. Still, Jonathan Frakes’ modernising of the classic Thunderbird vehicle designs is commendable enough, especially with Sophia commanding all the attention in her pink luxury cruiser (No, it’s not a Rolls Royce, but an, erm… Thunderbird), it seems like the old show all over again. Or as Sophia puts it herself.
“When Ben Kingsley as The Hood gets to Tracy Island I turn to Parker and say, `Let’s go help.’ We hop off into our pink car and lend the Tracy boys a hand.”
Strangely enough, when Gerry Anderson and his wife Sylvia first developed Thunderbirds for television, they created the character of Lady Penelope and dependable Parker first and the Tracy Boys followed, not the other way around. They smartly figured that American audiences wouldn’t be able to resist that British cool, as Sylvia recounts.
“During the 60s, a social revolution was taking place and young debutantes no longer dressed in twin sets and pearls or paired with men who were chinless wonders. It was difficult to distinguish between a working girl and the finishing-school product. Each would be wearing the 60s uniform of minis and trendy haircut and be on the pill.
“Lady Penelope was the last of a dying breed of debutantes, but even she was breaking ranks as the London agent of International Rescue. I wrote her in with not only the daring and panache of a secret agent, but also the poise of a cool and beautiful aristocrat. She was top drawer with an impeccable pedigree. She wasn’t the most obvious choice for an action girl, but one that to me had exciting possibilities. We had to consider the American market and knew that they would love a typical British lady. I decided that she also had to have a British partner. She couldn’t just sit alone in that vast mansion and only talk by remote to Jeff and the boys. So what better than a faithful old retainer in which to confide and share her adventures? Nosey Parker, as he had been known in his younger days, thus became the comic foil.”
With them in place, the Andersons turned their attentions to a successful American series and took the idea to the skies. The Tracy boys, you see, are based on the good old Cartwright clan from the Ponderosa – yes, Bonanza. So if you’ve ever thought that Thunderbirds was nothing but cowboys in space, you were right.
As ever, the Andersons also drew on celebrities of the time as the inspiration for their puppets. Just as James Garner supplied the visage basis for Troy Tempest in Stingray, the Tracy brothers were based on the unlikely features of Tony Perkins and Robert Reed, later to become the dad in The Brady Bunch. Guests villains looked uncannily similar to the likes of James Mason and Laurence Olivier, but we’re sure that Ben Kingsley, so unhinged and just plain mean in Sexy Beast (the nicest thing he did was urinate all over the bathroom floor on purpose), will be more than up to the job.
As for Lady Penelope, her looks were based on Sylvia Anderson and voice on the deliciously fruity Fenella Fielding and Joan Greenwood. So how does Sophia feel, slipping into Lady P’s dainty shoes for the live film version? Daunted?
“I have something like 15 costumes to wear for the film – all Chanel, darling, and naturally everything including her car is very, very pink.”