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Slough's fab Thunderbirds story
by Emma Midgley
BBC Berkshire reporter

Sylvia Anderson
Sylvia Anderson was the voice of Lady Penelope in Thunderbirds.

Slough Trading Estate is not the sort of place you associate with a hit television show which has gone on to inspire films, merchandise and books.

But an unassuming Slough studio was the starting point for the cult series Thunderbirds, created by husband and wife team Sylvia and Gerry Anderson.

Now Sylvia, best known as the voice of Lady Penelope, has written her biography, called My Fab Years.

Next year she will tour and perform in a musical celebrating her life.

Sylvia, who lives in Bray, caught up with BBC Radio Berkshire to talk puppets, Lady Penelope and life after Thunderbirds.

She first became involved in the film industry while studying at the London School of Economics (LSE) when she took a summer job at what would become AP Films.

"I had been working as a student at LSE and it was just a summer job. I had planned to do something to do with sociology or economics, something serious, but I ended up leaving and never going back to university," she said.

A baddie, a goodie and a glamorous character

"We started off in a house near Islet Park, which was where the pilot script for Thunderbirds was created," said Sylvia, "My husband Gerry made up adventures for the puppets while I described how the puppets should look to the puppet designers and created the human interest stories."

Sylvia described her contribution to the design process.

She said: "The designers would make a plasticine doll, and when I was happy with how the doll looked they would make the puppet.

"For Lady Penelope, I told them, "She's going to be living in a stately home, she's going to be very glamorous."

"There was a baddie, a goodie and a glamorous character."

"We didn't want to work with puppets"

Although Thunderbirds went on to become the most successful puppet show imaginable - fans of the show will be surprised to learn that it was all a bit of an accident.

"We didn't want to work with puppets," said Sylvia. "We were working in films, and this woman came to see with some puppets and we wrote some scripts for her.

"We realised that we could do something better and we approached Granada with the idea of a puppet western."

Lady Penelope and his car
Lady Penelope, her car and her driver, Parker, have achieved a cult following

The result was AP Film's first wholly independent production of Four Feather Falls.

In 1960 APF made a live-action thriller feature film entitled Crossroads to Crime for Anglo-Amalgamated, and a series of television advertisements for a London travel company.

The production company then adopted a technique synchronizing their mouths to the recorded dialogue, which was dubbed "Supermarionation" by Anderson.

This resulted in the company's best known productions - a succession of futuristic sci-fi action adventure shows.

Anderson took the pilot for a series called Supercar to Granada Television who commissioned 34 episodes. But that pilot was the last filming AP Films did at Islet Park.

Moving to Slough

The business was expanding and needed larger premises. As a result of this the company moved to Ipswich Road on the Slough Trading Estate.

Supercars was followed by Fireball XL5 in 1962 and Stingray in 1964 - the first British children's TV series to be made in colour. Then came Thunderbirds, running from 1964-66.

Thunderbirds was innovative because of its miniature special effects. The effects supervisor on all of Anderson's shows from Supercar to UFO was Derek Meddings, who went on to produce special effects for the James Bond and Superman movies, picking up an Oscar along the way.

Sylvia Anderson and Thunderbirds car
Sylvia Anderson still owns Thunderbird puppets and memorabilia

"I did Lady Penelope's voice," said Sylvia.

"I've still got a few momentos of the Thunderbirds though I did auction off a lot of things a few years ago because I was working in the US so much. I've got a few of the puppets."

Since Sylvia left Thunderbirds, she has worked for TV production company HBO, on films such as Sex in the City.

Now she is embarking on a tour across Britain in a production which will set her life story to music.

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