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How my mother Lady Penelope was swindled and betrayed by sexist TV dinosaurs (and my dad)

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As the poshest puppet in the world, the on-screen life of Thunderbirds’ Lady Penelope has certainly been a charmed one. 

With her cut-glass accent, coiffed hair and pink, chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce, the blue-blooded marionette has been fighting evil and bringing wrong-doers to justice for more than half a century.

What on earth would Lady P make, then, of the epic real-life saga which has engulfed the woman who dreamt her up and gave her her voice?

For having helped devise some of the most iconic children’s TV shows, Sylvia Anderson is at the centre of a row over claims she was bullied and cut out of deals made in the male-dominated TV industry of the 1960s and 1970s; deals which saw her shows make millions for ITV and its affiliates, while she was airbrushed from the credits in favour of her ex-husband, and left financially struggling until her death in 2016.

‘My mother was kept out of financial negotiations because she was a woman,’ explains Sylvia’s 68-year-old daughter, Dee Anderson, speaking exclusively to the Mail. 

‘She never received a penny in royalties or licensing of the characters commercially.

‘Her husband was allowed by these TV corporations to push her aside. The way she was treated by the men around her was immoral.’

As the poshest puppet in the world, the on-screen life of Thunderbirds’ Lady Penelope has certainly been a charmed one. What on earth would Lady P make, then, of the epic real-life saga which has engulfed the woman who dreamt her up and gave her her voice?

Singer and actress Dee has vowed to take action against ITV unless her mother’s name as co-creator of hit TV shows such as Stingray, Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons, Joe 90 and Fireball XL5 is rightfully restored.

The case is attracting wider interest, not least in Parliament, where Sylvia’s plight will be the subject of a forthcoming adjournment debate.

The National Bullying Helpline has also waded in, describing Sylvia’s treatment as ‘a shocking case of sexism, inequality and abuse of power’. In a statement last week, the charity said: ‘While others profited from her work, she was denied what was hers. It is classic gaslighting.’

Given Sylvia’s legendary status as a pioneer of women in TV, these are damaging claims indeed. 

If they result in legal action, it also raises the prospect that the creative industries are about to see their ‘MeToo’ moment — opening the floodgates for retrospective claims from women who believe their artistic contributions were not fully recognised because of historic sexism.

‘I don’t believe my mother is the only woman to have suffered,’ says Dee, who voiced Lady Penelope for a 2017 campaign for Halifax bank.

But as a woman, says Dee, Sylvia was always sidelined when it came to money. ‘Gerry was always in charge of the business side of things,’ she says. ‘My mother regretted that later

But as a woman, says Dee, Sylvia was always sidelined when it came to money. ‘Gerry was always in charge of the business side of things,’ she says. ‘My mother regretted that later

ITV is thought to have made millions — if not billions — from the shows Sylvia helped devise. Aside from profiting from sales, they have benefited from licensing rights for merchandising.

Who can forget Christmas 1992 when parents queued overnight to get a Tracy Island playset modelled on the Thunderbirds’ fictional top-secret base?

When the Matchbox toy sold out, swathes of children were devastated. Blue Peter presenters even showed their disappointed viewers how to make their own version from household waste.

Dee says that, while that story made headline news, her mother was struggling to find enough money to pay her bills. 

Her situation was certainly in stark contrast to that of her ex-husband and business partner, the late Gerry Anderson.

He received an MBE for his contribution to TV and is often credited on DVDs as the sole creator of the couple’s TV shows.

ITV is thought to have made millions — if not billions — from the shows Sylvia helped devise. Aside from profiting from sales, they have benefited from licensing rights for merchandising

ITV is thought to have made millions — if not billions — from the shows Sylvia helped devise. Aside from profiting from sales, they have benefited from licensing rights for merchandising

It was Gerry who, in 1962, sold the rights to Thunderbirds to ATV, a broadcaster within the ITV network, for £110,000 — a baffling decision made without Sylvia’s consent. 

‘Gerry held the purse strings,’ says Dee. ‘But it takes at least two to make a deal, so he wasn’t the only one who cut her out. These corporations were as responsible as he was.’

After she and Gerry split in 1975, Sylvia was also cut out of a second deal which saw the rest of the Andersons’ company, AP Films, sold to British production company ITC and ATV for just under £15,000. Both companies were later swallowed up by ITV plc.

A copy of the contract was signed by Gerry along with representatives from the companies, while Sylvia’s name was crossed out.

‘Why didn’t anyone ask where Sylvia was?’ says Dee.

With the help of an intellectual property lawyer, she has put together a 400-page dossier relating to the case. She says her mother was ‘crushed’ by the way she was treated and, in the last years of her life, was so strapped for cash she remortgaged her two-bed cottage in Bray, Berkshire.

‘She wanted to take legal action but couldn’t afford it,’ Dee says.

‘Towards the end of her life she became resigned to her fate. She said to me, “If I took them on, it would eat me alive”. It was devastating to see her self-confidence eroded. She was amazing.’

It was Gerry who, in 1962, sold the rights to Thunderbirds to ATV, a broadcaster within the ITV network, for £110,000 — a baffling decision made without Sylvia’s consent

It was Gerry who, in 1962, sold the rights to Thunderbirds to ATV, a broadcaster within the ITV network, for £110,000 — a baffling decision made without Sylvia’s consent

Born in Camberwell, South London, in 1927, Sylvia was the daughter of champion boxer ‘Tiger Thomas’ and his dressmaker wife. 

She began writing science-fiction stories as a child, inspired in part by the German bombers and Doodlebugs which menaced the war-time skies.

Some of the designs she sketched would come to light when Thunderbirds was devised.

She won a scholarship to a private school and studied sociology and economics at the London School of Economics.

After university, she worked briefly as a social worker but, after falling in love with a U.S. airman, she married and moved to Mississippi where she gave birth to Dee in 1953 and worked as a journalist.

When the relationship broke down, she moved back to the UK with Dee.

Sylvia met producer Gerry Anderson in 1955 after answering an advert for a Girl Friday for a film company. When the company folded, she and other employees, including Gerry, set up AP Films.

After she and Gerry split in 1975, Sylvia was also cut out of a second deal which saw the rest of the Andersons’ company, AP Films, sold to British production company ITC and ATV for just under £15,000. Both companies were later swallowed up by ITV plc

After she and Gerry split in 1975, Sylvia was also cut out of a second deal which saw the rest of the Andersons’ company, AP Films, sold to British production company ITC and ATV for just under £15,000. Both companies were later swallowed up by ITV plc

They hoped to make feature films but their first commission was for a puppet series, The Adventures Of Twizzle, which gave them the idea to devise a puppet show of their own.

Sylvia, says Dee, persuaded Gerry that puppets needed to be more life-like if they wanted to fire the imaginations of young viewers.

‘She was inspired by Hollywood movies,’ says Dee. ‘She had an incredible eye for details and a vivid imagination.’

Described in AP Films’ own publicity material as the ‘driving force behind their million-dollar puppet kingdom’, Sylvia devised the characters, co-wrote the scripts and the storylines and often directed filming. She also played a pivotal role in designing the puppets.

While the Tracy brothers of Thunderbirds were named after famous astronauts, their faces were modelled on stars of the era, including Sean Connery, Charlton Heston and Robert Vaughn.

As for Lady Penelope, her face was modelled on Sylvia’s own. Her voice also belonged to Sylvia and she even came up with her wittily-named perfume ‘Soupçon de Peril’.

She dressed up in matching outfits for publicity shoots as well as for the 1966 premiere of the movie, Thunderbirds Are Go, where she walked the red carpet alongside Cliff Richard And The Shadows.

At the peak of their success, the Andersons lived in a vast house in Berkshire along with Dee and her half-brother, Gerry Junior.

Gerry drove around in a Rolls-Royce and a part-time nanny took care of the privately educated children while Sylvia juggled the shopping and housekeeping and went to work each day, overseeing filming at a purpose-built studio on Slough Trading Estate where hordes of fans often waited to meet her.

But as a woman, says Dee, Sylvia was always sidelined when it came to money. ‘Gerry was always in charge of the business side of things,’ she says. ‘My mother regretted that later.

By the mid-1970s, the marriage was over. Sylvia herself hinted that personality differences and jealousy were at the root of their relationship problems, with Gerry being an introvert while she was outgoing.

Speaking in an interview, a year after Gerry’s death in 2012, then 85-year-old Sylvia said: ‘Every time we had a new series or a film the producers would come to me, and however much you try to include that person who’s glowering in the corner, it’s difficult.’

She dressed up in matching outfits for publicity shoots as well as for the 1966 premiere of the movie, Thunderbirds Are Go, where she walked the red carpet alongside Cliff Richard And The Shadows

She dressed up in matching outfits for publicity shoots as well as for the 1966 premiere of the movie, Thunderbirds Are Go, where she walked the red carpet alongside Cliff Richard And The Shadows

After their separation in 1975, she added that Gerry ‘started rewriting history’. The family home was sold and she moved with Dee and her younger child to a three-bedroom semi. She was later forced to downsize to a two-bedroom cottage.

While the Thunderbirds phenomenon continued to make millions around the world, Sylvia worked as a talent scout for HBO, a job she held for 30 years. But the terms of that contract meant she never received a pension.

Dee says that Gerry, meanwhile, ‘lived very comfortably’ with his third wife and their son in Oxfordshire. She also claims that, even after selling the company he shared with Sylvia, he re-negotiated a fee in the 1990s.

Sylvia spoke of her financial struggles in later life, telling OK Magazine in 1995 that ‘despite the vast sums earned from series like Thunderbirds, we don’t receive any royalties’.

She added: ‘I relied on my husband’s judgment and trusted Gerry to look after our business interests, even when my instincts told me that was wrong.

‘One of those times was when he sold all our rights to the puppet series. We had got into some financial difficulties when the property market collapsed — but nothing bad enough to warrant selling our birthright.’ But Dee is adamant that the wrongs done to her mother go much further than her former husband.

When Sylvia penned an autobiography in 1991, intending to call it My Thunderbirds Years, her publisher was threatened with legal action by ITC and she was forced to call it Yes, M’Lady instead.

Permission was given in 2002, however, for Gerry’s authorised biography, What Made Thunderbirds Go. Sylvia was also ignored by the Royal Mail when they released a 2011 stamp collection to mark the 50th anniversary of ‘Gerry Anderson Creations’. Dee says her mother was on the original illustrations but was cut out.

‘It was terribly hurtful for her,’ says Dee.

‘She suffered from anxiety and started taking antidepressants.’

It was her mother who inspired Dee to study drama at East 15 Acting School as a teenager.

She went on to work on TV throughout the 90s, in shows such as London’s Burning and The Bill.

As well as being a critically acclaimed jazz singer, last year she launched an online chat show, Wonderbirds, with fellow actresses Debbie Arnold, Sherrie Hewson and Harriet Thorpe.

‘I owe my mother a lot,’ says Dee, a widowed mother of one and grandmother of three. ‘That’s one of the reasons I’m determined to fight for her.’

It was her mother who inspired Dee to study drama at East 15 Acting School as a teenager. She went on to work on TV throughout the 90s, in shows such as London’s Burning and The Bill

It was her mother who inspired Dee to study drama at East 15 Acting School as a teenager. She went on to work on TV throughout the 90s, in shows such as London’s Burning and The Bill

A fortnight ago, Sylvia’s case was raised in Parliament when MP Lisa Cameron said that her ‘immense contribution, in common with so many iconic women in the arts, is still unrecognised’.

Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, agreed it ‘is right to recognise Sylvia Anderson and the happiness she brought to children through her work’.

A spokesman for ITV told the Mail this week: ‘ITV values our long-standing relationships with Dee Anderson and her family and we have given Sylvia Anderson credits on Thunderbirds-related material, working as hard as we can with press, PR and licensees to include both Gerry and Sylvia in our marketing and product.

‘ITV has been engaged in a prolonged dialogue with Dee and her legal advisers over the course of the last three years or so. At all times we have sought to understand the basis for Dee’s concerns and we remain open to continuing this dialogue.’

Anderson Entertainment, the content production company set up by Gerry, did not respond to requests for a comment.

Dee is determined her mother gets recognition.

‘It’s so sad despite all that creative genius, she ended up feeling like a puppet while the men around her pulled the strings.’

A fortnight ago, Sylvia’s case was raised in Parliament when MP Lisa Cameron said that her ‘immense contribution, in common with so many iconic women in the arts, is still unrecognised’

A fortnight ago, Sylvia’s case was raised in Parliament when MP Lisa Cameron said that her ‘immense contribution, in common with so many iconic women in the arts, is still unrecognised’

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