THE LADY PENELOPE ANNUAL 1969
The titled first lady of the Swinging 60s bows out
For all the swirling paisley, the drugs and occasional nudity, there was something essentially conservative about the Swinging 60s. Its true that the Beatles were four ordinary Scouse lads, the Mods were working-class kids who just wanted to show they were as good as anyone else and Hendrix was a drifter from the deep waters of black American music washed up in London. But the core iconography – the clothes, the look, the product – was generated by children of the aristocracy rebelling against the tedium of their own privileged backgrounds.
Tracing their lineage back to Bazaar, the shop opened by Mary Quant and Alexander Plunket Greene on the King’s Road in Chelsea back in the 50s, young aristocrats featured prominently in the decade of Sergeant Pepper and David Bailey. Partying along with Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong Jones were a whole tribe of public schoolboys and debutantes just emerging into young adult life with their independent means and agreeably expectant titles.
If anything, the tales of rebellion and high-profile outrage that fed the tabloids and the society journals alike only served to pick out the sons and daughters of the wealthy as key movers of the decade’s swing. Even the murderous satire of films like If did nothing to undermine a classic 1960s type that began to find expression in fiction and TV drama with characters like Emma Peel and the supermarionette, Lady Penelope.
Sylvia Anderson, who died last week, created her upper-class protagonist because she was trying to help build the appeal of Thunderbirds for a potential American audience. As far as she could see, the Americans thought of the English as “either cockneys or posh ladies in stately homes”. As it turned out, TV boss Lew Grade was unable to secure a deal that would put the show onto American networks, but Anderson’s attempt to chime with that audience left us with a classic 60s icon.
Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward was educated at Rodean and a Swiss finishing school. She lives in the family mansion with her governess and dodgy cockney chauffeur Parker for company. She dresses in the latest styles from Carnaby Street and the King’s Road and she owns a sheep farm in Bonga Bonga, Australia. Bored by the social life expected of one in her station, she did not trip out on hallucinogens or strip off for a bit of body painting. Instead, she became a secret agent with an organisation dedicated to protecting humankind from evil megalomaniacs.
Although Thunderbirds ceased production in 1966 and the supermarionation puppeteers turned their attention to Joe 90 and Captain Scarlet, Lady Penelope lived on in various guises, including a weekly comic that gave rise to this annual from 1969. The photo-leather cover design gives it the feel of a royal wedding album, but that is about as classy as it gets. Inside, it’s a confused mix of comic strips, stills from the shows and features aimed at a teenage girl audience. There are pieces on cooking and unusual jobs for young ladies, a half-hearted puzzles page and a generous serving of pop with appearances from the Beatles, the Bee Gees and the Monkees (who get their own comic strip adventure).
The annual has a rather tired, end-of-decade feel, as if it is marking time while the aristocratic zest of the 60s waits to hand over to the horrors of glam rock and tank tops. Lady Penelope has a couple of adventures where she unmasks a concert pianist as a thief and nearly gets run over by a caterpillar truck, but really, there's a sense of the tail lights of a pink Rolls Royce diminishing as a cockney voice asks 'where to m'Lady?'