It’s not all that long ago that I did a necessarily partial review of the mid-Sixties Lady Penelope comic, a spin-off from TV21 and the whole wonderful world of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. I don’t need to explain to anyone where Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward fits in, but the source material I was working from was a bonus on the TV21 DVD, consisting of issues 1-20 and a smattering of later issues.
But now I have a Lady Penelope DVD, featuring issues 1-125, and a smaller smattering of those beyond. A chance for a much more detailed and, I hope, considered overview of this particular ground in the strange territory of Girl’s Comics.
If you think you’ve read some of this before, you have. What I said about issues 1-20 still pertains, and I have only made amendments where necessary. To begin…
The first Lady Penelope (22 January) offered us, or rather our sisters, a free fabulous signet ring and the following features: a letters page with details of next week’s free hairband and secret x-ray device: a one page b&w Perils of Parker comic strip: The Man from UNCLE, two pages in colour, both richly drawn and coloured, a two page prose serial, Flinch from Every Shadow with a girl leading character, Sandy Barton, whose life is yanked out of its comfortable routine when she is snatched by jewel robbers: a one page feature on Schooldays – Italian Style: a Beverley Hillbillies one-page cartoon with a familiar artistic style, that turned out to be Paul Trevillion: Lady P herself in full colour across the centrespread – Eric Eden didn’t survive the transition to Penny’s title, with art duties going to Frank Langford: the equally transplanted Lady Penelope Investigates feature, given a full page (but did it have to be not-funny-even-then Liverpool comedian Jimmy Tarbuck?): a one page b&w strip featuring a family of Robinsons that evoked the imported American SF show Lost in Space, but going by Space Family Robinson (I don’t know about the rest of the country but Granada gave Lost in Space about eight weeks before dropping it mid-cliffhanger): a FAB Club page equivalent to TV21‘s Contact 21 page, with a hair care piece, a full-colour fashion page and a competition to design drawing room curtains for Creighton-Ward Manor (this really is NOT a boy’s comic, is it?): a two page Bewitched strip, drawn by the same artist who drew My Favourite Martian: and on the back cover, in colour, Marina, Girl of the Sea, the story of the silent girl from Stingray, and how she lost her voice.
An interesting mix, to say the least.
The Schooldays featured turned out, as I’d already guessed, to feature a different country and culture every week, which made for entertaining and informative reading. And the Bewitched/Favourite Martian artist stood revealed as Bill Tilcombe in issue 2, when he was allowed to sign his art.
Space Family Robinson had some splendidly angular b&w art, ‘signed’ with the initials JB, from which I deduce the presence of John Burns. The series had nothing directly to do with the TV series: it was in fact a British version of an American Gold Key Comic of the same name that inspired (i.e., was ripped off by) Lost in Space.
Sandy Barton’s story concluded after seven brief but decent weeks with a deus ex machina rescue by a big-nosed chauffeur and a beautiful blonde aristocrat, making way for a new story from the Creighton-Ward secret files. Penny’s own adventure lasted exactly as long, and whilst she escaped under her own admirable devices, she still needed to call in Jeff Tracy to intercept the baddies.
The new serial starred Cathy Beswick and went by the name of What Did That Dog Say? which was a fair and accurate reflection of the contents of the story. And the first UNCLE adventure ended after eight weeks, with Illya getting the (highly efficient Agent) girl instead of Napoleon. I used to love The Man From UNCLE, both in the Sixties and when repeated in the late Eighties, and apart from the excellent art, the story caught the feel of the show very well.
Issue 8 (12 March)’s Lady Penelope Investigates interviewed the not-quite fifteen year old daughter of Viscount Bangor, who’d found some repute as an artist and a poet. She came over as a self-confident young lady, though the aristocratic background and her manner were a bit prejudicial. But this was another of those amazing little coincidences, for the teenager was someone whose name we recognise from something quite different and many years later, she being future actress and Time Lord Romana, Lalla Ward, the former wife of Richard Dawkins. Funny old world.
A dozen issues in and the comic had established its shape admirably. Perils of Parker, whilst not actually funny, had a gentle, domestic aspect to it, dealing with life below stairs. Parker seems to have a good relationship with Lil, the cook and housekeeper, which had me wondering about what went on between episodes, and a good friendship with Perce, the gardener. The art on the UNCLE strip grew more and more impressive every week, with a fine colour scheme and its artist growing in confidence and skill at depicting faces in wonderful detail and not just those of Solo and Kuryakin: even the new creations looked like real people.
Space Family Robinson was beautifully drawn, although Burns’ propensity for greywashed tones makes the pages look dark, but its stories were dull and dragging. Penny’s own strip was well-drawn and made good use of colour, though it suffered in comparison with UNCLE by being inevitably cartoonish in comparison. Marina’s strip was also beautifully produced but felt very slow because it only had one page per week.
The two TV comedies were, in their way, neither better nor worse than any of those that appeared in TV21. The Beverly Hillbillies, which ran as a serial for the first five issues, enjoyed the better art, being by Paul Trevillion, but the stories in Bewitched were better realised, or am I just more sympathetic to a series that starred the lovely Elizabeth Montgomery, and which I have rewatched since the Sixties, unlike the Clampett family?
And the Lady Penelope Investigates feature I found fascinating, week in, week out, in its choice of people, the things that make them famous, and the contemporary attitude to them, however shallow. Things like Morecambe and Wise, Patrick McGoohan as Danger Man, Gerry Marsden on Five O’Clock Club, and even Ollie Beak and Fred Barker, this is my childhood we’re replicating here.
Though the one about Jimmy Saville in issue 15 (30 April), whilst completely innocent, turns the stomach…
Lady Penelope’s second adventure ended in issue 16 (7 May). It had involved an organisation ostensibly set up to promote equal rights and opportunities for women (how depressing that, a hundred years in the future, this was apparently still going to be necessary, what a message to serve to your audience of young girls). This was seemingly to be achieved by training women as super-efficient secretaries, who then stole all manner of industrial secrets with a refreshing lack of morality or honesty, to then manufacture and exploit as from a woman’s industry (no, still insulting to suggest women have to steal men’s ideas instead of coming up with their own). And when Penny completes the rescue of Susan Cliveden and returns her to her mother, the story has the cheek to have Penny warn Mrs Cliveden against letting her daughter join Equal Rights for Women organisations because “We girls should be dominated some of the time by the men.” The reason? “They feel more important that way.”
Ok, I know this was 1966 (I was there at the time), and coming from Lady Penelope it’s a two-edged comment. The trouble is, I’m not confident that it is meant ironically…
Once I reached issue 21 (11 June), I was breaking new ground. The file was not far short of only half the size of issue 20 but was nevertheless complete, suggesting my fears were baseless. And the first big moment came in issue 23 (25 June) when the adventures of Marina finally explained what Stingray had never done, which was why she couldn’t speak whereas she’d been chatting her way through the first twenty-two episodes. The answer was a curse, Titan’s curse. It was an ingenious notion: to silence a great orator for peace such as Aphony, Marina’s father, provide it that one word from either him or Marina will kill the. Pretty sophisticated for the audience that Gerry Anderson’s creations reached, but circumvented within a week by both spontaneously developing telepathy: minus 5 for that.
The Man from UNCLE changed artists in issue 24 (2 July), still maintaining a careful of level of photorealistic detail and the same brightly coloured inks. The new artist maintained good likenesses, without the same profusion of close-ups and a less pointillistic technique when inking faces. As his confidence developed, the stories once again started going in for photorealistic close-ups.
And in issue 35 (17 September), we were treated to the sight of Lady Penelope sunning herself on the deck of FAB2 in a rather brief bikini: face-down only, sadly.
The same issue featured a preview of The Monkees, an interview with the supposedly struggling band, three months in advance of their TV series hitting the British screens. Yes, we were being introduced to Davey, Mickey, Peter and Woolhat. No, I am not joking: at this point, Mike Nesmith was being presented under the name Woolhat, in both the interview and in the new Monkees’ strip that started the following week. What on Earth brought that on?
The new Monkees strip went in on pages 2-3 and was quite clearly another effort by Tom Kerr (did he get around, or what?). Frnk Langford was restored to Lady P’s own strip whilst the Girl’s Adventures from the Creighton-Ward files was replaced by adventures from Penny’s family tree: Ancestresses through the Ages.
There was another new artist on the UNCLE series with issue 40 (22 October) as the familiar style of Ron Embleton checked in, whilst Lady Penelope made only her second connection with International Rescue, as Thunderbird 1 was sent out to rescue her from her latest plight. And with five episodes now seen, it’s a safe moment to conclude that The Monkees suffer from far too much self-conscious wackiness to be any good, or even readable.
With Paul Trevillion no longer drawing the increasingly stupid The Beverley Hillbillies, or at least not signing it (you can see why he would be ashamed), these two strips were the only blot on the generally high standard of Lady Penelope as it worked towards the end of its first year in print.
The release of Thunderbirds are Go! in the cinema was celebrated as much here as in TV21, with a prose serialisation of the story from Lady Penelope’s point of view and a couple of photo-features, including a cover feature on ‘Cliff Richard Jr. and The Shadows’. The Monkees TV show received a countdown that had Micky Dolenz as Mike and Mike Nesmith still as Woolhat. Boy, were they going to get a surprise in January 1967.
And that landmark was celebrated in issue 50 (31 December) with a disappointing artistic downgrade on The Man from UNCLE, as Ron Embleton departed for pastures new, leaving behind the worst art of the entire series to date. Not bad in itself, but drab and perfunctory in comparison with the extremely high standards of what had gone before.
Issue 51 (7 January 1967) featured a new masthead for the title, and issue 52 marked the end of Lady Penelope‘s first year. Just like TV21, a revamp was heralded for the next issue, promoting five new series. Clearly, a radical shake-up was planned.
In fact, six new series began in issue 53, with Lady Penelope’s own series, Perils of Parker, The Monkees, Marina and Bewitched keeping their spots. The Man from UNCLE was superseded by its own TV spin-off, The Girl from UNCLE, in black and white. Daktari, the popular TV series about a vet in Africa arrived with one page of colour, and another b&w series with a Lady P input also had a medical theme: Creighton Ward was about a children’s ward, endowed by the titled lady, centred upon student nurse Pat Langdon. Jenny Ware was an unpromising one pager about a girl who, in science class, accidentally creates a potion whose fumes enable her to go back in time. Marina was bumped inside and into black and white to accommodate a new colour back page, The Angels, which began the story of how five girl pilots were recruited for Spectrum. The Monkees were upgraded to colour, without Tom Kerr but with an artist who had finally been given, or allowed to use likenesses: Woolhat was still Woolhat, which I loathe with a passion. Last but not least, Cathy Thompson, the star of the second prose story, What Did That Dog Say? was back as a comics series, two more pages per week for Bill Tilcombe, though without an explanation for how she’d recovered the mysterious ring that gave her that strange ability. This time round, it was definitely going to be a comedy.
The phase 2 comic was steady fare but no match for the first year’s work. Daktari was unimpressive and the Girl, as in real life, no match for the Man from UNCLE, even despite some strong art from John Cooper. Jenny Ware was silly at best and The Monkees no better story-wise. Lady Penelope gained a new artist with issue 60 (11 March), with John Burns taking over from Frank Langford. Surprisingly, this rapidly became a disappointment, with Burns going for a quasi-cartoon approach that looked artificial, though his run only lasted until issue 65.
Creighton Ward was an odd little thing, probably very much representative of the standard girl’s comic story, but somehow feeling shallow. Pat Langdon’s struggles with the children, and with Sir Marcus Debenham, the Chief Surgeon, have her stumbling through, making mistake after mistake, only to come through at the end for reasons that have nothing to do with any competency on the nurse’s part. It makes her look and feel very feeble.
The Monkees were very much the order of the day, with the first of four weeks of four page pull-outs of each member appearing in issue 64 (8 April), and so many covers that you start to wonder if the point of the original comic is being lost, or rather deliberately forgotten. Still, after many weeks of not being referred to by any name, in issue 73 (10 June), Mike Nesmith was finally referred to as Mike – or rather Michael.
Unfortunately, the very next week he was W*****t again. Gah!
As for the covers, each week featured a selection of mini-shots of the comic’s readers, complete with their names. I bet they would be so thrilled, their friends dead jealous… and their brothers reading TV21 calling them pathetic!
There was one for the Supermarionation fans in Lady P’s series in issue 76 (1 July). Penny has to go to the Moon to prevent it being blown up, which means a trip in an unidentified XL ship of the World Space Patrol. And which XL ship is it? No numbers, but it’s unnamed Captain is our old friend, Steve Zodiac.
Something I do find intriguing about Lady Penelope is a letters page feature called Star Query in which readers write in to ask questions of pop stars and bands. These include the well-known and famous of 1967, such as Lulu, The Tremeloes and The Herd, but there are as many directed to bands of which I’ve never heard, such as The £oot (formed by an ex-Trogg), The Richard Kent Style (from Manchester) and The Breakaways (from Liverpool). I must spend sometime on YouTube to listen to them.
Monkee-mania was still accelerating, but issue 81 (5 August) at least allowed artist Harry F. Lindfield to sign the strip for the first time, even though his workload had been reduced a few weeks earlier by pasting in a couple of photos of Monkees speaking the lines for the ‘panel’. But neither the signature nor the photos lasted long. And they were still using that god awful name, W*****t! Won’t somebody stop them? Think of the children!
The following issue, without warning or explanation, Daktari was cut back to one page, and in black and white, to make way from a new colour pop star pin-up page (surprise surprise, guess which band featured in issue 85?). The reduction in artist Jon Davies’ workload (he was also responsible for The Angels) didn’t help his story-telling anyway, as Paula Tracy (no relation) was promptly winged in the right shoulder and put her sling on the left one.
But from issue 84, Daktari was taken over by former Eagle alumnus Eric Kinkaid, who brought a much smoother line to the feature.
Sadly, with the pin-up page arriving there was no longer any room for Perils of Parker, but public demand led to his reinstatement in issue 89 (30 September)
The Angels had been labouring on all year as a flying team ordered about by a mysterious voice, and their (and our) patience was finally rewarded in issue 84 (26 August) when their latest training mission took them to a remote desert location and a ‘trainer’ who promised them a more strenuous programme than ever before, and gave his name as… Colonel White. John Cooper dropped off The Girl from UNCLE, which also lost about a third of a page and in issue 86, Marina, captured yet again by Titan, found herself set-up to meet Troy Tempest and Phones in Stingray.
With both series now on a collision course with the TV show continuities, I sense a change is gonna come. And when Perils of Parker returned, it was to replace Marina, who had gone off to Marineville to fight the good fight with the World Aquanaut Security Patrol, and get up Atlanta Shore’s pretty little nose for good measure!
John Cooper returned to April Dancer and Mark Slate and the strip recovered its natural proportions. And The Angels formally moved up to Spectrum and Cloudbase in the aforementioned issue 89.
There was a reminder of the comic’s roots on the cover of issue 93 (28 October). With Captain Scarlet now revealed on television, he and Destiny Angel shared a split cover. And Lady Penelope herself took the next cover, meaning that for the first time in months, we had gone two whole covers without a Monkee in sight. Ironic then that this was also the issue in which the four lads bumped Penny out of the centre-spread of her own title, into a two separate page format, and with a change of artist again. And issue 95, reverting to the girl’s fashion theme, made it three. Was the phenomenon wavering? With them in the centrefold, what do you think?
And no, it wasn’t four in a row.
One other thing that’s only become slowly noticeable is the shortening of the stories. Whereas in its first year you could rely on seven to eight week serials, with a bit of depth of them, now everything was being resolved in four episodes, as if the audience could not be trusted to concentrate for so long. This was yet another instance of Lady Penelope diverging from its origins. Its concerns were getting more ephemeral, its adventures less adventurous. From being a girl’s comic oriented to exciting and fun television series, it was transitioning into a girl’s comic, without its unique aspects.
On 16 December, Lady Penelope celebrated its hundredth issue. That left only four issues to the second anniversary, but instead the new facelift was premiered in issue 103 (6 January 1968). It was to prove fateful.
There was a new masthead with a decidedly psychedelic design, though we still had to have a Monkee on board. Out went The Girl from UNCLE, Daktari, Jenny Ware, Creighton Ward and Perils of Parker (again!), with John Cooper switching to the new one pager, Class Six-Sterndorf, about a spy school for girls. The Monkees strip was joined by a new one-pager featuring The Spectrum, the five-piece London hopefuls whose biggest success was recording the theme song to Captain Scarlet. The art on this looked familiar but it was not until the second episode that I was certain it was Tom Kerr again.
The Angels moved inside and onto two pages, though the second page was only black and white, fitting really since Captain Black was introduced, which the local dog’s plan to seemingly get Cathy Thompson’s magic ring that let her talk to them turned out to be a plot to buy her a similar ring from a local antique shop… that let her talk to cats as well!
But the other new story was another TV adaptation, this time of the Midlands-set soap, Crossroads. This one I just refuse to read at all, and there’s nothing about the art that would make me change my mind.
I was a little premature in waving Perils of Parker off as this returned after a one-issue gap, but transformed into a one-page prose story. And issue 105 (20 January) saw Cathy Thomson’s series re-named, awkwardly, as ‘What Did That Dog (And Cat) Say? And revert to just the bit about the Dog two issues later. Soon, it became clear that it could be either in any issue.
With a four page fashion and pop pull-out, the comic was still drifting towards the mainstream, but there was also a drift towards the cheap in issue 110 (24 February) as Penny’s second page was reduced to black & white and so was The Angel’s first page. From issue 119 (27 April), Penny herself dropped into black and white, meaning that the only colour left in the comic was The Monkees,in the centre pages.
By now, reading the comic is becoming tedious. Weak art, skimpy, black and white, stories over and done with almost immediately, plus the new emphasis on pop (interesting in its own way as a reference to bands and records that never made it) make this more like a girl’s magazine that has comic strips in it. And of those strips, only Class Six – Sterndorf, inelegant though its premise was, remained interesting.
There was another step away from Gerry Anderson’s world in issue 121 (11 May), when The Angels were replaced by To Win a Gold, about a girl trying to get to the ’68 Olympic Games to win an ancestor’s challenge in her will. It was drably drawn and stereotypical girls comic fodder and that was just the first episode.
Class Six’s popularity was demonstrated the following week when it was awarded a second page, although without John Cooper to draw either of them.
But bigger changes were in the offing as, with issue 123, (25 May), the comic was retitled simply Penelope. A further step was taken away from the title’s TV roots with the cancellation of Crossroads (we should have been so lucky) and its replacement by My Pony Blaze, about a girl trying to get her pony back from gypsies that have stolen him (so, no stereotyping there).
By this point, I was grateful to be almost at the end of the expanded run on the new DVD. This ends at no 125, but continues briefly with three of the next five issues. Penelope’s series changed irrevocably in issue 127 (22 June), when it was reset to Penny as a nine-year old girl, returned from India due to illness and rebelling against a boring governess. And My Pony Blaze clearly went down like the traditional brick pigeon because it was replaced in issue 130 (13 July) by Return of the Osprey.
And that’s where this account must end. Three random issues also appear on the DVD, so let me mention these briefly. Firstly, issue 147 (9 November) has little Penny befriending gypsies and having to deal with tinkers. Bewitched, Class Six-Sterndorf and What did the Dog (and Cat) Say? are still going, and have been joined by Challenge of the Blades, about an orphan girl learning how to ice-skate, Up Up and Away, a colour centrespread about a girl in a balloon race and Flying’s for the Birds, a pop group serial about, of all talentless Sixties bands, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich. The comic is a proper girl’s comic now.
Issue 174 (17 May 1969) has Penny at school now. Challenge of the Blades is still running, as are Class Six-Sterndorf, Bewitched and Cathy Thomson’s strips, though Bill Tilcombe has left both of these latter (Peter Ford is signing Cathy’s strip). Everything else has been replaced.
Which leaves only issue 197 (25 October). There are only seven issues left before the comic’s cancellation. Having outlived TV21, Penny’s now in her late teens and run away from home (all trace of the Twenty-First Century gone). Bewitched is still going, set fair to be the only feature to last from start to finish in its original form. Everything else is just ‘girls’ comics, with all the cliches to be expected under that term. Everything that formed Lady Penelope when it was launched has been excised and Century 21 Magazines no longer owns the comic. There’s still a contemporaneous 1969 Penelope annual, but so many cancelled comics lived on in Annuals for years later…
What began as an exciting venture, with strong stories, a taste for adventure and some exceptionally good art has died a death in cheapness and cliché. How much of that was the preference of the audience? I mean, the comic was cancelled after exactly four years. How much of it was the fading of the Gerry Anderson empire as the Sixties wound down? And how much was it nervous management, deciding that when in doubt, play incredibly safe and be like everybody else?
I have no answers and I don’t actually want them. It was enough to know that a comic I’d have despised and run a mile from when I was its age was as good as it was, but in order from me to find out then I would have had to have a twin sister with whom I swapped everything.
If another, even fuller DVD appears, I shalln’t be trading up. I’m not interested in reading any further.