Zena Relph

Simon Archer

When she's not playing with fire, Zena Relph can be found dabbling in magic. But she is probably best known for her role as couturier to Thunderbirds' Lady Penelope. Her diverse range of talents have kept her busy over the past 30 years and she is still active today entertaining young children with her magic act and occasionally fire-eating before a stunned audience. A dancer from the age of three, Zena switched to learning magic when she felt it was time to move on from tapping the boards. "I did some horrendous shows to start with, especially at the clubs in the North where I felt I had to try it out first before coming back down to London for the auditions. I then went on to work in variety, cabaret and masonics."

Zena Relph
Zena and her constant companion Fred the dachshund perch on the stage of the Marineville control room from Stingray

In 1954, she met Thunderbirds chief puppeteer Christine Glanville while working in the same show entertaining the forces all over the country. "She was doing a cabaret puppet act and a bit of variety as well. I think between us we closed all the variety theatres!" When Christine joined AP films in the late fifties, Zena often used to call in at the riverside studios at Maidenhead to see her during the production of Torchy the Battery Boy and later The Adventures of Twizzle. Some four years later, Zena received a call from Christine. Wardrobe mistress Betty Coleman had been struck down with measles and help was needed to produce stage costumes for the puppets in the company's latest production, Fireball XL5. "I took care of the wardrobe for two weeks while Betty was off and remember making a blue velvet dress for a duchess character."

When work began on the Stingray series, Zena was asked if she would like to join the team as a floor puppeteer. "This involved making sure all the puppets were properly dressed and the hair was right. Very often I was on the floor, out of shot, holding on to the puppet's legs so that they didn't swing about while the action was going on." The hours were long during the making of Stingray. "We worked overtime like crazy and my little dachschund Fred was quite happy to work from 8.30am till 6pm but when it came to overtime he carried on alarmingly as he was stuck in the workshop. We were often there till 10pm and weekends as well. Fred didn't approve of that!

A break followed, with more variety and cabaret around the clubs in the north, before being asked to return to the Slough studios as dressmaker for Lady Penelope. "As a child I had made lots of dolls' costumes and later made my own stage costumes. It worked very well, mixing the two jobs," she recalls. With two puppet stages now in operation, run by Christine Glanville and Mary Turner, all costumes were now duplicated. Each episode brought varying demands on the amount of costume changes for the star puppet. "The episode called The Duchess Assignment required a lot of costumes for her. Some episodes only required a sweater or whatever, it just totally depended on the storyline."

some of the outfits Zena Relph designed for Lady Penelope

In planning what she was to wear, Zena would meet with Sylvia Anderson and Betty Coleman and thumb through copies of Vogue and Harpers and Queen to gen up on all the latest Paris fashions. "I obviously couldn't make an exact copy and had to alter them slightly. She was a very well dressed lady, always in real material, mink, fun furs — rabbit in all different colours and leather. Silk, cotton or wool were used as they provided ease of movement for the puppet's limbs, which was rarely the case with man-made fibres. The only man-made material I used was made from lurex with a velvet pile that caught the light beautifully."

While keeping as up-to-date as possible with the sixties fashions, the only outfit to escape the couturiers clutches was the mini-skirt. This could not be worn by the puppet as it would show the knee joints. "Lady Penelope wouldn't have shown her knees anyway. She was very elegant. She was a lady after all!" quipped Zena. Making Lady P's mink coat was not an easy task. "I bought the skins from a furrier in Beswick Street, London. The patterns had to be to scale and much of the material found in the shops was not suitable."

Not claiming to be an artist of any sort, Zena would make pin-men type one dimensional sketches when designing. "I made my own patterns and would then get to work cutting out the material with the puppet body, without the head, hanging up besides me. I would then pin the material to the body to the shape to make sure they first fitted and could move in them, before sewing to the actual body. The clothes were not unlike human clothes. They were practical and could be taken off."

Intricate outfits would take as long as several days to produce, much longer than it would take to make a similar costume for an adult. The mink coat took almost a week. The Singer Sewing Machine Company boasted use of their product in the workshop, adding that the clothes were designed and fitted with a certain 'heaviness of drape so that they will hang easily and look natural, even in close-up'.

Many calls were received from viewers claiming they could make outfits for Lady Penelope and her colleagues. "They were often asked to send them in, but they always turned out looking like dolls' clothes which was a different approach. We always thought of Penelope as a person and not as a puppet. She was not a doll, but a character." On several occasions, Zena also made human-sized sections of costumes, for use in close-up shots of hands and very often it was her hands that were seen in these shots.

Lady Penelope in Thunderbirds Are GO!
Lady Penelope as she appeared in the Swinging Star nightclub in Thunderbirds Are GO!

In 1966, Thunderbirds hit the big screen with its first full length feature film Thunderbirds Are GO! Lady Penelope was now a star and the national press devoted many column inches to her. The Sunday Mirror exclaimed how she appeared in 'a glamorous wardrobe of new clothes... Manufacturers are rushing to get her name on their products... she is an advertisement for British fashion'. "It was lovely to see her on the cinema screen. The premiere was a wonderful night and it was unbelievable to think of puppets 1 foot 8 inches high, in Cinemascope... it was incredible."

After trade union problems, Zena left the studios and a long gap of nearly 15 years followed before she returned to work with Christine on Terrahawks. Working from home for the first three months, Zena made a total of 209 costumes for the new larger glove puppets. They required costumes that usually stopped at the waist. As with marionettes, Zena would travel up to London, this time to Dickens and Jones in Regent Street to buy the necessary fabrics which included costly wool crepe for the uniforms. "Bob Bell went to a market in Bayswater to buy some Victorian childrens' clothes which I cut down for Zelda's costume.

"My favourite was Kate Kestrel. I could jazz her these stage costumes. They were quite expensive, with material costing up to £25 a yard, but often she would only need half a yard. When it came to the uniforms, Gerry Anderson allowed me to buy a lot of material thinking that their uniforms would wear out, but the material was so good that they hardly ever had to be replaced."

More recently, Zena became involved with the Thunderbirds contribution for the Dire Straits pop video Calling Elvis. Working against a tough deadline, she made a black grape coloured shirt to match that worn by the group's lead singer Mark Knopfler. With only hours to spare, the actual shirt that he was to wear in the video was sent out from London for Zena to copy in miniature.

Today, Zena still gains great pleasure from her work as a magical entertainer. She has the gift of being able to get the young audience under her spell, an act which, she says is quite simple to achieve. "It's very easy to sway an audience, if you know how. Every show is different. l have learned over the years and particularly from the Forces' shows that there is always a loud mouth in the audience and I'd have several, what we call 'stoppers' to use like, 'Last time I saw a mouth like that it had a hook in it!' It stood me in good stead with the kids."

So, if Zena was to dress Lady Penelope today, what would she be wearing? Her answer was swift and to the point. "Whatever is the latest from Paris."

article originally appeared in Century 21 magazine #12