Remember Lady Penelope? She was a patron saint of the tobacco industry | Peter Bradshaw

The Thunderbirds icon and her cigarette holder belong to an era of child-focused starter fags. Though these are now banned, the industry still has ways to hook young people

Sylvia Anderson, who died this week – co-creator of Thunderbirds and the voice of languid Lady Penelope – famously helped give us some of the most unrepentant smokers in screen history. It wasn’t just Penelope herself, elegantly wafting her cigarette-holder around: many of the International Rescue team relaxed with cigarettes – off-duty, admittedly, not in uniform.

Thunderbirds flourished in an age when newsagents sold packs of “sweet cigarettes” to children: confectionery starter-fags for kids, to practise holding them between the middle and index finger, or speaking with them in your mouth. How funny to think of the bizarre non-PC innocence about smoking and children in the 60s and 70s … funny, but misleading.

Children smoking isn’t just an obsolete side-issue of hilariously obvious depravity. Getting kids to love cigarettes is essential to the whole 21st-century industry. If people take up smoking as adults, quitting comes relatively easily to them: but those hooked as children are the vital long-term consumers.

Cigarette companies don’t openly target children but they cultivate what the ad business calls exposure: in the US, they advertise at retail outlets near schools and playgrounds, and in magazines such as Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone with high teen readership. They need to. If children don’t smoke, the whole industry goes broke in one generation. Meanwhile, e-cigarettes’ growing popularity with teens has made them the sneakily marketed sweet cigarettes of our day. At least Lady Penelope and the International Rescue crew were open about it.

Money for nothing

This week saw another performance of the dullest and most depressing annual tradition in British public life: the budget. If politics is showbusiness for ugly people, then coverage of the budget is for those who are too boring and unattractive for politics. Every year, people get obsessed with what time exactly the chancellor “got to his feet” and began his tiresome speech, and when exactly he sat down.

There used to be a TV news tradition, still occasionally revived, in which reporters ask drinkers outside pubs what they think of the budget and the interviewees point to their pint and say: “Well, I can’t afford to do this any more!”

Politicians love budget day because it’s a display of power and prerogative, and the one day they totally control the news agenda – and the chancellor gets unearned celeb status with a toe-curling full-page cartoon in all the papers. The budget is basically a secular version of the Queen’s “Maundy money” tradition – charitably giving sparkly coins to the forelock-tugging common folk, but also solemnly explaining that these coins now have to be taken back.

Hollywood’s gay subtext

There has been some grumbling at the result of a poll conducted to mark the 30th anniversary of BFI Flare, the London LGBT film festival. Film-makers and critics were asked to vote for the best gay film, and the winner was Todd Haynes’s Carol, based on the Patricia Highsmith novel, with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.

Some disagreed. Others – including, I admit, me – facetiously demanded to know what happened to Master and Commander, Spartacus, Funny Girl, Jersey Boys, etc. There is a case for creating an alternative list of movies in which gay themes or gay sensibilities are detectable in the oppressively, ostensibly straight world of Hollywood cinema.

So in this spirit I suggest a new best gay film of all time: Brief Encounter, in which Noel Coward, as a pre-Wolfenden gay man, heterosexualised the brief encounters of unhappy married people in railway stations. The gay subtext isn’t vital to an appreciation of the film, but without it, you’re missing an important part.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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