EPISODE 23: THE DUCHESS ASSIGNMENT
23: THE DUCHESS ASSIGNMENT
The opening sequence preview suggests wild times ahead. Roulette! Crooks! Jeff in a snazzy top hat and shiny grey suit! Some machine holding up a wall!
Is this the Thunderbirds we know and love? Of course. I am fully reassured as a building blows up in spectacular fashion. Business as usual, then,
except this time it’s much sillier and with more gratuitous appearances by Lady Penelope.
The first scene takes us to the French Riviera by nightfall. The music is a bit of a clue, here, and the title ‘The Duchess Assignment’ appears
smoothly, already lending the episode some Bond and Man From U.N.C.L.E overtones. We can expect plenty of intrigue from this story. We’re taken to a
clearly marked ‘Casino’ where Lady Penelope, in fluffy white furs, tiara and sparkly blue dress, is taking part in a roulette game. Yes, kids, gambling
is fun. This is clearly a classy casino; the other patrons are as dressed up as she is. Even Parker is sporting a tuxedo. He’s standing behind her, and
lights her chic Breakfast at Tiffany’s style cigarette holder. The roulette ball settles on black. Parker immediately apologises to Penelope, so it
seems that his bet didn’t ‘come off’. She calmly tells him not to worry, “It doesn’t seem to be your night,” and she takes over the game, placing a bet
on 12 red. I bet that this scene was cut in Turbocharged Thunderbirds (shudder). The croupier looks shifty as they place Penny’s bet. She has rather
acidly reminded Parker that this is her money, “after all”. He replies with a suitably humble, “Yes, M’lady”. As the ball spins, Penelope wills it to
land on “12 red,” and as it spins and spins…for what feels like a good hour….Penelope finally spots a plot point. I mean, she spots an old friend.
We hear a very camp elderly lady’s voice, and from Penelope’s point of view we see an older lady, grandly dressed, her hair in a huge purple beehive
style, topped with a big tiara. The older woman is bemoaning her latest unlucky bet: “seventeen black” has failed her and she hoots that she’s now lost
750,000. I’m guessing that isn’t in Euros. The lady checks to see if the roulette operator is “not mistaken” at the result, but the man – in a French
version of Alan Tracy’s voice – assures “madame” that he is “positive”. Penelope is astonished to see the woman, calling her the “Duchess of Royston,”
whom she hasn’t seen “in years,” and immediately leaves the table to go chat to her, putting a chuffed Parker in charge of the betting again.
The Duchess is still betting on seventeen black, but now shifty music plays, and the roulette operator reaches surreptitiously behind the wheel to
operate some buttons. As the ball spins, he presses ‘red’ and turns a dial to ‘18’. Shenanigans are afoot!
It’s no wonder the Duchess has lost so badly. As she fails this latest bet, the operator takes all her money and the Duchess is left lamenting, “What
have I done?” She’s being watched closely by two guys with American Gangster accents – so obviously they’re evil, too – who have figured out the casino
is playing dirty, and think the Duchess is too “dumb” to realise it’s all “fixed”.
Now desperate for funds, the Duchess places her tiara on the table for her last bet. As the thing covers half the table, I wonder how she defines what
she’s betting on? Maybe it’s a spread bet. At this point, Lady Penelope comes to sit beside the Duchess, and the older woman is delighted to see her.
She tells Penelope she’s “doing rather badly”. Oh, really? Penelope has noticed this, pointing out the tiara on the table, and the Duchess dramatically admits she’s a
“desperate woman,” and tells Penelope that all she has left now is her “precious Bricasso painting”. No, not a typo there, it’s “Bricasso” not
‘Picasso’. Big difference, as you’ll soon see. Anyway, the Duchess is relieved she left her painting at home, “otherwise I’d be gambling it away”. This
statement, spoken at full posh-person volume, really piques the interest of the two gangsters who were commenting on her stupidity a moment ago. They
reckon she’s “a walkover,” but haven’t noticed her powerful friend.
Penelope asks “Deborah” how she’s been keeping. The Duchess shushes her, as the ball is still rolling. Grin. Tense music, usually reserved for a Tracy
boy about to set himself on fire, plays as the dodgy roulette operator presses his ‘cheat switch’ once again. There’s another shot of the Duchess’
tiara on the table again to remind viewers what’s at stake. I’m a little surprised no one else can see the roulette operator pressing the buttons, as
they seem to be on the side of the table. Anyway, the cheatery ensures the Duchess loses her tiara as well, and that she’s “really lorst (sic)
everything!” By now, however, Lady Penelope has seen straight through their little game, and stands up authoritatively to announce “This table is
fixed”. Maybe she was just bluffing, but what do you know, they are cheating! Outraged hubbub erupts from the other tables and Penelope calls for
Parker. Her faithful butler is cradling a great big stack of gambling chips and looks about the smuggest we will ever see him.
Penelope’s unmasking has caused the croupier to step on a hidden alarm beneath the carpet. I have no idea how people aren’t stepping on it all the
time. Anyway, this alerts a well dressed older man in an office. This man flicks a switch, which kills all the lights in the casino. There’s a lot of
screaming, and the music usually reserved for a Tracy boy about to pluck someone from the jaws of death is used again as the man in the office frantically stuffs a brown suitcase with thick wads of cash. The door behind him slides open to reveal a very suave Parker holding a gun, very
James Bond here. There’s a CRASH ZOOM as he warns, “Not so fast, Mon Amee (sic)!” The criminal ducks behind his big white curvy desk and immediately
begins shooting, forcing Parker to take cover behind a convenient filing cabinet. Their gun fight shatters lightbulbs and vases, until Parker warns his foe that “the
game is up,” and, as a bullet whistles over his head, adds that they’ve “got the witnesses to prove it”. The bad guy contemptuously asks what Parker’s
talking about, although he just seems to be buying time as he presses a button and a secret door slides open at the side of the room.
Parker doesn’t see the door, and the bad guy buys more time by asking him if they can’t come to “some understanding.” After all, he is “human, I
presume?” Parker just about figures out that he’s being offered a bribe to let him go, which he definitely seems to be considering, before the bad guy
makes his getaway and disappears. Oops. Now we will never know how “human” Parker is, either. Just then Penelope arrives and Parker tells her that the casino owner got away with the cash. Penelope also “lost the Duchess” when the lights went out. They resolve to chase down
the casino bad guys instead. We see the casino owner speeding off in an open top car outside the casino. Chase music begins!
The crooked croupier who was scamming the Duchess and the casino owner are escaping together, and the owner is convinced “they will never catch us
now”. There’s a quick close up on his stuffed bag of ill-gotten gains, which is so full that notes are bursting from the zip. Of course, they haven’t
escaped at all – Penny and Parker are in hot pursuit. FAB 1 zooms along the same road after the crooks. Penelope is wearing a long white cloak now and
tells Parker that they’d “better prepare, just in case,” which is secret agent code for ‘get out the machine gun cannon’ from FAB 1’s monstrous front
grille. Gulp. Parker tells her that he can see the crooks “just ahead”.
The croupier, who’s driving, is astonished to see them. “They are gaining on us!” But the big man isn’t worried, claiming that they “shall be ready for
them”. The chase enters lots of small, dark country roads. The bad guy fires at FAB 1 from the back of the convertible with a big automatic weapon. Of
course, the bullets bounce right off FAB 1’s toughened exterior, causing Parker to chuckle smugly, “Pathetic, isn’t it, M’lady?” “Quite, Parker,”
Penelope agrees, with equal amusement. She tells Parker to get the crooks’ tyres first, as they “may as well” try to “reason” with them. A bit
half-heartedly, Parker tries and fails to get their tyres, and claims that there are too many bends in the road for him to succeed. Penelope does not
seem sorry about this. The casino boss starts to panic as he realises FAB 1 is “impenetrable” but the croupier reassures him “we are nearly there!” The music gets overexcited again (I see no Tracys about to fall off a cliff, so calm down, OK?) as the bad guys pull up at a big warehouse near
a farm and hide inside it. This masterstroke totally flummoxes the FAB 1 crew, as they completely lose the crooks. I’m amazed this doesn’t prompt a Homer Simpsonesque ‘d’oh’ from Penny or Parker.
Their quarry lost, Parker muses that “that would appear to be that” which Penelope simply finds “tiresome”. She elects to go back and “console the
Duchess” and expects to find her friend staying at “the Grand”, although by this stage the poor woman is probably in the kitchen scrubbing pots to pay
for her room. However, when Penelope asks for the Duchess at the hotel reception she learns things are even worse than she thought. Her friend is no
longer staying there. The very helpful receptionist tells Penelope that she “checked out this evening” and Penelope asks how they can trace her. We
find out that the Duchess has returned to “Royston Castle, England”.
In the next scene, we are shown this exact location. A sign outside its gates announces that Royston Castle is, in fact, for sale. If you’re
interested, the sign requests you to call ‘Roy’ at Gillis & Son Estate Agency. FAB 1 pulls up outside the gates and Parker reckons that they are
“too late”. It takes until now for Penelope to realise that her friend “wasn’t joking after all” about her dire financial situation. Penny wishes that
there was “something they could do to help her” and she’s glad that Jeff Tracy is “coming over for the air display.” She hopes that he’ll “think of something”, reasoning that “rescues are his forte.” Well, sort of, Penny,
Meanwhile, on Tracy Island..! Don’t get your hopes up, though, not a Tracy boy in sight for a long time. Inside the Tracy villa kitchen, Tin-Tin is
rolling out pastry as Grandma Tracy enters the room, wondering where that “son of mine” has got to. Tin-Tin sounds very amused, and tells her that the
last time she saw Jeff he was carrying a big parcel which had arrived in the post that day. Grandma checks if this was “the one with the Saville Row
label on it”. Tin-Tin confirms it was, and she believes that Jeff is really taking his visit to the “London Air Display” very “seriously”.
Tin-Tin isn’t kidding. For some reason best known to himself, Jeff is practicing his English accented elocution while wearing full top hat and shiny
grey suit (presumably from the tailor) in front of a mirror. Cute. He’s awkwardly rehearsing, “The rain in Spain…” and he’s also doing a terrifying attempt at “Oh, bang on, jolly good show!” in a British accent, which I’m sure is going to win him plenty of favours with Lady Penelope.
A moment later we hear Jeff saying it again, in public! He and Penelope are at the airshow, and a jet zooms very close to the top of a control tower.
Penelope effectively winces at Jeff’s enthusiastic efforts at an accent, but she tells him he’s doing “splendidly”, which is British code for ‘Stop
that, for the love of God, you’re making an arse of yourself.’ Actually, I think he’s only doing it to wind her up, although his boyish enthusiasm for
trying out the accent could also be read as ‘sweetly misguided’ in an attempt to impress her. Aww. Jeff’s accent is so distracting, in fact, that
neither IR agent notices the Hood in his ‘Cry Wolf’ disguise standing behind them! Sadly the Hood’s presence is not an important plot point. Or a plot
point at all, as it turns out.
Jeff gets serious (and thankfully ditches the accent) as the air show reaches what he really wanted to see, a “new carrier craft”. Penelope watches the
big plane in close-up on her very elegant opera glasses. She remarks “isn’t that a bit close?” as a smaller jet manoeuvres towards the larger one. Jeff
is sure they know what they’re doing. There are also two air force officers watching them nearby, who speak in British accents that make Jeff’s seem
like a reasonable attempt. They comment on how the display is “dashed clever, wot?” as the little jet lands on top of the big one and securely lands on
its back. The one called Percy tells his buddy that they’re “not finished” and Penelope asks Jeff what they’re going to do. Jeff tells her to “wait and
see” as the big craft continues to fly. That’s when the little jet’s pilot ejects, and Jeff guesses that the “other plane is going to guide the two of
them down”, which it does whilst skimming very close to the top of the control tower building. That can’t be adhering to airspace guidelines, can it?
The big carrier plane lands very successfully, and flight officer Percy exclaims that it was “first class, first class!” Then Percy’s friend points out
that “International Rescue are doing this sort of thing all the time” and he reckons that they ought to have the IR guys here on display. Overhearing
this, Penelope actually opens up her umbrella and hides beneath it, while Jeff covers his face with his programme guide. Why? Are they wearing IR
visitor badges or something? Cheeky music underlines the silliness.
Later on, Jeff and Penelope are visiting an art galley, which resembles the National Gallery despite being in a park environment. Lots of modern art,
painting and sculpture are on display, and this definitely looks like a date for Jeff and Penelope. Aww. Interesting to see that Virgil’s teasingly
abstract painting of Alan from ‘Move – and You’re Dead’ is on display here. I guess Jeff has plenty of connections! We see this is a retrospective of
‘20th Century Art,’ and Penelope has dressed appropriately, as a Mondrian painting. She’s asking Jeff if he really must fly on to New York the next day. He’s afraid so, as “all good things have to come to an end.” Penelope shows him one more painting while she tells Jeff the sad story of the Duchess of Royston’s finances. She says, in not so many
words, that the Duchess gambled most of her finances away in the South of France. Jeff is sympathetic and asks if there’s anything they can do.
Penelope points out the “Portrait of a Gazelle by Bricasso”, a name which sounds so much like ‘Picasso’ you sort of wonder why they bothered. Legal
It’s a pretty strange picture. It features a gazelle standing side on in a desert, with its face turned to stare out at the viewer, while a short line
of Corinthian pillars stretch out behind it. All it’s missing is some stringy-legged pachyderms to complete the look. The colours and style always
reminded me more of Dali than a recognisable Picasso. Perhaps a cubist gazelle wouldn’t have been recognizable enough for later elements of the
storyline to work... Anyway, Jeff is so distracted by an idea the painting gives him that he and Penelope fail to spot two crooks from the casino (the
ones who mocked the Duchess) who are also staring at it. Jeff excitedly tells Penelope that he thinks he knows just how to help the Duchess with her “difficulties,” and that there’s someone in New York he’s “got to go and see”.
The next moment we’re transported to bustling ‘21st Century’ New York. The transition uses stock footage of the city from across the water, and the
show’s rampant ‘city music’ plays. It’s notable that the Empire State Building is still standing, so unless they elected to rebuild it, and did it
pretty darn quickly (or perhaps it’s just a big fake model!) then this episode quite clearly took place some time before ‘Terror in New York City’.
Jeff is on the street and enters a building labelled ‘Gazelle Automations Ltd.’, where he gets into the elevator. There’s a small wooden statue of a
gazelle in the lobby, which along with the company name clues us in to why Jeff’s gone there. Inside the elevator, a Dalek-esque computer voice
welcomes him to the Gazelle Building and asks “whom did you wish to see?” I feel that the emphasis on “whom” suggests that whoever programmed it was
really proud of their grammar knowledge. Jeff is a little taken aback; we know how he feels about automation after all. He tells the computer voice
that he has an appointment with Wilbur Dandridge III. After a short processing delay, the computer confirms that this appointment and Jeff’s identity
are both correct, and asks him to take a seat – which slides helpfully out of the wall. As Jeff tries to relax on the seat, the Dalek voice continues
with a sales pitch, telling Jeff that the voice belongs to a “product of Gazelle Automated Secretaries” and that the elevator is a Gazelle product,
too. Jeff mutters “Thank you” and the scary voice responds “You’re welcome” – which gets a hilariously freaked out “huh?” from Jeff.
The Dalek-voiced elevator drops Jeff off at Dandridge’s office. The man is, absolutely, gazelle obsessed. He has three big wooden statues of them
dotted around his office, and large line drawings of gazelle heads painted on his purple walls and on the red lift doors. Dandridge is thrilled to see
Jeff, asking him brightly, “Where have you been all these years?” and inviting him to take a seat. Jeff comments on the elevator. Dandridge boasts,
“That’s nothing,” and explains how automated everything is at his company. It’s kind of nice to show how tolerant and good natured Jeff is, even when his old friend is clearly a gazelle fixated
uber-eccentric. Dandridge offers Jeff a cigarette (smoking is FAB, kids!) and Jeff cautiously agrees to have one. Dandridge flicks a switch, and a
cylinder pops out from under the table, revealing a whole wheel of cigarettes ready to dispense. Jeff takes one – amazingly, it’s even already lit for
him! Now Dandridge offers him a drink. Jeff opts for whiskey “on the rocks” and Dandridge operates that toy as well, and a mechanical wheel full of booze spins round and squirts a whiskey into an ice
filled glass. Jeff takes the drink and toasts Dandridge: “Here’s mud in your automated eye”. I get the impression that Dandridge was dying to show off
these gadgets. He asks Jeff if the sun’s too bright for him, as he “can soon fix that”. He presses another button and a blind immediately rolls down.
However, it’s imperfect, and only comes part way down before stalling, and then crashing inelegantly the rest of the way. To be fair, it’s still pretty much impossible to get that style of
blind to work first time, even with a human operating the cords!
The mild failure takes some of the puff out of Dandridge and he mutters how he “must get that blind fixed some time,” before he at last asks what Jeff
meant by a “Portrait of a Gazelle”. Jeff explains that because of Dandridge’s interest in the species, he might just be interested in the picture.
Dandridge is not only interested, he’s “fascinated,” and wants to know when he can see it. Jeff hands him a postcard reproduction and his friend is
ecstatic. This is all very fortunate; if it was a ‘Portrait of a Banana’ I guess the Duchess would be out of luck. Dandridge tells Jeff that he’s “just
got to have it,” and he reckons it could be the symbol of his whole organisation! Jeff “figured” he’d like it, although he warns Dandridge that the
Duchess may not wish to sell it.
A clever fade takes us from the reproduction to the full sized painting, which is now on display in Lady Penelope’s drawing room. Penelope and the
Duchess sit either side of a standing Dandridge, who energetically enthuses “it’s a gem” and that he may not know much about art, but, well he likes
this and that “this is sensational!” He asks if Penelope agrees. She diplomatically responds that it’s a “good example of his middle period” and that
it’s an “honour” to have it in her home. The Duchess comments on how sweet Penelope is to look after it for her now that the art exhibition is over.
Penelope then decides it’s time for tea and summons Parker with the bell.
As Dandridge takes a seat, he blurts out “four hundred and seventy five thousand”. The Duchess is a little slow on the uptake (or is she?) and asks
what he means. Dandridge clarifies that he’s offering her “Four hundred and seventy-five thousand pounds for the sale of the painting.” The Duchess is
outraged at the suggestion of selling the painting – she declares it’s “not on the market”. Parker arrives then and Penelope urgently instructs him to
pass around the cucumber sandwiches. The battle goes on, and Dandridge refuses to be “frightened” off the purchase, as he’s set his heart on the
painting and aims to have it! The discussion becomes impassioned as the Duchess (calling him “Danrith”, grin) reckons that his offer is
“disproportionate”. She’s a smart old bird. She gives the impression that the offer is low, and is promptly distracted by the arrival of the cucumber sandwiches. Dandridge immediately ups his offer to
£600,000. She still refuses the vast amount, which gives Parker such a funny turn that he almost spills the plate of sandwiches. While he frantically
rearranges the plate, the Duchess shrilly explains that the painting is a “family heirloom” which she could not “bear” to part with.
This gets Dandridge frantic. He protests that he came “all the way from the United States for that painting…!” but before anyone can get any more
stroppy (and the trip surely only took about half an hour on the Fireflash anyway!) Lady Penelope cuts in with the proposal of a “good old British
compromise” to make “both” Dandridge and the Duchess “happy”. I like how Lady Penelope is characterised here, as a smarter and more measured woman of
means and status, able to negotiate and charm. It’s a vast improvement on the ‘dopey spy chick’ who constantly needs rescuing from her own
recklessness. She’s actually pretty savvy, here, and sorts things out. She suggests that the Duchess loans the painting to Dandridge for six months,
which goes down as a “great idea!” and a beneficial deal is arranged.
Next we’re at the airport with the Duchess. A flight attendant with very red hair is announcing that the Fireflash 681 to New York City is due to
depart. The Duchess is with Lady Penelope and worries whether Gate Number 3, their assembly point, is a lucky number. Penelope gently admonishes her
with a “That will do,” and gives her friend a “going away present”, a small blue box. The Duchess hilariously exudes, almost drunkenly, “How sweet,
what is it?” Penelope tells her it’s a St. Christopher brooch, and assures the Duchess that if she wears it she will arrive in New York safely.
Penelope adds that Parker has loaded up the painting and that Dandridge’s chauffeur will be collecting her at the other end of the flight. The Duchess
graciously thanks Penelope for “bearing” with her, saying that although at times she may appear “an eccentric old woman” (nooo, surely not) but that
the paining “really is precious” to her and she feels happier taking it to Dandridge in person. Penelope completely understands.
At this point the air stewardess with the bright red hair comes over to collect the Duchess for boarding. The Duchess bids “Penelope dear” goodbye, and
Penelope reminds her to wear the brooch. The Duchess assures her that she will not forget, and makes a point of also picking up her walking stick
shaped thing, which she cheerfully brandishes whilst baying, “Fare thee well, dear!” Now, bear in mind that this is the voice of the Hood and John
Tracy (voice-over artist Ray Barrett). I am assured that the cast were in stitches. The Duchess’ voice is a lot higher pitched than I remember it being
the last time I watched it, too. So, the mind boggles!
Now we get a lot of stock footage (mostly from “Trapped in the Sky”) as the Fireflash takes off. A cutaway to the inner lounge shows us the Duchess
leaving London Airport and on her way across the Atlantic. What could possibly go wrong? After a brief pause intended for ad breaks, the story
continues. New York music plays as the Fireflash crosses the Atlantic and the Duchess finally puts on Penelope’s gift, exclaiming, “oh, how pretty” as
she does. The music here also hints at its other purpose – sending a transmission signal. The signal immediately appears on a screen inside FAB 1, which tells Penelope that the Duchess is now halfway
over the Atlantic. Penny is just relieved to be able to keep tabs on her friend’s “progress” and she’s sure that Dandridge will give the Duchess “a great welcome to the New World”.
At his New York office, Dandridge tells his chauffeur to go and collect the Duchess from the airport and reminds him about taking the cheque to her as
well. The chauffeur is downstairs in a garage, talking to Dandridge through a videophone. Dandridge fervently hopes that the cheque will prove to the
Duchess that “we mean business”. However, as soon as they finish talking and close the call, someone whacks the chauffeur over the back of the neck and
the guy crumples. He’s been attacked by men wearing the shiny dark grey raincoats of pure evil – only bad guys wear these! It’s Chandler and Brophy,
the two gangsters from the casino at the beginning of the episode. They aim to steal the chauffeur’s uniform and reckon it’ll then be “a cinch” to get
to the Duchess. Oh no!
The Fireflash has landed. At baggage control the Duchess hilariously pronounces ‘that’ as “tha-ate” while she points out her luggage to the hapless
steward. Then the gangster in the chauffeur’s stolen uniform arrives. He asks about the painting, and she confirms that it’s there and requests some resolution of certain “arrangements”. The imposter hands her the cheque.
Back in her mansion, Lady Penelope is watching the Duchess’ electronic tracker on her TV screen. She is relieved to see her friend has arrived in New
York, until Parker observes how quickly the Duchess is already leaving the city. Penelope hopes that everything is still going to plan, only she seems
to be getting a little worried now.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the Duchess is more confused than worried as she asks her fake chauffeur if the countryside they’re passing through
is “Central Park?” he gruffly tells her that it isn’t and that Mr Dandridge asked her to be “taken to his country house”. Riiight. Luckily for the
Duchess, Penelope’s bullshit detectors are going ballistic back at the mansion, as she watches the signal continue to go in an unexpected direction.
She asks Parker to ring up Dandridge.
Now the fake chauffeur parks the car outside a dilapidated old house in the middle of nowhere. The Duchess, blissfully unaware of the threat, asks if
this is Mr Dandridge’s “country house?” and the crook gives a sarcastic “yeah”.
However, the crooks are rumbled as Dandridge confirms that the Duchess never arrived, and that he was about to call Penelope to find out why. Penelope
tells him that the plans have “gone wrong,” and now Dandridge has lost track of his chauffeur as well. Penelope immediately concludes that the Duchess has been kidnapped. Dandridge exclaims in horror, “But how could that possibly…?” only for the line to go dead. It’s never really made clear
who does this to the call or why – did they know that Penelope was tracking the Duchess? Is Parker fiddling with the telecoms systems with a pair of
wire clippers again? (Vault of Death). The two dopey but mean criminals don’t seem likely candidates – and it makes no sense at all. The only reason
for the phone line to go dead here is ‘for dramatic purposes’. Otherwise it’s a mystery along the lines of who killed the chauffeur in the Big Sleep,
and they did it purely to surprise us and move the plot along. Sort of. Anyway, with no more contact with Dandridge, Penelope tells Parker that
something has happened to the signal. It’s time to call in the big guns.
On Tracy Island, Jeff quickly sends Scott out after the Duchess. (This point is thirty minutes into the episode, where have Scott and Virgil been
hiding all this time?) Jeff says that John will tell Scott which direction to go once he’s in the air, following the Duchess’ “bleep signal” (is that
the technical term, Jeff?) and Virgil is sent out immediately afterwards. Jeff reckons there’s “no knowing what might be in store for the Duchess” and
they seem a bit flummoxed about what to take in Thunderbird Two’s pod. At this point, Penelope tells them that the Duchess’ signal has stopped moving.
Jeff is pleased as it means the Duchess will be easier to track.
Thunderbird One blasts off with no further launch shown, as does Thunderbird Two. The guys are really rushing this time! Alan and Tin-Tin watch the
blast offs from the balcony, and Alan tells him that Scott and Virgil’s launches went “A-OK”. Jeff’s only response is to wonder how long John will take
to get a “fix” on the Duchess’ position.
Up in space, John watches a circle of green light on a map slowly shrink until it starts beeping. A nifty three way chat between John, Scott and Virgil
ensues. John tells them the Duchess’ map reference and Scott cheerfully tells John they’re on their way. John makes a funny “eee” noise as he notes
it’s “a lonely spot.”
John isn’t wrong. The stolen limousine is parked outside a very ramshackle old house. As creepy music plays, we see there are plenty of rats making it
their home inside, scuttling on a table near the Duchess. The fake chauffeur is binding her to a chair in the very nasty, derelict basement of the
house. It’s somewhere only Leatherface would find cosy. Yuck. When he’s finished tying her up, he tells her “This is where I take a powder”, whatever
the heck that means. The Duchess pleads for him to tell her what he wants, offering him the painting. He callously tells her that they already have
taken it, explaining that his “buddy” swiped it at the airport when she was changing her currency. The Duchess swears the crook will not get away with
this, but he begs to differ, saying they’ll get away with it just as the casino crooks “got away with your dough.” The Duchess realises that’s where she’s seen him before. Then she smells gas! The
crook warns her not to “go around striking matches” or there could be a “rather nasty explosion.” Not the brightest place to spend hours tying up an
old lady, to be honest. I have a feeling even the rats wouldn’t stick around if it was filling up with gas like this. He finishes immobilising her and
bids the Duchess, “So long”.
He leaves and the door closes behind him, leaving us with the poor old Duchess trapped in a rat infested basement, slowly choking to death on the gas.
Very horror movie-esque. She bleakly wonders, “Oh dear, what will become of me?” as the fake chauffeur drives off, apparently more than happy to leave
her to rot. Yuck. The screen fades to black.
There’s a determined drumbeat as Thunderbird One hurtles across the sky. Scott asks John for the latest news on the Duchess’ signal. John confirms that
the signal hasn’t moved, although he emphasises that it’s just the position of the signal from Penelope’s tracker they can follow, without needing to
add that the Duchess herself could be anywhere by now. Scott also gets his meaning and hopes that the signal isn’t “leading us into a trap”. Now, that
line and the loss of video between Penelope and Dandridge always made me wonder if there was a more interesting story buried here somewhere. It’s possible, I think. It’s a shame this
isn’t a more deliberate, Hood-based piece, really.
But the first priority is saving the Duchess, who is currently choking on the gas in the Basement of Certain Death. She realises that she’s “got to get
out of here,” and superfast exciting music plays as she wriggles around to get free. Instead, her movements knock over a ladder, which slides over and
shatters into an electrical unit, which promptly sparks into a huge explosion!
Scott is just overhead in Thunderbird One. He reports his arrival at the place she’s “transmitting from”, adding that it’s a “pretty solitary spot” –
and at that moment the building where she’s trapped EXPLODES. We can see it go up from Scott’s POV, out of the window hatch. All the windows in the building blow outward, flames tear through the
structure. Looks like you came a long way for nothing, Scott. He yells, “Father! and Jeff asks him what just happened. Is this the end of the Duchess
Amazingly, the Duchess is still alive and still tied to the chair as the basement turns into rubble all around her. Not sure how that happened, to be
honest. Guess she’s not so unlucky after all! John confirms to Scott that she is “still transmitting” and Scott reports that he’s “going in to land”
and that he only hopes “there’s something we can do.” Her chances still don’t look good, frankly.
In New York, Dandridge appears to be using an electronic shaver when his Dalek voiced secretary announces a guest, the “Duchess of Royston’s
representative…” who has the Portrait of a Gazelle with them. For a moment, Dandridge seems baffled. Then he “gets it”. After all, who would be stupid
enough to steal a portrait from a well organised meeting transaction, and then go back to the place and try to sell it again? You’d have to be very
stupid, right? Right? There must be secret markets for this kind of thing. Unfortunately, these crooks are far dumber than the poor Duchess.
Dandridge is already formulating a plan to deal with his guest. He calls up a human secretary this time (we can only assume she’s flesh and blood
anyway, from her voice) called Mrs Godolphin, and tells her to call the police as he thinks the guy who stole the painting is here. Dandridge tells her
he will keep the crook “talking” and apparently she “understands” what he means.
Just before he lets the crook inside, he lowers the blinds as far as they’ll go and then opens the lift. The fake representative says he’s there to
collect the second instalment of the payment, “in cash as was agreed”. Dandridge plays along, asking Mrs Godolphin to send in “the, er, cash payment”.
The way he says it leaves us no doubt that he doesn’t exactly mean to comply with the crook’s wishes. Not at all suspicious, well covered, Dandridge.
Just in case the crook wasn’t already wondering, Mrs Godolphin says “that other matter you mentioned is well in hand,” causing the bad guy to snap,
“What other matter?” Way to get your boss murdered, Mrs Godolphin. Dandridge just bluffs past this snafu and asks to see the painting. The crook
obliges, unwrapping the brown paper. Even Dandridge is excited by the sight of it. He then opens up a cash box, offering the crook the “money” when it
pops up via some automated tunnel system near his desk. He comments on how “efficient” Mrs Godolphin is and whips out a gun she’d hidden in there for
him. Dandridge orders the crook to put his hands up, but the faulty automated blind picks that moment to collapse all the way closed, making a sharp
snapping noise that startles Dandridge. As he looks over at the blind, the crook hurls the valuable painting at Dandridge, who fires the gun. The
bullet tears right across the painting, ripping a line across the gazelle and through its eyes. There’s a CRASH ZOOM on the damage here. Dandridge is
distraught, “The painting! Oh, oh, the painting!” Whoops.
Much more pressing disasters are still going on. The building where the Duchess is trapped is now a fireball. Scott has landed nearby and has traced
her position to the cellar, which he tells Virgil as his brother lands. Scott is outside and lit up by the inferno as he speaks to Virgil on the radio.
Like the effect there. He tells Virgil that they’ll need the Mole as they must get into the cellar “but quick” – this is classic frantic Scott here.
Virgil gives his usual unflappable response, and he releases the Pod. I think they always pack the Mole just in case, you never know when you’ll need a
drill the size of a house to get into your locked basement flat. Virgil’s driving the Mole now, in some even more spooky dark lighting, and Scott gives
him the course and says that he’s going to get “the restraining outfit” (oh yes? This sounds promising!) as when the wall goes over, the basement “will
never stand the weight”.
In the basement, the indestructible Duchess is still managing to stay alive and remains the only part of the basement that isn’t actually on fire. She
still believes she will “never get out alive” and the universe tries to lend a hand, as a flaming rock falls and hits her on the head. She falls over,
unconscious amid the flaming rubble.
Virgil is ready with the Mole and begins drilling according to Scott’s directions. It’s tag team time, which is always great. As he levels out, he
tells Scott, “no snags so far” and Scott replies “provided I can hold that wall”. Exciting music plays as Scott uses a very odd pod vehicle – basically
a tractor fitted with three long sucker caps – which he drives up to the blazing house. He’s already sweating with the heat, and I wonder why he isn’t
using one of the heat suits we’ve seen them use before. The suckers somehow attach themselves to the wall rather than shoving it over, but there’s
strain in Scott’s voice as he warns Virgil to “hurry it up” because the wall is “going to give way any moment”. Virgil calmly answers that there’s a
“vein of solid rock” he’s trying to get through. However, Scott is suffering from the “fantastic” heat. Fire suits, Scott. Really.
In the basement, the drilling noise from the Mole seems to wake the Duchess, and she exclaims, “What on earth is that?” as the wall near to her
crumbles away. It’s Virgil! He’s left the Mole – note he isn’t wearing a fire suit either – and calls for her to join him. Through the flames. OK,
Virg. Maybe he’s as fireproof as she is? At this point Scott hollers for him to hurry it up, as he can’t “sustain” the wall any longer. Virgil assures
Scott they’re on the way up now, and the Mole retracts, but Scott is forced to back off and let the wall collapse. As he retreats, he calls Virgil to
ask, “Are you all right?” but the return hole remains empty. Getting no answer, Scott frantically calls base and tells Jeff that Virgil was on his way
up but isn’t responding now. He worries that either the radio was smashed, or “he’s in a bad way down there”. Sniff. Jeff keeps his head, asking if the
Duchess’ signal is still registering. It is, but Scott can’t tell if it’s moving or not!
Jeff orders Scott to stand by in case Virgil needs any help. There’s a moment of self-blame when Jeff wishes they’d known more about the rescue before
launching, something that really isn’t addressed enough on this show. Alan agrees that if they had known more they could have brought their
fire-fighting gear. That might explain the lack of fire suits, but surely throwing in a couple fire suits for Scott and Virgil just in case wouldn’t
have hurt? How much room could that take up? Tin-Tin soothes the pity-party, reminding them that if they’d waited, then it would have been “too late to attempt a rescue anyway.” Sound logic, Tin-Tin.
That’s when Scott radios to announce that the Mole has broken the surface, so Virgil is probably OK! Scott wonders if his brother managed to save the
Duchess. Triumphant music plays as the Mole remerges from the hole.
The scene fades and the next moment we’re shown the Duchess sitting upright in a hospital bed. I guess she made it, then! Her head is bandaged, but
she’s reading ‘Landscape’ magazine and telling a very pink Lady Penelope that her house isn’t getting sold. Penelope sympathises, as she thought Deborah was “rather relying” on that sale, but the Duchess cheerfully tells her that it was “ideal” as now she can buy back her home. Penelope doesn’t
understand, and the Duchess explains that she’s used Dandridge’s cheque to pay for it. Guess no one’s told her about Dandridge’s bullet destroying the
painting yet. Penny tries to let her know but the Duchess refuses to be told depressing news, warbling that she’s just been rescued by those “romantic
young men from International Rescue” – and by the way she sounds I’d figure that the sight of Scott and Virgil must have brought on a mild stroke. No
wonder Virgil couldn’t answer the radio right away. Gulp. The Duchess is also happy that the FBI have caught the man impersonating the chauffeur and
that Interpol have caught up with the crooked casino owner, so she’ll have all that money returned, too. With all this good fortune arriving, she warns
Penelope not to “spoil” her day!
At this moment, Dandridge enters rather sheepishly. He’s glad to see the Duchess “so well”, but he has sad news about her painting. He admits that it
was his fault it was “destroyed” but the Duchess isn’t so sure it was, and asks Penelope to unwrap the ‘walking stick’ she’d brought with her on the Fireflash flight. As Penelope unwraps it, the Duchess announces that she has news for Dandridge, and that this is the real Portrait of a Gazelle!
Dandridge is hugely relieved to learn he only “accidentally destroyed” a copy of it. The Duchess immediately pushes for the second half of her loan
payment, and then assures Dandridge it will be his for the next six months “as agreed”. She’s a lot cannier than she looks, and I always enjoyed how
this last scene reveals that.
A moment later, Parker enters with news that a glossy magazine are on the phone and want to publish her life story. He asks if £35,000 is enough. No,
it isn’t, the Duchess will take no less than £50,000 for it. She also asks Parker about “The 3:30?” but he has bad news – the race was won by
“Desperate Intruder”. Wow, a little reference to another episode there. The Duchess has clearly learned sweet FA from her earlier run of poor luck, and
she’s not about to give up her old bad habits. No, she’s sure that her “luck is changing” and is anxious to take a little trip once she’s up and about
again. “Where to?” Penelope asks.
Well, where else but the casino again. As we leave her, the Duchess is hanging out at the roulette tables and betting feverishly on “fifteen black”,
proving that nothing changes, even if you end up locked in a basement while crooks steal your only means of income. I assume this is shortly before Lady Penelope drags her off to some sort of addiction clinic. Anyway, this is quite a quirky ending to a very odd episode.
I would have liked more Tracys and a lot less of the mad Duchess, but this was a tongue-in-cheek episode with that unforgettable voice performed by Ray
Barrett. Not a classic episode, but certainly memorable. I also like the message that an old leopard (or is it cougar?) will never quite change her
to Episode Index
23: THE DUCHESS ASSIGNMENT
Cue the corny French accordion music… we’re in Monte Carlo! At least it seems that way from the opening snapshot of a peaceful moonlit harbour and the
fact that Lady Penelope and her handsome (yes, he’s surprisingly handsome in his tuxedo) butler, chauffeur and all-around henchman, Parker, are
hovering transfixed over a roulette wheel as they wait to see if Penelope’s good luck will hold out. It does, of course. But, while Penelope’s pile of
chips grows, over at another table the Duchess of Royston’s pile has diminished into the negative, and she is forced to put her diamond tiara forward
Noticing her fellow noblewoman’s distress, Penelope joins her at the wheel as the Duchess marks yet another failure. But… wait a minute! Parker has
noticed the roulette wheel is rigged and confronts the shady casino owner – with a gun! Parker apparently has quite a side-line as a Bond-esqe Robin
Hood, but despite surprising the crook in his lair and firing off a few salvos from behind a filing cabinet, the bad guy escapes with the cash via a
Unfortunately for the Duchess, the loss of her money means she has to put her estate up for sale, a situation which Penny finds intolerable. Racking
her brain, Penny comes up with a crazy plan to sell the Duchess’s remaining treasure, ‘Portrait of a Gazelle’ (by Picasso, Pricasso, Brickasso???), and
enlists Jeff Tracy’s help to do so.
No, Jeff doesn’t sideline as an art dealer (that we know of), but he does have business dealings with one Wilbur Dandridge, of Gazelle Industries,
who’d do practically anything to add to his gazelle collection. After a smoke and a scotch, Dandridge agrees to buy the painting for $600,000, but the
Duchess decides not to sell, preferring instead to rent it on an indefinite basis. Dandridge agrees, and the Duchess gets onto the next Fireflash to hand deliver it to the States.
If you think that the Fireflash is going to go down in a ball of flames and necessitate a call to International Rescue, well, you’d be mistaken.
Because no… despite the fact that we are now half-way through the episode and so far no sign of our five favourite brothers, this is not when the
disaster occurs. We have to wait a bit longer, until after the Duchess is kidnapped by two shady crooks with a penchant for dressing in drag and a
hankering to make some money from her ‘Portrait of a Gazelle.’
Disguised as Dandridge’s employees, the crooks kidnap the Duchess at the airport and take her to a deserted farmhouse, leaving her tied up in the
basement while they take the painting to Dandridge’s office to collect the payment. But Dandridge, who is shaving at his desk and will probably sleep
under it later, is no dummy and cottons on to the scam, taking out the crooks in a fracas involving a gun, some brown paper and a set of dodgy Venetian
blinds. His derring-do is successful, but his bravado turns to tears when he discovers that a ricocheting bullet has dug a trench right through his
Meanwhile, the Duchess has proven resourceful if not intelligent (she may have a huge head, but the brain pan is apparently miniscule), and has managed
to get herself untied from the chair — but started a fire while she was doing it. But never fear! International Rescue is on the case — they’ve been
tracking the Duchess’s movements via a St Christopher medal-cum-homing beacon that Penelope pinned on the Duchess’s ample bosom before the trip, and
Scott and Virgil arrive just in time. Virgil tunnels into the basement using the Mole, while Scott attempts to prevent the building’s last remaining
wall from crashing in on all of them. Virgil extracts the Duchess from the burning basement – but not before she grabs her umbrella, which contains the
real painting, rolled up safe and sound.
If you’re looking for an action-packed Thunderbirds episode, then sadly ‘The Duchess Assignment’ isn’t it. But if you’re looking for character
development, and seeing sides of Penelope, Parker and Jeff that you hadn’t suspected existed, this episode comes highly recommended.
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