Thunderbirds – 23. The Duchess Assignment

Directed by David Elliott

Teleplay by Martin Crump

First Broadcast – 17th February 1966

If I was to tell you there was a Thunderbirds episode all about an old woman with a gambling addiction who decides to rent out a portrait to a New York businessman, and ends up being kidnapped and trapped under a burning building – you probably wouldn’t believe me. If I was to then tell you that in my opinion, it’s one of the best episodes of the entire series you would probably never listen to anything I said ever again. Well you can do that if you like, because The Duchess Assignment is a real episode of Thunderbirds and it is certainly up there as one of my favourites. In my opinion there is just so much that The Duchess Assignment does right to pull off this unconventional story. It has the right amount of comedy, a great rescue, and just about every aspect of the production is extremely well done.

We’ve got a casino, we’ve got Jeff in a top hat, we’ve got an art gallery, we’ve got automatic booze, we’ve got an elderly lady tied up in a basement, and we’ve got a large fire! What more could you ask for?

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Mike Trim’s painting of the riviera from The Man From MI.5 is used again here to represent Monte Carlo, opening the episode alongside Barry Gray’s  music originally composed for The Perils of Penelope. The title card pops up declaring that this assignment is going to be all about a Duchess.

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FAB 1 is parked up outside a casino. Where has everyone else parked? The other buildings in the shot are recognisable from The Perils of Penelope and 30 Minutes After Noon – the building in the background with the purple curtains is the same one where Southern received his briefing.

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The casino is packed, contributing to the fact that this episode features more puppets than any other in the series. Am I going to identify them all? I’m sure as heck going to try as we come to them. So, starting from the table in the left corner we have the speed merchant from The Impostors, Stevens from Danger At Ocean Deep, and the receptionist from the Grand Hotel that we see in a few minutes time – she is wearing Tin-Tin’s dress from End of the Road. We’ll get a better look at Penelope and Parker’s table soon but sat next to Penelope is the Captain of Ocean Pioneer II from Danger At Ocean Deep and the croupiers are Maguire from Martian Invasion and Morrison from Security Hazard. Standing next to that table with the moustache is Comissioner Garfield from 30 Minutes After Noon. A behind the scenes photograph suggests he is talking to Goldheimer from Martian Invasion. At the back table is Professor Wingrove from Day of Disaster and quite possibly another Lady Penelope puppet!

Also sat at the table in the corner is Hugo from Brink of Disaster. The roulette table is based on a roulette game available from all good toy shops in the 1960’s. Meanwhile Parker is lighting Peneloep’s cigarette, both puppets being held incredibly still to avoid any accidents. Gambling and smoking were certainly much more glamorous past-times in the 60’s than they are today. Penelope is wearing the same outfit she wore to dinner with Lord Silton in Vault of Death.

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Parker’s apparently been using Penelope’s money which she’s totally okay with even though the last time he headed to the casino he lost her yacht. Suddenly, a couple of new people are sat on the end of the table. The reporter at the Parola Sands race from Move – And You’re Dead is now sat down in front of a puppet that appears to be Hugo from Brink of Disaster – the chap just seen sitting at the other table!

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Penelope has placed her bet on twelve red and glances over to another table. More puppets! With their backs to camera are Chandler and Brophy who we’ll see more of in a minute. The croupiers are Banino from The Cham-Cham and Doolan from Brink of Disaster. Also at the table is Lil from Vault of Death and Kyrano’s doctor from Trapped In The Sky. Oh and there’s an elderly woman that we’ll talk about more in a minute. At the table by the window the following puppets are visible: Williams from Cry Wolf, The International Air Minister from Operation Crash-Dive, Lord Silton from Vault of Death, Lovegrove from Vault of Death, and Patterson from Operation Crash-Dive.

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So, this is Deborah, the Duchess of Royston. The story of how this character was brought to life is the stuff of legend. It was originally planned that Christine Finn would provide the voice for this character but when things just weren’t working out neither her nor Sylvia Anderson were able to get the right tone for “the old boiler” as the cast referred to her. Ray Barrett decided that he was the next best thing and started to do an outrageous impersonation of Dame Edith Evans whom the puppet was based on. It’s a remarkable performance and one which kept the rest of the cast in stitches throughout the recording. The Duchess can also be spotted in the background at the Paradise Peaks Hotel in The Cham-Cham as well as on the wall of Cass Carnaby’s dressing room in that episode. She also puts in an appearance at the press conference and the real Swinging Star in Thunderbirds Are Go. Apparently she’s lost 750,000 (pounds presumably)… things certainly aren’t going in her favour.

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Penelope recognises the Duchess and heads over for a chat, leaving Parker to take care of the winnings…

The Duchess is desperate for her rather unlucky lucky number, 17 black, to come up. That’s never going to happen though because the creepy croupier is fixing the table with a simple device hidden beneath.

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The croupier who is otherwise heard being voiced by Matt Zimmerman briefly declares, “Dix-huit rouge. Eighteen red,” with Peter Dyneley’s voice. The Duchess has lost again.

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Watching her downfall across the table are Chandler and Brophy who a certainly a dodgy looking couple of geezers. Brophy appears as Harry Malloy in additional material for Brink of Disaster while Chandler is seen in the make-up chair as Martain Ray in additional material for Martian Invasion. In the background you can spot Lambert from Vault of Death, Professor Holden from The Mighty Atom, the air hostess from later in this episode, and even our dear friend Commander Norman, who has taken a break for crashing planes at London Airport to drown his sorrows and lose some money…

The Duchess takes a ‘desperate measure’ by removing her tiara and placing it on 17 black. She tells Penelope that her only remaining possession is now her Portrait of a Gazelle by the fictional artist, Braquasso – a combination of Braque and Picasso. The crooks take an interest, although there’s something odd about the way Brophy says, “Braquasso, did you hear that?” I previously assumed Braquasso was in fact Chandler’s name…

The roulette wheel spins once again. The tension in the scene is great as the devious croupier fixes the table and Deborah begs for 17 black to win back her fortune.

14 red! The inconsolable Duchess has lost everything! But Penelope is on it immediately. She leaps up and declares that the table is fixed.

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Parker couldn’t care less, absolutely chuffed with his winnings.

The croupier steps on a secret alarm. Behind him you can spot General Lambert from The Impostors.

The casino owner receives the signal and turns out the lights. The lamp on his desk can be seen on Garfield’s desk in 30 Minutes After Noon.

“Not so fast mon ami.” Parker’s grasp of the French language is proven to be a tad limited as he confronts the owner who is raiding the safe preparing to make a getaway. It’s a great confrontation though.

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A gunfight ensues as Parker dives behind a filing cabinet. Shots ricochet around as things get pretty dangerous. A vase is broken. The wires firing the charges in Parker’s gun are quite clearly visible going up his sleeve.

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The casino owner continues to try and take out Parker from behind his desk which was seen last week in Sir Arthur’s office in Danger At Ocean Deep. The owner himself makes a cameo at Paradise Peaks in The Cham-Cham.

With both of them stuck behind the furniture, Parker attempts to dominate situation. He declares, “The game’s up mon ami, and we’ve got witnesses to prove it.” This is such great dialogue. There’s a possibility that Penelope and Parker were already aware of the casino’s fraudulent behaviour prior to this and were there with the intention of bringing the place down – they were just waiting for concrete evidence. The casino owner starts making arrangements for his escape…

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Parker is very nearly persuaded to take a bribe… because Parker can never stay on the straight and narrow for too long… it’s a brilliantly understated character moment.

The distraction gives the owner just enough time to get away and escape a final gun shot. Penelope arrives claiming to have lost the Duchess… you lost an elderly lady in the dark? How quickly could she have possibly gotten away? Presumably Penelope was busy chasing the croupier. That would have been cool to see. This whole opening sequence feels a lot more Bond-esque than anything seen in The Man From MI.5. It’s the epitome of the classic spy adventure with agents taking on the rich and crooked in a glamorous location.

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Outside the casino, the baddies make their getaway in a car also seen used by Malloy in additional material for Brink of Disaster. Is that Tin-Tin sat at the table in the background? The front of the building appears to be the same set used as the front of the Bank of England in Vault of Death repainted and redressed.

The car shoots off away from the city and into the countryside. Penelope has had time to pop her stunning white cloak on as they set off in pursuit.

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With the money stashed in a case, the casino owner reckons he’s gotten away with it!

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FAB 1 sets off. Random words have been stuck on the wall to look like advertisements.

Parker prepares the canon. This really is a thrilling outing for Penelope and Parker. It’s fair to say that this is the point in the series when the writers had a firm grasp on how to use their characters and that Penelope and Parker’s appearances from this episode onward are a lot less hit and miss.

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The casino owner is ready for them. He’s a proper bad guy with a proper bad guy gun. Peter Dyneley is wonderfully menacing. It’s actually the same gun used against Penelope in additional material for Brink of Disaster. There’s a lot of crossover between this episode and the material shot to extend Brink of Disaster because they were filmed at around the same time.

There’s a rather obvious cut between the croupier’s car and FAB 1 driving through this shot as the trees move slightly and more shadows are cast on the road.

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The casino owner opens fire on FAB 1, barely making a scratch of course. “Pathetic isn’t it m’lady?”

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Penelope suggests that Parker tries to blow out the tyres and stop the car. He struggles to hit them. The little plasticine figure of the casino owner looks a bit like Lew Grade… or a Sontaran from Doctor Who

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The country roads are beautifully rendered sets with excellent detailing.

Peter Dyneley and Matt Zimmerman decide to try and out-French each other as the crooks near their destination. “This automobile of their’s is impenetrable!

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They arrive at a secret barn which either has an automatic door or has people waiting inside for their arrival. The barn and house may be the same ones seen at the Williams’ homestead in Cry Wolf shown from different sides.

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And so the chase comes to an end. Not the most dramatic ending perhaps, but we are only at the beginning of the episode after all. Unfortunately the crooks don’t get their comeuppance on screen though. The story keeps on moving as Penelope announces that they need to find the Duchess at the Grand Hotel.

We learn that the Duchess has made a quick getaway. It’s rather strange that the receptionist looks and sounds a lot like Tin-Tin. The desk was just seen in the casino owner’s office and the round, red sofas in the background can be spotted in Grafton’s office in Brink of Disaster and previously in the lounge of Fireball XL5. The bar in the background can be seen in the cocktail lounge at Parola Sands in Move – And You’re Dead. Most of the puppets in the background are not facing camera, although one of them is Jensen from Danger At Ocean Deep.

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Here’s a rather splendid model building making an all too brief cameo.

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It would appear that the Duchess has put Royston Castle up for sale. Apparently you need to call some bloke named Roy if you’re interested… (just kidding, that’s the area code).

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FAB 1 pulls up outside. Penelope has a fabulous new hair do and outfit which can be seen in additional material for Brink of Disaster. The painted backdrop is rather less convincing than the model set, but is still a great work of art for such a short scene. It soon becomes clear to Penelope that the Duchess really has fallen on hard times. But it’s all right because Jeff is coming over for an air display and he has lots of great ideas for helping people out. Let’s keep this story moving!

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Tin-Tin’s rolling out some pastry in the Tracy Island kitchen. She’s using Borwick’s baking powder which you can still get hold of today. Grandma comes in looking for Jeff. She’s got rather a lot of bling on. It turns out Jeff has received a package from Savile Row… fancy!

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Suits you sir! Jeff’s attempts at an English accent are wonderfully amusing, particularly when you consider that Peter Dyneley managed to provide the voices of Commander Norman, Lord Silton, Sir Jeremy Hodge, and Professor Blakely superbly. Note the picture of Thunderbird 2 in the background which hangs in exactly the same place on exactly the same wall seen in Virgil’s bedroom in Terror In New York City.

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We’re at London Airport – the usual terminal building can be spotted in the background. That control tower is a great looking building and I feel certain it pops up in later Supermarionation shows but can’t pinpoint it. Any guesses as to where/if it appears again?

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On the roof of a building, Jeff and Penny are watching the show in their finery. The programmes they are holding crop up in Penelope’s hotel room in The Cham-Cham and on the wall of the garage in the Captain Scarlet episode Manhunt. There’s quite a crowd gathered on the roof including Hugo from Brink of Disaster (again), the Parola Sands commentator from Move – And You’re Dead (also again), possible Olson from The Cham-Cham hiding at the back, Comissioner Garfield from 30 Minutes After Noon (also again!) and The Hood in his mask from The Mighty Atom and costume from Martian Invasion. The control room in the background appears to be the commentary box from Parola Sands seen in Move – And You’re Dead. For some reason Jeff feels the need to put on a British accent… as if they’ll arrest him if they hear even the hint of an American accent… Penelope is in her third costume for the episode so far, wearing the same outfit she wore for launching Ocean Pioneer II last week.

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So here’s what everyone is watching. A very wide, flat aircraft which almost resembles Thunderbird 2. The shape is certainly unusual but the colouring and markings are actually quite realistic. This was one of Mike Trim’s earliest designs for the series, certainly suggesting a shift towards more down to earth, realistic technology. Now this whole air display doesn’t have a lot to do with the rest of the episode and does feel a bit like padding. Aside from introducing Jeff to the story it does nothing to advance the plot. At least we get to look at some cool planes.

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Also in the air is this jet which is made from the fuselage of the F-104 Starfighter kit.

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“I say! Isn’t that a bit close?”

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Also on the roof is Percy and a character generally referred to as Percy’s friend… or his minder if you agree with me. Percy appears to be Lord Silton from Vault of Death while Tidman from The Man From MI.5 is appearing as his minder. They are both wearing uniforms which first appeared in The Impostors.

It soon becomes apparent that the smaller aircraft is going to land on top of the bigger one which is a kind of carrier. Somebody has a particularly good set of binoculars which can zoom straight in on the front wheel being clamped into position. The smaller craft begins to power down her jets.

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Percy is very thrilled by the whole spectacle.

Then the pilot ejects which we again see through some seriously good binoculars which also happen to be at the same altitude as the planes. The pilot plummets to the ground using footage also seen in Trapped In The Sky of Bob Meddings’ failed rescue attempt.

As the pilot’s parachute opens for a graceful landing in a tree, Jeff and Penelope watch as the carrier craft descends over the airfield, suddenly gaining a view from ground level through their binoculars.

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A view of this strange aircraft from above really gives you a better idea of what it looks like. The three large turbines suggest some serious VTOL capabilities. The colours and paneling have a certain Zero-X vibe to them. Despite its remarkable design and capabilities, this carrier aircraft does not appear again in the series, only in a famous publicity still with Stingray for TV Century 21.

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Percy’s minder concludes that International Rescue could provide an even more spectacular display.

For some mad reason, Jeff and Penelope feel the need to conceal their faces even though nobody is suggesting that they have any connection with International Rescue. Way to look inconspicuous Penny – by putting up a black umbrella in the middle of a dry and sunny day… I’m sure nobody will think you’re up to something… A camera man has appeared in the control room behind Penelope – he appears to be Lovegrove from Vault of Death but wearing his costume from the cocktail lounge in Move – And You’re Dead.

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Using the same set of gates seen in the front of Royston Castle, we’re shown an art gallery which is another beautiful model building with a tiny amount of screen time.

Adorning the walls of this Exhibition of 20th Century Art are the works of art department assistant, Keith Wilson, including Virgil’s portrait of Alan from Move – And You’re Dead. Patterson from Operation Crash-Dive and one of the Scottish onlookers from Danger At Ocean Deep can be spotted in these establishing shots.

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Overseeing the exhibition is Maguire from Martian Invasion, back in his police uniform from Edge of Impact, apparently having lost his croupier job from earlier in the episode. Costume number 4 for Penelope is a sight to behold, and formed the basis of the Lady Penelope Play Suit made by Dekker Toys in 1965.

Penelope and Jeff explore the gallery. In order to avoid any shots of them walking around, David Elliott has taken the shot from their P.O.V. Penny tells the story of the Duchess’ plight, revealing that to try and get back a bit of dosh, Deborah’s given her precious portrait to this exhibition, which is why we’re all here in case you were wondering. ‘Portrait of a Gazelle’ by Braquasso is revealed. It’s a rather striking painting echoing a Salvador Dali sort of style. I sincerely hope that someone still has this somewhere and that it didn’t just get chucked in a skip – I want it in my office some day… seriously.

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While Jeff takes a bit of time to have a bright idea, we watch Lil from Vault of Death and the Scottish Onlooker from Danger At Ocean Deep in a daft wig looking like a hippy stereotype walking away. They were standing behind Jeff and Penny just now but have suddenly moved in front.

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In a similar fashion Jeff and Penelope have transported back to the other side of the room. Jeff has a plan to save the Duchess! He’s off to New York! This story keeps on moving!

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A generic stock shot of Manhattan is played. You might be tempted to say that you can see the Empire State Building from this shot and therefore this episode takes place before Terror In New York City… and you’d be completely and utterly wrong. This stock footage was shot from underneath the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn bridge looking at the southern tip of Manhattan Island… the Empire State Building is in the other direction entirely and cannot be seen in this shot. The tallest building in this shot which everyone thinks is the Empire State Building is in fact 70 Pine Street – originally known as the Cities Service Building.

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Jeff arrives at Gazelle Automations Inc. The elevator indicator above his head was last seen in 30 Minutes After Noon. In the foreground, Fireflash’s Captain Hanson is driving away in the car just seen being used as the casino owner’s getaway vehicle. Also sitting in the lobby is Professor Wingrove from Day of Disaster.

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Jeff has an awfully stilted conversation with the computerised elevator – David Graham putting on a touch of his Dalek voice perhaps…

As a particularly uncomfortable seat pops out of the wall, Jeff has a funny turn and flips his entire face over when he walks over to sit down. The shot has been flipped in post-production in order to make Jeff walk in the right direction to his seat.

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Jeff becomes startled by the politeness of the elevator.

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Jeff finally pops out of the elevator looking awfully mischievous as if he’s done something in there that he shouldn’t have… The white sofas were in Sir Arthur’s office in Danger At Ocean Deep last week, as was the table, the yellow ashtray and possibly even the carpet.

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This is Wilbur Dandridge III… he’s a bit into gazelles. One assumes his company specialises in manufacturing automated things. I’m guessing Dandridge’s true ambition is to build a robot gazelle because he really does like them… a lot. Most blokes are into cars, or sports, or movies… but apparently gazelles are what do it for Mr Dandridge… Anyway, one assumes that Jeff and Dandridge are old friends. Dandridge is played by the same puppet as Warren Grafton from Brink of Disaster.

Dandridge starts the meeting by showing off a few toys. Jeff’s a classy fella’ and likes his meetings to be boozey and faggy, so Dandridge complies by demonstrating his automatic fag and booze dispensers. Needless to say this does date the show quite a bit. Unfortunately, the automatic blinds aren’t quite so efficient and collapse halfway down… that’ll come in handy later.

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Jeff introduces Dandridge to a reproduction of ‘Portrait of a Gazelle’ which of course our gazelle-loving friend is absolutely smitten with. One thing that does puzzle me is how on earth Dandridge has never heard about or seen this painting before. Jeff teases his friend, adding that the Duchess may not want to sell. Suddenly Dandridge goes all sinister and you wonder for a moment whether he’ll actually go to the ultimate level to get this ruddy painting…

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But no! Instead Dandridge has flown all the way to England to visit Lady Penelope and the Duchess of Royston! He hasn’t even had time to change his suit. Penelope is now looking after the painting… and possibly putting up the Duchess but it’s not quite covered.

Penelope declares that it’s tea time, but Dandridge only wants to talk cash. He tries to spook the Duchess by ominously droning, “Four Hundred and Seventy Five Thousand…” This guy’s good at negotiation… The Duchess refuses to sell though.

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Parker arrives with the tea and sandwiches. What could possibly go wrong?

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The Duchess “accidentally” calls Dandridge, Mr Dandruff… the gag is surprisingly underplayed considering how much fun Ray Barrett is having with the character.

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Parker presents the Duchess with cucumber sandwiches, proudly bearing them as if he went out and hunted the cucumbers himself.

Dandridge ups his figure to £600,000. The Duchess declines.

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Parker has an attack of… something… and decides to plough his hand straight through the sandwiches. I guess it’s supposed to look like he almost drops the plate in sheer shock, and saves it by putting his hand in the sandwiches… but it doesn’t really look like that.

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Because Penelope is ruddy clever, and in her fifth outfit of the episode by the way, she comes up with a solution to keep them both happy. She declares that the picture should be rented to Mr Dandridge for 6 months at a time. Wonderful! That means he can make it the symbol of the whole Gazelle organisation… for 6 months. Not quite what he had in mind originally but apparently he’s happy with the compromise and so is her grace.

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We’re back at London Airport, this time gazing at the familiar sight of the Fireflash. It’s been doing much better lately… probably because Commander Norman’s been away…

The departure lounge set is almost identical to the one seen in Trapped In The Sky. The pillars dividing the room are the same pattern but a different shape – they’re actually the same pillars that were just seen in the lobby at Gazelle Automations. The pattern can also been spotted on the wallpaper in Creighton-Ward Manor. The souvenir stall full of tat is still there with the photographic backdrop which previously appeared in the Supercar episode,  Phantom Piper. Puppets in the scene include the stewardess from Trapped In The Sky as… well, a different stewardess here in the exact same uniform but a different wig. Also visible is Lambert from Vault of Death, the fur hat and coat of the bad driver from City of Fire, Captain Hanson who presumably isn’t flying the Fireflash today, the International Air Minister from Operation Crash-Dive who has had a fall from grace and is now manning the souvenir stall, Bob Williams from Cry Wolf, Victor Gomez from Move – And You’re Dead, one of Grafton’s unnamed associates from Brink of Disaster, and that boring news reporter from Danger At Ocean Deep.

Penelope offers the Duchess a St. Christopher for good luck. Penny is now in her sixth outfit of the episode, the coat and head scarf also seen in Vault of Death. The Duchess is heading off to New York to take the painting to Mr Dandridge in person… because apparently she can afford to fork out for a supersonic flight across the Atlantic. She apologies for being a bit eccentric… you’d don’t know the half of it Deborah…

As she gets ready to leave, the Duchess waves her stick in the air to remind us all how important it is to the plot later. She yells, “Fare thee well dear!” I’m sure Penny is thrilled to be shot of her. With a bit of stock footage from Trapped In The Sky, Fireflash is soon up in the air, with Captain Hanson having made a quick dash from the departure lounge to the cockpit…

Joining the Duchess for her flight are the Parola Sands commentator from Move – And You’re Dead, Craddock from Day of Disaster, Eddie Kerr who has stolen Mr Dandridge’s suit, a lady who appears to actually be Tin-Tin, and General Lambert from The Impostors. The Fireflash has had its bar stools updated since its last appearance in The Man From MI.5… if you’re interested.

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The Duchess puts on her brooch which is a particularly extravagant depiction of St. Christopher, the patron saint of travellers.

In a very cunning plan, however, Penelope is using it as a tracking device to keep an eye on the Duchess… even though she should have no reason to suspect anything will actually happen to her… but you never know, she might wander off.

Dandridge’s driver, Hendricks, is getting ready to meet the Duchess at the airport with a cheque. Dandridge himself is enjoying some lunch which arrives through his hatch of many things. It would appear that the standard convertible car set which has been used countless times throughout the series (last seen as Bondson’s car in The Man From MI.5) has finally been given a break here – this puppet sized car appears to be new. Suddenly, Hendricks is whacked from behind! Incidentally, his puppet is later seen as the co-pilot of the RTL2 in The Cham-Cham.

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Chandler and Brophy have put on their shiniest overcoats, the same coats worn by the crooks chasing Penelope in Brink of Disaster. Their plan is for Brophy to put on the chauffeur’s uniform and take his car to trick the Duchess… I mean she probably would have gotten in any car with a chauffeur in any uniform… but I suppose it’s all about the detail.

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Another Fireflash flight successfully completed without incident… unless you include the Duchess having one G&T too many and getting a bit friendly with the co-pilot…

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She gives this poor customs officer a hard time, even though with an absurd uniform like that one would assume he knows what he’s doing.

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Brophy gets straight into character and greets the Duchess. She immediately assumes he’s Dandridge’s chauffeur so all the effort they went to knicking the real uniform to try and convince her was for nothing. In the background you can once again spot Grafton’s unnamed associate from Brink of Disaster, Professor Holden from The Mighty Atom, and Hale from The Impostors having what appears to be a smooch with a lady who then disappears out of shot.

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The Duchess hints at an ‘arrangement’ – meaning the money. There’s a man slumped against the wall in the background who doesn’t look too good…

Back at Creighton-Ward Manor, Penelope has changed again, this time swapping out the bottom half of her outfit from earlier for some white trousers. She’s continuing to keep an eye on the Duchess.The fairly blank map shows her heading down Route 66 away from the New York Airport… even though Route 66 is in a completely different part of the United States and doesn’t go anywhere near New York. Parker remarks that she’s already being driven away from the city… but I doubt she’s been driven to Chicago where Route 66 starts…

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The Duchess probably knows Las Vegas like the back of her hand, but when it comes to navigating New York she’s at a complete loss. They’re certainly not in Central Park. Brophy claims they’re heading for Mr Dandridge’s country house… where he keeps his gazelle farm…

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As Penelope really starts to suspect things are up, the car arrives at a beaten up, though fairly large, abandoned house. This is Chandler and Brophy’s pad for doing nasty things to people. The Duchess doesn’t sound too impressed…

Penelope is consulting Dandridge about the missing Duchess. She immediately reckons that Deborah must have been kidnapped! Now as much as that is true, it’s not necessarily the first conclusion I’d reach concerning the whereabouts of an eccentric elderly woman with no money and a gambling problem… It does somewhat puzzle me why Penny felt the need to track her in the first place. It certainly came in handy, but under normal circumstances it is a tad extreme. Dandridge is shocked… and then the picture cuts out. Lady P immediately turns to Parker, and without meaning too has something of an accusatory tone to her voice. But Parker hasn’t been “pruning the roses” again, in fact we never actually learn for certain why the call ended so abruptly. One is probably supposed to infer that Chandler was monitoring the call and it cut off before any action was taken… instead making the whole thing seem really suspicious. We can’t say that for certain though, because the incident is never referenced again.

Penelope contacts International Rescue HQ and Thunderbirds 1 and 2 are immediately sent on their way. Presumably Virgil just has to load the pod with whatever he fancies because they have no idea what situation she might be in… they don’t even know for definite that she’s been kidnapped, although Penny’s pretty convinced. John’s going to be given the task of getting an exact fix on the Duchess, which is exactly the sort of job he should be given normally but isn’t.

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Alan and Tin-Tin watch the launch of Thunderbirds 1 and 2.

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John’s ruddy concerned about the Duchess. This is in fact the only time in the entire series that we see his angry face. He must really be a fan of her grace. Either that or he’s still grumpy about his father dismissing his one and only rescue effort last week. He announces that the Duchess is located at map reference “alpha, zeta 9 – beta, beta 4.” John speaks as if he knows the spot well when he remarks on the loneliness of the location. I suppose if anyone is an expert on isolation it’s John Tracy…

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Somehow Brophy has convinced the Duchess to go down to the basement, sit on a chair and allow herself to be tied to it. There may well have been a gun involved, but it’s a shame we never get to see her learn of the fact that she’s been kidnapped. Brophy reveals that the painting has already been stolen way back at the airport… which surely the Duchess would have suspected seeing as she didn’t bring it in the car with her… The cellar is filling up with gas so she’s advised to not “go around striking matches.” I’m sure everything will be just fine. What possible harm could a lady sitting on her own without the use of her hands or feet do to cause a gas explosion?

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Brophy abandons the Duchess, leaving her with a couple of large rats which are actually real live mice… a taster for what’s to come next week…

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This set has been beautifully dirtied down. The Duchess is left on her own. What’s going to happen to her? Find out after the commerical break…

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Thunderbird 1 is on its way flying from right to left on screen – even though from Tracy Island it would probably be flying to New York from left to right. It’s a pretty shot though with the wings lit up.

Scott and John are hopeful that the Duchess is still wearing her brooch and aren’t being taken on a wild goose chase. John has cheered up a bit.

The Duchess decides she’s had enough. In an attempt to break her bonds, she shuffles over to a ladder on the wall. For some reason she reckons leaning against it will set her free… not spotting the fact that the ladder is leaning against a gas pipe which is dangerously close to an exposed circuit. The whole sequence is set to the same music as Fireflash’s epic landing from Trapped In The Sky… although it doesn’t quite have the same visual impact as that famous scene. Of course the ladder causes the circuit board to go bang and trigger a gas explosion.

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Rubble falls from the ceiling, so it looks as if any damage that has been done is upstairs. Silly Deborah.

Scott overflies a smaller model of the house which suddenly shoots out enormous jets of fire with a fantastic explosion. Needless to say, Scott is caught a bit off guard…

Things are kicking off in the basement although it’s amazing there isn’t more damage considering that above ground the entire interior of the house is engulfed in fire, almost as if it’s just an empty shell.

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All Scott can do is touch down and hope the Duchess lasts out… rather than doing the brave and heroic thing of running straight into the burning building to rescue the damsel in distress.

Dandridge is doing the puppet equivalent of shaving (waving an electric razor vaguely near his face). He receives news that the painting is about to arrive, which he immediately suspects is a trick. Ready for action, Dandridge has his secretary, Ms. Godolphin, call the police as he lowers his troublesome blinds. Chandler steps in from the elevator carrying that big package the Duchess brought with her to the airport. He claims to represent the Duchess of Royston rather than pretending to be her like Brophy managed to pretend to be Dandridge’s chauffeur… that would have been a sight to see.

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The ‘Portrait of a Gazelle’ pokes out of the packaging.

Though very impressed with the picture, Dandridge doesn’t let his guard down for a moment. Ms. Godolphin sends in the “payment” which contains a very big gun. The range of gun props used in the series is rather wide – one would have thought every character would use the same prop but there’s actually quite a variety for some reason.

Quick as a flash, those darn blinds fall down, causing Dandridge to completely miss the shot just as Chandler chucks the painting. The worst has happened; the painting around which the entire plot of this episode revolves has been ruined by a bullet forcefully removing the gazelle’s face. Dandridge isn’t happy. The Duchess probably won’t be thrilled either. We don’t know what happens to Chandler after this point. We hear later that Brophy gets caught but as for his associate, it’s a mystery.

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It looks as though the house has very neatly blown its top without creating too much of a mess. The enormous flames and roaring sound effects to go with them are very impressive.

Rather than attempting to do something useful straight away, Scott decides to be a bit sensible and check exactly where the Duchess is. He watches as the building goes up in yet another colossal explosion which surely would have killed the Duchess instantly, if not at least deafened her considerably.

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Thunderbird 2 arrives just in time to kick off the action.

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Scott’s popped out for a walk with his radio which he also utilised in Danger At Ocean Deep last week, as well as 30 Minutes After Noon although that was a slightly different prop.

Almost the entire house has been devastated by the explosion except for one wall which Scott plans to hold up with ‘the restraining outfit’ while Virgil grabs the Duchess using the Mole. Let’s hope Virgil brought all that with him during his hasty and completely unplanned departure from Tracy Island. Down in the basement, the Duchess is basically doing fine despite the horrendous fire raging above and around her. Unfortunately the unstable ceiling dumps a beam on her head and knocks her out. Striving for realism, blood has been painted on her forehead. Things are looking pretty bleak for our favourite elderly aristocrat.

Pod 3 is revealed without a moment to lose and The Mole waiting at the door. Unfortunately, nobody has bothered to switch over the sign on the pod interior since The Man From MI.5 as it still says ‘Pod 4’.

The Mole is going into action for the third and final time in the series, making it the most used pod vehicle aside from Thunderbird 4. Virgil is at the controls which haven’t changed much since the set’s brief appearance in City of Fire, using parts of Scott’s mobile control centre for the most part.

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Scott is getting ready to roll out his pod vehicle which has the remainder of the controls for The Mole at the back of the set. That console and the walls and floor of the set appeared in the control room of the Excavator from Martian Invasion. However, the control panel to Scott’s right, his chair, and his main control levers are different from that set. The control levers appeared in the Explosives Tractor in End of the Road.

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The vehicle rolls out of the pod. It is only referred to on screen as ‘the restraining outfit’, but fans refer to it as the D.O.M.O. It is based on the same model as the Excavator in Martain Invasion with some modifications. The side panels have been removed as well as the jets from the back and the cutting machine from the front.

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Scott drives up to the remaining wall and attaches the three unusual clamp devices to it. For some reason Scott decides to then keep ploughing into the wall on full power, helping it on the way to collapse which will destroy the foundations of the house and kill the Duchess… maybe you should try putting her in reverse Scott…

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We can’t be certain how the clamps stay attached under the intense heat, but they certainly struggle a bit. It’s an awesome looking machine though and one of the more memorable ‘one hit wonder’ pod vehicles from the series.

Miraculously, the Duchess manages to wake up despite the room presumably being completely filled with smoke by this point and rubble continuing to fall from the ceiling. Virgil gets in contact with Scott, claiming to be struggling to get through the rock. It’s a shame that the Mole couldn’t be shown in action but filming underground isn’t terribly easy.

The music gets very dramatic as Scott furiously struggles to keep the wall upright, this time being smart and reversing the vehicle rather than sailing forward.

Much to the Duchess’ confusion, the Mole breaks through the wall. The entire room is completely ablaze with very few safe exit routes. The puppeteers must have successfully avoided setting fire to the Duchess as she manages to make her cameos in The Cham-Cham and Thunderbirds Are Go unscathed. Inexplicably, Virgil manages to enter the room through the door… even though the main body of the Mole isn’t even shown protruding out of the soil… how on earth did he get out? And how on earth did he get to the door? Nevertheless, standing in the blaze, this is Virgil looking his most heroic.

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The Duchess isn’t hanging around, but first grabs her mysterious stick which is apparently just that important…

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The clamps of the D.O.M.O appear to be melting and leaving a sticky gloop on the wall.

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Virgil promptly sticks the Mole in reverse as some thick, black oil dribbles down the wall magnificently. Again, how Virgil and the Duchess got into the machine is a mystery.

Scott finally loses his grip and slowly but surely the wall tips over and crashes into the burning mess on the ground.

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Scott backs out, anxiously keeping his eyes on the Mole’s tunnel entrance. Did they make it out alive?

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The basement ceiling gives up entirely and flaming rock and debris pours down to wear the Duchess and Virgil were…

Scott contacts base, unsure whether the Mole made a successful escape. Jeff and Alan pick this moment to reflect on the efficiency of their non-existent rescue plan. Tin-Tin tells them to quit moaning.

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Not to worry everyone! Triumphant and caked in mud, the Mole emerges in a cloud of dirt. This rescue has to be one of the best in the series. Despite being completely unprepared for it, Scott and Virgil alone put two great pod vehicles into action and fought against enormous flames, incredible heat, unstable ground, and unforgiving rock to save a life with only a few seconds to spare.

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The Duchess is recovering from her ordeal in hospital, reading ‘landscape’ magazine. Penelope has popped in to visit, wearing her eighth outfit, which this time has been borrowed from The Perils of Penelope and The Impostors. Deborah is feeling on top of the world despite having lungs full of smoke. Bouncing back from her bad luck, she reveals that the FBI have caught Brophy, with no mention of Chandler, Interpol have arrested the casino owner, and she’s going to get back all of her money! Penelope is, however, unable to reveal what appears to have happened to the painting…

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Dandridge arrives. Spot the ‘Auto-Nurse’ on the wall which also appeared in the Tracy Island sickbay in City of Fire. Dandridge reveals that he accidentally destroyed the painting. The Duchess is suitably shocked…

That is until she reveals what she’s had up her sleeve… or umbrella rather… the entire time. Penelope unveils the original painting which the Duchess has kept by her side since leaving London Airport. It certainly is ruddy clever. How she arranged for such a convincing decoy copy to be made is a mystery. And one can only assume that she must have been feeling pretty down on her luck if she actually had a plan in case she got kidnapped! Most people don’t make business trips with that in mind! Anyway, it looks as though the renting of the painting to Mr Dandridge will be able to go ahead as planned.

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Then Parker arrives with a bid of £35,000 for the Duchess’ life story from a magazine. She refuses to take nothing less than £50,000… she must have quite a few stories to tell for that amount of money! It also becomes apparent that the Duchess has been betting on a horse… named after the Thunderbirds episode Desperate Intruder… it’s a bit bizarre to say the least. It’s not a bad name for a horse though. The Mighty Atom or Terror In New York City are also rather striking names for horses. A horse named Operation Crash-Dive or Move – And You’re Dead might not get quite so many bets though…

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The Duchess requests that once she is better, and with her luck clearly taking a turn, there’s a special trip she wants to make…

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Okay, this woman clearly has a problem. She’s shaking for goodness sake. All the guests at the casino seem to be supporting the Duchess on her continuing path to self destruction. Puppets visible at her table include the air hostess from earlier in the episode, Craddock from Day of Disaster, Colonel Harris from Sun Probe, General Lambert from The Impostors, Dandridge’s chauffeur Hendricks from earlier in the episode, and the two croupiers from Penelope’s table at the beginning of the episode. Also seated with her back to camera appears to be Tin-Tin wearing Penelope’s pink outfit from The Man From MI.5. Seated at the back table you can spot Lil and Lambert from Vault of Death, Joe Carter from City of Fire, Williams from Cry Wolf, and the doctor from Trapped In The Sky. The episode ends how it began which ties the whole thing up rather nicely in my opinion.

The Duchess Assignment is an incredible piece of work. Focussing on a single, elderly member of the aristocracy may seem like a bizarre idea for a Thunderbirds episode but the story is so well told and fast moving that it fits remarkably well. Lady Penelope has a strong role in the episode, particularly in the opening sequence which sees her take on the bad guys in an exciting chase that actually relates to the rest of the story (unlike the car chase in Brink of Disaster). The International Rescue team may be less prominent in the events leading up to the Duchess’ kidnapping, but once they kick into action, Scott and Virgil’s rescue efforts are a highlight of the episode, delivering great action and heroism. The episode is almost split in half, the first part delivering a tight plot, which throws us from Monte Carlo, to England, to New York, then back to England, and then back to New York. For all this to be achieved coherently in the first half hour of a show is incredible. The disaster and rescue portion of the episode then play out like any of the classic rescues from the series full of struggles, tension and some spectacular special effects.

The design of the episode is another highlight, delivering full and rich sets, costumes, and props. The work of the puppet department and their direction also have to be praised for handling an enormous number of crowd scenes. So many scenes are packed full of puppets, creatively reusing the repertoire of guest characters again and again to fill the background, and unless you’re looking really hard you wouldn’t notice a lot of the puppets being reused multiple times in the episode.

Overall, the ambition of the episode is what makes it stand out as one of the greats for me. The script takes us all over the world, delivers hilarious comedy as well as great drama, and moves at a fantastic pace. The voice cast are clearly having a blast, and the entire AP Films crew must have been busting a gut throughout the production to get this episode looking as great as it does. Is The Duchess Assignment a contender for being the greatest episode ever? Right now it’s certainly in my top 3…

Next week, an isolated swamp and a scientific discovery in the wrong hands makes for some horrific consequences, and one of the most well-remembered disasters in the history of Thunderbirds. The alligators are attacking, and only International Rescue can stop them… stay tuned for Attack of the Alligators!

2 thoughts on “Thunderbirds – 23. The Duchess Assignment

  1. Ian Luck

    In the picture of Jeff at the airshow, covering his face, you can see The Hood, in one of his disguises, walking towards him. I can imagine that airshows are irresistible to a crook whose speciality seems to be industrial espionage (with a touch of utter bastardry thrown in for good measure).

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  2. bbbeyer

    The Restraining Outfit, along with pretty much all the other 4-axle tracked pod vehicles, was based on the chasis of a commercially available 1/16 scale model kit of the Vickers Vigor tractor.

    Note how the number “3” on the pod door is a completely different font to that seen in other episodes…

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