Saturday, 1 October 2016
The Avengers: The House that Jack Built
There is a very real sense in which the key concern of this episode is one of the major ones of so much 1960s TV: the fear of the machine, and in fact the absorption of Mrs Peel into the machine is the highest embodiment of this fear. Mrs Peel's opposition to automation to the utmost degree, is here placed in contrast with the former Professor Keller's plan to use the machine to absorb her and ultimately kill her.
This direct confrontation between the worlds of humanity and automation is emphasised in true Avengers fashion by the use of the visual language used throughout the last three series of The Avengers and so I intend to go through the show and examine the meaning of what we see in detail.
The episode begins with an image and sound suggestive of conflict, with an alarm which would have indicated an air raid to anyone aged over about twenty-five-ish at the time this episode was made. The chase and dogs already indicate that somebody or something is being hunted, and the uniform of the pursuer indicates that the man who is being hunted is a fugitive from justice, the system, or at any rate some authority figure. This is not the world of secret espionage here. The hounds used in the chase are suggestive of fox hunting, particularly as the land the chase goes through is countryside. As usual The Avengers places the situation visually in the Avengersland world of England, a world it is about to turn on its head by the simple insertion of a diabolical mastermind.
The pursued man manages to escape his pursuers with a gun and cartridges, symbolic of taking their authority and power with him. I think the clothes he is wearing are intended to be prison clothes, indicating that the kindly state has already punished him for some infringement of the law, and placing him firmly in the camp of the baddie from the start. It is ironic that his escape from his captors is achieved by climbing over a high wall, indicative of enclosure again, into a country house, where the stone lions which 'guard' the entrance and the taxidermy owls and mounted butterflies in the room he breaks into, are in stark contrast to the live lion which attacks him. Thevisual language of the country house indicates the reliability of Our Sort of Person, the animals indicate the traditional pursuit of hunting, fishing and shooting, which is yet placed in contrast with the prison warders' pursuit of the man, and the dust on the chair indicates neglect and abandonment. This episode therefore starts by setting the episode in the sort of solid world the eccentrics of Avengersland inhabit, and yet confusing the world completely.
Another immediate contrast is provided by Mrs Peel's entry into the comparative safety of Steed's flat. The idea of technology is introduced at once by the fact that Steed is developing holiday pictures in an improvised dark room. Perhaps it is superfluous to comment at this point that there is a further irony that these technology-based 1960s shows don't wear that well because the technology of the time looks incredibly dated and cumbersome to us now. Only the aficionados of film would go to all that trouble for their holiday pictures nowadays, and the big drawback of the house is that well before its projected millenium-long lifespan, it would have needed to be rewired. Anyone living in a house with the rubber-insulated wiring of the time could tell you that it would have burned down well before a thousand years was up! I have also read that for Mrs Peel's key to do what it does, it would have had to be radioactive, but I'm no great scientist myself.
Concerned at the imprint of the key on his photographic paper, Steed rings the solicitor, and of course visually the view of the elderly man in the panelled room, melting sealing was with a candle, speels the quintessence of secure, solid tradition. Of course the scenery Mrs Peel drives through to get to the house is classic Avengersland, which in the visual language of the show is intended to make a similar impression to that made by the solicitor. An eccentric aspect is introduced by the grown man dressed as a boy scout. I think at the time this would have indicated something different to the dodgy sexual connotation that it would tend to have today. At any rate, we don't know that he is Steed's man at this point, but the scout uniform suggests a kindly authority figure, albeit one to whom Mrs Peel takes an instant dislike. That he is on Mrs Peel's side is very well hidden by his behaviour in the car: his expression and behaviour indicate a completely ambivalent figure.
The fact that the place signs change as Mrs Peel drives past are a major visual indicator that the real subject of this episode is technology, rather than a mere confrontation between the establishment and a diabolical mastermind. Instead of the impression of neglect given by the house to the excaped convict, because Mrs Peel has the key she is granted admission to the 'reception' areas of the house, giving a far grander impression. Again, the visual impression is one of rather dated opulence, possibly old money (as old as the nineteenth century, anyway).
From here on, the whole visual point is that we have been set up to expect the gentility of an old family, and just as in so many other episodes where the gentry have deteriorated so far as to go over to the other side, in this one the house is itself the genteel setting for the hatred and corruption of Dr Kelling's obsession with technology and hatred for Mrs Peel. Around fifteen minutes in, Mrs Peel leaves the genteel world of old England and enters the machine, to be trapped for most of the rest of the episode.
Steed is the only person concerned for her in the outside world, and the fact that he remains outside of the machine in Avengersland, turns on its head the setting of pursuit that we saw at the beginning of the episode. The outside world can be jailor is you are a criminal, but it can also be the saviour if you are trapped in the machine. There is also an irony that the prisoner would have been safer to stay outside and give himself up to his pursuers, since his entry to the machine ultimately causes his death.
There are just a few things about the house and Mrs Peel's working out of its secret. It is the fact that she keeps one foot in the outside world of reality which enables her to work out the machine's secret. Personally I find this a weakness in this one, in contrast say, to Joker, where I think no real clue is given at all. Once Mrs Peel has worked out, about half way through, that the illusion is worked by machinery, the cast is out of the bag once and for all. Of course we see the contrast of Steed breaking through the literal barriers set up for him by the machine, in stark contrast to the welcome given by the machine to Mrs Peel. I also don't find the real control room very satisfying, since it is necessary that Mrs Peel discovers it relatively easily, rather than just sitting down and going off her head. The putative control box thingy in the psychedelic trap scene is much more effective and is echoed later in the decade by the effect of the lava lamp in The Prisoner. That would have spoken much better to the fear of technology of the time: as I find myself commenting here repeatedly, the more 'intelligent' computers get, we lose our fear of them because we know that they can't actually keep up with us. The final point of this episode is of course that Professor Keller has quite literally given Mrs Peel the 'key' to destroy his machine, albeit with the lucky chance of the convict intruding into the machine.
On the whole, it feels terribly mean to be criticising this Avengers for any visual effects, when on the whole it is superb. I find it interesting that the actual colours of the set were blue and gold, presumably to look better in black and white, because the appearance of Mrs Peel and the set is superb. Hand-held camera angles are used extensively to indicate confusion. Apart from my one criticism (although objectively it doesn't take up as much of the episode as I would have thought) that too much time is spent with Mrs Peel running through the mechanical maze, the episode moves at exactly the right pace to maintain the suspense perfectly.
Mrs Peel returns to the secure world of Blighty and cycles off with Steed into the scenery of Avengersland. My conclusion on this Avengers episode is that while it has tended to be one that I have let play in the background, it benefits greatly from more attentive viewing.
Image source: Production still from the Optimum DVD box set.