Friday, January 12, 2007

 

The Avengers – The House That Jack Built

Did you celebrate The Avengers’ birthday week by watching it last night? No? Luckily, the same episode’s on again on BBC4 at 11.30, and it’s as good as they get. Normally I’d recommend this series for the dialogue between the leads as they swan about having fun, but this is different: Mrs Peel is alone; it’s more tense psychological drama than amusingly witty; but what’s really outstanding is the visual style. Brilliantly filmed, designed in sharp mod monochrome, Emma trapped in a psychedelic maze like an evil TARDIS may make it just about the most ’60s-looking of all ’60s television.
Steed takes a wrong turning – Emma holds the key to all
Tune in tonight to see it start with a murderer’s escape from prison – topical, I know, but as it’s fantasy, warders spot him immediately and give chase – and find out just why he ends up wishing he hadn’t eluded his pursuers… I first saw this repeated in around about 1985, and I was completely hooked. I’ll tune in again later, refresh my memory and write more of a review in a few days (and yes, I know that’s really cheating, but it’s so much fun I want to watch it properly. And besides, typing is more than usually awkward at just this moment, as I quite literally have a pain in the neck). In the meantime, you’ll find perhaps the ultimate example of that favourite Avengers juxtaposition of the antique and the ultra-modern within The House That Jack Built. It’s hugely atmospheric, looks terrific, and is as close to a miniature movie as TV ever makes. “You will be quite – quite – mad!” Enjoy.

This House has Finished Construction!

Prompted by Millennium on Friday 9th February, this review was updated in stages, but was eventually finished in slightly less time than it takes to build most houses…

There’s a sub-genre of Avengers tales with this sort of theme, isolating one of the leads in psychological drama rather than pairing them to amuse us. It’s an idea that seemed a particular favourite of one of the show’s principal creative forces, writer / producer Brian Clemens. They’re not to everyone’s taste; if you’re expecting your futuristic adventure show to supply light, witty eccentricity and instead get something grim and oppressive, you might recoil – yes, young Torchwood, you may very well look shifty at the back there – but while these would be trying every week, their rarity makes their bitterness palatable. It’s a good job, or they’d rapidly become repetitive (Don’t Look Behind You and the rather gorgeous The Joker are all but identical, and both share with this that the female lead is lured to a spooky old house, in which a strange young man is not the real danger to her), but there’s something about putting our heroes to the test once in a while that means the best of them are simply the best of the series for me. I’d put this story up with Pandora and Dead Men Are Dangerous as my very favourite Avengers, and it’s thanks to a superb script, a striking atmosphere and, particularly, an already strong character who wins out against all that’s thrown at them.

Mrs Peel is left a house by her Uncle Jack, and drives off to take a look at it. Well before she reaches it, however, there are signs that not all is as it seems. Automated cameras (more obviously sinister in 1966, as not yet ubiquitous) watch her progress through some lovely driving in the countryside, while Steed finds that the key she’s been sent has strange properties – ruining his photos, stopping his clock, and for her jamming the car radio – and a call to her old lawyer swiftly makes it clear that whoever’s this legacy may be, it isn’t her Uncle’s. You automatically assume that, as in other episodes of this type, her enemy is very much alive, but the script plays rather subtly with different types of legacy.

One of the most disturbing scenes is when, penetrating deeper into the House, she finds “an exhibition dedicated to the late Emma Peel” from her birth to death, narrated by a ghastly glowing death-mask. It turns on how she inherited her father’s company at 21, yet her life story as presented here springs from financial reports of “the amazing Emma Knight” taking control of Knight Industries straight to her obituary – perhaps Mr Clemens knew he was saving up any specific details of her late husband to give himself a free hand for a future episode, but it emphasises both her isolation and the suggestion that she had it easy because of her wealthy family. The embittered villain, then, ‘bequeaths’ her a lonely death in madness, with none of the advantages (or love) that he sneers at her for. And yet, of course, her crime is that rather than just resting on her father’s decisions and retaining his automation expert, she made up her own mind and sacked him, part of her making the company a bigger success than ever (besides, the rest of the series implies she get bored running a big industry and made a name for herself writing on applied sciences instead, then in helping out Steed). Though the House is meant to demonstrate that she’s not superior on her own, in fact it proves the opposite, bringing to the fore not just her past accomplishments but her central strength. With nothing to fall back on but her intelligence and determination, she still wins through. When Cornelltoppingday’s The Avengers Dossier calls it “rather horrible in the drooling department,” that surely misses the point. Emma barely loses her cool here, and never her dignity. The loveliest scene is at the end, as Steed arrives to escort her out in a beautifully underplayed way, but that’s merely moral support… The ‘damsel in distress’ has already rescued herself.

There’s rather more to this episode than putting Mrs Peel to the test, however. This is a story where I suspect even the heterosexual men watching will find the design as memorable to look at as Emma. In an episode full of remarkable images, the one everyone remembers is ‘the House’ – centrally, the striking Op-art patterns of the corridors in which Mrs Peel finds herself trapped. It’s perhaps the best use of black and white in the whole series, with Mrs Peel well-dressed in white to stand out against the harsh patterns of the maze in a similar concept of contrasting monochrome psychedelia as the same year’s Revolver artwork. And part of the reason this is so memorable is that it’s not (as with Dr Armstrong’s lair in The Cybernauts, the series’ other great parable of automation spiralling out of control) presented as sinister sci-fi as soon as you reach it, but as a twist, springing something shockingly ultra-modern on you by hiding it inside a grand old lodge.

At the heart of The Avengers is a fusion of ‘old and new Britain’ – Steed and Mrs Peel, wit and action, postcard villages and swinging London – and frequently the threat our heroes are sent to investigate is one in which things are going too far into conservatism or too far into modernisation (ex-colonists trying to retake a newly independent African state, say, or building robots to create a cybernetic police state were both definite no-nos in the series’ fourth season, from which The House That Jack Built hails). The eponymous House cleverly looks like one threat from the outside but is actually the other, making it almost as much a mix of old and new as the Avengers themselves. When Mrs Peel drives up to it, we see a stern, grand old house, sheer white with a black tracery foreshadowing the later revelation that it is (literally and metaphorically) a whited sepulchre, while she opens the door to a long corridor lined by suits of armour. Add an old-fashioned phone ringing with nobody there, sinister stuffed birds and the sound of a music box, and it’s all in line to be a ‘spooky old house’ from central casting. Yet there have already been contrasting clues; the sudden appearance of a lion in the House when the escaped prisoner breaks in there, the strange behaviour of the key, the cameras at the roadside triggering an automated switch of the road signs… We’ve just not paid them sufficient attention because of a particularly good use of Mr Clemens’ favourite blind in the more ‘traditional’ lonely old house stories, a sinister youngish man forcing himself into Mrs Peel’s company (I’ll come to him later). Here, instead of distracting attention from the real human villain, he’s distracting us from the nature of the House itself, and it’s appropriate that it’s at the moment he’s as distracting as humanly possible – his dying scream – that Mrs Peel opens the inner door that plunges her into somewhere completely unexpected.

Inside the House

The story’s key moment comes fifteen minutes in, when Mrs Peel steps through a door and finds herself in another world, though one quite the reverse of Narnia. With corridors and ‘control rooms’ patterned in stark monochrome and concentric circles, it’s exactly the sort of ’60s look I’ve always loved. The design is extraordinary, and perhaps the most memorable and self-contained of all the ‘worlds’ The Avengers summons into being (there’s a similarly stark ‘Observation Room’ in My Wildest Dream, but this set is so extensive it makes you forget for a while that there’s anything outside it). The Op art high-tech look is matched by an all-pervasive two-tone electronic hum, while at the centre of what seems like a ‘control room’ is a strange plinth with a dome mounted on top of it that houses a revolving light. I’ve always thought of it as some sort of ‘control console’, even though intellectually I know that it’s meaningless as a ‘device’, with its true meaning not in anything that it ‘does’ but as part of a huge set-up designed to drive Emma to madness. That I still can’t help thinking of it that way shows both how much our brains strive to make sense of even deliberately meaningless objects, and emphasises what’s surely a deliberate reference to the TARDIS. With Doctor Who a couple of years old reached the height of its early ratings success when this was made, for The Avengers to feature a mysterious high-tech environment with a ‘control device’ in the centre (rather than as usual along a wall) topped by an intriguing glass-covered device, surrounded by circular patterns in severe black and white, set to an electronic hum and with the whole thing inside an old-fashioned exterior and apparently bigger on the inside than the outside… Well, I think they knew what images they were playing with, though it wasn’t until 1981 that Doctor Who made a similar recurring nightmare of the ‘real’ TARDIS. The difference between the TARDIS and the House, of course, is that while the interior of the Doctor’s ship is vital to it and disguised to avoid attention, this place is a dazzling mirage created entirely to demand Emma’s attention.

She tries to run from this bizarre creation, but there’s no escape in running. The corridors off the ‘control room’ zig-zag away and end in shadows; these are less strikingly designed than the main room, though they have a peculiar repeated metallic carving that suggests a pattern of broken hearts, going back to the disdain for human emotion underlying the House. Memorable as the architecture is, though, it’s how it ‘acts’ that gives it its real impact. Mrs Peel wanders down a corridor, only to find exactly the same ‘control room’ with its spinning ‘console’ at the far end; marking it with lipstick, the camera tilts giddily as she runs back through the labyrinth, where her own lipstick cross greets her. The sense of claustrophobia as she tries to escape is overpowering, and even when she appears to reach other parts of the insane internal geography, they only add to the disorientation. One window shows stars outside; when she finds her way to another, she seems to be looking out from an impossibly high angle across the road she drove in on, but in broad daylight. Just as it seems the tension of being lost in the same corridor will become unbearable, the ‘control room’ is suddenly replaced by a spiral stair set within the concentric rings that the camera turns down with her, again putting the audience almost in Mrs Peel’s place, all while cruel laughter rings. Suddenly, she’s out of the technological madhouse and back into the ‘old’ house.

The whole episode is a showcase for Mrs Peel’s resourcefulness, and with both story and House all about her, the few other characters who appear are really there less as characters than to create an effect on Emma. For the first half of the story, the key figure to Emma is Withers, a deliberately sinister scoutmaster who steps out in front of her car – also part of the iconography, with her wearing a white jacket in her white car, shot against a white sky – at exactly its stopping distance to demand a lift. His part as the ‘strange young man’ who appears to be the threat is emphasised by his Nazi-tinged round wire glasses (with a uniform), his cold manner, his spiked pole and knife, and the generally unsettling effect of a grown-up boy. Dropped off before she gets to the House, he follows her in, drawing a gun, and naturally she seeks him to blame for her predicament on finding his scouting paraphernalia scattered around those bizarre corridors. Of course, he’s actually a friend, despatched by Steed to watch her back without letting on, and (this being The Avengers) he’s taken that rather to extremes. He doesn’t do her any good, though, as his significance to the plot comes principally in his death. The moment of his actual death and the delayed realisation that he’s been killed bookend that extended ‘maze’ sequence, underlining the real threat behind the surreal visuals. She goes into the labyrinth to investigate his scream, but that only becomes evident later when she sees him spiked with his own pole (how, exactly?) as she emerges back into the ‘old’ house. Finding his body is the turning point, half-way through; with her only ‘suspect’ dead, she stops running and starts thinking. She swiftly spots that the rooms are rotating on rollers, but though this illustrates her using her head it’s the only moment where the drama doesn’t quite hold me. All right, it’s the moment to catch your breath before the tension builds again, but I’m not completely convinced by the stylistic device of hearing Mrs Peel ‘thinking aloud’, and not at all convinced by the explanation of the rooms; as there always is in Scooby Doo, there’s plenty that the ‘explanation’ doesn’t cover. So I’ll just stick to the thought that there was LSD in the sprinkler system.

Though the episode revolves around the Op art maze, there’s not nearly as much of it as most people remember. It’s a little like Gerry Rafferty’s song Baker Street, where everyone remembers the saxophone solo and a great many people will swear blind the whole thing’s an instrumental; like the song’s lyrics, people tend to forget much of the second half of The House That Jack Built where Emma goes on the offensive. Once she’s made up her mind, she’s able to peel away the House’s layers, and though the psychological horror of the story remains, her reaction to each successive discovery – whether her own ‘obituary’ or the grisly secret at the House’s heart – is determination mixed with anxiety, not terror. Counterpointing Mrs Peel is first Withers (not up to the job and swiftly killed), then escaped prisoner Burton, a second ‘red herring’ set up as the villain stalking Emma but soon shown to be just a broken victim of the House. His tangled, child-like repetition of the rhyme “The House That Jack Built” and his oblivious death are quite chilling, as a “Bad, bad man” is left with nothing more than a pathetic desire to go back to prison. When Mrs Peel reaches the heart of the House and sees the camera’s staggered zooms on Keller’s prophecy that “You will be quite – quite – mad!” Burton is crouching to one side as a ‘here’s one it made earlier’ demonstration.

Jack in the Box

The House’s ‘real’ control room contains two versions of the master mind behind it all, one ‘twist’ rather conventional, one still shocking. It’s all been set up by Professor Keller, the expert Emma sacked for his extreme views on ‘total automation’, to get his revenge and prove his point. The whole House is one giant machine designed to send her mad and get her eventually to kill herself, proving (he claims) the superiority of “Automation to the ultimate degree” over humanity. She will lose her mind and die, while his ‘perfect’ machine will continue to run on solar power “for ever”. Though the hidden computer centre is slightly disappointing – very much the conventional wall-sized computer and dial-covered consoles every other series was picturing the time, as opposed to the insane flair of the Op art ‘control room’ – the voice of the House remains frightening in its implacable calmness as it promises “You will feel no pain. No pain.” Professor Keller himself is considerably more frightening. While Mrs Peel and the audience have already concluded he’s deranged from the whole set-up and his charming little recorded messages, the glowing death-mask that ‘spoke’ to her earlier was the real giveaway. Yes, when she finds her way to the centre, hears Keller’s greeting, and whirls and fires, she’s a little late. “I am dead,” the TV monitor tells her, and though Professor Keller has left her many charming pre-recorded poison pen proclamations, the man himself is sat unmoving in a glass mausoleum. It’s another striking image, the lighting making him appear hollow-cheeked and deathly, and the idea of the villain being dead even before the start of the episode is exceptionally macabre (it’s not uncommon to find “a dead man who isn’t dead” in The Avengers, but the reverse is rarer and rather more creepy). When Mrs Peel succeeds in destroying his creation’s ‘mind’ instead, the ‘storm’ that assails her – howling, buffeting wind, flashes as if of lightning, and Steed tossed about in the entrance hall as if on a stormy sea – make it seem more like his vengeful ghost than a machine, and its passing takes what’s left of him with it. The final horribly memorable tour de force comes when the House’s destruction cracks Keller’s glass case: not in one shower of shattered glass, but in three shots as it first splinters, then becomes at last so crazed with fractures that he can no longer be seen.

The House That Jack Built is a masterpiece of visual style and psychological horror, but it has a few less obvious themes and a life-affirming close. With repetition used to disturbing effect within the story – the revolving rooms, the computer’s words, Burton’s broken mumbling – it’s also been echoed in other stories, and not just in The Avengers. With the House’s most famous feature so clearly inspired by the TARDIS, when Doctor Who came up with ‘Professor Keller’ as the Master’s cover in a 1971 story, it’s easy to fancy that Mrs Peel’s enemy left the Master his identity in return for the evil Time Lord lending him a TARDIS for Emma. Less tenuously, The Dr Who Annual 1975 features a similar story with the heroes trapped in a surreal, hypnotic machine; it’s called The House That Jack Built. I can’t think where they got the idea from! Even last year, the series was doing a wealthy, dying scientist obsessed with the replacement of humanity by his artificial creation, from beyond the grave (though admittedly, Cybermen can be a bit smaller than a house thanks to the 21st Century’s more compact technology).

Though I’ve talked about Avengerland’s distinctive theme of the clash between old and new here, there’s also a strong element of another of the series’ favourite themes – breaking the fourth wall. Here, unusually, it’s to horrific rather than comic effect: the obviously back-projected lion that attacks at the beginning is obviously back-projected not, as in most series, because a real lion would be too expensive or dangerous to use, but because within the story it’s a back-projection (with more fake lions outside the House prefiguring what you’ll find inside – and, reinforcing the new-hiding-inside-the-old theme, the lions without captured in stone, the one within captured by camera). Keller addresses Mrs Peel from a television screen, which means of course that he’s also talking directly to the camera and to all of us at home; and the whole underlying point of the House is that, like the artifice of a horror movie, technology is being used to create the effects that scare you, and it isn’t real.

More soberly, with the thrills coming more from the slowly building tension than the action-packed fight sequences found in most Avengers, although in many ways this story’s more violent than usual it’s also more moralistic about the futility of violence. All three people who venture deep into the House carry guns, which do none of them any good: Withers the secret agent, Burton with his stolen prison guard’s shotgun, and even Mrs Peel, unusually willing to wield her shiny revolver. It is Burton’s last shotgun shell that eventually blows the machine’s ‘mind’, but Emma uses her intelligence to make an improvised bomb rather than just blazing away (though admittedly it still undermines the feel a little – I’d have had her lash up something electronic to give it a brainstorm instead). Keller gloats that Emma’s mind and body will both be extinguished, while the machine carries on; of course, that plan fails, but even if it had succeeded, what would it have been for? The machine has no intelligence or creativity, and with Emma dead, no purpose. Similarly, Keller throwing the last few months of his life into creating this grandiose trap makes his own death meaningless. Mrs Peel’s victory champions determination over determinism and, in an understated and tender way, love over death, hate and emptiness. With all the other men in the House violent (and doomed), when Steed arrives at the end he doesn’t start shooting or punching, just holds Emma’s hand in a moment of human contact that proves her right.

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Comments:
I need to get a digital box so I can watch "The Avengers". I loved it! And the Mrs Peel episodes were the best.

I remember that episode - Mrs P stuck in a house with all those nightmarish devices. Scarey stuff!
 
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