John Lennon’s declaration that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus” had gone public just the day before The House That Jack Built aired in the UK on 5 March 1966. Not that this episode of The Avengers has anything to do with religion or popular music, or anything like that, but it swims in the same backward-looking yet progressive waters as the Beatles, and with a plot heavy on the paranoia, with suggestions of psychoactive substance use on the part of the writer, Brian Clemens, it couldn’t be more 1960s.
Patrick Macnee more or less gets a day off this time out, and once he’s set the plot in motion – with a bit of waffly nonsense involving a key in Mrs Peel’s possession registering as a distinct silhouette on the photographic prints Steed is developing – he’s absent for most of the rest of the plot, leaving Mrs Peel to head off to a mansion that she’s just been left by a dead uncle.
En route she picks up a hitch-hiker, a man dressed in a scoutmaster’s uniform. He’s a birdwatcher, he tells Mrs Peel. “I’m immensely fond of birds,” he says. Mrs Peel gives him the “Ooh, matron” sideways glance, not least because he’s as camp as a scout jamboree and you wouldn’t have counted him among nature’s most hetero of sexuals.
Like the Steed business, this stuff with scoutmaster Withers (Michael Wynne) is really just throat-clearing. The real plot gets going when Mrs Peel arrives at the house she has supposedly inherited (though Steed, back in London, has already discovered she has no uncle and has not inherited anything at all), allowing Clemens to launch one of those haunted house plots, in a building full of stuffed owls and much other Victoriana.
Things quickly take a mind-fuckery, yeh baby, very 1960s turn, with much running around, wonky camera angles, Bridget Riley-inspired maze-like sets and doors which keep taking Mrs Peel back to the place she has just left.
Mrs Peel is not losing her mind, rather the house is sentient. It’s a smart house decades before there was any such thing in reality, since a dead scientist – whom Mrs Peel, in a too-convenient backstory about a previous existence when she ran a tech company (!), once fired – has uploaded his mind into the house to take his revenge on the woman who refused to acknowledge that the future was all about machines, machines I tell you, not human beings.
It’s all very Terminator and, in its notion of someone being menaced by unseen forces, foreshadows our own era of internet trolling rather well.
The whole house, we learn, runs on “solar energy and frictionless bearings”, which also seems very now, though the rampant paranoia is very much of its time, as are the special effects which, though they’ve clearly had money spent on them, won’t wow a modern audience.
Mrs Peel’s pluck will, however. It’s still fairly rare for a woman to get this much agency, and to be seen to be triumphing against unseen male forces – call it the patriarchy if you like – though let’s not fool ourselves, it’s Steed who arrives to save the day.
The Prisoner would later take this paranoid attitude and make a cult TV series out of it – endless running, wonky angles, scientific surrealism and thwarted escape attempts were co-creator/star Patrick McGoohan’s stock in trade for the 17 episodes which went into production just six months after this episode aired. He must have been watching.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020