Build a Better Mousetrap is a great episode of The Avengers – it’s Brian Clemens at his best, from its very Clemens-y joshing title, to his use of British eccentrics, and his mix of the venerable with the modern, the tech with the antique and the old with the young, not forgetting Clemens’s usual dabble in the sociology of class.
And it gets off to a flying start, making sensible use of Mrs Gale’s penchant for leather by inserting her into a motorcycle gang, somewhat improbably. As the episode gets going, one of this gang’s number is frightening two harmless old ladies (Athene Seyler, Nora Nicholson), who retaliate by threatening to put a spell on them. The gang laugh, they sneer but they do leave.
And before anyone can say abracadabra, we’re off to a pub somewhere in the vicinity, where Steed is deploying his supertoff manner to buttonhole a colonel (John Tate) and his comely daughter Caroline (Alison Seebohm). And while we’re asking ourselves why he’s doing this, a little flirtation gets going between Steed and Caroline – “Do you ride, Mr Steed?” she purrs. “I love it,” says Steed, looking like he loves it only too much.
We learn that the pub is just down the road from some nuclear research facility and that something odd keeps happening round these parts. Mechanical instruments, from cars to food mixers, just suddenly stop working, only to spring back to life an hour or so later.
While Steed is being brought up to speed on all this (though that’s obviously why he’s there in the first place), Mrs Gale arrives with the gang, the last knockings of pre-Beatles youth, and we get to see a fabulous double-take as Steed spots her.
Again with the self-assuredness of the gentleman, Steed has soon inveigled his way into the gang, who are in awe of Mrs Gale’s riding skills – she can do a “ton plus ten” one of them say, which is a fair speed for British bikes on British roads.
Steed has soon hatched a cunning plan: to stage a motorbike point-to-point and, if the bikes break down, to use their positions to triangulate the source of what must be some sophisticated jamming signal. It is, of course, the old ladies’ house.
All that remains now is for Steed to pull his third smooth-operator move of the episode, visit the old ladies undercover as a member of the “National Distrust” – a kind of national grumblers council – and charm the pants off Cynthia and Ermyntrude while learning more about what exactly is going on there. At one point, Steed having asked what’s up the stairs, Ermyntrude replies – “My bedroom,” in a voice quavering with decades of longing.
It’s the prime actors rather than the often fairly ramshackle plots that makes so many episodes of The Avengers watchable classic TV. And Nora Nicholson and Athene Seyler are the standouts of this episode, a pair of old stagers who deliver fruit by the truckload and whose backstory as a pair of sisters who have lived together perhaps for ever (Ermyntrude refers to her sister as “Cyn”) is never in doubt.
As gang leader Dave, Donald Webster is also charming, a Liverpool lad who had probably just had the provincial accent knocked out of him at drama school, only to be cast here (and in plenty of other shows, even turning up in 1971’s Straw Dogs) as a geezer with dropped aitches to spare.
Talking of charm, it is a Steed-heavy episode, and Patrick Macnee even gets to show off a bit of ju jitsu in the big fight finale, which gets a bit chaotic, eventually escaping completely director Peter Hammond’s cameras – shooting as-live was still for the most part the order of the day.
All in all though, a great episode – tight, full of incident, wit and lovely performances.
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© Steve Morrissey 2019