Posts Tagged ‘Build a Better Mousetrap’

The rather variable nature of late-third-season Avengers is once again apparent with the arrival of Build a Better Mousetrap, written by Brian Clemens. This is, I suppose, quite a high-profile episode, inasmuch as the publicity photos from it depicting Mrs Gale on a motorbike seem to have circulated quite widely.

The episode opens with Cathy indeed having joined a youth motorcycle gang. I would not be so ungallant as to say exactly how old Honor Blackman was when this episode was made, but let’s just say she makes for a fairly unlikely member of the gang. (Then again, the actor playing the leader of the gang is in his early thirties, so it’s not like she’s alone in this department.) The bikers have got permission to use a meadow for their various pursuits, which happens to be near an old mill, inhabited by two elderly sisters. The sisters do not respond well when the bikers stop by to ask for directions, and threaten to put a spell on the gang to ensure their peace is not disturbed.

Strange as it seems, it appears there may be an element of truth in this, as the local area has been plagued by mysterious cases of machines of all kinds inexplicably conking out. The locals are not happy, and blame is falling on the nearby atomic research centre. This has led Steed to get involved, planting Mrs Gale with the bikers, and generally nosing about the neighbourhood and flirting with the young ladies thereabout (the actress who gets to flirt with Patrick Macnee this week is Alison Seebohm, who is as telegenic as anyone else assigned this role). It turns out there genuinely does seem to be a mysterious force at work in the area, knocking out mechanisms and electronics – and it seems to be centred on the old mill where the sisters live…

The thing that makes a typical Clemens script distinctive, I’m starting to realise, is the fact that it is not particularly tightly-plotted or tense, but that it goes all-out when it comes to quirkiness in the characterisation and atmosphere. His late season three scripts really do feel like the advance guard for the direction the show would take when it went onto film – at the centre of this story is a borderline-SF maguffin, wrapped up in an improbable tale of eccentric old biddies, biker gangs, and various colourful locals some of whom are not what they appear to be.

And as such it is lots of fun: you can see Macnee having a whale of a time reacting to some of the big performances of the guest cast, plus he gets an uproarious scene where he talks his way into the old mill by passing himself off as an inspector from the ‘National Distrust’, which is apparently like the National Trust but rather more suspicious-natured. Honor Blackman seems to be enjoying herself too, and she seems to be a bit more indulgent of Steed than usual, too. This is possibly the most comedic episode so far, and certainly very enjoyable.

There’s a good gag at the start of The Outside-In Man, which opens with Steed turning up at a butcher’s shop in search of (but of course) some venison: he follows the head butcher into the meat locker at the back of the shop, which leads into a suite of offices. Yes, the butchers’ is a front for a secret government agency, and the butcher himself is Quilpie, Steed’s de facto boss for the week (played by Ronald Radd, whom we have seen before – seventeen actors).

The actual plot is rather more serious in tone. Some years earlier, a British agent named Sharp defected to an unfriendly foreign power and has risen to quite a position of importance in their government. Now he is returning to the UK, protected by diplomatic immunity, to negotiate an important arms deal. Steed is responsible for looking after him, which isn’t a particularly enjoyable assignment, but he is nothing if not pragmatic.

The situation is (inevitably) complicated by the reappearance in London of Charter (James Maxwell), one of the agents sent to assassinate Sharp around the time of his original defection. The mission failed and Charter has spent five years in an enemy prison – some of his colleagues were executed. Now he has either escaped or been released, which coincides rather suspiciously with the arrival of Sharp in London. After making a claim for five years of back pay, Charter sends an even more alarming message to Steed and Quilpie – he still intends to carry out the mission he was given and kill Sharp…

As you can see, this is a much less whimsical story than Mousetrap, and if you took out all the gags about the butchers’ shop it would work as a completely straight spy drama. But as such it is good stuff – there are a couple of strong guest performances from Radd and Maxwell, and the main thrust of the story – can they find Charter and stop him in time? should they? – is also effective. (Mrs Gale selling Charter a second-hand car proves to be significant to the plot.) In the end, of course, all turns out to be not quite as it first appears, but not improbably so. An episode in a very different mode to the preceding one, but nearly as engaging in it own way.

Another Brian Clemens rounds off this selection, in the shape of The Charmers. If you have been following along it will not come as a great surprise if I reveal that this is yet another one of Clemens’ videotape-era scripts which was touched up and remade for the first colour season of the show, when it was retitled The Correct Way to Kill.

Someone is bumping off agents of the Other Side. Steed assumes they’re having another one of their purges – but when an assassin turns up at his flat, it seems that he is a suspect, and the Other Side themselves are in the dark as to who is responsible and what their motive is. Steed goes along and meets the Other Side’s local chief, Keller (Warren Mitchell. giving a much more comedic performance than in The Golden Fleece, earlier this same season – seventeen actors! I’m sure of it!). Some very droll interplay follows, with Keller left very envious of the size of Steed’s expense account, and a prominent board with pictures of ‘Wanted Agents’ on it. The in-joke is that, apart from Steed, all the photos are of Avengers production team members, including Brian Clemens himself.

Do the ‘Mind if I smoke?’ gag if you really must.

Well, Steed and Keller do a deal where they will work together and investigate the murders: Steed volunteers Cathy without asking her, resulting in another very funny scene of her getting cross with him about taking her for granted. While Cathy indeed teams up with one of Keller’s men, the Other Side pull a fast one and just hire an actress (Fenella Fielding) to pretend to be a spy and escort Steed, telling her that he’s just an eccentric spy novelist who likes to live his stories before he writes them.

The trail leads to a dentists’, a gents’ outfitters, and ultimately to a sort of finishing school for anyone aspiring to become an English gentleman (needless to say, the principal is left awe-struck by Steed’s style and deportment). Not that the plot strictly matters, because, once again, Clemens is writing with his tongue firmly in his cheek – this is a spoof much more than a serious drama, but it’s a tremendously entertaining spoof. You can see why Clemens was essentially given the job of showrunner from the start of the next season onward.

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