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Gothic A-Peel: The Feminst Gothic Heroine of the 1960s(11 Mar 2014)
By Miss Sunday Swift
Television of the 1960s – and, in particular, The Avengers (1961-1969) has a very distinct flavour. As a child, I was (and still am) in love with what Rodney Marshall refers to in Subversive Champagne as ‘Fashionable Froth’: quirky dialogue, bizarre plots, and pure artificial campness of the show in general. Investigating ‘X Cases’ of the bizarre or unexplained nature are two agents – a debonair Edwardian-style Dandy, and his partner – an intelligent, powerful and beautiful woman who could kick her way out of a crisis if she can’t think her way out first.
Avengers is not necessarily a Gothic show – I would certainly hesitate in labelling it as such due to the high camp flavour of most of the episodes. That said, the show is very aware of Gothic techniques and tropes, and uses them fluently throughout the entire run of the programme, but not always with Gothic results. But my question is, if you saw just one episode of this show, could you be convinced that it was a Gothic programme?
My answer is a qualified yes: if you saw, for example, ‘The House That Jack Built’, you just might. The plot itself is simple enough: Mrs Peel receives a letter informing her that she has inherited a house from her uncle Jack in the country. Upon arrival, Peel discovers that an old enemy, Jack Heller, has created a labyrinth of a house to keep her locked inside until she goes mad. It is a classic trap for the Gothic Heroine:
The very words "Gothic heroine" immediately conjure up a wealth of images for the modern reader: a young, attractive woman (virginity required) running in terror through an old, dark, crumbling mansion in the middle of nowhere, from either a psychotic man or a supernatural demon. She is always terminally helpless and more than a bit screechy, but is inevitably "saved" by the good guy/future husband in the nick of time. (Female Gothic, Introduction)
No matter which direction she takes, Peel ends up right back where she started.
The camera work is claustrophobic, keeping close on Peel for the majority of the episode. She may be vulnerable and trapped in the role of the Gothic Heroine, but she utterly refuses to be ‘terminally helpless’ (and I doubt she's a virgin, either). A quintessential Dandizette, Peel rarely loses control – so when she does, even for just a moment, it is a remarkable thing to see. Avengers is known for quirky dialogue, but it never avoided silence. In the 50 minutes of the episode, less than 35 minutes contain any dialogue – and much of that is provided in a voice-over off screen or through video. So ‘screechy’ just might be impossible for Peel, because this has even more silence than Buffy’s ‘silent’ episode, ‘Hush’.
Perhaps most significant, Peel herself is her own saviour: her male partner, Steed, does not rescue her – he merely offers her a ride home. She is the Gothic Heroine updated: she can be in a potentially fatal situation, but this is only because she has the strength to rescue herself without aid from anyone. Also updated is the psychotic man who has kept her hostage, for he is, literally, merely a spectre. There is no enemy to battle, no villain to destroy. The mad man who has designed this labyrinthine house is what Baudrillard refers to as a ‘spectral body’: he has designed a series of duplications for Peel to interact with, the first being a glowing mask of his face, the second a video recording of himself.
In fact, it’s spectral bodies all around: Avengers has quite the affection for doubling and this episode is no different, because Peel manages to stumble across herself, eventually, in the form of a photograph. The photo is a close up primarily of her face, smiling and bright and curiously wearing the same top that she wears within the episode itself.
She must destroy her own avatar to delve further into the maze, finding herself then surrounded by several representations of herself with a dedicated wall obituary to 'The Late Emma Peel'.
Can we just stop for a moment to appreciate the serial-killer style wall covered in her photographs and the plait of hair?
The collection of childhood objects manage to freak out even Mrs Peel, who, as a Dandizette, rarely showed any sort of emotion or fear. Ultimately, as Peel circles closer to the heart of the maze, she finds not a demon or cruel patriarcial father figure, but the corpse of one. A madman who had also been trapped in the house serves something of a threat, but he dies fairly quickly after her arrival, killed by the house computer. Her true captor is dead, and the house she is trapped inside is a computer run by his corpse.
Heller is, literally, an artificial ghost - one she cannot reason with, fight, or even really try to overcome. Eventually, Peel manages to outsmart the computer and destroy Jack's House, earning her own freedom. She is escorted out of the mad house by her partner Steed.
‘House that Jack Built’, like nearly every surviving episode of the Avengers, actively and intentionally engages in accepted Gothic aesthetic signifiers such as doppelgängers, insanity, secret dungeons, ghosts, and bodies rising from the grave. The layer of the ‘Fashionable Froth’, however – the bizarre, absurdist, and aesthetically excessive surreality of the show – can often camouflage any real Gothic threat. Thus, labelling the show as ‘Gothic’ becomes problematic because the show works so hard to simultaneously subvert any Gothic it might evoke. As this episode proves, however, these same tools used to subvert the Gothic – the bizarre surreality and ‘froth’ – can be used effectively to ensure a truly Gothic outcome. In The Avengers, the froth doesn’t inhibit the Gothic, but; rather, it helps to maintain it.
Avengers is, absolutely, worth the time not just to watch, but to analyse for potential Gothic - with the understanding that the show does not consistently produce a Gothic effect, due to the liberal use of that lovely ‘fashionable froth’ that made the show so unique.
Avengers Bottom line? To paraphrase The Doctor: people assume that Gothic is a strict progression of light to dark. But actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint it's more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, frothy-gothy... stuff.
(All pictures are screenshots from the episode ‘House that Jack Built, owned by Studio Canal).