In a career spanning over thirty years of television directing, Peter Hammond frequently made creative — and even groundbreaking — uses of camera angle and props. Among the signatures of his style are shots requiring sometimes complicated alignment of the actors, innovative camera placement, and the incorporation of props and set furnishings into shots and scenes in ways that often have significance to plot or characterization or both.
According to imdb.com, Hammond directed a total of nineteen episodes of The Avengers, nine of which were from the first season and thus have unfortunately been lost, with the exception of “The Frighteners.” The other ten were from Seasons 2 and 3, all of which are extant, and elsewhere I have discussed how Hammond uses props and the alignment and placement of the actors’ bodies to help tell the story in the Season 3 episode “The Golden Fleece.” Here, though, I’d like to discuss a different element of Hammond’s directorial style: the use of animal symbolism as commentary on plot and character in another Season 3 story: “Build a Better Mousetrap.”
In “Build a Better Mousetrap” Steed has set up camp in a pub called “The Hunter’s Horn” in order to investigate a series of unusual mechanical and electrical failures in the area. The pub is decorated with several examples of the taxidermist’s art, including an eagle, a fox, and some stoats or weasels. There is also a trophy-style model of the head of a Staffordshire bull terrier, which seems to represent the dog that caught the stoats. A hand-painted sign on one wall contains a reference to foxes. Hammond uses each of these at appropriate points in the episode to refer to some aspect of character, and sometimes as a foreshadowing of a coming event in the plot.
The Tale of Mr Tod
Of the various animals that Hammond uses symbolically, the fox is the most important and most frequently used. Throughout the episode, Hammond rings the changes on the symbolism of the fox: as trickster; as villain; as hunter’s prey. That the fox will be an important symbol in this episode is emphasized by the fact that when the setting moves to the pub interior at the beginning of the episode, the camera first pans across a loving-cup and artwork with hunting themes before lingering on the face of a taxidermied fox placed near the pub’s door.
Hammond then lengthens the shot and pans slightly to the left to show us Steed looking at the fox as he listens to the landlord, who explains that the unfortunate animal was killed when his wife fell from her horse and landed on it. The fox hasn’t acquired any particular meaning yet in the context of this episode, although in “Man in the Mirror” in Season 2 we heard Steed refer to himself as a “cunning old fox.” As we will see, the trope of the fox will be used as a reference to and commentary on Steed and other characters and plot points throughout the episode.
The first of these references happens with the entrance of Colonel Wesker. Hammond sets up the shot so that the stuffed fox looks directly into the camera as the Colonel descends the stairs. We will discover later in the episode that the Colonel isn’t entirely who he claims to be: he is one of the villains and a trickster, roles that commonly have associations with the character of the fox in folklore.
Hammond also uses the stuffed fox as an important background element placed between the characters in two-shots. Here, Steed talks to Mr Stigant from the atomic energy plant. It is unclear whether the fox is being used to represent Steed as he questions Stigant; whether it is intended to suggest that Stigant is himself a cunning fox and therefore potentially a villain like the Colonel; or whether it acts as foreshadowing of Stigant’s later murder. Or perhaps it is all three?
That Hammond intends a connection of some kind between Stigant and the fox is emphasized by a one-shot toward the end of Stigant’s conversation with Steed that places Stigant by himself in the same frame with the fox. But it is still unclear what manner of connection is meant, here: we don’t know enough about Stigant’s character yet. However, his later murder suggests that in this one-shot, at least, the reference may be to the fox as the victim of hunters, and therefore is operating as a foreshadowing of Stigant’s fate.
Later that evening, Steed is reading a map that he has spread out on the bar. Caroline, Colonel Wesker’s niece whom Steed met earlier, sidles up to him and puts her hand on his. The camera pulls back, and we see that Steed wasn’t expecting this contact, nor does he welcome it. He is leery of Caroline’s attempt to hit on him. As in the earlier scene with Stigant, the stuffed fox is an important part of the blocking of the two-shot.
Even if we haven’t already figured out that Caroline is one of the villains, we do know that she makes Steed very uncomfortable. She is using her feminine wiles on him (something she will do at regular intervals throughout the episode), and a popular secondary meaning to the word “vixen” describes the kind of woman Caroline appears to be. However, the fox could also continue to be a reference to Steed at the same time: he’s a clever man who knows how to escape the clutches of the baddies, including amorous female ones.
The references to Steed as cunning fox and Caroline as dangerous vixen are made explicit in a later scene. Steed is getting ready to leave after having breakfast with Cathy when Caroline tries to get him to make good on an earlier promise he made to go riding with her. Steed brushes her off politely. The camera follows him out the door, but continues panning to the right and comes to rest on a sign that reads “An old fox is shy of a trap.” From this, we now know for sure that Caroline is after more than just a bit of romance with Steed: she’s one of the villains, and the invitation to go riding is an attempt to prevent Steed from solving the case at best, or to hurt or kill him at worst. We also now know that Steed suspects that Caroline has ulterior motives. Avoiding her isn’t simply attempting to escape her annoying sexual advances: it’s a prudent act of self-preservation. Cunning fox Steed escapes the trap laid for him by vixen Caroline, at least for the moment.
Hammond returns to the image of the fox later in the second act. After Stigant’s murder, Steed is having a drink at the bar. The Colonel joins him. When the camera angle shifts from in front of the bar, where we see Steed and the Colonel talking to the landlord, to beside it, the Colonel becomes the focus of a close one-shot with the fox visible over his right shoulder in the background. This is an important change from earlier shots made from behind the bar: in the other instances, Hammond chooses a longer shot that allows him to put the fox in between two characters, but here Steed is left out of the picture. The Colonel is the fox, here. When he later says that he thinks one of the young bikers is probably the murderer, and that he would like to have some of them in his regiment so that he can straighten them out, Steed glances at him with a disgust that he quickly papers over with a fake smile. We still don’t know what the Colonel’s role is in the dastardly plot, but Steed’s response gives us a further hint that the Colonel is not to be trusted.
After some further conversation with Steed, the Colonel says that it’s time for his constitutional. He goes to his room, passing Cathy on the stairs. As she descends, the camera angle shifts to strongly foreground the stuffed fox. Cathy in proximity to the fox is thus connected to Cathy in proximity to the Colonel, who is a cunning villain and a trickster pretending to be someone he is not. The foregrounding of the fox also foreshadows the much greater role the Colonel is about to play in the story as he attempts to steal the electrical disruptor machine on behalf of shadowy and nefarious (read: Soviet) forces that place themselves in opposition to British national security.
The vixen isn’t done with her attacks on Steed yet: in the third act Caroline makes yet another play for Steed’s attention. She pulls him over to the bar, and the camera follows her as she steps away from Steed to go behind the bar. In the process, the camera briefly focuses on the fox’s head that is affixed to one of the pillars at the end of the bar.
At this point in the story, we’ve seen Caroline make multiple unsuccessful attempts on Steed’s virtue, changing her approach every time. She’s shifty and dangerous, and as we will soon see she is about to attempt to poison Steed. Steed sees through this, however, and we learn that Caroline is also aligned with the Colonel and his Soviet masters when she shouts “nyet!” at Steed as he pretends to be affected by the drug. Caroline is a vixen both in terms of her sexual advances towards Steed, and in terms of her crafty villainy.
Eagles and Dogs and Stoats, Oh My
Two other animal symbols are used with some prominence in this episode. The first is that of a stuffed eagle, which is used as a commentary on the characters of the Colonel and Caroline, and as a foreshadowing of their role as villains working for the Soviets.
In the first pub scene in Act I, Steed meets Caroline and the Colonel. When the Colonel turns to leave the pub to go for a walk and Caroline departs for her room, the camera follows the Colonel out the door and then lingers on the figure of a taxidermied eagle. While we don’t yet know that both Caroline and the Colonel are spies for the opposition, the focus on the eagle gives us a hint that the Colonel, at least, is likely going to give Steed some trouble later in the episode.
To the best of my knowledge, the eagle was not used as a reference to the Soviets (they were most often represented by a bear, when an animal avatar was used). However, contemporary British audiences would have understood the eagle as a reference to villainy generally, from its status as a predatory bird and possibly from the German use of the Reichsadler (“Reich eagle”) as an important Nazi symbol during World War II.
In the breakfast scene in Act II (which I discussed earlier in connection with the sign about foxes and traps), Hammond makes use of another animal symbol in connection with Caroline. Caroline approaches the breakfast table where Cathy is eating, and next to which Steed is standing, putting on his jacket. Hammond follows Caroline’s entrance not by foregrounding her, but by shooting through an opening between wooden beams that separate her from the camera. However, the important element isn’t the shot length or the beam: it’s the head of a Staffordshire bull terrier, which is affixed to one beam next to a trophy cup decorated with the taxidermied bodies of stoats or weasels.
It’s unclear exactly what Hammond intends by this reference. Is it to Caroline’s tenacity in going after Steed (Caroline as terrier)? Is it to Caroline and the Colonel as villains (Caroline and the Colonel as stoats/vermin)? Is it to Steed (Steed as terrier and champion vermin-catcher)? This conundrum is never quite cleared up, but as we saw earlier with the stuffed fox it is likely that Hammond intended multiple valences for this particular set of animal symbols.
The limitations of working with early videotape technology and live broadcasts meant that the Avengers episodes from the first three seasons had limitations in terms of locations and sets. It would have been easy for Hammond simply to accept these limitations, treat the sets as secondary, and focus on the actions of the characters, but instead he chooses to fully incorporate the sets and set dressing into his storytelling. He does this to greatest effect with the interiors of the pub, where foxes, eagles, and bull terriers silently praise Steed’s cleverness and warn us about the duplicity of the Colonel and Caroline.