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John Drake's progress
A Personal Look at the Greatest Television Series Ever Made™ and a review of Carlton’s PRISONER DVD Box Set (coinciding with the releases of the De’Agostini twice-monthly DVD single PRISONER Episodes) by Camus
 

 

Part 3: "Who are you?"
  "A seventeen year old looking for significance..."

In late '77, early '78 lots of things rode the Star Wars wave. One of them was a British science fiction magazine called Starburst, still going strong, I'm happy to say, despite the competition. Issue 1 was packed with science fiction comic strips, Star Wars articles etc.. The bulk of the content was devoted to Star Trek . Alongside artwork of the Star Wars cast, a caption-less head shot of Mr. Spock stares out from the cover, no mention of him or any corresponding articles, so well was that face known as the Trek revival began in earnest. Issue 2 was hugely significant to me in two ways. Firstly it contained a review of what seemed to be some Star Wars knock off with the truly ridiculous title of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (duh?). The review, by noted science fiction author Ray Bradbury, was almost messianic in its fervour and rabid appreciation. I thought, must get in line for that one, a cinema experience that did indeed speak to me very profoundly. I was 16 and 17 when I first saw that movie (my birthday straddled a midnight sneak preview). Lots of things speak profoundly to you when you turn 17.

Secondly, on page 30, was an article on The Prisoner by Alan Grace. This was the source of my deflowering, the first time I had acknowledged the existence of a TV show that would shape my life. The photos looked intriguing; exactly the blend of science fiction and action I enjoyed but most of all what hooked me was the fact that Alan Grace seemed to be implying that its audience hadn't really 'got it', that this enigmatic show flew staunchly in the face of conventional drama and served up something far more interesting. 'Kafkaesque' had been the overused adjective used to pin down the appeal, flavour and seasoning of The Prisoner but that's like saying a pack of cards consists of aces; technically true but woefully misleading. There are kings, queens and twos and of course number sixes.

So, having read the article and consumed the details, I went to my only source of TV history to confirm this programme's existence. The internet in 1978 was called 'my parents'. I had watched some Danger Man episodes (which a lot of people still believe was the prequel to The Prisoner) so was familiar with Patrick McGoohan (he was also the secretive government agent in Ice Station Zebra, my school friends' cinema visit birthday treat favourite in the late sixties). To those born later than 1645 AD (ahem), Patrick McGoohan was also the actor who played the King in Mel Gibson's Braveheart. He chucked the Prince's gay lover from a tower. As you do. So to the innocent question, "Mum, Dad, what was The Prisoner ?" - a throw away and wholly inappropriate response came back at me. "Oh, that silly rubbish with Patrick McGoohan being chased by a giant balloon…" Again, it was a technically accurate answer but oh-so narrow a view. My parents saw the balloon and bang (or pop?), the greatest TV show of all time was just childish fantasy. I was eager to judge for myself.

I'm not a great believer.

That's where that sentence should end. Beliefs do terrible things to people and they rarely encompass any kind of universal truth. I'll start that again. I'm not a great believer in miracles. That makes more sense. But on Sunday afternoons on Westward TV in the late seventies, The Prisoner got another airing. It had been mere months since I read that article. I was geographically locked into the independent Harlech TV, or HTV but by some miracle of a broadcast anomaly, we could get a snowy Westward picture on our TV. I actually watched The Prisoner, on Sunday afternoons, through a fog of white noise but realised then with astounding clarity that I had just seen something that I was about to invest so much time championing. Repeated on the new Channel 4 in 1983/84, the entire show was eventually owned by one of its most rabid fans on video and that box of six VHSs was and still is one of my most sentimentally treasured possessions.

This was an extraordinary series, dismissed with contempt by its Danger Man-fed audience. This isn't strictly true. A lot of people in the UK stayed with Paddy's folly (he was then the afore mentioned highest paid actor on TV and forbade the use of the word 'television' on the set of the 35mm shot Prisoner - only movies in those times were shot on 35mm). They stayed with him for 16 weeks. They forgave him being absent from almost an entire episode (he was shooting Ice Station Zebra at the time) and while the press clamoured for some sort of explanation (how does one explain an allegory?) the gloves came off and the great UK public demanded 'an answer'.

McGoohan said all would be answered in the final episode, a hastily written 'sequel' to one of the best of the original seven episodes, Degree Absolute (or as it was renamed Once Upon a Time). Fall Out sent the UK crazy - it answered nothing (if your entertainment level was dictated by James Bondian expectation, you expected Blofeld with a cat at the end at the very least) He had to be Number One. Alas, the last episode answered nothing but… Later. Later.

Aside from the larger and weightier philosophical issues the series peeled back and poured salt onto, The Prisoner predicted credit cards, cordless phones and 24 hour surveillance. McGoohan and company took the premise of an individual imprisoned against his will in a charming but deadly Village for no other reason than he needed to be broken ('why did he resign'?) and made a series that took a pretty searching look at our relationship to our own society - the fish looked at the net and dared to criticise it. Coincidentally the hand sign that accompanied the phrase "Be seeing you," (thumb and forefinger flicked away from the face) was supposed to approximate a fish, an early covert sign indicating Christian faith.

The symbol of the Penny-farthing bicycle abounds in the Village. For those of you too young to remember (my God, I'm too young to remember) a penny-farthing is a bicycle so called because its large front wheel is in proportion to a penny as its back wheel is to a farthing, a quarter of a penny. For McGoohan and the creators of the series, the machine is an ironic symbol of progress. How much proof do we need that the further and faster we go forward the more we slip back. Try taking a photograph these days. In the 'good old days' of film, you pressed the shutter and click - THAT was your picture. Nowadays, our digital world allows us a mere fiction of doing the same thing - alas, even in the expensive digital cameras, there is still time required to write the image to a storage medium. What was light chemically reacting to film (instantaneous) is now data collected and saved to disc. The latter is modern and up to date and slow - the former is instantaneous. How many examples of three steps forward, two steps back do we need?

So the jungle cat is caged. Eerie, sentient, white weather balloons known as Rovers patrol the outer boundaries and surveillance is absolute. No. 6's nemesis week by week is usually the acting guest star, the man or woman who plays No. 2… The' Prisoner (as in Theodore Prisoner as Issac Asimov once christened him) has been named No. 6 (a designation he consistently rejects). As destined-to-be Rumpole of the Bailey, Leo McKern observed in the 2nd episode The Chimes of Big Ben, "He makes the act of putting on his dressing gown a gesture of defiance." Patrick McGoohan has the physical characteristics of a caged animal and so perfectly suits the role of No. 6, it's a sacrilegious idea to think that a movie version could possibly feature anyone else. McGoohan's physicality is so marked and idiosyncratic that any use of his stand-in, Frank Maher, in the series stood out like sledgehammered thumbs. No one on this planet moves like McGoohan.

Part 4: "I am not a number, I'm a free man!"
  "Seventeen shows, Patrick – but in what order?"

This debate has been alive for years. It doesn't need any comment from me except for the listing of the episodes and a short introduction. One episode gets the full treatment, more of a personal recollection of its power than a review. Here are the seventeen: (in Carlton DVD Box Set Order). Those marked with an asterisk are believed to be the original seven episodes.


Arrival *

No question in the order. No. 1 and a compelling and extraordinarily swiftly cut start to McGoohan's Village people. This sets the tone. Every other episode has to live up to Arrival and not all of them make it.


The Chimes of Big Ben *

The arrival of a woman in similar circumstances to No. 6's abduction begins a ploy to tease the truth from No. 6 after a complex escape attempt. He is ultimately betrayed.


A, B, and C

Drugs are employed to force No. 6 to re-live past events to reveal his secrets.


Free For All *

What must be McGoohan's own take on the farce that is modern politics. This is one of the seven and one of the best of the seven. Its biting criticisms are telling and accurate. The futility of perceived power is also mocked as McGoohan is slapped into sense. Free For All was written and directed by McGoohan himself.


The Schizoid Man

One of my favourites and the best of the 'rest'. The Village employs a look-alike No. 6, brainwashes No. 6 to believe he is No. 12 posing as the real No. 6. Its bluffs and double bluffs are hugely entertaining. It's only small things like the Nerve Gas gun No. 12 has and a Rover that kills that betray this as NOT one of the seven (details stepping incongruously out of the format). For narrative purposes the 'other ten' sometimes make other concessions and compromises to the format.


The General

Speedlearn, a revolutionary TV based hypnotic teaching-aid makes graduate students of the whole Village population. No. 6 is suspicious and overthrows the mysterious 'General' at the heart of the brainwashing.


Many Happy Returns

Again, a big departure from the format. No. 6 wakes to find the Village deserted and escapes via raft to the mainland. After reporting to his superiors in London, he is tricked into parachuting back to the Village where No 2 (posing in the capital as a friend of No. 6's) is waiting with a birthday cake. I adored this episode and willfully ignored its absurdities. No 6 being on the loose in London does not help the Village in anyway to prise his secrets from him. Never mind, it's still great stuff


Dance of the Dead *

The only one of the seven without a single narrative thread to sustain it. But it works on many levels not least because of its dark menace. We learn here that there is a death sentence in the Village and sometimes mob rule. No 2 (played deliciously by Mary Morris) is a superb foil to McGoohan's No. 6, haunted by his views of reality and freedom.


Checkmate *

A classic. And an escape attempt that damn well almost works! Checkmate supposes that with simple psychology one can discover who are the warders and who are the prisoners in the Village. In that way, prisoners can work together to escape. It's a nail biter down to the last.


Hammer Into Anvil

A wonderful two hander between the usually benign Patrick Cargill (as a sadistic No. 2) and No. 6. Here No. 6 shows his humanistic side, defending the Village against a cruel, paranoid leader.


It's Your Funeral

Again, No. 6 showing his social responsibility. He teams up against a conspiracy to assassinate the outgoing No. 2, something the incoming No. 2 believes he has under control.


A Change of Mind

The issue of social harmony is raised, what one has to do to exist in a society and what might happen if one crosses the line. No. 6 is made to believe he has had radical brain surgery to correct his anti-social tendencies. As I mentioned before, mob rule seems to be a feature of the Village (they are all a little easily led by No. 6 or by anyone else for that matter). But then 'they' are an allegory of the masses so it all makes perfect sense.


Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling

And the award for the silliest Prisoner episode goes to this desperate attempt to disguise McGoohan's absence. This is how I'd like to think this happened. McGoohan plans his seven episodes. Thinking he will be finished with The Prisoner by 'x', he commits to play the agent in Ice Station Zebra. Lew Grade says "I want more!" McGoohan is stuck as the TV shoot extends beyond 'x' and he has to miss two to three weeks of filming due to Hollywood commitment. No worries. There is a science fiction conceit of body swapping. Let's haul it in. So No. 6 looking remarkably like Marcus Welby's Nigel Stock goes gadding about all over Europe looking for the man who can put his brain back into his own body. Oh dear.


Living in Harmony

Another huge stretch of the format but it has two things going for it. One, drug use with a subsequent reality change has already been established as a viable method of getting No. 6 to spill the beans (after all this is a cowboy episode). Two, it features a young man who would be in two more of the remaining three Prisoner episodes because he impressed McGoohan so much. Alexis Kanner is a dynamo in this episode adding a sense of menace lacking in some of the more suave Village masters. Kanner is, quite simply, out of control and that really ignites the episode.


The Girl Who Was Death

Silly but fun. Again this episode compromises the original seven's format. This James Bond/Danger Man spoof (a super-spy is preyed upon by the ultimate femme fatale) is in turns, ludicrous, funny and inventive. It turns out to be simply a fairy story told by No. 6 to the Village children. Got that? Village children? Children? First we’ve heard of children in the Village. It's a neat little twist to a fun but ultimately shallow episode.


Once Upon a Time *

Now to the meat.

Originally titled Degree Absolute, this two hander between McGoohan and Leo McKern is one of the finest hours of television I've ever seen. It is the human condition gleefully autopsied by two glorious talents both taking each other to the limits of endurance as No. 2 tries to peel the onions of No. 6's mind only to find that he’s prey to the same invasive procedure by his more cunning adversary. I will make a guess and say that this episode was always intended to be the final one in McGoohan's allegorical original vision but audience pressure what it is…


Fall Out *

Ah… Fall Out! First of all I do not believe that Fall Out could have been part of the original seven. Why? Because this episode was a result of audience pressure written by McGoohan in a weekend, not something planned for months the way that a Free For All feels like. Surely, No. 1 was never meant to be revealed. No, Fall Out is a rushed, glorious, psychedelic, fantasy that teeters almost constantly between the ravine of 'insane, gibbering nonsense' and the abyss of 'absolute television masterpiece'. Abysses are far deeper than ravines. The depths of wild, polarized emotion (not a common Prisoner strongpoint) elicited in McGoohan's ultimate episode actually startles. Here is the end of a controlled science fiction allegory about man's place in the modern world and this is its final episode?

Oh boy. It made me laugh, giggle and at one point made me feel an emotion that I, even now, have difficulty in putting into words - like some indoor mental firework, a tele-piphany, a burst of enlightenment from the small screen that seemed somehow joyous.

This is how jubilantly insane Fall Out is.
 
No. 6 is free to wear his original clothes from Arrival. He sits on a throne underground having walked passed Juke boxes playing All You Need is Love and is set free and revered by the Welsh judge (whose own speeches were written by the actor, Kenneth Griffith, as McGoohan had run out of time) and all the white robed officials representing all types of human activity and state appointment. Youth (Kanner) is judged and imprisoned. The older rebel (McKern's No. 2) is also judged and imprisoned. No. 6 cannot make any kind of declaration or freedom speech, drowned out as he is by the elected white robed officials. No. 6 meets No. 1 in a rocket (as you do, allegorically true to form) and stages a revolt, machine guns and all, leaving the Village in what was the cage from the previous episode (conveniently part of a large HGV) that quickly reveals itself on a road towards London.

A large rocket (the one that housed No. 1) takes off from the Village while it is completely evacuated and Rover dies to the accompaniment of Carmen Miranda's "I-I-I-I-I-I like you verrrry much…" The three free men (and one butler) return to their 'places' (McKern to the Houses of Parliament, Kanner on 'the road') and just before McGoohan gets home to take his Lotus for a final spin, he and the butler (Angelo Muscat, all four foot of him) run for a bus.

Two men run for a bus with accompanying uplifting music.

That - for no reason I can fathom - was the moment of my epiphany, a moment the entire series came together and made a glorious intellectual and visceral sense that shocked me. I was insanely happy just seeing those little legs sprinting for that bus. If anyone can explain why I DO NOT WANT TO KNOW!

Be seeing you.



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