The Prisoner: episode 6 – The General – discursion

The General

The General was the sixth episode of The Prisoner to be broadcast, and the tenth episode to go into production. It stars Colin Gordon as Number Two, who impressed Patrick McGoohan sufficiently during filming to be invited to stay on for the next episode, the already broadcast and discussed A, B and C.
The episode was written by the experienced Lewis Greifer, under the pseudonym Joshua Adam (the first names of his children). There doesn’t seem to be any reason why Greifer should have used a pseudonym: McGoohan knew him as a friend of story editor and co-creator George Markstein, and indeed Greifer had introduced the pair.
By the time this episode was made, Markstein and McGoohan had long since parted ways in their vision of (and opinion of) the series, which offers the possibility that Markstein felt his friend needed to hide behind a pseudonym to avoid rejection by McGoohan. But Greifer was a good friend to both, which makes that theory highly improbable.
The theme of the episode came from Greifer, who was inspired by his sons’ boredom at school with rote learning: that Speedlearn is ultimately nothing more than rote learning on a very advanced plane may be the root of Greifer’s idea, but the idea could almost have been calculated to appeal to McGoohan’s belief in the series as a form of social criticism of the way the future seemed to be heading.
The General is, of course, the first example of a Revolt episode. There is a token mention of possible release in return for the Professor’s recorder, but Number Six is committed to a course that would exclude that anyway. Instead, he sets himself to oppose Speedlearn – once he understands fully what it comprises – for no other reason than that he believes it should be resisted as an intrusion into people’s lives and minds.
It’s also the first episode in which Number Six has a genuine ally, not that he trusts him at any time. But Number Twelve, played by a young and imperturbable John Castle, is also committed to resisting Speedlearn; it is he who enables Number Six to get into a position where he can wreck the scheme by broadcasting the Professor’s condemnation, though his desperate attempt to save the Professor’s life, which costs him his own, does blur the issue: the General has been destroyed, but an alive and intact Professor could rebuild him. Whose side was he ultimately on?
Overall, the episode is generally enjoyable and thought-provoking in the manner that McGoohan intended, which makes it a success, but there are a lot of issues surrounding it that detract from its general quality.
The first of these must be Colin Gordon as Number Two.
Let’s get a minor matter out of the way first: Gordon may be excellent in both episodes where he plays Number Two, especially given the contrast between the portrayals, but he’s absolute crap in the title sequence, where his voice lacks any force and his ‘derisive laughter’ at the Prisoner’s assertion that he is ‘not a number, but ‘a free man’ is horrible – a shouted out Hah! Hah! hah!
Inevitably, Gordon’s double appearance brings up the ever-lurking question of the true order of the episodes. On the face of it, The General should precede A, B and C, as it did in production: Gordon is a self-confident, undefeated ‘New’ Number Two in the first, and a nervous, quivering wreck who ‘is’ Number Two in the second. And the episodes were filmed in the logical order. But in The General, Gordon says that he and Number Six are ‘old friends’, and he refuses to waste time in pursuing answers that he knows that Number Six will not give, as you might expect from the broadcast order.
And then there’s the milk: the acidic, ulcerous Gordon of A, B and C continually drinks it: in The General, a milk jug makes a symbolic appearance to create a momentary allusion to the earlier-broadcast, but probably later set episode, further blurring the timeline. Uncertainty multiplies – which is only proper for the series, but it creates questions that are, literally unresolvable.
The General itself is another major point. In a series built upon futuristic aspects, the 1967 version of a supercomputer, no matter how consistent it may be with the contemporary technology, is the single most badly dated aspect of the entire series, a complete failure of foresight as to how things would develop. In a series that so successfully anticipated so many aspects of our present day, the General unfortunately yanks at our suspension of disbelief and sends it crashing to the floor.
The storyline is not without its holes, one of which appears in the opening scene: the tannoy summons’ students to a second lecture of a series for which there is already an almost 75% uptake, for which posters appear publicly around the Village, and Number Six is completely unaware of what is going on until this point? It’s highly improbable: an illogical contrivance intended to facilitate an explanation for the audience.
And later, when Number Six infiltrates the Administration building, whilst he’s clearly established as getting the relevant pass from Number Twelve, there is another improbability when he turns up in black overcoat, white gloves, black top hat and dark glasses – the Education Board uniform. How does he know what to wear? Where does he get it from? It can’t be Number Twelve, who barely had time to get him to agree to go ahead, and give him the microspore and the pass.
Ah yes, the pass. In amongst the advanced underground security of this mysterious orgamisation that has set up the Village and its surveillance/control systems, we may be forgiven for doubting our eyesight when the pass system into the Administration building appears to be a children’s toy. It’s a ‘snatch box’, a Japanese toy of the period, which McGoohan himself asked to be included. It’s undeniably cute, though its charms are exhausted on the first use. The pass – a small circular token – is placed in a slot. A lid on a box lifts very slowly, a plastic arm with a tiny gripping hand extending oh so slowly towards the token until, at the moment it grasps it, the arm shoots back out of sight and the lid slams down.
And the ending. Number Six beats the General with the unanswerable question, ‘Why?’ It is indeed unanswerable, but it’s also very sophomorish, and something of a pseudo-impressive method of winning the game that, after the bells, whistles, smokes and explosions, looks a little unconvincing.
After my recent post about location filming, this is an instructive episode to consider. At first glance, it seems – especially in its opening sequences – to be full of external filming in Portmeriron. But it doesn’t take too much of a closer look to realise just how much of this is stock footage. The overhead shots of the Village, the shots of the helicopter criss-crossing the Village, even the ‘street scene’ showing the approach to the Administration building, are all stock or repeated footage (the last of these was originally shot for Arrival as part of the Prisoner’s first visit to the Town Hall: it’s probably a consequence of that featuring two top-hatted figures that the black uniform for the Education Board was required).
The only purpose-shot filming at Portmeirion features extras only, chasing the Professor’s double along the beach, with McGoohan’s double shot from behind in the foreground. Everything else, the beach scenes, the café, are exterior sets constructed at Borehamwood.
It’s also unfortunate that John Castle’s part should be as Number Twelve, the very next episode after The Schizoid Man. Two as-yet-undealt-with episodes had been filmed since that Number had assumed prominence: hardly enough for John Castle’s character to have become an established Village inmate, but far more plausible than the seven days that would have separated these episodes on original broadcast.
This is another factor to be considered in trying to fathom out the proper order of episodes.
Harking back to The Schizoid Man, this episode explains the then Number Two’s reference to reporting to The General, a rare example in the series of inter-episode continuity.
According to Robert Fairclough’s The Prisoner – The Original Scripts Volume 1, The General was the episode which underwent the least changes between page and performance, and indeed, except in details, Greifer has captured the entire story in his script.
One change, made on budgetary grounds, does blur the storyline: in Act 2, in the Professor’s home, the several busts uncovered by Number Six were originally to be wax effigies, which makes his subsequent decision to batter the Professor’s skull in to be far less shocking. Deduction from evidence already offered to the audience is always a better option than left-field guesswork. Admittedly, the moment offers a televisual jolt, which is usually good, but it’s at the expense of the logic, and therefore the credibility, of the story.
By the time The General and A, B and C, were finished, only two episodes of the original ‘series 1’ remained to be filmed. The next episode broadcast would be the last to be made by the original production team, and was intended to provide a pointer towards the style of ‘series 2’.But, as we know, things didn’t work out that way at all.

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