So we come to the issue concerning The Prisoner that has probably had more words expended upon it than any other aspect of the series over the past four decades: the running order.
For this series of posts, I’ve elected to stick entirely to the original broadcast order, as used in 1967/8, in the Granada repeats of 1976/7, in all but the first of the three series of Channel 4 repeats throughout the Eighties, and in the “Ultimate Collection” DVD Boxset that I own. Which, as we’ve already seen, veers wildly from the production order of the first thirteen filmed episodes.
This, by itself, is no indication. Some series – indeed, nearly every non-serialised drama series in the modern era – are written with a defined sequence. Lost was a serial, as was The Wire. On the other hand, to choose another favourite, Homicide – Life on the Street, though filmed during and for a period that still regarded episodes as detachable, was made with a running order built on developing sub-plots and arcs that continued from episode to episode.
Which didn’t prevent NBC chopping up the planned order and pushing episodes back and forth as it suited their immediate purposes.
However, with no exceptions that I can presently think of, the thriller series’ of the Sixties had no episode to episode continuity. Series could be shown in any order the television companies wanted, because it didn’t matter. Serials were serials, but series’ permitted viewers to miss a week or two, here and there, with no fears that when they returned, they would not understand what was going on.
With minor adjustments, this was the approach taken by The Prisoner, exactly as it had been for Danger Man. Certain episodes – Arrival as the opening episode, to set everything up, Once upon a Time as the series 1 curtain-closer, to set up the never-filmed second series – had a set position: the others might be shuffled as necessity demanded.
It simply wasn’t seen as important, as things are now. Guest stars (with a few exceptions, not foreseen in advance) only appeared in single episodes. Recurring cast were limited to supporting roles: the silent, dwarf butler played by Angelo Muscat was the most prominent, and most prolific, the Shopkeeper recurs a handful of times.
To a large extent, broadcast order was dictated by the order in which episodes finished in production: what was ready first was shown first, though a more contemplative decision was taken to postpone Dance of the Dead: it is clear from internal indications that this should be an early episode – one source suggested that this was one of three commissions issued to writers who were told this was to be the second episode – but its downbeat tone, and its dark and difficult story was thought to be unsuitable so soon into a new series that still needed to establish itself with its audience.
As we’ll see, in due course, its actual placement in the running order was ingenious, to make logical use of its contents.
But despite all this, there are episodes that contain indications that they were intended to show Number Six’s early reactions to the Village, and these are not all shown early in the series. For instance, I commented on the degree of credibility in Free For All behind Number Six’s acceptance of the supposed election: many people believe this indicates the episode should be placed second, when the Prisoner is still unfamiliar with the Village.
And there’s the Colin Gordon issue, as demonstrated by The General.
Given the contrast in his two performances, it’s only logical to place The General before A, B and C: they were filmed in that order, Gordon is the ‘new’ Number Two in the first and ‘is’ Number Two in the second, and he is calm, confident, almost arrogant in the first, but nervy, edgy and hyper-afraid of failure in the second. There is no emotional or psychological credibility in the performances taking place in broadcast order.
Yet in The General Number Two is experienced with Number Six, hints at a pre-episode meeting, already aware of what can and cannot be done with his Prisoner. Nowhere in any episode but this is there a suggestion that Number Six and the new Number Two have had any significant contact before their first onscreen encounter.
No such issues apply to Leo McKern’s episodes as Number Two: though filmed back-to-back, they were always intended to appear at different points in the series, and on McKern’s second appearance in Once Upon a Time, both he and Number Six identify him as having returned.
But there are two other instances where the same actor appears in two separate episodes. Georgina Cookson, appears in a minor speaking role at Engadine’s party in A, B and C and then returns in a major role, as Mrs Butterworth, in Many Happy Returns. There’s not necessarily a dislocation in this: her first part is as a character in Number Six’s dream, after all, but there are more serious issues surrounding the two appearances of Patrick Cargill, first as a British Intelligence senior official in Many Happy Returns and then, of all things, as Number Two in Hammer into Anvil.
There are alternate running orders available, that try to make more logical sense of the relationships between episodes, and try to encompass the best design in light of the clues that may be discerned. Several versions are detailed in Wikipedia
For instance, Six of One, the Prisoner Appreciation Society have endorsed a running order that is employed on the 40th Anniversary DVD box set. To give you a flavour of it, as it pertains to episodes I’ve already covered, it promotes Free for All to second, followed by Dance of the Dead and Checkmate. The Chimes of Big Ben and A, B and C drop two places but The General still follows that, despite all the indications to the contrary.
Channel 4, in their first repeat in 1983, decided in their wisdom to place Many Happy Returns second, a decision whose inanity you will understand when we move on to that next.
Me, I express no opinions. There is no achievable definitive running order, nothing that is not open to objection on some ground or other. There never was any consistent intention for there to be one. As I’ll be coming to after we’ve looked at Many Happy Returns, there is a second, insuperable bar to the application of strict natural chronology to The Prisoner. And that’s before we even think of Fall-Out.
Some or many of you may find that these contradictions are a bar to your enjoyment, or at any rate your acceptance, of The Prisoner. I have decided to accept them and to exclude appreciation of the story from such demands. It is, and from the beginning was, a thing of surreality, and I’m more than willing to play to its strengths and ignore its weaknesses.
You see, it’s not real.