The Prisoner: episode 7 – Many Happy Returns – discursion

Georgina Cookson

Many Happy Returns was the seventh episode of The Prisoner to be broadcast, and the thirteenth and final of the originally planned series 1 to be filmed. It was written by Anthony Skene, scripter of A, B and C, and was his third and final script for the series (the other being the as-yet-undiscussed Dance of the Dead). It was directed by Patrick McGoohan under his pseudonym of Joseph Serf.
The episode itself is a spectacular piece of work, not least in the daring to have no (English) dialogue until almost halfway through, and McGoohan’s performance as a man who has, after a long period of incarceration, returned home is subtle and delicate. Many Happy Returns was also one of the favourite episodes of series co-creator George Markstein, as one of the few that accorded with his original vision of the series. Indeed, Markstein saw this episode as the proper series closer: Number Six finally escapes and returns to London, only to discover that he is just as much under the control of his mysterious gaolers: that he is, and forever will be, a prisoner of who he is and what he was.
It was also the last episode with which Markstein was involved.
Skene also seems to have been under the impression that this was to be the final episode as his script recapitulates many incidents from Arrival, giving the impression that, after thirteen weeks, the Prisoner is back where he started.
Instead, the episode aired halfway through the putative Series 1 run (except in the 1983 Channel 4 first re-run, when it was aired second: way to go, boys, this guy has just been kidnapped to a mysterious, inescapable, secret location, and first thing you show is him escaping). Markstein’s influence had all but disappeared in the face of McGoohan’s increasingly abstract approach, and – ironically in the face of an episode that set up what would have been the underlying theme of series 2 – it must have been around this time that McGoohan and Grade had their meeting that led to the abandonment of the latter and the commissioning of the four additional episodes that would lead the show into Cult History.
With McGoohan as Director, everyone must have expected changes to the original script, but a comparison between what aired and Skene’s script as reprinted in Fairclough’s book is astonishing. The final broadcast varies little from the plot, or spine of Skene’s story, but each episode has been radically revised, to the extent that a version shot entirely to the script would be almost a brand new episode.
Just to give a handful of examples, the opening sequence in the Village is cut to eliminate almost all the emotions Number Six experiences, the German pair take him on board their motor vessel, the Romanies speak pure English with a cockney accent, Mrs Butterworth was a little old lady who thought the Prisoner was a burglar, and there is considerably more, and more pointed dialogue in the final scene back in Number Six’s cottage (the final version is much more effective, cutting things off at the punchline).
You will already have noted that this is the second time that an episode purports to identify where the Village is situated. We’ve already discounted the Lithuanian Coast theory, in The Chimes of Big Ben, as disinformation spread by a double agent. This time, the Village is authoritatively placed somewhere between the south west Portugal/Spain coast and the north west Morroccan coast (the original script ties it to an island abandoned because of the threat of volcanic destruction).
I say authoritatively, because whilst the work of the two experts is based on limited information and is tentative at best, the following day, McGoohan is flown to the area they specify, and he finds the Village. He is equipped with maps, he is directing a systematic survey of terrain that matches the maps he carries, he finds the Village.
Hang the fact that he is searching in a Mediterranean/North African region for a location that has a temperate British climate and flora. And there’s one other episode in which the Village’s physical location is indicated, completely incompatible with Many Happy Returns, but as we shall see, that is also completely unreliable. Face it, this is where the Village is.
And no, I don’t believe that for one moment. I cannot square it with seventeen episodes of daily life in the Village. But I also cannot come up with a way to step around what is portrayed here that convinces even me.
It would appear to be a massive blow to the believability of the series, except that one other, and more fundamental issue, supervenes.
What is the central fact of this episode? That the Prisoner actually does return to London, and he physically returns to British Intelligence, his former employers. But wait: didn’t he already do that in The Chimes of Big Ben? Not quite: he never left the Village in that episode, but he did meet two former colleagues in British Intelligence, including a superior, in Colonel J and Fotheringay: people he knew. Now he meets The Colonel and Thorpe. The Colonel is familiar to him, but I infer from how the scene is played, that he does not know Thorpe, the openly sceptic.
Why doesn’t he meet his first two contacts? The message in The Chimes of Big Ben was directed to Colonel J, who, it is implied, was Number Six’s direct chief. But, let’s say, the Colonel is higher in Intelligence than Colonel J, or that Colonel J has since been … removed? For that matter, given what we discussed last time, do we know that The Chimes of Big Ben took place before Many Happy Returns or after?
Actually, it doesn’t matter which order the two episodes take place, the same ultimate question applies. For what it’s worth, I do believe that The Chimes of Big Ben is earlier, and that Many Happy Returns in its early stages (far more so in the original script) portrays Number Six’s over-riding fear that he will only be allowed so far in his escape before the Village intervenes.
But whilst there are perfectly plausible reasons why the Prisoner doesn’t meet those contacts he met the first time, what is inexplicable is that he neither refers to that previous episode, nor shows any heightened suspicion about British Intelligence as a consequence.
Why doesn’t he bring it up? Why is he not automatically suspicious of the aid being given to him to locate the Village? Yes, the Prisoner is affected by a quasi-euphoric response to at last getting away but he retains his natural suspicions (what made him such a good agent) as to which side runs the Village.
The only logical explanation depends upon pure hypothesis. Number Six has been subjected to drugs on various occasions, and on his next return to London, he will have been brainwashed to forget he has ever been kidnapped at all. Therefore he must have been drugged on this occasion and brainwashed into forgetting his encounter with Colonel J and Fotheringay. Perfectly plausible: but when the Number Two of that story, Leo McKern, reappears in Once Upon a Time, Number Six recognises his voice instantly.
Even this plausible hypothesis can be knocked down, with evidence. So what is the reality?
The reality is that there is no reality. We cannot square the circle on this inconsistency because the series was seen as a succession of discrete episodes, not a tightly-consistent serial. Applying too much real world logic leads us to suggestions that the Prisoner is being brainwashed to forget between each episode, or that Number Six is actually a different character, reset to zero, in every episode.
And it’s not as if the series’ as yet unconceived ending doesn’t support such a reading.
A couple of minor points: anyone watching this episode under the age of thirty is unlikely to appreciate the in-joke of having veteran actor Richard Caldicot play the senior Royal Navy officer. Caldicot was best known as Commander Povey in the long-running nautical radio sitcom The Navy Lark, starring Leslie Phillips and Jon Pertwee, which ran from 1959 to 1975 and is still in regular repeat on Radio 4 Extra today.
The use of Robert Reilty to substitute as Number Two in the credits – it being impossible for Georgina Cookson to be revealed as Number Two up front – was intended as a one-off, but after the following episode, it became standard usage, relieving all the subsequent Number Twos (except the returning Leo McKern) of the task.
Lastly, having regard to our discussion about the possible misogynistic aspects of the series, let us note that Georgina Cookson is the second female Number Two. But though she plays a prominent, and beautifully misdirecting, part in the story, like Rachel Herbert before her, her actual identification as Number Two is limited to no more that ten seconds onscreen. That case remains open.


2 thoughts on “The Prisoner: episode 7 – Many Happy Returns – discursion

  1. i would like to say this series does not lend itself to logic, Considering the Chimes episode, he surely is suspicious of his previous employers (friends) by now and many happy returns should prove it. If his old bosses are out to get him that solves it for me.

    1. Which leads to some of the more fantastical interpretations of the series as a whole. But then again, in Chimes he never physically got to London and saw only two former colleagues, neither of whom appear in Many Happy Returns. The situation is different: he is there. Fotheringay and that Colonel may have been double agents, London unaware of his contact, both exposed or detected by now. The answers are endless, more so than the questions…

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