Dance of the Dead was the eighth broadcast episode of The Prisoner and the fourth to go into production. It was written by Anthony Skene, the first of his three Prisoner scripts to be written, and was directed primarily by Don Chaffey.
Skene apparently wrote the episode without notes from McGoohan or Markstein, giving him a free hand to create the visual and emotional template for the series, which he does brilliantly. He was heavily influenced by Jean Cocteau’s Orphee, and by the 1941 film The Devil and Daniel Webster, and the episode, as reflected in its title, was originally supposed to end in a dance between Number Six and his Observer, the ‘dead’ dancing.
Inevitably, McGoohan refused such intimate contact with his pretty guest star, which proved to be the final straw for original Chaffey, who left the series as a consequence. The thematic ending went unfilmed but, if anything, what replaced it was far better, a harsh and stunning moment.
McGoohan disliked the episode, and there was a serious risk that it would not be transmitted, until film editor John Wood went through the available footage and cut together the version we know, which won McGoohan’s approval.
The most immediately noticeable aspect of this episode is that it is the only one to feature a female Number Two from the credits to the end. However, just as the part of Ripley in Alien was originally written for a male actor, so too was Mary Morris a very late choice as Number Two, the part originally being intended for Trevor Howard, until he fell ill shortly before filming began.
Together with the Observer, played by Norma West, (and the, albeit brief) appearance of a female Control Room Supervisor), this is superficially the most ‘female-friendly’ episode of the series. Not that that stops Number Six delivering the infamous line, “Never trust a woman. Not even the four-legged kind”: even the Village cat is a betrayer!
Dance of the Dead is an unobtrusively excellent episode but it has two basic flaws. Firstly, though broadcast halfway through the series, it is self-evidently a very early episode (indeed, if I were playing the running order game, I would place this second). In this place, it is establishing things about the Village, its intents and methods, that after so many episodes are already established.
The other is that it isn’t actually a story.
Consider it again. In terms of my simplistic definition, it is neither Escape, Resistance nor Revolt, though there are the slightest of nods to the first two themes. But there is no plan, by either Number Six or Number Two, no enterprise formed or denied. The episode is a kaleidoscope, a prism through which the sense of the Village – what it is, what it does, who it uses and how – is made plain to the viewer.
It’s simply a primer on what it is going to be like for Number Six to exist in the Village.
Lacking an overarching theme, the episode progresses as a series of discrete scenes, each marked by stunningly subtle performances by a guest cast taking in the thematic underpinning of the enterprise, leading the viewer into emotional depths.
The opening sequence with the Doctor re-states the superficial, espionage basis of the series, but is overridden by Number Two’s emphasis on bringing Number Six into their vision of the world. We’ve been here with Leo McKern in The Chimes of Big Ben, but this is more powerful, being stated without the element of emotional involvement McKern brings to his role.
The almost gaunt, angular-faced Doctor, was played with quiet insistence upon limited aims by Duncan MacRae, who would have been familiar to the contemporary audience from his Fifties film performances in comic roles for Ealing Films: It was MacRae’s final performance, the actor dying before transmission.
This is followed by the sequence in which Number Six is obliquely introduced to his Observer. It begins with the familiar trope of Number Two falling into conversation with Number Six, just as he discovers and begins stroking the black cat. This time she’s selling Carnival, the traditional period of abandonment and licence – except that it is licence within what the Village controls. Norma West is superb throughout as the Observer, continually on edge, simultaneously revolted and fascinated by Number Six. Even with her hair down in the Carnival scenes, she remains on edge with him. But prior to that point, she is always seen with her hair swept up inside her Sixties white cap, and her face exposed and vulnerable.
This is book-ended by two scenes with the Maid, Denise Buckley, who is playing her small role with a superbly judged mixture of coquettishness and disdain, as she flirts against a background of Number Six’s indifference. She’s been delivered in Tudor Dress, in preparation for Carnival, and her voice and expression denote an underlying feeling of superiority.
Later though, when the cat comes into the picture, her attitude drops into petulance, almost jealousy, tinged anger that Number Six seems to be acting in defiance of the Rules.
This latter sequence also alerts Number Six to the realisation that, during his brief time in the Village, he has been sleeping solidly every night, a state that he quickly proves has been artificially induced. This leads to his fruitless run along the shore, and his discovery, in the morning of the drowned man, from whom he takes the radio. Number Two’s insouciance about his breaking out at night is an impressive reinforcement of the difficulties he faces.
The Maid, this time in a smug frame of mind, appears again, prior to the scene where Number Six tries the purloined radio and gets an unusual message. It’s another glittering moment: an authoritative voice makes a stirring invocation to his country before dropping into a conspiratorial message that suggests a secret rebellion. For a moment it’s obliquely relevant, though in the background, as Number Six is joined by Number Two and the Observer, we are deflated (if we are alert enough) by being told it is only a dictation exercise!
But this sequence allows Norma West another chance to stand out, as she both confronts and evades the Prisoner, again emphasising the Rules, the unseen Rules that everyone seems to want to adhere to, but which are never produced to be studied: unseen, they can only be unchallenged.
Number Six heads back to the cave to send the drowned man out to sea with a message that may lead to his being discovered, only to be confronted by the agent threatened with death, Dutton.
It’s a small part for actor Alan White, but the slight figure, with the hairline beginning to recede, resigned to an inevitable fate, is yet again superb: a nailed on portrait of a man without hope, a portrait that reinforces Number Six’s sense of helplessness, knowing he can do nothing, except offer a hope that is hollow.
So to Carnival: the scene on the sands was an inspiration of Chaffey and works perfectly. Mary Morris, in her incongruous Peter Pan costume, makes splendid use of her defiantly skinny frame (had Trevor Howard been fit, he would have worn a Jack the Ripper costume that would have been far less effective: the sprite-like Peter is a better symbol of the pretend-licence afforded tonight).
Number Six is not in costume: he is himself, but it’s clear from the context that in the Village’s eyes, that is a costume, and as deeply unreal as all the others. His observer portrays Bo-Peep, innocence and innocuousness, in one, feminised by her long, blonde hair, but still the equivocal figure caught between disdain and fear. She wants her charge to unbend, to begin to conform. Her dancing is timid, a feeble Sixties jigging from side-to-side but she wants her non-partner to respond and his failure to do so, as much as his increasing insistence on asking questions frustrates her into walking away.
This releases Number Six for his first journey into the corridor, his taking over the death warrant for Dutton and discovering the drowned man’s body has been retrieved and will be used as a substitute for him, to cut him off entirely from the outside world.
The trial was inspired by The Devil and Daniel Webster, where a lawyer disputes with the Devil before a Court of historical figures to overturn the contract by which a man has sold his soul. Number Six faces the Maid (dressed as Queen Elizabeth, taking on both imperiousness and a girlish spite), the Doctor (dressed as Napoleon, turned dry and pedantic) and as chief judge, Julius Caesar, played by the Town Crier.
This small part was played by Aubrey Morris, an actor with a pompous, orotund style of delivery that was tailor-made for this role, and which he employed with glee as Caesar, in both word and movement.
The trial is a Kafkaesque experience (it is, however, exceedingly difficult to conjure up a non-procedural trial that is not Kafkaesque). The Observer prosecutes with her already established nervous intensity, accusing Number Six as if he has given her a personal affront. Number Two defends by accepting guilt, and merely asks, somewhat indolently, for clemency. The black cap is produced, an image that today has lost its force from historical disuse. The Observer demands they stop it: Number Two reminds her that it is the Rules
The episode ends in surreal fashion, a foretaste of the yet-to-be-written final episode, as the Villagers pursue Number Six, intent on mobbing him to death, only to be dispersed and wander away the moment he is out of sight. And Number Six is out of sight in what he believes to be Number One’s office, where there is a magic telex that continues to work despite being destroyed.
Just as there has been no story, there is no ending. Number Six is defiant, Number Two harshly triumphant. Her derisive laughter is the final image, mocking his defiance and promising him a very rough time ahead. A stunning moment, and perhaps the only possible climax: it is defeat, pure and simple for the Prisoner.
In terms of overall continuity for the series, Dance of the Dead introduces two major elements that are abandoned immediately. Number Six is sentenced to death and the Villagers clamour to execute him, but this vanishes (though an echo of it resurfaces in A Change of Mind) and not only is he never again pursued, but his relationships with the community, though never intimate, remain cordial throughout.
And after playing such a major part, the very concept of the Observer vanishes completely. Of course, Number Six remains under surveillance, mostly by Number Two, but there is never again any intimation of an individual assigned to his case.
I’ve always found Dance of the Dead to be a bitty, unsatisfying episode, though watching it with a more analytical eye than usual has shown it’s great merits to me. It’s still out of place in the broadcast sequence – except for the serendipitous placing immediately after Many Happy Returns which conveniently shuts down any pursuit by British Intelligence after Number Six’s return to London, death at sea being an ‘expected’ end to the reconnaissance flight that (presumably) never returned. And it still doesn’t have a story.
But it’s a fascinating, expressive depiction of the Village, and the standard of acting even down to minor roles is probably the highest in the entire series.