Checkmate was the ninth broadcast episode of The Prisoner and the third to go into production. It was written by Gerald Kelsey and was credited as directed by Don Chaffey, although filming at Borehamwood was under the control of McGoohan. It’s original, working title was The Queen’s Pawn. This episode makes the widest and most extensive use of location footing in the whole series, with McGoohan and his guest stars continually criss-crossing the Village, as well as bringing the beach into prominent display.
The one guest star who missed out on this was Peter Wyngarde, playing Number Two, whose scenes were all shot on set, not that you’d realise this, especially in the scene where he intercepts Number Six in a mini-moke outside his cottage: Wyngarde’s reaction shots, in the studio, are very skilfully matched to McGoohan’s in Portmeirion.
Wyngarde would shortly become famous in his own right, for playing the flamboyant novelist Jason King, first in Department S and then in his own spin-off series. At one point, I recall reading an interview with Wyngarde, who was good friends with McGoohan, in which he claimed that the original idea was for him to be a permanent Number Two, appearing in every episode, but that his schedule didn’t permit t.
It’s a claim I’ve never heard from any other source, though that doesn’t mean I’m going to dispute it. It does, however, sit at odds with the series’ theme of the individual against a crushing corporate rule, and we know now that the series was all the better for the portrayal of a changing, multi-faceted, yet ultimately monolithic authority.
Besides, if Wyngarde had taken up a starring role in The Prisoner, would he have been free to appear in Department S? Would the world have been deprived of Jason King?
In any event, he’s excellent in the role, in an understated, internally calm but commanding manner. Wyngarde is unfazed at everything, in command of all situations, his seeming indolence underpinned by a quiet intensity. Though the scene comes out of nowhere, it’s no surprise, on his performance, to find him sat cross-legged in judo robes, intently focussed on a block of wood. For the only time, his voice is heavy, when he responds to the phone by pointing out he gave orders he was not to be disturbed, and his response to news that an escape attempt is being made is a few seconds intense calm, before a sudden karate chop that smashes the wood in two.
Checkmate is the last Escape episode of the series. It’s also the last episode as broadcast to feature the new Number Two speaking his own responses to the catechism: all other episodes will feature voice-over regular Robert Rietty’s answers as used in Many Happy Returns.
It’s also another episode that regularly gets placed early in the running order game, mostly on the strength of the assertions that Number Six is new here, and his learning how to detect the difference between Master and Slave. Indeed, the episode was among the first block of four filmed, in late 1966, in the main location shooting at Portmeirion.
As far as it’s position in the psychological development of the series is concerned, unfortunately, like Dance of the Dead before it (in both senses), Checkmate introduces ideas that are simply not applied to the rest of the story. Of course, from here to the end as broadcast, Number Six makes no further attempt to escape (he does get out of the Village and back to London again, in Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darling, but as we will see, it’s hardly of his own volition), so he no longer needs to test anyone for trustworthiness.
On the other hand, in the near future It’s Your Funeral, he does trust another Villager, without negative consequence but without any concern for applying his test.
Again, this is just something we have to accept as being a product of the times in which the series was made, as I have said with regard to running order issues before. Each episode of The Prisoner is a discrete, single story, with no more than the basic, ground-level continuity from one to the other. A satisfactory running order of episodes is impossible to determine because none such was ever planned or even considered. By the same token, the application of ideas from one episode to another was not in the minds of those making the series, as will be amply demonstrated over the next two episodes.
If the show was being made now, in the Twenty-First century, for an audience trained to expect and demand such subtle inter-episode progression, these things would be a primary consideration. On the other hand, as the utterly disastrous re-make demonstrated, the conditions that enabled the show to be what it is, only existed at the time of its making, in that particular art of the Sixties. There is a continuum of ideas, out of which art is created, whether by reference to or in opposition to what is there at any given moment. What made The Prisoner was the world in which it existed, and we have to accept that.
This episode is also unusual for the number of guest stars it uses. Aside from Wyngarde (who, unusually for a Number Two, is relegated to third guest), these include (in credit order) Ronald Radd, Patricia Jessel, Rosalie Crutchley and George Colouris.
Radd is the Rook, and fully deserving of his top billing. He was a short, slightly dumpy man, who appeared in numerous British and American TV shows before dying in 1976 at the early age of 47. He gets the chance to show off his range here, as the would-be resistant but cowed and fearful little man, caught between opposing forces greater then him, and the agony Radd shows when the Rook realises he has betrayed someone who was trustworthy is palpable.
Crutchley plays the Queen as a bright, cheerful, overgrown schoolgirl. She was a Shakespearian actress in her early forties, yet another example of the series reaching out to established actors outside the usual television thriller pool. The part was originally written as a young, attractive woman, whereas Crutchley was older than McGoohan. No doubt as a consequence of his strict beliefs on immorality, even when the Queen turns up, late at night in McGoohan’s cottage in her dressing room, Crutchley exudes sexlessness (she is, after all, only making him hot chocolate, to help him sleep).
It’s an entertaining and curiously effective performance, certainly far more effective than a standard sexually-forward approach would have been. Number Six is recognisably embarrassed by the Queen’s loyalty to him, and to some extent sympathetic to her as the victim she is, which could not have been achieved if the earthier level had been used.
The Queen is the true victim in this episode, manipulated into positive, loving feelings only to be frustrated and betrayed by both sides. Number Six is ultimately callous, taking her very precious locket with no intention of returning it, and indeed the episode abandons the Queen at this point, leaving her story very much untold.
I’m surprised to see Colouris elevated to the level of guest star, given that his role is so limited. He plays the Man with the Stick, and whilst he’s vital to the story getting under way, after his post-game discussion with Number Six, alerting him on how to detect allies, he vanishes from the story. Not totally: he is part of Number Six’s team, but his age and infirmity prevents him from actually doing – or saying – anything.
Jessel, for me, is the anomaly among the guest stars. She plays the psychiatrist, and whilst her part is of significance to the story, her portrayal of the character is dry, cool, efficient, straightforward but essentially characterless. It’s a functional role, to which she brings nothing more than functionality, and why this merited second billing among the guests, I can’t begin to understand.
Overall, Checkmate is an excellent episode. And, though it was never intended as such, having been commissioned as part of a thirteen episode series, it is the hinge-point for what The Prisoner became. It’s the midway point of the run. From here it’s the downhill side. And whilst there are still excellent – classic – episodes to come, there is a sense of downhill after this.
However, this is one of the few episodes that does not leave a sense of closure in respect of its guest characters. As I said, the Queen is left abandoned, in love but deprived, her story cut off. It’s clear from how she is manipulated that she, like Number Six, is a prisoner. We can only hope she is de-programmed. But it is the Rook who concerns me most: based on the pain of hisself-betrayal, I fear a suicide.
In later years, McGoohan would say that he originally saw The Prisoner as a mini-series of seven episodes, and that there were only seven episodes of those made that he could really stand behind, including Checkmate. Only two more of that ‘super-series’ of seven remain to be considered.