The Prisoner: episode 13 – Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling – synopsis

A series of transparent slides are being projected onto a filmscreen in an extensive, luxurious office. Two men, initially offscreen, discuss them. When seen they are Sir Charles Portland and Villiers of British Intelligence.
The slides are holiday scenes, in no logical order, some over-exposed, some under-exposed, some correct. Sir Charles believes that there is a code somewhere in them that their code technicians have been unable to penetrate. Villiers is concerned that there is nothing at all.
The next slide – identified by Sir Charles as Number Six – shows an elderly man of foreign extraction, white hair receding from a thin face with prominent cheekbones. His name is Seltzman. But where is he?
Thunder crashes.
The first part of the opening credits follows, until the Prisoner collapses unconscious on his couch in his flat. When he wakes, a new melody is heard, and the familiar catechism is omitted.
We see overhead shots of the Village, from a helicopter descending to land. It’s occupant is a man known only as the Colonel, who goes immediately to Number Two’s office, demanding to know what he has been brought there for.
The new Number Two, white haired, with a very assured manner, directs the Colonel’s attention to the surveillance footage of Number Six pacing in his cottage. The Colonel is not impressed.
Number Two asks him if he has ever heard of Professor Seltzman? Seltzman is a brilliant neurologist who has concerned himself with the transfer of thought and has, apparently, invented a machine that can transfer the mind of one man into the body of another. The Colonel is openly disbelieving. Number two enthusiastically describes it as the ultimate espionage tool, with which they could break the security of any country: just capture an agent and send him back with their own man’s mind in his body.
However, the Village doesn’t know where Seltzman is, and the only man who might is Number Six. But they have a Seltzman machine, and an Amnesia Room where they can erase a person’s memory back to a specified date (they are about to erase the last three weeks from a man who told them everything very easily, so he can go back and learn more).
Number Six’s memory will be erased back to the eve of his capture by the Village, and his mind will be transferred into the Colonel’s body. He will be returned to his flat in London, unaware of the Village, and he will then have to find Seltzman if he wants his own body back.
The Prisoner wakes in his own bed in his flat, musing about the things he needs to do today. There is a photograph on his dresser of an elegant, dark-haired woman, signed ‘All my love, Janet’, which he looks at closely. He goes through into the hall, passing a mirror, then steps back in shock at the sight of his new face and body.
A series of memories of his time in the Village threatens to break through his induced amnesia, but before it can do so, he is distracted by a knock on the door. When he opens it, it is Janet, asking excitedly if ‘he’ is here, ‘his’ car is outside. Unwittingly, he says that ‘he’ is here, but Janet quickly confirms no-one else is there and asks him anxiously about the missing man.
For a moment, the Prisoner plans to take Janet into his confidence, but her anxious questions make him realise that is inadvisable. Instead, he calls her Miss Portland (she is Sir Charles’ daughter) and claims to be a friend of the missing man,
He recollects his ‘friend’ telling him about Janet’s fitting for a dress of yellow silk, and is shocked when she tells him that that was a year ago: the last time she saw his ‘friend’. The Prisoner, shocked to find he has lost a year, gently hints at his ‘friend’s occupation and suggests he is on a mission for Sir Charles. He promises to bring Janet a message as soon as he can.
An angry Janet storms off to her father’s office, accusing him of knowing of her fiancé’s whereabouts all along and letting her suffer. Although he should not even tell her this, Sir Charles denies that the Prisoner is on a mission and ‘honestly’ states he does not know where he is.
Meanwhile, the Prisoner dresses in the same clothes as in the opening credits and drives his car to the underground car park. He enters the anteroom, where a different person, Danvers, is sat, He demands to see Sir Charles and, when Danvers asks who he is, grabs hi and begins shaking him.
Two guards calm things down. Whilst he waits to be seen, the Prisoner displays his (embarrassing) knowledge of Danvers, until Villiers arrives. Villiers requests his name: the Prisoner enquires whether he wants Code or Real.
His Code name is Duvall, in France, Schmidt in Germany, but Villiers would know him best as ZM73. He produces a photo of his real face. Villiers takes him to Sir Charles, where the Prisoner attempts to prove himself by reference to intimate family details. Sir Charles confirms the accuracy of these but points out that anything the stranger says could have been extorted from the real man by drugs or brainwashing. Frustrated, the Prisoner leaves: Sir Charles warns him he will be followed. An Agent named Potter is instructed to follow him.
On his way back to his flat, he is again followed by a hearse, but when he turns right, the hearse goes straight on and is waiting in his street when he returns.
The scene shifts to a large home where a black tie party is taking place. The Prisoner arrives in dress suit. A waiter hands him a glass of champagne: it is the Undertaker from the hearse. The Prisoner seeks out Janet and asks her for a dance. Though he was not invited, he has used his ‘friend’s invitation of a year before. He tells her that if she ever wants to see her fiancé again, she must give him the slip of paper that the man asked her to hold for him a year ago.
He waits in the arbour, musing over whether she believed him, but Janet turns up with the slip, eager for the message he has for her. First he caresses her face with his hand, then kisses her lightly on the left eye, the right eye, the tip of her nose, then her lips. She flings her arms round him and kisses him passionately, before breaking in realisation. He asks her who else could have given her that message, asks her to say only him: he needs her faith. Only you, she replies.
The next morning, the Prisoner attends a London camera shop first thing, reclaiming the transparencies being held under the receipt Janet has given him. They have been checked out before, by ‘clerical error’. Both the Undertaker and Potter observe him in the shop. He takes them home, draws the blinds. He writes Seltzman’s name on a sheet of paper then works out the alphabetical number for the even letters – E, T , M and N. Sorting out the respective slides, he superimposes their images in the projector. This reveals a composite message: Kandersfeld, Austria.
The Prisoner leaves for Dover. There is a homing device in his car, and Potter follows him. He travels through Paris, France and into Austria, stopping at a café in Kandersfeld, where a waiter welcomes him to the Village. The waiter identifies Seltzman’s picture as Herr Hallen, the barber and confirms he is still in Kandersfeld.
The barber is clearly Seltzman. At first, the Prisoner pretends to need a shave, but he quickly abandons this and explains who he is and why he is there. Seltzman is unconvinced. It is the same as with Sir Charles. However, the Prisoner convinces Seltzman that no two handwritings can be the same and, as Seltzman has sentimentally kept a letter sent to him, this can be proved (the letter is addressed to Portmeirion Road).
Seltzman sympathises with his young friend, and asks if he has been followed. They must not let themselves be taken by a side that does not have the Prisoner’s real body. Potter is first to arrive. The Prisoner tackles him and the two fight in Seltzman’s basin, until the Undertaker enters and gasses both into unconsciousness.
For a second time, a helicopter descends on the Village. Seltzman and the Prisoner in the Colonel’s body come to Number Two’s office. Seltzman has perfected the reversion process, but will only carry this out under his own terms, that he be completely alone. Number Two agrees, as he is having the entire process filmed.
Seltzman prepares his machine with the two unconscious bodies in place. He puts on an electroded cap and switches on. Lightning crackles between the three heads, subjecting Seltzman to extreme strain until he collapses.
Emergency services are called, but Seltzman is dying. The Colonel leaves for his helicopter.
‘Seltzman’ is fading fast. His final words to Number Two berate him for promising him the body was healthy and requesting that Number One be informed that he did his duty. Number Two’s puzzlement ends as he suddenly realises the implications of this statement, which is affirmed by Number Six, in his own body, sitting up and advising that Seltzman had gone further than any of them had suspected: he could transfer three minds between three bodies. The one he is in has gone free.
The helicopter takes off and flies away.
The Prisoner’s face races towards the screen. A pair of iron-barred doors slide across in front of it, slamming shut.


On Writing: What Second Drafts can do for you

After completing the First Draft of Tempus Expletive, I put the book away for three months, needing to establish some space before I looked at it again. I made a start on another novel, which I didn’t continue with, the novel I’m trying to get myself properly into at the moment, as it happens.
When I came back to start the Second Draft, I had not gone very far at all before I realised that I had committed a major oversight in internal logic.
In Fugitive I’d introduced the idea of parallel Earths, and the idea that too many time-trips to the same place/time ‘softened’ the barriers between different versions of them and created the danger of accidental slippage. And I’d used an inversion of the same situation to create the conditions for  the crossing between parallel worlds in Infinitive.
I used the same basic scenario at the start of Expletive: Jack and Alison are back at Old Trafford for that Roses Match again, taking care to avoid themselves from different times, but falling foul of an encounter with themselves from a different Earth.
This had always been intended to turn them towards other, more facetious uses of the Time Machine as a process that would culminate in Alison being left behind, but I realised, on re-reading the First Draft, that I had taken for granted that Jack and Alison returned to “Earth-1”, when if I were being consistent, there was not only no certainty of that but rather the opposite.
Up to this point, my Second Drafts had been refinements on an established story. Sharpening, tightening. Adding lines in the first half that foreshadowed (subtly) what happened in the second half. This was the first time I faced a major re-writing of my entire plot in order to make it workable.
I’m going to take on trust that other writers, faced with a similar concern, would do what I did and seek to salvage as much of their existing work as they could. Given my approach of developing the story organically, if I were to simply throw in this new development and start from there, this would no longer be a Second Draft.
How, therefore, could I accommodate this new notion within my existing storyline?
It was relatively easy to interpolate the respective realisations of Jack and Alison that they were on the wrong Earth, and the subsequent decision to do nothing about it in the short term, but that was just a stopgap. How to make that play out?
Let me digress at this point to sing the praises of Gene Wolfe, probably the best writer on the planet at the moment, and a writer of infinite subtlety whose novels always contain considerably more between the lines that are written than what is merely revealed by the surface of the page. In the case of the justifiably legendary and sublime The Book of the New Sun tetraology, this consists of a completely different and far more significant story than the one being narrated.
I’ve not written about Wolfe directly in this blog (out of a sense of inferiority both as writer and critic/interpretor), but he was my inspiration for what happened next.
I wanted to be a better writer (I still do, and always will). I wanted to be able, in some small measure, to live up to Gene Wolfe. And it seemed that in my limited fashion I could now do so, by introducing an ‘overstory’, a separate tale of which Jack and Alison were unaware, but which encompassed their own misadventures and overtook them.
It had to be Roland, of course, Roland who I’d left out of this book in order to keep company with Jack and Alison, but who would never allow himself to be eclipsed in this manner, and who would prove to be a hidden hand in forcing a resolution now required by this new plot development.
In terms of re-writing, for much of the way I needed only a line here and there that could be read a different way when Roland stepped out of the shadows – or the smog, to be technical, but the revelation of this overriding plot took over the final fifth of the story, overtly interfering, extending and deepening the book, allowing me to create a justification for that awkward explanation for the original baddy going improbably bad again, and creating a second and forceful context for the ending – which remained as written in the First Draft, give or take the polishing.
This was an object lesson in being prepared to abandon large parts of your story if its internal logic forces it upon you. Just because you’ve written a story a certain way in its first draft, it doesn’t mean that you’re stuck forever with that, that you can only polish and revise from then on. I learned that I was technically capable of revisiting and substantially reshaping the internal reality of my story, that I was not bound to follow it.
Writing is a collaboration between yourself and your characters. You still can’t make them do what they don’t want to do – or can’t – but you can reform reality around them and let them respond to a different set of circumstances.
I also earned myself a new technique, this idea of revelatory knowledge, of a character knowing something all along that they have simply chosen (for good reason, naturally) not to bring up before the moment in which its production changes perspectives. Something that makes you suddenly look twice at a character that you think you’ve known all along, but who has been keeping something hidden. It’s a technique I’ve used in my next novel, appropriately enough in a section of the Second Draft that was a substantial insertion of new material.

100 Bullets: Brother Lono 4

So this is the scene from halfway through: dark.

El Monstre del Norte! (“The Monster of/from(?) the North”) takes us to the midway point, and this is very much a midway issue, still stirring the pot but making sure that the gumbo remains thick and formless. The story inches forward, slowly, and there’s an intriguing last page reveal that adds another, unexpected element to what is developing, but we are still a long way from resolutionns, or even a tipping of the hand.

I have so missed Azzarello.

There’s no direct follow-up to last issue’s closing scenario. In typical fashion, Azzarello switches scene to introduce a rider, an American on a motor bike (from the north…) stopping at an isolated gas station to refuel, and buy a ‘dog’ – actually an iguana. He’s on his way to Durango to meet Cortez, to discuss product, and moving even more of it. It sets a ball rolling, in a direction that’s mightily unwelcome, towards the Church, and Father Manny.

Last issue’s confrontation between Father Manny and Pico, in which Lono intervened to compoundedly break the latter’s arm, spins off in two separate directions. First there is Lono, setting and repairing Pico’s arm, talking with, and to some extent at the angry thug, whose bitterness is directed at the Church and Father Manny for “letting” the child Paolo leave the orphanage, to ‘die’ and become Pico. Lono reacts to the picture in two ways, latterly by talking about himself and his ‘conversion’ from a smoter, whose motto was a Head for an Eye, but before that there is a stunning interpolation, a page out of the blue, in which the old Lono, the Dog, reacts with anger, and the biting off – and swallowing – of Pico’s finger.

Yet Lono still adheres to what he has become but we know, as certainly as we knew, before we opened the pages of issue 1, that the day is coming when he reverts to being the Dog: we saw the shirt in issue 1, the Hawaiian shirt.

Meanwhile, Sister June, the newcomer, the ‘innocent’, cannot understand why Father Manny hasn’t gone to the Sheriff over Pico’s attack, the Sheriff who we find watching Cernao, and Madden (El Monstre del Norte) at night, Father Manny refuses to go to the law: he feels responsible for Pico/Paolo, responsible for all the children he has failed by letting them go, children who are dead: but Pico is alive.

Last issue Father Manny complained, in genuine anger, to Cortez about the bodies buried on church ground. Now Cortez has a proposition: that Las Torres take over more of the Church’s land, establish a presence, a known presence that will ensure no reptition. And the devil seduces with bright promises, of money for schools and books, real schools, for all the Durango children, not merely those who fall, by ‘chance’ into the Orphanage’s net.

It’s a tempting offer, a progressive offer, an offer that can do good, but it’s the devil’s offer, the offer that requires a long spoon with which to sup. It’s an offer that will keep more children. But it is an offer that draws the Church ever more under the dominion of Las Torres. And it is an offer that cannot be refused, for the devil will not allow it.

And at the moment, Sister June, overhearing from the shadows, dials a number, talks on the phone. No, her cover is holding (except with Pico who, in turn, overhears). Yes, it does appear that the Church is part of the drug trade.

So we enter the downhill side, the slide to a conclusion that we already know brings death in its wake. I believe that the graves Lono dug in his Hawaiian shirt at the very beginning are the graves of Father Manny, of Sister June, of orphans, The Dog awaits, growling in its sleep. How many will it bite? And will it, in its turn, be bitten, savagely?

A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City (volume 3) No. 4

I have to say that I’ve been disappointed with all the Alex Ross covers on the new Astro City series so far, and issue 4’s the same, showing central character Martha (“Sully”) Sullivan, enjoying a quiet coffee in a roadside cafe whilst a horde of superheroes race by, and she casually waves them away: idea brilliant, execution undistinguished. The colour palette’s too shallow, there’s a washed out look to it, Sully doesn’t really project enough from the background. There’s isn’t the kind of distinctive image to or in it to make it stand out.

Inside, the story’s another entertaining perspective on the super-powered in the manner that only Kurt Busiek seems able to portray. Long-term readers have met Sully before, in the penultimate issue of volume 2, the Crimson Cougar story (collected in Local Heroes). Sully’s a telekinetic, an experienced woman in her late forties/early fifties, squarely built but comfortable with herself. We met her doing special effects for the television soap that featured the Cougar, when she referenced having once thought of being a superhero (as “Mind-over-Mattie”) before realising it wasn’t for her.

Now we get to see her at more length. The story is ingenious, and Busiek makes sure there’s plenty of time in it for Sully to recount her life-history, showing how Sully discovered the simple fact that, despite her superhuman powers, she simply wasn’t cut out for the costumed life: too stressed and scared to be a hero scrapping with villains, too honest to be a villain, taking what she wants (and all she did was to gimmick a fruit machine to give her the jackpot!).

No, Sully found her niche in special effects, a sort of human CGI. And she found a whole bunch of others like her: super-powered in various ways, not the stuff of heroes (the story, in this aspect, is a gentle reminder to us, from the back, of the extreme personality required to do that), but useful and highly effective in the entertainment business.

Not that that stops idiots with grandiose ideas of conquest and power from trying to take over their lives, trying to make these people (who call themselves Sideliners) use their abilities as they ‘should’, and for the benefit of would-be criminal despots like – the Majordomo!

Yes, Sully turns down an approach along just such lines, tells her agent not to book any jobs for her for a week and settles down to the by-now expected kidnap and removal to a place of slavery where she and a dozen of her friends and fellow Sideliners will be coerced into feeding the Majordomo’s fantasies (Sully will be renamed Telecaster!). But they’ve all been through this before, and they’re ready for it (just because they don’t want to fight doesn’t mean that they can’t) and the hapless Majordomo is not only brought down with ease, but given a major ticking-off too.

All without the need to involve ‘real’ superheroes too.

There’s a neat little coda when Samaritan – who’s getting real exposure in this new series – drops in on Sully at her cafe to gently remind her that the heroes value the Sideliners and would have been eager to help, which ties the strings of Astro City‘s universe together that bit further, but it’s also a reminder of the differences between heroes and those who, for whatever reason, have not so much not got ‘it’, but who merely have something else that they use fulfillingly.

Overall, it’s another illustration of what I’ve long since described as Busiek’s ability to write a series consisting entirely of definitive stories. We know Martha Sullivan now, we have seen her world and her life, seen how distinct and differenmt, yet wholly logical, it is from yours or mine or any common or garden superhero. In the Universe of a comic book company, we would return over and again, seeing Sully doing endless versions of what she does here, and maybe in thoroughly entertaining fashion, but this single story defines her.

Every ongoing series has the defining stry(ies) and the ones that come out to fill a monthly schedule. Astro City has nothing but the defining stories, and doesn’t waste time of repetition. Like the title says, it’s a Universe in one Comic Book.

The Prisoner: George Markstein

I first watched The Prisoner  when it was first broadcast, between 1967/8. The Granada region was the last to take the series, running one month behind the show’s ‘home’ network, ATV. Up here, it ran from late October through to early March, a period of time that encompassed my 12th birthday.
I – we, the whole family – watched it avidly, though my only recollection of that run comes from the first episode: as Number Six approached the Green Dome I said that this was the sort of place I’d expected to see a Lurch (referencing The Addams Family‘s giant, Frankensteinian butler): when little Angelo Muscat, short, rotund, impeccably grave, opened the door, my Dad roared with laughter and announced, “That’s not a Lurch, that’s a Stumble!”. And Stumble he was to us ever after. I definitely owe my sense of humour to my Dad.
But it was been and gone, as all television was, and I don’t recollect it being repeated until 1976/7: again piecemealed region by region. This time I turned 21 during the run, and it’s from here that I mark my true fascination with the series, and the urge to know more and understand more.
During that time, old certainties about the series, hundreds of details, have shifted as more information becomes available. Consensus opinion about the series, its production, its meaning, its goals, is in a constant state of slow shift.
To take one example: my understanding of the origins of the series has always been founded in the ‘fact’ that The Prisoner was co-conceived by George Markstein, the newly-appointed script editor on Danger Man, and that it was based on the true Second World War situation of Inverlair Lodge, a very comfortable, very remote building in Scotland that was home/prison to people that British Intelligence could not afford to allow to be captured.
With McGoohan chafing in, and abruptly resigning from Danger Man, the analogy is too proximate to be ignored: Markstein suggests The Prisoner as a sophisticated espionage drama, an Agent who resigns but is kidnapped to a seemingly idyllic prison, and McGoohan seizes upon the concept as a vehicle for his existing ideas about society and the direction it is taking. Markstein provides the structural basis, McGoohan the symbolism.
It’s only relatively recently that I’ve come to understand just how much that initial status has been challenged down the years. McGoohan in particular increasingly claimed that the idea was entirely his own, that he had conceived of The Prisoner alone, before his decision to leave Danger Man, that he had discussed his ideas with Lew Grade before the famous breakfast meeting at which, instead of agreeing to go back to being John Drake, McGoohan sold Grade on The Prisoner.
I never met Patrick McGoohan, nor communicated with him in any way, and I would never dream of suggesting that he was lying or self-aggrandising when he sought to increase the extent to which he was identifiable as the sole creator of The Prisoner. Indeed, many people accept and repeat his claims on the justifiable grounds that he was a very successful, very widely-respected and very much ‘in demand’ actor who had to need to inflate himself by claiming credentials he did not deserve.
But by then it was very clear that the series was the one thing that would most signify him and his life, just as the forthcoming Doctor Who, Peter Capaldi, despite the diversity of his career to date, is being only identified as Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It (it will be interesting to see if that changes after Doctor Who: I suspect it might not).
Patrick McGoohan was ‘The Prisoner’ for the remainder of his life, irrespective of whatever else he did. It defined him, and I cannot but think of Arthur Ransome, the Swallows and Amazons writer, about whom I wrote extensively in this blog. Ransome’s Swallows, the Walker children, were firmly based upon the real-life Altounyan children, yet towards the end of his life, Ransome firmly denied the connection, effectively calling the Altounyans deluded, and self-aggrandising.
Ransome had become so psychologically associated with his creations that he was unable to admit, even to himself, that he was not their sole creator. It would not seem strange to me that McGoohan, as the years passed by and his own recollections dimmed, may have come to unconsciously emphasise his contribution to the concept of the series that defined his life, and gradually reducing that of his collaborator – from whom he’d diverged so dramatically, almost immediately – almost to insignificance.
But what of Markstein himself? In his later life he was decidedly contemptuous of The Prisoner, not merely because of the comprehensive re-purposing of the series away from the ideas he had intended, but also because of the cultishness of its appeal.
To him, it was a denouncement of television itself that so much time, energy, thought and words should be expended on The Prisoner, decades after it was completed. It was nothing but a TV series, and as such should have been watched once, enjoyed and forgotten. How much of this was a genuine insistence upon television having no validity as an artform, as something made to exist and not be utterly disposable, and how much was a bitterness at having the great idea of his life taken out of his control, perverted (in his eyes) and made famous as the creation of someone else, is impossible to even suggest.
I sympathise with him fully, and in some episodes of the series, a greater leavening of Markstein’s concrete imagination would have been very useful. But ultimately it’s like the early concept of Doctor Who, in which SF stories rigidly alternated with historical ones, an uneasy mixture enforced by the BBC until viewing figures definitively demonstrated which types of story packed in the viewers.
George Markstein’s Prisoner would have been a different kettle of fish and, good as it most likely would have been, I seriously doubt I would be spending so much time writing about it now. What made the series was the crossing of the two diversive notions, the realistic and the symbolic.
In recent years, Markstein’s own conception of the fulcrum of the series has been made public, though it’s not quite the ending it’s portrayed as being. Surprisingly, just as we’ll see McGoohan doing, Markstein saw Number Six (who most certainly was John Drake!) as being ‘Number One’.
Markstein’s concept was that, some years earlier, Drake foresaw the need for an isolated, idyllic place for spies who retired to go, where they could live in comfort and security. Subsequently, he learned to his disgust that his side had indeed built a Village, but that it was being used for imprisonment and interrogation. Drake therefore resigned, knowing that this would result in his being kidnapped and taken to the Village, and once there he could work to undermine and expose it. But once he had arrived, he began to wonder if he was in his own side’s Village – or somebody else’s?
And Markstein had no difficulties in envisaging a second series outside the Village. Drake could go free, he could go wherever he chose. But wherever he went, and whatever he did, he would remain a Prisoner: of himself and his history, trapped into being what he was and doing what he did, forever manipulated by the Village, no matter how far from its walls he got.
As you can see, it’s not an end. Even McGoohan didn’t have an end when he pitched a seven episode mini-series to Grade: that episode was open and to be created, and Markstein’s ‘ending’ is not so very different in that respect.
We live in a singular Universe or, perhaps, we live in a Multiverse of alternate and parallel existences where other histories pertain, where the thing undone, the road untravelled have been done and travelled and the outcome is different in ways we could not possibly begin to estimate, only we just can’t see into any of these alternate Universes.
But if there are such things, in one such Universe (positing one alternate logically requires us to posit all) George Markstein’s ideas shaped The Prisoner. I’d love to see what he made of it all. Three series, and no-one has talked about it since 1975, maybe?


This is a difficult subject about which to write, for reasons that have little to do with the series itself, and everything to do with the aftermath that ensured that it would not return and, indeed, would be conspicuously buried, to be deliberately forgotten.
Help – no relation to Help!, the 1965 Beatles film – appeared on BBC2 in 2005, a six part sitcom, a two-hander written and performed by Chris Langham and Paul Whitehouse. Langham plays Peter, a psychotherapist, Whitehouse plays his patients, every one of them, an array of eccentrics who recur throughout the six episodes: men of different ages and circumstances, covering a stunning range of personalities.
Whitehouse also plays Peter’s own psychotherapist. His performance is little short of astonishing: that he can become all these widely contrasting people, some deliberately eccentric, some plainly comic, others very deeply distressed and vulnerable, without any trace of any common thread, that he can occupy so many roles and have you nervously checking every face to see if this really is him again, because surely it must be someone different, is a testament to the quality of his work.
I believe that this series represents the best work he has ever done, and it is doomed to deliberate obscurity, existing only in the memory of those who watched the series on its only transmission. Or those who, like me, were able to find a Region 4 Australian DVD of the series, the only one of that I am aware of being issued.
Because Whitehouse’s writing and acting partner in this venture, Chris Langham, was subsequently arrested, convicted and imprisoned for downloading images of child pornography. Langham claimed that this was for the purpose of researching a paedophile character for the expected series 2 of Help, and a plainly embarrassed Whitehouse was summoned to give evidence that he knew of no such proposals.
Langham has served his time and been released but, as with others of that ilk, his career has been destroyed. Help cannot be rebroadcast, or offered for sale as a DVD because this would amount to promoting the work – and royalties – of an individual guilty of such a heinous offence.
That’s why I find the idea of writing about Help so difficult. It was a genuinely original, genuinely – sometimes excruciatingly – funny work of art. It’s writing and performance was of the highest standard, and if separated from the context of one of its two creators, it would deserve to be praised as high as you can go.
But can we separate it from that context? More pertinently, should we?
It’s easy to take such a decision in the case of Gary Glitter, who has been wiped from entertainment history, his records no longer to be played even on Chart Rundown programmes for weeks where they were part of the historical record. Glitter is such a vile, unrepentant being, a continuing offender who has committed actual harm. And his records are pretty much cheap tat to begin with.
Langham, on the other hand, had a distinguished career of high quality work: an original member of Not the Nine O’Clock News, the pseudo-documentary series People Like Us, Hugh Abbott in the first series of The Thick of It. And he was not accused, so far as I am aware, of any physical abuse, but of downloading images.
Surely it can be argued that his offences are less severe, less serious, than those of Glitter, and that they have not been repeated, so he therefore shouldn’t be ostracised in the same fashion and we can discuss Help and say how good it was and how good he was.
But to do that would be tantamount to saying that there are degrees of child abuse, and that therefore some child abuse isn’t as bad as others, and that is very close to saying that in a relative context some child abuse is “better” than others, that it’s actually “good” child abuse because at least it didn’t…
And I can’t think that way. I can’t summon up George Orwell’s justly famous “Benefit of Clergy” and say that because Langham was such a gifted comic, because Help was so extraordinarily good, he gets a pass where others face the full effects of their offences. And I’m not talking obvious demons like Glitter, but the ones who did what Langham did, only they hadn’t co-created one of the funniest sitcoms I ever saw.
You cannot put that kind of price on things that are fundamental to what we are as human beings.
Much as part of me would love to sit down and discuss what makes Help so good, to share it with an audience who would enjoy it, this exercise has demonstrated to me that I can’t. I can still watch it from time to time, still find it as penetrating, and hilarious, as I did when I first watched it (twice a week: it was repeated, and I watched the repeats and roared again). Only there’s a shadow now, and I can’t discard that shadow.

The Prisoner: episode 12 – A Change of Mind – discursion

Yes, this woman is in the Village

A Change of Mind was written by Roger Parkes, and was his first television script (following a tip off from his friend Morris Farhi, writer of the unused The Outsider), leading quickly to a whole host of scripts for other ITV thrillers. It was directed by Joseph Serf, a pseudonym for McGoohan, who again took over the reins after sacking the original Director, who on this occasion only lasted a single morning.
It was the eighth episode to go into production and the twelfth to be broadcast, marking the end (save for the deliberately displaced Once Upon a Time) of the original series plan, and the end of the production team, including Story Editor and co-creator George Markstein.
Like it’s immediate predecessor in both filming and broadcast, It’s Your Funeral, A Change of Mind draws its inspiration from The Manchurian Candidate, this time from the brainwashing aspect. As such, it laid the foundations for a potentially fascinating psychologically-oriented episode.
Unfortunately, A Change of Mind turned out to be one of the poorest episodes of the series, beset by an underlying sloppiness in both filming and scripting, that undermines the best efforts of all to convince, and the overwhelming use of studio mock-ups for Village exteriors – actual location footage being almost exclusively from stock shots – only helps to reinforce the feeling of something tired being churned out.
This suspicion appears in the very first scene, of Number Six in his ‘outdoor’ gym, when the camera work does far too little to conceal that it is McGoohan’s stunt double, Frank Maher, who is doing all the gymnastic work. Believability gets a knife to the throat at the outset.
And the on location double for Number Two in the scenes in the Square are even worse: a double completely unlike the man in hair, face and build, which is shamefully obvious when Number Two is chased back to the Green Dome.
What is worse though is the underlying confusion as to what the story is intended to be. Reading the original script in Robert Fairclough’s The Original Scripts Volume 2 exposes just how much the story was changed between scripting and filming. Not in any dramatic manner: the spine and the sequence of the story remains the same, but emphasises and dialogue are shifted constantly, the characterisations of the two guest stars are changed but running dialogue themes about them is only partially removed, leaving old strands dangling, a scene is cut but its aftermath is allowed to remain and, worst of all, after building up throughout the first half of the story the idea that lobotomy is a serious threat, the filmed version loses its nerve at the crucial point, tips its hand that it’s a con and drastically alters for the worse the meaning of all that then follows.
The guest stars are John Sharp (mistakenly credited as ‘Sharpe’) as Number Two and Angela Browne as Number Eighty Six. As written by Parkes, Number Two was supposed to be a farmer-type, with a face suggesting peasant stock (he even mops his perspiring face with a red handkerchief at one point!). He’s superficially blunt and honest, full of farming metaphors throughout, this leading to Number Six’s satirical jab on the Balcony, deliberately echoing Number Two with ‘The butcher with the sharpest knife has the warmest heart’.
Sharp, in complete contrast, speaks with a very English voice and an effete accent. He is slow and indolent, but easily raised to a waspish fury that is continually directed at Number Eighty Six (out of her hearing) who he despises as a woman. His first ‘farmer’s adage’ is left in but all the others are deleted. Yet Number Six’s line remains, a satire of a non-presence that is strikingly off-key when it appears, distracting the audience into confusion at the emotional climax.
Number Two’s original persona has been wiped out, yet the job has not been completed, as if someone only got so far into revising the script then either gave up or ran out of time.
Incidentally, Sharp’s performance and his unquestionable disdain for Number Eighty Six is once again powerful support for the misogyny argument. Given the context of the time, and the decade still to follow, I can only see it as a not very subtly coded portrayal of a homosexual character, of the stereotypically bitchy, woman-hating type. Which does not improve the episode one iota.
As for Number Eighty Six, the script portrays her throughout as someone passionately interested in Number Six, forever seeking his attention to her ‘as a woman’. Now we know that wasn’t going to fly with McGoohan for a second, and indeed Browne’s performance throughout is clinical, and passionless, until she is drugged into a quasi-hippy, flower power frame of mind.
But there’s a running gag throughout the original script as Number Six tries various ways to attract the Prisoner’s attention only be be rebuffed with ‘If there’s one thing I cannot stand it’s a girl…’ ‘with a fake accent’ (Number Eighty Six puts on a fake Swedish accent in her first scene)/’who wears slacks’ (she switches to a dress).
As with Number Two, these are dropped, but not dropped throughout. Angela Browne still lets her hair down and switches to a totally non-Village, very feminine dress (and looks very good in it too), though the rationale for this has gone, and Number Six still uses the formula of ‘If there’s one thing I cannot stand it’s a girl…’ to justify displacing her as a tea-maker. It’s once again an echo of a ghost element, and it distracts the viewer at the wrong moment.
I mentioned above a deleted scene, whose aftermath still appears. I mentioned in the synopsis that, after returning from the terrace café where he has been shunned, Number Six arrives dishevelled and sweaty, his hair messed up and falling in his face. Surely it’s not that long a walk back? Especially after the Doctor told him he’s in such good condition.
The answer is that the original script had a scene prior to Number Six’s return home, in which he was followed by the Villagers offended by an Unmutual, and then forced into a scuffle with several ‘socially concerned’ Villagers. Hence his appearance.
Whether the scuffle was shot than cut, or whether the later scene was filmed with appropriate continuity prior to the decision to cut, it’s another example of the sloppiness afflicting this story. Its effect is reminiscent of the strange decision made by ITV when showing Chinatown on TV for the first time when, instead of showing the scene where Jack Nicholson’s character got his nose ripped by a knife, they cut to adverts in mid-scene and returned to the film for the next scene.
It was as if the film itself had been left to run whilst the credits were being shown, but the worst of it was that for the rest of the film Nicholson appeared with bandaging, or prominent stitches, for a wound that had not been seen being incurred, undermining the very reality of everything thereafter.
Going back to the original script again, it’s very clear that the intention throughout is to make the viewer believe that not only has Number Six undergone the lobotomy, but also that Number Six believes he has gone through the operation. The influence of the drugs, on top of what he has ‘seen’ and ‘heard’ in the operating theatre, has a very strong effect on Number Six, who only gradually starts to resist, as the effect of the drugs wear off, and whose rehabilitation is only confirmed in the second fight with the two jerks.
Instead, the episode bottles out and shows us that the equipment is turned off before it can do any damage. The viewer is in on the plot, and is only waiting for Number Six to snap out of it. And I’m bound to say that McGoohan’s performance from this point onwards does nothing to convince even the dullest viewer that it might have been real.
He can’t keep himself from roaring out odd words, in anger, from restless prowling, from beating a fandango on the kitchen worktops. He’s suspicious of Number Eighty Six, insistent in overriding her  and making tea. It’s obvious that the supposed operation hasn’t had any effect on him and the mystery is why the Village gets no further than Number Eighty Six being suspicious. Number Two, of course, is oblivious and blames any slippage on the stupid woman making mistakes.
So, instead of Number Six coming alive and truly realising that he’s still himself in the woods with his two punching-bags, we are just waiting for him to punch them out again because we, as an audience, have never been allowed to think that something really might have been done.
It’s a massive failure on the part of McGoohan as Director and is of the primary cause for the many revisions made to the script.
Another interesting aspect is the conclusion. Already, it’s concerning that Number Eighty Six, instead of being sedated by the Nytol like Number Six, seems to have her brains run out of her ears and turn into a near-drooling idiot (misogyny). But her appearance in the finalé, denouncing Number Two in a firm voice, calling him Unmutual and demanding Social Conversion, is far from enough.
Her voice alone is presented as enough to overturn the entire Village, to rebel against Number Two, to challenge the system and make him run (terribly unconvincingly) away. It’s a non-ending, a non-sequitor, covered up by the final image of the silent Butler and his umbrella. At a stroke, the entire purpose of the Village vanishes, Number Six wins, spectacularly! And no-one seems to recognise this.
Because overall A Change of Minds is the episode that is the harshest of them all on the Villagers themselves. Ironically, in the immediate wake of an episode that introduces a substrata of Villagers who resist, who interfere, who plot and Jam, the very next episode portrays them as being, in their entirety, weak-minded, slavish conformists, in thrall to cheap sociological patter, the model of the ‘Sheep’ and ‘Rotted Cabbages’ that Number Six has insulted them as being.
Because that’s why the ending doesn’t count, or work. Slavish, blind receptiveness to the authority of Number Two and the Village can be overthrown at a single voice, and the easily-swayed Village turn on Number Two because a pretty girl in a frock with a clear voice tells them to. It’s a deeply cynical, or else lazy and unthought out idea that tries to get a neat ending for free, and hang any kind of consistency with the rest of the series.
Immediately following this episode, the series would continue with the three ‘filler’ episodes required by Lew Grade to flesh out The Prisoner to the new seventeen episode length. Though hastily conceived, cast and filmed, with a brand new production team, and ever more tangential to the theme of the series, they each had more about them than A Change of Mind, which contributes more than it should to the overall feeling of growing desperation about the series that would, in an unplanned but ergonomic manner, contribute so much to the ending of the series.

R. A. Lafferty bargain – Fourth Mansions

If you love great writing, if you want to discover a writer of monstrous humour, great gusto, unbelievable individuality, in short someone completely unlike everyone else you have ever read, follow this link:

This link will take you to eBay, where you will discover a very good condition copy of R. A. Lafferty’s Fourth Mansions, the 1971 novel that was my first introduction to this mercurial, magisterial writer, and for an asking price of only 99p. People, you should be ashamed to let a book like this go for such a price (you should be surprised to see a Lafferty book even offered for this price, and this is one of the one’s that got released in a full-scale commercial print-run).

It’s an adventure and an experience in one, a crazy, whirlagig tale of secret societies, of Snakes and Badgers, of Jewelled Toads and Unfledged Falcons, and in the middle journalist Freddie Foley. set to goof and goof gloriously. Are there really men returning from the past who are marked by archaic ears? Is his girlfriend really a cinnmon cookie? Will the world spiral and collapse back to First Mansions, as the Toads are working to ensure, or will all things come together in Freddie Foley to lead the world upwards into the Fifth Mansions?

Did author and critic Michael Swanwick really say “If there were no Lafferty, we would lack the imagination to invent him”? And has any writer ever paid so gracious a complement as that?

It’s true, by the way, brother, it’s true!

In all seriousness, follow the link, bid for this. This is a great book by a great writer, possibly the greatest writer you never heard of.

On Writing: The Tempus Trilogy – part 3

The third Tempus book was always the most loosely conceived. I wrote about half a dozen different versions of the opening scene, which deliberately took things back to where the Trilogy had started  – at Old Trafford in August 1980 – but I never had a working title, and I had only the skeleton of the story.
But it was only during the writing of this book that I settled on the idea of The Tempus Trilogy and finally assigned names to the first two books. Tempus Fugitive was obvious, Tempus Infinitive reflected the parallel world theme and, given the rhythm of the names and the general breakdown of everything that I planned, it was clear the final book had to be titled Tempus Expletive.
It was the only book of this trilogy to be written primarily by my new approach of trusting myself, or my subconscious, to put all the pieces together. It was also a departure, in that the central pairing would now be Jack and Alison, not Jack and Roland – who was relegated out of the story, except for a deus ex machina cameo at the end of a phone.
I even knew that I was going to switch to using Alison as the narrator, it being pretty self-evident that, as she explains in the book, she was not going to let Jack tell her side of the story.
There were certain elements that I knew to the story: the opening scenes cutting off the sport motif, Jack and Alison’s new relationship, using the Time Machine as a way to get into the cinema for free, the decision to go to a Beach Boys concert as a celebration, and Alison being stranded as a result of being swept into some sort of drugs raid.
And I knew that the Time Machine had been stolen and that Jack would be forced to accept unwanted help from an unreliable source, and also that Alison would be able to get back from being lost in time far easier than Jack (this latter element came courtesy of another former close friend of mine who, when I was discussing an inchoate version of the plot, said, “Escape is always more interesting than rescue.”)
And I knew the Time Machine would end up destroyed, though not without a deliberate conundrum being left. This last was my own private loophole, the way back in in the unlikely event that I would ever want to write a book 4…
Having Frankensteined the best bits of all the early versions of the opening scene together (they had none of them gone more than a couple of pages, but every version had something in it I liked), I began to forge ahead.
The book contains one big, long-planned in-joke: the boss whom Jack suspects fancies Alison is me, the firm where she works is the firm I was with at the time, as were the people, and even the marathon is real, albeit advanced a year (in reality, it took place in 1986 and I completed 12 miles in difficult circumstances that don’t bear repeating here).
I was aware that the beginning of the plot was slow in arriving, but once it did, the story rapidly achieved the complications I had in mind and worked through to my designated conclusion. On the way, a couple of things arose.
The Beach Boys gig proved to be a bust. Even with the advantage of the Internet, I couldn’t find evidence of a Sixties Beach Boys concert in Manchester (and there was even less chance of Jack being able to dig out details with 1985’s resources). Most writers would just have made one up, and there’s nothing wrong in so doing, but I can’t work that way. Because I write against a realistic background, I’m compelled to be as accurate as I can. No Manchester Beach Boys gig, no story.
Besides, it suited the deliberate mundanity of these three books. It’s great being able to go to specific events in the past, but if you don’t know when and where these specific events occurred…
Actually, it worked to my advantage, because my substitute idea was so much better, in terms of both plausibility and character. Like most Mancunians of my era, I grew up hearing about the legendary Twisted Wheel club, the birthplace of Northern Soul. A lot of research was necessary, trying to capture enough of the essence of the place to suit my needs.
(I realised early on that in all the years I’d known of the Twisted Wheel, I’d never known where it was. My ‘disco years’ – roughly 1975 – 78 – took place mainly at Placemate, on Whitworth Street, Fridays and Saturday nights. The glorious irony of all those years of ignorance was my discovery that the Wheel’s second and final home was the same building: Placemate used the Wheel’s premises!)
That also introduced another of those ‘gifts’ from my subconscious. Alison’s cousin Elsie was just a throwaway character, a device to equip her and Jack with authentic Sixties clobber, suitable to their planned journey, as well as the chance to add another voice, this one North Manchester (I have always lived in East and South Manchester: there’s a difference).
It was not until I had Alison trapped in 1969 that I realised that it was all too perfunctory for her to simply work out how to escape and leave, and that it would be altogether better to show her interacting in 1969, emphasising her general competence, especially as a contrast to how Jack was floundering and helpless ten years earlier. It was only then that I realised why I’d really introduced Elsie.
One final thing about the First Draft: my set-up demanded I reintroduce my big baddy of Fugitive. The problem was that he had now to become a reformed character, yet he still had to revert to his original status. The explanation I came up with didn’t satisfy me. I couldn’t work out how to explain it without marching into the book as an omnipotent narrator which, as these books are first person, was out of the question, and it’s rather metaphysical nature meant that the characters couldn’t explain it for themselves (only Roland, maybe, but he wasn’t here, was he?)
I was never happy with it, but this was the First Draft. I could look at it again when I came to write the Second Draft.

On Writing: The Tempus Trilogy – part 2

For many years, any thought of a sequel to the first Jack and Roland book – a long way off being written – consisted of a single, snappy sentence.
In the mid-Nineties, I was in a very unhappy job, for which writing was the escape that made life tolerable. As I’ve described, I wrote three non-fiction books, and then finally started on fleshing the eventual Tempus Fugitive out into more than just a detailed outline.
On a couple of occasions, I talked about it at work, describing the plot-line, which seemed to go down well with my genuinely interested listeners. One of them, however, having listened to my account, agreed that it was entertaining, but he thought it would be better if, instead of my proactive ending in which Jack had to make a choice between the Space-Time Continuum and his own personal gratification, my evil protagonist defeated himself, by altering some Great Sporting Moment that prevented himself from being born, and thus undoing all his interference.
I smiled indulgently, and forbore from making any comments along the lines that a) I had been developing this story for something like fifteen years at this point and certainly considered that I knew very much better than anyone else how to end it, b) that his ending was anti-dramatic and rendered my hero’s struggles ineffectual and ineffective, and c) that his ending was an SF cliché of tremendous proportions.
We authors can get pretty touchy about people interfering with our unwritten works.
But I owe my colleague thanks for his attempts to persuade me, because, a few minutes later and still marvelling at his temerity in trying to overrule my storyline, a moment of inspiration based on that very suggestion blossomed into more than half a sequel, and a point of entry into a third volume.
This ‘villain brings himself down’ notion certainly wasn’t going to happen in Fugitive, but it could happen in a parallel world, an Earth 2, in which Jack would never suffer the consequences of the decision he has to take because he never even gets to know of the villain (whose undoing of his own existence automatically seals a closed time-loop leaving no-one the wiser about the interference he doesn’t now cause).
So, with every Jack in every parallel Earth all rushing to Headingley at the same time, in the confusion, two Jacks wind up on the same Earth, Roland’s attempt to undo the mistake would backfire, leaving our two heroes crossed over.
Jack1 would find himself on an Earth where Alison had been his loving girl-friend for nearly a year, and Jack2 would find himself on an Earth with a virginal (so to speak) Alison to conquer.
I don’t know whether, in that first flush of creation, I fully understood what I’d created but I still think that one of the greatest human dilemmas ever recorded in print is the apprehension of the nervous male virgin about to go to bed for the first time with the woman who’s been sleeping with him for the last eight months.
All this arrived in my head in one go. It was incomplete and inconclusive, but there was a comprehensible structure to it, and I knew that it would end up reversing the ending of the first book.
Which was where the door opened to Book 3, in which…. well, let’s leave that for the moment.
Moments like this are, sadly, rare, but they are moments of gold for the writer. It’s like fellwalking, when a long ascent up a featureless landscape suddenly gives way to a vista of unseen valleys and peaks, an unsuspected country. It’s the knowledge that you have a story, something to draw out of yourself, but something with a shape already seen.
It is, literally, a vision, and it is a fantastic feeling to see something like that, full of possibility.
I worked out the idea, to the same degree of detail with which I had pre-plotted Tempus Fugitive. It’s working title was the entirely too literal The Two Jacks, and I was a surprisingly long way from the moment of inspiration that led to it being re-named Tempus Infinitive.
Once the first book had been finished, according to my Four Draft method, I transferred my attentions to book 2. I started a new pad, made sure my (blue) pen was full of ink (not that I was superstitious in any way, but I found I could only write in blue ink). Things went well. The writing was fluid and fluent. I had written something like 12,000 to 15,000 words, and had gotten Jack1 into Earth2, and about to undergo the ordeal of sitting down to tea with a family that was almost, but not entirely identical to his own.
Then my much-loathed job came to an end at the Easter weekend, and on the Easter Monday I went off to the Lakes, for a day’s walking and an evening’s football. As I’ve previously related, I came back with the germ of Even in Peoria in my head, and the future Tempus Infinitive went into indefinite suspension. I didn’t have any idea just then that it would be for over a decade.
It was a very weird feeling to come back to the book after such a long time, especially knowing that my working methods had so radically changed. But I still had the detailed outline, and even though I had become accustomed to working more fluidly now, I determined I would still use it as my template.
My first concern was whether I could recapture Jack’s ‘voice’, which I was pleased to discover was not difficult at all. He was still there in my head, as was Roland, and their exchanges still crackled, even in a parallel world which was frightening exact;y because it didn’t seem to be different at all.
Except, of course, for Alison.
Of course it wasn’t the book it would have been, had I not had it overruled in 1997. I had been married for almost a decade in between, and even though the relationship had not lasted, I remembered enough of the early feelings to invest both this book, and its successor, with emotions that I would otherwise not have known to channel. The ending in particular would not have been possible if I had finished it in 1997.
As for the gap, I know where it comes, roughly. Considering that for ten years there was a line at which phase 1 ended, it’s remarkable that I can’t identify it now.
I don’t recommend that sort of thing, but it’s nice to know that I could do it.