After Patrick McGoohan, the actor with the best track record in The Prisoner is Angelo Muscat, who played Number Two’s butler in fourteen of the seventeen episodes, and, despite never saying a single word, is as big an icon of the series as Portmeirion itself.
Muscat, who was born in Malta in 1930, was a short man in a family of tall people: both his parents and all three brothers were six foot or more, but Angelo only grew to the height of four feet three inches: stocky, rotund and balding. And sadly, very lonely.
His size restricted his employment opportunities on Malta, though he developed a love of the theatre there. He moved to England after the death of his parents, in quick succession, and worked in a zipper factory until, in 1961, he responded to an ad for casting of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
This began an acting career which included appearances in a lost William Hartnell Doctor Who adventure and in the twice weekly medical soap opera, Emergency Ward 10, but his career highlight was being selected for The Prisoner.
The early scripts make it plain that McGoohan and co envisaged a completely different figure for the Butler: a conventional, six foot strong-arm man, who would have (albeit banal) dialogue. According to ITC publicity, Muscat was personally selected for the part by McGoohan, after reviewing hundreds of photos.
The casting gave Muscat particular pride, both in the responsibility it gave him as virtually the only other series regular, and because he was a great Danger Man fan, and would be working with Patrick McGoohan.
Like so many aspects of the series, his casting was an act of genius.
I’ve already mentioned his immediate impact in our household on first viewing in 1967: I may have been somewhat idiosyncratic in my anticipation of a quasi-Lurch, but Muscat’s appearance – short, round, immaculately clad, deeply serious, silent, unfailingly grave – was 180% away from anything that might have been expected.
His performances throughout the series maintained that initial impression. In the episodes we have reviewed so far, he has opened doors, brought and removed breakfast trolleys, carried and held the prototypical Village umbrella. To the extent of his participation in the story is concerned, he has been a cypher, as much as the Village symbol of the Penny Farthing.
Only in A Change of Mind does the Butler engage in a minor interaction with Number Six, when the latter makes his second and condemnatory appearance before the Social Affairs Committee: Number Six finds that the Committee members have vanished and he is alone, at the centre of a ring of tables, with the Butler solemnly contemplating him. Without a muscle moving, facially, Muscat contributes a suggestion of amusement as he waits Number Six out. And when the latter leaps to his feet, intent on challenging the encircling, Muscat is equally fast, if not faster, to pull the requisite table aside and create egress.
In Hammer into Anvil, when the paranoid Number Two dismisses him and threatens to strike him, Muscat is still silent and immobile, yet in his stance and the slightest of expressions around his eyes, creates the powerful expression that he is deeply hurt at having his loyalty questioned, though equally he shows no sign of fear at the physical threat of a much taller man.
And as I’ve already mentioned, when discussing that episode, Muscat is used to conclude A Change of Mind in vivid fashion, unfurling the Village umbrella and briskly walking up the rosepath in the wake of his latest broken master. Similarly, an earlier episode, lacking an adequate closing moment, finishes with a shot of the butler, dressed in his coat and bowler, holding the umbrella and looking down on the Village.
Naturally enough, with Muscat seemingly ever-present, unspeaking but observant, and with the series still emphasising its espionage roots, many were led to speculate that the butler was, in fact, Number One. That is a popular trope by now, the mastermind whose disguise is ordinariness and lowliness, but in 1967 in would have been fresh for television. If the series had been more concerned with concrete drama, it might even have been a possibility for the ending, though we know that George Markstein’s thoughts led in a different direction.
The Butler would play a larger, more direct role in the final two episodes of the series: indeed, he would feature in The Prisoner‘s penultimate shot. But his significance in the majority of the show was symbolic, from his very first, reality-breaking appearance. The Village was elsewhere, beyond and outside Number Six’s old (= real) life. Its combination of scientific advance and surface whimsy rendered it a fantasy in which the former Agent was suspended, a dream from which he was not allowed to wake. Angelo Muscat’s unusual appearance was another, vital component of the suspension/perversion of reality that enabled the programme to work to the degree it did.
Sadly, The Prisoner was the highlight of Angelo Muscat’s life and career. Markstein recalled him being a pleasure to work with, always with a smile on set, no matter the hour, forever cheerful. In some ways he was the programme’s mascot, a role of which he was proud.
He would go on to more film and TV offers, including the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, but would quickly be forgotten. He died of natural causes in 1977, having spent the last few years of his life living alone, almost penniless, in a basement flat in London, supplementing his income by making ornate bird cages.
Angelo Muscat deserved better