The Girl Who Was Death was the fifteenth episode of The Prisoner to be broadcast and the sixteenth to go into production. It was written by Terence Feely, based on a story by David Tomblin and was directed by Tomblin himself.
I’ve probably seen The Girl Who Was Death more often than any other episode of The Prisoner, not out of any intrinsic fascination with the episode, but because it’s been on television the most over the years. And that’s not a reflection of any massive popularity on this episode’s part, either.
No, it’s the same reason that, down the decades, the Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? episode No Hiding Place (the one where Bob and Terry try to avoid learning the result of an England game) has always been the random episode selected to exemplify the show: because it has the absolute least to do with the series.
The Girl Who Was Death can be shown at any time, to any audience, because they can watch it without thinking, without wondering what’s going on, and having to understand anything. It can be pulled out of the series in a way that no other episode can because it exists free of context, free of overtones and undertones, free of any of the deeper themes of The Prisoner.
No, let’s be frank: not even the very short coda in which Kenneth Griffiths and Justine Lord stand revealed as the most hapless and pathetic Number Two and Assistant of them all has anything to do with ANY of the show’s themes.
If there are those who are offended at me describing Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling or Living in Harmony as a ‘filler’, they can’t possibly argue about this one.
I’ve heard different stories about The Girl Who Was Death‘s provenance: that it was an unused, or rejected Avengers script, that it was a leftover Danger Man script that was adapted to fit the rush to get four more episodes into production. The overall tone of the story, which is a spy spoof from start to finish, and arch as all get out, supports the former, but lacks anything that might be intuited as an Emma Peel role, whilst the structure reflects something of the old Danger Man style – McGoohan’s light cap and raincoat is the most obvious nod to John Drake, whilst Potter was Drake’s contact in the two colour series 4 episodes, and played by Christopher Benjamin again: Ralph Smart must have really been tempted to call for his copyright lawyer here – but has had to have been gone over with a bludgeon to produce this eccentric affort.
It’s not that I don’t like The Girl Who Was Death, don’t get me wrong. It’s great fun: McGoohan’s deadpan approach fits the level of the parody perfectly, the ideas are well-judged and the show doesn’t sag until Kenneth Griffith appears, though his OTT performance takes a lot of the wind out of its sails thereafter.
But whilst the individual bits are very good, the overall effect is too one-note. It’s a send-up, we get it, but is that ALL you’ve got? And, sadly, that is indeed all it’s got, and it barely gets to the end with us still on its side: another five minutes and it would have tripped over its own silliness and gone totally flat.
It’s an episode chocked with in-jokes, which always raises the risk of the show becoming too clever and looking to raise the bar for those in on it instead of those watching from without, And it doesn’t have an ending either: the explosion that blows up the lighthouse/rocket – which is taken from a Gerry Anderson Thunderbirds shot – works well to end the spoof, but leaves a very awkward segue into the real ending, the link that brings The Girl Who Was Death back to the ‘reality’ of the Village and the hopelessly perfunctory explanation of just why this is an episode of The Prisoner.
I’ll say this much for Number Two’s ‘cunning plan’: it doesn’t half serve to justify the radical upturn in tension and threat in the long-filmed Once Upon A Time.
But this simply isn’t an episode of The Prisoner. It’s a joke, a time-filler, a giggle with a stapled on half-hearted link to the overall story that can’t possibly have been meant to have been taken seriously. It lacks even the claims of formal experimentation that can, legitimately, be attached to Living in Harmony.
It’s a filler. Full stop.
Praise should, of course, be given to the guests, or at least two of them. Griffith, a highly-regarded actor/writer/director who would go on to specialise in documentaries in the Seventies (much satirised by Clive James) overdoes his role as the mad scientist with a decidedly Napoleonic complex, upsetting the balance that has been maintained to that point, but Justine Lord, a veteran at working with McGoohan having guested in more episodes of Danger Man than any other, pitches her performance, seductive, exotic, physically and, later, mentally dangerous, to perfection.
She also gets to wear the shortest skirts of anyone in the entire series, which is another aspect that links these three ‘filler’ episodes, in that they introduce feminine glamour in a manner that is rigidly excluded from the Village, and the ‘purer’ episodes made for ‘series 1’.
And mention must be made of the uncredited Alexis Kanner, who makes a splendid cameo as the verbally aggressive, hip, fashion photographer in the fairground, though he’s only onscreen for a matter of seconds throughout.
Otherwise, it’s nice to report that the sloppiness of the past few episodes filming is not present here, apart from some very bad back-projection shots in the funfair sequence. In part that’s just the limitations of the technology, combined with McGoohan’s recall to location filming on Ice Station Zebra, which severely limited his participation in location filming: Frank Maher went to the fair and did the actual running around and McGoohan, dressed in his spoof Sherlock Holmes outfit, and heavily bewhiskered, has to do a series of absurd reaction shots, and darting off in all directions against stock footage of the fair.
Comparing the televised story to the original script, courtesy yet again of Robert Fairclough’s splendid and invaluable books, points up no significant changes during the filming process, save for one immeasurably important one: Schnipps’ fixation was not originally Napoleon, but Hitler.
The change saves the episode. Napoleon fixations are funny, not merely because they’re a cliché, but because Napoleon is 200+ years old. Hitler and Nazi Germany isn’t funny. It’s not funny now and it was even less so in 1967, when the end of the War was only twenty-two years earlier, and people remembered going through it. My Dad was only 38 when The Prisoner was first broadcast: too young to have done more than peace-time conscription in the Navy, but his elder brother had seen service, and battle, in the Far East. For them, and millions like them, a comic-Hitler would have been something like blasphemy.
But this is the low point of the series. There are only two episodes left, two episodes that, in their starkly contrasting manners, will take The Prisoner into television history. The transition from nonsense like The Girl Who Was Death to Once Upon a Time, is from the ridiculous to the sublime. As simple as that.