The Prisoner: 26, 17 or 7?


Trying to work it out can feel like this sometimes

The stories have varied down the years.
I have a vague memory, obviously inaccurate, of someone in a newspaper claiming that The Prisoner was originally meant to run for forty episodes, and even at the age of twelve, and with the series finale coming up, being immediately intrigued at what all the other twenty-three episodes would have been about.
Then I learned about how it was supposed to have been twenty six episodes, two series of thirteen, but the ratings for series One fell away and it was decided to make it seventeen, on an emergency basis, to fill a scheduling gap.
And then it was how McGoohan had proposed The Prisoner as a seven episode mini-series, before we had mini-series.
Then that the emergency episodes weren’t supposed to be filler after all, but instead a genuine series Two
And there’s yet another wrinkle to add to this ever-shifting tale of just how many episodes of The Prisoner there were supposed to be, because Patrick McGoohan gave this interview in 1979 in which he claimed that, far from insisting on twenty six episodes in two series, Lew Grade accepted the mini-series Prisoner from the outset, as a seven issue run.
Under this theory, the first location shoot at Portmeirion was intended to be the only one. The bulk of McGoohan’s septet were filmed there: Arrival, Free For All, Checkmate, Dance of the Dead and The Chimes of Big Ben, with Once Upon a Time shot at Elstree immediately after. That was what the budget was for, that was what the show was about.
You’ll notice that there’s no mention of Fall Out in that theory: Fall Out did not, at that time, exist. The series had an ending, McGoohan just hadn’t created it then.
But then, in this latest explanation, Grade phoned up to say he couldn’t sell the series as seven and it would have to be twenty six. So McGoohan and Tomblin sat down and dragged out every idea they could think of, phoned Grade back and told him they could do seventeen, and so seventeen was agreed.
It’s an interpretation that’s inconsistent with everything that had gone before it, but then when it comes to The Prisoner everything is inconsistent with everything else. Even Robert Fairclough then went on to refer to six other episodes being made as being far too expensive on a budget that was working out as £75,000 per episode, instead of another eleven episodes for this insistent seventeen episode series.
Including the still-not-extant Fall Out.
He does identify the inconsistencies, including the evidence that supports one incompatible theory against another, rendering the whole thing completely impossible to resolve, rather like the series as a whole will become when the final episode is made.
Because the production staff of The Girl Who Was Death are the first to hear that the next episode will be the last episode, which suggests to me that up to that point The Prisoner was making episodes in a piecemeal fashion, lacking any kind of anchor as to series length. Like those who, decades ago, wrote and drew Marvel’s successful Star Wars comic between the end of the adaptation of Star Wars and the appearance of The Empire Strikes Back: spin the wheels, keep it in motion, but the one thing you can’t do is do anything.
I’m more than willing to accept that Patrick McGoohan saw – and pitched – The Prisoner as a tightly-conceived seven episode mini-series, and that in his mind those seven episodes are the real series (though never in all the time I have had the DVD box-set, or the less expansive one before it, or even the videos I made of the C4 repeats, have I watched McGoohan’s ‘pure’ Prisoner, something I must do).
I’m equally willing to accept that the commercial realities of commercial television in 1966 made such a thing impossible, and required the dilution of the idea by additional episodes, some of them of very high quality, to make up a conventional series length.
But I’m not prepared to believe that Lew Grade would break the commercial habit of a lifetime by blithely signing up to the ‘pure’ Prisoner and I’m equally not prepared to believe that the filler episodes were made as part of a predecided single seventeen episode series.
And I’m also not prepared to believe that Fall Out would have happened in a ‘pure’ Prisoner. When he sold the idea to Lew Grade, Patrick McGoohan had outlines, notes and titles for six episodes. Unless some sensational discovery is yet to be made of a seventh story contemporaneous with the first six, I believe McGoohan went into The Prisoner without an ending.
With ideas, yes, inchoate, unresolved, unshaped, and ideas that would be eventually expressed in Fall Out, but I cannot bring myself to believe that what became the ending of The Prisoner was implicit in its beginning or that it could have come to be without the experience of the sixteen episodes that preceded it.
In Roger Zelazny’s popular Chronicles of Amber, he makes it plain, by casual, offhand remarks, that their narrator, Corwin of Amber, is telling his story to some unnamed person, in some unidentified and potentially disastrous situation. The first two novels (of five) each cover distinct and separate periods of, in the first book, years and in the second months. The remaining three books cover approximately one subjective week, are continuously written and include cliff-hanger endings.
The change in tone between books two and three is so distinct that I am convinced that, at the very least, Zelazny threw away his original plans for the continuation and end of the series in favour of others of much greater proportions, and that the auctor revealed at the end of the penultimate chapter of the fifth book is not the person who heard the first two.
Welcome to the fall out.

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