The Prisoner: episode 17 – Fall Out – the final discursion

Who is Number One?

Fall Out was the seventeenth and final episode of The Prisoner to be produced and broadcast. It was written and directed by Patrick McGoohan, although the Red Judge’s speeches were written (uncredited) by Kenneth Griffith, at McGoohan’s request.
This is the episode that makes The Prisoner. Without this, with something that made any kind of rational sense, it sinks. It goes into the shadows and is forgotten, all its good work forgotten. Anything, anything at all that is realistic and it can go ignored, filed away into the back cupboard of memory and never allowed out again. Only by breaking all the rules, by destroying everything that resembles any kind of compact with its audience does The Prisoner survive.
It answers by not answering. It ends by not ending. It promises and withholds, it infuriates and angers, it raises feelings. Its writer/producer/director/star takes his wife and children to Ireland, three days later, and then to America. He never works in British television again.
I was twelve years old when I watched Fall Out, at the end of the initial run. We who were served by Granada were the last in the country to learn what answers Patrick McGoohan had chosen, but we still had no idea what we were going to see. I have always wished that I had been older, old enough to understand the impact of that moment when Number Six rips the mask off Number One and finds himself staring back.
It’s a cliché now: our enemy is always ourselves, but it was not so then, not merely for twelve year olds.
Fall Out is a thing in itself that is almost too strange, too weird and wonderful to be criticised, to be analysed. It was an enormous hostage to fortune, a thing too easily open to contempt, to be dismissed as nonsense (and by extension everything that went before and beside it), to be contemptuously derided as not an ending at all, as proof only that McGoohan didn’t know what he was doing, that he was making it up all along and when the time came to make it make sense, he had no ending.
Didn’t we hear all of that about Lost?
Because the truth is that there is not a thing in Fall Out that makes sense. That connects to any part of The Prisoner on the ground upon which the series has stood since its beginning. The questions that had built up are thrown away, discarded as irrelevancies. The organisation that has held the Prisoner in its keeping for weeks prostrates itself and gives in to him for no reason whatsoever. It vanishes, like a puff of nuclear smoke, like the rag ends of a dream. England and home is down the end of a long, dark tunnel. The only thing anyone ever had to do was to shoot their way out. It’s guns, and bullets and All You Need is Love.
An old and once dear friend, with whom I’ve long since lost touch, married an ex-Army Physical Training Instructor turned self-taught Master Builder named Ray. They were an unusual pairing, for he was very solid and rational, and not at all imaginative or creative. Yet it was he who gave me the only explanation of the ending to The Prisoner that made ‘sense’.
It goes back to Once Upon a Time, to that moment in the caged room when Number Six’s demeanour changes, when he says the word six, when he tastes it, and relishes it, slings his jacket over his shoulder and walks out of the room, leaving a baffled Number Two behind. From that moment onwards, he is in control. Everything falls before him. First Number Two, then the Village, it all crumples away.
Because Number Six broke, because when he accepted the term Six, he went mad, and everything that followed is an unhinged fantasy.
Think about it. Because it does make literal sense, where nothing else does. Fall Out is the final escape, out of reality, it is the ultimate victory, irreversible, beyond any further restriction. The Village’s authorities become faceless, indistinguishable figures, in robes and symbolic masks. It’s demand for conformity applies to others – others that the Prisoner will, god-like, release – yet his rebellion is deified for no reason other than that it is by him.
It’s a set-up that can be destroyed by the burst of a machine gun, a hiding place that magically turns out to be virtually on his own doorstep. His only gaoler is, in fact, himself, a self that he can lock up and send away. And home is just the beginning, restarting the cycle, to be played put endlessly, over and again.
In its curious way, Fall Out is not the allegorical victory that everyone assumes it is, but a tragic defeat. The Prisoner’s only escape is into himself, a theme repeated years later in Terry Gilliam’s monumentally brilliant film, Brazil. In that visually astonishing mix of 1984 and Heath Robinson, hero Jonathan Pryce is ultimately captured, his girl killed, his life destroyed, yet in the midst of torture, he is rescued, he escapes, she lives and they drive away to a place of freedom, far beyond the bureaucrats: until two of them appear above the horizon, to agree they’ve lost him. For they have: he has never left the torturer’s chair. Not physically.
There are many people who will baulk at this interpretation, and indeed one aspect of its genius is that it can be read in so many ways, and their opinions are every bit as valid as mine. It is an allegorical gambol, and you may take that for the pun it also is.
According to McGoohan, the episode was written in thirty six mostly unbroken hours. Though he never had the ending worked out in the beginning, he has said that it represented what his ideas were running towards, and that he would not change a moment of it. It is an episode done in incredible haste, using what was at hand and convenient.
Coming hard on the heels of The Girl Who Was Death, Fall Out re-used and reinterpreted its sets and props in every way it could (underneath the globes in Number One’s room is the circular table with its map of London that belonged to Professor Schnipps, and that is, of course, his rocket, and the same clips of Thunderbirds in the countdown sequence). Guest stars Kenneth Griffith and Alexis Kanner were asked to stay on, though not Justine Lord (save for one or two extras dismissed from the Control Room in Once Upon a Time, the whole two-part ending is free from any female presence).
Leo McKern was, fortunately, available to repeat his role as the former Number Two, though in the year that had passed since Once Upon a Time his appearance had drastically changed, shaving off his beard and cutting short his flowing hair. As the actor objected to wearing wigs and false beards, the scene was written in where his appearance is changed.
This on its own symbolises the serendipity that creates Fall Out. It was a circumstance forced by chance, yet it becomes the outward symbol of Number Two’s two-way passage through death – another element of madness, the death and resurrection of the prevailing enemy so that he may congratulate you on your success and then join your cause. Written on the spot, made up out of whatever happened to be there: this was not a planned ending and sometimes we should wonder in amazement that it had any coherence whatsoever.
And we should not forget to congratulate Lew Grade who, when faced with this extraordinary thing, completely unrecognisable as any kind of television programme he had seen before, allowed it to be screened. True, he had a schedule to maintain, and an audience that, if anything, would have been even more confused and angry had he refused to let Fall Out be broadcast than it would prove to be after he did. But he broadcast it where many would have taken one look…
But in everything, in every single conceivable respect, Fall Out was a moment of its time, a prism through which the series would forever be seen, a thing that could not have happened in any other way, at any other time.
As is shown in Kanner’s dress, as the dandy-teenager, the proto-hippy complete with cowbell, as is demonstrated in his dialogue, and that of the Red Judge in trying to speak to him in his own terms, as is even shown in ‘Dem Bones’. This was 1967, and someone’s ear was not tuned in with perfect clarity.
What can we say? That there had been nothing like it before is a mere truism. That there has been nothing like it since is, in some ways, the most savage indictment of forty five years that we can make. That there never will be anything like it again is a despair.
As always, I come back to that moment, inevitable in retrospect, that I was too young, too immature to understand when I saw it. We have seen the face of Number One and it is ourselves. We are always and inescapably our own gaolers. It is still so for me, even now.

21 thoughts on “The Prisoner: episode 17 – Fall Out – the final discursion

  1. That is the beauty of this series, it’s really up to the viewer to decide what is going on. I like your friend’s explanation of the ending though and it does make sense, even shadowing the reality of MacGoohan being driven mad by his own creation.
    One of the things I really love about The Prisoner is the sound – the music, dialogue, noise of the machinery, everything – and I remember sampling that chunk in the finale for a song I made, when the recording replays his “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own” speech, running onto the “Aye, aye, aye” chanting that gets more irate until it climaxes into insane laughing, and that snippet alone is such a powerful statement in my opinion.
    Truly an individual piece of television, I know that The Avengers and various other shows went for the surreal approach at times, but none came so close to utter madness whilst still succeeding in being so relevant to society. And its longevity is evident in the fact that decades down the line, more people are discovering it and finding their own meanings to Number Six’s journey.
    Also, you may be able to clarify this point because you were around at the time, but am I right in thinking that as a continuing story, The Prisoner was also quite ground breaking? Most episodes had their own theme, but there was still that underlying mystery element that needed solving throughout the whole series.

    1. Good question. Amongst the ATV thriller series output, it was unique in having the shape of a story over its full run – and in having an ending, frankly. Things like Danger Man, The Avengers that are so well-known, or more cultish things like Man in a Suitcase (which starred Derren Nesbitt, the NumberTwo from ‘It’s Your Funeral’) weremore conventional, in having individual episodes that did not advance an over-arching story-line.

      In the Sixties, there really was a rigid distinction between series and serials.It was even more noticeable in the American series that followed the template of The Fugitive,where each episode nominally served the quest of the central character whilst avoiding any genuine progress, because to resolve the quest was to end the show. The Fugitive was the only other one I can recall, off the top of my head, to do what The Prisoner did and achieve an ending: Richard Kimball eventually DID find the one-armed man and did clear his name: the last half dozen episodes did turn into a Prisoner-like experience.

      1. I always wondered whether poor old Kimball ever found the one-armed man in the series, or if it was something that they had to include in the movie just to give it a sufficient Hollywood ending. Maybe in terms of the American shows, they would naturally avoid material that needed an ending because like you say it would then stop the production, however they could then still drag out the programme until it would eventually either get cancelled or lose steam anyway. So keeping them as one-shot plots would allow them to continue easily until the popularity petered out. They seem pretty ruthless over there, and there’s nothing more infuriating than getting absorbed in a serial drama and then never being allowed the chance of finding out the ending. Over here, most arced TV series rarely surpass six episodes a season even now, but in America they milk them dry. I think Lost was only supposed to last two seasons but ended up being stretched up to six. I remember when Murder One came on, which was spread over about twenty episodes depicting a single trial, and it seemed to lose viewers as it developed because people weren’t so used to following a show with such a lengthy arc. Then you think of the success of 24 and it seems ludicrous.
        The Man in a Suitcase was great though, and holds a few similarities with The Prisoner for me. Firstly it was given another great opening credit sequence featuring Ron Grainer’s music, and secondly because Richard Bradford got so involved in his character. I watched a documentary about it on the DVD I think, and apparently he was even doing his own make-up by the end and would take any fight scenes as seriously as MacGoohan. The stuntmen and co-stars were probably just as fearful of doing fight scenes with either of them.

  2. Oh yes, The Fugitive did have an ending. That was so extraordinary that the final two-part ending was actually repeated – and American programmes did not get repeated in the Sixties – because the schedule meant that they fell in August, when so many people were away on holiday (and again, in that long-lost, forgotten land, going on holiday meant going on holiday from the TV as well). So the ending of The Fugitive was repeated to let all the holidaymakers see it.

    I’ve never heard of Lost having a pre-planned length. My understanding was that it had the ending from the start, but because it was so popular, ABC wanted it to continue indefinitely. In practice, that worked out as Seasons 2 and 3 before they could persuade ABC to let them work towards an ending (after one single episode had disastrous ratings). They offered 48 more episodes in three seasons of 16. I liked Lost.

  3. Hello

    Fall Out is possibly the most realistic episode in the The Prisoner series. In 1963 a youth group (much like No.48) called Spies For Peace revealed a huge underground Nuclear Bunker called Regional Seat of Government No.6 (RSG No.6). RSG No.6 was to be used by elite government officials in case of a nuclear attack on the U.K. It was to be connected to a series of ICBM (Blue Streak) for a retaliatory stike. This is precisely what we’re shown in Fall Out.

    Fall Out is connected to the earliest episodes as what we see is no more strange that the rituals of Dance of the Dead and the Rover worship ritual seen in Free For All. Rover holds all in The Village hostage and The Village elite merely worships the ICBM known the No.1 rocket with which they hold the whole of the eath a prisoner of TheVillage. The No.1 rocket is merely Rover on a global scale.

    Once Upon A Time is directly linked to Fall Out as, Fairclough points out, the shooting script included a passage that stated ‘The sound of a rocket is heard’…this shows McGoohan had the ICBM in mind at the time OUAT was written. Where OUAT used the 7 ages of Man Fall Out uses the Riddle of the Sphinx, the 3 ages of Man in his trial of the three rebels.

    The weird robes and masks are no stranger than the world elite that made government policy in the Bohemian Grove, an elite retrat in the US who’s members include mant powerful,political leader from various nations , a clear historical basis of what is seen in Fall Out.

    Fall Out is what McGoohan had in mind from the series inception.

    All The Best


    1. Hello Tomas, and thank you for commenting.

      MacGoohan always maintained that ‘Fall Out’ represented the summation of his ideas for the series, but I still believe the larger proportion of it to be a matter of serendipity. Remember that ‘Once upon a Time’ was always intended, until a very late stage, to be the final episode of series 1, and that the original series plane would not have been to have a finale that was a direct sequel to that. Against that is MacGoohan’s claim – which was not made until years after the event – that he had originally intended only seven episodes.

      Your theory is very interesting, and is certainly appropriate to the overriding conspiracy theory element of the series (I recall The Prisoner once being lauded in ‘New Musical Express’ as the most paranoid programme ever made). I’m not immediately convinced, and I still think that Number Six’s ‘defeat’ of the Village is only explicable as delusion, but it’s something I’ll think long and hard about.

  4. In July 1966 ( in the LA Times ) McGoohan) announced that The Prisoner would be a serial with self contained episodes but with an on going narrative. The Prisoner was to be as limited as 13 episodes but would run no longer than one season. Under one headline for the article it read ‘Secret Agent McGoohan Limits Series Episodes’… so there is no doubt that McGoohan had planned for a limited series of episodes for The Prisoner and had every reason for wanting an initial run of only 7 as the Networks were making such plans themselves As an example NBC was planning a TV series called The Bold Ones that had just such limited runs of 7 episodes.

    All The Best


    PS CBS announced through programming cheif Michael Dann the purchase of a package of exactly 17 episodes of The Prisoner in Feburary 1967, with the sale occurring on Oct. 1966. So McGoohan, Lew Grade and CBS got what they wanted, with McGoohan getting the limited series he announced in July 1966.

    1. This is fascinating information, Tomas, and contradicts every previous ‘official’ history I have ever read. However, I would contradict you on one aspect, which is that The Prisoner was made by a British Television Company, for British Television. Whilst the company in question was headed by a man who was very much focused on re-selling to America, the work was conceived in accordance with British trends, and I’m old enough to assert that a seven episode series was not, in 1966, feasible on British TV, and especially not from ATV. Do you have links for the newspaper reports you refer to? I would love to see these and they would throw a massive spanner into so many official interpretations.

  5. One can provide fuller quotations and exact citations and a link or two, yes. And yes the ‘official’ histories have it rather boggled at some points.

    Lew Grade intended to sell The Prisoner to CBS and attempted to sell the 7 episode series to CBS as early a as June 1966 according to American TV reporter Rick DuDrow. The asking price and the fact that Lew Grade wanted CBS to purchase the ‘whole series sight unseen’ made CBS balk at the first attempt to sell the series. The asking price for the whole series suggests a series limited to just 7 episodes. CBS made such limited episode purchases all the time,it is something of a myth that all purchases were always made in groups of 13, 26 etc.

    It then followed in July that McGoohan, as announced in the Los Angeles Times, had negotiated The Prisoner series as limited as perhaps to 13 episodes and no longer than one season. It was always Lew Grade’s intention to sell to the American market and The Prisoner was announced as intended as such in May of 1966 by reporter Rick DuBrow.

    The Prisoner was pitched to Lew Grade in April 1966 and announced to the press as starting filming in September 1966, the announcement came before Koroshi had completed filming.

    CBS had cancelled ‘Secret Agent’ (Danger Man) March 11, 1966 so McGoohan pitched The Prisoner as a single season limited series. McGoohan never ‘quit’ his series it was cancelled by CBS as explained by Michael Dann of CBS due to ratings.

    In 1965 McGoohan had mentioned he wished to make a film about a futuristic society in which people had ‘no names only numbers’ which has a brutal education system designed to destroy the individual and accept an existence of unlimited soulless leisure.

    All The Best


    PS Will provide quotes and cite sources in next posting.

    PSS Being 60 + years of age and a young adult at the time of The Prisoner’s development and broadcast one was old enough to follow the news items in the press as they occurred so had a good sense of the direction of The Prisoner at the time of the events happening.

  6. Martin

    One other point, you will find that in British television there were several limited series such as the famous Quatermas series. Lew Grade in 1968 went about in the American press encourageing the advantage of such limited productions as a means of diversifying TV productions. Again the American Networks were planning just such formats such as the 1969 series called The Bold Ones consisting of 7 episodes of stories of lawyers, doctors etc. You can find the series at IMDB.

    CBS Playhouse in 1967 or 1968 would have been the perfect venue for The Prisoner consisting of 7 original films.

  7. Martin

    Here is a link to a limited series produced by Lew Grade’s ATV as an example of the type of series he was encouraging. The production began in 1969 and broadcast in March 1970. The first season consisted of 6 episodes.

    Here is thelink to IMBB…


  8. You’ve certainly made your case. I’m really rather surprised that this seemingly clear evidence has not previously been alluded to by anyone. I’m very surprised that you claim ‘Danger Man’ (as I know it) ended due to cancellation for falling ratings in America when it was still a very popular and successful series in its native Britain – so much so that Lew Grade had increased its budget in order to shoot in colour.

    A lot of what you are saying does not accord with shooting schedules etc as detailed in Robert Fairclough’s ‘Complete Scripts Volumes 1 and 2’. I make no comment, but am interested in your take on the information he provides.

  9. Martin

    McGoohan said in an interview that Secret Agent would film in color the next season but only if CBS renewed by March11, 1966 other wise they would cease production even in England. This statement was made in December 1965.

    McGoohan had originally planned to film The Prisoner starring someone else during the production break at the end of season 3 of Danger Man as a limited series.


  10. Martin

    One is in possession of the Fairclough materials. And some of the points made here do harmonize, such the comment that at the end of the OUAT script ‘the sound of a rocket ‘ indicated that McGoohan had the No.1 rocket in mind as part of any conclusion, Fairclough notes this himself.

    It is all speculation that OUAT was to be used as the conclusion of a thirteenth episode cliffhanger for a second season of another thirteen. Markstein states that Many Happy Returns was to be the thirteenth episode with with No.6 then having adventures outside The Village.

    Closer to the truth is an interview with Tony Sloman by David Barrie, where The Prisoner’s film librarian comments that OUAT was to be the climax of the series, possibly without Fall Out. This version has some backing from a comment that McGoohan had made in the American press in 1968 that he wanted to end the series at 13 episodes and bring the hero’s dilema to a conclusion in the final episode. In this light you can consider Fall Out to be a form of Epilogue to all that we have seen before.

    Kenneth Griffith famous claim to have written his own speech is interesting but the thought her is that it ended up one the editing room floor (or more likely was never filmed) and what we see and hear on the screen is all McGoohan as much of the action is connected to The President’s dialogue. There is a youtube interview with Kenneth where he recreates the excised speech and it is fun to listen to, but Fall Out is better off without it.

    Michael Dann is on record in the Chicago Tribune as stating that he purchased The Prisoner as a package of 17 episodes and Sir Lew Grade, in his autobiography, confirms that McGoohan only wanted to produce a series of 17 episodes which the CBS executives agreed to, McGoohan in a staement to the American press on August 4, 1967 stated that he had filmed thirteen episodes of The Prisoner and would do four more the no more.

    It is something of a myth that Lew Grade shut down The Prisoner because of cost over runs. Lew Grade was commenting in an October 1967 issue of London Times that he had CBS backing for more episodes of The Prisoner and was waving around a five million dollar check to prove it. But only if McGoohan wanted to produce more.

    All The Best


  11. Washington Post Nov. 19, 1969.

    by Kevin Thomas.

    “The Prisoner? Well that was an experimental kind of thing for
    television. Originally,I wanted to do only seven episodes,but CBS
    wouldn’t buy it. I stopped at 17. I had had enough. (Patrick McGoohan, originally in the Los Angeles Times)

    The Washington Post August 4, 1967

    ‘Secret Agent’ Star Quitting TV Cold

    Mcgoohan has turned down CBS request that he film 36 segments of his
    new series “The Prisoner”.
    “I have completed 13 and will do four more- and then no
    more.” (Patrick McGoohan)

  12. Tony Sloman: “Degree Absolute” was always intended to be the last if it went to thirteen. Pat got on so well with Leo on “Chimes Of Big Ben”. He was writing for Leo page by page, and while they had him there…..” (Tony Sloman speaking of OUAT as a climax The Prisoner to David Barrie)


  13. Tomas. Thank you for all your posts. You have written so many now that it would be more valuable for you to write your own blogpost – assuming you haven’t already done – correcting everybody on the history of the Prisoner than to continue adding more and more to mine. I don’t go around re-writing old posts, and I’m unlikely to write this series over again, so I think you owe it to Prisoner fandom to formalise your information for their benefit.

  14. Martin

    Here is hoping you enjoyed the information in the posts. The various posts were to complete your request for the news items cited. You will find that the various news sources all have searchable archives if you wish further verification or the entire articles.

    Fairclough has done excellent work with the scripts and with the information that was available at the time not a bad job on the production history.

    It would appear that McGoohan may have been more generous in his American press interviews, although the papers cited were internationally quoted or distributed. Perhaps McGoohan was tighter lipped with the British press, and by extension the Canadian outlets, because he wanted his first viewing audiences to have the full impact of his series with no spoilers.

    Your blog is excellently written and personally enjoyed by this reader, wouldn’t have you change a word of it.

    With your permission one would post a summation here, to tie the various posts together.

    All The Best


  15. Be my guest. In fact, if you like, e-mail it to me at arduous.publications47(at), and I’ll post it as this blog’s first ever Guest Post.


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