The Prisoner: episode 7 – Many Happy Returns – discursion

Georgina Cookson

Many Happy Returns was the seventh episode of The Prisoner to be broadcast, and the thirteenth and final of the originally planned series 1 to be filmed. It was written by Anthony Skene, scripter of A, B and C, and was his third and final script for the series (the other being the as-yet-undiscussed Dance of the Dead). It was directed by Patrick McGoohan under his pseudonym of Joseph Serf.
The episode itself is a spectacular piece of work, not least in the daring to have no (English) dialogue until almost halfway through, and McGoohan’s performance as a man who has, after a long period of incarceration, returned home is subtle and delicate. Many Happy Returns was also one of the favourite episodes of series co-creator George Markstein, as one of the few that accorded with his original vision of the series. Indeed, Markstein saw this episode as the proper series closer: Number Six finally escapes and returns to London, only to discover that he is just as much under the control of his mysterious gaolers: that he is, and forever will be, a prisoner of who he is and what he was.
It was also the last episode with which Markstein was involved.
Skene also seems to have been under the impression that this was to be the final episode as his script recapitulates many incidents from Arrival, giving the impression that, after thirteen weeks, the Prisoner is back where he started.
Instead, the episode aired halfway through the putative Series 1 run (except in the 1983 Channel 4 first re-run, when it was aired second: way to go, boys, this guy has just been kidnapped to a mysterious, inescapable, secret location, and first thing you show is him escaping). Markstein’s influence had all but disappeared in the face of McGoohan’s increasingly abstract approach, and – ironically in the face of an episode that set up what would have been the underlying theme of series 2 – it must have been around this time that McGoohan and Grade had their meeting that led to the abandonment of the latter and the commissioning of the four additional episodes that would lead the show into Cult History.
With McGoohan as Director, everyone must have expected changes to the original script, but a comparison between what aired and Skene’s script as reprinted in Fairclough’s book is astonishing. The final broadcast varies little from the plot, or spine of Skene’s story, but each episode has been radically revised, to the extent that a version shot entirely to the script would be almost a brand new episode.
Just to give a handful of examples, the opening sequence in the Village is cut to eliminate almost all the emotions Number Six experiences, the German pair take him on board their motor vessel, the Romanies speak pure English with a cockney accent, Mrs Butterworth was a little old lady who thought the Prisoner was a burglar, and there is considerably more, and more pointed dialogue in the final scene back in Number Six’s cottage (the final version is much more effective, cutting things off at the punchline).
You will already have noted that this is the second time that an episode purports to identify where the Village is situated. We’ve already discounted the Lithuanian Coast theory, in The Chimes of Big Ben, as disinformation spread by a double agent. This time, the Village is authoritatively placed somewhere between the south west Portugal/Spain coast and the north west Morroccan coast (the original script ties it to an island abandoned because of the threat of volcanic destruction).
I say authoritatively, because whilst the work of the two experts is based on limited information and is tentative at best, the following day, McGoohan is flown to the area they specify, and he finds the Village. He is equipped with maps, he is directing a systematic survey of terrain that matches the maps he carries, he finds the Village.
Hang the fact that he is searching in a Mediterranean/North African region for a location that has a temperate British climate and flora. And there’s one other episode in which the Village’s physical location is indicated, completely incompatible with Many Happy Returns, but as we shall see, that is also completely unreliable. Face it, this is where the Village is.
And no, I don’t believe that for one moment. I cannot square it with seventeen episodes of daily life in the Village. But I also cannot come up with a way to step around what is portrayed here that convinces even me.
It would appear to be a massive blow to the believability of the series, except that one other, and more fundamental issue, supervenes.
What is the central fact of this episode? That the Prisoner actually does return to London, and he physically returns to British Intelligence, his former employers. But wait: didn’t he already do that in The Chimes of Big Ben? Not quite: he never left the Village in that episode, but he did meet two former colleagues in British Intelligence, including a superior, in Colonel J and Fotheringay: people he knew. Now he meets The Colonel and Thorpe. The Colonel is familiar to him, but I infer from how the scene is played, that he does not know Thorpe, the openly sceptic.
Why doesn’t he meet his first two contacts? The message in The Chimes of Big Ben was directed to Colonel J, who, it is implied, was Number Six’s direct chief. But, let’s say, the Colonel is higher in Intelligence than Colonel J, or that Colonel J has since been … removed? For that matter, given what we discussed last time, do we know that The Chimes of Big Ben took place before Many Happy Returns or after?
Actually, it doesn’t matter which order the two episodes take place, the same ultimate question applies. For what it’s worth, I do believe that The Chimes of Big Ben is earlier, and that Many Happy Returns in its early stages (far more so in the original script) portrays Number Six’s over-riding fear that he will only be allowed so far in his escape before the Village intervenes.
But whilst there are perfectly plausible reasons why the Prisoner doesn’t meet those contacts he met the first time, what is inexplicable is that he neither refers to that previous episode, nor shows any heightened suspicion about British Intelligence as a consequence.
Why doesn’t he bring it up? Why is he not automatically suspicious of the aid being given to him to locate the Village? Yes, the Prisoner is affected by a quasi-euphoric response to at last getting away but he retains his natural suspicions (what made him such a good agent) as to which side runs the Village.
The only logical explanation depends upon pure hypothesis. Number Six has been subjected to drugs on various occasions, and on his next return to London, he will have been brainwashed to forget he has ever been kidnapped at all. Therefore he must have been drugged on this occasion and brainwashed into forgetting his encounter with Colonel J and Fotheringay. Perfectly plausible: but when the Number Two of that story, Leo McKern, reappears in Once Upon a Time, Number Six recognises his voice instantly.
Even this plausible hypothesis can be knocked down, with evidence. So what is the reality?
The reality is that there is no reality. We cannot square the circle on this inconsistency because the series was seen as a succession of discrete episodes, not a tightly-consistent serial. Applying too much real world logic leads us to suggestions that the Prisoner is being brainwashed to forget between each episode, or that Number Six is actually a different character, reset to zero, in every episode.
And it’s not as if the series’ as yet unconceived ending doesn’t support such a reading.
A couple of minor points: anyone watching this episode under the age of thirty is unlikely to appreciate the in-joke of having veteran actor Richard Caldicot play the senior Royal Navy officer. Caldicot was best known as Commander Povey in the long-running nautical radio sitcom The Navy Lark, starring Leslie Phillips and Jon Pertwee, which ran from 1959 to 1975 and is still in regular repeat on Radio 4 Extra today.
The use of Robert Reilty to substitute as Number Two in the credits – it being impossible for Georgina Cookson to be revealed as Number Two up front – was intended as a one-off, but after the following episode, it became standard usage, relieving all the subsequent Number Twos (except the returning Leo McKern) of the task.
Lastly, having regard to our discussion about the possible misogynistic aspects of the series, let us note that Georgina Cookson is the second female Number Two. But though she plays a prominent, and beautifully misdirecting, part in the story, like Rachel Herbert before her, her actual identification as Number Two is limited to no more that ten seconds onscreen. That case remains open.

The Prisoner: episode 7 – Many Happy Returns – synopsis

Thunder crashes.
The opening credits do not show the new Number Two, and instead an additional shot of Rover. The voice of ‘Number Two’ is spoken by Robert Reilty, who supplied voiceovers throughout the series.
Number Six awakes in his bed, looking somewhat muzzy-headed. He checks the coffee percolator in the kitchen and switches it on. He turns on the shower in the bathroom, but no water comes out, nor from the handbasin tap. The coffee percolator has not started, nor does a lamp light up when he clicks the switch.
Looking through the window, Number Six discovers that the square is deserted: there are no villagers in sight.
He explores the Village thoroughly. The café is locked and deserted, the shops shut. The bell pull does not ring at the Green Dome and, when he forces entry to Number Two’s office, the Chair is empty except for Number Two’s umbrella.
Number Six finds a working mini-moke and tries to drive away, only to find the Village surrounded by impenetrable mountains. He returns to the Village and constructs a raft, using cut down trees and oil drums for buoyancy. He takes copious photos of the Village, together with plentiful food from the store, and an issue of the Tally Ho on which to write his log.
As he is about to push off, he hears a crash behind him. Steeling himself to look round, he finds that it is only the Village cat, knocking over a plate on the terrace.
The Prisoner poles out into the bay and begins his journey. He cannibalises a loudspeaker and magnetises a nail to serve as a primitive compass. Days pass, He keeps himself shaved for some time, but by Day 18 he is growing weaker and dehydrated, and collapses.
He wakes to find two men on his raft. They ignore him, stealing his food, breaking his compass and dropping his oar into the sea. Before powering away in their motor vessel, they dump him in the ocean, but unseen by them he swims to the stern of the boat and gets on board.
The two men, who speak German, cook themselves some of the Prisoner’s food. Whilst they eat in the wheelhouse, he explores their boat. One cabin contains a box which, when prized open, contains guns.
The Prisoner creates a distraction by burning cloths in cooking oil in the galley, and waiting for the crew to investigate. He subdues both of them individually, and ties them up in a cabin, which he locks using a chain wrapped around the handles of the sliding doors.
He takes over the craft and pushes it on. Some time later, he sees a lighthouse and turns the boat directly towards it. By now the crew are awake. They release each other and escape from the cabin by kicking through the back of the locker, into an unchained cabin. Splitting up, they plan to attack the Prisoner simultaneously, one from each side of the wheelhouse. Their attack is mistimed: the Prisoner is able to beat off one before the other joins in. But the first man gets a gun from a drawer and the prisoner is forced to leap overboard and swim towards shore.
He comes to on an empty beach beneath chalk cliffs. Unable to find a way off the beach in either direction, he is forced to climb the cliffs, emerging on green downs. A man passes by, dressed as a Romany, leading a greyhound on a lead and using a rough stick. The Prisoner asks him what land this is (after 22 minutes, this is the first English dialogue in the episode). The man ignores him and hurries away.
The Prisoner follows him to a small Romany camp, where a woman and an old man are sat around a cookpot. The woman berates the man in Romany, ignoring his attempt to defend himself. She offers the Prisoner a cup of something from the cookpot, which he finds sustaining. None of the Romany speak English but the woman recognises the word ‘road’ and points his way.
When the Prisoner reaches the road, English bobbies have set up a road block and are quizzing every driver. He circles round to beyond the road block, and manages to get into the back of a lorry, concealing himself above the cab and going to sleep. He is woken by sirens and automatically leaps from the lorry, to find himself in London.
Overwhelmed to some extent by having gotten back to freedom, the Prisoner wanders, eventually ending up at his old home at 1 Buckingham Place. He knocks on the door, which is opened by a middle-aged maid, who clearly disapproves of his scruffy, unshaven, dishevelled appearance. Initially, he is rude and demanding, and by the time he recovers his manners and asked to speak to her master, she closes the door on him, saying that her mistress is not at home.
Her mistress returns almost immediately, driving the Prisoner’s Lotus. He is equally ungraceful with her, Mrs Butterworth, a middle-aged widow with a flirtatious air, clearly amused by the ragged man asking her questions he can answer about her car. She invites him in for tea and cake. Inside, his old flat seems to be unchanged.
Mrs Butterworth brings cake and sandwiches, which he devours hungrily. She shows him her lease – 10 years, prepared by a firm who had not dealt with the Prisoner. It is March 18th: the Prisoner, almost shamefacedly, says that it is his birthday tomorrow (McGoohan’s birth date), and Mrs Butterworth promises to bake him a cake.
It’s clear that all signs of his previous existence in London have been efficiently obliterated.
The Prisoner’s next step is to contact his former employers. Over his protestations, Mrs Butterworth insists on helping him further, forcing on him a bath, clothes belonging to her late husband, and the loan of the Lotus, on condition he fixes its problem with overheating in traffic. The Prisoner repeats his journey of the credits, to the underground garage, and the office occupied by the civil servant played by Markstein.
He is referred to two senior officials, who meet him at an old country home. The Prisoner has told his story, shown his photos,produced his Tally Ho log. The Colonel is blandly neutral, putting it to his subordinate Thorpe to point out the fantastic elements of the account. They openly state that they are concerned that the Prisoner defected, and is now trying to come back on behalf of the other side.
The Prisoner, in a much more relaxed frame of mind, still intoxicated to some extent by having gotten away from the Village, reasserts that he intends to find and destroy the Village, and to uncover its masters.
After checking out the Prisoner’s story as much as possible, the Colonel brings in senior Royal Navy and Royal Air Force officers to plot his course as best as possible from his rough log. They conclude that the Village ought to be somewhere on the south west Portugal/Spain coast or north west Morocco, or an island in that area.
Early the next morning, the Prisoner and the RAF officer meet at an airfield. It is so early, the milk is being delivered. They are to do a reconnaissance flight to locate the Village. The Colonel and the Prisoner go outside as the pilot finishes suiting up. Playfully, the Colonel calls the Prisoner Number Six. Calling the Colonel James, the Prisoner threatens him with hospitalisation if he uses that term again.
As the plane flies off, Thorpe describes the Prisoner as an “Interesting fellow.” “He’s and old, old friend,” the Colonel replies, “who never gives up.” They drive away.
The flight progresses steadily, in calculated sweeps over coasts and islands until the Prisoner sees the Village, on a peninsula, tucked up against its forested hillside. He instructs the Pilot to go closer. Instead, the pilot removes his oxygen mask and reaches for a yellow lever. He turns towards the Prisoner, showing that it is not the pilot, but instead the Milkman. He calls out, “Be Seeing you,” and ejects the Prisoner.
Stiff with mute fury, the Prisoner controls his descent until he lands on the beach. The Village is still deserted, the cat still by the broken plate. Weary and frustrated, he walks back to his cottage, clearly intent on starting again.
Suddenly the shower comes on, the percolator starts to bubble and the table light lights. The cat mews. Looking up, he sees Mrs Butterworth approaching him. She is carrying a cake, covered with birthday candles which she holds out to him. On the shoulder of her dress is a reversed Village badge, white-on-black, with the Number 2. “Many Happy Returns,” she says.
The sound of the Village band playing is heard. Number Six crosses to the window, The Square is filled with Villagers, playing and parading.
We cut to the stock shot of the Village. Number Six’s face races towards the centre of the screen. Iron bars slam across it with a prison clang.

The Prisoner: In Order

So we come to the issue concerning The Prisoner that has probably had more words expended upon it than any other aspect of the series over the past four decades: the running order.
For this series of posts, I’ve elected to stick entirely to the original broadcast order, as used in 1967/8, in the Granada repeats of 1976/7, in all but the first of the three series of Channel 4 repeats throughout the Eighties, and in the “Ultimate Collection” DVD Boxset that I own. Which, as we’ve already seen, veers wildly from the production order of the first thirteen filmed episodes.
This, by itself, is no indication. Some series – indeed, nearly every non-serialised drama series in the modern era – are written with a defined sequence. Lost was a serial, as was The Wire. On the other hand, to choose another favourite, Homicide – Life on the Street, though filmed during and for a period that still regarded episodes as detachable, was made with a running order built on developing sub-plots and arcs that continued from episode to episode.
Which didn’t prevent NBC chopping up the planned order and pushing episodes back and forth as it suited their immediate purposes.
However, with no exceptions that I can presently think of, the thriller series’ of the Sixties had no episode to episode continuity. Series could be shown in any order the television companies wanted, because it didn’t matter. Serials were serials, but series’ permitted viewers to miss a week or two, here and there, with no fears that when they returned, they would not understand what was going on.
With minor adjustments, this was the approach taken by The Prisoner, exactly as it had been for Danger Man. Certain episodes – Arrival as the opening episode, to set everything up, Once upon a Time as the series 1 curtain-closer, to set up the never-filmed second series – had a set position: the others might be shuffled as necessity demanded.
It simply wasn’t seen as important, as things are now. Guest stars (with a few exceptions, not foreseen in advance) only appeared in single episodes. Recurring cast were limited to supporting roles: the silent, dwarf butler played by Angelo Muscat was the most prominent, and most prolific, the Shopkeeper recurs a handful of times.
To a large extent, broadcast order was dictated by the order in which episodes finished in production: what was ready first was shown first, though a more contemplative decision was taken to postpone Dance of the Dead: it is clear from internal indications that this should be an early episode – one source suggested that this was one of three commissions issued to writers who were told this was to be the second episode – but its downbeat tone, and its dark and difficult story was thought to be unsuitable so soon into a new series that still needed to establish itself with its audience.
As we’ll see, in due course, its actual placement in the running order was ingenious, to make logical use of its contents.
But despite all this, there are episodes that contain indications that they were intended to show Number Six’s early reactions to the Village, and these are not all shown early in the series. For instance, I commented on the degree of credibility in Free For All behind Number Six’s acceptance of the supposed election: many people believe this indicates the episode should be placed second, when the Prisoner is still unfamiliar with the Village.
And there’s the Colin Gordon issue, as demonstrated by The General.
Given the contrast in his two performances, it’s only logical to place The General before A, B and C: they were filmed in that order, Gordon is the ‘new’ Number Two in the first and ‘is’ Number Two in the second, and he is calm, confident, almost arrogant in the first, but nervy, edgy and hyper-afraid of failure in the second. There is no emotional or psychological credibility in the performances taking place in broadcast order.
Yet in The General Number Two is experienced with Number Six, hints at a pre-episode meeting, already aware of what can and cannot be done with his Prisoner. Nowhere in any episode but this is there a suggestion that Number Six and the new Number Two have had any significant contact before their first onscreen encounter.
No such issues apply to Leo McKern’s episodes as Number Two: though filmed back-to-back, they were always intended to appear at different points in the series, and on McKern’s second appearance in Once Upon a Time, both he and Number Six identify him as having returned.
But there are two other instances where the same actor appears in two separate episodes.  Georgina Cookson, appears in a minor speaking role at Engadine’s party in A, B and C and then returns in a major role, as Mrs Butterworth, in Many Happy Returns. There’s not necessarily a dislocation in this: her first part is as a character in Number Six’s dream, after all, but there are more serious issues surrounding the two appearances of Patrick Cargill, first as a British Intelligence senior official in Many Happy Returns and then, of all things, as Number Two in Hammer into Anvil.
There are alternate running orders available, that try to make more logical sense of the relationships between episodes, and try to encompass the best design in light of the clues that may be discerned. Several versions are detailed in Wikipedia
For instance, Six of One, the Prisoner Appreciation Society have endorsed a running order that is employed on the 40th Anniversary DVD box set. To give you a flavour of it, as it pertains to episodes I’ve already covered, it promotes Free for All to second, followed by Dance of the Dead and Checkmate. The Chimes of Big Ben and A, B and C drop two places but The General still follows that, despite all the indications to the contrary.
Channel 4, in their first repeat in 1983, decided in their wisdom to place Many Happy Returns second, a decision whose inanity you will understand when we move on to that next.
Me, I express no opinions. There is no achievable definitive running order, nothing that is not open to objection on some ground or other. There never was any consistent intention for there to be one. As I’ll be coming to after we’ve looked at Many Happy Returns, there is a second, insuperable bar to the application of strict natural chronology to The Prisoner. And that’s before we even think of Fall-Out.
Some or many of you may find that these contradictions are a bar to your enjoyment, or at any rate your acceptance, of The Prisoner. I have decided to accept them and to exclude appreciation of the story from such demands. It is, and from the beginning was, a thing of surreality, and I’m more than willing to play to its strengths and ignore its weaknesses.
You see, it’s not  real.