The Prisoner: Shattered Visage

I bought this when it first came out, four issues in the then new Prestige format, perhaps long enough ago that it was still being referred to as the Dark Knight format. I traded up for the graphic novel collection, getting it for free because the guy in the shop, a mate of mine, the kid who got me into writing for British comics fandom, hated the owner, and admitted that practically all of them did stuff like that from time to time, to fuck him over. I kept it for several years and then got rid of it, because despite being an Authorised Sequel, and Patrick McGoohan and Leo McKern consenting to the use of their likenesses, it simply wasn’t anywhere near good enough. When I was doing my series on The Prisoner some years ago, I referred to it under Other Media, feeding off twenty-odd year old memories. Now I’ve bought the collection again, cheap, in decent but not excessive condition, to refresh those recollections and write about it properly. One day, I may be able to afford the Marvel hardback collecting their two efforts to adapt episode one of the series.

Yes, I am a completist.

Shattered Visage is still not very good. In fact, it’s a mess on many levels, and it totally fails to get either the atmosphere or ethos of the series. Reading it, I wonder, given the intensity of his involvement with his ‘baby’, just what McGoohan saw in the project that led him to authorise it as an official sequel, because I’m hanged if I can see it.

The story is the work of writer/artist Dean Motter, a Canadian creator then noted for his serialised work, ‘The Sacred and the Profane’, with co-creator Ken Steacey, and then for creating and designing ‘Mister X’ (originally written and drawn by Los Bros Hernandez). Motter wrote the story with Mark Askwith, a Canadian television TV writer and producer, and drew the issues with colour by David Hornung and Richmond Lewis. The series first appeared in 1988-89, as issues A – D.

The set-up for the story is that twenty years have passed since the Village was liberated by the Americans and its inmates released. The Leo McKern Number Two was imprisoned for twenty years, the Village fell into disuse and was left empty, but for the former Number Six who, once free to go, elected to stay, and has remained there ever since. But Number Two is about to be released from prison. One of the conditions of his release has been that he was allowed to write his memoirs about the Village (‘The Village Idiot’), although apparently its relevance to the truth, after Britan’s Intelligence Services have been over it, is tangential at best. It is feared that Number Two intends to return to the Village for revenge. It is intimated that there are still secrets in the Village.

So: an interesting angle in that we’re not trying for another ‘lost’ episode effect. It’s a genuine sequel in that respect, but it’s also a possibly unconscious admission by Motter and Askwith that they couldn’t do a ‘lost’ episode, that they couldn’t begin to capture that wholly Sixties mixture of paranoia and holiday camp absurdity. Because they certainly can’t capture anything of the series in what they produced.

To begin with, they can only create their story by denying the original ending, reducing Number Six’s experiences to a drug-induced hallucination, a fantasy. Secondly, having him elect to stay in the Village once it’s liberated, may be superficially consistent with Number Six/Patrick McGoohan’s insistent upon the rights of the individual (My life is my own), but in practice it reduces the character to a contrarian, a figure without independent thought or opinion, merely a drive to do the opposite of everybody else.

But that’s before the story introduces its own characters and its contemporary view of espionage. The two most important figures are Alice and Thomas, the one a former spy for British Intelligence, the other still in the service, head of a small Department called Excavations, which seem to be a background operation. Alice and Thomas were married but are separated at Alice’s instigation, which seems to be linked to the reasons for her resignation. Alice has lost faith in what they do, affected by incidents that have happened to other agents: her reasons are only slightly more concrete than those of Number Six but seem to echo those he appeared to be about to expand upon in ‘The Chimes of Big Ben’. Late in the series, we will learn that Alice’s surname is Drake, but whether this is her married name, or whether she has reverted to her maiden name (something her character portrayal strongly suggests she would do) we are not told.

The story is deliberately unclear about everything it possibly can be, even more so than the series.

Thomas has edited Number Two’s book, having practically rewritten it for him, to eliminate active security issues, which appear to be manifold and include all sorts of modern issues. But he’s concerned about The Village, Number Two, an Agent who’s following him, the approval of his mentor, the now bedridden Mrs Butterworth, and the refusal of his superior, Colonel J, to officially support him. So Thomas ropes in a freewheeling American agent called Lee West (a steal from Joe Don Baker as Darius Jedburgh, in Edge of Darkness).

Alice meanwhile is celebrating her freedom by going on a solo voyage around the world in a super-yacht with all modern satellite system guidance. To do so, she has to put her tearful daughter Meagan (aged 8 or thereabouts) into the convent school that is Alice’s old alma mater, thereby making Meagan a prisoner. (She also gets her hair cut and swaps her elegant calf-length skirts for shorts and bikinis: Alice may be a strong, independent woman but she’s also eye-candy, at least so far as Motter’s art style permits). But Thomas distracts her long enough to enable Lee to mess with the guidance system, so that Alice’s course takes her past the Village.

That’s before the Hurricane that wrecks her boat, fries her guidance system and maroons her on the beach below the Village (now defined as being an island). Alice makes her be-shorted way through a dilapidated, boarded up, vegetation-shrouded Village, all the way to Number Two’s office (how does she know to go there?) where a heavily-bearded man sits in the Chair. He greets her, tells her she’s safe, and names her… (wait for it), Number Six.

The bearded man is our old friend, the original Number Six.

All of this so far has been set out in issue A. I’ve explained it in such detail because it’s been necessary to set up the premise of the story, and also because it’s a carefully-detailed, espionage oriented set-up. You can build a good story on what’s been laid out thus far, though little of it would have relevance to the series. But I shalln’t be going into anything like the same detail for the other three-quarters of the tale because from this point onwards, the story falls apart like wet tissue-paper.

Number Two turns up in the Village (how? Don’t ask stupid questions). He’s older, fatter, bearded as well (though not with either of the beards Leo McKern wore in the series) and has bad teeth. He’s being served by the Butler, although as poor Angelo Muscat wasn’t around to agree, the latter is only shown in shadow, with ratty hair and stooped shoulders. He’s there to provoke Number Six into a fight.

Not a psychological battle, a contest of minds trying to outdo each other, intelligence warring with intelligence and sharp dialogue, but a fist-fight. If ever the limitations of comics creators’ mentalities was exposed, it is here. Number Six beats Number Two up and shaves off his beard.

By now, the Village has been invaded by two military forces, an unofficial one led by Lee, with Thomas, that exposes the true secret behind the Village, the thing that it’s all been about since the very beginning: a nuclear missile. You know, the very thing that was fired during the ‘Fall Out’ episode that Motter and Askwith dismissed as wholly a drug-induced hallucination in order to tell their story becomes their big idea. It’s pathetically weak.

The other invading force doesn’t get anywhere. They’re sent by Thomas’s superior Ross, D.Ops (Director of Operations) to retrieve all information and people they find, but they find nothing because the beaten Number Two sets off the missiles without opening the silo doors, so the Village is destroyed, as it was when the missile was fired in ‘Fall Out’ that Motter and Askwith dismissed, etc., killing everyone in the Village but not necessarily the maverick Lee.

There are two codas to this conclusion. One involves a shift in authority in British Intelligence, involving a takeover by remote figures for whom, it appears, the seemingly detached Lee West was working: Ross is dismissed, gassed unconscious and removed in an undetaker’s hearse, presumably to The Village 2.0.

And Alice, who escaped with Number Six, is reunited with Meagan (whilst under surveillance), after a brief conversation with our erstwhile hero. She asks two questions which elicit two answers that sound clever but which, after the failure we’ve read, are functionally meaningless. In reverse order, to a question about how Number Six knows his secrets are still safe, he answers ‘None of us would still be here if they weren’t’, whilst to the $64 Million Dollar question of Who was Number One, actually? we get the gnomic response, ‘Does the presence of Number Two… necessarily require the existence of Number One?’ It’s cute, it has its appeal, it could actually be the basis for a serious story if you produce it early enough, but in context it’s as meaningless as everything else: just someone thinking that they’re being clever.

According to the Wikipedia entry, the story was ‘thoroughly evaluated’ by ITC Entretainment, and every page of Shattered Visage (title taken from Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’) and every issue was sent to Patrick McGoohan, who signed off on it but offered no feedback: the only thing Motter ever got back was, apparently, “He didn’t hate it.” Leo McKern sent a note to say how flattered he was to be a comic book villain for the first time. It’s a nice gesture, and I’m sure McKern was amused, but he did rather put his finger on it: Number Two is a comic book villain, with all the usual implications.

What of the art? Does this, in any way, make up for the inadequacies of the story? Unfortunately not: Motter’s art is sketchy and undetailed, his faces and figures awkward. He can catch enough of a likeness of McGoohan and McKern without being so simplistic as to topple into caricature, but his pages are open, lacking in detail, flat. There is no sense of depth to the panels, an effect muliplied by colouring that seems to be content with slapping wide expanses of plain, ungraduated pastels in sunshine, or muddy, lifeless shades in night conditions.

I’m torn over the decision to use treated photography for certain scenes, especially of the Village, and London, rather than have Motter draw these. Even with a deliberately degraded image, these scenes have too much detail to blend into Motter’s style, and the fact of their realness constantly drags the eye out of the story by reason of the contrast.

All in all, a pretty comprehensive failure, and called as such by most critics, especially among the especially fanatical fans, though the opinion is by no mean unanimous. In the end, the actual Village element seems like a sideshow beside the underlying story of power-shifts in British Intelligence. The twenty years on milieu, though an intelligence angle, proves to be determinedly anti-Prisoner-esque and the two worlds are too far separated to ever meet on their own terms.

At least they got it published.

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.

The Prisoner: episode 16 – Once Upon a Time – discursion

Once Upon a Time was the sixteenth episode of The Prisoner to be broadcast and the sixth to go into production. It was written and directed by Patrick McGoohan, although the shooting scripts used on set bore the name Archibald Schwarz, McGoohan being nervous of the reaction of everybody to such a bizarre episode.
After the last half-dozen episodes, the intensity, the underlying seriousness of Once Upon a Time comes as a shock: a welcome shock, a dose of cold, clear water after a series of sweet carbonated drinks. This is unsurprising, given that the episode was one of McGoohan’s original seven, the mini-series he wanted, the episodes he stood behind. It is one of the episodes filmed on the first run of shooting, although it uses only a tiny handful of location shots.
It followed on from The Chimes of Big Ben, hence the re-appearance of Leo McKern as Number Two. Despite their differences in the previous episode, the two actors respected each other and McGoohan invited McKern to remain, and it is all to the good for the episode.
Not only was McKern one of the best Number Two’s, not only did his scenes with McGoohan demonstrate a genuine, mutual respect between the characters, but the mere fact of a return, of a superior Number Two being recalled after a string of inferior men and schemes, leant the episode an immediate gravitas. McKern’s performance nails it instantly: he doesn’t want to be back, but if it is so important that he is needed, then it will be done, once and for all.
And it is. In a way, Once Upon a Time is the true conclusion to The Prisoner, and its final episode is accurately depicted by the title Fall Out. If the episode had been what it was long supposed to be, a cliff-hanger conclusion to series One, then we don’t need the evidence of supposed series Two episodes like Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling to tell us that a second series would have been an artistic disaster that would have pulled the roof down on the series forever.
That wasn’t the opinion of everyone. George Markstein held the script in contempt, called it utter gibberish, and a cold, hard look at it on the page, with its lengthy sequences of McGoohan and McKern shouting “Five!”, “Six!”, or “Pop,” “Pop,” “Pop pop,” at each other, makes it hard to justify.
But it is not just the two leads’ performances that turn this episode into an intense, psychological battle that envelops the viewer on levels beyond the rational.
The episode overall breaks down into two sections. There is Number Two’s return, the sanctioning of the mysterious Degree Absolute and the secrecy with which the preparation is made. The episode is at its most coldly rational in this long introduction, even down to the singing of nursery rhymes to the drugged and brainwashed Number Six in his bed.
And there is the sequence in the Embryo Room, one long, extended scene, on a minimalist set, where props are obviously props and the real is abandoned, as the process of Degree Absolute – the episode’s working title, incidentally – takes the fight into Number Six’s own mind.
The episode wears its roots lightly, in Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man, which are to be recapitulated in the week of the ordeal, recapitulated but manipulated to turn the roots of the character McGoohan plays into a creature amenable to the requirements of the Village, whilst retaining those elements that make him so valuable to that organisation.
Indeed, McGoohan throws in a couple of autobiographical notes as part of this cascade of impressionistic moments: his own boxing training, his first job as a Bank Clerk, before he became involved in acting. We can even see John Drake, through this prism, being recruited to the Service via an ancient and traditional organisation whose bases align with the security of the country.
It’s a tight, claustrophobic sequence, for all its refusal to confine itself to grounded reality. McGoohan faces McKern, with Angelo Muscat – promoted in the opening credits to ‘Featuring’ status – as a silent, grave presence, unassuming, solid, and in the final act shifting his loyalty to naturally, so airily, to Number Six, as control of the process slips into the latter’s hands and the countdown starts to the inevitability of Number Two’s death, a death that comes from no cause save only dramatic requirement and the demands of a process that has taken on an inevitability far beyond anything the players can do to halt it.
Number Two made the risk plain at the beginning. The processes’s title reinforces it. It really is an Absolute. One or the other. Six or Two. We may not see what we hoped to see in the charming Number Two of so very long ago, of the second broadcast episode, as near to the beginning as this is to the end: there is no battle of wits, not with a Number Six deprived of them until an end whose own reality may not be what we want it to be. But we see a man who does believe in what he does and who, to further the cause for which he works, goes willingly to what he knows, if he succeeds, is his own death: corporeal or mental.
And then the promise. Enter the Supervisor: cold, unsentimental, indeed a little contemptuous of his fallen colleague, even though he has expressed a sadness at what was then, in his mind, only a possibility: sorry to lose you.
Number Two is sealed away, out of sight. Number Six may have what he wants, and what he wants is what he’s wanted from the very beginning, what we who have watched this series have wanted, and that is answers. The answer is Number One, and there are no more obstacles, no more frustrations, no prevarications, just: I’ll take you.
Only the most forensic of minds, and how many are there in that moment, would recognise that that promise is not a promise to reveal anything, just a commitment to transport the once and former Number Six to something.
Of course, such prescience is easy when it’s no longer prescience.
I have a theory about Once Upon a Time, but not one that I can speak of here, because there is still an episode to come. My theory – not my theory in its origins but I find it impossible to run away from – explains too much that should not be spoken of until we have reached the end. I will say here only the word Brazil.
McGoohan, McKern, Muscat, and Peter Swanwick (whose steely glaze concealed serious frailties that brought about his death later in 1968): these are the players. John Cazabon (as the man with the Umbrella) and John Maxim (as Number 86 though his scene and his two lines were edited out after the credits were produced) are the only other actors, save for the unknowns who populated the Control Room.
It’s getting very late now.

The Prisoner: episode 16 – Once Upon a Time – synopsis

Thunder crashes. The full title sequence runs. We hear Leo McKern’s voice again in the catechism.
We open on a shot of the Green Dome, rising above the Village. In Number Two’s office, the Butler is steering a breakfast trolley. The Chair is occupied by a pulsating Rover. The Butler carefully deposits his tray on a side table. He operates the controls to cause a chair to slide up out of the floor. A moment later, a man rises through the floor, head bowed. We recognise him as the charming Number Two of The Chimes of Big Ben.
Number Two looks around him, disgustedly. He orders the Butler to take the breakfast away. He snatches up the red phone and snarls at the person on the other end to get rid of that ‘thing’ (i.e., Rover): he is not an inmate. Irritably, he orders the Butler to leave the coffee, shouting at him when he doesn’t move quickly enough.
He logs onto surveillance of Number Six, who is having breakfast in his kitchen. Carrying his cup and chewing a piece of toast, Number Six gets up and starts pacing back and forth. Number Two steps up to the gantry beneath the screen, almost putting himself into the pictiure. Why do you care? he muses, repeating the question.
He grabs the yellow phone off the desk, asks for Number Six. We hear the latter’s phone beep, see him answering. Why do you care? Number Two asks. I know your voice, the Prisoner replies. Number Two confirms he has been here before, and repeats his question. You’ll never know, Number Six says, putting down the phone and leaving his cottage.
Number Two continues to watch him as he makes his way through the sparsely attended square. Number Six button-holes a man with an umbrella, who reacts fearfully to being spoken to, and implores him to go away.
Coming to a decision, he snatches up the red phone again. He argues with the person to whom he is speaking, insisting that they have been going about things the wrong way, that he told them so first time. If they want him, they must do it his way, and there is no alternative: he demands approval for Degree Absolute.
This is clearly a serious, and irrevocable step, and one that is risky for Number Two himself. He acknowledges this. He is a good man, was a good man, if they they can get Number Six, he will be better. Number Two is willing to sacrifice himself. Consent is given, to start tonight, but though Number Two objects, he is given only seven days, which he believes is too short.
We cut to the Control Room. Number Two bustles in, announcing Degree Absolute, and requiring all subsidiary personnel to be removed. The Supervisor challenges him, proposes to check, but Number Two overrules him. The staff are told to leave, to submit their time sheets on the most favourable rates, leaving Number two, the Controller, and one operative on the twin-arm device.
Number Two takes one of the screens and tunes into Number Six, asleep in bed. The Controller counts to six, and announces that the first waveform is clear. A second count is made. Onscreen, Number Six grows restless. Number Two orders a third count, diminished, holding on five. Number Six threshes about, but remains asleep. A sweating Number Two is satisfied. As he leaves, the Supervisor says he would be sorry to lose him.
In his bedroom, Number Six sleeps. The ceiling light descends towards his face on its cord. It starts to flash. Number Two, sounding very weary, starts to croon the nursery rhyme, Humpty Dumpty. Number Six remains undisturbed, with the lamp over his face, as Number Two wanders round singing other rhymes. No matter how loudly he sings, Number Six is not disturbed. Number Two lies down on a shaped couch.
In the morning, he raises the blinds and looks across the village, as did Number Six on his first appearance. He wakes Number Six, asking him if he wants to go walkies. Number Six grins vacuously and leaps out of bed.
After he dresses, Number Six is wheeled across the square and into Number Two’s Office by the Butler. Whilst Number Two talks to himself as much as Number Six, the Butler walks over to one of the floor-discs and is dropped through the floor. Number Two leads Number Six to another disc, before his Chair: they drop out of sight. They emerge in a dark corridor, along which they are carried on a moving causeway. This leads to a pair of thick metal doors, which Number Two unlocks,
Inside the room, it is dark, until Number Two switches on the light to reveal a strange large room. It features objects such as a playpen, which which the Butler, wearing snow-glasses, stands, shaking a rattle, a free-standing door, a mini-tractor, a seesaw, a kitchen unit contained behind bars. Excitedly, Number Six goes to the playpen, seizes the rattle and starts shaking it. Number Two dons an identical pair of snow-glasses, and sets the clock by the entrance. The doors slide shut. The week begins.
Number Two starts to recite Shakespeare’s ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech as he chalks three objectives on a blackboard: A. Find Missing Link, something that has been in Number Six’s brain, even as a child, B. Put it together, refining it, tuning it, making Number Six theirs, and if he fails, C. BANG.
Number Six is taken for a walk in the park, to the seesaw,but as soon as Number Two brings up the word father, he is let down with a bump. From the park it is to school: the Butler fetches Number Two a cane and a mortar board, Number Six a straw boater. ‘Report to my study in the morning break,’ snaps Number Two.
He quizzes the schoolboy Number Six about an incident of talking in class, nine days ago. Number Six has been accused, wrongly. He knows the true culprit but will not give him away. For nine days he has refused. He accepts the term ‘fool’ but says he is not a rat. It is a matter of honour. For his refusal to conform, he is left with the Butler, who brandishes the cane.
He emerges a graduate. Headmaster Number Two praises his prize pupil for hos he has overcome his rebellious spirit, and learned to conform. He demands Number Six say why he resign. Number Six protests mildly that it is a secret. Number Two’s pressure leads to screams and a fight in which Number Six starts to choke the older man. Unhurriedly, the Butler replaces the cane in the cupboard, selects a truncheon and crashes it down on Number Six’s head.
When Number Two recovers his breath, the pair manhandle Number Six onto a table. A hairdryer like device is placed over his head. A still-gasping Number Two admits he is beginning to like Number Six.
Restored, Number Six sits on a rocking horse. Number Two prowls round him, verbally sparring. They get into long to-and-fros, counting letters, numbers. Number Six has a block on the word six and will not, cannot say it. They repeat various, nonsensical combinations of the word Pop at each other, during which Number Two explains, obliquely what it stands for: Protect Other People.
The sparring continues into real sparring: boxing training, protective headgear, Number Six as the Champ, Number Two as his trainer, needling, forever needling him over his resignation, until Number Six punches him down. Then they become fencers, Number Two contemptuous of his opponent until his foil is twisted away, out of his hands. Still he taunts Number Six, accusing him of cowardice, of being the one-man band, but unable to cross the threshold to kill. Number Six backs him against the door, strikes with the button foil, just missing. Number Two taunts and he strikes the door again, but now the button has come off. Undaunted, Number Two throws forward his contempt until Number Six shrieks and lunges – but only into Number Two’s left shoulder. ‘You missed, boy, you still can’t do it’. He mocks Number Six’s shocked apology.
The two clean themselves up, Number Two’s arm in a sling. Then another approach: Number Two as interviewer using the kitchen. Number Six seeks a job, but he has no concern for the traditions of the Bank: he just wants to work, to have a job. But it’s more than a stamp-licking job, he is important, he is being groomed for his true role in Intelligence, his future. He drive a motorised toy car to the interview where this is explained to him.
Surreally happy, Number Six drives the toycar around until he is halted by the Butler, in policeman’s helmet, blowing a whistle. He is tried for speeding before Number Six, the judge, tries to alibi it on his job his secret job, above the law. Over his protests, he is fines a sum he cannot pay, and is, literally, dragged off to jail, hand-cuffed inside the caged itchen.
Number Two hammers at him again, verbally, demanding the secret of his resignation. Number Six resists, begins to slur his voice, act drunkenly. Number Two’s mastery over him starts to dwindle as the Prisoner invites him to kill him, produces a carving knife from the kitchen drawer, lies down.
Instead, we go on to a war scene, artificial smoke, the sound of bombs, the two men straddling a mid-air plank, pilot and release-operator on a bomber. Number Six’s inability/resistance to the word six creates an overshoot, a second pass, a bailing out.
Number Two interrogates Number Six in German. Number Six is apologetic, almost hangdog, but as the harangue continues, his demeanour changes. He starts to count numbers. He says the word six, starts to relish it. Removing his jacket, he nonchalantly walks from the cage.
Number Six’s acceptance of the number six has changed the dynamic. Number Two is no longer in charge. The Butler massages his temples as Number Six starts to ask penetrating questions about the psychological procedure of Degree Absolute, it’s dependance upon complete trust and its risk to any doctor who has his own problems. Number Two is effusive in his answers, admitting that he has flaws. They still have time to work on this though, but when he draws back the velvet curtains, the clock shows that only five minutes remain.
He rushes over to the kitchen, opens and bottle and pours himself a whiskey. He is still gabbling about time as Number Six experimentally slides the door to and fro, until he slams it shut and locks it. Number Two grabs the bars, then laughs as the Butler comes forward and takes the key from Number Six: he thinks you’re in charge now, he shouts.
Number Six looms over him, threatening to enter. Number Six turns fearful, pleading with him to stay away. When the door is open, he stumbles out and falls. Number Six pursues him as the man begins to disintegrate. Number Six starts counting down the time, with Number Two still protesting it’s not too late. But the inexorable march of seconds is counted down. Number Two lurches back into the caged kitchen, takes another drink, as the seconds run out. On zero, he ceases breathing and falsl to the floor, dead.
Number Six looks as if he too has come out of a trance. The steel doors slide open to reveal the Supervisor, who congratulates Number Six. He walks over to the cage and looks at Number Two. We shall need the body for evidence, he state, an edge of contempt in his voice. Number Six smashes his glass violently on the floor.
A hinged metal door slams down from above, sealing the kitchen. The Supervisor asks Number Six what he desires, to which the Prisoner replies, ‘Number One’. ‘I’ll take you’, says the Supervisor. They walk towards the doors, leaving an empty Embryo Room, silent but for a nursery rhyme.

The Prisoner: Other Media

A Graphic Novel

Though the canon of The Prisoner lies solely in its seventeen, much-repeated episodes, there were attempts, both contemporaneous and afterwards, to expand the concept into other media. I am not referring to the 2010 re-make by American TV, which I neither have nor will watch. But there were spin-off novels, in the tradition of the American market for popular shows, and several attempts to translate the series into comics.
The most prominent examples of trying to cash-in on the appeal of the series were the three novelisations written in America between 1968 and 1969: The Prisoner by Thomas M Disch, Who is Number Two? by David McDaniel and A  Day in the Life by Hank Stine (a mini-pseudonym for JeanMarie Stine).
I bought these in the Eighties when they were re-published in the UK through New English Library, though I’d read the first and third as library books in the late Seventies, whilst living in Nottingham. I sold them on again, years ago, and my memories of them are faint and patchy.
The three books are very different in style and approach, although the three authors wrote them to be continuous, with the succeeding novels having some vague reference to their predecessor, as if that adventure had been half-obliterated by brainwashing or drugs.
Disch was a major SF writer of repute, whose work centred upon helpless, passive individuals in situations they are unable to control, so not the obvious writer to continue the story of Number Six. His story was set after the end of the series and Number Six’s ultimate ‘escape’, and involved his recapture and return to the Village, in an oddly prosaic fashion.
However, he has been brainwashed to forget completely his previous incarceration and everything to do with the Village (he only discovers this in the form of videotapes – several years before these became available – consisting of the seventeen episodes of The Prisoner).
I remember little else of the story, save that the book as a whole was downbeat and generally dull. It completely lacked the surreality of the series, save for that in-joke, and the device of effectively restarting the whole thing, treating The Prisoner as something done and dusted, seems to me to be, in retrospect, a device to allow Disch to write as Disch, and not in McGoohan’s model.
McDaniel, in contrast, was a prolific writer of licensed properties – The Man from U.N.C.L.E and Star Trek being two of his regular berths – and a very good exponent of the field according to those who collect such books. His Who is Number Two? was chronologically second, but not released until last, for some unfathomable reason.
It’s the most conventional of the trio, and the one most anchored to the format of the series. McDaniel’s Number Two plots to undermine Number Six’s resistance, to gradually overcome his desire to escape by allowing him to have his /lotus in the Village, and by gradually providing supplies that enable the Prisoner to lavish attention on cleaning, re-tuning and eventually racing his beloved car on a self-built track near the beach.
The more Number Six has a stake in life in the Village, the less determined he will be to resist. But Number Six is very slowly constructing an escape plan, as his new, customised, fibreglass streamlining is actually intended as a boat hull, with the Lotus to motor an escape. Which fails,of course, but which enables Number Two to get away in Number Six’s stead.
Stine’s A Day in the Life, though the furthest removed from the series, was always the most interesting book. It’s a subjective, sollipsistic, impressionistic account of life in the Village as a mixture of good and bad times. The Prisoner ends up getting away to London, absolutely free and clear, only for the whole experience to be revealed as some kind of hallucination which, as he has expected all along, cracks in one go.
Incidentally, both McDaniel and Stine specifically identify Number Six as John Drake.
All three are worth reading as curios, and several different editions are available through Amazon and eBay, but they bear the usual relationship spin-offs have to a series: they are neither canon nor able to evoke more than an impression of the original.
Since then, there have been two other attempts to invoke The Prisoner in print. Roger Langley, founder of Six of One, wrote three Prisoner novellas in the Eighties, all privately printed and collected in a single Volume that can be bought in the Six of One shop in Portmeirion. I have read none of these, but the internet accounts are dismissive.
More recently, the LA-based Powys Media, who specialise in Space: 1999 novelisations, have branched out into Prisoner spin-offs as well, with two to date and a third due in 2013. Again, I have read none of these, but the on-line reviews available for The Prisoner’s Dilemma do praise its capture of the mood of the series and its sheer energy of invention.
The world of comics has not ignored The Prisoner either, with both Marvel and DC taking their turn at trying to adapt the series. Marvel licensed the show for adaptation in the mid-Seventies, at the behest of writer Steve Engelhart, who was in tune with its anti-establishment theme. Working with veteran artist Gil Kane, he produced an eighteen page adaptation of Arrival which, in a later interview, he described as following the episode faithfully, but adding thought bubbles.
The result, to the best of my knowledge, has never been seen, as Stan Lee decided it wasn’t visual enough, and gave the project to Jack Kirby instead. Kirby had already demonstrated his enthusiasm for the series in 1968, plotting and drawing a four part Fantastic Four story, set in a similarly mysterious Village in Latveria, operated by Doctor Doom.
With the standard page-count having been adjusted yet again, Kirby got seventeen pages now, and he duly wrote and pencilled an adaptation of the first half of Arrival. A total of six and a half pages were inker by his regular inker, Mike Royer, before the plug was again pulled, and Marvel concluded that they couldn’t turn The Prisoner into a Marvel Comic, for which I am grateful.
Nevertheless, many of Kirby’s pages have appeared, and can indeed be seen on-line: enough to make you wish he’d been given more latitude. He does a sterling job of interpreting McGoohan and Portmeirion into his style, whilst working within his own futuristic design, and the work intrigues.
It would be left to DC, a decade later, to actually succeed in getting a Prisoner comic into print, as a four part Prestige format series later collected as the Graphic Novel, Shattered Visage (the title being taken from the Shelley poem, Ozymandias).
The comic, co-written by Dean Motter and Mark Askwith and drawn by Motter, was fully approved, with both McGoohan and Leo McKern agreeing the use of their faces. It departed from the series in being set contemporaneously, twenty years on (and dismissing the series’ own finale as a drug-induced hallucination).
The story centre on a divorced couple named Drake, Thomas and Alice (the latter a nod to Lewis Carroll), who both come from a British Intelligence background. Alice, who has resigned, plans to sail the world in a computer-controlled yacht. Thomas, who is still in the system, rigs her boat to run aground and strand her on the island where stands the decaying ruin of the Village.
Twenty years on, the man who was Number Two, after a long prison sentence, has published an autobiography exposing the Village. Thomas has been responsible for vetting it and has blurred many details as to the programmes running at the time (as well as contemporary, real-life security issues). But what Thomas knows is that, when the Village was closed down, the man known as Number Six stayed on, renumbering himself Number One. And the former Number Two is on his way to the Village.
Hence, Alice is sent on ahead, whilst Thomas, working alongside a seemingly rogue American agent, follows later. By now, Alice has been named as Number Six by the ageing, heavily bearded familiar figure, who speaks mainly in shallow platitudes, and whose decision to stay when he could leave makes him look like a mere contrarian, as opposed to a principled man.
When Number Two turns up, intent on ‘freeing’ his erstwhile enemy from the Village, instead of the subtle psychological battle of Once upon a Time, we get a fist-fight. Though it is interesting to have the ex-Number Two claim that the Prisoner was defeated: unable to bend, he broke, shattered, and when he took a Number, any number, even Number One, he accepted the Village’s valuesand lost.
This pertinent point is, however, undercut when Thomas and his American pal arrive, find the underground control rooms that were the scene for Fall-Out and discover several more active nuclear weapons. These get set off, destroying the Village once and for all, and killing Thomas with it.
Alice and Number Six sail back to London, where he shaves off his beard and delivers one final platitude that undermines the precepts of the series: “Does the presence of Number Two require the existence of Number One?”, and assures her that his secrets are still completely safe and that the World would have been destroyed by now if they weren’t.
All this takes place against a background of sub-Le Carre intrigue, culminating in a new set of masters taking over British Intelligence. Thomas’s boss is ordered to resign, is gassed and take away mysteriously, implying that the cycle is beginning again.
What might have been moderately interesting in its own right, turns out to be confused, confusing and over-eager to stuff itself with unexplained hints, nods and winks, and it falls a long way short of living up to McGoohan’s original ideas, even if it was approved by him (“he didn’t hate it,” Motter said).
So, when all is said and done, we only have the seventeen true stories, and nothing else to lend itself to expanding our visions.

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.

The Prisoner: episode 3 – A, B and C – discursion


A, B and C was the third episode of The Prisoner to be broadcast, but the tenth episode to be filmed, at a time when the series was seriously over-budget and demanding economies in filming the last handful of episodes.
It was written by Anthony Skene, who had written the already filmed Dance with the Devil (broadcast episode 8). Aware that money was tight and that Portmeirion was more or less out of bounds, Skene toured the MGM backlot at Borehamwood, plotting his script, taking advantage of already constructed outdoor sets (one of which is taken from The Dirty Dozen!).
In practice, apart from stock footage, and one very short scene where body doubles stand in for Patrick McGoohan and Sheila Allen as the former watches the latter ascend the steps towards the Green Dome, Portmeirion is not involved and the entire production is studio-bound.
In my last instalment, I grouped Prisoner episodes into three main categories: Escape, Resistance and Revolt. A, B and C is clearly a prime example of the second group. The entire episode is focussed on extracting information from Number Six, and upon his resisting this. But there’s an interesting wrinkle on Leo McKern’s iconic question, ‘why did you resign?’. Colin Gordon has already decided his answer to that, and his object is to prove it.
Gordon cuts an interesting figure in this episode. Like McKern, who would not return until the end of the series, Gordon appears as Number Two in two episodes, but his performances are radically different in each. Note that, in the opening catechism, Gordon’s answer to ‘Who are you?’ is subtly different, being ‘I am Number Two’, instead of ‘The New Number Two’. We’ll look at this more closely when we get to Gordon’s other episode, but it’s a strong indication that his two episodes, which are broadcast out of the order in which they are filmed, are chronologically meant to follow each other in sequence. And that opens up an even bigger question that we’ll look at separately.
What this episode provides is a tight, taut thriller with a fantastic (in the literal sense) theme. Five decades later, we’re far more aware that machines that can influence dreams and the subconscious not only can exist, but do and are used, but in 1968 this was a leap for the audience to take.
The use of hallucinatory drugs also caught the mood of the time, with the growing public awareness of the effects of LSD, which at that stage – and to a large extent still – focussed on the visionary, uncontrolled effects that threatened the stability of the mine and the evidence of the senses.
The lack of Portmeirion scenes, coupled with the emphasis on Number Fourteen’s laboratory, make this a claustrophobic episode. The lab is introduced at night, in heavy rain – practically the only instance of bad weather in the entire service, creating the subliminal impression that weather control is a part of the Village’s superficial benevolence towards its inmates – and all of Number Six’s dream sequences take place at night, making this physically one of the darkest episodes in the series.
On the other hand, there’s an interesting sense of release given that so much of the story takes place ‘outside’ the confines of the Village. And outside the confines of actuality, which latter aspect allows Skene to emphasise yet further the air of surreality inherent in the Village itself.
The three options, A, B and C embody the classic three-act structure, by which the episode repeats and progresses. A is a conventional spy episode: Number Six refuses an approach from an ex-colleague who has defected to ‘the other side’ and defeats an attempt to take him by force by simple fisticuffs. In this Act, Number Six is unsuspecting and entirely under the Village’s control.
B is a female representative of ‘the other side’, and the approach, partly due to her female nature placing her outside physical confrontation, and partly because the Act now moves on to a subtle, semi-seductive approach, is indirect and set out on an emotional basis.
The episode progresses slowly because Number Six is now suspicious and is resisting direction, and when the Village attempt more direct influence, it merely increases Number Six’s suspicions and his determination to avoid the issue.
As an aside, one criticism levelled against The Prisoner is of McGoohan’s misogyny. I’ll be looking at this aspect elsewhere, but here it’s relevant to note that McGoohan, throughout his career, was resolutely against the portrayal of ‘immoral’ behaviour with women – he turned down the offer of James Bond ahead of Sean Connery on this very ground – which complicates the execution of such an approach.
With C, the episode enters fantasy at its most compete and compelling. Whilst Number Six has altered things to his advantage by diluting the ‘magic potion’, this only adds a veneer of real-world plausibility to the heroic situation whereby he demonstrates his ability to enter into his own dreams and direct these entirely according to his will, enabling him to construct a completely misleading scenario designed to subvert his audience’s expectations. Number Six uses his enemies’ own devices to overthrow them and ultimately deny them the outcome of their investigations.
The C of their pitifully thin research is and remains a complete cypher, an unknown. He exists because of the Rule of Three: a C must exist but he is defined only in terms of being not A or B. The episode’s transition into a completely out of body experience from this point onwards is a complete overcoming of Number Two’s plans. His belief that Number Six was selling-out is left unfulfilled – if we take the dreams as reliable evidence of what would have happened, as we are supposed to, all we ever learn is that Number Six rejected A.
This unexpected divergence from the expected path, from Number Two’s constructed scenario, is symbolised by Number Six introducing ‘D’, even before the, now inevitable, exposure of D as Number Two himself (a moment that foreshadows an even greater, and this time stunning revelation, that overturns the reality of the entire series, much later on.)
In the end, the only evidence we as audience get that can be relied upon is Number Six’s declaration, and this still in his dream, albeit under his own control, that he did not intend to sell out. That wasn’t why he resigned.
It’s one of Number Six’s most comprehensive and unmixed victories in the series.
The other interesting aspect of A, B and C, is that the fact that Number Two is as much a prisoner as Number Six is subtly reinforced, from the opening scene. McKern agreed the accusation immediately, acknowledged his own status as a ‘lifer’ cheerfully, and with the acceptance of a fanatic who believes it is the right condition under which to live in pursuit of his ‘higher’ motives.
Gordon, in contrast, is a mass of nerves, tense, ulcerous, forever drinking milk to calm his stomach. His subservience to, his fear of the voice on the big red phone, of Number One, is palpable. Unlike McKern, he has no philosophy to sustain him. Perhaps it is that which makes him so fearful, so vulnerable in this episode. Not only is he unreconciled, he is under direct threat. He is ‘not irreplaceable’, and enough is saidf to establish that replacement will not involve demotion to a less important position.
Uneasy lies the head that wears the Crown.

The Prisoner: episode 2 – The Chimes of Big Ben – discursion


The Chimes of Big Ben, written by Vincent Tilsley, was the second episode of The Prisoner to be broadcast but the fifth episode to be produced, part of the bloc of four episodes filmed largely, but not exclusively, on location in Portmeirion. It guest-starred Australian actor Leo McKern as the new Number Two. McKern and McGoohan did not get on well, and McKern was critical of his host on set, but the on-screen chemistry between them is palpable: their scenes together are battles not only of will but of charm, and a mutual respect between Number Two and Number Six, as opponents worth each other’s time, underlines every line.
As a result of this performance, McKern was asked to stay on for the next episode, in contrast a studio-bound performance that is a two-handed battle of wits, to the death, then planned to be the cliff-hanger that would end series 1: Once Upon a Time. We’ll get to that episode in due course.
As we’ll see when we move through the series, episodes of The Prisoner fall into three broad categories: Escape, Revolt, Resistance. The Chimes of Big Ben is very much an Escape episode, one of the two most complex and wide-reaching the series will feature. During its course, Number Six physically leaves the Village, makes contact with his former superiors in London and actually gets back to London – only to find he has been the victim of an elaborate hoax, under the control of the Village even at his most independent of action, and that he has never escaped at all. Worst still, but for the chance intervention of a water-logged watch, Number Six is made to realise that he would have been beaten.
At the beginning of the episode, the audience learns, as if in passing, that the Village want more than just the information in Number Six’s head, they want him intact, turned as an agent for them. And that the unexplained reason for his resignation – a piece of information of no (presumed) strategic or security significance – is seen as they key to effecting this. If Number Six can be made to disclose just one thing, his resistance will be snapped.
One of the series’ key themes is the Prisoner’s absolute strength of will, his utter, uncompromising determination to resist. The Chimes of Big Ben both tests and reinforces this determination.
Nadia is introduced to the Village as a trap. Number Two’s seemingly casual efforts to ensure Number Six sees her arrive and, via the security cameras, her awakening and discovery of her own transportation, are deliberately meant to echo the Prisoner’s own arrival. Naturally he sees through it, and so does the audience. Never trust anyone.
But then the game develops little underhand tendrils. Nadia is equally paranoid about Number Six as he is of her. She rejects him as a trap, but even as she does she lets slip an aside that hints at knowledge Number Six wants. This is reinforced by her attempt to escape by swimming, after which Number Two plays deliberately on the former agent’s chivalry by showcasing Nadia as a confused, self-destructive damsel-in-distress.
Sardonically, Number Six agrees to cooperate, but only in the most superficial, unimportant manner, by taking part in the art exhibition (which, naturally, he exploits to build a boat by which to sail out, under the guise of an abstract triptych, the significance of which can then be ‘explained’ in a skit on modern art).
In the meantime, Nadia confirms the point that the Prisoner suspects, that he needs to know, that she knows the location of the Village. And that she is in contact with a Resistance Group conveniently close at hand, who can effect a return to his own side once Nadia leads him to them. The Village, we learn, is in Lithuania, about thirty miles from the Polish border.
Or is it?
The escape begins after Number Six wins the exhibition and its prize (he was always going to, whatever he did), converts his abstract into a boat and sails off with Nadia for ‘Poland’. In the morning, close to their destination, he and Nadia are pursued by Rover and have to swim for it, but the Resistance is waiting with a ready-made and scheduled plan to get them to London. As his watch has stopped, due to the immersion (a swift reminder that this is 1967 we’re talking about), Number Six takes the fisherman’s watch, which will prove to be so crucial to the denouement. He’s still not trusting anyone, he finds out the schedule for the trip, which he and Nadia will undergo in a packing case (without a toilet), and the watch will help him check that each legs feels right and lasts the right amount of time.
However, it appears that the Prisoner isn’t quite as untrusting as he should be at this time, as he doesn’t for a second question the fact that the Resistance are waiting for his and Nadia’s arrival with packing case, lorries, ships and aeroplanes lined up ready to take him to the home of British Intelligence in London. Given that Nadia has been sequestered in the Village for approximately six weeks (the loudspeaker announcement on the day of her arrival states that the exhibition is to take place in six weeks time), when and, more importantly, how has she got a message through to be ready for them that very morning?
It’s one of the biggest plot-holes in the entire series, and the question is not just fudged, it’s completely ignored. Not even a line from Nadia that, just before she was taken, she had alerted the group that she might need help and to be ready at a moment’s notice. Which is the best I can come up with and that’s stretching things implausibly.
Leaving this yawning hole behind, the story moves to the escapees destination, a well-appointed office in London, full of street sounds, traffic and Big Ben’s bells. Two old colleagues await Number Six, Fotheringay and Colonel J. Fotheringay is played by Richard Wattis, a neat little ploy to buy into the series’ implicit ties to Danger Man: Wattis was a recurring character in that series, as Fotheringay, a smug, self-impressed Foreign Office official who was frequently John Drake’s contact.
The Colonel, played by Kevin Sharkey (who is credited as Colonel J but referred to only as The Colonel, a title that would be vested in two other characters as the series progressed), is Number Six’s old boss. He’s waspishly genial, welcoming but suspicious, quick to point out that the Prisoner has nothing to offer as surety: he was a very highly-placed Agent with access to top level information, who abruptly resigned, giving no reason, who disappeared for several months, only to  suddenly send a message that he was returning from behind the Iron Curtain. The Colonel’s suspicions are valid indeed!
And Number Six is about to tender that very vital piece of information when chance and a 1960’s non-waterproof watch combine to activate his suspicions: it has been a very elaborate piece of bluff all along.
The price of freedom is eternal vigilance, and eternal paranoia. Do not trust anyone.
What do we learn from The Chimes of Big Ben? It’s the first, and surprisingly the only episode to toy with the idea of The Village being under the control of an Iron Curtain country, something that would have been almost a given in Danger Man, or any other espionage-oriented Sixties thriller series: Danger Man‘s justly famous Series 2 episode ‘Colony Three’ is a classic example.
In this light, the two British agents become Double Agents, and Nadia – who retains her faint Eastern European accent after she ceases to play ‘Nadia’ – is briefly positioned as a senior official in whatever organisation is in charge, giving a good report on her return. Just as with Cobb moving on to his ‘new masters’, the hint is pretty strong that the Village is enemy territory.
But it’s not in Lithuania: don’t believe that for a minute. And still don’t take it for granted: nothing Number Two says or does out of earshot of Number Six rules out the possibility that the Village may yet be in British hands: the escape to ‘London’ has not gone unassisted in that quarter.
Like Arrival, there’s an Alternate Chimes of Big Ben available in the box set, though this cut has been known for far longer than the Alternate Arrival. The only difference in the story is a very brief scene of Number Six taking sightings using a primitive version of the ancient Greek instrument, the triquetrum. He’s trying to work out where the Village is. Presumably the scene was dropped mainly on the basis that the Village would never have allowed him to attempt this, but also because the idea that the Prisoner was homing in on the rough whereabouts of the Village would afford too much substantiation to the Lithuania claim.
More interestingly, the Alternate Chimes is the only place where we can see Wilfred Joseph’s original theme music (pre-McGoohan’s whistle and Ron Grainger’s arrangement of the well-known tune) in context, and see the original end to the closing credits. Joseph’s music doesn’t start until the Prisoner is leaving the underground garage, having committed his resignation and is quite atmospheric, although unbelievably fussy.
Of most interest are those credit closing moments. When the Ordinary is fully-built, instead of cutting to the stock scene of Rover scudding across the waves, instead the Ordinary fades away,leaving only its wheels. These start to spin, before melting into images of the Moon and the Earth set against a star-field Then the stars go out, Earth expands to fill the screen, and silently explodes, revealed a red field on which, in big letters, is the word POP.
That was intended to end the credits each week, but was abandoned, probably as being too confusing, mysterious and psychedelic. But it would have been a mystery, not to be explained until the end of series 1, when the letters would have been revealed to be not POP but P.O.P., and to stand for…
Well, let’s get to Once Upon a Time in its own time.

The Prisoner: episode 2 – The Chimes of Big Ben – synopsis

Thunder crashes. A slightly edited version of the opening sequence from Arrival – without the scene at the car park barrier and less driving through London – follows, until the title card, The Chimes of Big Ben, appears over Number 6’s first view of the Village. There follows a series of questions between McGoohan and this week’s guest star Leo McKern as Number 2, over a variety of standard village shots. This sequence will appear on most of the remaining episodes.
It is morning in the Village. The ubiquitous loudspeaker awakens Number 6 with proclamations about the weather and an up-and-coming art show with a competition for all the Village to enter. It goes over to soothing music, played far too loudly for comfort.
The new Number 2, a boisterous, energetic, well-rounded man, views Number 6 getting up and making breakfast. He comments that the Prisoner can make even putting his dressing gown on into an act of defiance. His assistant suggests that Number 6 can be broken, but that is not what Number 2 wants: he wants the whole man, on his side. All it will take is one answer: why did you resign? He also checks that the helicopter is on its way.
Later that morning, whilst Number 6 is sitting outside, overlooking the beach, Number 2 falls in with him, suggesting that number 6 make more effort to settle in. They spar, verbally. Number 2 clearly relishes the challenge of his opponent. The helicopter lands and an attractive young woman, asleep on a stretcher, is unloaded.
Number 2 invites Number 6 back to his office, where he entertains him with surveillance of the woman waking up in her new home. She is Number 8, his new neighbour, replacing the previous Number 8, who has vanished. There is no body for a funeral
The new arrival awakes, thinking she is in her own home, until she sees outside her window. Like Number 6 before her, she is summoned to tea at the Green Dome. Emerging from her cottage, disoriented, she meets Number 6 who directs her to the Green Dome. He is expecting this to be a trap for him and, when she returns, quite late, he invites her in for a drink. Number 8 refuses her number and gives her name as Nadia, before becoming suspicious of him, accusing him of being Number 2’s assistant. But Number 6 now has suspicions.
These are confirmed the following day when Nadia, a former Olympics swimmer, starts to swim out to sea. Number 2 has again stopped to talk, but he is aware of Nadia’s increasing distance from shore and orders an Orange Alert: she is brought back by Rover and rushed off in an ambulance.
The next day, Number 2 asks Number 6 to the hospital, where Nadia is being continually questioned over her acts: what was she thinking of? Was she intending to kill herself? Number 6 is there ostensibly bevcause he knows her better than anyone else in the Village.
The strain is affecting Nadia. She is in a room with an electrified floor, a lethal current flashing on and off every four seconds. The door can be reached in three seconds, if she in confident in herself. Using handfuls of water from a bowl, Nadia times the electric flashes, but when she makes for the door, she breaks down screaming, waiting to be killed. Number 2 hurriedly countermands the current, before commenting that they will have to undertake further tests.
Angrily, Number 6 orders him to stop, then, as a sop, agrees to cooperate. But only in one respect: he will enter the art exhibition. Amused at his presumption, Number 2 agrees, and Nadia is released back to her cottage.
That night, Number 6 conducts a seeming romance: under the relaxing lullaby of the Village radio, he quizzes Nadia as to his suspicions that she is here because she knows the whereabouts of the Village. After time to think, Nadia confirms this: the Village is on the Lithuanian coast, thirty miles from the Polish border. There is a resistance group there with whom she has a contact.
Number 6 spends several weeks making his art exhibit. Number 2 drops by: Number 6 has made a primitive axe and chisel, has cut down a tree and is chipping out a shape from it. The ‘weapons’ are illegal, but Number 2 winks an indulgent eye, allowing Number 6 to continue.
Come the exhibition, Number 6’s piece stands out. It is a abstract tryptich of supposedly religious symbology, and is the eventual winner. It is also the only entry not to be about number 2. Indeed, Number 6 immediately uses his 2,000 credit prize to buy a tapestry of Number 2 woven by Number 38, an elderly woman.
That night, Number 6 and Nadia break curfew to smuggle his sculpture to the beach, where it fits together to make a two-person boat, with mast, and a sail consisting of the tapestry. By the morning, they are on the edge of the Village’s radar, and Rover is sent to retrieve them. Number 6 and Nadia abandon their boat and swim ashore, under a cover of protective fire from the Polish group, repelling Rover.
Arrangements are already in place to ship them to Number 6’s former bosses in London, via Gdansk and Copenhagen. Number 6 demands details of the route and, as his watch has stopped because of its immersion, he borrows a watch from the Polish fisherman to monitor their journey and ensure it takes the right amount of time.
Travelling in a wooden crate, they progress via lorry, ship and aeroplane. Nadia, who has been  calling him Big Ben since their plan was first formed, asks ingenuous questions about London, Number 6’s life there, and whether he is married.
They are delivered to a plush and familiar London Office, filled with the sound of traffic and the chimes of Big Ben. Number 6’s colleague Fotheringay greets him, and takes Nadia away, whilst his superior, Colonel J (this is the name given in the credits: in the episode he is only referred to as the Colonel), wants to speak to him.
The Colonel is openly sceptical of Number 6’s story of the Village. He points out that Number 6 abruptly resigned from a position of high security, refusing to give a reason and promptly disappeared until, several months later, a message is received from behind the Iron Curtain that he is on his way home. Has he been turned? Until Number 6 is fully debriefed, starting with the true reasons for his resignation, he will not be trusted, nor will Nadia be safeguarded.
Wearily accepting the inevitability of all this, Number 6 starts to say that, for a long time… But Big Ben has struck the hour, he has automatically checked his watch, and both say eight o’clock. But his watch was taken from a Polish fisherman: why did the fisherman have a watch set to London time when he’s one hour ahead?
The Colonel attempts to bluster but Number 6 has stopped listening. He explores the office until he finds a wire coming out of a cabinet. When he yanks this out, the London sounds stop abruptly. Inside the cabinet is a tape-recorder. When the plug is restored, so too are the London street sounds.
Number 2 gives the Colonel a look of contempt. He leaves the office, walks slowly down a corridor and opens a door. He finds himself standing at the side of the Village Town Hall. On the front steps, Number 2, Fotheringay and Nadia stand together. She sees him first, and they stop talking. As he walks past them, Number 6 brings thumb and forefinmger together into a circle over his eye and says “Be Seeing You.”
Back at his house, before the door opens with a low, sibilant hum, he flicks the sign again for the surveillance camera’s benefit. He goes inside and the door shuts behind him
Doors clang upon McGoohan’s image as it rushes to fill the screen. The closing credits start.