The Prisoner: 26, 17 or 7?

Trying to work it out can feel like this sometimes

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

The Prisoner: episode 13 – Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling – discursion

Number Six and his fiancee

Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling was the fourteenth episode of The Prisoner to be produced,the first to be made after the three month gap after the conclusion of filming on Many Happy Returns, and the thirteenth to be broadcast. It was written by Vincent Tilsley, and directed by Pat Jackson, although it was changed dramatically by McGoohan when he returned from his film commitments.
McGoohan was committed to location filming for his part in the film Ice Station Zebra, and his brief appearance in the episode was filmed in a single day upon his return. The plot was thus necessitated by his absence, and required the casting of Nigel Stock to take McGoohan’s place
When I gave an overview of the series at the beginning, I gave the account that I had always understood. That The Prisoner had opened to great ratings, but these had rapidly fallen away as the audience found itself confused and upset, so that it became clear that a second series would not be commercially viable. That McGoohan had confessed he had no stories for season 2, and Lew Grade therefore offered to release him from his contract on condition he produced four extra episodes – one of them a finale – to fill a scheduling gap. This required McGoohan and Everyman to write, film and produce four more episodes, with the series already in mid-run, with a new production team, without access to Portmeirion and without McGoohan himself for one episode.
By implication, Robert Fairclough in The Complete Scripts Volume 2 disputes that interpretation.
He points out, unavoidably, that Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling started filming in August 1967, three months after filming had ended for ‘series one’: this was a month before Arrival would receive its first broadcast in the ATV region of the ITV network.
Fairclough also suggests that the revised opening – the pre-credits teaser that was a staple of ITC’s thrillers but which had not previously been used on The Prisoner, the new music theme, the absence of the catechism – were all changes made to distinguish a second series that would follow George Markstein’s wish to see Number Six operating in ‘the real world’ (though Markstein was to have no further connection with the series). And there’s the original script, which goes out of its way in the opening scenes to establish that a year has passed since Number Six was originally brought to the Village, that in all that time he hasn’t told them a single thing, not even the trivial issue of why he resigned, and that the new Number Two intends to use Number Six by ‘sending him away’, which, in view of the contents of this episode, Fairclough sees as a pointer to a series of episodes in which Number Six would effectively, carry out missions for the Village.
Despite this evidence supporting the idea that a second series did start shooting, I remain unconvinced. The long-established story has it that Grade agreed to pull The Prisoner due to ratings failure, but it’s also accepted that filming had exceeded budget and taken longer than expected – unsurprising given McGoohan’s perfectionism about the series, which was increasingly becoming difficult to distinguish from obsession. But these are two resounding issues that make it impossible for me to believe that this episode was ever seriously intended for an opening episode ion a new series.
The first derives from the ending of the yet-to-be-discussed Once Upon a Time. This was always planned to end series one, and it does so on the cusp of a momentous moment. I don’t want to give anything away in advance of dealing with that episode directly, but it was a substantial cliff-hanger, and if Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling was genuinely the ‘next episode’, then it would represent a colossal betrayal – indeed, a complete shunning of – the set-up left at the end of Once Upon a Time.
Its been argued that the ending we know to Once Upon a Time must have been re-written and filmed when the episode was changed to serve as a lead-in to the new finale, Fall Out, but Fairclough’s Complete Scripts shows that the filmed ending of the episode was there from the very beginning.
The second issue is McGoohan himself. McGoohan is virtually absent from this episode, which  had to be written around his unavailability absence. An entire episode of a show geared around its star, its central character, its prime mover, but without having him in the flesh.
In what scenario is this setting more plausible? That the episode is required to be filmed immediately, for broadcast on a fixed and early schedule, to slot in with a series already running in which additional episodes have to be made under straitened circumstances?
Or that it is the planned in relative leisure opening episode – the first episode – of a returning as-yet-not-established series, with no agreed broadcast date, and with twelve further episodes to be filmed and scheduled after this episode?
I repeat, this is supposedly going to be the first episode of the series, setting everything up again for both returning and new viewers, and it’s intentionally made without its star? Not in my Universe. You might get something like that now, but this was the Sixties, and this was an ATV thriller series. Lew Grade might have accepted it as a matter of necessity, mid-series, but it would never have washed as the flagship episode of a new series.
Then there’s also the general air of sloppiness about this episode. I complained about this in relation to A Change of Mind but it’s even worse in this episode.
Nigel Stock was physically very different to Patrick McGoohan. He had fair hair, thinning in front and on top, which he wore brushed back, he was bulkier and squarer, both of face and upper body. When sitting in the Prisoner’s Lotus (a duplicate of the original car, which had been sold abroad when this episode came to be made), or when wearing his dark jacket and polo-shirt from the credits, he looks considerably larger than McGoohan. Yet the episode uses a lot of stock footage of the Lotus being driven around London in which it is obvious that it is McGoohan driving and, whilst that may have been dictated by budgetary concerns, even worse there is a close-up shot of Stock in the car, against a studio backdrop, in which he is wearing shirt and tie, instead of the polo shirt!
Then there is the curious case of the filming in Number Two’s office. The scenes are filmed in a mixture of long and close shots. Surveillance footage of Number Six plays (supposedly) non-stop on the big screen, but the close-ups are all shot from angles which preclude sight of the screen, and this is only seen in longshots. These are almost exclusively shot at a three-quarter angle, from a high point, and every single shot of Stock in them is of a stand-in in with considerably more hair, all of which is darker than Stock’s natural colouring.
Indeed, I’m not at all convinced that the Number Two in these long-shots is Clifford Evans, as the footage is determinedly distant and slightly blurred. Though it has to be conceded that Angelo Muscat, as the Butler, was present for these long shots.
What on earth is the story behind that? The only logical explanation is that the long shots were filmed at a later time, when Stock, and probably Evans, was not available, to replace scenes already recorded, but with different dialogue.
This is extremely plausible when the broadcast episode is compared to the original script.
The difference between the two is so radically wide that it seems only sensible to call the original script Face Unknown after its working title. Frankly, in many respects, it’s a better story.
The two stories have the same theme and same general sequence, but only a handful of lines from late on in Face Unknown make it into Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling. Indeed, I almost feel I should give a synopsis for the former.
Face Unknown, as I’ve already said, makes explicit that a year has passed since Number Six’s resignation, and he is to be sent back to the very night he wrote his resignation, having been assigned by find Professor Seltzman From there, the episode proceeds specifically in the light of the Prisoner being in the exact frame of mind that caused him to hand in his resignation, and indeed his visit to British Intelligence is to deliver that letter – of which they already have an identical copy, a year old.
Scenes showing Number Two talking to ‘Colonel Oscar’ in McGoohan’s body, in which the Colonel appears humourless and unpleasant, are deleted, as are earlier scenes in which Colonel Oscar expresses his concern about being ‘put’ into a healthy body with no organic damage – words that are echoed in ‘his’ final words in Seltzman’s body, referring back to a promise that only existed in Face Unknown.
In Face Unknown, the Prisoner never encounters Sir Charles, who is ostensibly out of the country, and a series of scenes in which Sir Charles discussed developments with an unseen third party were excised in full, apparently because the scenes would have hinted too strongly at a connection between British Intelligence and the Village (a connection envisaged by Markstein, as we have seen).
And the Face Unknown scene of the Prisoner’s fight with Potter included dialogue in which Potter made it plain that he saw the Prisoner as a traitor.
Vincent Tilsley was unhappy with what was done to his script, as any writer would have been, though he has long been disappointed with himself at failing to come up with a more original notion than that of mind-transference. But even beyond the excising of elements that were not wanted, the conversion of the script into Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling reduced the story into incoherence in many respects, especially the ending. As shot, Number Two realises that Seltzman has put himself into the Colonel’s body just as the helicopter is taking off (infeasibly quickly, given how short a time before that the Colonel’s body has left the operating theatre). Yet he’s apparently gone beyond recovery, in a Village helicopter that we know can be remotely flown from the Control Room.
We should also note the recurrence of the name The Colonel, for the third time in the series, and Number Six’s third return to London without any comment upon his two other escapes. It’s been argued, plausibly as far as I’m concerned, that when McGoohan left for filming, he left behind instructions about this episode which were misinterpreted, i.e. that ‘Sir Charles’ was to continue the tradition that the Prisoner’s boss in Intelligence should be named ‘The Colonel’, and McGoohan returned to a scenario which, having been filmed and subject to budget and deadline issues, could not be corrected.
As for third time round, this situation is easily distinguishable from the returns of The Chimes of Big Ben and Many Happy Returns. On Number Six’s side, remember that his memory has been extinguished with some precision, including knowledge of his two earlier escapades, and that on this occasion (unless they have the knowledge that the excised conspirator scenes imply) they are presented with a complete stranger who claims to be their ZM73, and to whom they would disclose no information whatsoever.
Of course, one of the most intriguing, and implausible, aspects of this episode is the introduction, indeed the existence, of Miss Janet Portland, long-hidden and long-suffering fiancée of the upright and very moral Number Six (and, without being too facetious we can definitely conclude that this engaged pair hadn’t anticipated their nuptials, Swinging Sixties or not!).
Fairclough, in suggesting this episode as being emblematic of the new direction, refers to the appearance as Janet as adding some glamour. We know every well that that would have not flown with McGoohan for an instant, and her inclusion – even as a fiancée! – actually has the feel of someone trying to pull a dodge off, behind the teacher’s back. Certainly, if this ‘development’ had been allowed to continue, it would have been part of taking the series off in a much more conventional direction, which would rapidly have diffused the achievements of the series to date.
No, I’m prepared to accept that this script may have been developed as an intended first episode of a second series that never materialised, but the overall haste in which it seems to have been prepared, and most importantly of all, McGoohan’s absence (not that it stopped him interfering!) marks this as something being prepared against a deadline.
As the series (rapidly) heads towards a conclusion, the quality of episodes, and their applicability to the theme of the series, begins to fall off dramatically.