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 17 – Fall Out – synopsis


The final episode opens with the title card for the series and a montage sequence from Once Upon a Time lasting three minutes and forty seconds. It is followed by a different version of the theme music at its brightest, over an aerial tour of the Village, on which is superimposed details of Portmeirion and an acknowledgement to Mr. Clough Williams-Ellis.
The Controller, Number Six and the Butler descend a shaft. At the bottom, they step out into a room where a mannequin, crudely fashioned to resemble the Prisoner, wears the clothes Number Six wore the day he was abducted to the Village. The Controller explains that they thought he would feel happier as himself.
The trio walk down a steel-floored, rock-lined underground corridor. In every cranny there is a jukebox, all of which are blaring out the Beatles’ (then-new) “All You Need is Love”. At the end of the corridor, the Butler goes ahead to unlock a door. Inside, it is a metal door, surmounted by the words “Well Come”.
It opens into a vast underground chamber, full of people. As the Controller leads the group forward, we see: a circular pit from which steam rises in explosive bursts, with a young man in a top hat clamped to a pole: the two-armed, rotating device from the Control Room, but with the operatives bearing machine guns instead of cameras: an operating theatre with green-gowned surgeons, surrounded by scaffolding: a rocket, around which vapours rise: computer banks set into the high walls on the cave, reached by a gantry: four men at a table: two dozen men sat in parliamentary rows: security guards with white gloves, dark glasses and helmets: a dais on which stands a man dressed as a Criminal Court Judge in red robes: an ornate throne on a dais reached by four steps.
The men are all dressed in white hooded robes, beneath which their faces are concealed by identical gargoyle masks: half frowning white angel, half smiling black devil.
We do not, at first, see that the number one is painted on the body of the rocket, nor that it contains a mechanical eye.
The Controller is given a robe and mask, which he dons. He joins the body of men on the benches. Each has a plate before him, identifying a faction, his ‘Identification’. All are identical and concealed.
The Red Judge welcomes the Prisoner and declares that this session has been called at a time of democratic crisis, to discuss the question of revolt. The masked Controller presents Number Six, but the Judge intervenes. Number Six has passed the ultimate test and has vindicated his individuality. He has won the right not to be called Number Six, or indeed any number at all. The Red Judge and the Delegates applaud enthusiastically.
However, there are ceremonies to go through to prepare for the transfer of ultimate power. The Prisoner is invited to watch. Silently, he takes the throne.
Eyes turn as the caged kitchen descends slowly from the Embryo Room above. The shield slides away and two surgeons expectantly wheel a stretcher up to the doors. The Rocket flashes, revealing its Number. The Red Judge barks the order, “Resuscitate!” and the screen shows Number Two’s final moments, reversing the film so that he leaps to his feet and regurgitates his last drink.
The Butler unlocks the cage then crosses to the dais to stand at the Prisoner’s left hand. The surgeons carry out Number Two’s body and wheel the stretcher to the operating theatre. He is sat in a chair and a device like a hairdressers helmet is lowered over his head. His beard is lathered with shaving cream. A circular rubber pad extends to cover his face and the machinery begins to hum.
The Red Judge addresses the cavern on revolt. Revolt takes many forms and he will present three specific examples. The first is Number Forty-Eight, the youth in the pit. He is dressed in black jacket and trousers over a white, frilly, Edwardian shirt, open almost to the waist, and has a bell on a chain around his neck.
The newcomer proclaims this a crazy scene and starts singing the familiar song, ‘Dem Bones, Dem Bones’. It fills the cavern, driving the delegates wild, setting them dancing. The Red Judge screams at him, trying to get him to shut up, but it is not until the eye in the rocket starts beeping that things calm down. The Judge orders Number Forty Eight be released: the young man walks round to in front of him as the Judge intones about youthful rebellion, rebelling because it must, but that society requires security and conformity, and it must be stamped out.
He pauses, inviting a response. Instead, Number Forty Eight leaps away, singing ‘Dem Bones’ He runs round the cavern, leaping here and there, causing chaos in his wake as security guards pursue him frantically. Eventually, he is surrounded by guards, but it is the Prisoner’s intervention, addressing him as ‘Young Man’. that calms him.
The Judge is about to protest but his is overruled from the rocket. Addressing Number Forty |Eight as Young Man, he tries to talk to him in the ‘language’ of youth, which Number Forty Eight parodies in amused contempt. The Judge urges him to confess, repeatedly, to which the Young Man responds again with ‘Dem Bones’, until a recorded version of it begins filling the cavern, sending everyone into anarchy again. Except the Young Man, who squats on the floor in the lotus position, as calm as anything, until the Judge pronounces him Guilty.
The charge is, for all its fine words, refusal to conform, the most sinister aspect being a refusal to respond to his number. The Prisoner is asked to approve, but he withholds comment. The Young Man is taken away,security guards lifting his arms as he remains squatting, to the place of sentence, pending the Prisoner’s inauguration. At the pole, he straps himself in and disappears below, still singing his song.
The next revolutionary is the revived ex-Number Two. The pad is withdrawn, revealing him short-haired and clean shaven, except for a trimmed moustache. His eyes open and he slowly checks himself out before letting go with a roar of laughter, shouting that he feels like a new man. He dominates the cavern, congratulating the Prisoner, shaking his hand. He signals for the Butler to follow him, and is momentarily impatient when he stays at the Prisoner’s side.
Accepting this, he climbs to the Red Judge’s dais and addresses everyone about his former power and importance, his ability to command, the things he wrought with his decisions, and how obvious it was that he should have been abducted and brought here. What is deplorable, however, is how quickly he gave in, accepted power second only to one…
He points to the Prisoner as an example of his last decision, concerning bthis man. The screen shows again his screaming “Die!” at Number Six, and his own death. He asks if it was the drink, but the Red Judge says that some security secrets cannot be revealed even to a former Number Two. “You couldn’t even let me rest in peace,” the ex-Number Two mutters, bitterly.
The Prisoner intervenes to ask if the former Number Two ever met Number One. His old opponent laughs, mockingly. He crosses the floor to the rocket, looking into the eye, still orating. He gives the eye a Stare. The Red Judge screams that he’ll die. If so, the ex-Number Two says, snatching off his badge, he’ll die his own man, and he draws back his head a spits in the eye, which closes.
Immediately, he is seized by the guards and hustled across the cavern, booming with laughter. The Prisoner agrees that he be taken away to the place of sentence. He is strapped to another pole, which descends, but as he vanishes, he looks into the camera’s eye and says, “Be seeing you,” before resuming his laughter.
The Judge characterises this revolt as biting the hand that feeds him. Like that of youth it is unproductive and must be stamped out. But the Prisoner’s revolt is at the other end of the scale…
As he speaks, the sign shows a For Sale sign being taken down from outside the Prisoner’s dwelling in London, as his Lotus is delivered back to his door. He continues to praise the Prisoner as a man of principle, of steel, who has resisted and overcome for the right to be a person, a magnificent leader, who will show them all.
There is a prize for him. A hooded delegate wheels a trolley forth. From it, he produces the house key, travellers cheques worth a million, his passport, and a small bag of ‘petty cash’. He is free to go. Anywhere. Coldly, the Prisoner asks why, repeating his question each time the Red Judge’s nebulous answers end. They have conceded, he has won. The Judge invites him to address them, to make his statement.
The Prisoner thinks about this, then descends his dais, checks and pockets each of this things. He mounts the Judge’s dais and prepares to speak. Twice, his opening word of “I…” is drowned out by applause and chants of “Aye, Aye, Aye”. Twice he gavels it to silence and restarts. The third time, he desperately shouts his statement, but the chanting of support drowns it out. The Red Judge watches him, cynically, and when he runs down, ends the chanting by raising a finger. It has been a complete waste.
But now it is time to meet Number One. The Judge leads him to another pit, without pole or steam. The Prisoner descends again, to another steel-floored corridor lined with guards. The Butler marches towards him, briskly, leads him forward. Beyond, the Young Man and the ex-Number Two wait in glass tubes, marked Orbit 48 and Orbit 2. One sings his song, the other laughs. A third tube is empty.
There is a control room, with four hooded and masked figures poring over dials and readings. They ignore him. The Butler indicates a spiral staircase. The Prisoner creeps up this, silently. He can see another circular room, dominated by globes of every size, another hooded figure inside, its back to him.
The door slides open, automatically. He walks silently towards the hooded figure, who is watching a screen. On it, we see the Prisoner in Arrival, repeating his “I will not be pushed…” speech. Suddenly, the screen changes to show the Prisoner advancing on the hooded figure, who slowly turns, on screen and in life.
He is holding a crystal ball in both hands, which he gives to the Prisoner. Inside, the closing scene of the bars slamming on the Prisoner’s face repeats three times. The Prisoner drops it, smashing it. Number One throws his head back and his hands in the air. He is dressed as all the delegates, except that the large red Number One is on his left breast. The Prisoner reaches out to the mask, twists it off. Underneath, an ape’s face chatters at him, bestially: another mask. He drags this off. Underneath the hood, his own face stares back at him, laughing hysterically.
Barely do we have the chance to register this when Number One breaks away, still laughing, running around the control room. The Prisoner, in shock, chases him, tries to grapple with him, but Number One breaks away, climbs another set of circular stairs and, with the Prisoner climbing after him, leans over the hatch, laughing in his face, before slamming it shut from above.
The Prisoner promptly begins to activate the rocket’s launch controls. Outside, via the screen, the delegates mill around the cavern. The Red Judge is watching the eye, suspiciously. Having set things in motion, the Prisoner creeps downstairs. At the foot of the staircase, the Butler indicates with his eyes the position of the men. The Prisoner leaps onto them, knocking them sideways. He sprays them with the fire extinguisher and, when he wades in with his fists, the Butler takes over. They then release the Young Man and the ex-Number Two.
Dressed in the hooded robes, they signal the guards to enter the room. They too are sprayed with an extinguisher and knocked out. Arming themselves with machine guns, the quartet rise up unnoticed from the pits. The Prisoner begins shooting.
The cavern is reduced to chaos, with gunfire on all sides. The Red Judge calls for control, then orders everyone to evacuate. Delegates, guards, men in wet-suits on bicycles flood up the corridor. In the Village, tannoys urgently order “Evacuate!”. Helicopters take off, streams of Villagers start running away.
Below, the rocket progresses towards launch. The firing ends. The Butler reveals that the base on which the caged room rests is only panels, behind which are the wheels of a trailer. He gets behind the wheel, the others strip off their robes and climb into the room. They drive off along a dark tunnel, leading to wrought iron gates.
At the same moment the trailer breaks through the gates, the rocket launches, rising slowly through the heart of the Village. A half-inflated Rover shrivels into nothing in the blast-pit, to the sound of Carmen Miranda’s “I-I-I-I-I like you very much”, which becomes the song playing on the dashboard radio of a Rolls, being driven along a countryside dual carriageway by a businessman. The trailer is ahead of him in the centre lane. As he overtakes it on the inside, the Young Man and the ex-Number Two are dancing, and the Prisoner serving coffee, to the rhythm of the song. He speeds on. A road sign shows A20, London 27 miles.
Further on, the trailer pulls into a lay-by to let the Young Man out. He crosses the carriageway and starts to hitch.
The trailer continues into London. Circling Trafalgar Square, it is followed by a scooter-riding Policeman, who flags it down to park on the Thames Embankment. The occupants descend and walk away. The ex-Number Two walks towards Parliament. After staring at it for a few moments, he waves to his colleagues, crosses the road and, after a few words with a Policeman, is let in a rear entrance.
The Prisoner watches him leave, the Butler stood some twenty feet off. The Policeman slows walks past the Butler and goes up to the Prisoner. He asks a question. The Prisoner replies, gesticulating, even dancing, then leaves the Policeman to return to the Butler. The two race across Westminster Bridge and jump on a London bus.
The Young Man walks cheerfully down the carriageway, waving his thumb. Alexis Kanner’s name appears onscreen. He crosses the carriageway and starts hitching the other way, unperturbed at not being picked up.
The Prisoner and the Butler arrive outside his house. The Prisoner gets in his Lotus and starts the engine. The Butler walks up the steps. Angelo Muscat’s name appears onscreen. For the first time, we can see that the number of the Prisoner’s home is 1. The door opens by itself, with the low, sibilant hum of Village doors, and the Butler goes inside.
An aerial shot shows the Lotus being driven through London traffic, near Parliament. The word Prisoner appears onscreen.
The ex-Number Two, now sporting bowler, umbrella, business suit and carnation, marches gleefully along. Leo McKern’s name appears onscreen. He crosses the road and is ushered inside  Parliament by a Policeman.
We hear a brief crash of thunder. A road appears, wide and straight, stretching out before us like an airfield runway. Something appears at the perspective point, racing towards us with incredible speed, a Lotus Seven. It is being driven by the Prisoner, who has a grim, set expression on his face. It is the first shot of the first episode.
The credits run. They end, not on Rover rising from the sea, but on the finished, compiled image of the Penny Farthing.

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 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: Who was he, really?


Is it him?

According to one of his co-creators, he always was John Drake. The upright, moral agent, who believed in what he did. Who was committed to his job. Who devised the idea of a retirement home for aged spies, where they could live, safe and protected. Who resigned, from a job that he was the last you could imagine abandoning, because he learned that his proposal had been adopted, but perverted into an interrogation camp. Who resigned knowing that only by this route could he infiltrate this abomination and bring it down.
But his other co-creator had a diametrically opposite opinion: he was anybody in the world except John Drake. He was everyman, the ultimate individual, the one man setting himself against the overwhelming force of the establishment, a growing, cynical, authoritarian establishment requiring conformity to itself in all things. He had no name, because he needed no name, because he was symbol, not person.
Plus there was the legal position that if Number Six were John Drake, the royalty payments due to Drake’s creator, Ralph Smart, would have made the show impossible to produce.
I’ve already commented that, by deliberately blanking Number Six’s name and background, other than his being a spy, allowed Number Six to appear complete with an assumed history. As one who, however young, was there for the first broadcast, I can confirm that our entire family (with the exception of my six year old sister, whose bedtime fell before either programme started) watched the first episode believing The Prisoner to be an extension of Danger Man. To us, and to the vast majority of that first night audience, Number Six was John Drake, no question.
The lack of a ‘real name’ for Number Six created certain difficulties for the scripters, especially in those episodes in which the Prisoner succeeded in returning to London, or, in the case of The Chimes of Big Ben, met former trusted colleagues and friends in the belief that he had done so. Extraordinary contortions were required to get around the necessity that not one of these persons who had worked closely with Number Six in his previous life address him by his actual name.
Not even his fiancée, even when she is convinced that his mind has somehow been transferred into the stranger’s body of Nigel Stock, addresses him by name.
The closest any of these episodes comes to acknowledging this quandary is in Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling, when the Colonel has invaded Number Six’s old headquarters and is challenged to give his name: cleverly, ‘Number Six’ asks “code or real”, and is allowed to identify himself by his various code-names, “Duvall”, “Schmidt” and “ZM73”. Incidentally, none of these code-names have been identified as ones used by John Drake in Danger Man.
In every other scene, devices have to be resorted to, Number Six must be addressed as ‘my friend’, or ‘old man’. The most obvious moment comes in Many Happy Returns, when Number Six can call his old, old friend the Colonel, James, but the Colonel’s only personal reference to him is by the deliberately ironic ‘Number Six’.
It’s an interesting dichotomy: Number Six, the epitome of the individual, lacks that most individual of aspects: a name. Throughout the series, even to his ‘triumph’ in the final episode, when his designation is taken from him, he is nothing but Number Six, the name of a cypher. The man who asserts himself against the weight of all authority ultimately has no individual identity.
Or does he?
The Girl Who Was Death certainly sails very close to the wind of identifying Number Six as having been indeed John Drake. It’s an episode full of in-jokes, and by the very presence of these, we should treat any information in it as being tendentious, but the episode makes an immediate and strong link to McGoohan’s former role. The Agent’s first appearance sees him adopting the same cap and raincoat combination that was characteristic of John Drake.
And Christopher Benjamin, who played Drake’s self-satisfied liaison, Potter, in the two episodes of the aborted Series 4, returns playing what we are invited to assume is the same character.
It’s a very broad hint that Number Six is the former John Drake, though of course the name is never spoken. The hints, however, could not be clearer.
For many years, before the advent of video and DVD, a substantial number of viewers were insistent that Number Six was actually identified in Once Upon a Time as Drake: Leo McKern barks out a pre-advert line that sounded like “Meet me in the morning, Drake”, though the greater availability of the series has helped dispel that myth by allowing everyone to hear it correctly as “morning break”. And elsewhere in the same episode, the nursery rhyme, ‘See saw, Marjorie Daw’ is used in its oldest form, where the next line is ‘Jacky shall have a new master’ (the version I grew up on wasn’t ‘Jacky’, though I can’t tease out the memory of what it was): Jacky, or Jack, is a diminutive of John, a popular variant of the original: John who?
Like so many enigmas about this series, the answer lies in the viewer’s own mind, in what they read the runes as saying. We must, finally, come back to McGoohan’s insistence that Number Six was not Drake, and that originally, to emphasise that there was no actual connection between his former series and his new one, he wanted another actor entirely to play the part, but Grade insisted he wanted McGoohan himself. And who, in all the world, then or since, could have played Number Six in the manner that ensured the series would survive so long?
You pays your money and you takes your choice. I began by believing, in 1967, that The Prisoner was a direct, as opposed to thematic, sequel to Danger Man, and that Number Six was John Drake. No matter how much I know he isn’t, I prefer to believe in the continuity between the two, and that Number Six was always more than just a Number.

The Prisoner: episode 15 – The Girl Who Was Death – discursion


The Girl Who Was Death was the fifteenth episode of The Prisoner to be broadcast and the sixteenth to go into production. It was written by Terence Feely, based on a story by David Tomblin and was directed by Tomblin himself.
I’ve probably seen The Girl Who Was Death more often than any other episode of The Prisoner, not out of any intrinsic fascination with the episode, but because it’s been on television the most over the years. And that’s not a reflection of any massive popularity on this episode’s part, either.
No, it’s the same reason that, down the decades, the Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?  episode No Hiding Place (the one where Bob and Terry try to avoid learning the result of an England game) has always been the random episode selected to exemplify the show: because it has the absolute least to do with the series.
The Girl Who Was Death can be shown at any time, to any audience, because they can watch it without thinking, without wondering what’s going on, and having to understand anything. It can be pulled out of the series in a way that no other episode can because it exists free of context, free of overtones and undertones, free of any of the deeper themes of The Prisoner.
No, let’s be frank: not even the very short coda in which Kenneth Griffiths and Justine Lord stand revealed as the most hapless and pathetic Number Two and Assistant of them all has anything to do with ANY of the show’s themes.
If there are those who are offended at me describing Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling or Living in Harmony as a ‘filler’, they can’t possibly argue about this one.
I’ve heard different stories about The Girl Who Was Death‘s provenance: that it was an unused, or rejected Avengers script, that it was a leftover Danger Man script that was adapted to fit the rush to get four more episodes into production. The overall tone of the story, which is a spy spoof from start to finish, and arch as all get out, supports the former, but lacks anything that might be intuited as an Emma Peel role, whilst the structure reflects something of the old Danger Man style – McGoohan’s light cap and raincoat is the most obvious nod to John Drake, whilst Potter was Drake’s contact in the two colour series 4 episodes, and played by Christopher Benjamin again: Ralph Smart must have really been tempted to call for his copyright lawyer here – but has had to have been gone over with a bludgeon to produce this eccentric affort.
It’s not that I don’t like The Girl Who Was Death, don’t get me wrong. It’s great fun: McGoohan’s deadpan approach fits the level of the parody perfectly, the ideas are well-judged and the show doesn’t sag until Kenneth Griffith appears, though his OTT performance takes a lot of the wind out of its sails thereafter.
But whilst the individual bits are very good, the overall effect is too one-note. It’s a send-up, we get it, but is that ALL you’ve got? And, sadly, that is indeed all it’s got, and it barely gets to the end with us still on its side: another five minutes and it would have tripped over its own silliness and gone totally flat.
It’s an episode chocked with in-jokes, which always raises the risk of the show becoming too clever and looking to raise the bar for those in on it instead of those watching from without, And it doesn’t have an ending either: the explosion that blows up the lighthouse/rocket – which is taken from a Gerry Anderson Thunderbirds shot – works well to end the spoof, but leaves a very awkward segue into the real ending, the link that brings The Girl Who Was Death back to the ‘reality’ of the Village and the hopelessly perfunctory explanation of just why this is an episode of The Prisoner.
I’ll say this much for Number Two’s ‘cunning plan’: it doesn’t half serve to justify the radical upturn in tension and threat in the long-filmed Once Upon A Time.
But this simply isn’t an episode of The Prisoner. It’s a joke, a time-filler, a giggle with a stapled on half-hearted link to the overall story that can’t possibly have been meant to have been taken seriously. It lacks even the claims of formal experimentation that can, legitimately, be attached to Living in Harmony.
It’s a filler. Full stop.
Praise should, of course, be given to the guests, or at least two of them. Griffith, a highly-regarded actor/writer/director who would go on to specialise in documentaries in the Seventies (much satirised by Clive James) overdoes his role as the mad scientist with a decidedly Napoleonic complex, upsetting the balance that has been maintained to that point, but Justine Lord, a veteran at working with McGoohan having guested in more episodes of Danger Man than any other, pitches her performance, seductive, exotic, physically and, later, mentally dangerous, to perfection.
She also gets to wear the shortest skirts of anyone in the entire series, which is another aspect that links these three ‘filler’ episodes, in that they introduce feminine glamour in a manner that is rigidly excluded from the Village, and the ‘purer’ episodes made for ‘series 1’.
And mention must be made of the uncredited Alexis Kanner, who makes a splendid cameo as the verbally aggressive, hip, fashion photographer in the fairground, though he’s only onscreen for a matter of seconds throughout.
Otherwise, it’s nice to report that the sloppiness of the past few episodes filming is not present here, apart from some very bad back-projection shots in the funfair sequence. In part that’s just the limitations of the technology, combined with McGoohan’s recall to location filming on Ice Station Zebra, which severely limited his participation in location filming: Frank Maher went to the fair and did the actual running around and McGoohan, dressed in his spoof Sherlock Holmes outfit, and heavily bewhiskered, has to do a series of absurd reaction shots, and darting off in all directions against stock footage of the fair.
Comparing the televised story to the original script, courtesy yet again of Robert Fairclough’s splendid and invaluable books, points up no significant changes during the filming process, save for one immeasurably important one: Schnipps’ fixation was not originally Napoleon, but Hitler.
The change saves the episode. Napoleon fixations are funny, not merely because they’re a cliché, but because Napoleon is 200+ years old. Hitler and Nazi Germany isn’t funny. It’s not funny now and it was even less so in 1967, when the end of the War was only twenty-two years earlier, and people remembered going through it. My Dad was only 38 when The Prisoner was first broadcast: too young to have done more than peace-time conscription in the Navy, but his elder brother had seen service, and battle, in the Far East. For them, and millions like them, a comic-Hitler would have been something like blasphemy.
But this is the low point of the series. There are only two episodes left, two episodes that, in their starkly contrasting manners, will take The Prisoner into television history. The transition from nonsense like The Girl Who Was Death to Once Upon a Time, is from the ridiculous to the sublime. As simple as that.

The Prisoner: episode 15 – The Girl Who Was Death – synopsis


Thunder crashes. The normal credits sequence runs.
We open upon a painted scene of an Edwardian cricket match, spread across two pages of a book held open by a pair of hands.
A succession of scenes establish a contemporary village cricket match. Colonel Hawke-Englishe, an old-fashioned man in multi-coloured cap, with well-brushed grey moustache, is batting. He bats left-handed, and swipes the bowler for a boundary.
By the scoreboard, his assistant Potter changes the Colonel’s score to 93. He takes a pair of binoculars from a cricket bad, covering up a high-powered rifle with telescopic sights with a pair of pads. Potter scans the crowd, lingering on the legs of an attractive woman with short blonde hair, who is wearing a white mini-dress. Reprimanding himself, he turns the binoculars to the Colonel, who acknowledges his scrutiny with a wink. Potter misses the girl getting elegantly out of her deck-chair and walking away.
The Colonel smashes the next ball into the undergrowth for six, advancing his score to 99. As a fielder runs from the field to retrieve it, a feminine hand, extending from a white sleeve, replaces it with a seemingly identical ball.
The fielder throws the new ball in from the boundary. The bowler catches it, and marches back almost to the sightscreen, intent on delivering his fastest ball. He races in and delivers, grinning maniacally. The Colonel plays a defensive block: the ball explodes on contact with his bat. His death, one short of his century, is announced on a newspaper board.
Enter a fellow Agent, played by McGoohan, wearing the white cap and coat favoured by John Drake in later series of Danger Man. He walks down the High Street and pauses outside a ladies clothes shop whose windows are filled with mannequins wearing the latest fashions. A scruffy, unshaven, unhappy Potter is working as a shoe-shiner outside.
Whilst the Agent pretends to have his Hush Puppies (suede shoes) cleaned, Potter explains that the Colonel was pursuing the mad scientist, Dr Schnipps (a slip: he is Professor Schnipps throughout the rest of the episode) who has been building a rocket with which to destroy London. Unfortunately, the Colonel had not found out where the rocket is: the Agent is to go collect a message from the Chief at a nearby record shop. As he leaves, we see the girl has replaced one of the shop mannequins and has been listening in.
In the record shop, the Agent signals with his tie and is given a disc to take into a listening booth. The Chief’s message is for him to take over from the Colonel.
Back to the cricket match. The Agent, wearing the same cap plus Edwardian mutton chop whiskers and moustache, is batting (right handed) against the same bowler, and scoring freely. The white dressed blonde (who is actually Sonia Schnipps, daughter of the Professor, though her first name is never mentioned in the episode) is again watching.
As before, the Agent hits a four and a six to take his score to 99. The same feminine hand replaces the ball in the undergrowth. It is thrown in from the boundary, caught by the bowler, who marches a long way back before running in and delivering it with a maniacal grin. This time, the Agent catches the ball and hurls it back into the undergrowth, where it explodes harmlessly. Following it, he finds a lace hankie on which a lipsticked message says Sonia will meet him at his local.
Restored to cap and coat, the Agent attends his local and orders the usual. As he drains his drink, the word ‘You’ (in Village font) appears on the base of the glass. Only after he has drained his drink can he read the full message: ‘You have just been poisoned’.
Turning back to the bar, the Agent quickly orders, and downs, a succession of shorts, spirits and liqueurs, until the barmaid protests that he’ll make himself sick. As he heads for the Gents, Sonja emerges from it. Inside, a message on the roller towel sends him to a nearby Steam bath.
Next, we see the Agent in a steam cupboard, enjoying the treatment. He has re-donned his moustache and whiskers. Another steam cupboard opens, revealing a girl’s legs. She slides a broomstick through the handles of the Agent’s cupboard and places a large goldfish bowl over his head. As the trapped steam threatens to overcome him, the Agent struggles, finally breaking the broom and striding free. He is fully dressed, in Edwardian Sherlockian clothing. A message on the inside of Sonia’s steam cupboard directs him to a boxing booth at the nearby funfair.
In the booth, the Agent sits alone in the front row. Sonia is present, disguised as an elderly woman in a black shawl. The MC announces a three round fight between the ugly and vicious Killer Kominsky and the challenger – Mr X! He points at the agent and the crowd force him into the ring.
We cut to the picture book, still held open, but now showing a painting of an Edwardian boxing match. This appears before and after the commercials.
He spars with Kominsky, each showing their abilities. Kominsky tells him to go to the Tunnel of Love, and when the Agent presses him on who has given his that message, he angrily says he doesn’t know, and knocks the Agent out.
The Tunnel of Love is quiet and deserted. Unseen by the Agent. Sonia is there, among the scary exhibits. After he passes her, she begins to talk to him, caressingly, telling him that she is beginning to fall in love with him. She warns him not to turn round: when he does he finds a small radio broadcasting her words. When he throws it into the water, it explodes.
A hunt follows all across the funfair grounds. The Agent keeps seeing Sonia in her white dress, but losing her on various rides. He pursues a woman dressed in white to the top of the Big Dipper, only to discover that she is a different woman, model for a photographer (an uncredited Alexis Kanner) who berates him violently.
The chase continues. The Agent sees a white dressed woman posing before a roundabout, but as he approaches, the photographer gets off the roundabout and looks at him. The Agent tips his deerstalker and retreats, but this time the woman is Sonia, who kisses the photographer, then runs to her white E-type Jag and drives away. The Agent strips off his whiskers and follows in his Lotus.
The pair carry out a high speed chase, down dual-carriageways and country lanes. Sonia continues to talk to the Agent, via a mike in her car, to his car radio. She continues to discuss love with him: he is perfect for her, a born survivor where she is a born killer. She points behind her, at him, and then waves her finger from side to side, causing the road to appear to sway with her movements, even to loop the loop. A sudden turn down a side road, signposted Wychwood 1 mile, gains her a lead. The camera cuts to the book, this time showing an idyllic English Village scene, before and after the adverts
The Agent finds himself in an abandoned Village. Sonia’s e-type is parked but there is no sign of the woman. Suddenly, her voice addresses him out of the ether. She is going to give him a glorious death, but before that it is only fair that she gives him her name: her name is Death.
The Agent traces her voice to a loudspeaker whose wires lead inside the boarded up shop of the Butcher. Bursting in, he comes under fire from a Bren gun, set up on a tripod, whilst Sonia continues to address him lovingly. Wriggling under the line of fire, the Agent disarms the electric eye and takes the gun for his own use.
He follows the voice into the next abandoned shop, the Baker. Suddenly, a trapdoor opens under his feet and he falls into a pit filled with needle sharp electrified points. By swinging the gun across the opening, he is able to save himself, but the spikes start to rise. Desperately, he manages to drag a baker’s tray to the opening, and pull this down so he can stand on this as the spikes arise.
However, the floor is filled with small but powerful anti-personnel mines, which will go off in 90 seconds only. His only escape is to grasp the heating pipe running along the roof, and swing along this, despite the burning heat, to get into the third shop, the Candlestick Maker.
This shop is filled with candles of all sizes, in all manner of arrays. The Agent begins to cough. Sonia explains that the candles are wax mixed with a cyanide derivative, which is pouring poison into the air. Before the Agent can escape, she triggers steel shutters everywhere. Nor can he blow the candles out: if he does, they will explode, which he quickly demonstrates with a long-handled candle-snuffer.
Suddenly, the Agents begins gathering candles, piling them in front of the door. Sonia tells him that they used to toll the death knell in this Village when a great man was dying: when she starts up the bell, the Agent realises where she is. She thinks his antics are irrational, but when he has enough candles, he shelters behind a sturdy table and uses a bellows to blow them out all at once, blowing the shutters open.
Outside, in the street, Sonia starts firing at him from the Bell Tower. He takes refuge in the Blacksmiths, where he finds an abandoned but still working bulldozer. Using its scoop as a shield, he goes out into the street. Sonia, enjoying herself enormously, switches from machine guns to German stick grenades, hurling these with a ‘wheee!’. The third of these immobilises the bulldozer, giving her the chance to load and take up a bazooka, which destroys the bulldozer.
Descending to the street, she surveys the blazing wreckage with satisfaction, before turning away down a side street. The Agent climbs out of a manhole and follows her into the fields, where she makes for a helicopter. As it takes off, he jumps aboard, clinging to its skies.
The scene changes to the picture book, now showing an old-fashioned Wright Brothers era plane flying over the ocean, which is repeated after the adverts.
The helicopter flies on, eventually landing in a similar field. The Agent jumps off and conceals himself as the unheeding Sonia walks away. He follows her towards some rocks, where she disappears. A few steps further on is a cliff edge, overlooking a lighthouse. Returning to the rocks, the Agent finds a secret entrance.
A passage leads down into an armoury complex, underneath the lighthouse. A man wearing a Napoleonic era French uniform arrives, quietly singing ‘A Londonderry Air’: the Agent knocks him out, takes his top coat and, continuing the song, starts to work on the rifles and grenades.
Meanwhile, above, in the control room, Sonia, changing into a ball-gown from the period, has rejoined her father, Professor Schnipps. The Professor is dressed as Napoleon, complete with hand inside waistcoat. His henchmen, all dressed as French Marshals, also have their hands in their waistcoats: angrily, he drags them out.
Schnipps’ plan is nearing fruition: the rocket is about to be launched to destroy London. He renames several landmarks – Napoleon Square, Napoleon’s Column – after himself, whilst his ‘little girl’ can have Bond Street and his ‘merry lads’ Chelsea Barracks. This does not go down well.
The Irish Marshall, O’Rourke is missing (he too has gone downstairs and been knocked out by the Agent) so Schnipps sends the Marshals downstairs. They get into a fight with the Agent, during which he downs several of them, before escaping outside to the base of the lighthouse. The Marshals grab rifles and line up to shoot him, but the Agent has gimmicked these to fire backwards, killing all the Marshals. He starts up the stairs only to be halted by Sonia, carrying a gun that will not backfire.
The Agent is tied to a chair whilst Schnipps taunts him with the knowledge that the lighthouse IS the rocket, something the Agent has already worked out for himself, to Schnipps’s consternation. But he will be left in the control room when Schnipps and Sonia evacuate.
The countdown started, they rush down one level and start frantically packing files into various cases. The Agent struggles against his bonds before freeing himself by the simple expedient of lifting the chair-back off its support. He then wrecks the rocket by fiddling with all its controls, until it starts to overheat. Using the rope, he abseils down the side of the lighthouse and takes the Schnipps’s boat.
Aghast, the Schnipps’s grab stick grenades and hurl these at the Agent. But these too have been gimmicked: the explosive attaches to the stick: they and the lighthouse are blown to smithereens!
The pair of hands closes the book. It has the Penny Farthing on its cover and a title: The Village Storybook.
Three children in pyjamas, two boys and a girl, eagerly clamour for another story from Number Six, but he puts them to bed, promising to come back the next night.
In his office, Number two and his girl assistant watch the scene onscreen: they are Schnipps and his daughter. Number Two seethes: the idea of putting Number Six with the Village children in the hope he will let something slip has failed: he has told them a fairy story. His assistant sympathises.
On the screen, Number Six says ‘Goodnight Children’, before pausing, turning to the surveillance camera and concluding ‘Everywhere.”
The Prisoner’s face races towards the screen. A pair of iron-barred doors slide across in front of it, slamming shut.

The Prisoner: Angelo Muscat


After Patrick McGoohan, the actor with the best track record in The Prisoner is Angelo Muscat, who played Number Two’s butler in fourteen of the seventeen episodes, and, despite never saying a single word, is as big an icon of the series as Portmeirion itself.
Muscat, who was born in Malta in 1930, was a short man in a family of tall people: both his parents and all three brothers were six foot or more, but Angelo only grew to the height of four feet three inches: stocky, rotund and balding. And sadly, very lonely.
His size restricted his employment opportunities on Malta, though he developed a love of the theatre there. He moved to England after the death of his parents, in quick succession, and worked in a zipper factory until, in 1961, he responded to an ad for casting of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
This began an acting career which included appearances in a lost William Hartnell Doctor Who adventure and in the twice weekly medical soap opera, Emergency Ward 10, but his career highlight was being selected for The Prisoner.
The early scripts make it plain that McGoohan and co envisaged a completely different figure for the Butler: a conventional, six foot strong-arm man, who would have (albeit banal) dialogue. According to ITC publicity, Muscat was personally selected for the part by McGoohan, after reviewing hundreds of photos.
The casting gave Muscat particular pride, both in the responsibility it gave him as virtually the only other series regular, and because he was a great Danger Man fan, and would be working with Patrick McGoohan.
Like so many aspects of the series, his casting was an act of genius.
I’ve already mentioned his immediate impact in our household on first viewing in 1967: I may have been somewhat idiosyncratic in my anticipation of a quasi-Lurch, but Muscat’s appearance – short, round, immaculately clad, deeply serious, silent, unfailingly grave – was 180% away from anything that might have been expected.
His performances throughout the series maintained that initial impression. In the episodes we have reviewed so far, he has opened doors, brought and removed breakfast trolleys, carried and held the prototypical Village umbrella. To the extent of his participation in the story is concerned, he has been a cypher, as much as the Village symbol of the Penny Farthing.
Only in A Change of Mind does the Butler engage in a minor interaction with Number Six, when the latter makes his second and condemnatory appearance before the Social Affairs Committee: Number Six finds that the Committee members have vanished and he is alone, at the centre of a ring of tables, with the Butler solemnly contemplating him. Without a muscle moving, facially, Muscat contributes a suggestion of amusement as he waits Number Six out. And when the latter leaps to his feet, intent on challenging the encircling, Muscat is equally fast, if not faster, to pull the requisite table aside and create egress.
In Hammer into Anvil, when the paranoid Number Two dismisses him and threatens to strike him, Muscat is still silent and immobile, yet in his stance and the slightest of expressions around his eyes, creates the powerful expression that he is deeply hurt at having his loyalty questioned, though equally he shows no sign of fear at the physical threat of a much taller man.
And as I’ve already mentioned, when discussing that episode, Muscat is used to conclude A Change of Mind in vivid fashion, unfurling the Village umbrella and briskly walking up the rosepath in the wake of his latest broken master. Similarly, an earlier episode, lacking an adequate closing moment, finishes with a shot of the butler, dressed in his coat and bowler, holding the umbrella and looking down on the Village.
Naturally enough, with Muscat seemingly ever-present, unspeaking but observant, and with the series still emphasising its espionage roots, many were led to speculate that the butler was, in fact, Number One. That is a popular trope by now, the mastermind whose disguise is ordinariness and lowliness, but in 1967 in would have been fresh for television. If the series had been more concerned with concrete drama, it might even have been a possibility for the ending, though we know that George Markstein’s thoughts led in a different direction.
The Butler would play a larger, more direct role in the final two episodes of the series: indeed, he would feature in The Prisoner‘s penultimate shot. But his significance in the majority of the show was symbolic, from his very first, reality-breaking appearance. The Village was elsewhere, beyond and outside Number Six’s old (= real) life. Its combination of scientific advance and surface whimsy rendered it a fantasy in which the former Agent was suspended, a dream from which he was not allowed to wake. Angelo Muscat’s unusual appearance was another, vital component of the suspension/perversion of reality that enabled the programme to work to the degree it did.
Sadly, The Prisoner was the highlight of Angelo Muscat’s life and career. Markstein recalled him being a pleasure to work with, always with a smile on set, no matter the hour, forever cheerful. In some ways he was the programme’s mascot, a role of which he was proud.
He would go on to more film and TV offers, including the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, but would quickly be forgotten. He died of natural causes in 1977, having spent the last few years of his life living alone, almost penniless, in a basement flat in London, supplementing his income by making ornate bird cages.
Angelo Muscat deserved better

The Prisoner: episode 14 – Living in Harmony – discursion


The Kid

Living in Harmony was the fourteenth episode of The Prisoner to be broadcast and the fifteenth to go into production. It was written and directed by McGoohan’s Everyman Films partner, David Tomblin, and was based on a story by Tomblin and Ian L Rakoff, assistant film editor on the series.
With the exception of Fall Out, this is probably the most controversial episode of the series, in many respects.
First amongst these must be the subject of the episode itself. As we’ve seen from the synopsis, it’s essentially a re-interpretation of the Prisoner set-up in a Western, but instead of framing the idea within the format of the series, for fully three-quarters of the length of the episode, the programme is rejected in every aspect: no theme music, no opening credits, a completely inexplicable alternate scenario and not even the name of the programme on screen! (On first broadcast, a number of the ITV companies superimposed the words The Prisoner over the intro, to McGoohan’s fury).
Whilst the idea of taking a series outside its normal parameters is now accepted, if not common, it was completely unheard of in the Sixties, and completely against the accepted, and comfortable ethos of television and television viewing. And even a near half-century later, I cannot recall another series which took the idea to the extent in Living in Harmony.
The episode is also the most overtly violent of the series, between the lynching (seen from the victim’s viewpoint up to the moment of the noose being slipped over his head), McGoohan being beaten viciously twice and guest star Valerie French getting strangled twice, once in each of her two characters! The level of violence was unusual for British television as a whole, and whilst three ITV companies moved the episode to 10.00pm, after the ‘watershed’, several others reacted by editing down, and in once case out, the violence to make it acceptable to them (the second strangulation was cut out, making Number Six appear to race into the saloon and punch Number Eight for no apparent reason).
On the other hand, the violence is an integral part of the story, as the explanation behind the experiment explicitly makes clear.
There is also a dispute over the credit for the idea of a Western, and the writing credits officially registered. In the blog on Unused Outlines, I mentioned Ian Rakoff responding to the request for ideas with the notion of a Western (initially under the title Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling). Rakoff, a western comics enthusiast, claimed to have worked on the story for a long time, and to have written the full episode, except for the lynching (which he found distasteful) which was added by Tomblin. Instead, his role was reduced to the second of two collaborators on a plot, and he was cut out of all residual payments. Rakoff stated that he tried to complain to McGoohan, but the star refused to meet him, and he never saw him again thereafter.
But the biggest controversy that surrounded the episode was its treatment in America, where it was dropped for the first two broadcast runs.
Many theories about this have been advanced. One suggests the episode was dropped because of its depiction of hallucinogenic drugs, and is usually accompanied by a sneer at the inconsistency of American television, given that several previous episodes featured Number Six being drugged. It has been pointed out that there is a substantial qualitative difference: in previous episodes, the viewer is forewarned that the Prisoner is or is going to be drugged, and the scenes play out in that knowledge: there is no such warning in Living in Harmony, and the viewer doesn’t learn that they’ve been watching a drug-induced hallucination until very close to the end. It’s a fair distinction.
It’s also been claimed that the episode was too uncomfortable for American television in 1968: with the Vietnam war in full spate, with American facing the first inklings that they might not automatically win it, with protest about the War rising daily and young men refusing to be drafted into the Army. Into this political melee comes a foreign television programme using a classic American form to deliver an anti-violence, anti-War, anti-authority message: the case is obvious, surely.
Whilst I’m certain that there were more than a few figures who thought exactly that, the reason for the episode’s exclusion was apparently rather more prosaic, although still tied in with the political issues of the day.
In the early summer of 1968, Robert Kennedy was assassinated whilst running for President. The reaction including a rash of claims that television was inciting violence, and led to hasty regulations in relation to the depiction of violence. Shootings were still permitted, but the shooter and the victim had to be shot separately. In Living in Harmony, McGoohan and Alexis Kanner appear in the same shot for their shoot-out: the episode could not be broadcast until that regulation had been rescinded.
As usual, there’s a difference between the original script and the broadcast episode, though on this occasion the story is barely affected. To reflect the Western setting, the script was pared down, and in the case of the Kid, his dialogue was completely removed, making the character mute. A read of the Original Scripts shows that the Kid’s dialogue was nothing more than stereotypical tough guy talk, and the decision is brilliant: Kanner plays the part entirely in gesture and expression, conveying an frightening psychopathy from his introduction. It’s a superb, beautifully stylised performance that outshines everyone in the episode.
Kanner, a French-Canadian actor, was making his first of three appearances (one uncredited), in the last four episodes of the series, each time playing different characters. At the time of his appearance, he was probably best known in British television for his short-lived portrayal of DI Matt Stone in nine episodes of the first series of BBC’s Softly, Softly. This was a Police drama, a spin-off from Z-Cars featuring the latter’s Barlow and Watt. Kanner claimed to have left the series early because he did not want to become typecast, and that his performances (recorded live) were controversial to the point of questions being asked in Parliament. Others on the series claim that his antics during performance were unwelcome and he was sacked. The BBC wiped most of the series, and only one episode with Kanner remains, and that is non-committal either way.
For some, never explained reason, on each of his credited appearances, Kanner’s names is surrounded on screen by a white box, a distinction granted to no-one else in the series. It’s been speculated that McGoohan saw in Kanner a reflection of himself – the actor’s level of intensity here demonstrates the force he could bring to a part, and he is the only actor to challenge McGoohan in that respect – and wished to indicate a kind of mentorship.
The two remained firm friends and later co-starred in Kanner’s film Kings and Desperate Men, which he co-wrote and directed in Toronto.
Kanner’s fellow guest, Valerie French, a Fifties starlet here making her best known television appearance, is equally interesting in a different way. From the moment of her first appearance as Cathy, French is the most overtly sexy character in the whole series. She is wearing a shoulderless Western saloon girl’s costume, tightly fitted, pushing upwards and outwards and instantly displaying far more female flesh than every other woman in the series collectively.
And though this particular version soon disappears, her main costume demonstrates a considerable amount of cleavage. And, in keeping with her Fifties starlet origins, Ms French was a buxom lass. At the time of shooting, she was 39, and in her outfit would have been uncharitably called “mutton dressed up as lamb” (just as Ena Sharples stigmatised Elsie Tanner in Coronation Street).
But she’s still very good-looking and the suggestion of beginning lines in her face fit her to the part she’s (doubly) playing like a second skin: it’s interesting that she actually looks older as Number Twenty Two.
It’s interesting to see the change of direction that comes with these hasty, potentially second series episodes. In Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling, Number Six suddenly is possessed of a fiancée:  the next episode, he has won and lost love. Is this really the self-contained, anti-romantic Number Six and his possible earlier incarnation as John Drake?
Well, no, not really. Though the Village wants to involve him with a sexy woman, and Number Twenty Two really does fall for the notion (poor, weak-willed woman that she is), there’s no evidence in the episode of Number Six acting towards Cathy with anything other than his ordinarily chivalrous instincts. Still, it surprises to see the rigidly moralistic McGoohan allowing so (comparatively) risqué a show of flesh.
But the sexy lady theme is (over)played again in the next episode, as we shall see.
But in amongst all these disparate concerns, what about Living in Harmony in itself? Is it actually any good?
Several have lauded it as a brilliant subversion, both of the series and of television itself, by translating its central theme into a completely different genre, and it is. The justification for this radical departure is ingenious, and that’s without any overt reference to another brilliant conception: Number Six is aware of his importance to the Village from the outset, which provides him with a subconscious reassurance that he can take any risk, go to any length in defending himself, without ultimate consequence, because he’s too important to be harmed. Transferring him into a primitive re-enactment of his struggle, is a less-sophisticated, more violent setting removes that surety, and demonstrates Number Six’s ferocity even more when we see that, rather than succumb, he is willing to provoke his own death.
And, taken together with the third ‘filler’ episode, the farfetchedness of this notion is a demonstration of just how desperate the Village is getting, and in the context of the series as a whole, it supports the necessity for a once and for all, extremely dangerous plan in the forthcoming Once Upon a Time.
Living in Harmony can be, and is praised for many aspects, bit each time I look at it, no matter how much I enjoy it, I cannot help but think one thought. It’s a Western. The Prisoner is a contemporary espionage drama, concerned with deep philosophical and sociological issues affecting life, authority and identity in the 20th Century, and it’s a bloody Western. It’s a story composed out of Western clichés, neither subverted nor illuminated, from first to last, that was made because they couldn’t think of any better ideas and besides, they wanted to play a kids game of Westerns (McGoohan and Kanner practised incessantly to try to beat each other in the shoot-out).
I don’t remember what my Dad said about this when it was first broadcast, but I have inherited enough of his thinking to be incapable of watching this episode without thinking of it as a cheap gimmick by people indulging themselves in an extended game. I mean, it’s a fucking Western!
So I stick by what I said and, just as much as the succeeding The Girl Who Was Death, which was even more an eking out of the series by any means possible, and weaker yet that this, Living in Harmony is a Filler episode.