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.