...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Day 3602: THE PRISONER 42nd 43rd ANNIVERSARY: The General


A year ago, my Daddies started watching THE seminal 'Sixties spy psychedelia: "The Prisoner". Or, more accurately, a year ago my Daddies missed a week because they were busy… and never looked back.

But you can never REALLY escape from the Village!

So, one year later*…
Coming again to "The Prisoner's" amazing title sequence, with its irresistible pounding Ron Grainer theme – and just six months after the General Election when most nights I was doing that very drive past the Houses of Parliament and into the Abingdon car park – I'm reminded just how perfectly composed it is. Just one example: as the Prisoner pulls up outside his home after resigning, the title card "Starring Patrick McGoohan" appears, and then he rises heroically into shot, perfectly framed, and then he leans back out of the picture and, still perfectly framed, reveals the sinister hearse arriving behind him.

It struck me, on this occasion that, with that sort of attention to detail, the casual-seeming appearance of the series' title over a scene of McGoohan hurriedly packing cannot, in fact, be as random as it seems. And it's not. This is a picture of a man trying to escape; he is a Prisoner, but the title sequence is telling us that he's already a Prisoner and the prison is his life.


A special announcement from the General's department presages the arrival of Speed Learn, a programme fronted by "the Professor" promising a three-year degree course in three minutes.

The Prisoner, observed by the sinister-seeming Number 12, is contemptuous and, typically kicking against the Village, refuses to sign up to their aim of 100% enrolment, 100% success, and goes for a walk instead. This leads to him coming across the sight of a man fleeing across the beach, pursued by Villagers. Going down to investigate, it turns out that the fleeing man is the Professor himself. The Professor is recaptured and dragged away, but not before the Prisoner has discovered (and concealed) a tape-recorded message from the man.

Warned off by the guards, and with the curfew falling, the Prisoner returns to his house and, intrigued, watches the Speed Learn broadcast. It appears to consist of no more than thirty seconds of a green light.

After the broadcast, Number 2 pays an unexpected house call. Ostensibly looking for the missing message from the Professor, Number 2 takes the opportunity to ask the Prisoner about the Speed Learn course, and presses him with a series of questions about the course which, to the Prisoner's surprise and horror, he finds himself answering correctly.

Returning to the beach after dark, the Prisoner finds the message gone before encountering Number 12. Number 12 returns the message to him, and reveals that it contains a warning about Speed Learn, and "the General".

The Prisoner determines to discover who "the General" is, and begins by attending the Professor's house, where his wife is conducting a free-form art class. He sketches her in a General's uniform. She is not amused. Slipping away from the class, he explores the house and discovers a collection of busts, before the Professor's wife discovers him and tries to throw him out. Instead, he barges his way into the Professor's bedroom and in a sudden strike attacks the man, only for it to turn out to be a wax bust in the bed. The real Professor, it seems, has been taken away for some therapy.

Back in his own living quarters, the Prisoner finds the lighting has been sabotaged, a ploy by Number 12, it would appear, to arrange a quiet tête-à-tête. Number 12 offers the Prisoner the opportunity to broadcast the Professor's warning in place of the next lecture, and arranges for the Prisoner to come to the Town Hall the next day.

With security passes and an alternative broadcast provided by Number 12, the Prisoner succeeds in reaching the broadcast suite, but is injured in a fight with the projectionist. The blood on his arm alerts Number 2, who aborts the broadcast and has his guards seize the Prisoner.

Coming to in the council chamber, the Prisoner is interrogated by Number 12, but Number 2 knows he'll never break and proposes they ask the General instead. Marching them through the Town Hall to the General's Office, where they find the Professor typing up his latest notes, Number 2 reveals that the General is, in fact, a giant computer.

Created by the Professor, used to program the Speed Learn broadcasts, it is, boasts Number 2, capable of answering any question. Number 2 intends to have the machine unmask the traitor in the Village, but before he can, the Prisoner challenges the assertion that the General can answer any question. Rising to the bait, Number 2 allows the Prisoner to program a question for the computer and has the Professor feed it in. The General, unable to answer the question "why?", explodes, killing the Professor and Number 12 and leaving Number 2 struck dumb.

what's your number, please

I've already explained how episodes of "The Prisoner" appear to fall into three distinct groups or phases: first he tries direct escape attempts and the Village treat him with kid gloves; then he has to hold up under increasingly psychedelic forms of mental attack; finally, he's the old lag, knowing many of the Village's tricks and conscious that escape is an illusion he seeks to bring the whole system down from within. Or more broadly: Resignation, Resistance and Rebellion.

The mind control theme – although never far from the surface in "the Prisoner" – is at its strongest in these middle period episodes: the identity-swapping of "The Schizoid Man" and the dream manipulation of "A, B & C" are of a piece with the implanted learning experienced here. Of course, it's not just learning: when asked the right question, people don't just know what the answer is, they appear compelled to regurgitate it, repeating by rote. It's less question and answer and more trigger and programmed response, post-hypnotic suggestion, and we're into "Manchurian Candidate" territory.

And although he says he's interested only in learning how to get away, the Prisoner's real interest here seems to have moved from escape to active subversion. There's a clear sign of this when Number 2 appears to offer the Prisoner his freedom in return for the Professor's missing message, and the Prisoner turns him down. They've both got bigger fish to fry now. Instead, alerted to a "danger" in the Village – in this case the power to implant thoughts in people's minds – the Prisoner investigates and eventually eliminates it. We'll see more of that sort of thing as we move into the third and final phase.

Under "The Schizoid Man" I discussed how the four episodes that we call the second phase have only really one possible order. The General is first mentioned in that episode, and appears here. Colin Gordon's Number 2 appears as "the new Number 2" here, and appears as "Number 2" in "A, B & C".

And in fact, "The General" was broadcast the week after "The Schizoid Man", although a week earlier than in our scheme, and followed by "Many Happy Returns", "A, B & C" having already been shown as the third episode.

But that order is barking mad (although, you might argue by looking at the series, that could almost be a point in its favour).

A small note on dates. As I mentioned before, only two episodes use dates, and they are "The Schizoid Man", which purports to begin on 10th February followed by days or more likely weeks of aversion therapy.

"Many Happy Returns" claims to end on 19th March after many days on a raft as the Prisoner "escapes" by sea.

In between those two, we have set this episode, "The General", which takes three days – starting on the evening of one day, the following day the Prisoner visits the art class and has his assignation with Number 12, and on the third day infiltrates the Town Hall and blows up the titular machine – and "A, B & C" which also takes place on three successive days (or rather nights).

Now it's just about possible that "The Schizoid Man" takes just three weeks, from 10th of February to 3rd March, followed by a week for the other two, making it 10th March and then a week-and-a-bit on a raft taking him to the 19th… possible, but wildly implausible, and breaking the (entirely unsupported by evidence) rule of thumb that one episode on TV represents one month in the Village.

The most logical explanation is that calendars in the Village are meaningless. They manipulate minds; altering the date is hardly going to tax them.

The alternative is that there is an entire year passes between "The Schizoid Man" and "The General".

But that would be absurd… [MM: tumbleweeds, daddy]

the new number two

This is the first of two (in our sequence, consecutive) appearances by Colin Gordon as the increasingly-twitchy Number 2 with a taste for drinking milk, presumably in an attempt to calm his dyspeptic nerves (it doesn't).

Interestingly, we don't see this Number 2 in the Green Dome: he's running operations from the Council Chamber, as seen in "Free for All", with its huge throne with watchful Illuminati eye, although we do see him popping into Peter Swanwick's observation room for a quick "orange alert!". (And next week, he'll be in and out of the special psychiatric unit instead of sat in the comfy chair too.)

He starts off supremely confident, casually strolling into the Prisoner's home-from-home and confounding him by, get this, asking questions which the Prisoner unhesitatingly answers (as I've already noted, this discomfits the Prisoner himself as much as it does the audience).

His slogan: "The freedom to learn – the liberty to make mistakes. Old-fashioned, Number Six."

His first appearance of nervousness is when he is on the telephone – not the big red special phone, but clearly to someone important – reassuring "someone" that the plan will work flawlessly.

It's not until he spots the Prisoner in the broadcast suite before the Professor's next broadcast that he is shocked from his complacency, but he is roused to anger rather than fear. He's quite smart enough to figure out that Number 12 gave the Prisoner the pass to get in, and vindictive enough to drag everyone over to "the General" to "prove" his suspicions by feeding the machine an obviously loaded question.

He's starting to tip over the edge into ranting Bond-villain as he explains the plot.

"You know what you'll get… a row of cabbages," accuses the Prisoner.

"Indeed," replies Number 2, with an admirable mad-eyed gleam, "knowledgeable cabbages!"

He's proud of turning people into cabbages.

So even now, he's so supremely overconfident in his giant adding machine that he foolishly allows the Prisoner to ask it the obvious solipsism.

Thus this Number 2 has the singular honour of being the first Number 2 to be roundly beaten by the Prisoner. Even Anton Rogers managed to come from behind to make a score draw in "The Schizoid Man", but here, 2 is left with his plans – not to mention his big expensive machine – in flaming ruins.

"Don't underestimate me, Number 6," said Number 2 at the head of the show… before immediately underestimating the Prisoner.

follow the signs

It could hardly be more Nineteen Sixties, with its "wonder technology" crossed with the evils of mind control and, what else, a great big computer behind it all. This being the 'Sixties, almost anything would have been a greater shock. When the Professor is pursued across the beach by the mob, it's hard to know whether they are warders or, in a surge of Beatle-mania, his hordes of adoring fans.

And yet, it's oddly superficial, as hollow as the wax cast of the Professor's head.

There are almost too many symbols, striving for 'Sixties "kooky" weirdness, exemplified by the undertakers costumes with sunglasses worn to the Town Hall, or the novelty ghostly hand that grabs the "security pass" tokens, and of which the director is entirely too fond. Yes, we get it!

The room of busts at the Professor's house is clearly trying to be heavily symbolic of… something. Though I admit I really enjoy McGoohan's triumphant flourish when he thinks he's unmasking the General… and it turns out to be a bust of, ah, Number 1.

This week, the cheeky holiday-camp tones of silky seductress Fenella Fielding are replaced by the accents of an American, with all the 'Sixties coding of crassness and commercialisation that comes with it. To make matters worse, he has the temerity to appear on screen, in the person of a smarmy little man with a nasty 'tache; rather than the implied superiority of an invisible, all-present radio announcer, he is, shudder, a television presenter.

The episode is surely not very subtle with all of its implied criticism of educational technique that favours rote learning over applied thought, but with this… salesman fronting the operation, there's a sense of saying there is something grubby and mean about a process that makes learning a commodity. McGoohan, you can feel sure, would have no truck with Tuition Fees!

Then there's some rather heavy-handed stuff about man's relationship with machines very quickly glossed over in a line about the Professor both loving and hating his creation, no doubt tossed in to try to explain the Professor's confused actions rather than explore the dichotomy.

And equally, the Prisoner's solution couldn't be any more 'Sixties either: on the brink of the information revolution, people can cope with the idea of machines that can "think" but not the way that they will "think". That is to say that they assume that computing machines will be thinking at all, and that they will therefore necessarily do this better and faster than humans (just as the machines that "work" have superseded their human builders). The General blows up because, as a machine, it has no soul and therefore can't cope with a sudden rush of existential ennui. Rather than simply replying: "bad command".

It's almost funny, because Number 2 – of all people – clearly does get the idea that what you get out of the computer depends on what you put in, when he composes a "question" for it: 1. There is a traitor; 2. Number 6 got a pass; 3. Passes come from administration; 4. Number 12 works in administration. You hardly need to be Deep Thought to join the dots, do you.

Number 2 boasts that the General can answer any question "given the basic facts", which is tantamount to saying it can answer any question to which it knows the answer.

But in fact it's the computers very ability of synthesis, this process of feeding in facts from which the machine will draw an inference, that is, I'm sure with deliberate irony, exactly what Speed Learn is taking away from people.

In a way, I suppose, it's handy to get the "machine in charge" trope out of the way here, so we can avoid the possibility that Number 1 is a robot brain.

Instead of the usual escape-of-the-week, this time the Prisoner is given a "mission" that he has to "solve". This makes it the first time that an episode of "the Prisoner" isn't really about the Prisoner.

Or does it?

It's not impossible that the whole affair is one big set-up. We see Number 12 observing the Prisoner before any of the events kick off. We can't know how much of what follows is staged for his benefit.

Who, for example, is the wax head in the Professor's bed supposed to be for? We might assume that it is there to keep Mrs Professor fooled while the Village have him away to the Hospital for some "therapy". Only it turns out that she herself made the fake head. So who are we fooling? The doctors at the bedside must be in on the act; Number 2 has clearly been briefed… we come to the conclusion the only possible person meant for this fraud is… the Prisoner.

We've no way of knowing whether the Professor's warning was genuine or scripted by Number 2. For that matter, we've no way of knowing whether the Prisoner hears the original message or one that Number 12 has switched for it.

Number 12's plan to sabotage the broadcast certainly plays out like it's all a set-up. He is blatantly in a better position to switch the broadcasts himself. If he's using the Prisoner as a catspaw, someone to destroy the experiment and take the blame, then he's really not very good at it, and Number 2 sees though him right away. But if he's a fake, why does Number 2 try to hang him out to dry?

Well, what would have happened if Number 12 hadn't been killed trying to save the Professor from electrocution? That is, what would have happened if Number's 2's ego hadn't allowed the Prisoner to feed the fatal question into the General?

I suggest that Number 2 would have had the "infallible" machine "prove" that Number 12 was a traitor… and therefore prove him as a trustworthy ally for the Prisoner, something we know he's been trying to find a way to determine ever since "Checkmate".

So was that the aim of the scheme? To fake the entire Speed Learn experiment in order to fool the Prisoner into thinking he had an ally?

Unfortunately, he seems to be trying much too hard to be too good to be true until he finally proves himself trustworthy in the usual way of "The Prisoner" by being mildly heroically dead!

I think I'm in danger of reading a more interesting story into the episode than the one that is there.

The observant will notice that Number 2 asks the Prisoner "Who was Bismark's ally?" (to which the answer is "Frederich of Augustenberg") whereas the Prisoner asks the telephone operator "Who was Frederich of Augustenberg?" (and is told he is "Bismark's ally).

It's only a little continuity error, but significant when Number 12 makes the point of asking: "what (not "when") was the Treaty of Adrianople", to which the Prisoner parrots the (wrong) answer: "September 1829".

But then Alex suggests that perhaps it's not an error at all, but a more subtle clue. Because Frederich of Augustenberg was Bismark's ally only for a brief period during which the Prussian Chancellor found him useful. That is, it was useful to promote Frederich's case as heir to the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein as it led to the uprising that gave Bismark the excuse to invade and annex the duchies back to Germany. But after that, Bismark quickly removed Frederich from power. So "ally" is a bit of an over-description, and "patsy" might be a better word.

So the answer to the first question – "Who was Bismark's ally?" – is complete; but the answer to the second – "Who was Frederich of Augustenberg? – while technically correct, tells you nothing more than a tiny sliver about Frederich, which is at best misleading.

In other words, this difference points up the limitations of this parrot-learning, even when it isn't 'wrong'.

And it occurs to me that the form of the two questions is interesting: Number 2 poses the question about doing; the Prisoner asks a question about being. Compare the relative stances of Village and Prisoner: "Who was Bismark's ally?"/"Why did you resign?" as opposed to "Who was Frederich of Augustenberg?"/"Who is Number One?"

Of course, I shouldn't have to point out that everyone spends the whole episode discussing the infamously intractable Schleswig-Holstein Question; typically, no one understands it.

who is number one?

Well it's tempting to give it to the old man at the café, merely because he's credited as "Ian Fleming" but he's not that Ian Fleming, so I won't.

A more worthy contender would surely be a (very young) John Castle as brooding Number 12. His sulky glower (those lips! almost a pout!) makes him stand out from the saccharine happiness of the Villagers, and he's never uninteresting to watch. He plays enigmatic very well, and you can never be sure whether he's genuinely on the side of the Prisoner or the Village. We're never given any clue to his motivation for betraying the Village, almost as though he's an embodiment of the Prisoner's unanswerable question "why?".

Why is Number 12 killed at the end? (Or at least, why beyond "it's the end of the episode now" tidying up – if he'd survived, we'd have had to have him and the Prisoner overpower Number 2 and make an escape attempt.)

It doesn't actually make sense whether he's true or false: why try to save the Professor if he's spent the whole episode trying to bring the Speed Learn experiment to an end? Or why does he try to save the Professor if he's really a cold-hearted Village guardian and it's all a set-up to trick the Prisoner into trusting him?

(is he trying to rescue the Professor, too – he knows about the message, so did they secretly collude)

And if it's just simple human compassion that gets him killed (something he's kept well concealed up till now, though maybe that's his motive) then surely that runs against the whole spirit of the episode, that the cold-hearted machine is evil, but having no soul destroys it.

John Castle makes a great guest star, but ultimately it's all a little bit too obvious. Like giving him the Number 12 badge again, he's another double for the Prisoner. He might as well be carrying a placard saying "You can't trust me… or can you? Or can't you? Or can you?"

So actually, I'm going to name Betty McDowall who plays the Professor's wife. She has some rather wonderful moments scattered through her scenes: when she discusses her art group's wacky 'Sixties methods – blatantly nicked by Doctor Who, by the way, for "The Green Death" and the inhabitants of Professor Jones' Nut Hutch – her bubbling new-age enthusiasm is delightfully faked, but on top of that, is her anger when she finds the Prisoner prowling around her home also part of the act?

Like Number 12 – but more subtly – you can never be quite sure just whether she is complicit or compromised.

Ostensibly her motivation is love for her husband, and she does what she does to keep him in line so that the Village won't kill him.

And yet, there are times when it seems she's gone further than that. Her expression, when Number 2 casually suggests that the Prisoner has destroyed her masterpiece (the wax head? or the deception?) is enigmatic.

The final scene of the episode, almost a tableau, is possibly its best. Played in the now-empty courtyard of the Professor's house, it features just a long-shot of the Prisoner attending the Professor's wife. It has an air of epitaph to it, the warrior delivering the dreaded news; the victor honouring the fallen enemy. It's the only time we ever see him going to a woman at the end of an episode – the only time there might be room for an ellipsis. And like the Professor's wife it is enigmatic, ambiguous in its meaning. Does the Prisoner express regret? Forgiveness? Reproach? We can't see their faces and we are left to read our own ending into the story. Subtle and moving.

next time…

That would be telling.

Be seeing you.

*Well, one year and one week, actually, 'cos obviously even though Daddy Richard WATCHED this episode at the right time… and again a year later than the right time, he STILL didn't manage to get his review written for a week!


Tat said...

Anyway, a couple of small point seem to have slipped past: one is that the most obvious allusion going on is Darling Harold's plan for a 'University of the Air'. A lot of the more up-themselves Oxbridge types found the concept of the Open University rather unpalatable. The other,in passing, is that both the 'hilarious' parody of avante-garde artsy types and the 'loveable' Nuthutch gang are basically leftover Beatniks, because the writers in both cases were 50s students and couldn't see that the later generation's aims and whimsies were any different.
I won't get into dates and running-order, you'd just get upset.

Moor Larkin said...

I liked the bit about the holiday photos best. You get a gold star for that. See me in the morning break..... :-)))))

I also thought that your line "it's not just learning: when asked the right question, people don't just know what the answer is, they appear compelled to regurgitate it" reminded me of many wikipedia-fuelled conversations on the internet.. :-))

I've wondered if the name of the computer was also one of those important *details* you allude to. General, in the sense of general knowledge. I guess if they'd called it The Commander, I'd read something into that as well.