...a blog by Richard Flowers

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Day 4001: THE PRISONER 42nd 44th ANNIVERSARY: The Girl Who Was Death


Is this REALLY "The Prisoner"? I'm not sure it's even TELEVISION!

Daddy Richard, however, thinks it's AWESOME.


The Prisoner appears in a tale from his life as a secret agent. The eponymous "girl" is impossibly modish in all-white attire and all-white make-up, stringing the Prisoner along through near-fatal escapades while he pursues her father, a mad scientist with a literal Napoleon complex, pastiching in passing "The Avengers", "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.", "Mission: Impossible", "James Bond", "Sherlock Holmes", Hitchcock and, um, "Danger Man" aka "Secret Agent" making "The Girl Who Was Death" possibly the single most Sixties thing ever!

what's your number, please

Everyone but everyone places "The Girl Who Was Death" as the fifteenth episode, just before the concluding two-parter. So what on Earth has possessed me to persuade Alex to let us put it here?

Well, the reasoning for everyone else placing it fifteenth appears to be "well, everyone else does", and that's not a particularly strong argument. Generally held to be barking mad – and, to be fair, it is – it is felt not to fit with the continuity of the series – which really isn't the case. In fact it fits very nicely with the other two "out of Village" episodes, except that it's vastly superior to either of them. As with the other two, there is a framing device to "allow" the Prisoner to be outside of his usual haunts which concludes with a return to the regular Village and a humiliation for Number 2.

From the Village's point of view, this seems almost tame: merely placing him in an "unguarded" situation and seeing if he will let anything slip. On the other hand,

In a way this is a nice mirror of "Living in Harmony": there it was a story that they were putting into his head; here it's still all in his head, but he's the one telling the story. The revelation that he is the one telling the story this time is what sets this above the other two. He has seen through the Village's latest attempt and this time he's actively fighting back, subverting the story and writing comedic and derogatory caricatures of Number 2 and his assistant into the narrative.

The most telling moment is the cheeky tag, where the Prisoner addresses his captors with a "Good night, children… everywhere."

But the observant will notice that Number 2, frustrated at the failure of this ploy, turns off the monitor.

Meaning that the Prisoner must have turned it back on again. He is beginning to take control of the machinery of the Village…

the new number two

Once again they employ the technique of a fake Number 2 voice for the – thankfully restored to full length after the previous two episodes – title sequence in order to hide the "twist" ending, and thus denying Kenneth Griffith his turn in the spherical chair.

Now this is interesting: Kenneth Griffith was a mate of Patrick McGoohan which is probably why he – like Alexis Kanner who also pops up here, though uncredited – will be back for the, ahem, big conclusion. However, before we get there, there are a couple of weeks' gap in the schedule of "The Prisoner" because production fell behind, so they dropped in the final two episodes – and only colour episodes – of "Danger Man". And the last episode of "Danger Man" also stars Kenneth Griffith.

And in it, a British agent abruptly resigns so John Drake takes his place to find out why, only to have the trail lead him to a sinister abandoned island. Honestly, it's hard to think people noticed the difference. And on top of that "The Girl Who Was Death" was adapted from an unmade "Danger Man" episode too! No, seriously!

Griffith gets a dual role here: within the story-within-a-story he is "Dr Schnipps" the aforementioned mad scientist with a rocket disguised as the Beachy Head lighthouse; while in the "real" world of the Village he is Number 2. As Schnipps, dressed as Napoleon, he is a rather sympathetic, melancholy figure: a villain in the "why capital? am I surrounded by idiots?" mould of Dr Evil, who'll trigger his Moonraker-esque plan and only then think to make sure his papers are saved for posterity. What is clever about his portrayal is that in his brief time as the "real" Number 2, he manages to retain your sympathy; his sharp critique of the latest plan "he wouldn't drop his guard with his own grandmother!" coveys a sharper intelligence but the same sense of "why am I surrounded by idiots" and convinces you that Schnipps was an, admittedly grotesque, genuine parody of this person.

He doesn't get a lot of screen time – the episode is owned by his "daughter" – but he's a lovely little supporting role that adds charm to what could have been… okay lets be fair, is… a ridiculous ending.

One intriguing little moment: as he and his daughter share a "family" moment, he remarks "if only our dear mother could be here". The subtitles clean this up to "your dear mother", but it's clearly delivered to suggest a hint of incest. It might explain why they're both so potty. But how shocking in front of the children!

follow the signs

It's not like they don't show you what's going on: the framing device of a children's picture storybook held in the hands of an invisible narrator. And it's not like it isn't funny. It is in fact full of deliciously black humour throughout. But they never choose to go for the laugh. Instead they "go for the surreal".

The entire episode is filled with bizarre juxtapositions, weird cuts, jump-zooms and other camera tricks and oddly, even grotesquely framed images.

We start as we mean to go on: bafflingly, with a cold open on a cricket field where "the Colonel" is exploded by a substitute cricket ball.

So far so nuts, but the execution is even stranger. The reveal of a high calibre rifle in a kit bag is almost run-of-the-mill in this sort of thing, but the first appearance of the Girl Who, apparently, is Death is quite extraordinary. Her appearance, highly made up – so white she's almost an anti-goth – and dressed for a party, not the cricket field, is quite, quite out of place. And the camera focuses on her parasol and, almost fetishistically, on her feet. There's a moment of "Thunderbirds"-like hand acting as she exchanges the cricket ball. Then there's an excitable three-stage zoom on the colonel as he faces the fatal delivery. And to cap it all, a quite indescribable extreme close-up of the bowler grinning like a maniac into the lens and held for seconds… The entire sequence is an exercise in estranging the audience.

And then the Colonel is dead. Now, unless he's a Time Lord who keeps regenerating, this is not the same "colonel" who was played by Kevin Stoney in "The Chimes of Big Ben", Donald Sinden in "Many Happy Returns", nor Nigel Stock in "Do Not Forsake Me…". Though it would be nice to think that it was, and that this rounds off a kind of character arc.

This colonel, though, was assisted by the always-marvellous Christopher Benjamin as Potter. He's been in this series before – as the psychoanalyst who spikes the Prisoner's tea in "Free For All" – and in "Danger Man" before too. As a character called "Potter". Anyway, Potter makes contact with the Prisoner Secret Agent and directs him to a happening record store, booth 7 (not 6?). Notice the shop window dummy at the start of this scene dressed as the Girl Who Was Death; by the end of the scene she actually is the Girl, suggesting that teleport ability that the Number 2's sometime have, or even spookier magic powers.

At the record store, a voice on a record gives our Secret Agent a "mission" (whether or not he chooses to accept it) to find out what happened to the colonel and trace Dr Schnipps. The record, incidentally, appears capable of answering back. Which is novel.

And "Standard disguise", by the way, appears to mean full-on Victorian whiskers.

We then get a shot for crazy-shot remount of the cold open, except with McGoohan at the crease. Having taken over the colonel's batting position, though, the Secret Agent avoids the sticky wicket and returns the deadly delivery to the boundary, hoping perhaps to bowl the maiden over. Instead he gets an invite to meet again. Let's try the pub…

The gag about having McGoohan drink the entire length of the bar works so much better as a sketch in this story rather than making it the whole raison d'ĂȘtre of "Living in Harmony".

patrick mcgoohan only rides the tunnel of love with mrs mcgoohan

The Secret Agent continues to follow the clues that the Girl leaves for him, first to a Turkish bath and a scene lifted directly from "Thunderball". Then to a boxing ring where for once his skill with fisticuffs does not lay out the opponent flat. Finally to a long and extraordinary sequence at a funfair as she literally takes him for a ride. This location sequence is filmed almost as a silent comedy, a style that the Goodies would use over and over in the Seventies, in part because the music can be used to add to the derangement of the audience without the need for expensive location sound recording and dialogue re-dubbing, and in part because McGoohan blatantly isn't there. They intercut sequences of McGoohan standing in front of a back-projection of the location doing "looking this way and that" shtick, and then cut to footage of a man who clearly isn't McGoohan striding away from the camera after the Girl. And they keep doing it for a good five minutes!

Add to that the magic realism that sees the Girl again exerting that teleportation-like ability to suddenly be back on the ground watching as the log flume or the waltzers carry him away again. And they repeat twice a joke of him approaching a woman dressed all in white only for her not to be the Girl so that on the third time, when it is her, he wrongly backs off. A simple rule of three, and also a very fairy-tale approach, but putting it all together it starts to look deliberate.

Either they genuinely didn't think that the audience would notice or they are trying to do something consciously Brechtian to remind you that this is a story-within-a-story, to make you question what is real.

This reaches its apogee at the end of this sequence where the Girl flees in her car, for the traditional action-spy-drama car chase, pursued using more back-projection, by the Secret Agent – it can hardly be said to be McGoohan; it's almost like they're not even trying any more.

And then, as they chase down country lanes around Borehamwood, she turns to face her pursuer – or the screen on which he is projected anyway – points a finger and… he starts to rotate, in fact the whole image does, turning upside down, rolling round and round. As Alex puts it, it's like she's becoming director of her own story, fighting David Tomblin for control.

After this, the car chase ends with her leading him into a back lot. Rather like "A. B. and C." this is rather knowingly a back lot, making a point of saying "this is a set".

This is also the end of the first act, indicated by a second appearance of the narrator and his storybook. This time the picture is ominously labelled "The Village" and features prominently a bell tower with a green dome. As does the back lot set – she's going to machine-gun him from it later.

It's about as subtle as McGoohan racing up to the screen and shouting "Look at the fourth wall!" in your face. It flaunts its artificiality; it wants you to get that this is an allegory of the Village so that you will think about how the Village itself is artificial.

sometimes a rocket disguised as a lighthouse is just a rocket disguised as a lighthouse

On the down side, this is also what we might call the "Scooby Doo" moment. At first, the Girl speaks to him and her voice seems to come from everywhere. Until he espies a wire leading to a barely-concealed speaker. And there's a noticeable change in the sound treatment of her voice at that point, from omnipresent to public address.

Once he spots the wires, her magic seems to go from that point on.

The second act sees him defeating a deadly assault course, through the shops of the butcher the baker and the candlestick maker, of course, before he finds himself trapped in a garage with a bulldozer in a scene that you would think was pastiching "The A-Team" if it wasn't a decade-and-a-half early.

The second act concludes with her thinking the Secret Agent is dead and departing in, with another nod to the Village, her helicopter.

The third act sees him carried to the villain's secret underground lair™, clinging to the skids of the chopper.

They land in a field (also near Borehamwood unless I miss my guess) where McGoohan, actually on location this time, peers over the "cliff" to see some stock footage of the White Cliffs and the lighthouse.

Yes, it's big and pink and explodes at the climax; I'm rather afraid we've rather moved on from Vagina Dentata (or a bomb in the tunnel of love) to Phallic Symbolism as the script has his male power overwhelm her female treachery. Sigh.

That lighthouse turns out to be not only a massively-overcompensatory "rocket" but also a complex full of Napoleons. Six Napoleons, in fact (not counting Dr Schnipps himself) which is obviously another Sherlock Holmes reference.

Needless to say, by this point the Secret Agent is well on top, easily able to turn their own weapons against them, rigging guns to backfire and stick grenades to explode in their hands and, ultimately the "rocket" to explode on its launch pad.

At which point, the "narrator" closes the storybook and, revealed to be the Prisoner, tells the children to whom he's been reading:

"And that is how I stopped the mad scientist destroying London."

It works as a much more successful framing device than that "Living in Harmony" mainly because they set it up from the beginning, and repeatedly refer to the storybook motif throughout, but also because the whacked-out surrealism of the story as it is told is just so weird, so deliberately artificial that the explanation becomes an "oh, that's what's going on" moment, rather than them trying something out of left field and chickening out in the end.

Her strange powers over the story become his powers as the storyteller; the use of repetition and reiteration within the narrative become symbolic of the oral tradition; and the implausible coincidences and unbelievable mistakes become commentary on the art.

And clearly, this is all pre-figuring "Fall Out": the big spy finish with the rocket being discarded for a reveal that is one part unexpected to two parts insane. Alex takes it as an explicit warning not to expect the series to end with a "traditional" spy story twist / climax, although where "Fall Out" will be… whatever it is, "The Girl Who Was Death" just comes out and says "Spy stories are childish".

It is very blackly funny, but as a spy spoof it doesn't have many "gags". In part this would have to be because "The Avengers", the precursor and great rival to all these ITC serials, had already gone there with witty badinage and knowing commentary. Not until they discover Jason King, the High Lord of Louche, will ITC be in a position to do post-modernism, with a character who deconstructs and debunks the story around himself. What "The Prisoner" is doing here is much more about getting at the "engineering" of the story, because McGoohan is more interested in commenting on the society that watches spy dramas, rather than the incestuous reflection of the drama on its own nature.

Bluntly, he uses "The Girl Who Was Death" to test the spy adventure to destruction.

And if you watch closely, you might just spot the point where he goes right round the twist in the process.

It could be said that this story in three acts reflects the three phases of the conflict between the Prisoner and the Village: the first, psychological; the second, more intrusive and technological; the third where he turns the tables on them.

Or it could just be bonkers, with a side helping of psychedelia turned up to eleven.

who is number one?

Who else can it be? Justine Lord is completely compelling for at least the first thirty minutes of the story, appearing like an apparition in shot after shot. The gag at the funfair is entirely built around her iconic image, her ability to pose like a silent movie star. And at the end I'm sure she Joker-kills Alexis Kanner's photographer with a kiss of her deadly lipstick.

It's a shame that she becomes more mundane in the second half. And subject to a man rather than exercising her power over them. She becomes less visually interesting, too: transforming from an ethereal Mary Quant to an evil Emma Peel – the white leather catsuit may not be an exactly "ordinary" look, but in this genre it means she looks less out of place, less like a thing from an entirely other world. Even so, with her little World War One German helmet and Maxim gun, and the occasional "goodbye, lover" she still manages to hold her own in battle with McGoohan and dressed up in wig and gown as his Josephine she's equally good with Griffith. It's only the last scene back in the Village when she becomes merely Number 11 that lets her down, by giving him all the meat and leaving her to drape herself over the penny-farthing.

She's the last of the really powerful women in the series and together with Mary Morris ("Dance of the Dead") and Georgina Cookson ("Many Happy Returns") she forms the third part of a Village triad the symbols of one sort of female power, the Kindly Ones: Maiden, Mother, Crone. They are the Fates, Clotho, Lachesis, Atropos, who control men's lives with their spinning and measuring and cutting just as the Village seeks to control the warp and weft of the Prisoner's existence. (A point that would be even better if the Girl's given name had been Moira (meaning fate) rather than Sonia (meaning wisdom)).

If anything would convince me that this ought to be the penultimate story (before the two-part finale), it would be the symmetry of this Kindly One with Mary Morris's in "Dance of the Dead" added to Georgina Cookson appearing in the middle of the series, if only the other evidence could be bent to fit the picture.

Of course it's typical of the Village's twisted logic that while Clotho is incarnated as – forgive me Mary – the Crone; and Mrs Butterworth practically asks "Shall I be mother?"; here Atropos is the Maiden: hence the "Girl" who was "Death".

next time…

That would be telling.

Be seeing you.


1 comment:

Tat said...

I'm pretty sure it goes earlier than that. Fourth or fifth, when they're still using non-intrusive judo-throws on him, hoping he'll trip himself up. The big question is: where did the children come from. (I know where babies come from, silly heffalump, I mean why is this the only time there is any sign of anyone under 20 in the Village?)
Incidentally, the pub in this episode, the Battleaxes, was our local whenever the Student Union bar was shut. It doesn't have a police box outside it any more. But this area, around Radlett, Aldenham and Bushey, was my neighbourhood and I keep seeing it in ITC shows and Avengers stuff (and my alma mater is in a couple of films of the era, 'Village of the Damned' and 'The Nanny', for starters).
I'm not sure of your three-part phasing of the story being much more than where the ad breaks were: we move across genres rather than any kind of Hero's Journey, as the 'Magical Mystery Tour'-style fairground japes move into the usual Lew Grade-inforced punch-up and explosion ending (albeit he beats up Wally Batty rather than Frank Maher)because, like any good storyteller, the narrator is aware that his audience needs a change of pace and some idea that it's all going to come together somehow. Hoping for an allegorical subtext is what Number Two is doing and look where it gets him. By this stage everyone involved is aware that the series is being scrutinised and they are playing games with that kind of viewer whilst keeping the casual punters happier than they have been for a while (note that this is the one that was twice excerpted for one-off showing in nostalgia-fests).
Paradoxically, that's possibly what sells the later episodes to those viewers: the schematised (and significantly empty) village with fairy-tale shops (a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker)more or less yells THIS IS AN ALLEGORY and might almost have been a way of preparing the punters who were expecting a more Le Carre-ish explanation than they eventually got to be a little less literal.
More than that, though, the most obvious thing about this episode is that, in a series designed to be flogged abroad, it is stuffed with the sort of things US series would kill to be able to do, almost nonchalantly and profligately, making it not just the most 60s thing ever but the most English 60s thing possible. There are two female speaking parts and both are given costumes that would be out-of-fashion within weeks of broadcast and would have been cutting edge even a fortnight before filming. Almost every plot-twist and decision is made on that basis, allowing the maximum Swinging London Psychedelia in 45 minutes of screen-time. It's as if they knew this was the last chance as well as the first to get this stuff on screen. Any attempt to divine a deeper meaning than that has to be restricted to what the people making it wanted to do that McGoohan vetoed, and there's only a chase through a maze that was cut because of the tight shooting schedule. Had this episode gone out where I suspect it belongs it may also have had a role to play as a crib-sheet on how people ought to be watching, but they didn't actually write it until a lot of 'later' episodes went out so we're really playing a game of 'pretend this was a 90s series with a 'Bible'.