...a blog by Richard Flowers

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Day 3194 (again): THE PRISONER 42nd ANNIVERSARY: Arrival


Imagine being trapped in a World of total surveillance, where anyone you meet could be another enemy, the internal democracy is a fix and the newspaper turns out to be only gossip and propaganda.

They all want you to admit to what you did in the past and everyone is obsessed about your resignation.

Are you dizzyingly alone in an oppressive world where everyone is against you, or are you having a nervous breakdown and broadcasting it in weekly instalments on the telly box?

Still, it's your own fault, Mr Frown. You WANTED to be the new Number Two! And WHAT a total Number Two you are!

Meanwhile, My Daddies have been watching some television again…
29th September 1967 saw the first screening of the acknowledged Acme of Sixties television, Patrick McGoohan's seminal: "The Prisoner".

This year, ITV and American cable channel AMC have produced a new appropriately-enough six-part series based on McGoohan's original, with the slightly-disappointing news that Jim Caviezel would be playing the title character and the much-more-enticing announcement that Sir Ian McKellen would be taking the role of Number 2 for all six episodes.

And this week, just in time for the anniversary, Network DVD have released a newly-restored Blu-Ray edition of the complete series, freshly transferred from the original 35mm film elements, so it look gorgeous. (The episodes are presented in their original 4:3 ratio, with a choice of original mono or remixed 5.1 audio – we chose the mono because without external sound-system our telly sometimes doesn't handle the 5.1 balance nicely. Also, the disc menu was rather lovely. The oversized presentation box may be a bit de trop, but it comes with Andrew Pixley's excellent book on the series background and viewing notes.)

On top of that, The Prisoner remains intensely topical: Sixties paranoid spy-dramas' perennial occupations of surveillance, interrogation, and identity (and i.d. cards) are hardly ever out of the news; the freedom of the individual or the good of the state are at the heart of Today's politics as much as, if not more than, they were in during the Cold War.

So, all in all, it seems a proper time to watch the series again.

Given all that has been written about The Prisoner over the years (and in addition to the Pixley book, can I also very much recommend Fiona Moore and Alan Stevens' "Fall Out"), I'm really not expecting to break new ground or produce stunning insight. But it is a series that is worth watching and thinking about and discussing.

So here we go…


You've probably seen this:

An unnamed man in a sports car drives out of nowhere; he passes through London, past the Houses of Parliament, before turning into an underground car park. We see him stalk along a neon-lit corridor before bursting in on a man sat a desk; angrily he remonstrates with the man before slamming a letter "most urgent, by hand" on the desk and leaving. He returns home, past Buckingham Palace to his apartment in Buckingham Place, followed, it appears, by a sinister-seaming hearse. He enters his home and starts to pack, but then gas starts to pour in through the keyhole; his vision of the view through his window – concrete high-rise flats – starts to swim and he falls unconscious… only to recover, apparently still in his home. He goes to the window and looks out… at a completely different place.

This is the opening of every episode of The Prisoner (correction, hat tip Mr Mark Reckons: almost every episode), but in Arrival it is surprisingly, disconcertingly even, in rather longer form and the music slightly different because this is telling the events not as précis but as the actual episode.

Meanwhile, it is a measure of the confidence McGoohan had in his audience that he expects them to understand from just a few seconds view from the window just how numbingly bizarre it must be to wake in your own home and find the World has changed around it.

what's your number, please

Only three stories can definitively be placed in the Prisoner timeline – in fact, I've seen arguments put that even those three take place in the middle and not the ends – and there is endless debate about how the other fourteen should be arranged, which obviously I intend to add to. Nevertheless, "Arrival" works uniquely well as the series first episode and that is where Alex and I place it.

It shows things at their most simplistic: it is, essentially, testing the waters on both sides, and introducing us along with the Prisoner to the Village, its geography and hierarchy, its methods and its monster.

The Prisoner knows nothing about the Village and the Village uses only naïve methods to extract information, two simple variants of the "damsel in distress"/"sympathetic cell-mate" flavour.

McGoohan's natural aversion to the casual sex and casual killing to be found in a typical thriller are used to add to the alienation of the Prisoner here because he robs himself of human comfort by being such an old-fashioned gentleman. But it's also a worthwhile sacrifice because he cannot easily be seduced by the use (witting or otherwise) of women to get inside his defences.

And alienation is the order of the day as the episode continues and the Prisoner explores his surroundings, the colourful frontage of Portmeirion being both surreal and, in its emptiness of people, frightening.

Given how crowded we will soon be seeing the Village to be, bustling townsfolk and marching bands everywhere, this is an astonishing demonstration of control, equal to the later moment when Number Two freezes the Villagers to the spot at the first appearance of Rover.

Ah, Rover. So much better than any robot, it's the perfect unknown, unknowable, seemingly with the power to do pretty much any damn thing it wants, it could be a monster from the under-id, or even a pet god. And of course, as has been remarked before, in form it is the Number Zero.

But I get ahead of myself, after some time searching and finding no one, the Prisoner suddenly runs into ordinary seeming people, a waitress at the café, a taxi driver who speaks to him in French, a shopkeeper at the shop conversing in Italian who suddenly switches to English as he enters. This casual use of different languages is soon dropped, which is a shame although understandable because it would interrupt those episodes that have an actual plot, whereas here it is all a part of the discombobulation effect of the Village.

No one is seen to be actively opposing the Prisoner, but all of the helpful-seeming answers are in fact useless, local service only, no number no call, most charming of all is the "larger map, only in colour, much more expensive".

Frustrated at every turn, he is driven back to his home, or at least the building where he woke up, and there he takes a call – and this is his very first concession.

"Is your number six?"


"Call for you."

the new number two

The call is an invitation to Number Two, the Green Dome, and here Number Two, played with lugubrious English charm by Guy Doleman, presents himself as the person in charge of the Village.

Confronted by a Number Two it is quite natural that we, like the Prisoner, assume that this implies the existence of a Number One, and further that Number One is above Two in the hierarchy, even though this is in no way a given – the Prisoner can hardly believe that he at Number Six outranks for example Number Nine, the watcher he encounters later, or indeed anyone in the Village.

Thinking of 2 as a number, we naturally think of duality, dualism, doublethink; the name of the episode itself has a double meaning: "arrival" or "a rival". Number Two is the Prisoner's double in this episode, and see how they mirror each other, verbally fencing, each trying to out-charm the other as Number Two takes the Prisoner on a guided tour, showing off the Village, casually making reference to the Town Hall where they "…have their own council, put on debates, amateur dramatics" (it's not clear whether it's the Council or the debates that are amateur dramatics); and putting the Prisoner through his paces at the Labour Exchange (heavy on the symbolism as the "aptitude test" has the Prisoner putting a round peg in a square hole only to have the hole become round to fit the peg; draw your own conclusions).

It is on the tour that we get the Prisoner's concession number two: confronted with Rover for the first time, he is shocked into accepting a part of the Village on its own terms:

"What's that?" he asks.

Not "who does it work for?" nor "how do you control it?", just "what is it?".

He seems numbed afterwards too, meekly following the orders that Number Two barks through a megaphone at him. Subsequently in the episode, he seems alarmed at the sight of lava lamps, resembling Rover's semi-fluid form, and we see at least one patient in the hospital driven perhaps hysterical by a miniature re-enactment of Rover's fountain appearance.

And then, halfway through "Arrival", entirely unexpectedly and with no explanation, Number Two is replaced.

Hospitalised after his first escape attempt, the Prisoner meets someone he knows, someone he believes to be a friend, Cobb, whom he is then told has jumped from a window and died. Released from the hospital, the Prisoner storms into the Green Dome to confront Number Two, only to be met by not Guy Doleman but George Baker saying that he is now the man in charge.

In part, of course, this is merely setting up the form of the Series with a "guest star" Number Two each week (there are two Number Twos who return – Colin Gordon in "The General" and "A, B & C" and Leo McKern in "The Chime of Big Ben", "Once Upon a Time" and "Fall Out" – and one other episode – "It's Your Funeral" – with two Number Twos), and here George Baker is guest star for a mini episode revolving around Cobb, his "watcher" Number Nine and a second, more plausible, escape attempt.

But replacing Number Two in "Arrival" is more significant, because of the already established themes of dualism and transience. In this place, your home is not necessarily your home and even the person in charge can be changed on a whim.

follow the signs

In a way we've lost the innocence of McGoohan's era.

Decades ahead of "The X-Files", The Prisoner hangs on the ambiguity of "who's side are you on"? Despite the quintessential Englishness of an Italianate village in Wales, the Village is, superficially, at least as likely to be an enemy interrogation camp as it is a British involuntary retirement home. When Cobb speaks of "my new masters" that leans towards a defection even when it can just be read as a transfer to a different secret department.

Nowadays it seems transparently obvious that of course it's "our own" side that is doing this but remember that it was a different, in some ways more Liberal time.

Cameras everywhere were then portrayed as sinister, inherently evil, the automatic hallmark of a totalitarian mindset rather than an underfunded council resorting to CCTV to try and appear as though they are doing something to stop the kids hanging about on street corners.

But if you are looking for answers in The Prisoner then "sides" is a rather trivial question that the series isn't going to bother with answering. Indeed, it treats the whole idea of "sides" as rather childish, perhaps reflected in the use throughout of nursery tunes – "pop goes the weasel", "what shall we do with a drunken sailor" etc – and childish language, indeed a child-like logic.

This is about the freedom of choice, boiled down to one ultimate freedom – simply to leave, to resign or to escape, it's all the same.

The Village is by nature conservative, statist, centralising; it's actions are "for your own good", it's leaders know best.

That's not to say that the Village may not have a point, or that the Prisoner's refusal to in any way compromise is necessarily correct. Society makes demands on us, limits our freedom sometimes necessarily.

Start from the premise that people with large amounts of highly confidential intelligence in their heads cannot be allowed to just wander off because if they defect or are captured and interrogated a lot of other people could suffer or die as a result, then a comfortable retirement in a Village ensures the most happiness and the most security for the most people. A lot of people might agree with that.

On that level, the Prisoner has to beat the Village just to prove that you can allow him to go free.

who is number one?

This just is McGoohan's show. For the first act, a good quarter of an hour of screen time, he carries it without dialogue, almost without any sound at all, conveying confusion, intrigue and mounting fear and fury. When finally confronted with an enemy he delivers the series unforgettable manifesto:

"I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered! My life is my own."

Bonkers, brave, brilliant. The Prisoner is a very British hero, rejecting the Village because it has no authority to take away his rights, and yet he doesn't succeed. While remaining unbowed, when the episode ends, with yet another iconic image: the bars slamming on McGoohan's face, he has not escaped.

next time…

That would be telling.

Be seeing you.



Mark Thompson said...

Great post Millennium (makes me want to crack open my box set tonight) but just a quick factual correction.

Episode 14 (Living in Harmony) - the one set in the Wild West actually does not have the exact same opening sequence. It is a western parody of the opening sequence with Number 6 as the sheriff turning in his badge.

Be seeing you!

Millennium Dome said...

Thank you Mr Mark, correction duly noted!

MM x

Scott Willison said...

I'm ashamed to admit I've never seen the Prisoner. I feel educationally subnormal now.

Millennium Dome said...

Never be ASHAMED, Mr Mersey!

I have never read any Jane Austin-Alegro, and Daddy Richard got stuck halfway through Mr Dickens "Bleak Expectations".

If we had all seen the same telly, read the same books, listened to the same music, performed the same dancing on ice routines then WHAT would we have to talk about?

MM xx