...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Day 3973: THE PRISONER 42nd 44th ANNIVERSARY: A. B. & C.


Oh very fluffy dear.

You MAY remember from the DISTANT past that Daddies Alex and Richard were going to watch the sensational Sixties Spy Serial "The Prisoner" all the way through.

That didn't ENTIRELY work out. So they tried again…

And last year's attempt at a revival didn't really come to much, either. Much like ITV's attempt at a revival, really.

But we can never escape!

So we return to the Village once more…


Almost certainly the quintessential Prisoner episode, this may even be the first I ever watched, and it captures everything that makes "The Prisoner" iconic, being at times an action-spy drama, a commentary on the tropes of television and a musing on the nature of reality and freedom.

After his failure in "The General", Number 2 is under pressure from his unseen superiors and decides to try a dangerous new technique on the Prisoner. Number 14 has developed a drug that will allow her to induce a highly specific dream state into the subject, and equipment to allow her to watch those dreams on a big screen in three acts as though on commercial television. Only trouble is, more than three doses will be fatal. So they only have three chances.

It is Number 2's belief that the Prisoner will break if only they can get him to admit why he resigned, and Number 2 is convinced that he was selling out. All he needs to know is to whom. So he uses the Village resources to narrow the suspects down to just three, his three chances, whom he labels "A", "B" and "C".

"A" is Peter Bowles in a tightly sprung moustache as an old friend of the Prisoner who infamously – well, it made world news – defected to the "other side" a couple of years ago. His interest is predatory verging on the homoerotic and he'd rather indulge in a little light kidnapping than take no for an answer.

"B" is Annette Carell as an enigmatic foreign agent of the Mata Hari school. In fact, implied of Mata Hari's family. Although they are mildly flirtatious, she and the Prisoner seem to respect one another, at least until Number 2 tries to force the situation along by having Number 14 manipulate "B"'s voice directly.

"C" is a mystery person – this is a bit of a cheat by 2: I guess "A" Peter Bowles, "B" Annette Carell or "C" anyone else in the World! – but the Prisoner's most psychedelic dream yet seemingly unmasks Madame Engadine, the society hostess, as "C", only for her to reveal that she really works for yet another mystery person.

What Number 2 does not realise is that his own heavy-handedness has tipped the Prisoner off, and that by following Number 14 during the day, he has discovered the secret lab and weakened the third and final dose of the drug so that he, rather than 14, is in charge of his final dream. Meaning Number 2 is in for a rather nasty surprise twist.

there's been a slight misunderstanding

Well, we placed "Many Happy Returns" at the end of this four-episode sequence because it is every bit as big a turning point as "Free For All" was, and it seemed right to make it the end of phase two and, as the ninth episode, the dead centre of the series. Except, and this may be a bit of a spoiler for "Many Happy Returns" but Georgina Cookson plays a significant role in that story as "Mrs Butterworth" and blow me if she doesn't turn up here in the "C" dream sequence – significantly, the one most under the Prisoner's control.

Now, as we talked about under "The Schizoid Man", it is the Nineteen Sixties and para-science phenomena are in, but the series never comes out and flat admits to the possibility of telepathy. So it's wildly unlikely that the Prisoner has suddenly developed precognition, prescience or any other paranormal ability to see into the future. Faced with the fact of her appearance, she must be someone he remembers.

It is of course possible that he remembers her from one of Mme. Engadine's parties. We know are full of spy types. Perhaps he spotted her as someone who might reasonably show up working for the Village; perhaps they just happen to recruit her from the same small pool of people that he knows.

Though of course there is the catch that he effectively implicates her as a member of "C's" organisation.

But since he doesn't remember her in "Many Happy Returns" (although we can't rule out the usual brainwashing that the series has started inflicting on him by now, though there's no evidence to support that regarding her) then "A. B. & C." almost certainly ought to come after "Many Happy Returns".

The continuity of Colin Gordon's Number 2 is pretty incontrovertible, which means in fact that "The General" must come immediately before "A. B. & C." and so after "Many Happy Returns" too. In fact, that could be seen to fit: as we will see next time, "Many Happy Returns" is a powerful victory for the Village and – more spoilers – convincingly proves escape in any meaningful sense cannot be achieved by conventional means; and "The General" is the first episode where the Prisoner makes no effort at all to escape and is the first episode where he appears to come out ahead of the Village.

(And when I say "first" here, it is because we distinguish episodes of "The Prisoner" into three clear phases of "just got here", "barking mad" and "the middle one". He tries to escape in all of the "first phase" stories and none – barring "Fall Out", and arguably not even then – of the "late phase" stories. There are only the two "middle phase" stories "A. B. & C." and "The General" that could be the "first" where he doesn't try to escape and, as I've just said, "The General" has to be first of those two.)

Another first, incidentally: this would be the first time since "Arrival" (not counting the reprise in every title sequence) that we have seen the Prisoner outside of the Village (even if the set is just a redress of the Professor's residence from "The General"). And some actual not-stock film footage as Peter Bowles takes him to a nearby Dubious Foreign Embassy for a punch-up.

There's almost a case to be made for saying that "Many Happy Returns" should precede "The Schizoid Man": the Number 2 that appears in "Many Happy Returns" is as powerful and victorious as Mary Morris was back in "Dance of the Dead", whereas Anton Rogers' young technocrat is almost bested by the Prisoner and, as we've argued before, the series can be seen as having a definite through line as power shifts from 2 to 6.

There are however two good reasons to prefer them in the order "The Schizoid Man" then "Many Happy Returns".

The first and stronger reason is that at the end of "The Schizoid Man" the Prisoner tries another escape attempt, but, as I've said, following "Many Happy Returns" he has reason to give up even trying to escape.

The second, weaker, reason is the dates.

We said previously that "The Schizoid Man" starts on 10th February followed by a long enough period for the Village to electroshock the Prisoner into being left-handed and for the bruise on his fingernail to grow out; and then "Many Happy Returns" ends on 19th March after many days on a raft as the Prisoner "escapes" by sea. Now, there might – just about – be time for both of these stories to take place one after the other, and that would be in keeping with "one month to one story" rule-of-thumb for the series. We separated the two, acknowledging that there's really not space for four stories in this time span, but covering ourselves with the justifiable assertion that trusting the date to calendars in the Village is at best unwise. Putting "The Schizoid Man" and "Many Happy Returns" back together avoids the necessity of that fudge, though if you're still not happy with the time available for the two tales, you can still use it.

So, taking account of the "new" evidence of the Prisoner being familiar with someone who looks like Georgina Cookson suggests we should have a revised running order of:

"The Schizoid Man", "Many Happy Returns", "The General" and "A. B. & C.".

We will of course revisit this next time.

the new number two

Colin Gordon returns, drinking more milk that ever and now apparently living in terror of a big red telephone.

That telephone is new, though we'll be seeing more of it, and it's an endlessly fascinating visual icon, its oversized semi-circular shape reminiscent of Rover providing director Pat Jackson with plenty of opportunities to photograph Number 2 through the phone, metaphorically trapping him, or catching him like a fish on a hook. Using the perspective to diminish Number 2 and make the phone – and by implication whoever is on the other end – bigger than him.

We neither see nor hear whoever is on the other end, nor are they named (or numbered). But it's almost impossible to avoid leaping to the conclusion that this, at last, is the hotline to "Number 1".

Oh, and either there are several of them or, like Number 2 himself, it can teleport around the place, as it somehow gets from the Green Dome to the secret lab without Number 2 appearing to bring it with him. In a further demonstration of possibly super-natural powers, the moment that Number 2 realises he's done for, even though it's still the middle of the night, it rings. Because unseen evil bosses always know.

But let's not get distracted from the fact that this is obviously "Part Two" of a two-part story. And for the first time, the series chooses to be about Number 2 rather than the Prisoner.

The episode opens with Number 2 in his control room – as remarked under "the General" it is unusual to see this Number 2 in there – and most of the scenes, in fact all the scenes set at night, are from his point of view rather than that of the literally-unconscious Prisoner, in contrast to the couple of sequences set in the day when we follow the Prisoner about.

His chief henchperson this week is Number 14 – two up from "The General's" Number 12? Or two down? – but his bullying of her seems more desperate than his previous sardonic sadism, more lashing out, or trying to do to her what is being done to him.

Finally, in a cunning reversal, granting Number 2 the power to look into Prisoner's mind actually reduces his status from "omnipotent observer" to impotently shouting at the television. Yes, we've all been there.

follow the signs

Lightning flashes and a storm breaks over the Village on the night of the first experiment, as though nature herself rebels against this "unnatural" act, which again may symbolise this is the first real "violation" of the Prisoner's mind. More prosaically, of course, it brings to mind Dr Frankenstein and "mad scientists" as we are introduced to the otherwise perfectly nice Number 14.

(Actually, with her dispassionate professionalism she reminds me very strongly of Doctor Who's Dr Elizabeth Shaw, particularly in her moments of sarcasm to her overbearing boss such as "you'll have to call him 'D'," on learning of a mysterious fourth person vying for the good the Prisoner has to offer).

Ever so slightly, one has to wonder how much Number 14 "lets slip" in order to drop her boss in it. She doesn't need to turn up at the café flaunting her Tally-Ho with its headline questioning Number 2's competence. And she's, at best, careless to repeat the words she spoke to the Prisoner in the afternoon when putting them into "B's" mouth in the second dream. Did she deliberately allow herself to be followed to the secret lab so that he could discover what was going on and arm himself against the third night's dreams?

And the heady mix of dreams, magic potions and mistaken identities might make us think of "A Midsummer Night's Dream", though there it was Oberon who fooled his Titania, not the other way around.

Dreams also might make us think of Dickens' "Christmas Carol", together with its three act structure, and there is just a hint here of past, present, future in that "A" is past friend, "B" someone he's comfortable just to be with for the present and "C" ends with his future in the Village.

(See also Doctor Who's "The Trial of a Time Lord" for a rather blunter take on this sort of thing.)

But Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, also reminds us of stealing the secrets from the "gods", and that is simultaneously what Number 2 is trying to do here to the Prisoner and what he suspects the Prisoner of having been doing when he resigned. So we have three possible candidates for our "Frankenstein" though, ironically, the reveal that his "secrets" were no more than holiday brochures leaves the Prisoner as the "Victor". (Forgive me, the pun was irresistible.)

In fact, McGoohan is more likely to cast himself as the hero of the flipside of Frankenstein, the anarchist creator god of Shelley's "Prometheus Unbound". See also "Fall Out".

By this point the series is getting pretty unequivocal that this is "our" side's Village. Number 2's appropriately dualist approach is very "them and us"; he believes the Prisoner was going to sell out "us" and go over to "them". All three of the agents, "A", "B" and "C" are working for "the other side". "A" is explicitly a defector (and clearly "studied at Cambridge" to coin a euphemism); "B" is "vaguely foreign" which is the none-too-subtle code in these things; and "C" has "fooled us for years". This may not be immediately clear – it wasn't to me! It's certainly possible to misinterpret Number 2's early remarks as questioning which side the Prisoner is going to defect to. But that makes no sense; there are (at least in 2's mind) only two sides and the Prisoner is already on one of them.

So everything here points to Number 2 believing that the Prisoner and the Village at least nominally are working for the same side.

(We might as well take the path of least resistance and assume that the Prisoner used to work for British or the more vaguely general "Western" Intelligence. Or whoever it is that John Drake was supposed to work for. You can mull over the possibility that he was actually a Russian agent in London and that Number 2 believes he was coming over to the West. But that still means that 2 thinks the Village is a Russian Village and that they were still both on the same side.)

Or they used to be. Number 2 believes that the Prisoner wanted to go over to the other side; the Prisoner believes that the existence of the Village betrays everything he thought his side stood for.

But let's get down to brass tacks: this is the episode that explicitly says that the Village wants to steal the Prisoner's dreams.

A man may be made of memories but his dreams are what give him freedom.

In that sense there is a terrible irony that the Prisoner's dreams – when not tampered with – appear to be of his resignation.

And should you be of the school that takes all of "The Prisoner" to be taking place inside what passes for McGoohan's brain, then the fact that it's actually an endless loop of the title sequence, which itself repeats every week, lends evidence to your cause.

Or even worse, there's an infinite regression, of Prisoners dreaming of Prisoners!

On the other hand, his dreams reveal that the Prisoner will not compromise, even in his imagination.

As I mentioned above, this is the first time we've seen him outside the Village, even if only in drug-induced flashback ("Chimes of Big Ben" was faked and doesn't count). And this may be the only freedom that he'll ever see. But even this he refuses.

In a way, this episode is addressing one of those quintessential Sixties existential questions: can we believe what we think is real or could it all be faked, false sensory impressions fed to a brain in a jar? The modern reader might consider this "The Matrix Question".

A pragmatist might accept that you can never know, and accept the "freedom" offered in the dreamworld as a better escape than none. But the Prisoner is, as has been frequently said, an idealist – in the almost Aristotelian sense. His quest is for Truth with a capital T. For him somewhere there is an "ideal form" of "John Drake", a "Number 1" towards whom he constantly strives even as he rejects him.

But then we're getting into almost Buddhist interpretations of reality: the dream is only a shadow of the greater "Truth" and the World is only a veil of illusion.

In this sense it is obvious that Number 2, well this Number 2 anyway, cannot defeat the Prisoner. Number 2 is compromised because he will compromise, cut corners, take short cuts, in essence because he is pragmatic. Obviously he gets crushed between the two implacable forces of the Prisoner's Truth and Village's Truth.

And finally the one everyone remarks on: the moment in the third dream – where the direction has gone all groovy Sixties angles and the music, after waltzing delicately around being "After the Ball" in the first two dreams, evolves into an altogether more trippy Sixties rock'n'roll theme – when the Prisoner looks into a mirror and seeing it hanging crooked seizes it and as he sets it straight, the scene behind him rotates to the perpendicular too, as he literally seizes control of the world.

I'm sorry, did someone mention a god complex?

who is number one?

Much as I should like to reward the suave Peter Bowles for carrying off that astonishing moustache, I have to give the crown for this to Katherine Kath as the evanescent Mme. Engadine. She appears in all three dreams, making this almost a two-hander between her and McGoohan – or making her the dreamworld reflection of Number 14 as the Prisoner is the mirror of Number 2 – and she's quite the most three-dimensional character present, mocking every spy cliché, teasing the so-chaste-it-hurts McGoohan as a womaniser, but then turning mournfully serious when "revealed" as "C".

By playing the life and soul of the party – blowing kisses and exchanging salüts with guests we never see – Engardine sells us the illusion that these swinging happenings are really happening. And selling the illusion is, of course, central to what this story is about.

In a way, she is a traitor to the Prisoner's dreams and this may be why he uses her similarly in return when he turns the tables. Even though Number 2 is left discredited at the end, this may leave the real Mme. Engadine in an awkward situation. Having said that, the Prisoner is or was a very good spy and may genuinely have unmasked her as "C". And his gentlemanly chivalry has always turned to callous disregard when let down by a woman – just see how he walks away from the false "B".

Her name, incidentally, is repeatedly pronounced as a feminine pun on "En Garde!". Which might be a clue.

next time…

That would be telling.

Be seeing you.

1 comment:

Stephen Glenn said...

Nice and succinct there.