...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Day 3980: THE PRISONER 42nd 44th ANNIVERSARY: Many Happy Returns


I REALLY like the bit where the MILKMAN breaks into the SECRET BASE in order to bundle the important PRISONER into an aircraft and make off with him!

Oh, no, wait! I've been watching James Bond in "The Living Daylights"!

My Daddies have been watching a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT bonkers spy adventure. It does have a Colonel James in it though…


The Prisoner wakes to find, without any explanation, that the Village is utterly deserted, saving only a solitary black cat.

If "A. B. & C." is the archetypal episode of "The Prisoner" then this one is textbook enigmatic.

The opening half hour, with almost no dialogue beyond a grunted name called between gunrunners or an unintelligible gypsy dialect, and so very reminiscent of "Arrival", is carried entirely by McGoohan as he finally escapes from the Village.

He must realise, even as he builds his raft and sails away, that they are manipulating him, and he spends most of the story waiting for the other shoe to drop.

what's your number, please

Well, the title itself suggests an annual anniversary, so are we a year into our sojourn in the Village?

Last time, I discussed how after watching "A. B. & C." I reappraised our viewing order and decided that "Many Happy Returns" should have been the seventh episode rather than the ninth, revising the order to allow for "Mrs Butterworth" to reappear in "A. B. & C.".

The rule of thumb is a month to an episode, so that would suggest that at least six or seven months have passed since "Arrival". But we may have to revise or abandon that.

On the one hand, he meets the new occupant of his old home, a Mrs Butterworth, and tells her that he used to live there "about twelve months ago".

On the other hand, he seems surprised to learn that it's the day before his birthday, as though he didn't realise so much time had passed.

(So was the "twelve months ago" a guess or a "clever lie", an improvised cover story like his claim to be "Smith… Peter Smith" the "nameless" exile? Even if he is making it up, he's trying to make his story consistent with hers so twelve months would at least have to seem plausible to him.)

He also mentions that there were six months left to run on his lease but he's not saying that it's less than six months later and his lease should not have run out, rather he is trying to convince her of his bona fides.

If this were just over six months after "Arrival" it would be a little tight, but not impossible, for the lease on 1 Buckingham Place – of course he lives at Number 1 – to have run out and been snapped up by a new tenant.

But she seems too settled, too confident in her home, to have just moved in. And she seems to have had time to redecorate. We don't get to see the room we are familiar with from the titles and "Arrival", so it's hard to tell, but he seems to be struggling to recognise his way around the study and some of the chintzier porcelain doo-dahs on the shelves don't look very him either.

It seems very odd that she's moved into a new home with her late husband's things, though.

(Subsequent developments, however, will provide an alternative explanation.)

One thing this does scotch is the theory that "The Schizoid Man" and "Many Happy Returns" take place over consecutive February/Marches a year apart.

We say that after this episode the Prisoner gives up trying to escape, so the escape attempt at the end of "The Schizoid Man" means that "The Schizoid Man" has to come first.

But if "Many Happy Returns" is only "about twelve months" after "Arrival" (and not two years), then "The Schizoid Man" would have had to take place within days of his abduction, which is clearly nonsense.

We do, however, have every reason to believe that this episode genuinely ends on 19th March, the Prisoner's birthday – and that of, as you surely know or can guess, Patrick McGoohan too.

Unlike "The Schizoid Man" which is self-contained within the Village where they can make every day 10th February if they want to, here they let him roam about freely – well to a certain value of freely – in London.

Of course, we cannot entirely rule out the possibility that it's all in his head, that they are directly manipulating the Prisoner's senses and experience. Although "A. B. & C." seems to suggest their power to control his dreams is quite limited, as we'll see when we get to "Living in Harmony" this may by no means be the limit of their abilities.

But if they can do that, then they can do any damn thing, so let's accept Descartes's Second Maxim and assume that the rest of the world is real.

In which case there are simply too many variables to control to stop him, say, dashing into a newsagent and checking the front page of The Times.

As Sir Humphrey once said: never conceal anything that someone could easily find out any other way.

Lying to him about the date is an unnecessary risk in such a carefully controlled plan. So they're almost certainly telling the truth, just this once.

He spends, according to his own log, at least eighteen days on the raft, arguably reaching England early on what would have been day nineteen (which he is told is the 18th, the day before his birthday). This would mean he awakes to find the Village deserted on probably the last day of February.

That's less of a problem if we're accepting that "The Schizoid Man" is now the immediately preceding episode. It might even suggest, contrary to everything I've said previously, that if you're willing to believe the events of "The Schizoid Man" can take place in a couple of weeks then one of the 10th Februarys in "The Schizoid Man" might be the real one.

But it's more likely that it's just been 10th February in the Village since Christmas – a timelessness that also explains his surprise at it being the day before his birthday.

Here's another little thought, though.

In describing the Village to his superiors, he tells them about the Village council and says that he could have been elected as it's "democratic". Now, obviously, he's echoing the words of Number 2 from "Dance of the Dead", but it seems slightly odd that he would claim he could have been elected in the light of the events that take place in "Free For All" when he tries to do exactly that.

(Well, not exactly that, since he stands for the "post" of Number 2, not for the Council as such. Nevertheless, one taste of Village "democracy" would surely shake the confidence of even the most stalwart candidate.)

So could "Free For All" actually take place after this? Well, up to a point, yes it could.

If we can't have "Many Happy Returns" as the centre episode, then another turning point episode like "Free For All" would be preferable. The use of potentially-damaging drugs and brainwashing on the Prisoner in "Free For All" would seem like more of a development from "A. B. & C." The Prisoner's escape attempt amounts to seizing control of the control room in the Green Dome, more in line with the "conquest/overthrow" phase of the series than the "escape" episodes. (Although taking control isn't something he tries to do when he finds the Village deserted, suggesting he already knows it's futile.)

But as a bridge between "regular" and "barking mad" episodes, you couldn't ask for a better one; "Free For All" is definitely the one where it all goes nuts.

Except… the reasons for placing "Free For All" in the "early" phase, the fact he's still unfamiliar with the workings of the Village, still hold. And we are told that the elections are annual – something he doesn't seem to doubt, so it cannot have been disproved to him. That fact told us that "Free For All" must take place less than twelve months after "Arrival", which means "Many Happy Returns" must take place later than that.

Wherever you place it in the running order, there is a clear sense of "end of an era" here. The way that "Many Happy Returns" mirrors the events of "Arrival", the fact that "Return" ultimately suggest "Arrival Again", set us thinking that this is if not the conclusion of the series, at least the anti-climax, the dramatic midpoint.

The Prisoner finally escapes, returns to England and to his home. And – fairly major spoilers – the conclusion sees him returned to the Village. They never really let him go.

(And clearly it would have been much funnier if we had watched this one with a year's gap on either side rather than the General).

the new number two

When a keen-eyed observer notes the episode opening with a male voice not listed in the guest cast delivering the "new Number 2" speech, and with no cutaway to the guest star in the famous ball-shaped chair, then they might very well think that something is up.

And they'd be right.

So there is no avoiding the spoiler when I tell you that the episode ends with the "twist" reveal that Mrs Butterworth was Number 2 all the time.

This, of course, is the "alternative" explanation for her swift occupation of his old residence. In the ultimate violation, the Village have taken possession of his home.

As the new resident of his furnished apartment, she appears to be wryly amused by the tramp-like figure the Prisoner presents, but has no difficulty in believing his prior claim on her home and car (well, why would she?). Cleverly, though, she turns her knowledge of his backstory into a trusting and generous nature. She is always completely charming and helpful to him. She clothes him and feed him, even promising to bake him a birthday cake – a promise she actually keeps.

There is only one instant where maybe the façade slips as he seems about to walk out without her help and she panickingly cries out that he can't. It's a disconcerting moment, because you think she might have given herself away. She recovers, but you might expect that she will now move to thwart the Prisoner in some way. But no, instead she becomes more helpful – she even gives him back his car.

And that's it. She apparently plays no further part in the proceedings, allowing him to trot off back to his superiors to try to convince them about the Village. Her place in the story is given prominence by the length of the scenes and that they take place in the studio rather than as filmed inserts, but superficially she is no more important than any of the other characters that he encountered along his journey.

But her performance is so central and memorable that the revelation that she was Number 2 feels absolutely right.

What is interesting, genius even, about her character is that she never stops being motherly. It's brilliant that they play it against every cliché of "Woman is Wickedness!" untrustworthy ladies; she’s not even an ice bitch. But also it's brilliant that it never stops. Even Eric Portman's avuncular Number 2 in "Free For All" sheds his benevolent façade once he's floored the Prisoner with his moonshine. Here, you get the feeling she thinks that what is best for him, that she genuinely believes that breaking him is a birthday gift.

And thus she kills him with kindness.

In a sense, she is the Village incarnate, the ultimate evolution of the "society above the self" model that it represents, to which the Prisoner is the extreme antithesis.

It is the old maxim comparing the dictators, the venal capitalist with the messianic socialist. The evil of the former is less because ultimately his desires will be satiated. The latter believes that they are doing it to you "for your own good". So they will never, ever stop.

In that way, Number 2 is what Tony Blair always wanted to be: a socialist Margret Thatcher. She's even got the hair.

And you get the sense that the Prisoner trusted her. She didn't ask anything of him, appeared to believe him, and fed him with cake. In a way that little betrayal is the biggest blow. Ironically, by making no efforts to question or detain him, she beat him.

follow the signs

"You can never escape… even when we let you."

There is still room for ambiguity.

The Village have the Prisoner's pilot – Brian Worth playing the Group Captain – replaced by their own man – who then ejects him over "Portmeirion" with a cheery "Be Seeing You".

A throwaway line raises eyebrows with the news that the police roadblock he ran into was: "looking for an escaped convict, old man. Nothing to do with you."

The final exchange between Donald Sinden as the Prisoner's old friend the Colonel (surely not the same one as Kevin Stoney's character "Colonel J" in "The Chimes of Big Ben", although he is called "James") and Patrick Cargill as Thorpe, the man who doubts everything about the Prisoner's story, is open to no end of interpretation.

"Who was he?" asks Thorpe.

"An old friend, who will never give up," replies the Colonel.

That could be praise; that could be regret; that could be an assessment of whether this attempt to break him is going to work. If you read it as a eulogy – that the Colonel is not expecting the Prisoner to return – then the Prisoner's friends and allies are complicit: the Village is our Village. But if you read it as recognition that the Prisoner will doggedly stick at this until he's found the place again, then the Colonel could be innocent and the Village might be "their" Village after all.

To muddy the waters further, Thorpe is played by Patrick Cargill and he's another one who's going to be back later working for the Village as a Number 2. (See "Hammer into Anvil"; we'll have to see how the two characters reconcile – if at all – when we get there.)

We see the Village's pilot disguised as a milkman – yes, just like Necros in "The Living Daylights" but without the exploding milk bottles – before he enters the pilots' changing room. If it is our Village, why would he need to be disguised? This would seem to exonerate at least someone on our side.

You might think that it's the Group Captain, but since we don't see him knocked out or dead on the floor he might just exchange clothes with the ringer. If he's in on the plot, why the disguise? Well, it might not be for his benefit, but to get the pilot past Thorpe and/or the Colonel. Why replace him at all, you might ask, but you can counter that with "need to know" about the Village's real location.

Yes, the real location of the Village. Because, as becomes clear, since it's all a Village game we cannot even be completely sure about that. It would be a doddle for the Village pilot to have tampered with the navigation equipment on the plane, and it's clear that they're keeping close watch of the Prisoner's travels by raft too – the timing is too perfect for it to be otherwise; when it looks like he might still be adrift on the important birthday, the gunrunners Gunther and Ernst propitiously turn up to provide him with a motor launch.

(For Doctor Who fans, by the way, Ernst is Jon Laurimore, fabulous as Count Federico in "The Masque of Mandragora", although sadly this time he doesn't get to large it up around Portmeirion, while Gunther is Dennis Chinnery, one of the "nice Nazis" from "Genesis of the Daleks" who get exterminated by, well you can guess. He's also unlucky enough to have been in "The Twin Dilemma" too.)

Given that they can spirit away the entire population of the Village overnight – and their rematerialisation in the closing moments suggests that Number 2's ability to teleport now extends to everyone else in the Village – the ability to take his raft from the Welsh coast and drop it off in the Bay of Biscay while he's asleep is unlikely to be beyond them. Assuming they haven't just built another entire duplicate of Portmeirion somewhere off Morocco.

This ambiguity, about where the Village is, about which side it is on, is it should go without saying, the point. If the Village could be anywhere then the Village is everywhere.

Maybe the most telling point is the music. As the Prisoner finds himself in London, the incidental music takes the usual tantara of the Village's bombastic reveille and mutates it into a swinging London theme. London too, it seems, is the Village.

"You can never escape… even when we let you."

The Wackypedia entry for this episode suggests that "…his taste of freedom was nothing more than a carefully controlled birthday gift".

That's clearly more insane than anyone sent to the Village.

This is the most powerful blow that the Village ever strike against the Prisoner. If there's one thing that isn't ambiguous it is this: this is where they win. There is no escape, there can be no escape.

This is the episode where the Village says: "you can never escape… even when we let you."

And, tellingly, he never tries again.

They do it to him on his birthday.

Tradition and expectation tell us a birthday should be a day of celebration. A happy day.

But how many people actually enjoy their birthdays the way that we are supposed to?

We feel that the universe owes us a special day, but whatever we do the mundane still creeps in to undermine us, and it always seems so much more unfair that it happens on that day, even if it happens on every other too. Nostalgia makes us pine for golden birthdays of childhood, or remember the horrors of birthdays at school – for me, every time, it was the games field in winter, thank you oh ye gods of ill-omen, you really know how to put a kid off! And it's a marker of entropy, the irresistible force of dissolution, as we count off the calendar one more year closer to the dread inevitable.

The whole point of everything the Village does to him is to give him back home, Britain, hope, freedom, self, and all on his own special magical day…

…and then smash his dreams to flinders at the moment of maximum psychological impact.

The tortures from now on will become more bizarre and more cruel. But they'll never do more damage.

"You can never escape… even when we let you."

For some reason, I was sure that the episode would end with all the faces from his journey – Gunther and Ernst, the gypsies, the policemen from the checkout, the substitute pilot – all waiting for him in the Village. That's the obvious thing to do, to show us that he was in their power all along. And yet they don't. This is the point. They do not need to. The Village is so powerful, so all-pervading that wherever you are, they still have you.

Home is the Village. Britain is the Village. Hope is the Village. Freedom is the Village.

In the end, they want him to believe that self is the Village.

The whole of the rest of this series will be an exercise in proving that it is not. That I is greater than 1.

who is number one?

Who else could it be? When you can destroy Patrick McGoohan with a birthday cake and a look and a shimmy of your hips, it must be Georgina Cookson's force of nature that is Number 2.

She is one of the great Number 2s, clearly a believer in Al Capone's old maxim "you can get more with a kind word and 20mgs of sodium pentothal than you can with a kind word alone…", she uses kindness and cake the way Vlad the Impaler used to use sawn-off tree trunks.

She clearly relishes her rôle as Mrs Butterworth, having as much fun pricking her "maid's" pomposity as she does wrapping the Prisoner in knots.

The black cat reminds us of Mary Morris's Number 2. Georgina Cookson is not quite as much fun as Ms Morris's pixie performance in "Day of the Dead", and does not get to dominate the episode as much simply because there's only so much of it that she can be in.

And yet the last scene silently tells us that she has scripted this entire performance, made the Prisoner dance to her tune and when the game was over, once he knows his place, folded him up and put him back in his box.

next time…

That would be telling.

Be seeing you.


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