The Prisoner Episode by Episode
E06 The General
3 November 1967
Written by Joshua Adam
Directed by Peter Graham Scott
Story: Number Six is caught up in the ‘Speed Learn’ process, an attempt to provide instant education…
Who is Number Two? Colin Gordon
Guest Cast: Peter Howell, John Castle
Information: Again, the tricky question of viewing order raises its ugly head with The General. Here we have the return of Colin Gordon’s rather nervous Number Two, and elements of the narrative suggest that this appearance should have preceded A. B. and C. His character in that episode broadcast earlier is even more nervous than here, fearing retribution from (presumably) Number One if he should fail to break Number Six. In The General, this appears to be their first encounter, and it is the first episode that seems to offer Number Six an unequivocal victory over those who run The Village.
Number Two is fully behind the project developed by the Professor (Peter Howell). Speed Learn is a subliminal education programme transmitted through television in short bursts that appears to transfer a host of facts (names, dates, battles) to the trance-like recipient. What it doesn’t offer is much in the way of interpretation of, say, history (as that is largely what the episode deals with). Instead, it simply offers a regurgitation of Kings and Queens, dates of their reign, and some geographical particulars.
The real power behind the throne of Speed Learn is the anonymous ‘General’, never seen and never heard from directly. As Number Six investigates the process, he discovers that even the Professor himself might be less enthusiastic about Speed Learn and the General than he initially appeared. Number Six witnesses the Professor making a run for it just before he is due to deliver a lecture, only to be retrieved by some loyal residents of The Village. In the process he loses a recorder full of his lecture notes that is recovered by Number Six. The message on the recording is clear: the General must be destroyed.
Production on The General began in late-February 1967, with director Peter Graham Scott taking on the assignment rather late in the day. Graham Scott started in the business as a film editor, working on the Boulting Brothers film Brighton Rock (1947). He and McGoohan were old friends, with Graham Scott directing several episodes in the early seasons of Danger Man. He reckoned he was hired for The General because ‘I was quick and I was cheap!’ Graham Scott was also responsible for the casting of Diana Rigg in The Avengers as Emma Peel and would go on to work on other shows, such a Mogul/The Troubleshooters and The Onedin Line.
Various familiar sets were reused, with very little location footage of Portmeirion used (shot during March 1967 and including some lovely aerial footage). The town square, gardens, and beach all make a reappearance as the studio recreation of parts of Portmeirion became more useful to the production. While the themes and concerns of this episode are still relevant today [see What’s It All Mean?], it is unfortunate that the design of the General super-computer itself lets the show down. Unusually for The Prisoner little imagination appears to have been applied to the grand learning machine, presenting it instead as any bog standard mid-1960s big computer that could fill a room.
What’s it All Mean? In this episode, McGoohan displays an interest in education. Who is in charge of what people are learning? How are the curriculums of schools, colleges, and universities devised? Who controls the information? This is ideal material for an episode of The Prisoner, even if the result is one of the most straight forward episodes of the show’s entire 17 episode run. In the terms of The Prisoner, Speed Learn is reinterpreted as yet another form of mind control—whoever controls the facts, the information, controls the population. There is also an inherent criticism of television itself. Media control of information is crucial to politics and propaganda, and McGoohan may also have had the then recently established Open University in mind.
The episode was scripted by Lewis Griefer (under the ‘Joshua Adam’ pseudonym that used the names of his two sons), and had been instigated by his own concerns about education. With children attending school, he was concerned about the lack of imagination or critical thinking in what they were learning and the way they were learning it. Rote learning—the acquisition of simple facts—was in vogue, but it tended to produce students incapable of actually analysing and interpreting the information they were learning. It was easy—as with Speed Learn—to rehash the facts, but the meaning was all but missing.
With the revelation that the ‘General’ is a super-computer (at least for the state of the art as it was in the mid-1960s), questions of new technology in education and learning and in wider society are inevitably raised. Of course, other shows featured episodes of this type with both Star Trek and Doctor Who running similarly themed episodes in the years before The General; it was also a staple of other ITC shows and such series as The Avengers and Out of the Unknown (specifically the episode ‘The Machine Stops’). McGoohan and Greifer, however, were able to dress this perhaps standard plot in the specific approach of The Prisoner to such questions.
Propaganda raises its ugly head once more. The Village has always been big on slogans, from Arrival onwards. However, throughout The General we see and hear a specific set of slogans that have been devised by the General, many of them dealing with issues such as efficiency and success. This was drawing upon the age that Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ speech in 1963 had ushered in—a technologically driven society, in which success was defined by efficiency.
Of course, this is one episode where Number Six has an unequivocal victory. As Number Two hopes to display the superiority of the General, he asks Number Six to ask it a question, any question, confident that the super-computer will have the answer. Unable to resist such a challenge, Number Six rises to the occasion and asks the General the most fundamental question of all (and one no-one can answer): WHY? In response, the General self-destructs, killing the Professor in the process.
That’s Weird! What’s with the odd gadget that allows access to the Town Hall broadcast centre? This was a widely available toy from the time in which a skeleton hand emerged from a box to grab a coin. It was a tie-in to The Addams Family TV series and was known as The Thing Money box. In The Prisoner it is used to accept the key tokens used to allow entrance to the carefully guarded Town Hall. Apparently, it was incorporated into the show at the specific request of Patrick McGoohan—what could it mean?
Punch Ups! After finding the Professor’s dropped recorder on the beach, Number Six has a run in with a couple of guards who return the ‘truant’ student to his cottage. Later, as he prepares to broadcast the Professor’s warning about the General, Number Six is identified and a couple of guards are dispatched to stop him.
Trivia: The man in the café in The General (who also reappears at the first board meeting) is played by an actor named Ian Fleming. This is not, of course, the same Ian Fleming who created James Bond (and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), who died in 1964 before this episode was made, but the co-incidence in names no doubt gave Patrick McGoohan a quiet chuckle as he had twice turned down the opportunity to play the role of James Bond in the successful film series.
Verdict: Perhaps one of The Prisoner’s most straight forward episodes, The General is let down by some elements of its design and the fact that the topic was widely covered by other 1960s telefantasy shows (some of them better than this one).
Score (Out of Six): Four
Brian J. Robb