The Prisoner: Episode by Episode
E15 The Girl Who Was Death
18 January 1968
Written by Terence Feely, from an idea by David Tomblin
Directed by David Tomblin
Story: ‘The Prisoner’ finds himself engaged in a battle to prevent Professor Schnipps from destroying London, while the Professor’s daughter attempts to assassinate him.
Who is Number Two? Kenneth Griffith
Guest Cast: Justine Lord, Christopher Benjamin, Max Faulkner, John Drake
Information: We’re well into David Tomblin’s version of The Prisoner with The Girl Who Was Death, which was the first episode screened in 1968 following a two week break in the new year (and on a new night: Thursday). This was another episode adversely (depending on your viewpoint) affected by Patrick McGoohan’s absence while shooting Ice Station Zebra. Billed as ‘The Prisoner’ rather than the more usual ‘Number Six’, McGoohan’s character spends much of the episode in disguise as a Sherlock Holmes type figure with extravagant facial hair and sunglasses so that stunt man and stand-in Frank Maher could double him (as in The Schizoid Man, also written by Feely). This is most prevalent in the location filming around the Kursaal Fun Fair amusement park in Southend (which closed in 1973).
As in Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling, this episode exhibits some of the traits of the concept of reconfiguring The Prisoner as a ‘mission of the week’ show, as suggested by exiting script editor George Markstein. ‘The Prisoner’ is already out of The Village when we first encounter him, and he received his instructions from a vinyl record (like the mystery voices that directed the exploits of the Mission: Impossible team or Charlie’s Angels) in a direct lift from the Danger Man episode Koroshi. The character as depicted may as well have been John Drake, and there has been speculation that some of the ideas and concepts in this episode had originally been developed as an unmade instalment of Danger Man.
In fact, what The Girl Who Was Death resembles most closely is an episode of The Avengers, but instead of Steed and Mrs. Peel (for example), we have a Steed figure acting solo, and the romantic tension is between him and the mysterious woman out to eliminate him (actually, most of the sexual interest seems to come from her; as ever, McGoohan seems less than engaged by an attractive woman…).
Justine Lord all but steals the episode as a Mary Quant assassin out to prevent ‘The Prisoner’ (or ‘Mr. X’, as he is referred to in the episode during the boxing match) from tracking her father, whose insane plan to destroy London with a huge missile is the driver behind the plot. Lord had appeared in The Avengers, as well as episodes of The Saint and Man in a Suitcase for ITC; she’d later to go on to feature in soaps, including Crossroads and Compact. In The Girl Who Was Death, she plays the fabulous title character with all the glam that 1960s fashion, make-up, and hair could offer.
Number Two is relegated to a bit player in this instalment, so much so that he doesn’t appear in the traditional title sequence (reinstated after being absent for a couple of episodes). Kenneth Griffith is first encountered as Schnipps, the crazed villain with the Napoleon complex. It is only at the climax that he gets a brief moment, alongside Justine Lord’s Village operative, as Number Two. A political filmmaker as well as an actor, Griffith was probably on the same wavelength as McGoohan. He died in 2006, aged 84. Number Two’s plan—to get Number Six to drop his guard around the children he is reading the story to—is almost as ludicrous as the storybook narrative itself.
It’s a ludicrous series of events, rather than a plot, which only makes sense with the ultimate revelation that the whole thing is a children’s story—it is possible that less alert viewers may have missed the significance of the illustrated storybook that bookend the ad breaks. The entire thing is pitched as a spoof of spy shows, including McGoohan’s own Danger Man, as well as the then prevalent adventures of 007 in the James Bond film series (a role that McGoohan was twice offered, and twice refused). In fact, the technique of locking ‘The Prisoner’ in the Turkish bath hot box with a broom pushed through the handles was seen in Thunderball two years before…
Returning in a bigger role in this episode was Christopher Benjamin, playing Potter. He’d previously appeared in the very first episode, Arrival, as the manager of the Labour Exchange, and had then turned up again in The Chimes of Big Ben as Number 23 (who was never established on screen to be the same character from Arrival). Benjamin had also appeared as a character named Potter in the Danger Man episode Koroshi. Benjamin is known to Doctor Who fans for the role of theatrical impresario Henry Gordon Jago in the 1977 Tom Baker serial The Talons of Weng Chiang, a character he has reprised for a long-running series of audio adventures. Another return appearance in this episode features Alexis Kanner as the photographer on the roller coaster—he was The Kid in the previous episode Living in Harmony and would reappear in the series’ final episode Fall Out as Number 48.
What’s it All Mean? For the first time, this episode depicts the existence of children in The Village—it must be assumed those whom ‘The Prisoner’ is revealed to be reading the story to are the children of some long-term Village residents, and were not shipped in especially as part of the plot to trick Number Six, although we never see any other children in The Village in any other episodes.
The Girl Who Was Death has all the feeling of a holiday special, so it is a shame it didn’t air over the Christmas 1967 holiday rather than well into the new year. It was originally planned as a 90 minute feature length instalment, but apparently Lew Grade refused the additional funding (no surprise, given he was on the verge of cancelling the entire series).
McGoohan’s absence making Ice Station Zebra primarily affected a trio of episodes—Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling; Living in Harmony; and The Girl Who Was Death. However, out of that adversity came three of the series most unique and innovative instalments. This trio helped classify The Prisoner as one of the most experimental television shows of the 1960s, a need forced on the production through necessity. David Tomblin took advantage of McGoohan’s absence to put his imprint firmly on the show, and these three episodes gave McGoohan ideas of where to take the series for its conclusion in Once Upon A Time and Fall Out when Grade unexpectedly pulled the plug.
As a spoof of the spy genre mixed with a colourful 1960s caper movie (something like Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965) or The Great Race (1965), The Girl Who Was Death works a treat. It is, however, rather inconsequential in the bigger picture of The Prisoner, failing to advance the overall plot and telling us little about the character of Number Six or his plight in The Village.
That’s Weird! During the car chase, Sonia (as the girl is named in the closing credits) is able to manipulate the image of the pursuing car containing ‘The Prisoner’ by swiping her finger back and forward, titling the image of the following vehicle from side to side, and then almost in a full revolution—all this seems to have a physical effect on the occupant of the car. Of course, this is simply a back-projected image being affected, and the act is in the context of a storybook tale, but it does raise interesting ideas of virtual reality (as did preceding episode Living in Harmony) in the way she is able to manipulate the image and the environment with real-world effects. It’s use here, however, simply draws attention to the constant overuse of such back projection in 1960s ITC productions (a prime offender among many), and so features as the overall episode’s deconstruction of the tropes of such spy fiction television.
Punch Ups! There’s little physical action for ‘The Prisoner’ in this one, although he does get to participate in a boxing match, if that counts. He later engages in a slapstick fall about with Schipps’ men in the lighthouse/rocket.
Trivia: An actor with the coincidental name of John Drake (the name of McGoohan’s character in Danger Man, and possible the same character he plays in The Prisoner), played the deadly bowler featured in the cricket matches, early in the episode—a fact that no doubt amused McGoohan.
Verdict: Fanciful and funny, but while enjoyable and weird this episode adds little to the overall story of The Prisoner.
Score (Out of Six): Four
Brian J. Robb