16: Once Upon A Time


E16 Once Upon A Time

25 January 1968

Written by Patrick McGoohan

Directed by Patrick McGoohan

Story: In an all-or-nothing final attempt to break the Prisoner, a returning Number Two invokes ‘Degree Absolute’.

Who is Number Two? Leo McKern

Guest Cast: Angelo Muscat, Peter Swanwick, John Cazabon

Information: Now the real weirdness begins—everything up to this point was merely prologue… Faced with a sudden cancellation when Lew Grade decided not to proceed with funding any more episodes of The Prisoner, show creator Patrick McGoohan had the seemingly impossible task of effectively and satisfyingly wrapping up the series. He’d been away from the production for a while to film Ice Station Zebra, and upon returning had a series of pick-ups to shoot to complete several half-finished episodes.

Although Once Upon A Time and the final episode of the series Fall Out work together very well, they were actually shot eight months apart. This episode was scripted and shot much earlier in the run than its penultimate placing in the broadcast order might suggest. The end, however, was revised and reshot to allow the episode to function as a curtain raiser for the all-action finale that McGoohan had in mind for the series. This instalment was shot surprisingly early in the production as the sixth episode (note the return of the script editor credit for George Markstein), immediately following Leo McKern’s first appearance as Number Two in The Chimes of Big Ben. McKern’s contract was extended for a fortnight to accommodate the shooting of this episode. It seems clear, however, that it was intended to fall late in the show’s run, possibly as the final episode of a ‘first season’ of 13 instalments.

Once10McKern’s Number Two has clearly been recalled to service, perhaps against his will, after a series of other potentially temporary stand-in Number Twos have all failed in their varied and variously imaginative attempts to break Number Six and secure from him an admission of his true reason for his resignation. He emerges from beneath the floor of the control room, Windy Miller style, only to take out his anger on the silent figure of the diminutive Butler, and then demand that Rover give up the controller’s seat (so depriving us of an episode in which Rover is Number Two and gets to try and break Number Six in his own unique way!) There is only one way that this Number Two believes will finally force a confession from Number Six—he invokes ‘Degree Absolute’ and demands authorisations from his handler (presumably Number One) at the end of the ominous red phone.

Once07Angelo Muscat is finally given an up-front ‘featuring’ credit, following Leo McKern’s ‘guest star’ notice. Born in 1930, Muscat was only 4ft. 3in. tall, despite the rest of his family (parents, brothers) being of regular height. After various mundane jobs, he moved from his native Malta to the UK and joined a touring production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, followed by a move into television. His height meant that only certain roles were suitable, including that of the squat robot ‘Chumbly’ in the Doctor Who serial Galaxy 4 (1967) and a part in the BBC’s 1966 version of Alice in Wonderland by Jonathan Miller (which also featured Leo McKern in drag as the Duchess). McGoohan cast Muscat in 14 of the 17 episodes of The Prisoner, although as the enigmatic mute Butler he has no dialogue (during the original run there was some speculation that he might actually be the all-controlling Number One). McGoohan apparently simply picked the actor from a line up of photographs put forward by the shows casting director. Muscat was quoted at the time as saying: ‘I could hardly believe it when he chose me. I have always been a fan of his and never missed a Danger Man episode.’ Following the series, Muscat appeared in The Beatles’ 1967 movie Magical Mystery Tour and as an Oompa Loompa in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). He died at the early age of just 47 in 1977.

Following Muscat’s death, The Prisoner’s script editor George Markstein said: ‘I was extremely sad to hear that he had died. He never said a word throughout the series, and yet in a way he was as important, or perhaps even more so, then Number Six himself. Angelo was a genial little man—he always had a smile, even on the set at eight o’clock in the morning he had a marvellous knack of being cheerful. I think one of the nicest things about the whole series was the fact that it gave Angelo a niche and a certain amount of worldwide fame.’

Once11Peter Swanwick was another ‘regular’ whose ‘supervisor’ or ‘controller’ figure was given a showcase in Once Upon A Time, although he only appeared in nine of the 17 episodes. Born in 1922, his career began with a bit part in the Humphrey Bogart-Katharine Hepburn movie The African Queen (1951), whose studio sessions were shot in London. He became a regular face on 1960s British television, guest starring in various shows including The Avengers and two episodes of McGoohan’s Danger Man. In poor health, Swanwick also died young in 1968, aged just 46, just nine moths after the final episode of The Prisoner, Fall Out, aired.

Once08The bulk of this episode takes place on a single set, the so-called Embryo Room, in which Number Two attempts to regress Number Six, taking him back to childhood and working through his life in the hope that something in his fundamental make up can be tapped to reveal the reason for his resignation. ‘Even as a child, there is something in your mind that is a puzzlement,’ says McKern’s Number Two of his subject. ‘When I have found it, I will refine it and tune it and you will play our game.’ All that Number Two discovers, though, is that the self-reliant and stubborn streak that defines Number Six appears to have been present from his earliest school days.

What’s it All Mean? ‘Degree Absolute’ is claimed to be a genuine psychological therapy by Number Two in which patient and doctor engage in a close personal and psychological relationship to get at the root of any problems, and which may involve them swapping roles to a degree in some form of role play. This is, of course, exactly what happens in Once Upon A Time, where Number Six essentially beats Number Two at his own game by resisting all the psychological tricks and scenarios he attempts to play out, turns the tables upon him, and uses his own supposed ‘therapy’ against him. It is a gambit we’ve seen Number Six pull several times before in his battle with the authorities of The Village.

The approach taken by Number Two draws upon Shakespeare’s notion of the seven ages of man expressed in As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7—both Number Two and Number Six reference the source and are clearly familiar with it. As applied here, it seems to suggest a process whereby a subject is regressed to childhood and is taken through various stages of life as a way of dealing with or coming to terms with various psychological problems.

Once04The design of the Embryo Room, however, only seems to accommodate the earliest years of nursery and schooling, with the subsequent adult years having to be enacted with various theatrical props, including sporting activities, wartime service (although McGoohan’s Number Six would have been too young), and confrontations with authority, be it headmasters, employers, or the figure of a court room judge. None of these scenarios serve to effectively break Number Six, and the nearest he comes to offering a reason for his resignation is the admission that he was seeking ‘peace of mind’.

Once01That’s Weird! For a long time, sections of The Prisoner fandom believed they had found the smoking gun that proved that Number Six was John Drake from Danger Man. This was based upon a line of dialogue from Leo McKern’s Number Two while in his headmaster guise. It was long believed that he said to Number Six, ‘Report to my study in the morning, Drake!’ That would’ve been great, if only it had been true. It’s an easy mistake to make as McKern’s delivery is not all that clear. However, later perusal of the script revealed the line to be the far more mundane (and school-related) ‘Report to my study in the morning break’. No mystery here, unfortunately.

Punch Ups! Apart from in the clips compilation that Number Two watches at the beginning of the episode (most of which seem to include violence of one sort or another), there is next to no physical fighting in this instalment. Number Six and Number Two come close to blows, but their antagonism is contained in sporting endeavours such as boxing and fencing. Number Six does get a punch in at Number Two outwith these games, though.

Once05Trivia: Making this episode took a strain on McKern who reportedly either suffered a mental breakdown or a heart attack as a result (accounts vary). He certainly seems to have taken a break mid-shoot, and the figure he presents in Fall Out, shot almost a year later, is very different physically.

Verdict: A rightly celebrated psychologically focused episode, and the perfect lead in for the final instalment of The Prisoner… All your questions are about to be answered, right?

Score (Out of Six): Five

Brian J. Robb

Want more Prisoner? Like our Facebook Page and check out The Unmutual web site. If you want a great book on the series, start with Robert Fairclough’s The Prisoner: The Official Companion.


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