3: A. B. and C.

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The Prisoner Episode by Episode

E03 A. B. and C.

13 October 1967

Written by Anthony Skene

Directed by Pat Jackson 

Story: Number two, with the aid of Number 14, accesses the dreams of Number Six to determine whether he was planning to defect, and if so, to which enemy…

Who is Number Two? Colin Gordon

Guest Cast: Katherine Kath, Sheila Allen, Peter Bowles, Georgina Cookson, Annette Carrell

Information: The issue of viewing order raises its ugly head once more with the third transmitted episode, A. B. and C., thanks to Colin Gordon’s later reappearance as Number Two in episode 6, The General. Although transmitted sixth, The General was the tenth episode produced, followed by the eleventh: A. B. and C. Many people prefer to view them in that order, The General followed by A. B. and C. as the progression of Number Two’s story seems to make more sense. However, as we’re following the 50th anniversary of the first UK transmission of each episode, A. B. and C. comes third in the running order. It is possible that this running order was selected as each of the first three episodes has a strong concentration on establishing why Number Six resigned his position, while some of the later episodes would veer off into much more fantastical territory—as it is, the opening three episodes strongly establish a narrative drive for the series, despite the resulting inconsistencies.

ABC 07Colin Gordon’s Number Two in A. B. and C. is a rather nervous fellow (possibly as a result of his failure in The General, which we are yet to see). He’s aware he is failing in his attempts to break Number Six, is losing sleep, and seems to exist on a diet of milk in an attempt to quiet both his stomach and his nerves. He is called several times on a rather ominous out-sized red phone, perhaps by Number One or certainly someone of higher authority in The Village. He becomes ever more desperate throughout this episode, willing to threaten Number 14 with her own drug to ensure her co-operation and willing to take risks in pushing the tolerance of Number Six to the invasive examination of his dreams.

Colin Gordon made his British film debut in the 1940s and was a regular featured player right through to the 1970s, taking in five film appearances with Peter Sellers. He appeared in a variety of television shows, including ITC’s The Baron and the 1967 Doctor Who story The Faceless Ones with Patrick Troughton. He was the only actor other than Leo McKern to appear more than once as Number Two on The Prisoner.

ABC 06In A. B. and C., Number Two enlists the help of Number 14 (Sheila Allen) to access the dreams of Number Six in the hope of finding out the reason for his resignation and whether, as Number Two suspects, he was planning to defect to an enemy state. A combination of sedative drugs, some kind of mind probe apparatus, and the ‘injection’ of film clips in to the sleeping brain of Number Six appears to influence his dreams. The film clips not only provide the setting for the dream, one of Madame Engadine’s famous parties, but also the characters of A. (Peter Bowles) and B. (Annette Carrell), identified by Number Two as possible contacts for Number Six. The third contact, codenamed C. remains unidentified, without either a photo or film clip.

As the episode progresses, Number Two feels increasingly aware of time running out as he and Number 14 watch Number Six’s party dream unfold on a giant screen. Number 14 insists the drug can only be used three times and there must be a day’s break between each session, otherwise she’d be risking the life of Number Six. However, Number Two wants results and insist upon influencing events directly. This leads to Number 14 participating in Number Six’s dream, apparently in real time by speaking through the character of B. It’s an intriguing concept, with the access and manipulation of dreams depicted in a pharmacological and technological way that nonetheless appears akin to magic, especially when Number Six becomes self-aware within the dream and begins to direct events himself.

ABC 10Unknown to his oppressors, Number Six has become wise to their game and has followed Number 14 to the laboratory where he is being subjected to these nightly dream invasions (the lab is clearly the redressed set for Number Two’s office and the Control Centre). By studying their equipment, and the injection marks on his arm, he is able to work out what they are doing. He is also able to dilute the final dose of the drug, which then allows him to control some of the events in the last session. It’s a lovely meta-textual touch when Number Six effectively turns to the camera and addresses not only Number Two but the audience at home with the line: ‘We mustn’t disappoint them, the people who are watching…’ This is compounded when in the dream and on the screen he goes to the lab, enters and offers Number Two the papers he was ‘selling’, which are nothing more than holiday brochures. ‘I was not selling out,’ he says. ‘That was not the reason I resigned.’ Number Six then proceeds to take his place on the gurney, and the dream ends with a reprise of the ‘resignation scene’ from the title sequence. It’s an audacious piece of multi-layered drama, especially for a show produced in the midst of the normally formulaic television of the 1960s, including almost every other ITC series.

Something of a ‘bottle’ episode, A. B. and C. was shot with limited access to Portmeirion for location shots, so used pre-existing standing sets and locations around the MGM lot. Writer Anthony Skene said: ‘I wrote it around the church door, the street from The Dirty Dozen and other bits, too, which were all leftovers.’ Skene was an experienced television writer, contributing to such shows as Armchair Mystery Theatre (1965) and Haunted (1967). He wrote two further instalments of The Prisoner: Many Happy Returns and Dance of the Dead.

What’s it All Mean? The episode A. B. and C. is built up through layers of reality. There is the ‘real world’ from which Number Six ‘resigned’, only to find himself imprisoned in the ‘false world’ of The Village. Yet, within his mind there are even more worlds, the ‘dream world’ where Number Two hopes to discover the truth about his resignation. The episode is the first in the series to play around with what might be termed ‘alternate realities’ or fictional worlds that don’t really exist (other examples would be the false identity in The Schizoid Man, the fake escape of Many Happy Returns, and the fake lobotomy of A Change of Mind). Perhaps the most extreme versions of this are in the surreal episodes Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling, Living in Harmony and The Girl Who Was Death—all coming late in the series’ production.

ABC 02This is the earliest episode to explore the use of drugs as a means of discovering the truth behind the resignation of Number Six, tapping into one of the major concerns of the 1960s that continues to this day. Other episodes, notably The Schizoid Man, A Change of Mind and Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling, feature the use of aggressive pharmacology in attempting to break Number Six, often through playing with his identity or environment in a similar way to A. B. and C. The third ‘dream state’ is the one in which Number Six takes control, and this is signified by the moment when he straightens the mirror—up until this point, the sequence has been all ‘Dutch’ angles. In straightening out the ‘picture’, Number Six takes control of his own narrative. Ultimately, in a foreshadowing of the conclusion of the series, he unmasks an authority figure, the man behind the man, only to reveal Number Two.

Fist Fight: Several, including with A. and his henchmen, and with the thugs threatening B.

Trivia: Anthony Skene returned to the world of dream manipulation in 1969 for an episode of the BBC alien invasion series Counterstrike titled Nocturne, one of only three episodes of the 10-part series that remain in the archives. The Radio Times plot synopsis for Nocturne reads: ‘The madman lives in a No-Man’s-Land, a borderline between fantasy and reality… where the real becomes unreal, the unreal real—and life itself a waking nightmare. Simon finds himself living in such a nightmare. Has he gone mad or is he merely suffering from temporary delusions? Above all, why should he want to kill a perfect stranger?’ At least that’s how it appears, but the Counterstrike script was written in 1966, predating A. B. and C., so it seems The Prisoner was the recycled script. Counterstrike’s production was delayed, and Nocturne wasn’t seen until 1969, two years after The Prisoner told an eerily similar tale…

Verdict: A fantastically imaginative episode, in which the visual style compliments the storytelling approach.

Score (Out of Six): Five

Brian J. Robb

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2: The Chimes of Big Ben

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The Prisoner Episode by Episode

E02 The Chimes of Big Ben

6 October 1967

Written by Vincent Tilsley

Directed by Don Chaffey

Story: Number Six helps the newly arrived Number Eight adjust to village life, and she in turn helps him in an escape attempt…

Who is Number Two? Leo McKern

Guest Cast: Nadia Grey, Finlay Currie, Christopher Benjamin, Richard Wattis, Kevin Stoney

Information: There has been a long-raging debate about the ideal viewing order for the episodes of The Prisoner. As with most 1960s television, the show’s episodes were not broadcast in the same order they were produced (broadcast second, The Chimes of Big Ben was the fifth instalment made). Additionally, most 1960s action-adventure series—whether British or American (and ITC’s shows were clearly targeted at the American market while made in the UK)—didn’t bother much with episode-to-episode continuity. Most episodes concluded with a status quo reset, and so could be viewed in any order. That doesn’t work with The Prisoner, but neither does viewing the episodes in transmission order [which this blog is sticking with, as we’re marking the 50th anniversary of each episode’s transmission].

Chimes 5Clearly, Arrival is the first episode. Equally obviously, the final three instalments need to be viewed at the end. In between there have been various takes on what order the episodes should run, using clues from internal continuity, the history of the series production, and the originally planned broadcast order by Patrick McGoohan (which ITV did not follow). For example, given that The Chimes of Big Ben sees Number Six fairly settled in The Village, to the extent that he seems happy to show the newly-arrived Number Eight the ropes, suggests that the episode should fall further back in the run than in second place. None of it matters greatly to the enjoyment of the individual episodes or the series as a whole, but if you are determined to discover alternative viewing orders, a little online research provides various competing guides.

At the time this episode was made, Patrick McGoohan probably had little idea of how he might conclude the series, so any suggestion that this episode should be viewed second due to the presence of Leo McKern as the new Number Two is probably incorrect. McKern returned for the final two episodes, thus providing some much needed continuity with the show’s earliest episodes, a choice that McGoohan must’ve made only in hindsight when faced with the need to wrap things up.

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McKern makes quite an impression here, with his Number Two seemingly solely obsessed with breaking Number Six. He believes that if he can get the answer to the reason behind Number Six’s mysterious resignation then he’ll be able to ensure that his captive would talk willingly about any other secrets he might know. He seems to be energised by his interchanges with Number Six, viewing his captive’s presence as something of a challenge to his abilities to ensure co-operation from his charges.

Number Two effectively manipulates Number Six into the position of mentor to Number Eight, who like him (in the previous episode) is disorientated by her involuntary relocation to The Village. She is of Eastern European extraction and appears to have resigned from a job of some importance and sensitivity, just as Number Six did. A champion swimmer, she first attempts to swim away from the village. Her later suicide attempt engages the sympathy of Number Six, who agrees to participate in Number Two’s Arts and Crafts Competition if his captor will leave Number Eight alone. Of course, he has an ulterior motive, and his abstract sculpture (the only entry in the competition that does not pay homage to Number Two) can be recombined as a boat in which he and Number Eight later attempt their escape.

Chimes 6The escape involves an elaborate trip in Number Six’s manufactured boat, followed by a journey by sea and plane for both Number Six and Number Eight locked in a wooden crate. Their seemingly arrival in London, welcomed by the titular chimes of Big Ben, sees Number Six reunited with his former bosses. However, a borrowed watch tips off Number Six to the elaborate charade he’s been caught up in—the episode highlight moment comes when he opens the door of the London office to discover himself back in The Village. McGoohan’s weary acceptance of the inevitability of the deception would seem to suggest that this episode would be better placed fifth or so in the running order following several other thwarted escape attempts. That sort of viewing order would give Number Six’s seeming initial success much more impact, and so heighten the disappointment of his return to The Village.

The Portmeirion scenes for The Chimes of Big Ben were shot at the end of September 1966 with studio work taking place at MGM in Borehamwood in late November 1966. Much of the studio work involved shooting on recreations of key Portmeirion buildings and locations, scenes that can be easily discerned as studio work in the finished episode (the beach location, for example, and the forested area in which Number Six constructs his work of abstract conceptual art).

The script for this sophomore outing was by Vincent Tilsley. Born in 1932, he’d been writing for television since the 1950s but wasn’t one of the regular ITC screenwriters (something McGoohan and Markstein seemed to be going for in episode writers). He’d most recently written for the BBC’s Z-Cars and would go on to script a second instalment of The Prisoner (the offbeat Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling) and for many more series through the early-1970s including The Mind of Mr J. G. Reeder, The Guardians, and Mystery and Imagination. He quit television writing after his 1973 series The Death of Adolph Hitler, for ITV’s Sundy Night Theatre, was cut from a planned six hours to just two. He took up a new career as a psychotherapist, and died in September 2013 aged 81.

Director Don Chaffey (born in 1917) had worked with McGoohan on his previous series Danger Man, helming 15 episodes. Before The Prisoner he directed the Ray Harryhausen fantasy Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and the Hammer prehistory movie One Million Years B.C. (1966), starring a fur bikini clad Raquel Welch. Chaffey had set much of the visual style and tone of the series with Arrival, and he directed two further instalments in addition to The Chimes of Big Ben: Dance of the Dead and Checkmate. He went on to direct a myriad of television series including The Avengers and The Protectors, later moving to such American shows as Charlie’s Angels, Fantasy Island, T.J. Hooker (starring William Shatner), and the 1989 revival of Mission: Impossible. He died in New Zealand in November 1990, aged 73.

Chimes 3What’s it All Mean? The discussion between Number Six and Number Two at a table near the beach hints at the underlying philosophy of the series (and perhaps reflects McGoohan’s view of the world). Number Two describes The Village as ‘a perfect blueprint for world order. When the sides facing each other suddenly realise they are looking into a mirror, they will realise that this is the pattern of the future.’

There is another connection that might suggest that Number Six is indeed John Drake from Danger Man—although the character’s name is different, Richard Wattis (here playing Fotheringay, apparently Number Six’s friend and boss) played Drake’s boss in the original 30-minute episodes of Danger Man.

McGoohan also reveals something of his view of both modern art and dictatorships in the Village’s Arts and Crafts Competition. As in most dictatorships, the only officially sanctioned art is that which pays homage to the dictator, hence all the citizen artworks that lovingly depict Leo McKern’s Number Two. Number Six goes in a different direction, creating a work of art entitled ‘Escape’ which doubles up as the very boat in which he and Number Eight attempt their escape. Of his abstract creation, Number Six simpy says ‘It means what it is’.

Questions of reality and trust are explored in The Chimes of Big Ben. The fake journey and London office seem to effectively fool Number Six, so convincingly has the whole thing been created that he seems taken in by it all until the out-of-time chimes give the game away. In terms of trust, Number Six maintains a wary relationship with Number Two (although he too seems to enjoy their verbal sparring matches), yet he does seem to evince some sympathy—at least initially—with Number Eight, whom he sees as undergoing the same disorienting experience he did when he first arrived in The Village. Despite the intentions of the original script, McGoohan’s own personality would not allow the depiction of a full-on love affair between the two (a similar problem had plagued Danger Man and lost McGoohan the role of James Bond).

Fist Fight: None

Alternative Versions: As with Arrival, there exists a rough cut early edit of The Chimes of Big Ben with several notable differences from the final version. The original Wilfred Josephs’ theme tune is featured, as is much of his incidental music. There’s a bit more of Rover in the rough cut than in the final episode, and one entirely omitted scene sees Number Six attempt to discern the geographical location of The Village by studying the stars. Number Six’s previous relationship with Fotheringay (they were ‘at school together’) is seeded early in this cut, but absent from the final edit. The end credits are also slightly different from those eventually adopted for the series.

Trivia: The courtyard set that includes the Exhibition Hall where the art exhibition takes place was repurposed from the film The Dirty Dozen (1967, directed by Robert Aldrich). The interior of the exhibition hall was another redressed version of the versatile Control Room/Number Two’s office set seen in Arrival.

Verdict: A classic tale of thwarted escape, The Chimes of Big Ben is a fan favourite and one of the series’ finest instalments.

Score (Out of Six): Five

Brian J. Robb

1: Arrival

E01 Arrival Title Card

The Prisoner Episode by Episode

E01 Arrival

Transmission: 29 September 1967

Written by George Markstein and David Tomblin

Directed by Don Chaffey 

Story: A spy resigns his role, only to be kidnapped and deposited in The Village, where he is referred to only as Number Six. After exploring his new environment, Number Six resolves to escape his captors…

Who is Number Two? Guy Doleman, George Baker

Guest Cast: Virginia Maskell, Paul Eddington, Christopher Benjamin

Information: The first episode of The Prisoner is a tour-de-force, clearly laying out the scope and ambition of the series, effectively setting the scene of The Village (Portmeirion in North Wales), and establishing the motivations of both Patrick McGoohan’s Number Six and his mysterious captors.

Arrival 1The episode opens with an extended version of what will become the title sequence on most future episodes, as McGoohan’s unnamed spy (although most likely seen by contemporary audiences as a version of his Danger Man character John Drake) is seen to storm into an underground office and furiously resign. He is then followed home by a hearse, gassed and awakens in The Village. In Arrival, this scene-setting sequence runs for a couple of minutes and includes several distinctive shots omitted by the more tightly edited regular title sequence.

Prisoner LogoRon Grainer’s distinctive theme (he was also the man behind the Doctor Who theme) was not the first used for The Prisoner. Robert Farnon (who’d later compose the themes for Colditz, 1975, and Secret Army, 1977) was the first to attempt a suitable opening theme. He was replaced by Wilfred Josephs, whose finished theme can be heard on the alternative version of Arrival [see: Alternate Versions]. However, his work was not deemed suitable for the finished article either. Finally Grainer was brought in, and he produced a surprisingly up-tempo tune which nonetheless perfectly matched the visuals McGoohan had in mind for the titles. Albert Elms was eventually hired to provide the episodic incidental music for the series.

The man behind the desk in the titles is George Markstein, co-writer of Arrival and script editor of The Prisoner. Markstein was born in Germany and emigrated to Britain via the US with the rise of the Nazis in his home country. Working as a journalist for an American military newspaper, Markstein possibly doubled as a spy. In the 1960s he began working on British television, including a stint as a story consultant on Danger Man, the series that starred McGoohan prior to The Prisoner. Along with producer David Tomblin, Markstein was primarily responsible for shaping McGoohan’s ideas for The Prisoner into a form that would attract support from Lew Grade’s ITC. He quit The Prisoner after the first production block of 13 episodes was complete.

There is little revealed about who exactly Number Six was in his previous life in this opening episode. The time and date of birth he gives (4:31am, 19 March 1928) is Patrick McGoohan’s own. All that viewers find out about him is delivered by the script: he has resigned a sensitive post where he had access to secret information. His captors—who may or may not be associated with his former employers—are keen to discover what he knows and whether he has shared this information with anyone else. That establishes the bare bones of the series premise, but as it evolved The Prisoner would morph into something quite different.

McGoohan regarded the script for Arrival as ‘the best pilot script I had ever read’. After extensive sessions with McGoohan working out the basics of the proposed series, Markstein and Tomblin developed the script. Only once they’d finished writing the screenplay for the opening instalment, McGoohan took it upon himself to revise it adding elements that strengthened the political outlook of the character of Number Six, especially in areas of privacy and individuality.

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The first elements shot for the series were those that made up the title sequence, filmed on Sunday 3 September 1966, just over a year before the series made its debut on Britain’s ITV. The following week saw much of the location filming take place at Portmeirion, a picturesque environment McGoohan had first encountered while making an episode of his previous show Danger Man. During this filming the intended mechanical and more robotic ‘Rover’ guard was found to be unworkable, and the now-iconic balloon Rover [pictured above] replaced it (not named as such until E05 The Schizoid Man).

For three days from 13 September 1966 a helicopter (the same featured in the episode) was used to capture the aerial footage of Portmeirion that is so effective in giving the viewer (and Number Six, in his flight with Number Two) a quick and easy feel for the terrain and extent of The Village. The geography of the place (although altered somewhat in filming beyond the actual layout of Portmeirion) is made fairly clear in this episode, so each subsequent instalment took the location as read.

At the start of October 1966 The Prisoner production team and cast were working at MGM Borehamwood Studios where the interior sets were built and shot. A single giant circular set was redressed to be used as the Control Room, Number Two’s HQ within the Green Dome (a building that set would clearly not fit within), and the Labour Exchange. Number Six’s new ‘home’, his cottage in The Village, and the interior of the hospital were also built at Borehamwood.

What’s it All Mean? Arrival works as an introduction to the world of The Prisoner as it does not initially present anything dramatically different from the conception of any other action-adventure spy show from the mid-1960s. McGoohan’s heroic figure, trapped against his will, spars with his captors both verbally and physically (in the first of many fist fights, with each episode seemingly mandated to have one or two). The tropes of a traditional spy thriller, perhaps with a dash of John Le Carre complexity, are all present and correct: a mysterious controlling figure, a traitor in the ranks (Paul Eddington’s Cobb), and a McGuffin sought by everyone (the reason for Number Six’s resignation). Perhaps the Rover balloon guard is a bit weird, but there is nothing in Arrival that would serve to confuse or alienate the audience. That wouldn’t be the case by the end of the series.

The first episode clearly lays out McGoohan’s views of the individual versus the state or authority. His character of Number Six embodies such distinct individualism. One of his main additions to the opening script was very important in this respect: ‘We just went a little further in certain areas,’ said McGoohan of his alterations to the work of Markstein and Tomblin. ‘The political area, for instance. That great banner I was always waving around: “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered!” I wouldn’t have done it if I couldn’t have written that in.’

Arrival 3Slowly, however, almost imperceptible, The Prisoner changes from being simply an episode of another spy-fi show like Department S or The Avengers. Strange things begin to happen. The Rover security balloon is an imaginative oddity, and the command given by Number Two to the citizens of The Village is obeyed immediately, almost as if they have no choice (except for one unfortunate, who provides a handy example of Rover’s effectiveness). The Control Room depicts a host of high tech equipment, the purpose of which the audience can only guess at, although it is clear that it plays a part in the total surveillance environment of The Village.

All these elements begin to develop an atmosphere of paranoia and dread, ably captured by McGoohan’s frantic turn as Number Six: he is clearly furious about his predicament, but is doing all he can to hold in any violent or emotional outbursts until he is absolutely pushed to his limit. By the end of the episode, he is almost content to take his new life in The Village at face value, all the while planning to test the extent of his captivity and the effectiveness of his captors’ security methods.

Fist Fight: The first fight of the series for Number Six takes place on the beach.

Alternative Versions: A longer version of Arrival (running 74 minutes) featuring different theme music and several alternative or extended scenes saw a DVD release (in a low resolution copy) in 2003. The later blu-ray release of the series features a much better quality version of this episode, a curious variation on the well-known first episode that Patrick McGoohan hoped no one would ever see…

Trivia: The distinctive Rover sound effect was developed by sound editor Wilf Thompson, drawing on such diverse sources as a choir of monks, a recording of a screaming man, and the sound of a tyre inner tube filled with shotgun pellets.

Verdict: A near-perfect introduction to the series, Arrival sets out the stall of The Prisoner effectively but barely hints at the madness yet to come… 

Score (Out of Six): Five

Brian J. Robb