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.
Colin 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.
In 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.
Unknown 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.
This 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