Dreams, Dark Deeds, and the Shape of Shadows as yet Unformed.

“All that we see or seem, is but a dream within a dream.” Edgar Allan Poe

 ‘One of the finest examples of ‘The Prisoner’ “exploiting the possibilities in film for playing with its own nature as illusion.”’ The Observer.

 “He was an actor that all the acting community really admired.” Sheila Allen.

“At the time I thought the notion of dream manipulation was quite fun.” Writer Anthony Skene.


Ill Met by Moonlight.

With ‘Arrival’ and ‘The Chimes of Big Ben’ both introducing the twin threads of ‘Village’ exploration and escape attempts, the virgin audience was baffled wondering what awaited them in the third instalment of this intriguing series. Again, an attempt to find out the ‘why’ of the prisoner’s resignation, however, they were not to be disappointed as a further dimension of the puzzle was revealed. In this episode the audience began to see more than a glimpse of tampering with the mind, which would become one of the series recurring major themes. Although viewers tend to remember ‘The Prisoner’ as Number 6 always trying to escape, within the series arc, a number of episodes eschew this obvious device, preferring to turn inward and focus on what might be termed, internal Village ‘tales’, participation, interaction, and exploration. Others that most readily come to mind, apart from this episode, would be: ‘Free for All’, ‘The General’, ‘Hammer into Anvil’, and ‘It’s Your Funeral’. Then, ‘A Change of Mind’, ‘The Girl who was Death, ‘Living in Harmony’, and, of course, ‘Once Upon a Time’.


Most of the action here takes place either in the hidden dark heart of the Village, or, cleverly escaping the Village environment altogether, transported to a (studio bound) Paris. Given the absence of location footage, excepting that for linking scenes, perhaps surprisingly, this episode has always ranked highly in admirers’ eyes. In Six of One member polls, initially seventh, then sixth, a giddy fourth, dropping to eleventh at one stage, finally settling at fifth in 2017. Also given that this offering regularly relegated a number of Portmeirion location-oriented episodes to lower in the order, this translates as quite an achievement for an episode filmed entirely within the confines of Borehamwood! If the reader is considering the ‘why’ this may be, apart from some accomplished acting, particularly McGoohan’s, and the assured direction of Pat Jackson, it distils simply as the quality of Anthony Skene’s script, a writer on the wavelength the creative force was intent on recruiting.


Skene had been one of the first writers approached by Markstein. This resulted in him writing, ‘Dance of the Dead’, which he understood would be the second episode to be screened. He was not alone in this belief, as Vincent Tilsley and Gerald Kelsey, authors of respectively, ‘The Chimes of Big Ben’, and ‘Checkmate,’ were also under that impression.


This scriptwriter singularly appeared to grasp the series premise, which was no mean feat, and he was to provide three of the series most thoughtful scripts, a number only equalled by McGoohan. His scripts are amongst the finest. Clever, highly literate, and quite enthralling. As Tomblin explained, “At the beginning, as the scripts came back, because it was quite a new idea, they were off-line quite often. So, the first few were difficult really.” When interviewed in 1977, McGoohan related, “It was very difficult because they were also prisoners of conditioning, and they were used to writing for ‘The Saint’, or ‘Danger Man’… We lost a few a few by the wayside. In another interview from 1992, he added, “If there was anything too easy in the script, I asked for it to be changed.” Markstein himself commented, “It became a sort of challenge for the writers, that part of the show was great fun.” If the reader considers this script, ‘Many Happy Returns’, and ‘Dance of the Dead’, they almost provide a mini sub-series themselves. All have elements of Greek mythology, a striking degree of surrealism, an ‘otherworldliness’, and at times, almost poetic dialogue, laden with ambiguity. Although ‘Dance of the Dead’ was written first, it was screened eighth. Both ‘A B and C’ and ‘Many Happy Returns’, although commissioned after ‘Dance’, were screened before that episode saw the light of day. The major reason is that, as I relate in the relevant chapter, it proved difficult to cut, so languished discarded on a shelf before being rescued by editor John S Smith. When asked about this script, Skene responded, “I did ‘Dance of the Dead’… first, and maybe did something to set the pattern. I think it did set the singular oddness.” After submitting this script, Skene submitted, ‘A B & C’ which was filmed tenth, (the production commencing 13th February 1967,) then finally ‘Many Happy Returns’, being filmed thirteenth. This latter episode may have been envisaged as a suitable candidate to conclude season one, as at that time Grade was intent on requesting further episodes.


Tomblin had concerns that the Village was proving limiting, and devised an ingenious idea. “I felt there was a danger of the series becoming claustrophobic in one sense and was trying to think of ideas to get it out of the Village but keep it in the Village.” I corresponded with Skene in 1994, and he explained, “George was in disfavour by ‘A B & C’, though still daily working in his office. Tomblin wanted to do an episode using lots of stock-shots he knew about. Number 6 in front of back-projection of Morocco, or somewhere. I thought that crappy so went and did ‘A B & C’, stitching it up fairly tight so that any picking would lead them into problems.”  He added, ““Money was running tight by A B & C’, so I put on my wellies and tramped over MGM’s backlot. The church door, the French street, were all leftovers, the street from ‘Dirty Dozen’. Other bits, too. People think writers spend their lives on a chaise-longue!”


Skene had got the original commission to write for ‘The Prisoner’ from Markstein. The script editor, had seen a rather ‘prisonerish’ play of his in the Redifusion television season, ‘Seven Deadly Sins’. (See the ‘Dance of the Dead’ chapter.) “Another producer who took me up after the sins was Michael Chapman at (then) ABC. He and George became two of my best employers.” Somewhat ruefully, he reflected, “When George got the boot from ‘The Prisoner’ he asked me what he should do. I said go to tape (real) television, it’s much more fun and much more writer-oriented. So, he got himself the job of literary manager at ABC. There where he spent the rest of his life working with Michael Chapman. So, two employers became one and I wished I’d kept my mouth shut.”


Above I have drawn attention to four of the themes that all feature in Skene’s episodes, to these we must also add dreams. Here very much to the fore. ‘Arrival’ one might interpret as a nuanced observation on the emerging sixties’ consumer manipulation society, ‘The Chimes of Big Ben’ on the Cold War paranoia. Now, still in spy genre territory, ‘A B & C’, took another facet of the sixties zeitgeist in a further direction, the use of mind-altering drugs to invade the mind. I suggest that placing this episode third in the screening order may have been because all three concentrate on why the P resigned, strongly establishing the unfolding narrative drive of the series. The later episodes explore other, more philosophical, innovative, and fantastical territory

Here it is plumbing the depths of the P’s unconscious, through dream infiltration, teasing and extracting his secrets. The writer explained, “At the time I thought the notion of dream manipulation was quite fun. It was also extremely ‘heroic’ which is to be desired for leading men in series drama – to work out while you are asleep that you are dreaming and then taking control of your own dream.” The ITC publicity sheet of the time explains, ‘There was the problem of getting No. 6 out of the Village. Dreams seemed to be the answer. But dreaming is too passive for a hero, so the dreams had to be created, forced on him by the Village authorities; this gives a double unreality – a dream in what is almost a dream – two sets of logic in parallel.’ Hope you are still with me?

The informed viewer may recall the ‘Danger Man’ episode, ‘The Ubiquitous Mr Lovegrove’, certainly the most surreal, weirdest, inventive and imaginatively fantastic hour in that entire series. (The reader may recollect I have discussed this in my opening chapter.) Apart from the fact that dreams provide the bulk of the narrative both there and in this episode, it is in the ‘straightening the mirror’ scene here in act three that the two achieve the greatest synchronicity. Nevertheless, to this writer, in character, mood, and atmosphere, I feel ‘Mr Lovegrove’ is a more suited companion to ‘Dance of the Dead’. In both the central protagonist is largely reactive, unconscious, rather than driving the story. Manipulated in one, whilst lost in his dreams in the other. We will return to the concept of dreams and dreaming later in this chapter, for now, let us note that in Freudian psychology dreams portray and reveal deep unconscious feelings, desires, and closely-guarded secrets. They impart messages to our conscious mind from our inner world.

The audience would be quite prepared to accept that drugs existed that would be capable of profound mind-altering, penetrating and controlling another’s consciousness. At that time awareness of the effects of these substances, from cannabis to the more powerful lysergic acid diethylamide, (LSD), were becoming well-known, particularly with both emerging youth and within the counter-culture itself, where American psychologist Timothy Leary urged those wishing to ‘expand their minds’ to, “Turn on, tune in, and drop out.” In passing, mention must be made of the progressive rock band, The ‘Moody Blues’ and their song, ‘Legend of a Mind’, that begins, “Timothy Leary’s dead, no, no, he’s outside, looking in.” The song, on the band’s second album, ‘In Search of the Lost Chord’, released in 1968, epitomised the search for meaning and spirituality that embraced Eastern mysticism, psychodelia, recreational drugs, particularly the mind-expanding properties of marijuana and LSD, as advocated by Leary and others.


Although the plot of this episode is the administration of an untested experimental drug, in order to infiltrate, then manipulate the P’s dreams, in an attempt to discover why he resigned. It is also about morality, the ‘end justifying the means’. A scientist compromising her moral code, for what she has persuaded herself is the ‘greater good’. A Number 2 who, through his own fear of authority, is fixated and uses fear himself as a tool to press his ruthless determination. We will encounter a similar personality type in the later episode, ‘Hammer into Anvil’. Both are flawed characters, both bullies. In Psychological terms, what is termed learned behaviour. Someone who is themselves bullied, generally bullies others, just as someone who is unhappy with themselves seeks to inflict their unhappiness on those around them. On one level it is an unconscious cry for help. The P is secure in himself. He has a code of morality which ensured he resigned. An individual who does not possess a code of ethics does not generally understand another who lives by them. This is why Number 2 is unable to grasp the reason for the P’s resignation, believing it must be due to a course of action, one that he himself, might be prepared to take.


To have thought that The Prisoner might be in any way a simple drama, perhaps related to Danger Man, if not already dispelled after the first two episodes, would here be further eroded. We may talk of the deeper philosophical levels that would become more apparent, but the layers of reality are now becoming quite complex. There was the ‘real’ world, from which the P resigned, physically finding himself in the parallel world of the Village. Now we explore the dream world, initially manipulated, then commandeered. A ‘door’, into the mind has been opened, that by degrees, will explore: the false identity in ‘The Schizoid Man’, the ‘dream’ of ‘Dance of the Dead’, graduating to the very dramatic and surreal, ‘Do Not Forsake’, the hallucinatory, ‘Living in Harmony’, pure invention in, ‘The Girl Who Was Death’, and finally, the audacious crescendo, ‘Fall Out’. To all this, we should add that there might be a convincing case for another dimension, the entire series to wholly be taking place in the P’s head, as, mind focussed, and taut against the wind, he speeds down the runway.


Act One.

“If you haven’t got a price, you must have a reason.” ‘A’

(A cut line would have been, “Yes. They used to work together.” Number 2.)

With an incisive, dramatic flourish the viewer is plunged straight into the action.  An edgy, agitated, clearly burdened Number 2 paces his living quarters. in the foreground, looming menacingly, a futuristic and intimidating red telephone, the unknown caller clearly able to instil fear into the milk-imbibing Village administrator. A sharp decision, a jagged streak of lightning, a crack of thunder, (a knowing nod to countless ‘horror’ films dating back to James Whale’s 1931 ‘Frankenstein’), and a plan is catapulted into action.


It is night. Rain accentuates the drama. A drugged comatose P is wheeled on a trolley into a medical laboratory. (Possibly causing a few of the more sensitive viewers with an aversion to hospitals to swoon.) It could have been more horrific. The script specifies ‘A background of equipment and rabbits in cages.’ This particular episode is a prime candidate for being classified as a ‘horror fantasy’.


The script title underwent a number of incarnations, initially headed, ‘Play in Three Acts’, then ‘1, 2, and 3’, finally emerging as ‘A. B. and C’. It is said that an alternative version of this episode, under its original title of ‘Play in Three Acts’, is held in the Carlton International Archive. The key opening scene wherein Skene’s literate and well constructed script imparts to the audience this episode’s premise helps explain why not only the series fans enjoy it so much, but it was also rumoured to be Tomblin’s favourite. It is referenced in the 1994 crime thriller, ‘Killing Zoë’, where a character declares, “The best episode is ‘A. B. and C’”. Let us briefly remind ourselves of the story arc before looking more closely at a number of the more relevant and significant scenes and developments.


Given that the episodes directed by Chaffey enjoyed the luxury of comparatively ample preparation time and a location shoot, the direction here by Pat Jackson is perhaps not as lyrical and flowing, but his crisp style is ideal. Jackson had been contacted by McGoohan to direct the technically complex ‘The Schizoid Man’, some two months before. When Michael Truman, who was to have directed this episode, fell ill, Jackson stepped in at short notice.


We commence with a brief exchange of cut dialogue when Numbers 2 and 14 are attaching the wires to the P’s temples.  Number 14 instructs 2, “Hold his head”. Whilst doing this the P unconsciously tries to twist his head. 14 says, “You can let go now. I thought he might scream at the beginning.” 2 responds, “Like being born?” In a sense we lose nothing by the absence of this exchange, however the scripting of these lines indicates the sensitivity, skill, the imagination of the writer, and his oblique way of looking at the world. Many of his lines hint at an unstated deeper meaning. Should we take the ambiguous nature of this dialogue to imply that, just as a baby has no control, fully relying on others, so is the P, as he is to be probed mentally, yielding his deepest secrets in some way bears a comparison?


Then, when first gaining access to the P’s dreams, they observe his resignation scene, repeatedly. 14 tells 2, “It’s an anguish pattern”. Anguish is defined as, ‘excruciating or acute distress, suffering, or pain’. This writer interprets this recurring resignation scene differently. I see it as the P stressing his resolve, his belief in an action he felt of paramount importance. Not a sign of weakness, but of inner strength.


Although the reason for the P’s resignation is never revealed, and his career is never divulged, when we consider ‘The Chimes of Big Ben’, ‘Many Happy Returns’, and ‘Do Not Forsake’, it is made clear that, in some unspecified way, he worked within the security services. We were to only learn in ‘Arrival’ of his resignation, and clearly, he was a man of value, as, Number 2 stated, “The information in your head is priceless. I don’t think you realise what a valuable property you have become. A man like you is in great demand on the open market.”  In ‘Chimes’ a sophisticated deception is meticulously effected, the forceful and intense Colonel presses him, “You resigned from a post of the highest possible secrecy on this country.” We discover nothing more as the focus concerns his reason for resigning. It is in this third instalment that a persuasive impression is given that he might well have been a spy. Number 2 talks of the P selling out. Perhaps to ‘A’, a spy that had defected. He confirms that ‘B’ is, “From a long line of spies.” Although this is the only time that term is voiced in this episode, the ambiance, the dialogue, the secrecy, the subterfuge, all provide a potent and powerful argument to support this deduction. Then, just to cloud the issue, and confound us, in a 1967 interview, the star said, “’The Prisoner’ is all about freedom. It’s about a top scientist, who has vital space secrets in his head…”


It is worth noting that, once transported out of the Village, the tense and intense, confrontational, often angry P is far more at ease, urbane, social and relaxed. This change in persona may be as he is no longer confined.  He has become a ‘free man’, now in control of his destiny. A combination of astute writing from Skene, allied with McGoohan’s acting skills.


The plot is very engaging: a clever puzzle, well structured and full of surprises. The explanatory conversation between, Numbers 2 and 14 neatly informs the viewer of what exactly is in store. Number 2 believes the P was ‘selling out’, so, via a series of manipulated drug-induced dreams, the P’s life would proceed as though he had not been abducted. With Skene, each word is chosen with care, laden with promise, and each advances the plot.


© David Barrie 2024. All rights reserved.