The Prisoner: Arrival

Arrived To-Day Made Very Welcome
The Prisoner: Episode 1 Arrival
Written by George Markstein & David Tomblin
Directed by Don Chaffey
"I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed or debriefed. My life is my own".
A man drives to a secret office underneath a car park, where he hands in a letter marked "Private & Confidential". He's resigned. We follow him to his home, where he is gassed. When he wakes up, in a perfect replica of his home, he opens the blinds to find ... he's in The Village. Nobody will tell him where he is, he can't hire a car to leave, and the head, simply known as No.2, wants to know why he resigned from a Top Secret post. The man tries to escape, but escape is impossible. He is to be known as No.6, as all the villagers are only known by numbers, not names.
For any show with a thematic approach or story arc, the initial set up or pilot episode is crucial. It sets the tone and hints at further developments. The Prisoner's opening episode is a classic of the form. The opening credit sequence brilliantly sets up the premise, secret agent (we presume) quits, is followed, gassed unconscious and wakes up having been spirited away to a picturesque but strange place. The brilliance here is that he doesn't wake up in a cell to be immediately interrogated. He roams around, trying to find out where he is, and we similarly bemused follow his journey. Everything seems normal, a café, a general store, an information stand, a taxi service. But the café just tells him this is The Village, the general store map of the area is just a map of the village, surrounded by The Mountains and The Sea, the information stand explains nothing, it's just a list, and the taxi service  merely takes him on a tour of The Village but brings him back exactly where he started ("I did say it was only local").
Only the odd thing, like the cordless telephone (this is 20 years before mobiles) and the fact that Poles and Czechs, who in the Cold War era were our enemies, might live there, hint at something strange. When The Prisoner finally meets No.2 ("The Green Dome"), we realise that no matter how picturesque, this is a prison, and what they want is information, without giving any themselves (when The Prisoner asks which side of the Cold War The Village is this is neatly evaded). We realise where we are now, a Kafkaesque Wonderland that, no matter how gilded ("you're looked after here") the cage, it's a cage. As in the first episode, we expect that No.6, as he is now known, will not talk but escape. A sort of spy drama with a slightly off-kilter Sci-Fi element (e.g. Rover), but  a routine spy drama nonetheless.
Since the protagonist(whom we assume at this juncture to be the hero) is played by Patrick McGoohan, fresh from his success as John Drake in Danger Man (USA title Secret Agent), we expect him to do so quickly, then spend the rest of the series trying to find out who runs The Village and why. Indeed this was what the first series of 13 episodes was intended to be. Of course, nothing of the sort was to occur, as the series brilliantly mutated. Though the opening promises what it eventually will not deliver, it stands in its own right.
The script, as indicated above, is superbly and adroitly paced. There's a lot packed into 48 minutes. The necessary explicatory dialogue about the village is finely handled as a helicopter tour of 
The Village by No.2, showing No.6 all the amenities whilst pointing out that escape is impossible ("we also have our own graveyard"). There are not one but two escape attempts, the first a desperate attempt to flee which is ended by Rover, the second with the aid of No.9, who gives him an electronic security key allowing him to evade Rover and take off in the helicopter.
This is actually the first in what would become many subtle ploys by The Village to make him think he's escaped, either to make him open up and confess, or to yank him cruelly back, as  here, demonstrating that escape is indeed impossible. This contemporary 60s concern would develop into a major theme of the series. 
He also meets a colleague of his, Cobb, who was similarly abducted and is being interrogated, which would suggest that The Village isn't run by 'his' side (presumably British intelligence). Cobb's 'suicide' is the first hint at the brutally cruel and relentless nature of The Village, prepared to accept the destruction of human life in its pursuit of information. The fact that it takes place in a hospital setting is another 60s concern and major theme that would be developed in later episodes. The fact that Cobb is turned is another example of 60s spy paranoia (e.g. the Cambridge spies), and another concern also of the 60s counterculture (how anyone can be absorbed and assimilated into the 'establishment'). 
The script belies having two authors. George Markstein was the Script Editor (as he had been on Danger Man), so he would be concerned with the plot mechanics and for setting up the show's bible for future writers. David Tomblin, who'd also worked on Danger Man as an assistant director, was co-founder with McGoohan of Everyman Films (who made the show) and producer of the show. He would be concerned with making sure McGoohan's creative input would be respected, as well as for the production aspects. Indeed, it could be interesting to see the eventual tension of the show between the surface spy drama plot, and the underlying thematic concerns, as being evident even in the beginning, with these two representing the differing poles. Though McGoohan would eventually take all creative control of the show, so much so that Markstein would resign from his post (he is not responsible for the three filler episodes or the finale), whilst Tomblin took over for the three filler episodes (he wrote one and directed two), for reasons I'll discuss then. In a wonderful sense of irony, Markstein played the man in the office in the opening credits, and it would be McGoohan who would hand in his resignation, week after week, to him.
Now the above plot summary might make the show appear dour and 'heavy', if not downright pretentious, and far too literary a conceit (Kafka meets Orwell and Huxley by way of Lewis Carroll), a potential trap which its (many) imitators often fall into. But it's saved by not only the production aspects (more anon) but by the lovely sly humour of much of its dialogue. There are many instances, peppered throughout, but here's a few to prove the point. In the General Stores 
No.6 asks for a map. He's given one, but it's simply a map of The Village, bordered on three sides by The Mountains and one side by The Sea. "No, I meant a larger map" says No.6, "Only in colour, much more expensive" replies No.19 the Shopkeeper. On finding that it's literally a larger version of the same Map, the increasingly infuriated No.6 says "I meant a larger area". "We only have local maps," the Shopkeeper kindly tries to explain "there's no demand for any others". In a prison there never is.
And in the first of what would become regular verbal sparring with No.2, there's the Helicopter tour. "Quite a beautiful place really, isn't it? Almost like  a world of its own" to which No.6 replies "I shall miss it when I'm gone". Again, No.2 says "Did you know we have our own little newspaper?" to which No.6 sardonically replies "you must send me a copy". But No.2's repeated comment "it will grow on you" is a warning that there's a Bastile gulag behind the polite Italianate facades, as with the dialogue, a case of the iron fist with a velvet tongue.
Of course, to pull this off you need acting of the highest calibre, and on a Patrick McGoohan show you never get less (those that tried got fired, whether cast or crew). McGoohan is never less than exemplary, his humour never completely dispelling his utter determination to escape. Take Guy Doleman and George Baker as the two No.2s (and that's another brilliant piece of plotting, having the Village chiefs regularly rotate, but it's audacious to do this within the first episode, immediately pulling the rug from under audience expectation). They play slightly different variations on the boss, Doleman all bonhomie and hail-fellow-well-met club president, Baker the matter-of-fact pragmatic administrator.
Paul Eddington
nicely etches No.6's erstwhile colleague who turns sides. "Don't be too hard on the girl" he says to No.2 who replies "don't worry, she'll be well taken care off". "Yes, that's what I was afraid of" Cobb avers. Virginia Maskell, in sadly her penultimate role, makes the most of an underwritten role, more a plot device than a person, but she makes us believe in her. Among the support, there's a nicely judged performance by Jack Allen as The Doctor (number unknown), all gently consoling and oh-so-reasonable as he give
s No.6 his physical.
Of course, on first viewing in 1967, the most immediately apparent factor was The Village itself. Where was it (in reality as well as in fictional terms)? There were no domestic video recorders then but eagle-eyed fans of Danger Man might have recognised it. The use of Portmeirion as the setting is inspired. It functions both on a  surface level, as the picturesque neo-classical resort it in reality is, and as an Alcatraz. One of the guilty pleasures the show trades on is the beauty of the place. How many of us would really mind being imprisoned there? Especially with all its amenities. Oddly, the place looks much larger on TV than it actually is. But the fact that for 17 weeks, give or take an odd week, the drama would take place in such a distinctive but closed environment gives the series a sense of being hermetically sealed from the outside real world, which could then be used most fruitfully creatively as a thematically sealed environment, not only from the outside world No.6 was abducted from, but also as it turned out from other episodes of the show. For the nonce, it's  a great film set (and it does look like a film set, if it didn't exist you'd have to build it), which perfectly physically demonstrates that escape can only be by air or by sea.
But along with the everyday mundane realities of The Village (the tinned foods, the weather announcement, the familiar civic architecture of Town Hall and Labour Exchange) there's also an unsettling element of Sci-Fi that borders almost on 'magic'. What exactly is Rover ("that would be telling" as No.2 says). Along with the music in No.6's home (which isn't created by the radio, as it continues even when No.6 smashes the set)  and the bizarre psycho therapy, there's a hints of surrealism, or maybe that The Village (and hence the show itself) operates on a more subconscious rather than conscious rational level. This would explain the constant interplay between the benevolent veneers of The Village (the surface conscious level) and the malevolent function (the underlying subconscious level), as in statues that turn and are in reality spy cameras, or the Civic structures, like  a democratically elected Town Council in a prison, or radio sets that don't play music but are there as familiar part of the visual sensual architecture (the Electrician even replaces the broken set with a new one even while the music is still being played - it's automatic, explains the Maid, No.66). Most obviously, the geodesic domes hiding behind the Italianate facades of neo-classical buildings, like No.2's office.

The Production design and costumes are also brilliant, and instantly give the show  a distinctive look. Television being a primarily visual medium, the 'surface' look of  a show is important in whether an audience will or will not watch a show. But here the look is not only captivating and beguiling  but also thematically and formally consistent, 
from the use of lower Albertus typeface which extends to the show's credits itself (the interior and exterior of the show mirrored). The use of signage is excellent, from the exhortatory "walk on the grass", a classic example of an illusory freedom, to the Labour Exchange signs, pictured.
This is a classic example of authoritarianism hiding behind paternalistic micro-management.
This, plus the look of The Village homes, at once familiar (from our own urban civic architecture) but strange (it's not an English village), and the costuming (bowler hats, piped blazers, sailing pumps) all tap into archetypes, again a form of the (cultural) subconscious, the costumes evoking Eton and public schools, the Civic institutions the perfect imagined community of Welfare State conservatism (no new buildings, the functional rooms like The Surveillance Centre or Control Room hide within the shells of historical structures). This is bolstered by the superb incidental music, some of which I've included, which often taps nursery rhymes, hence we get  a heady brew of childhood, innocence, and the subconscious, like a sleepy Edwardian summer, but one taking place in a Soviet gulag. This would add in later episodes where the constant drugging would reinforce the slightly somnambulant subconscious mode and themes of  storytelling. Notice how concrete particulars that could puncture the dull conformity like personal names, even an actual place name for The Village, are avoided.
So, an excellent first episode. It functions as a superb piece of entertainment, only the colour episodes of The Avengers (also shown in 1967) matching the show for its stylishness, cool production design, wit and excitement. How could anyone possibly resist watching next week? Pat's bound to escape, after all he's Danger Man! How could one possibly escape watching The Prisoner. Be seeing you! Yes, indeed. 

VILLAGE rating (out of 6): No.6
Cast

The Prisoner ................................................................... PATRICK McGOOHAN
The Woman .................................................................... VIRGINIA MASKELL
Number Two ................................................................... GUY DOLEMAN
Cobb ............................................................................... PAUL EDDINGTON
The New Number Two .................................................... GEORGE BAKER
The Butler ........................................................................ ANGELO MUSCAT
Taxi Driver ........................................................................ BARBARA YU LING
Maid ................................................................................. STEPHANIE RANDALL
Doctor .............................................................................. JACK ALLEN
Welfare Worker ................................................................ FABIA DRAKE
Shopkeeper ...................................................................... DENIS SHAW
Gardener/Electrician ........................................................ OLIVER MaCGREEVY 
Ex-Admiral ......................................................................... FREDERICK PIPER
Waitress ............................................................................. PATSY SMART
Labour Exchange Manager ............................................... CHRISTOPHER BENJAMIN
Supervisor ......................................................................... PETER SWANWICK
Hospital Attendant ............................................................. DAVID GARFIELD
1st Guardian ..................................................................... PETER BRACE
2nd Guardian .................................................................... KEITH PEACOCK
Incidental Music
Be Seeing You!

Comments

  1. Once again a terrific review so I'll B-CING you soon for more.

    ReplyDelete

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