THE UNMUTUAL PRISONER ARTICLE ARCHIVE
UNKINDEST CUT OF ALL
By Peter Dunn (Adapted from a 1995 article in "Camera Obscura")
I magine the feeling of expectation. Your finger poised on the button like Khruschev and Kennedy. After a prolonged wait of seven years you finally get the chance to videotape a pristine, off-air, copy of one of your favourite hours of TV drama.
You sit impatiently through the eternally long credits at the end of "The Winds Of War". The commercials begin. The waiting is over and then ... then ... the ****ing electricity mains has a power cut! All is darkness. You try not to shout and swear too loud as there are children next door. But in the end you still become a prime candidate for the principal role in "Fawlty Towers - The Next Generation".
It is certainly true to say that "The Prisoner" episode "A. B. & C." is not generally considered to be in a lot of fans top five episodes but I must admit the weird dreamy party element appeals to me. One of the reasons is that back in '67 this was the episode that consolidated "The Prisoner" in my mind as THE series to watch and boy was there competition in those days. Many including myself believe the autumn of that year saw the zenith in popular television entertainment. In one week provided you lived in the ATV Midlands catchment area you were privileged to enjoy the premiere of such all-time class as "Man In A Suitcase" a new series of "The Saint" (made in colour, not that we were aware of this in the UK) and that fabulous Friday 29th of September when "Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons" and "The Prisoner" began just a few hours apart.
I seem to
recall "A. B. & C." was the third story shown and its overtly
S.F. elements were a surprise to me back then as I had simply taken the series
to be a continuation of "Danger Man" but with stranger music. The
sequence where Number Six's head is connected to the dream recorder reminded
me of the scene a few weeks earlier in the first broadcast "Man In A Suitcase"
episode "Brainwash" and no doubt having the same
composer also added to the superfluous similarity.
I was familiar with the new Number Two as actor Colin Gordon had played a similar mysterious authority figure as Templeton-Green, the spymaster in ITC's 1966 film series "The Baron". It has been mentioned in the past that "The Prisoner" may not have been a spy, but the air of intrigue surrounding the three suspects "A, B and C" would suggest otherwise and the fight by the oar between McGoohan and Peter Bowles has many of the hall marks of the more absurd fisticuffs produced in the later "Danger Man" shows.
There is, of course, very little genuine Portmeirion footage utilised and the party scenes seem deliberately to be both old-fashioned in visual style and yet timeless with an eerie European flavour. McGoohan is at his most uninhibitedly theatrical in these sections. The tense, easily aggravated captive makes way for a much more urbane, relaxed, almost gregarious, creature. A mixture of Lord Peter Wimsey and Simon Templar, but still as enigmatic as ever. This change in persona is attributable to the fact that outside of his village prison, Number Six, or whatever he is, no longer feels so confined so we see a character who, for the first time in the series, is under complete control of his destiny. Or so he mistakenly believes. You may notice that Number Six's usual highly confrontational nature is muted when apprehended by A. The only other time The Prisoner reacts to events in this untypical manner is during "The Girl Who Was Death" when again he is virtually a `free man' within the context of the plot which also evolves through his own imagination, spurred on via outside influences. In that instance the storybook, in "A. B. & C." the tapes.
If the viewer is aware of McGoohan's refusal to contemplate filming romantic scenes since his betrothal to Miss Drummond then the interplay between Number Six and B takes on an added entertainment value as he ingeniously avoids bodily contact with her even when the script dictated that they should be dancing together. Unfortunately the second, more suspenseful, half of their brief encounter would appear (or rather not appear) to have been condemned to the waste-bin courtesy of some brain-dead ITV scheduling barbarian during the 70s. If you want to watch the missing segment then alas it's off to the video store with you me proud beauty.
When the episode resumes after Edward Scissorhands has finished with it we are just in time to see Number Six pop outside and spot Number 14 coming out of the back of Government House which in the real village would mean he must have been dangling from a cliff as there is a steep drop from his P.O.V. This just proves that familiarity does indeed breed contempt in we Portmeirion patrons if we are not careful. There then follows the pivotal scene where Number Six turns the tables on his captors with the long silent sequence of the prisoner discovering the hidden laboratory.
What comes next is probably my favourite piece in the whole series. Suddenly the mood of Engadine's party has changed. Instead of a rigidly mannered formal gathering of earlier, the room has now become wildly noisy with the guests laughing, dancing and shouting. Number Six is clearly in the same mood as the rest of them and seems to be somewhat inebriated as he struggles to straighten the wall mirror. The most obvious comparison here is with the "Danger Man" episode "The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove" which as the episode progresses gets weirder and crazier. I wonder if it is just a coincidence that the roulette croupier is played by the same actor in both productions.
There is a scene in the 1955 Orson Welles movie "Confidential Report" where Robert "Saber Of London" Arden gatecrashes a similarly wild party and the camera angles utilised have much in common with those on "A. B. & C.". Another Welles film of the 50s, "Three Tales Of Murder" also features a bizarre dream where his behaviour resembles McGoohan's. These connections may not be quite as tenuous as first appears because McGoohan is reputed to have worked with Welles on the latter's production of "Moby Dick" which premiered on June 16th 1955 at the Duke Of York's Theatre in London. So McGoohan probably had seen these two films around that time.
Incidentally, according to Charles Higham's biography "Orson Welles - The Rise And Fall of An American Genius", Welles filmed the production, but before we all badger Channel 4 to screen it, sadly the book goes on to say that the film may have been destroyed in a fire at Welles' home in Spain. Imagine what losing the only copy of his films, several of which were engulfed, apparently, must have meant to poor old Orson.
All the dialogue in "A. B. & C."'s scene where the key is used to identify C has a craftily double edge to it as the camera-work becomes even more eccentric. Luckily, the obviously artificial back projection of the drive to the gates seems to fit the atmosphere perfectly. The costume of the masked man (D) is won-derfully mysterious and Robert Rietty's voice-over compliments the atmosphere perfectly. The look on the fact of Number Two when the supposedly hidden sanctum of the laboratory appears on their screen is marvellous as the dream merges with Number Two's reality. It must go down as one of Number Six's most satisfying victories.
The construction of the script is solid and compared to, for instance, "Dance Of The Dead" the narrative makes sense. "D.O.T.D." also has a deliciously eerie atmosphere but I feel it has one of the most unsatisfying conclusions. Back in the mid-80s, as I mentioned earlier, the electricity power cut forced me to miss the start of the programme and by the time power was restored during the first commercial break I was hopping mad. As it turned out, the print was cut in the same place as the recent Channel 4 screening. "A. B. & C." has not had too much luck when it comes to screenings. It was blacked-out completely due to strike action during the original run on Scottish TV and one of the regions (Scottish TV again, I think) showed it with the film reels in the wrong order.
I used to have a copy of this particular broadcast and it became `affectionately' known as "A. C. & B" for obvious reasons. It may be only a coincidence, but the mistake in the reel order occurred at exactly the place in the episode where the Channel 4 missing section begins. The channel were informed before the 1992 screening that they had previously broadcast a mutilated copy but they nonetheless still let loose the truncated version on a frustrated fandom. The most obvious reason for this is that they simply used the telecine recording made for the mid-80s purchase although I believe they have denied this. We should remember that they were told by "The Avengers" fan club about the chopped-up Steed and Peel colour shows but continued to run them regardless.
Happy days should have been here again in '92 even with the missing bit still missing, but muggins here was foolish enough to employ a brand of videotape that it turned out was fit only for wrapping Christmas presents. (It had a life-time guarantee that ensured the tape was as crap 10 years on as it was on the day I bought it.) But fear not, this tale has a happy ending thanks to a Woolworths bargain bin. One of their ever-attentive staff has incorrectly price labelled the Channel 5 video of "Free For All" and "A. B. & C." at £4.99 and it now resides in my video collection.
With all the problems I've had trying to get a decent copy of "A. B. & C." it's a wonder I didn't have nightmares! Pleasant dreams.
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