The Prisoner Compressed

By David Fakrikian

Challenging. Fascinating. Mysterious. Dazzling. Thematically complex. An oddity, that stands the test of time. For over 50 years, The Prisoner has never ceased to baffle audiences, gaining new generations while still keeping the old ones.

It is a fascinating puzzle. A metamorph series, that can be dismantled and put back together in many orders, shapes and forms. Was n°6 a secret agent named John Drake, as story editor George Markstein insisted? Or a top scientist with secrets in his head who resigned, as the star suggested to interviewer Mike Tomkies in an interview for the Daily Mail on september 1st, 1967? You decide.

But there is one question mark about the series, that always stayed in suspension, with an answer that no one has been able to find, until now.

For me, it all started out back in the late 80's, with the publication of The Prisoner Companion. The book was full of errors, and was justifiably criticised by McGoohan, but there were nonetheless a few tiny bits of facts and information still to be found in it.

On page 134, a paragraph is devoted to the mythical 1983 L.A. Interview tape. Inside the paragraph, the authors mention that "during the interview, McGoohan claims that he as edited down the seventeen episodes series into a four hours movie".

Wait, what?

We all know movies from TV series are cool. There is a tradition, that goes all the way back to The Man From U.N.C.L.E., of either stitching up films from two-parters episodes, or extending episodes with new footage with more sex & violence (Luciana Paluzzi, anyone?). Film versions of other ITC sixties series, like Man In A Suitcase, The Persuaders, The Saint and of course Danger Man, also exists.

But The Prisoner as a four hours film ? I always found that idea fascinating.

Less than a year after reading this info, I counted myself lucky to participate in a book that would play a major part in rehabilitating The Prisoner as a work of art in the late 80's landscape, "The Prisoner, a televisionary masterpiece" published in France by 8eArt. To everyone's surprise, the man himself, Patrick McGoohan asked to be involved. He insisted on answering thorough questions in an opening section that was added at the last minute upon his request, and fully endorsed the book. In fact, he was so delighted by the results, he even sent a check to buy multiple copies! (They were sent to him free of charge and the check kept as a memento).

But there is one question that the book still failed to ask, and thus McGoohan to answer: what is that mysterious four hours compressed cut and of what footage is it made of?

Question mark

"Questions are a burden to others; answers a prison for oneself" goes the Prisoner saying, and this is absolutely the truth. Decades later, I still stand there, in a world becoming more and more like The Village every day, still wondering about this elusive four hours cut, still prisoner of my own desire to see it, maybe one day.

Sadly the man passed away in early 2009, without this mythical cut ever appearing on Home-Video. When came the 50th anniversary, an effort was made by the right owners to find that tape, for possible use as a bonus item in the deluxe Blu-ray box set from Network, alas it couldn't be located.

So all we're left with now is Patrick McGoohan's own words: "What I have done is I cut together, from all the episodes, there are all bits of them contained within it, about four hours, (a film) which is The Prisoner, compressed into four hours, on one inch videotape, and as things happens, I'm open to offers."

It must be pointed out that this videotape wasn't a VHS. One inch tape is a professional reel-to-reel analog recording tape format introduced by Ampex and Sony in 1976. According to McGoohan's words, this cut was made on a standard professional video and broadcast format master, and was thus probably edited by him at a professional facility, and maybe stored there. What facility? Where?

Looking back into history, the year prior the L.A. Tape and McGoohan's claim of a Prisoner film, ITC started to release a series of pre-cert VHS and Betamax tapes of The Prisoner on their label Precision video, featuring pairs of episodes edited together as 94 minutes films . The first two were released in july 1982. The last two in october 1983, exactly around the time McGoohan made the L.A. Tape interview and his Prisoner film statement.

So if the man had access to a professional facility where all the episodes were stored on one-inch mastertapes, available to be re-edited in whatever shape and format he wanted, that would be it.

Alas, shortly after this, Precision Video went under. And that four hour cut one inch tape, if it ever existed, disappeared with the company liquidated assets. As time has gone by, it's obvious this tape will never be located. So the mystery of the four hours film cut still remains.

The Precision Films

It's a very daring idea, to take the complete run of a television series, and edit it all down into one film. Only an oblique mind like the brain of Patrick McGoohan could have come up with something like that.

I remain convinced, although of course no proof exists, that the Precision tapes four "films" were put together by Patrick McGoohan himself. He may have not been physically present when they edited them together, but only he could have made these episodes choices.

On the surface most the pairings seem completely absurd, especially to fans, but when you watch them together (it's quite easy, just play them one after another with your Blu-ray player, ditching the first one end credits and the second one opening credits), they work astoundingly well as features.

Arrival/Schizoid Man are both mirror to each other, as each show n°6 "arriving", only in the second episode he is confused by the powers that be, conditioned and persuaded of being n°12, and struggling to maintain his identity.

Many Happy Returns/A, B and C also play perfectly well together. The common theme is returning to a dreamland place again and again, plus of course Mrs Butterworth re-appearance in his dreams in A, B and C works amazingly well into linking both episodes.

Checkmate/Free For All is the most obvious pairing. Any fan will know the links.

And finally The Chimes of Big Ben/The General. They play seamlessly under the title The General. Remember n°6 play chess with a General at the beginning of Big Ben! The segue is perfect: the helicopter arriving at the beginning of The General, viewed right after the end of Big Ben, looks like it contains Nadia leaving (see that twinkle in n°6 eyes? It takes on a completely different meaning), and of course we have Leo McKern bust re-appearing in the latter episode.

These pairing are too intelligent, and too left-field, to have been dreamed up by an intern at ITC. These four tapes (Network should probably reconstruct and re-release them in a box set, and complete with the missing other films, email me for the list), though gone in time, are the only proof left of someone (probably the creator and star) having a vision of The Prisoner as a series of films .

Here is a YouTube link (which may not work in all territories) regarding those Precision tapes:

Film or TV ?

We know a film obsession was in play, from the moment of the inception of The Prisoner. Remember, the word "TV" was banned by Patrick McGoohan on the set. Though in concept, it was TV, in execution, it was anything but.

Film at the time, was regarded as the purest of the arts in comparison to TV, which was considered forgettable B-grade stuff filling the time between commercials (though by 1967, shows like The Avengers and The Wild Wild West were beginning to challenge the status quo).

Patrick McGoohan certainly didn't want The Prisoner to be viewed as generic TV fooder. In fact, he spread himself so thin making the series, he had three nervous breakdowns and fired no less than four films directors, taking their place under a pseudonym or leaving their credits on the screen while ghost directing. He certainly put the budget and artistic choices where his mouth was. The Prisoner broke every rule of TV. Here was a hero who was losing each week instead of winning, prefiguring the 70's movies trend by a good half decade. N°6 spent his time snarling, standing up against everything, and usually making a nuisance of himself to everybody. He was constantly agressive. He lost fights. Sure, the Prisoner was initially presented as a TV series. But it was shot, directed, acted, scored, and edited like film.

With the advent of home-video, an era when fans were finally able to watch the episodes in sequence for the first time, came the "running order debate". Watching The Prisoner in the order intended by McGoohan for the initial networking revealed many little incongruities. So fans, thinking the original networking order made little sense, spent years reconfiguring the series in different chronologies. (You can see them all on the wikipedia page of the episodes, including the production order

All these alternative running orders however, helped only to cement the status of the series as a cult TV show, and not as a work of film.

The truth, as actor Leo McKern, who appeared in three episodes, bluntly put it himself in an interview back in the 80's, was that McGoohan "didn't bother with the details". This is essential if you wanna get the Prisoner film ambition.

One need not to pay attention to the incongruities, and contradicting details, that would not be apparent to people who watched one episode every 7 days. No one remarked n°6 feeling more settled in the Village one episode, and more new to it the next, (I certainly didn't), because all they could remember was the essence of what happened the week before. No one was binging the episodes over a week-end and picking them up apart for continuity anomalies, like people do today. They would pay attention to the overall arc, not the frivolous details. Watch the forest not the trees.

The fact that all The Prisoner episodes are layed out as they were in the initial UK order is actually one of the reasons for the longevity of the series. Unlike all other shows made at the time, when you watched The Prisoner over the course of 17 weeks, all that was left was an impression, a kaleidoscope of images and sensations, forming a story in 17 parts, that build up like one gigantic film.

Back in 1968, McGoohan was probably struggling with the schizophrenic nature of the series already. He sightly amended the US viewing order after the controversial reception in the UK, to make the show more palatable to american audiences, and thus more "TV".

But with time and distance and the building cult, he probably changed his mind back again, more than a decade later in the early 80's, when the Precision tapes appeared. It can't be just coincidence that despite the shoddy presentation (they had no end credits and video-generated credits over a blue screen instead), they were a try into presenting The Prisoner not as a series of TV episodes, but as a series of films , the same year that McGoohan talked about having narrowed down The Prisoner to an about four hours extended film .

The Prisoner hero's journey

Think of the Prisoner not as a series of episodes, but as one giant film. When you pull back, the story as layed out in the original UK airing order, reveal itself as closely following Joseph Campbell's hero's journey.

Act 1, the set-up, is Arrival, The Chimes of Big Ben and A, B & C. Right after Arrival we next see n°6 in The Chimes of Big Ben trying an escape plan, revealed as a trick to get from him information, setting up the paradigm of the series. He wants to escape. They want information. (Just to be even more blatant, it will be hammered again and again in each opening credits).

The discussion with Leo McKern on the beach is one of the high point of this act, a statement of intent. It explains what the whole village is about and what the whole series is about, what Prisoners are all about. This is the one trick that you will find used in every good film: the essence of the story is set during the first act. If you watch just the first 25mn of a 100mn film, you should know what the film is all about. If not, you're probably wasting your time.

The next episode shows how hardcore resistant n°6 is from extraction experiments with drugs (A, B & C) showing his will of steel, even though he is completely passive during all the episode, and also set up the series overtones of surrealistic allegory. This finalize the set up.

Enter Act 2. The next three episodes explore the thematics of politics (Free For All), identity (Schizoid Man), and education (The General), while still dancing around the main byline, broadening the scope. All those are equivalent to the first part of act 2 in a film, and they show the beginning of n°6 hero's journey, wandering about this strange world, getting wounded by shape shifting characters, like Rachel Herbert's n°58/2, and Jane Merrow's Alison. N°6 is often confused in those, but is also learning stuff, gaining some new insights, powers and tricks into this new world, and coming to terms on how to master them.

The switch from the first part of act 2 to the second part of act 2, happens at the end of The General which is a pivotal and very underrated episode. Notice how n°6 is suspicious at first of the John Castle character, having been burned too many times already. But he speed learns (sorry couldn't resist) to eventually trust him. Once he feed the computer the question that is impossible to answer, and n°6 gets his first major bitter sweet victory, we enter a turning point. This will be the midway act 2 point, as would happen in the middle of a film. Everything will take a new direction after, and this is exactly what happens with the next episode, Many Happy Returns, when The Prisoner actually escapes!

Of course, the ending of Many Happy Returns is spoiled in the title of the episode.

The penultimate shot is a take of the Butler holding up his open umbrella. The second part of act 2 can begin. (The butler holding his open umbrella, as noticed by fans, always happens at acts junctions, important arc points the Prisoner crosses).

After the Prisoner is back in the Village, Dance Of The Dead and Checkmate, two of the "early" shot episodes are used, a choice justifying n°6 being "new here" again, and they articulate the midway point.

In Dance, n°6 is declared dead to the world, when the body of a man will be found at sea, made up to look like him after his plane disappearance, and he goes underground for the first time, hounded by the Villagers for disobeying the rules, and daring to be different (he comes to the carnival in his tuxedo). This lay out the thematics of the second part, which is about his unique individuality. In Checkmate he nearly escapes, only to be mistaken for a guardian and betrayed by his "Rook". He realise he can only trust himself.

From then on, in Hammer Into Anvil, It's Your Funeral and A Change Of Mind, n°6 counter attacks, disrupting the Village from within. This is exactly like the second part of act 2 of any film, which shows the main protagonist taking control of the new world he has been catapulted in, and becoming proactive.

As n°6 is now getting the edge on his captors, retribution is about to come. In A Change Of Mind, the darkest episode, we see the Village people (no pun intended) turning against him, and this episode is very thoughfully placed here. Inside a film, this would be the end of act 2, and penultimate to act 3, when the hero is at his lowest and visit his "cave". The last shot is a very long take of the Butler holding up his umbrella, walking towards the camera. Thresold crossed. End of act 2.

The last batch (Forsake, Harmony, Girl, Once, Fall Out) is a equivalent to a film climax, or act 3. These episodes are shambolic, misleding, confusing sometimes, a descent into madness, going crazier and crazier until the final explosion of Fall Out. They basically replicates what people feel watching the climax of films, with their multiple overkill twists.

Clearly, this original order was the work of a mind who set all those 17 episodes together as if they were one long film. It shouldn't be ditched with such nonsense like "they ordered them that way to space out the Portmeirion rich episodes", (an argument that doesn't hold, as Many Happy Returns, Dance Of Dead, Checkmate, and Hammer into Anvil, all Portmeiron heavy episodes, are all grouped together).

Solving the Four hours cut Puzzle

With this knowledge, one can thus get closer to solving out the four hours compressed cut mystery puzzle, and find out what it may have been made of, either onto one-inch tape, or in Patrick McGoohan's mind.

The essence of getting the four hour cut is viewing The Prisoner 14 hours+ footage as a library. First you have to capture each episode's essence, because there is no place to tell 17 different stories in 4 hours. So once you got the human live chess play, do you need the rest of Checkmate? Once you have the 15 seconds flat speedlearn scene from The General, do you need the rest of the story? An episode like It's Your Funeral, stands apart for one fantastic scene, n°6 daily activities previsions report.

The challenge is to keep all these little iconic moments that people love and remember from the series. Pick up the "main" episodes as the backbone, then try to mold the lot into a coherent whole. It means about 10 hours of film and many plots, subplots, and probably your favorite guest star have to go. The bigger story must be told from what is left, keeping only a few near complete stories, the one that fit into the narrative of the film.

The only way to find out how it could have played, though, would be to actually do it. Experiment and see what works. So I dived, like an explorer plunging into the abyss, opening a timeline, and playing with the footage, letting the "Beast", the Frankeinstein monster that this compressed cut has to be, evolve.

I knew that if McGoohan had done it at the time he said he did, his tools would have been limited, so I kept the editing simple.

It took a few months working on and off, and exploring many alternate paths, and going back. Eventually what happened is, the film revealed itself. I ended up with a four hours plus epic movie in two parts (there has to be an intermission like in the good old days of Where Eagles Dare, it's over four hours!).

Part one starts with Arrival, and ends up with Many Happy Returns. Part two starts with Dance of The Dead, and Once Upon A Time/Fall Out are last. The journey from the beginning to the end, however is very different. It's like watching the Prisoner in a whole new angle, telling a familiar story in a different and brand new way.

New interconnections between scenes are created, as well as brand new threads. Some moments are moved out from their initial place. So now you have Leo McKern ordering the Prisoner daily activities report from It's Your Funeral. N°6 running on the beach from Dance Of The Dead become is first night out, and is extended with his running from the opening credits, after which he walks back into the eerie, asleep Village. The events of Schizoid Man are now engineered by Mary Morris n°2, and the double Curtis aka n°6/12, is actually the one body that will be found identified as n°6, having died in a plane crash at sea. Leo McKern still dominates. His shadow covers the whole film. The jamming up from Hammer Into Anvil is now directed to McKern and the Village as a whole. It's a blast, watching the Prisoner poisoning life in the Village and making Leo becoming increasingly pissed. It's the whole Prisoner saga, compressed into "about four hours".

The Prisoner compressed. Here is the mash-up video (may not work in all territories):

So I now stand with this (re)creation on my hard drive. My question finally answered. The Holy Grail found. Sadly as copyright goes, I won't be able to share it. At least, I solved the mystery. Who knows if you will see it one day? One thing for certain: I'll be seeing you!

David Fakrikian

ADDENDUM: Here are some additional links to the youtube videos incase the above ones don't work in your location:

Precision videotapes
Mash Up Compressed trailer


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