THE PROJECTION ROOM (The Prisoner Compared...)


"SHADOWS OF A DREAM" By Pete Shimmon

I have thought of several points that lead me to believe that Patrick McGoohan was influenced by a film made over 60 years ago. I would like to do this by first recalling how I first experienced the series 38 years ago as well as recalling an earlier PMcG performance that made a lasting impression. It is frightening to recall all my wasted teenage years in the Sixties watching television in grotty monochrome (and 405 lines), yet enough memories remain of the early Sixties to remember how I enjoyed watching "Danger Man". I associate it with dark Winter evenings waiting for supper while it was broadcast usually at about half past six or thereabouts. Strangely I never quite understood the opening spiel until just recently. Drake mentions the various agencies and then - "a message of ... well that's where I come in". A message of what? Now I understand that he says "a messy job", but I could never figure it out.

I can also remember a compelling television play which I'm sure starred PMcG as a Russian cosmonaut stranded in a decaying orbit and only able to communicate with a woman snow-bound in the Canadian outback. Her son had acute diptheria and -the spaceman (being also a doctor) led her to perform a tracheotomy to save her son's life while he himself was doomed. The last moments of the play with the cosmonaut's dying screams as he burned up on re-entry led to my young mind being quite disturbed for a few hours. In retrospect, and now knowing how PMcG chose to play roles having a religious connotation, this role seems fitting, a being from on high dispensing worldly advice and guidance. I can make a similar connection with a PMcG role some years later - "Ice Station Zebra". Trouble on Earth caused by surveillance from above.

As I remember the article in the "TV Times" introducing the new series called "The Prisoner", it was made clear that it was filmed in a place called Portmeirion. This would be September 1967 and I can remember thinking from the picture of the Prisoner in his familiar piped blazer, slacks and plimsolls how this was just the casual clothing I would like to sport outdoors. The family viewed the opening episode and enjoyed it as much as any other adventure BUT from various quarters there were definite and well-stated doubts as to the practicability of a big balloon being a controllable entity. Thus Rover made its debut and no doubt split viewers across the country straight away into various camps - scathing, indifferent or curious. As the various episodes were broadcast over the following months, I think initial doubts about the subject were subdued, for as we know all 17 programmes were well crafted and I think this beguiled most people into following the series even if they wrote off some aspects as rubbish. Besides, this strange television series was only a small part of contemporary events at the time.

But there had to be an ending. I was quite trusting that there would be a complete explanation at the end even given the far-fetched science fiction of "Do Not Forsake Me...". This episode had strained my loyalty somewhat as I felt that this particular theme had already been adequately explored in an "Outer Limits" show and even an "Avengers" episode some years previously. So the final show "Fall Out" was shown. As the Beatle tune was played, I slumped back onto the sofa with a bad feeling about what was going to follow. They may be the semi-divine pop group of m youth, but I don't like that song with it's crass repetitions. At the end, being somewhat dazed, my feelings had recovered slightly, and it was at least obvious that a lot of thought had gone into the script.

But those days were years before video recorders were available so we could not go back and analyse it. In actual fact the content did not seem too far away from the context of the times, thinking for instance of the vivid pop song lyrics allegedly composed under the influence of various substances. But most people were disappointed in my experience - discussing it at work and so forth. But it has become quite clear that the series was utterly wasted for the majority viewing it in black and white.

So "The Prisoner" and the Sixties faded into the background and we entered the wasteland of the Seventies. I did not catch the early Seventies repeats of the programmes but I did see most of the 1976 repeats on a small six-inch portable. But it was just as incomprehensible. However the phrase "looking after number one" had entered my consciousness over the years and it dawned on me that this is what it must have been about.

On a warm summer evening in 1982, being a little bit more affluent in the shape of my own 26-inch colour TV and an early Philips "steam" video recorder (the N1702) I saw my first "Prisoner" episode in full colour, "The Girl Who Was Death". I think I missed this in 1976 and I had completely forgotten the storyline since 1968, so, being virtually new to me, it was a knockout. The battle scene had one on edge, though I realised it must be a spoof episode. My appetite for the rest of the series was then insatiable and fortunately the Channel 4 re-screenings came along. Since then of course I, like other people, have well-guarded recordings of all 17 episodes, and even though I've analysed most episodes pretty deeply, I still find small items I did not see before, particularly since my belief that PMcG was influenced by this old film which I will now describe.

I first saw this film, "A Matter of Life and Death", late on a Saturday night in 1981, having been alerted to it by a brief review in the day's newspaper.The review mentioned how the film had sequences in "clinical black and white" for the heavenly scenes and this made me curious, as not many films have this mixed format. But I found the whole film enthralling from beginning to end not just for the story-line but for the wide range of vivid cinematic techniques used.

I was recording parts of the film (due to the limited tape times available on my early machine) and I replayed it many times thereafter never becoming tired of it. Though I was not around at the time it was made I could imagine the impression such a film would have on people in the austere postwar years. It is superb and colourful escapism. It was about five years before the film was repeated and I had a full recording and there was a third broadcast before I made a connection with "The Prisoner".

Now let me make my case for comparing it to "The Prisoner". The notion that the series is a spy story understandably holds many people. But it is pretty dumb using a hearse to abduct a person, considering all the curtains twitching wherever such a vehicle passes. And we never actually see him being taken. He just feels faint (having left the kettle on), his eyes look upwards, the tower blocks point in a heavenly direction, and he falls unconscious onto his bed later to wake up in a colourful new world. So it's a dream sequence and always has my opinion. And this is just what this film "A matter of Life and Death", is, a sequence of hallucinations which is resolved in one big scene at the very end, just like "The Prisoner" or not.

I think I can best compare these two works by citing what I describe as profound and incidental points of comparison. The film is about an individual in conflict with a bureaucracy in his own mind. That's the profound point. It features a camera obscura, a brain operation and the central character finds himself washed up on a beach thinking he is dead. A Shakespearean play is featured, a parachute jump is implied, chess is well featured and the numbered messenger Conductor 71 keeps trying to entice the airman to follow him using guile and a colourful crook. All these points can be found in "The Prisoner". And if that's not enough, PMcG answers a question concerning Life and Death in "Free For All". His answer may have been sharp, but the clue was well laid.

Ultimately, people may only see my point of view when they see the film for themselves and I hope, even if they disagree, that it has been worthwhile bringing this film to peoples' attention. Moreover I suspect that at least one of the production team from "The Prisoner" worked on this old film, which would establish a pretty definite connection.

There are some points I cannot make any connection with, such as the Penny Farthing. And one last point about the Village. It contained all the elements of a small community....except a church. There was just the Green Dome with its associated all-seeing control room and, in temporary charge, one of the Governor's agents, whom the Prisoner liked to drop in on every so often to give him a piece of his mind. I think that says it all. I am not very good or quick at puzzles such as crosswords, so here I am many years later explaining "The Prisoner", to my satisfaction at least. I wonder how many members of the general viewing public quietly saw these points all the time. At the end of "Fall Out" (which must imply falling out of bed) the Prisoner moves to climb into his Lotus for the last time but draws back to allow a black vehicle to pass. A quirk of filming? No it's that hearse passing like a last shadow of the dream.

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