Sunday, February 07, 2016

NARROW WAY


 

…Straight is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.  King James Bible, Matthew 7;14

 

For this the Golden Sun the Earth divides

And, wheel’d thro’ twelve bright signs, his chariot guides.

Five zones the heav’n surrounds: the centre glows

With fire unquench’d, and suns without repose:

At each extreme the poles in tempest tost

Dark with thick show’rs, and unremitting frost:

Between the poles and blazing zone confin’d

Lie climes to feeble man by Heav’n assign’d.

‘Mid these the signs their course obliquely run,

And star the figur’d belt that binds the sun…    

Virgil’s Georgics Book 1 V 277-302 transl. William Sotheby (1800)

 

I've got a heavy stacked woman with a smile on her face
And she has crowned my soul with grace…


         

          If the sub-Crosby ballad Soon After Midnight  is tenderly romantic, the repetitive, grinding blues riff that drones throughout Narrow Way is one clue that here we are entering much more ‘down and dirty’ territory. It’s going to be quite a ride. Narrow Way is full of wild allusions and associative imagery that sometimes resemble those of Dylan’s classic 65-66 period. Dylan growls through the song, thoroughly inhabiting the cynically lustful ‘grumpy old man’ persona established in Duquesne Whistle. The music itself hardly varies throughout the seven minutes twenty eight seconds of the recording. The effect is of a narrator who seems to be doggedly plodding through some kind of hostile landscape. …This is a hard country… he mutters darkly …to stay alive in… Blades are everywhere/and they’re breaking my skin… The setting of the song is continually shifts through space and time. Sometimes the singer appears to be addressing a particular woman and at other times he ruminates about her. He seems to have experienced some kind of betrayal yet his anger at this this is finally succeeded by a kind of lustful epiphany, in which ‘spiritual’ concerns are superseded by earthly pleasures. As in many of the best blues songs, however, the sexual bragging the singer indulges in is ambiguous. Does the singer really mean what he is saying? Or is he just teasing us?

          One of the most immediately noticeable features of the song is the lyric plays around with ‘spiritual’ allusions. Although the title Narrow Way, with its very well known biblical connotations, suggests that this might indeed be one of those ‘religious songs’ Dylan (perhaps mischievously) claimed he was trying to write at the time, and although the lyrics are indeed concerned with ‘spiritual matters’, the Biblical references seem to be thrown in rather playfully into a song which gleefully conveys a very ‘freewheeling’ view of how the ‘path to salvation’ can be achieved. The narrator’s tone sometimes recalls Dylan’s animation of God’s ‘hipster jive’ conversation with Abraham in Highway 61 Revisited, with the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane’ being juxtaposed in deliberately provocative ways. The song is built around a refrain borrowed from the Mississippi Sheiks’ 1930s blues You’ll Work Down To Me Someday. In the original the narrator sounds rather hurt and angry with his lover, adopting a rather rhetorically ‘humble’ posture. However, Dylan’s spirited diction (and the sly addition of the word ‘surely’) twists the words into a sexually suggestive motif, as if he is really asking her to ‘work her way down’ his body. Is this an invitation for fellatio or an admission by the singer that he is ‘below her’ in the sexual pecking order? Or is he (perhaps rather cheekily) addressing some ‘higher power’, begging for his failing faith to be restored? Dylan has always enjoyed the way in which the blues can give a singer license to use sexual metaphors to comment on social and religious issues, so that the poetry of such songs can stand alone – leaving the interpretation to the listener, and allowing the ‘meaning’ of the words to be always open to variation. In Narrow Way, despite its apparently dark themes, he pushes this element of comic ambiguity to its limits.

         

          Dylan has also always demonstrated his understanding of the fact that humour is an important element of the blues. Much of his early repertoire consisted of satirical ‘talkin’ blues’ songs and wacky bluesy numbers like Freewheelin’s mock-romantic Honey Just Allow Me One More Chance. By the mid ‘60s, in Outlaw Blues, Maggie’s Farm, On The Road Again  and From A Buick 6, he had developed a form of surreal comic invention based on blues structures which reached its apogee on the masterful mocking of social pretensions on the hilarious Chicago-blues Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat. Later examples include the lugubrious ‘shaggy dog’ story Highlands (1997) and the quasi-political ruminations of Tweedle Dum And Tweedle Dee (2001), not to mention the unfairly maligned Wiggle Wiggle (1990), actually an ingenious tongue-in-cheek ‘children’s song about sex’. In many songs by Dylan’s favourite blues, artists sex and religion are juxtaposed with wry humour. The Mississippi Sheiks’ He Calls That Religion mocks a preacher who …used to reach just to save souls/ But now he’s preachin’ just to buy jelly roll…  In Blind Willie McTell’s Lord Send Me An Angel, the singer pleads to God to help him overcome not only his lustful urges but also his apparently unfailing attractiveness to women. Willie sings: My baby studying evil and I'm studying evil too/ Gonna hang round here to see what my baby gon' do/ I can't be trusted and I can't be satisfied/ When the men see me coming, they go pin their womens to their side In Narrow Way Dylan adopts a similarly self-mocking tone, yet his narrative stance is continually being refocused. Its narrator appears (at least some of the time) to be addressing (and sometimes referring to) a (very raunchy) lover. At other times he appears (in a bizarre, even ‘blasphemous’ way) to be castigating Jesus directly, suggesting that it is his choice of ‘earthly pleasures’ that has in fact ‘saved’ him.

          In the first verse, we meet the song’s protagonist, a ‘spiritual wanderer’ who has apparently retreated into the desert to make some sense of life. It may be significant here that the end of the first line: …I’m gonna walk across the desert ‘till I’m in my right mind… references one of Dylan’s earliest mentors, the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. In America, his great poem of rejection of the 1950s patriotic American ethos, perhaps the most memorable and striking (and of course, controversial) lines are these:                   

  

 America when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.
I don’t feel good don’t bother me.
I won’t write my poem till I’m in my right mind

           

          Thus Dylan’s narrator, like Ginsberg, needs to liberate himself from preconceptions in order to be able to ‘think straight’. He seems to have walked away from his home and his family and his previous beliefs. A voice is whispering in his ear, but he tells it to …Go back home/ Leave me alone… He has rejected any connection with his previous existence: …Nothing back there that I can call my own… The first chorus suggests that he is on his own path to salvation, or enlightenment, and that the ‘voice’ that is calling to him will have to make a considerable effort to reach him. The parallel with the Biblical story of Jesus’ ‘forty days and nights’ in the desert is rather obvious, but here the disillusioned narrator is rather scathingly rejecting the advances of the ‘spirit’ that is following him and ‘whispering in his ear’. As yet we do not know whether this ‘voice’ is that of God or the devil, and neither, perhaps, does the narrator. But it is clear that he is disillusioned with conventional ways of thinking, and that certain events have made him extremely angry.

           There seems to be a clue to the nature of these events in the next verse with its rather bizarre allusion to American history, referring to when the British burned the White House down in the war between Britain and the USA in 1814. Ever since this, the narrator declares … there’s a bleeding wound in the heart of town…  This war, sometimes known as the ‘Second War of Independence’ had great significance in American history in that it marked the point at which the USA began to employ a professional army and thus to assert itself on the world political stage. It largely resulted in victories for the USA, especially in the battles of Baltimore, Pittsburgh and New Orleans. The reference seems to suggest that the US is carrying some kind of ‘stigmata’, or some unhealed or festering abrasion. The weirdly fractured quasi-Biblical references then begin to pile up. …I saw you drinking from an empty cup.. the narrator cries, …I saw you buried and I saw you dug up… and then …I kissed your cheek, I dragged your plow/ You broke my heart, I was your friend 'til now… These appear to be allusions to the Last Supper, the resurrection and Jesus’ betrayal in Gethsemene. Yet the language used is curt, almost brutal. Even more scathing are the lines …You went and lost your lovely head/ For a drink of wine and a crust of bread… and later …Your father left you, your mother too/ Even death has washed it's hands of you… The narrator appears to be callously rejecting the Jesus-figure who is whispering in his ear. The references to ‘bread and wine’, the crucifixion and the resurrection and the ‘washing of hands’ (as in Pontius Pilate) are made with apparent disdain. This rejection appears to be linked with the fact that the narrator appears to be fleeing some kind of war zone. …This is a hard country to stay alive in… he tells us. There is an odd reference to …the courtyard of the golden sun… which seems to evoke an image of the Inca capital at Cuzco, which was smashed by the Conquistadors who were committing their genocide, which was carried out, of course, ‘in the name of the Lord’.  The narrator seems to be making a link between Christianity and imperialism (and perhaps American ‘imperialism’ in particular. This is reinforced in the lines … We looted and plundered on distant shores… which is followed by the vituperative ….why is my share not equal to yours?... This suggests, if we did not know already, that this not necessarily a sympathetic narrator.

The juxtaposition of coarse and religious language in the song continues to be both striking and jarring. Following the references to American history, a number of lines seem to be alluding to popular American hymns. The refrain of At The Gate That Leads To Glory  by the nineteenth century hymnodist Fanny Crosby runs: …Strait is the gate and narrow is the way/ That leadeth unto life above/ Strive to enter in, oh, strive to enter in!/Come to a Saviour’s love… We have already seen how Dylan has twisted this around here. Another popular hymn, Dear Refuge Of My Weary Soul (written by Anne Steele in 1717) begins: …Dear refuge of my weary soul, On thee when sorrows rise/ On thee, when waves of trouble roll, My fainting hope relies… Here Dylan’s narrator cries …Look down angel from the skies/ Help my weary soul to rise… but is apparently not heard. Another popular hymn O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing  is parodied here in the next verse, in which the narrator’s rejection of his ‘saviour’ becomes quite explicit: …You got too many lovers waiting at the wall/ If I had a thousand tongues I couldn't count them all…  Then the narrator continues, rather helplessly: … Yesterday I could've thrown them all in the sea/ Today even one may be too much for me…

          As the song nears its (almost literal) climax, the narrator now seems to be making a direct address to a woman with whom he can satiate his lust as so achieve his ‘deliverance’. He addresses her as …cake walking baby…. This is a reference to a popular ‘dirty jazz’ tune of the 1920s, Cake Walking Babies From Home, a favourite of Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Bessie Smith. The song begins:  Cake walkers may come, cake walkers may go, but I wanna tell you 'bout a couple I know/ High steppin' pair, Debonair/ When it comes for bus'ness not a soul can compare… These ‘cake walkers’ are a couple of notable prostitutes who are unafraid to ‘strut their stuff’ across town. With little ambiguity, Dylan’s narrator tells the woman he wants to take her on a …roller coaster ride… and to …lay my hands all over you… In the next verse he memorably declares … I’ve got a heavy stacked woman with a smile on her face/And she has crowned my soul with grace… The juxtapositioning of sexual and religious imagery is quite explicit (and really very delicious!) here. But the narrator is prepared to go even further: I'm still hurting from an arrow that pierced my chest/ I'm gonna have to take my head and bury it between your breasts.. Dylan pronounces the lines with great relish. He rather mockingly (even ‘sacrilegiously’ refers to himself as a martyr here. But sex is his salvation. Not true love, but ‘unspiritual’ lust. A ‘narrow way’ to ‘Amazing Grace’ indeed…



           Finally, the narrator has been ‘saved’. He tells the ‘heavy stacked woman’ that …You can guard me while I sleep/ Kiss away the tears I weep… Dylan reinforces this with a couple of quotations from Edward Fitzgerald’s renowned translation of the eleventh century Persian hymn to hedonism, The Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam, in which the poet extols the virtue of earthly pleasures and finds in them a kind of spiritual awakening. Life is seen as a continual ‘moveable feast’: …The Moving Finger writes: and, having writ, Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit/Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it….  Dylan paraphrases this here: Been dark all night but now it's dawn/The moving finger is moving on… Khayyam’s poem also famously describes how he discerns a spiritual meaning in an ordinary earthly process, the turning of a potter’s wheel. …For in the Market-place, one Dusk of Day/I watch'd the Potter thumping his wet Clay/And with its all obliterated Tongue/ It murmur'd---"Gently, Brother, gently, pray!" Dylan’s lines in the final verse …I heard a voice at the dusk of day/ Saying, "Be gentle brother, be gentle and pray."  clearly point us towards an experience of true spiritual awakening being achieved through everyday life-giving processes. In a Zen-like moment of revelation, having first rejected God (or ‘enlightenment’) the narrator has finally found it (or ‘Him’, if you like). Thus: …If I can't work up to you, you'll surely have to work down to me someday…

          Yet Narrow Way is neither a statement of belief in nor a ‘rejection’ of conventional religion. Dylan is clearly singing through the voice of a character he has created. In some ways this character resembles the ageing (and often lustful) voice of the previous two songs, one who is weary of spiritual struggle and who wishes to take part in earthly pleasures while he is still able. What this song (and the others on Tempest) clearly does not to is present any kind of ‘religious’ message or dogma. Dylan’s mature work engages deeply with religious concepts but he always leaves us to draw our own conclusions. He is a poet, not a preacher. In his great song of self-examination My Back Pages (1964) he had long ago rejected the ‘preachy’ elements that may have affected his earliest incarnation as a ‘protest singer’: In a soldier's stance, I aimed my hand at the mongrel dogs who teach/ Fearing not that I'd become my enemy in the instant that I preach…  As a symbolist poet, Dylan presents the listener with images that cannot be reduced to a simple ‘message’. His use of shifting perspectives also enables him to present a point of view without necessarily identifying with it himself. This will be most clearly demonstrated later on in this album’s extraordinarily violent Pay In Blood.  His singing style here, like the musical mode he uses, has some similarity to that of the mid 60s, when he took so much pleasure in wrapping ringing phrases around his tongue, presenting his listeners with endless pleasure in interpreting his words. What are we to make, then, of these lines in the final verse of Narrow Way: …I love women, and she loves men/ We've been to the west and we're going back again…? Given that the action of a song takes place in a desert, and that it features a character who is being subjected to ‘temptations’, and that the desert in which Jesus is supposed to have undergone such temptations is now the very location of a ‘war on terror’ between members of different religions, can we then place this song in a contemporary context? Does ‘the west’ here represent the site of free-thinking, of religious freedom? Or does it represent that kind of religious hypocrisy and imperialism that was under attack earlier on. Well, maybe. But we have to remember that, despite the dark places this song takes us to, Narrow Way is – like many of Dylan’s greatest songs – fundamentally encouraging us to look at life with a light heart. Or as Omar Khayyam puts it: 

Here with a loaf of bread beneath the bough,
A flask of wine, a book of verse—and thou
Beside me singing in the wilderness—
And wilderness is paradise enow.

 -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Well, this was a bit of a tough one..... Comments invited!!!     





Sunday, February 07, 2016 11:08:05 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [1]  | 
Sunday, January 24, 2016


SOON AFTER MIDNIGHT


THESEUS. Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour

Draws on apace; four happy days bring in

Another moon; but, O, methinks, how slow

This old moon wanes! She lingers my desires,

Like to a step-dame or a dowager,

Long withering out a young man's revenue.

HIPPOLYTA. Four days will quickly steep themselves in night;

Four nights will quickly dream away the time;

And then the moon, like to a silver bow

New-bent in heaven, shall behold the night

Of our solemnities.

    A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act 1, Sc. 1

 

It's soon after midnight
And I’ve got a date with the fairy queen…

 

 

        With the deceptively gentle Soon After Midnight we are still being ‘softened up’ for the carnage that will follow. The song is addressed to an ambiguous love object, a ghostly dream figure who seems to take on various different forms and appear and disappear at will. One of Poe’s heroines, perhaps… a character in ‘a dream within a dream’… Someone who will always be slightly out of the singer’s, and our, grasp. The song uses a melody that is based on a popular standard of the 1930s, The Moon Got In My Eyes, written by Johnny Burke (the lyricist of many popular tunes including Pennies From Heaven and Moonlight Becomes You) and composer Arthur Johnston. The song was made famous by Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra later recorded a memorable version with Nelson Riddle’s orchestration. The sentiments are a conventional portrayal of the disillusioned lover who tells us that ...I thought a kingdom was in sight /That I would have the right to claim /But with the morning's early light/ I didn't have a dream to my name… The refrain complains that …I guess I should have seen right through you/ But the moon got in my eyes  Dylan adapts this melody, and retains some of the song’s mournful and regretful tone. He toys with romantic clichés throughout, but also expresses a few dark and murderous hints that serve to prepare us for the songs of apocalyptic rage that are to follow. Yet Soon After Midnight is also imbued with mystery and magic. If this is a love song, it seems to be directed not at a real person but at a mythical spirit who the singer seems intent on surrendering himself to, at whatever cost.

        As the train fades into the distance, drums and guitars kick into a slow, languid rhythm. Dylan’s voice, when it comes in after a few seconds, is dreamy, detached, almost a whisper. The language of the song is precise and compressed, the enunciation of every word clear and distinct. There is certainly no ‘Louis Armstrong’ rasp here. The singer pronounces the words sweetly and lovingly. As he delivers the first rhyme he rolls the words around his tongue, adopting the traditional posture of the humbled lover: …I’m searching for phrases/To sing your praises… Already there is a slight suggestion of irony. The singer sounds almost apologetic, as if he is already lapsing into cliché because the emotions he feels are rendering him almost speechless. Maybe he’s down on his knees, begging to be heard, confessing his own inadequacies: …I need to tell someone… he breathes. Then he begins to draw us inexorably into the world of his own imagination: ..It’s soon after midnight/And my day has just begun… We are entering a kind of half-conscious, half-dream state. As if to lull us into submission, Dylan entices us with this lovely melody into a dreamscape in which we can never quite tell the difference between poetic fantasy and harsh reality. Having played the penitent lover, he now he begins to explain how he has been wronged: …A girl named Honey/Took my money/ She was passing by … The ‘money/honey’ rhyme again flirts ironically with cliché, and itself refers to the 1950s standard about a ‘gold digging’ woman Money Honey, written by Jesse Stone and recorded by The Drifters, Little Richard, Elvis Presley and many others. But the line ‘she was passing by’, and the singer’s apparent detachment, as conveyed by the smooth vocal, suggests that the girl is a mere passing shadow, a ghostly figure or an illusion. The way Dylan draws out his delivery of ‘passing’ adds to this effect, which is further emphasised by … It’s soon after midnight/And the moon is in my eye…  Here, the central image of The Moon Got In My Eye is retained; the idea being that the singer has been ‘blinded’ by the girl’s luminescent beauty. Dylan’s adaptation of the line, however, adds another dimension to the words. ‘The moon is in my eye’ suggests a hint of madness but also a kind of reflectiveness. So we are drawn further into the narrator’s consciousness. We see our own reflection in the narrator’s eyes.

          This is the key moment of transformation in the song.  Now the narrator’s attitude changes from one of supplication to one of defiance. The calm, dreamy tone begins give way to an ominous one. In the third verse, Dylan begins with …My heart is cheerful/It's never fearful/I've been down on the killing floors…  The cheerful/fearful rhyme, like the earlier phrases/praises and money/honey sounds slightly ‘forced’, which gives the singer’s protestations an edge of tension, as if he isn’t really sure of what he’s saying and is really trying to convince himself of the veracity of his statements. The conjunction of the words used adds to this effect. The first line echoes the Biblical proverb …A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones (Proverbs 17:22, New International Bible). However, the reference to ‘killing floors’ is weirdly jarring, juxtaposing harsh blues imagery against dreamy romantic cliché. The expression features in the Howlin’ Wolf song Killing Floor (1964)(which was frequently covered by Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin) and the much earlier Skip James song Hard Time Killing Floor Blues (circa 1931). The term literally refers to the slaughterhouses in which many black workers were employed when they arrived in Chicago after migrating from the Deep South in the 1920s and 30s. The term was used in the blues as a metaphor for a hopeless situation, especially in a sexual relationship. The singer seems to be implying that he has been through so much pain in his love life that he has learned that he may as well always be ‘cheerful’. However, we may by now begin to suspect that he is merely trying to reassure himself. The next lines …I’m in no great hurry/ I'm not afraid of your fury/ I've faced stronger walls than yours… again show him struggling with an awkward rhyme, although Dylan (always the master of phrasing ‘weird’ rhymes) delivers ‘hurry’ and ‘fury’ without a moment’s embarrassment. As he pronounces the final lines here he seems to be gathering his own courage for some conflict to come. But suddenly we seem to be a rather different ‘ballpark’. The ‘girl’ that the song is addressed to seems to have placed a ‘wall’ up against him, which the singer seems determined to negotiate. The strange image of a lover’s ‘wall’ can be found in tragic story of the archetypal doomed lovers Pyramus and Thisbe, whose tale was related by Ovid in his Metamorphoses. In this story, the lovers are told by their warring families that they are not allowed to see each other and the only way they can communicate is through a crack in the wall that adjoins their houses. The two lovers later both commit suicide in a confused situation that Shakespeare adapted for the tragic ending of Romeo And Juliet. Shakespeare also mercilessly satirised Ovid’s story for considerable comic effect in the ‘play within as play’ in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And as the next verse will verify, Soon After Midnight itself describes a kind of Midsummer Night’s Dream, a scenario in which the illusions of love are made manifest.



     Now we are presented with more rather oddly juxtaposed references: …Charlotte the Harlot/Dresses in scarlet/ Mary dresses in green…. Here, the woman the song is addressed to appears to be being compared, in a rather self consciously obvious way, to opposing female archetypes. The harlot/scarlet rhyme (which is pronounced with delicious irony) depicts a prostitute or ‘scarlet woman’ while ‘Mary’ is a name connoting innocence (as in the mother of our Lord  in Duquesne Whistle). Then, in the song’s most delicious line, Dylan croons …it’s soon after midnight/And I’ve got a date with the fairy queen….  He sounds very pleased with himself, as he steps out of the mundane and into the magical world. The allusion to A Midsummer Night’s Dream seems fairly explicit here. The implication seems to be that the object of the singer’s affection, his ‘Titania’, is a far greater ‘catch’ than any of the other women in the song and that his love for her is magically transcendent. This mood of defiance continues in the next verse, in which the singer defies the rest of the world, those who …chirp and they chatter… shrugging this off with an apparently nonchalant … What does it matter?… But suddenly the imagery turns mysteriously violent. Those who are opposed to the romance of this modern Pyramus and Thisbe (or Romeo and Juliet) are said to be…lying and dying in their blood…  And the narrator suddenly refers to ‘two timing Slim’, another rather jarring shift (possibly a reference to ‘bad motherfucker’ anti-hero of a Johnny Otis song) and declares he will … drag his corpse through the mud…  It seems that he will be giving his enemies no quarter despite engaging in this ‘forbidden love’. And yet he still sounds serenely self confident. In the final verse the singer seems to take a deep breath before finding the courage to step out with his ‘fairy queen’. The sly juxtaposition of the title of the famous Elvis song It’s Now or Never with the shy but determined …more than ever… again emphasizes the playful, intimate nature of the address. The ironic use of the vernacular … When I met you/ I didn’t think you’d do… is charmingly counter posed against the final, rather touching, protestation of true love: …I don’t want nobody but you…

          Soon After Midnight is a subtle song of defiance, a ‘mystical love song’ that can also be seen as a testament to the artist’s devotion to his craft. While in Duquesne Whistle the singer seems to need to summon considerable energy to profess his continuing vitality, here he conveys it with a sly nod and a wink and a knowing twinkle in his eye. There is a sense that the love he is conveying is somehow forbidden, and the song jolts into weird occasional flashes of anger against those who would prevent this consummation. Again Dylan can be seen, on one level, as addressing his audience, inviting them into a pact or a ‘midnight tryst’ so that together they can plunge into the recesses of the symbolic world full of strange metamorphoses that will inhabit the rest of the album. Soon we will meet those who indeed ‘lie in their own blood’. This will be less a midsummer night’s dream than a kind of nightmare. But here is Dylan as Prospero again, weaving his magical spell, crooning smoothly through this beautiful song. The moon is in his eyes. It is past midnight. Take a deep breath… He will soon be leading us by the hand, into the darkness.

 

       



Sunday, January 24, 2016 11:09:11 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [0]  | 
Monday, December 28, 2015

DUQUESNE WHISTLE

 

“You're the only thing alive that keeps me going
You're like a time-bomb in my heart…”
               

    


             In Tempest Bob Dylan takes us on a ‘dream journey’ through storms and bitterness and rage. The dream visions increase in intensity, as he draws us into a parallel vision of ‘modern times’ in which the ghosts of the past mingle with the living. The songs become more bitter as the ‘death count gets higher’, until we are shown an apocalyptic vision of a world that is drowning as its guardians dream on. Finally, we go even beyond death itself…  Tempest represents the culmination and triumphant climax of the poetic and musical methods Dylan had been developing in Love And Theft and Modern Times, albums full of narrators who seem to live in a world where time has stopped, where ‘the future is always a thing of the past’. This world is a poetic construction in which snatches of the voices from the past, particularly those of the great blues and country singers and the great visionary poets, intermingle. The music which carries this vision is rooted in the pre rock and roll era of the 1920s to the 1950s, yet it is informed, like the poetry, by a very modern consciousness. By deliberately ‘quoting’ from so many sources in the songs on these albums, Dylan has had to face many accusers (as he has had to so many times in the past, especially in 1965-66 when he ‘went electric’ and 1979-80 when he ‘went religious’). Some unsympathetic critics seem to think that such ‘quotation’ from so many sources is the result of Dylan running out of inspiration and so having to plagiarise the work of others. The cry is the same as in 65 and 79 – why can’t he be like he used to be? Yet the way of creating songs Dylan has developed over the past decade or so gives his art an immense richness. It is as if the spirits of Ovid, Blake and Shakespeare and of Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash (and many, many others) actually live within these songs. These are songs which somehow ‘contain’ and ‘embody’ all the work of the past that they celebrate, yet which combine that work in a distinctively post modern framework. Just as Dylan’s songs in ‘60s reflected first the political and later the psychic consciousness of the first era of ‘global village’ media consciousness, so his contemporary work reflects a world in which that consciousness is no longer represented in any kind of ‘youth movement’ but has become fractured, disparate, as if we are now listening to millions of voices shouting at us at once. This consciousness is represented most clearly in the ‘digital universe’ in which we increasingly live, a world in which the products of the present and the past intermingle in a seamless flow. Most popular music has become largely irrelevant, a kind of mindless, ever-repeating muzak. So Dylan, in order to remain contemporary and not a mere relic of the past, has reinvented his art by reaching out to the past, embracing the music of the past in order to make music that expresses the true spirit of today’s world.

        Duquesne Whistle begins with a charming little vignette of a tune, a delicate, jaunty 40 second 1920s ragtime mini-overture played by Dylan, Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball on electric guitars, set against acoustic strumming. The tune is rather evocative of Tom Paxton’s famous ballad The Last Thing On My Mind, itself derived from the traditional The Leaving of Liverpool, which the young Dylan first heard the Clancy Brothers sing and turned into his own Farewell. Their narrators of these wistful odes to impotence can only cry into their beer as they sail away to some distant shore, leaving their loved ones behind. And here the musicians sound far away, stranded in time as well as space. Past and present are juxtaposed starkly, as they will be throughout the album, as suddenly the amplified drums and bass explode into action and a furious swing rhythm kicks in, as if an express train has just rounded a sharp corner and is heading full tilt towards us. Meanwhile, the country blues strummers, sitting by the train track in their overalls, are drowned out. And… lo and behold! Here is ol’ Uncle Bob, in the uniform of the conductor, holding his whistle aloft, with a lascivious smile and a peculiar twinkle in his eye, sounding for all the world like Louis Armstrong, inviting us into a world of storms – of lust and greed and revenge and murder, which will end in cataclysm. As with Modern Times and Love And Theft the songs seem to exist in a mythical Americana of the past, a kind of ‘ship of state’ battered by hurricanes on all sides. But while most of the songs on those albums were upbeat, like Summer Days or Thunder On The Mountain, or wistfully reflective, like Sugar Baby or When The Deal Goes Down, here we are in darker territory. A major ‘tempest’ is brewing. And Dylan stands in the eye of the storm, transformed into a different kind of ‘conductor’. Like Prospero, he weaves and manipulates the magic around him. Such stuff that dreams are made on. … But right now, there’s a train rushing towards us, and we are being urged to jump on board.

    The symbolic presence of the train is at the heart of the mythology of Americana. It was the laying of train lines that made possible the conquest of the West, and thus of the uniting of the continental USA. Yet in modern America the importance of trains is much diminished. In the second half of the twentieth century, they were superseded by the highways as major carriers of freight and people. So trains now tend evoke a nostalgia for that older America, in which much of the imagery and musical architecture of Dylan’s 21st century work is located. The train is, of course, is one of the key metaphorical tropes of blues imagery. For southern blacks it represented both freedom and escape, and trains make their appearance in countless blues songs. …When the whistle blows I gotta go, oh mama don’t you know… begins the refrain of Freight Train Blues, the much-recorded blues classic originally written by John Lair in 1935 and covered by Bob Dylan on his debut album in 1962. Dylan’s version, like many of its antecedents, incorporates the rhythm of the train into the musical performance. The rhythm is fast and the vocal delivery manic, and both are as exaggerated as the playfully self deprecating nature of the song itself, whose narrator was ‘born by a railroad track’ and for whom …the holler of the driver was my lullaby…  Here the train represents the high spirited determination of its narrator not to be held back or slowed down. Turning such sentiments around, in his iconic Folsom Prison Blues (1955) Johnny Cash’s ‘tortured’ (and very probably condemned) narrator sits in his cell, listening to the trains go by and imagining that …there's rich folks eatin', In a fancy dining car, They're probably drinkin' coffee, And smokin' big cigars. For this inmate, of course, there will be no escape. Trains (with their undeniably phallic qualities) can also function as sexual metaphors of various kinds. In Elvis Presley’s epochal version of Junior Parker’s Mystery Train (1955) the singer’s panting delivery imitates a train and conveys rampant sexual desire at the same time. Sex, however (like trains) can of course be slow and steady as well as fast and unrestrained. A comparison of the earlier and later versions of Dylan’s majestic It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry (1965) illustrates this well. The earlier versions (available on the epic new Bootleg Series’ The Cutting Edge) uses a standard ‘fast train’ rhythm, while the recorded version slows the pace, making the song’s extended sexual imagery, like … If I don’t make it, you know my baby will… and …Don’t my gal look fine when she’s coming after me… both more subtle and more sensual. While Elvis thrusts without restraint, Bob gives his ‘gal’ time to catch up. …I wanna be your lover/I don’t wanna be your boss… he sings. Trains work just fine as sexual metaphors, especially in musical poetry. You can speed them up, you can slow them down, you can make them judder and shake and stutter to a halt, whistles blowing…

    What Dylan loves about blues imagery is its endless ambiguity, the way its symbolism can be twisted and turned around. In another strand of the blues tradition, trains operate as religious metaphors; such as in the traditional This Train Is Bound For Glory (memorably recorded by Sister Rosetta Tharpe in 1935 and later adapted in a more secular form by Woody Guthrie), in which the passengers on the train are speeding towards heaven; Curtis Mayfield’s gospel classic People Get Ready, first recorded with his group The Impressions in 1965 (and covered several times by Dylan) develops this metaphor further, taking the holy train on a journey of liberation that symbolises the struggle of blacks and other oppressed minorities for freedom and equality. In stark contrast, in Dylan’s angry and confused ‘gospel song’ Slow Train (1979), the ‘slow train coming’ appears to represent the inevitability of Armageddon, and of the descent of God’s judgement on the wicked. It is significant that, in a recent Rolling Stone, interview Dylan states that he intended Tempest to be a more ‘religious’ album "I wanted to make something more religious. I just didn't have enough [religious songs]. Intentionally, specifically religious songs is what I wanted to do. That takes a lot more concentration to pull that off 10 times with the same thread - than it does with a record like I ended up with."  As he so often does in his interviews, Dylan is surely putting us on here. In fact, the inner conflicts in the songs on Tempest often depict spiritual conflicts, as the various narrators confront the nature of both happiness and despair, love and hate and the cruelty of fate. But there are no ‘trains to glory’ here. There seems to be a God who lurks behind these songs, but this is a diety which is distant, unknowable, even terrifying. A sneering, spitting, vengeful Jehovah. These are not songs of faith, but songs of inner turmoil, of spiritual wasting away, of prices paid in blood. These are songs that face squarely up to death. Yet, despite their ‘religious’ references, these songs do not (as the ‘other’ Dylan once wrote) ‘go gently into this good night’.

 

    Duquesne Whistle softens us up for the carnage that is to come with its jokey, metaphor-laden message of personal defiance. In the blues, trains symbolize sexual potency, which in itself can also represent defiance against the prevailing social order. From Muddy Waters’ I’m A Man  to James Brown’s It’s A Man’s Man’s World , blues singers have indulged in sexual boasting, just as rap artists do today. This celebration of the body in such music functions as a kind of unconscious rebellion against puritanical Christian values. It is a way in which culturally oppressed people can express their pride in themselves, so that the declaration of sexual freedom becomes a declaration of freedom itself, a refusal to accept the connection between sex and shame which was still dominant in the first half of the twentieth century, when the blues was at its peak. Later, the transformation of the blues into rock and roll did much to ignite the sexual revolution of the second half of the century, in which centuries of religious shame about sex were swept away and the body was celebrated, whether it be through Elvis’ ultra macho style, the early Beatles’ feminised orgasmic ‘oohs’, the Rolling Stones’ gloriously sexually ambiguous preening or Jimi Hendrix’s extraordinary expansion of sexual energy into the cosmos: …S’cuse me, while I kiss the sky!…. Thus, the sexual revolution was inevitably followed by a revolution in life styles and political and social world views. Right in the centre of all this was Bob Dylan himself, whose songs have always been permeated by the ethos and imagery of the blues. However, it is important to remember that within black American culture itself, the blues was never ‘respectable’. It was characterized, largely by black people themselves, as the ‘devil’s music’. The great mass of black Americans were God fearing church goers, out of which came the rich tradition of gospel music which, despite its obviously Christian lyrical expression, had a great deal in common with the blues in musical harmonic terms. Many blues singers actually alternated between performing blues and ‘spiritual’ music. This tension between the Lord’s music and the Devil’s music is also what energises much of early rock and roll. The extreme sexual expression in the music of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis was made even more powerful by the double edged sense in their music that this Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On was somehow shameful. This tension was also expressed very powerfully in much of the country music of the early 1950s. The music of country singers from ‘poor white’ origins like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash was deeply informed by the spirit of the blues, but in their songs the sexual/religious tension was even more pronounced. In Hank Williams’ I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow (recorded by Dylan in the Freewheelin’ sessions and later performed by him in the 1990s) the narrator sits in his prison cell listening to the train whistle blow outside, revelling in his own sense of shame. As with Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues, the prison setting itself works as a kind of metaphor for the sexual and emotional repression imposed on them by conventional religion. The fact that both singers are clearly sincere in their religious beliefs only adds to the poignancy of their plight. They sincerely want to be free, but the fact that they genuinely seem to believe that they actually deserve their fate only makes the songs more painfully heartbreaking.

          Duquesne Whistle is a successor in its way to these two earlier songs. Folsom Prison Blues ends with the singer telling us that if only he could be freed from his prison …I'd let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away… This in itself is a reference to the Williams song. In the second line of every verse, Dylan describes the Duquesne Whistle similarly, as a spirit of freedom, a wind that is blowing away various repressions. At first it is …blowin’ like it’s gonna sweep my world away… In the penultimate verse, the whistle is …blowin’ like it’s gonna blow my blues away… This is a direct reference to the Cash song, and thus to the Williams song before it, and to all the older blues songs that inspired both singers. Yet Duquesne Whistle is not a song of anguish. The singer is certainly not trapped in sexual repression. Far from it, in fact. The scenario is that of an older man who is pursuing a vigorous sexual relationship with a younger woman. … I wake up every morning with that woman in my bed… the narrator tells us, sounding terribly pleased with himself …everybody’s telling me she’s gone to my head… Here Dylan references both the jazz standard You Go To My Head and the archetypal blues intro…woke up this morning… (as used in Elmore James’ sly ode to masturbation Dust My Broom). Almost every line is either lifted from an old blues song or cleverly inverts established blues clichés. Dylan revels in the suggestiveness of the language. In the first verse his po-faced protestation of ‘innocence’: You say I’m a gambler/ You say I’m a pimp/ But I ain’t either one… directly echoes Big Joe Turner’s line in his Playboy Blues Some people call me a pimp, some people call me a gambler, but I ain't neither one… In the second verse, the narrator’s lover is ...smiling through the fence at me… which resembles a line in the traditional song Watermelon On The Vine, popularised by bluegrass legend Bill Monroe : …see that watermelon smiling through the fence… The knowing line You old rascal, I know exactly where you're going… echoes the song You Rascal You which was performed by Cab Calloway and later by Louis Armstrong : …When you dead in your grave, No more women will you crave, I'll be glad when you dead, you rascal, you!... Dylan twists all these lines around, playing heavily on their suggestiveness. For good measure, there are a couple of literary allusions thrown in. The narrator’s lover is …blowin’ like she’s at my chamber door… playfully referencing Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven (another ‘song’ which uses dark sexual metaphors) while the line …the lights of my native land are glowin’  in the final verse echoes Ovid in The Art Of Love (which Dylan declared he was ‘studying’ in Modern Times’ opening track Thunder On The Mountain). 

          At the beginning of each verse, the narrator implores us to listen to the ‘Duquesne whistle’. The name Duquesne (pronounced ‘doo-cain’) refers to the town of Fort Duquesne in Pennsylvania, but the song makes a direct reference to the Duquesne train route, which ran through America’s industrial heartland, from New York to Pittsburgh, from the 1930s to the 1950s. Carbondale, which is also referred to in the first verse, is another industrial town in Pennsylvania. The main reason for using these names seems to be to convey the idea that the train in the song, like the narrator, is ‘of a certain vintage’. As Dylan sings at the end of the first verse … Sounds like it’s on its final run…  At the end of the second verse the train whistle is …blowin’ like it ain’t gonna blow no more… Later, more explicitly, the whistle is …blowing like it's gonna kill me dead…  On one level, the train is a metaphor for the narrator’s sexual prowess. He is an old man, and this may be his final fling, but he’s sure gonna go out with a bang, as you might say. Yet Dylan turns all this around by also identifying the train whistle with his young female lover. In the second verse, the train whistle is …blowin’ like she’s never blowed before… and so now becomes explicitly female. She appears at his ‘chamber door’ positively panting with lust: …blue light blinking, red light glowing… Using a particularly ‘Dylanesque’ technique (itself suggested by the ambiguity of patterns of reference in many old blues songs) Dylan switches his mode of address (through his use of personal pronouns) here from ‘she’ to ‘you’. Now he addresses his lover directly, identifying her clearly as the source of his sexual rejuvenation: …You're the only thing alive that keeps me going/ You're like a time-bomb in my heart… The suggestion seems to be that the young lover’s sexual energy may be so ‘explosive’ that it may be the end of him. This is typical of the self deprecating, almost grateful tone of the narration here, which may well be influenced by the many late period Leonard Cohen songs such as I’m Your Man in which the ageing narrator appears to be begging young women for their favours, in a way that is rather humorously seductive. The combination of voice and music here underlines this perfectly, with Dylan’s quite deliberately cracked and gravelly ‘aged’ voice contrasting against the sprightly ‘jitterbug’ dance rhythms the band is playing.

  Dylan follows the reference to the ‘time bomb’ with perhaps the song’s most strikingly surprising lines: …I can hear a sweet voice gently calling/Must be the mother of our Lord… The reference to death is quite explicit here, yet in the first line we might imagine he is referring to his lover who, however, is pointedly not a virgin. The narrator’s sudden switch into a kind of jokey faux-religiosity is, however, handled with the kind of light irony that permeates the song. When Dylan sings …blowin’ like my woman’s on board… we are reassured that this sudden lapse into his ‘conscience’ has not deflected him from his lustful pursuit of the girl. This is further emphasized by the line in the next verse, which is surely the funniest line in the song: You old rascal, I know exactly where you're going/ I'll lead you there myself at the break of day… Here, which the narrator actually seems to be addressing his own penis! In the final verse, the line …I wonder if that old oak tree’s still standing… (itself a reference to the country standard The Green Green Grass of Home, in which the narrator’s fantasy of returning home is finally undercut by the revelation that he is in fact a condemned man waiting to be executed) is another playful sexual illusion, in which the narrator again plays the aged roué.


        In Modern TimesSpirit On The Water Dylan had deliberately teased his audience with the lines .. You think I’m over the hill, you think I’m past my prime/ Let me see what you got/ We can have a whompin’ good time… This is a line which often draws cheers from the crowd at Dylan’s live shows, allowing them to acknowledge that, despite his advancing years, Dylan is still functioning as a highly creative and challenging artist. Here, as a way of introducing us to the world of Tempest, he expands this concept into an entire song. The album contains many references to death, but its introductory song cheerfully raises a finger to death. Co-written with former Grateful Dead lyricist (as was most of the material on Together Through Life) Duquesne Whistle displays the lyrical precision and dexterity of many of the previous album’s songs, but adds a lightness of touch that is skillfully deceptive. Dylan carefully leads us astray in this way. In fact the album’s songs will successively descend into greater and greater darkness, displaying a kind of Poe-like relish in doing so. Here Dylan throws a time bomb at us, which is ready to explode. In no uncertain terms, it declares that, despite his advancing years, this artist is still cooly, articulately and often quite venomously, raging against the dying of the light.
Monday, December 28, 2015 7:30:39 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [1]  | 
Saturday, March 06, 2010

BORN IN TIME

 


I walk alone through the shakin’ street…

 


        In recent years, in his interviews and in his Theme Time Radio Hour  show, Bob Dylan has professed considerable admiration for ‘crooners’ like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. This may have come as something of a surprise to those who associated Dylan with the deliberate harshness of his early 60s vocal style and the pronounced unsentimentality and emotional detachment in his early love songs like It Ain’t Me Babe, Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right and One Too Many Mornings. Yet, as his radio show and his reminiscences in Chronicles Volume One reveal, Dylan’s tastes have always been highly eclectic. Since the mid-80s, his embrace of mainstream ‘romantic’ tradition in American song has grown to become a more and more prominent feature of his work.  He had flirted with such material before, most notably on the unfairly maligned Self Portrait album in 1970, but his own songs of the 60s and 70s had pretty much all been composed within the framework of folk, country and blues disciplines. By the time of 1985’s Empire Burlesque he was making tentative forays into ‘Great American Songbook’ territory with ballads like I’ll Remember You and Emotionally Yours, both of which were couched in conventional romantic terminology and were structured like ‘professional’ pop songs with middle-eight passages designed as a counterpoint to the songs’ melodies.

          At this point, however, Dylan could be said to be still finding his way with the form. These songs come over like deliberate exercises in writing the kind of songs people did not associate Bob Dylan with. By the late 90s, however, the inclusion of a far more fully realised piece of work like To Make You Feel My Love suggested that Dylan had been able to integrate such material in more credible way into his performing and songwriting repertoire. In songs of the 2000s like Moonlight, Bye And Bye, Beyond The Horizon, When The Deal Goes Down and Life Is Hard he would explore the nuances of such styles in more detail and would find ways of fusing such stylizations with more poetic and experimental lyrical forms. Born In Time, which originally appeared on the Under The Red Sky album in 1990, is positioned somewhere between the earlier and the later material. Its tone is romantic and wistful and it attempts to marry romantic cliché with poetic metaphor. Its effectiveness depends very much on the passion and conviction with which it is performed. The two versions of the song which appear on Tell Tale Signs are drawn from the sessions from the Oh Mercy album. The version on CD3 appears to be an earlier draft, with significantly different lyrics. But both versions are performed more convincingly that the version on Under The Red Sky, where the vocal sounds a little strangled by Don Was’ rather messy production.  It is not surprising that the song was not selected for inclusion on Oh Mercy as its tone and content are out of step with the delicate balance between spiritual despair and transcendent hope that the album sets up. Born In Time is a kind of experiment in romanticism. It juggles a kind of poetic mysticism with romantic cliché in ways that are sometimes quite striking.

          The song seems to be addressed to a lover from the narrator’s (perhaps distant) past. The notion of being ‘born in time’ is an interesting one, given Dylan’s stated ambition to ‘stop time’ in his songs, and the fact that the song seems to be comprised of a series of reminiscences which appear in no particular chronological order.           In the first verse we enter the song’s dream world through the …stardust of a pale blue light… The narrator’s statement that … I think of you in black and white… sets the love affair in some unnamed past decade. The statement that …we were made of dreams… also places the remembered relationship in an apparently more innocent past time.  Then we are plunged into the dream itself. The lines: …. I walk alone through the shakin’ street/ Listenin’ to my heart beat/ In the record breakin’ heat…are perhaps the most evocative in the song, taking us to the heart of what the narrator is feeling. He is ‘shaking’ with the feeling of the memory, overwhelmed by the ‘record breakin’ heat’ of of passion, and all he can hear is the sound of his own heartbeat. The lines have a strongly suggestive poetical and musical resonance which effectively conveys a sense of nostalgic longing and regret. The regret the narrator feels seems to be as much for the fact that the ‘heat’ of his own passion can only now be found in a dream of the past as for the love object herself. The love he is describing is timeless, yet also anchored in a particular time and place.

          The first of the song’s two ‘middle eight’ or ’bridge’ sections follows. There are substantial differences between the lyrics of the two versions here and this entire section was changed again for Under The Red Sky. After the evocative suggestiveness of what has come earlier Dylan seems to be struggling with his attempt to use cliché in an appropriate way. The Disc Three version runs ….You were high, you were low/ You were so easy to know…  which is succeeded by …You were smooth, you were rough/ You were more than enough…  both of which sound rather forced. At least …oh babe, why did I ever leave ya, or grieve ya… which follows, is direct, showing the narrator’s regret in no uncertain terms. This is also an effective contrast to the poetic leap at the beginning of the next verse: … On the rising curve/ Where the ways of nature will test every nerve… a prescient and evocative description of how it feels to commit oneself emotionally in a relationship. This is reinforced by the even more regretful line : I took you close and got what I deserved…  There is a kind of emotional honesty here which is missing in the Under The Red Sky version which features the rather vague and equivocal …You won’t get anything you don’t deserve…

          The second bridge section features the effectively jarring Just when I knew who to thank/ You went blank…  This works as a contrast against the rather odd ….You were snow, you were rain/ You were striped, you were plain… an describe the girl’s changing nature which descends into near-absurdity. In the final verse the references to the …hills of mystery… and the …foggy web of destiny… indeed tend to ‘fog’ the meaning of the song in rather vague metaphor. The song thus flits between effective poetic moments and a sense of uncertainty. The relationship being described arguably needs to be anchored more clearly in a specific time and place to engage the listener. Born In Time thus never really delivers what the intriguing nature of its refrain and the evocative quality of its earlier verses promises us. Dylan is attempting to fuse different modes of expression here, with decidedly mixed results. But the song can be seen as a stepping stone, and arguably an important one, between one mode of expression and another.  None of the three released versions quite manage to realise the potential inherent in its best lines. But in its presentation of these two early versions of the song, Tell Tale Signs further reveals the processes that Dylan was experimenting with in the evolution of the new stylistic modes that came to dominate his work in the late ‘90s and the 2000s.

The subject of the song is not so much the love affair but the memory of the affair, which is now fading, and Dylan seems to be challenging himself to see if he can still feel that ‘record breakin’ heat’. Thus the way the song veers between poetry and cliché is actually quite appropriate. The singer seems to be questioning how valid his own memories are, and in doing so he inevitably swings between poetic detachment and sentimentality. While the young Dylan rejected sentimentality entirely, in both his lyrics and his (deliberately) harsh vocal style, by his late 20s (around the time of Nashville Skyline, when he himself was happily married) he was already beginning to grapple with the fact that feelings of love can in themselves be sentimental. Much of his subsequent treatment of love in song has tried to balance these dynamics. Often, as in the Desire’s heartbreaking confessional Sara or in the inner struggles depicted in much of the introspective material on Time Out Of Mind, he has seemed to be drowning in a kind of sentimental despair. Later, in the songs from his albums of the 2000s, he uses a detached, tongue-in-cheek levity to balance such feelings. Born In Time sits somewhere in between these poles, a song of uncertainty whose sometimes faltering tone questions its own veracity. It is a song in which the narrator tries to convince himself that he really feels something. And we are never quite sure whether these feelings are real or not.

 

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Saturday, March 06, 2010 9:06:28 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [24]  | 
Tuesday, January 12, 2010

 TELL OL’ BILL



Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
The Tempest, 4. 1


The enemy is at the gates….


        Tell Ol’ Bill is another one of Dylan’s ‘soundtrack songs’, written - like Things Have Changed, Waiting For You  and Cross The Green Mountain -  in order to illustrate the themes of a particular film. But, as with all these songs, Dylan uses these themes as a starting point for exploring wider concerns.  While Things Have Changed twists its midlife-crisis cynicism into a comic masquerade and Cross The Green Mountain transforms the story of a dying soldier in the American Civil War into a series of intense reflections on human conflict, Tell Ol’ Bill turns an individual’s struggle for freedom and justice into a profound meditation on human will power .The song was written for the North Country (dir. Nick Caro, 2005) a drama set in the 1970s in Dylan’s own home territory of the Minnesota Iron Range (as immortalized in his own North Country Blues and Girl Of The North Country) and is a fictionalized account of how a female mine worker and single parent Josey Aimes (played by Charlize Theron) was involved in fighting the first successful action against sexual harassment in the US after being abused and attacked by male co-workers and ignored by a callous management. The film is very much in the tradition of American liberal social realism established by films like Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, To Kill A Mockingbird and Silkwood. The song attempts to get inside the mind of the main character, describing her frustrations at the position she finds herself in and eventually resolving to tackle the problem head-on.

        The version of the song which appears on Tell Tale Signs is different to the one which appeared on the movie soundtrack. Though Dylan’s singing remains gently subdued throughout, the drums in particular are more pronounced, making the song more rhythmic and the whole performance somewhat more passionate. The song seems to have been tried out in a number of different ways, as revealed in a bootleg tape of the sessions (one of the few to have escaped from Dylan’s studio work in the last two decades) during which it seems at different times to be evolving into a slow blues, a country lament and a pained ballad. Despite the musical differences, the lyrics remain virtually the same throughout the twelve different versions on the tape, suggesting that Dylan composed the piece as a poem and then proceeded to set it to music. Both released versions tend to tread something of a middle ground between the more extreme musical forms being played with in the studio. The version on Tell Tale Signs is an impeccable example of Dylan’s modern singing style, full of subtle, querulous phrasing. Dylan inhabits the voice of a modest but brave narrator and conveys a sense of quiet courage without ever falling into over-emotionalism.

        Dylan is careful to pronounce each word clearly here. The song features a carefully structured balance between lyrical imagery and determined emotion. The correlation between the images of the natural world and the narrator’s thoughts are carefully and skillfully built up. While the scene being depicted is undoubtedly cold and harsh: … the rocks are bleak/ the trees are bare/ Iron clouds go floating’ by…. there is a certain magical quality to this harsh North Country landscape, with its …tranquil lakes and streams… and …snowflakes falling in my hair…. which seems to indicate Dylan’s love for and empathy with his home territory. What is most impressive about the use of language here is the expansiveness of its imagery within its disciplined, compressed format. One of the best examples is the opening verse: ….The river whispers in my ear/ I've hardly a penny to my name/ The heavens have never seemed so near/ All my body glows with flame… The narrator seems to be in a kind of trance, with the spirits of nature talking to her. Out here in the cold North Country she feels lifted up, enraptured. The contrast between material poverty and spiritual enrichment is achieved with admirable economy and precision. In the next verse the beautiful and mysterious line …the tempest struggles in the air…  with its immediately contrasting …and to myself alone I sing.. is perhaps the most impressive example of symbolist writing in the song. There are times when Dylan demonstrates an innate feeling for the placement of a particular word and here the use of ‘struggle’ following ‘tempest’ creates a memorable metaphorical resonance. The lone singer, searching into the depths of her soul, is engaged in a kind of tempestuous struggle with herself, trying to face up to the darkness within. The very sound of the words expresses this just as effectively as whatever symbolic meaning they may have.  

        The next verses take us further into this darkness. The narrator searches for …one smilin’ face/ to drive the shadow from my head… She cries …why must you torture me within?.... and rages against the spirits of nature: ….Why must you come down off your high hill?/Throw my fate to the clouds and wind…. Again the language is direct, precise  - a kind of Blakean ‘plain speak’ which is colloquial but simultaneously symbolic. It is as if she has been twisted up herself by the struggling tempest, the wild spirit of the bleak land, which exists both outside and inside her. This spirit which tortures her causes her to have …secret thoughts… which are …hard to bear…  But she is left alone, with … emotions we can never share … One of the key moments in the film occurs when it is revealed that Josey’s child was conceived when she was raped by her teacher and the lines in the next verse You trampled on me as you passed/ Left the coldest kiss upon my brow…  express the emotional aloneness of one who has experienced such an ordeal for withering clarity. Yet from this point onwards, the narrator begins to gather the inner strength she will need for the oncoming struggle. …All my doubts and fears have gone at last… she confesses …I've nothing more to tell you now…  After howling at the wind and the spirits of the air in despair she begins to come to a cold realisation. She now understands that … the enemy is at the gates… From here on, the scenery is transformed. In another remarkable transposition of colloquial and figurative language she contrasts the raging incoherence of the oppressive spirit:  Beneath the thunder-blasted trees/ The words are ringin' off your tongue… with symbolic descriptions of nature which reflect on her new, hard-won determination. …The ground is hard in times like these… she declares. Now she is standing on solid, firm earth. And, even more remarkably …stars are cold, the night is young… contrasting in a single short line an image of her own fortitude with a sly reworking of a common cliché. The stars are cold and so now is her heart and her ‘iron will’ (reflected in the ‘iron clouds’ that pass above her).

        In the final verses her determination to enact revenge grows. Now darkness begins to fall on the landscape, a darkness that is reflected in the corruption she has to face up to:  …The woods are dark, the town is too/ They’ll drag you down, they run the show/ Ain't no tellin' what they'll do.… But she is ready now to face up to these ‘enemies at the gates’. When, in the penultimate verse ‘Old Bill’ arrives, she shows herself to be fully prepared: …Tell him that I'm not alone/ That the hour has come to do or die… She declares that …All the world I would defy… She is ready to take on the elements now, to still the raging torrent that surrounds her. And she stares her enemy directly in the face with a final expression of compassion: ….I look at you now and I sigh/ How could it be any other way… Her enemy may have tried to ‘throw her fate to the clouds and wind’ but she has taken control of her own destiny. Such is Dylan’s skill with language here that he makes his Girl Of The North Country’s ‘struggle with the tempest’ inside and outside her into a profound expression of the triumph of an individual spirit against great adversity. On one level the song is, like so many of Dylan’s most heartfelt works, another exploration of the process of poetic creation itself. The singer here is almost consumed by imagery before he finds the willpower to channel it into focus, as if the poet is attempting to ‘struggle’ with a ‘tempest’ of language that hovers above him in the air, just out of reach. The words express both the savage glory and the terror of the seeker for inspiration. For Dylan this search is, as always, a spiritual one.

        But who is ‘Ol’ Bill’, the apparent subject of the song? ‘Bill’ makes only a fleeting appearance, personifying the narrator’s helper. In fact the lawyer who wins Josey’s case in North Country is called Bill. ‘Ol’ Bill’ is also a stock character who appears in a number of very old Negro folk songs. One from the Georgia islands runs:  …Old Bill the rollin' pin, he had a hog eye and a double chin…  Here ‘Old Bill’  is a policeman.  In England ‘Old Bill’ is also a popular slang term for the police. Actually Dylan seems to have lifted the title line from a traditional song called Tell Old Bill which appeared in Carl Sandburg’s compendium of American folksongs American Songbag, first published in 21927. The song goes …Tell Old Bill when he gets home/Leave them downtown gals alone… At the end of the song Old Bill meets a sorry fate  …They brought ...poor dead Bill - - his toes were a-draggin'... It is typical of the latter-day Dylan to insert such phrases from old songs, although this is the only instance of this practice here. This is a small, playful touch in a lyric which mostly avoids the sometimes complex patterns of reference Dylan frequently uses in his songs of this period (especially on the Modern Times album). The song is relatively free from direct allusions, although its language - using natural imagery as metaphorical representations of inner turmoil - is often reminiscent of Shakespeare’s poetic methodology. The reference to ‘thunder blasted trees’ recalls the ‘blasted heath’ in King Lear and the ‘North Country’ scenario resembles such a devastated wilderness. The centrality of the image of the ‘tempest’ in the song also recalls Shakespeare’s play of the same name, wherein the ‘tempest’ has a similar symbolic significance. If Tell Ol’ Bill can be taken as a song about the struggle poets face with inspiration than who better a ‘helper’ than Ol’ Bill Shakespeare himself?

        As with Cross The Green Mountain, it is fortunate that Tell Ol’ Bill  was rescued from the obscurity of being on the soundtrack album of a relatively little-known film and was placed on Tell Tale Signs. In its own way, it is just as much a major latter-day Dylan work, showcasing many of his most effective and evocative poetic techniques. And like the greatest blues songs, it delves into the darkest recesses of the human heart and comes out fighting defiantly, celebrating nothing less than humanity itself.   

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 As usual, I'd welcome any comments in the box below or you can write to me directly at

chris@chrisgregory.org  

 

More to come soon!

 

 

       







Tuesday, January 12, 2010 2:57:48 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [21]  | 
Sunday, January 03, 2010

RED RIVER SHORE

The frozen smile upon my face fits me like a glove…

And she bore him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have
been a stranger in a strange land. 

Exodus 2:22

There in the tomb stand the dead upright,
But winds come up from the shore:
They shake when the winds roar,
Old bones upon the mountain shake

W.B. Yeats, The Black Tower



Red River Shore was perhaps the major revelation among all the tracks released on Tell Tale Signs. Its ambition and scope rates with the very best of Dylan’s later work. We are presented with  two versions of the song, which are almost identical lyrically. This is not, like a number of the other Time Out Of Mind outtakes, a ‘work in progress’. The version on Disc One is the most impressive, beginning with sparse guitar accompaniment and building gradually with the addition of more drums, bass and atmospheric maracas and (in particular) the accordion which comes to dominate the sound. Dylan’s singing here is breathily tender and restrained, reminiscent of the intimacy of the original ‘New York Sessions’ for Blood On The Tracks. The effect is beautifully matched to the tone of humility that underscores the unfolding narrative, tinged with a sweetly savoured sense of regret. Though Red River Shore is a kind of ‘love song’, its concerns are ultimately far wider and more transcendent. In many ways it is a classic piece of romanticism, which echoes the ‘nature poems’ of Burns, Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth. The girl herself seems more elemental than real, a kind of spirit of nature who may be taken to symbolise the poetic imagination itself. Here Dylan uses an authentically mature voice to create a kind of mystical reflection on the power that memory has on our lives as we grow older.


       There are in fact two major ‘Red Rivers’ in the US, one in the south between Texas and Oklahoma and one in the north between Minnesota and North Dakota. The ‘Red River’ referred to in the famous 1949 Howard Hawks/John Wayne movie is the southern one, whereas one might speculate that the ‘Red River shore’ Dylan refers to here is the one next to his home state of Minnesota. But unlike Mississippi’, he does not seem to be using US geography in any metaphorical way here. The ‘Red River’ seems to be an entirely symbolic location, with the notion of a ‘red river’ also suggesting blood flowing. ‘Red rivers’ also occur in several folk songs. Most well known is the folk/country standard Red River Valley, a song in which a young girl laments that the cowboy she loves will soon have to leave the Valley. This dates from around 1870 and was first popularized in recorded form in Jules Verne Allen’s 1929 version (known as Cowboy Love Song). It has since been recorded by Jimmie Rodgers, Roy Acuff, Gene Autry, Bill Haley, Woody Guthrie, The Sons OfThe Pioneers and many others. Perhaps more relevant is another traditional song which shares the same title as Dylan’s, which was popularized by The Kingston Trio (who, despite their rather ‘sanitised’ approach to folk music, Dylan cites in Chronicles Part One as an early influence). This song contains the lines … She wrote me a letter/ She wrote it so kind… which Dylan uses in Not Dark Yet, another song from Time Out Of Mind. The song is a cowboy ballad in which the sharpshooting hero’s love for the girl who lives on the shore is thwarted by her highly disapproving relatives. Although he kills a total of thirteen of them, their manpower eventually overwhelms him and he has to retreat. Dylan’s narrator does not face such problems, though he comes no closer to ‘getting the girl’. It could be said that both of these songs hover somewhere in the background here, as both deal with unrequited love. Dylan uses the familiar phrase to help evoke the intense sexual and spiritual yearning that characterizes the song.
 

       Red River Shore begins with a collocation of extraordinary imagery: …Some of us turn off the lights and we live/In the moonlight shooting by/Some of us scare ourselves to death in the dark/To be where the angels fly… Dylan sets out his stall here, presenting life as a choice between accepting the chaotic nature of existence and letting it overwhelm us. The implication seems to be that if we want to live blissfully (‘where the angels fly’ ) and fulfill our inner longings, we need to accept the ‘darkness’ which surrounds us and learn to live ‘in the moonlight shooting by’, a highly evocative phrase suggesting that a life lived to its full personal and spiritual potential must embrace a certain kind of ‘darkness’. This is a song about choices, but it is not one in which the narrator necessarily makes the right choice. It is a treatise on infatuation, on entrapment, focused on the narrator’s intense love for an unreachable object. The narrator describes a life spent reaching out for someone who is less a real person than a poetic ideal, perhaps a muse, but one who he never has any real chance of getting close to. As the stately tune progresses, Dylan’s subdued and poignant performance conveys his sense of ineffable regret in every breath.
 

       The narrator tells us that despite the … pretty maids all in a row lined up/Outside my cabin door… he has not been distracted from pursuing his love object. The use of the ‘pretty maids’ line from the nursery rhyme Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary next to the reference to ‘my cabin door’ creates an oddly archaic resonance. ‘My cabin door’ is a direct allusion to the great American mid-nineteenth century songwriter Stephen Foster’s Hard Times (covered by Dylan in 1993 on Good As I Been To You). Dylan’s sparing and suggestive use of archaic terms seems to locate the song somewhere in the Foster’s time, when the log cabin itself became a key symbol of the pioneer spirit - Abraham Lincoln was only one of a number of Presidents who made much of their log cabin origins. Red River Shore is also somewhat reminiscent of the wistfully romantic but mournful tone of a number of Foster’s songs, such as Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair. Like the girl from the Red River Shore, Foster’s Jeannie is a kind of lost dream-lover, who is …borne like a vapor on the sweet summer air…  We also hear that … Now the nodding wild flowers may wither on the shore/ While her gentle fingers will cull them no more… clearly suggesting that Jeannie is dead.  Dylan’s language in this song hints at such an elegiac tone, though ultimately he buries even this assumption in mystery. Foster’s longing for the dead girl is, like that of Edgar Allen Poe in poems like Lenore and Annabel Lee, a stylized and idealized approach which is very characteristic of nineteenth century romanticism and its preoccupation with transcendent death. But despite his apparent immersion in this ‘far away’ world, Dylan constantly jolts us back into everyday reality. He is locked into the romantic illusion of ‘love at first sight’, experiencing a love so powerful that no other love can ever match it. … I knew when I first laid eyes on her… he laments …I could never be free… However, in fact he tells us very little about the girl. Unlike Foster’s Jeannie she seems to have no defining physical characteristics. Yet she has, it seems, something of an acid tongue. After all the narrator’s wooing she advises him, rather bluntly, to …go home and lead a quiet life… Then we hear that his dream of her …dried up a long time ago… He piles on the romantic disillusionment, telling us he’s living under a ‘cloak of misery’, that he can’t ‘escape from her memory’ and that …the frozen smile upon my face fits me like a glove… The awkwardness of the metaphor is another one of the song’s odd lyrical twists. Here he seems to suggest that he willingly submits to the state of paralysis that his memory has locked him into.
 

       As the song progresses we still learn nothing significant about the girl herself. The singer seems more concerned with meditating upon his own separation from his muse. Alternating between florid poesy and grim realism he tells us he’s …trapped in the fires of time… and …living in the shadows of a fading past… but admits he …never did know the score… and has tried to …stay out of a life of crime… He seems to simultaneously far away from the Red River Shore and standing at its edge. …I’m a stranger here in a strange land… he declares …But I know I’ve stayed here before…. and he dreams of spending the night here ‘a thousand nights ago’ with the girl. He seems to be willingly trapped in a romantic fantasy, in love with a past image of himself and unwilling to free himself from it. But then the narrative takes some very unexpected turns. He tells us he went back to see the girl once to ‘straighten it out’ but that all the people he talked to had no memory of her. Increasingly it seems as if she may have been a mere projection. In the final lines he concludes that … Sometimes I think nobody ever saw me here at all/ 'Cept the girl from the red river shore… So any solidity his past had had has dissolved. The main theme of the song seems to be not romantic love but the way we can hold onto romantic illusions of the past which may stifle our creativity in the present. This tension lies behind the mostly tortured love songs that make up Time Out Of Mind, depicting the process of an artist trying to free himself from his past.
    But there is one more shadow from the past that the singer apparently has to exorcise. In the song’s oddest twist of all we are presented, in weirdly detached language, with what appears to be a reference to Jesus: …I've heard about a guy who lived a long time ago/ A man full of sorrow and strife/ That if someone around him died and was dead/He knew how to bring him on back to life… This may in fact be a biblical allusion not to Jesus but to the prophecy of the coming messiah in Isiah 53:3: 


He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.


Yet this is in no way any kind of conventional ‘religious revelation’. The description is strangely offhand and the expression very strange, especially the line ‘died and was dead’. It’s as if the singer has adopted some colloquial ‘uneducated’ tone to refer to ‘this guy’. And the lines remain ominously mysterious. Does the singer want ‘the guy’ to bring ‘the girl’ back to life? Or is he merely grasping at straws? The way ‘the guy’ is introduced and then dismissed in no way indicates any leap of faith. All we are left with in the end is enigma. Did he really know the girl at all? Was any of it real? Can we really trust our memories and should we let romantic illusions overcome us? Can we bring them back to life? The singer has obviously been inspired by ‘the girl’. She seems to have always been his muse. But whenever he tries to conjure her up she slips through his fingers, like a ghost. A ghost of a memory….  In Time Out Of Mind  and successive albums Dylan confronts his past, cramming his songs with snippets of what seem like half remembered songs, echoes of what he will later refer to as .. long dead souls from their crumblin’ tombs… evoking past scenes through the prism of the present.  The implication seems to be that only be accepting the truth of the past can we be free from it. So we can avoid …scaring ourselves to death in the dark… and live in the fullness of the present moment, within …the moonlight shooting by…

   





Sunday, January 03, 2010 5:35:00 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [12]  | 
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
MODERN TIMES OUTTAKES:
SOMEDAY BABY  AND  AIN’T TALKIN’


Sometimes like women or unwedded maids
Shadowing more beauty in their airy brows
Than have the white breasts of The Queen Of Love…
Christopher Marlowe, Dr. Faustus



Little by little, bit by bit
Every day I'm becoming more of a hypocrite…




      The main story which Tell Tale Signs tells is that of Bob Dylan’s reinvention in the 1990s, with particular emphasis on the Time Out Of Mind period, but there are also a couple of more recent studio outtakes which constitute significant variations on the originally released versions. In what is presumably an earlier take of Someday Baby, the tone of the vocal and musical performance is slightly harsher and harder edged than the one on Modern Times.  The rhythm here is tighter, less relaxed and the vocal more uncertain and jumpy. While the message of self-mocking disillusionment with the love object remains basically the same, the singer here sounds rather more bitter and vulnerable. Or at least, he’s trying to fool us into thinking he feels like that… The lyrics, which differ substantially, are also somewhat more direct and self-critical in tone, and less allusive. The difference between the two versions illustrates how Dylan can use two types of blues expression - raw emotion and detached reflection - to create varying modes of expression for the same song. Whereas in the final version the singer appears to have transcended the rough treatment he had received from his lover, here he still harbours dark thoughts of disposing of her. …Gonna blow out your mind, and make you pure… he mutters… I've taken about as much of this as I can endure… But the performance is not really venomous enough for us to believe that (unlike the cold hearted narrator of Robert Johnson’s 20/20 Blues which Dylan covers on Disc Two) he really means this. So we are left with an impression of someone wounded into inaction, using the song to allow his revenge fantasies a safe escape route.
The singer’s technique in addressing the girl is a kind of deliberate self-abasement, a pretence that he is not really asking for her pity. Early on in this version he casts himself deliberately into self-abjection: …Little by little, bit by bit… he begins, the ‘babyish’ words suggesting a kind of mock timidity …I’m becoming more of a hypocrite…  Then we hear how she has made him suffer …You made me eat/ A ton of dust….  he complains. …You're potentially dangerous, and not worthy of trust… which follows, sounds a little awkward and perhaps a little too analytical for this kind of song. Maybe that is the point, though. The narrator here actually sounds rather scared of his lover. When he sings the similarly awkward …When I heard you was cold, I bought you a coat and hat/ I think you must have forgotten about that… he really sounds rather pathetically forlorn. Playing the martyr, he tells her he will ‘turn the other cheek’ to her insults. So that when he threatens he’ll ‘wring her neck’ this seems entirely unconvincing. By the time he tells her that …if all else fails, I’ll make it a matter of self-respect… he’s really squirming. By now the girl has probably turned away haughtily, not impressed by what she sees as a rather pathetically inadequate display of bravado.
        In many ways the Tell Tale Signs version of the song is more teasingly ambiguously that the smoother Modern Times take. Dylan inhabits the song a little more, mainly by exaggerating the ‘forsaken lover’ persona. The recording is driven by Tony Garnier’s more pronounced throbbing bass line, against which Dylan’s voice is slightly more cracked and plaintive. Maybe this version did not quite gell with the sense of restrained control that he is closer to on the finished album. The same can be said, perhaps, for the alternate version on Disc Two of the apocalyptic Ain’t Talkin’ , which on Modern Times is a slow-building rumination with broodingly violent overtones. Here the track is shorter, punchier – with a faster, more pronounced rhythmic pulse which suggests a mood of panic and despair rather than the grim resignation of the final version. The almost spoken vocals strain against the compelling heartbeat that drives the song on. The lyrics begin to diverge in the middle of the song. As with Someday Baby the tone is less accepting of fate, more desperate. And in this less controlled version of the song, there is no time to lose : … I've got no time for idle conversation… the singer tells us ….I need to find a doctor in this town…  Here the narrator seems careworn, so stressed he has become ill. …I’m all worn out with public service, I’m beginning to crack… There is none of the steely determination which prevails in the climax to the Modern Times track. …I'm gonna throw myself upon your loving breast… he wails, either to his lover or his savior (though there is much less explicitly ‘religious’ imagery here.
      In the most remarkable verse of the Tell Tale Signs version the narrator is cowed by a vision before which he can only tremble. Here the ‘mystic garden’ is bathed in bright autumnal light and illuminated by resonant, allusive symbolism. The faster rhythm and pronounced alliteration emphasizes the singer’s terror: …It's the first new day of a grand and a glorious Autumn/ The Queen of Love is coming across the grass … In this version he bows down before this Amazonian figure, obviously a beautiful and very powerful woman …None dare call her anything but ‘Madam’/ No one flirts with her or even makes a pass… he tells us in awe. This vision seems to be the ‘main event’ of the song at this point.  Here he confronts what appears to be the source of his distress. The Queen Of Love (Virgil’s name for Venus in The Aeneid) has him conquered. He kneels at her feet, bowed into submission. In the next variation on the chorus we see him …standing outside the Gates of Wrath… The last phrase is a direct reference to William Blake’s poem Daybreak, which runs: …To find the western path/Right through the Gates of Wrath/ I urge my way…  Blake’s poem presents a vision earthly of peace and reconciliation but Dylan’s narrator he stands ‘outside’ those gates. He is excluded from redemption. In a lovely ironic touch we hear that instead of entering the gates he has to …take a little trip along the primrose path…  Here the allusion is to Hamlet (1:3) where Ophelia, challenged by her brother Laertes over her attraction to Hamlet, makes a sarcastic aside referring to Laertes’ own dalliances: …Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads… she says, scornfully. Dylan’s hero, like Shakespeare’s has been driven half mad by love. But he has to follow that ‘primrose path’ to whatever part of the ‘mystic garden’ it leads.
        It is perhaps a pity that we lose this verse in the Modern Times version of the song, but there Dylan takes Ain’t Talkin’ in a rather different direction. Here the apocalyptic violence of that version is only hinted at. This version ends with a repetition of the song’s first lines, bringing us back full circle, followed by the enigmatic …Ain’t talkin’ /just walkin’/ You ride ‘em high and down you go….  Along with the earlier reference to …all rails leading to the west… this seems to suggest more of a frontier/cowboy scenario than the final version. The imagery here points towards a mythic past and the song seems to be more focused on the idea of the ‘mystic garden’ as a kind of Edenic vision of ‘frontier America’. Dylan’s ‘mystic traveller’ here is still ruthless, still ready to ‘slaughter his enemies’, but here he rides off into the sunset in the time-honoured way, following that ‘primrose path’ wherever it will lead.


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Hi there again.. it's been some time since the last one of these... meanwhile Bob has brought out two more albums, so I've got a lot of catching up to do! So watch this space!

As usual I'd welcome any comments in the box below or you can write directly to me
at chris@chrisgregory.org   









Tuesday, December 29, 2009 12:04:56 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [22]  | 
Wednesday, September 09, 2009

               the prisoner: episode by episode

                            

    

This extended blog is intended as a companion to my book Be Seeing You: Decoding The Prisoner, which was originally published in 1997. It is also written in anticipation of the new TV remake of the series, and in tribute to The Prisoner's primary creator Patrick McGoohan, who died recently. While the book contains detailed commentaries on each of the seventeen episodes, my purpose here is to present a more impressionistic view of the series and to concentrate more on its visual and cinematic qualities.

 


introduction
1. arrival
2. the chimes of big ben
3. a, b and c
4. free for all

5. the schizoid man
6. the general
7. many happy returns
8. dance of the dead
9. checkmate
10. hammer into anvil
11. it's your funeral
12. a change of mind
13. do not forsake me, oh my darling
14. living in harmony
15. the girl who was death
16. once upon a time
17. fall out

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                                    introduction


In the years since Be Seeing You: Decoding The Prisoner was published The Prisoner has certainly not disappeared from view. In recent years American action-adventure series television has reached new heights of sophistication with series like The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, Heroes and Lost, which have helped to create a new sense of televisual aesthetics and have very often proved to be far more challenging and imaginative than anything Hollywood has been able to offer. Many of the creators of these series - which fully utilise cinematic techniques - have paid specific tributes to McGoohan's creation within these series. The Prisoner, which was shot at a time when colour TV was still a relative novelty, was the first series to make full use of the possibilities of taking a more 'cinematic' kind of TV. The story goes that McGoohan (with typical bitingly ironic wit) actually banned the use of the word 'television' during the production of the series. The standards of production quality, especially in terms of set design, camerawork and the creative use of incidental music which The Prisoner set were rarely equalled during the 1970s and 80s. And in perhaps the most naturally collaborative artistic medium of all, The Prisoner stands as one of early TV's most clearly authorial texts. Patrick McGoohan's extraordinary performance still resonates as a powerful representation of the archetypal character of the rebel hero, the seeker after truth... The character of The Prisoner represents the nameless force we each feel inside ourselves whenever we feel the forces of oppression, of mindless conformity and of suppression of freedom to think pressing in on us. He is a modern Everyman. The Prisoner's use of philosophy, politics, surrealism and social satire is remarkable, especially for a TV series of its time, but what really drives it is McGoohan's extraordinary energy as performer, writer, director and conceptualist. In one scene in the opening episode Arrival The Prisoner birthday - 6 March 1928 - is revealed. It is also McGoohan's real birthday. The Prisoner is an intensely personal story, in which only The Prisoner himself appears every week. He is onscreen almost all of the time. The other characters - like the ever-changing Number 2s - seem to float before his eyes with an increasingly intense, dream-like logic. It is often difficult to tell whether what is happening is real or whether it's all going on in The Prisoner's head.

Wherever he goes, The Prisoner is under surveillance. His masters in the Village watch him, we watch them watching him... Even the statues have watching eyes. ...My life is my own!... he roars. But nobody appears to be listening. McGoohan's dedication to his central socio-political prophecy - that technology will, in the future, be used for many forms of subtle social control, which will be delivered to us in the sickeningly bland tones of politicians who will keep reassuring us that it's all for our own good - is all-encompassing. In episode after episode, he shows us how this control will be exercised. The Prisoner is carried forward towards its utterly bizarre and tantalisingly open ended conclusion, by McGoohan's incredibly driven, monomaniacal conviction. And in this age of mass surveillance, when intrusive voyeurism has become enshrined and fetishised as a national pastime through a seemingly interminable series of excruciating 'Reality TV' shows, while outside millions upon millions of camera eyes are watching and cataloguing our every move, the prophetic force of McGoohan's vision becomes more potent with each passing year. While some of its visual iconography and use of dramatic conventions (especially its fight scenes) dates The Prisoner as very much a product of the 1960s, the central message it conveys becomes more and more relevant with each passing year. Hopefully the new series will do some justice to this vision. But McGoohan's Prisoner can only continue to grow in stature as the years go by.


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                             one: arrival

 

Arrival is, at least for the first two of its three sections, an astonishing piece of visual art. Such is its visual power that its distinctive imagery alone tells all the essentials of the story. The locations - consisting of familiarly iconic parts of London and the eccentrically cosmopolitan setting of the Portmeirion Hotel in North Wales - are especially distinctive, and work in sharp contrast against each other, taking us from an extremely familiar setting into one which is mysterious and strange. The studio sets, in particular The Prisoner's house, Number 2's residence inside The Green Dome and the Village's main surveillance centre are meticulously designed modernist interiors which reflect the rulers of The Village's use of the most up to date technology. These provide another contrast with the old-world architecture of Portmeirion, indicating that beneath the facades The Village represents a technologically controlled and totalitarian future. Every aspect of the episode's mise-en-scene has been utilised to reinforce this contrast. The (superficially) comforting environment of The Prisoner's house features muted, soft greens and yellows while inside The Green Dome everything is dark blue, purple and metallic grey. The black blazers, casual slacks and colourful striped tee shirts worn by the inhabitants of The Village suggest a kind of 'holiday camp' atmosphere but the clothes themselves are all so perfectly and immaculately clean, and the actions of the Villagers - as they take part in contrived 'fun' - are awkward, nervous and completely desexualised. There is plenty of contrasting colour here, the visuals tell us, but precious little passion. The styles of the Portmeirion buildings, which are drawn from many different parts of the world and which seem to be arranged in an almost random way, add to the sense of dislocation which both The Prisoner and the viewer increasingly come to feel.

Central to the design strategy of the series, as revealed in Arrival, is the imaginative positioning of rounded shapes, which appear in sharp contrast to the rectangular frame of the TV screen. Number 2's 'office' is circular, with built in monitor screens all around. Number 2 himself rises up from below, with measured amusement, in a strange chair shaped like half an egg. In the middle of the room is a large round control console. In the surveillance room the operatives swing round on a kind of wheel with their heads bent down over their equipment. And most memorably of all there is what later becomes known as 'Rover', the mysterious and terrifying white balloon which appears to be both Village guard and instrument of punishment. Even the ubiquitous typescript which all Village signs and notices are written in is heavily rounded.

The opening sequence, which appears here in fully extended form, tells the story of The Prisoner's incarceration in a completely visual way. The sequence is poetically cinematic, beginning with the cracking of thunder and long a shot of an anonymous deserted airfield. It is as if he comes out of some elemental place. We then see our hero's stylish Lotus 7 crashing towards us. The dynamic music is, here as elsewhere, crucial to the effect, rising to a series of climaxes as we see him driving through London, entering a secret underground location, smashing his fist down on hiss boss's desk and then storming back down the corridor. The music is slightly orchestrated, but a driving rock beat features throughout, like a racing heartbeat, slowing down to a slower rhythm as he returns to his London home, rising in tempo as he struggles with the effect of the knockout drug that his been posted through his letterbox by a tall, spindly man dressed as an undertaker, then petering out he collapses, the buildings racing around in front of his eyes. When he wakes the music is calm but slightly eerie as he opens up the blinds to reveal his entrance to his 'new world'. His apartment in The Village has been set up as a replica of his London flat, as if to further disorient him and to display the apparently effortless omnipotence of his captors.

Most high budget TV series use music in a similar way to mainstream Hollywood movies which follow the pattern of classical Hollywood narrative. We accept the presence of non-diegetic background music for dramatic effects as one of those conventions which we don't really think about. This convention was satirised memorably in Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles, where an orchestra suddenly appears in a Western setting. But most incidental music in film or TV is meant to be 'invisible', and its effect on creating mood and emotion is often underestimated. In The Prisoner music is used in a very deliberate way, sometimes for satirical effects (as with the 'cheerful' but bland brass band music used in Village parades and celebrations) and at others in various conventional ways during fight scenes and action sequences. But the series also contains a number of distinctive 'themes' which are first established in Arrival. The first section of the opening episode has rather minimal dialogue, as The Prisoner explores the Village and we are introduced to its distinctive if bizarre mixture of architectural styles. One of the main themes, a slightly jaunty but suggestively eerie brassy piece, accompanies our hero's first ride in a Village taxi. As he approaches Number 2's residence in The Green Dome another key theme, based on the tune of the nursery rhyme Pop Goes The Weasel, appears for the first time. The apparent banality of the theme is set against the strangeness of the visual setting, creating a discomforting, defamiliarising effect. It also symbolises The Prisoner's impatience and frustration with the patronisingly 'childish' tone of much of the Village's communication with its citizens.

The appearance of the mute, midget butler, who we see for the first time here, is another unsettlingly strange visual component which will be a constant factor throughout the series. The butler greets The Prisoner and escorts him to the entrance to Number 2's 'office'. Here the music changes abruptly into an eerie, 'futuristic' theme appropriate to the remarkably distinctive design of the large circular room, with its surrounding hi-tech screens which initially are filled with the floating blob-like shapes which are a distinctive feature of the series. We also get our first glimpse of the penny farthing bicycle, a symbol of redundant and outmoded technology which is in distinct contrast to its highly technological surroundings. As The Prisoner makes his first key statement of resistance: ...I will not be pushed, filed, indexed, stamped, briefed , debriefed or numbered... my life is my own... we see his face in stark close-up, the weird floating shapes circling behind him. This is perhaps the most iconic image in the whole series, with McGoohan's face set in firm, angry defiance. Our hero's direct language contrasts with the exaggerated all-knowing politeness of his host. Later The Prisoner is asked to answer a 'questionnaire' at the Village 'Labour Exchange', another circular-shaped 'futuristic' interior, conducted by a mild mannered bureaucrat spinning a wheel on an oddly constructed wooden child's toy which our hero smashes in frustration before exiting. The iconography of the Village is dominated by circles and wheels. And as with the Penny Farthing bicycle, there are Big Wheels and Little Wheels....

Costume is another key visual element of the series. After The Prisoner has been taken by Number 2 for a helicopter tour of the Village, we see him strolling through the grounds to the sound of a brass band, who are all dressed in multicoloured capes and slacks. Other Village inhabitants wear striped blazers, straw boaters and carry colourful umbrellas. The effect, combined with the jaunty music, is that of exaggerated, forced 'sporty' jollity. In perhaps the episode's most surreal and sinister moment, we suddenly see how completely manipulated all the Villagers are. Number 2 appears on a balcony and cries 'Wait! Be still!' whereupon almost all the participants in the scene suddenly freeze. The white balloon emerges from a fountain in the middle of the scene, pursues and then smothers the one young man who attempts to escape. After 'Rover' bounces away, the scene jolts out of freeze-frame and everything returns to 'normal'. The deliberate use of the cinematic effect here lends a dreamlike quality to the scene. And we get a distinct impression that the entire scenario has been stage managed for The Prisoner's benefit. The stage has been set for the continuing psychological tussles between The Prisoner and the various Number 2s which will dominate the series.

One scene in particular illustrates The Prisoner's utter frustration with his 'comfortable confinement'. As he examines the contents of his room, the horribly syrupy background music rises in volume until, driven to rage, he picks up the radio set that the music is apparently emanating from and smashes it into tiny pieces. The music, however, merely continues. As with the earlier use of freeze frame in the scene with Rover, here we see another deliberate disjunction between set up between our conventional expectations of cinematic technique and what appears to be happening. We are unsure at first as to whether the music (perhaps 'muzak' would be a better description) is actually diegetic - i.e. it is meant to be the actual music being piped into the room by the Village authorities – or non diegetic (the 'soundtrack' added for effect). And even when The Prisoner smashes the radio we are still not sure. By the blurring of the boundaries between what is 'real' (within the 'world' of the series) and what is not, The Prisoner ‘s allegorical significance is already being hinted at.

Most of the rest of the episode becomes more melodramatic, divided between the Village's attempts to get information out of The Prisoner and his efforts to escape. A pretty girl, assigned to him as his maid, breaks down in front of him and begs him to give her some information to stop her being punished. He can clearly see he is being manipulated and refuses to fall for it, giving her short shrift. After his futile attempt to escape via the beach are defeated by the arrival of Rover, a whole mini-drama unfolds when Cobb, a former secret service colleague  appears in the Village hospital and appears to sympathise with him. The authorities then fake Cobb's suicide in order to manipulate The Prisoner into a plot by which he has to gain the sympathy of a young woman who had apparently been in love with Cobb in order to gain access to the Village helicopter. However, both the woman and Cobb are actually working for the Village and The Prisoner's  escape attempt in the helicopter is cynically curtailed by the replacement Number 2. The point of the exercise seems to have been merely to show The Prisoner just how futile any effort to escape would be. Here, as in several places in the episode, the 'spy plot' of the episode is emphasised. It appears that The Village is some kind of international prison where ex-spies will be taken to have any valuable information extracted from them. The viewers may even assume that McGoohan's character is actually John Drake from Danger Man, especially as in many ways McGoohan appears to be still acting the part of this character. At this point the influence of script editor George Markstein, who envisaged the series as basically a sophisticated version of a spy drama, was still strong. In some ways the more surreal aspects of the episode, which are largely executive producer McGoohan's own creation, sit uneasily with this. The 'spy plot' is in fact utterly bereft of defining detail. We do not learn why The Prisoner has resigned, which organisation he has really resigned from or what his motives were. These elements become the enigmas that keep us watching through the succeeding episodes. But as the series progresses, the quest for this apparently basic information becomes not only that of the viewer but that of his captors. Gradually the 'spy' elements recede, Markstein himself resigns and McGoohan's vision comes to dominate the series.

Such was the originality of The Prisoner that it soon built up impressive viewing figures as spectators were drawn in more and more by desire to know the answers to the series' unanswered questions. As the series developed, the nature of these questions began to subtly shift. This use of continually evolving enigmas is an especially distinctive trait of long running television series, which must continually provide reasons for their audience to keep watching. The elements of the secret agent genre which dominate the last third of the episode were comfortably familiar ground for an audience attuned to both the fantasy of James Bond, and the relative realism of Harry Palmer from The Ipcress File or the John Le Carre novels. The apparently seamless transition of McGoohan’s character from his Danger Man persona only adds to this effect. As Cobb leaves Number 2 says to him …Give my regards to the old country… Already the viewer suspects that The Village is the creation of some kind of secret multinational organization, perhaps like Spectre in the Bond films. Or maybe it is run by the Commies, or quite possibly, by Our Lot. Arrival sets up all these generic expectations in the audience. Yet in its setting, and the strange dream-like logic with which events occur, it already hints at the ‘mind trips’ it will soon be taking its audience on. British TV audiences were already accustomed this kind of ‘proto-psychedelia’ in more ‘lightweight’ ‘spy spoof’ shows like The Avengers. But in Arrival there are already hints that we are in far darker territory. In the Village ‘hospital’ waiting room, signs written in the heavy, childlike ‘Village script’ declaim slogans such as … a still tongue makes a happy life… The ‘patients’ engaged in what Number 2 blithely calls ‘therapy’ appear to be the subjects of Nazi-like experimentation.

Arrival is a tour de force in televisual terms, an utterly compelling, beguiling and outlandish episode which crams an amazing amount of information into its fifty minutes. It clearly establishes the highly distinctive visual world of The Prisoner and begins to outline its philosophical position. At the same time it retains many of the conventions of action-adventure TV, such as highly choreographed chase scenes and fight scenes. But even these are conveyed with a kind of visual inventiveness in terms of both set design (mise en scene), editing and camera work that had rarely, up that point, been seen in any form of television show. The episode sets out the dramatic and visual boundaries of the series, creating stunningly original and literally unforgettable visual and verbal juxtapositions with the use of costume, scenery and highly distinctive props such as ‘Rover’ and the Penny Farthing bicycle. Its visual qualities show its creators’ delight in what was for TV the new medium of colour, while its script creates delicious layers of enigma, in which we as viewers are already relishing the process of immersing ourselves.

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                                     two: the chimes of big ben

 

       The Chimes of Big Ben, the second episode of The Prisoner, is much less visually dazzling or verbally puzzling than the opening Arrival. The dialogue lacks the mysterious evasiveness and ambiguous menace of the opening episode. And while some effective use is made of the distinctively surreal Village iconography which had been established in the previous episode, here the main focus is on the story (concocted by experienced TV and film screenwriter Vincent Tilsley) which centres on an elaborate web of deception the Village rulers create in an attempt to extract vital ‘information’ from The Prisoner. The mechanics of the storyline, which lead up to him being apparently allowed to escape to his old Intelligence Service office in London, are somewhat contrived and melodramatic. The action sequence involving a sea chase by Rover is really rather unconvincing, as are the uncharacteristic hints of ‘romance’ between The Prisoner and Nadia, the Estonian woman he supposedly escapes with. And, not surprisingly, it looks (as indeed it was) much cheaper, very much more like a ‘TV show’ after the cinematic extravagances of Arrival.


 Despite these limitations, Chimes introduces several key elements to the series. The question of why Number 6 resigned is given prominence, and the authorities’ continual attempts to get him to reveal this information is now established as one of the most important motifs of the series. The episode also marks the first appearance of Leo McKern as Number 2 (a role he will return to in the final two episodes) and throughout Chimes there is much jocular verbal sparring between him and The Prisoner. During one of their meetings The Prisoner points out to Number 2 that he is also a Prisoner, an accusation which Number 2 accepts with equanimity, and there seems clear evidence here (despite the fact that the episode appears to locate The Village in Lithuania) that the Village belongs neither to East nor West but is run by a third agency, a group which wishes to create a world wide totalitarian society ...The whole world as the Village… as Number 2 puts it. Thus, although the episode appears to conform to many of the conventions of the Cold War spy-action genre (with Nadia’s relationship with Number 6 being rather reminiscent of that of Tatiana Romanova and James Bond in From Russia With Love) there are already hints of the broader and more allegorical Orwellian and Kafkaesque themes which will become more prominent as the series progresses.


         The episode also introduces a certain tone of comic satire, particularly in its depiction of The Village’s ‘art and craft exhibition’ in which every artefact on show except for Number 6’s own creation is a picture or a sculpture of Number 2, clearly showing that the entire show is: rather than any form of ‘individual expression’: merely an expression of mindless conformity. Number 6’s own contribution is apparently an abstract sculpture which, as he explains to a group of pretentious Village ‘art critics’, represents ‘freedom’ and ‘escape’. In fact his sculpture is the actual boat he and Nadia will escape in.


The key contribution of Chimes to the series, however, is the way it sets up an often ironically conspiratorial tone which becomes a kind of duplicitous game which the audience is increasingly invited to participate it. This will build up over succeeding weeks’ episodes in a particularly intimate, televisual way; but one which will keep the audience guessing right up to the final episode. The Prisoner poses questions about the manipulative relationship between a TV series’ writers and their audience, continually challenging viewers to question what they are being presented with. When Nadia first arrives in The Village, The Prisoner himself seems to deliberately pretend to be one of the Village ‘authorities’, adopting a ‘superior’, knowing tone of voice and participating in the ‘Be Seeing You’ salute to passers by. Having previously been emotionally manipulated by the Village authorities, he naturally suspects that she is a ‘plant’ sent to entrap him.  Yet she appears to think that he is trying to trap her. It is only when he witnesses her being apparently tortured in the Village ‘hospital’ that he becomes convinced that she too is a ‘genuine’ Prisoner. In order to plan their escape together, the two fake a romantic relationship for the benefit of the watching Number 2. Nadia, as we will find out at the end of the episode, really is a Village agent but she continues to tease and flirt with The Prisoner throughout their ‘escape’, making the audience believe that (like Tatiana in From Russia With Love) she is now ‘coming over to our side’.  Just as he is fooled, so are we. It is only right at the end of the story that her role in the deception is revealed and we see that she has merely been skilfully (and cold heartedly) playing a part. Tilsley’s intricate plotting entices us carefully into this web of deception. When Number 6 pushes open the doors of what he thought was his London office and emerges back into the Village, his final ‘Be Seeing You’ is grimly rather than jokingly ironic. Thoroughly defeated, he has been taught a lesson in just how far the authorities will go to manipulate him. And the viewer has been expressly denied any moment of vicarious triumph. The denouement shows us that we, too have been subjected to the kind of ‘mind fucking’ that Number 6 has been put through.


 The ending of the episode also raises a number of questions for the viewer. The assertion that the Village is located ‘in Lithuania near the Polish border’ now seems dubious at best. And as for the shots we’ve been shown of aeroplanes, lorries and containers being lifted onto ships, we can only conclude that these images are ‘subjective’ shots showing us what Number 6 expected to be happening. Thus we may start to question just how much of what we are seeing is real and how much of it is in fact a projection of our eponymous hero. We are left with a nagging feeling that we were almost sucked in by the manipulation ourselves, despite the fact that surely we must realise that in a series entitled The Prisoner, it’s really far to early for the central character to escape. So despite the way in which it uses conventional elements of the ‘secret agent’ genre, The Chimes Of Big Ben ends up raising far more questions than it answers, and begins to make us question whether this is really any kind of ‘spy story’ at all.

        


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        three: a, b and c

The third episode of The Prisoner is presented as something of a test as to how far the Village authorities will go to ‘break’ our hero. After the attempts to win over his confidence by ever more elaborate forms of deception in Arrival and The Chimes Of Big Ben, the Village now begins to use various forms of drugs to induce revelatory mental states in The Prisoner. The widespread use of recreational mind-changing drugs was, of course, a major feature of the social ‘revolution’ of the 1960s, and The Prisoner itself was filmed at the height of the first ‘psychedelic era’. There is no doubt that this contemporary style had a considerable effect on the design aesthetic (especially the vivid use of colour) in the series. But the kinds of drugs being experimented with by the Village authorities are hardly ‘recreational’; they are the kind that is useful for social control. Although the series does not make it explicit, it may be that the entire placid, ‘broken’ population of The Village is being carefully ‘medicated’- what we might now label a kind of ‘Prozac Nation’. Issues regarding mental health and how it tends to be dealt with by doling out chemicals rather than with sympathetic therapy are clearly close to McGoohan’s heart and the treatment of these themes in The Prisoner is another feature of the series which has remained relevant (and arguably has become even more relevant) today. 

 

A, B and C is another relatively low-budget episode. Its basic premise - that The Prisoner is given drugs every night and wired to a machine that translates his dreams into TV images - is somewhat contrived, with no scientific basis whatsoever. It’s the kind of idea that could easily have appeared in much ‘sillier’ spy fantasy series such as The Avengers (also made by the ITC production company). The use of locations is very limited, and much of the background of The Prisoner’s life as a secret agent that is revealed in the dream sequences is very conventionally presented. But from a ‘televisual’ point of view the episode sets up an interesting dynamic. By giving us these glimpses into the conventional fictional spy world, it’s as if we as viewers are revisiting cut up episodes of Danger Man. We appear, then, to be watching ‘television’ in The Prisoner’s mind. And perhaps the 1967 audience are still wondering why McGoohan himself ‘resigned’ from his previous (and much less ‘weird’) TV series. The Village authorities also become voyeurs in this process. Eventually The Prisoner discovers what they are doing to him and turns the tables on them, using their own methods against them. It is his first unequivocal triumph over those in power.

 

The most memorable aspect of the episode is the treatment of Number 2’s relationship with Number 1. Colin Gordon plays a nervous, neurotic, milk-drinking Number 2, who is clearly constantly in fear of what will happen to him if he fails in his mission to break The Prisoner. This is very effectively portrayed by the repeated showing of the chunky red cordless telephone (clearly the hotline to ‘the boss’) which rings at a number of key moments in the episode. The shots of the phone tend to be framed by showing the phone itself looming large in the foreground. Gordon gives a brilliantly twitchy, paranoid performance. His Number 2 is very different to the ‘amiable fellow’ played by Leo McKern in the previous episode. He continues to insist that The Prisoner be given higher and higher doses of the ‘truth inducing’ drugs, despite the medical risks involved. When the ‘hotline’ rings for the final time, we can only imagine his fate. It is made very clear here that the Village authorities are Prisoners themselves. A, B and C is the first episode in which the threat of, and the presence of, Number 1, is made absolutely explicit.

 

The Prisoner is able to ‘rewire’ the experiment by breaking in to the laboratory where he is being experimented on at night and setting up a situation whereby he can get his revenge. He also fakes taking his ‘medication’ (delivered by a homely-looking elderly maid in his night time cocoa) so that he is conscious during the process. He pretends to be leading the authorities towards the revelation of ‘D’, a mysterious fourth spy contact. When unmasked, ‘D’ turns out to be Number 2 himself, much to Number 2’s chagrin. Then, in the episode’s most striking twist, The Prisoner - now fully in control of his own dream - actually appears to enter the room in which No. 2 and the Village scientist are watching the dream on the screen, so that he can mock them further for their failure. This time the device of the ‘TV within the TV show’ is used for cruelly ironic effect. Just as the Village authorities want to know why The Prisoner resigned, we the viewers are waiting to find out the same information ourselves. When the mask is pulled of ‘D’s face to reveal the face of Number 2 (an action which prefigures one of the key moments in the final episode Fall Out) the joke is on the viewer as much as it is on Number 2 himself. For the next fourteen weeks McGoohan and his co-creators will continue to tease the audience in this way. Just as the Village authorities want ‘information’, so do we.

 


             But, as The Prisoner snarls in the credit sequence:

                                 "You won’t get it !"

          




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                                               four: free for all


 

In Free For All, the first of the episodes to be written and directed by McGoohan himself, The Prisoner leads us into a darker, more mysterious narrative realm. Although their execution may have been rather bizarre, previous episodes had still been broadly based on various elements of the secret agent genre. Questions had been raised which we as viewers would clearly expect to be answered before the series ended. Yet by the time of Free For All the discerning viewer can already guess that it is possible that the series is in fact never going to deliver any ‘easy answers’.  The episode also broadens the political allegory of the series by showing the Village authorities, with their slick techniques of image manipulation and social control, as the ultimate ‘spin doctors’. It presents a complex, ambiguous, narrative in which the boundary between objective reality and the subjective perception of the protagonist becomes increasingly blurred. With The Prisoner being heavily drugged with some kind of semi-hallucinogenic chemicals throughout, the episode takes us on a kind of ‘bad trip’ through various states of reality, as his growing confusion manifests itself in increasing paranoia, anxiety and vulnerability. What makes this all the more chilling is that, this time, The Village authorities seem to have little concern with their usual preoccupation of finding out why The Prisoner resigned. Their intention seems to be more to break down his inner psychic strength, to demonstrate to him that, if necessary, they can manipulate him in ways that will be excruciatingly psychologically painful and that ultimately he will not be able to resist them. 

 

McGoohan’s personal input in writing and direction here is bold and imaginative. He produces a number of memorably surreal moments which can only lead us to question the reality of what see. The first of these occurs in the opening scene when Number 2 calls up and invites The Prisoner to his office in the Green Dome. The Prisoner refuses to go, whereupon the door bell rings and No. 2 appears instantly at his door. By this point in the series, the viewer will be familiar enough with the geography of  the Village to know that it would have been impossible for No. 2 to have covered that distance in a couple of seconds. The moment after The Prisoner has made his speech announcing that he will be running in the Village election, the entire crowd in front of him suddenly reveals that they are brandishing large ‘Vote No. 6’ placards behind the ‘Vote No. 2’ placards they had previously been holding up. They all begin chanting his name together. It is as if every moment action has been perfectly choreographed. When The Prisoner delivers a radical, anti-Village speech he is actually encouraged by No. 2, who is attempting to delude him into thinking he is taking part in a real democratic process. The crowds ‘spontaneously’ mob him and shower him with confetti. McGoohan’s impressionistic style of editing here features a montage of close-ups of The Prisoner’s increasingly dazed and confused face juxtaposed against shots of the crowd.  These visual effects vividly convey his confused mental state.

 

The scenes in the underground Council Chamber (which we see here for the first time) are some of the most impressively realised in the whole series. The Chamber itself is a bold example of futuristic design, with its circle of high-backed metallic chairs. The Villagers, in their striped shirts and undertakers’ top hats look strikingly bizarre. As The Prisoner is ‘cross examined’ by the Council more subjective camera shots convey his descent into mental breakdown. Then suddenly we see him falling down a red tunnel or chute, like Alice down a rabbit hole. He is then subjected to a sinister ‘Truth Test’, conveyed by silhouette on the huge screens behind him. Finally he breaks down, runs in panic out of the building, grabs the first boat he can find and tries to escape, before being brought back by Rover.

 

It has already been suggested that being ‘Rovered’ has some mysterious effect on those who experience it. Perhaps the balloon itself administers some kind of passifying ‘drug effect’.  Whatever the reason, after this experience it appears that The Prisoner has really ‘bought into’ all the indoctrination.  When he makes his final speeches, they are completely devoid of his previous ‘revolutionary’ statements, which are replaced by bland and meaningless platitudes. The Village crowds, who appear to be ‘pre programmed’, naturally respond with enthusiasm.  After winning the election by a ‘unanimous’ margin he is escorted by No. 2 to the Green Dome, where he runs amok, broadcasting to the Villagers that they are all ‘free to go’. Nobody responds. He is then beset by Village guards seeking to restrain him. As he tries to escape into the various subterranean tunnels beneath The Green Dome he glimpses a group of Villagers, in white robes and sunglasses, apparently engaged in some kind of worship of Rover.

 

In Free For All McGoohan gives one of his most powerful performances as he portrays The Prisoner’s descent into drug-induced dementia. Veteran British film actor Eric Portman, who had appeared in several of Powell and Pressburger’s 1940s classic films, lends considerable gravitas to his smooth but ruthless version of No. 2.  Rachel Herbert does au unforgettable turn as No. 58, who supposedly cannot speak English and who is assigned to be The Prisoner’s ‘helper’ in the election campaign. Through most of the episode she scampers around frivolously, jabbering away in Russian and giggling. Then, in another one of the episode’s most memorable moments, when confronting The Prisoner in the final scenes (when she herself is revealed as the real ‘New Number 2’), she becomes harsh and dominating, and speaks in perfect English, informing him that they have many ways to break him and that this ‘is just the beginning’. The Village authorities, having noticed that one of The Prisoner’s weaknesses is for young women who seem to need ‘protecting’, have exploited this throughout.

 

The episode is full of jarring moments when reality seems to shift before our eyes. The Prisoner is a series with an extraordinary focus on its one (and only) central character and in Free For All McGoohan effectively merges the outer world of the Village with its protagonist’s inner consciousness. From now on, we will never be able to be quite sure what is real and what is not. A television series gives a storyteller with a unique opportunity to present character. Through regular viewing every week the audience can begin to identify with the character in a way that no other storytelling medium allows. In The Prisoner Patrick McGoohan exploits this relationship cunningly, representing his main character as a combination of sophisticated action hero and mythic protagonist, incontrovertibly (or so it seems) on the side of ‘good’ against ‘evil’, standing up for his role as an individual against the suffocating and constraining bonds of society’. We could easily be him, we feel, in that kind of situation… Like him, we may want to escape from the constraints of our lives, to throw off the oppressive forces surrounding us. But although Free For All establishes The Prisoner as a political allegory, from here onwards it creates the world of the Village more and more as a reflection of The Prisoner’s own deepest terrors. As a political allegory The Prisoner clearly owes a debt to Zamyatin, Fritz Lang, Huxley, Orwell and Kafka, the progenitors of various fictional ‘future distopias’. Yet it also has a further quality, an almost Shakespearean intensity of examination of its central character, a nameless ‘everyman’ figure who appears to be an ‘innocent’ victim of the forces that are oppressing him. In The Prisoner the Village authorities are engaged in a search for the fatal flaws in his character which they can exploit. They do not wish to destroy him but to co-opt him, to ‘suck out his soul’ and replace it with that of an automaton.

 

The Prisoner’s struggle throughout the series will be focused on his need to assert his individuality against those who wish to steal it. Thus his position represents that of all of us in age of mass technology and mass media manipulation. Yet The Prisoner is not merely a victim and the series is already offering us glimpses of the uncomfortable ‘realities’ that will emerge in the final episodes. Free For All already begins to hint that, somehow, he is responsible for all of this himself,  and that the ‘prison’ he finds himself in may well be the ‘prison’ of his own mind.



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                    five: the schizoid man


 

The Schizoid Man carries The Prisoner even deeper into psychological territory, and features another attempt by the Village authorities to ‘scramble’ his mind by introducing a man into the Village who is his exact physical double. The man is given The Prisoner’s flat and his number and The Prisoner is told that he himself is ‘Number 12’ (‘12’, of course, being the number reached when ‘6’ is doubled). Anton Rogers, playing a suave, smooth-talking Number 2, tries to convince The Prisoner that the ‘double’ is the ‘real’ Number 6 and that his job as a Village agent is to impersonate the man to try to ‘break’ him by challenging his sense of identity. This, of course, is what The Village authorities are actually trying to do to The Prisoner himself. The ingenious story, by one of Britain’s most experienced TV screenwriters Terence Feely, is particularly confusing, especially for the casual viewer. That, naturally, is part of the point of the point of the story.

 

The two ‘doubles’ are put through a series of tests intending to establish which one is ‘The Real Number 6’. The Prisoner naturally expects to win these but, unknown to him at present, at night he has been subjected to brutal electroconvulsive ‘aversion therapy’ techniques which have now made him left rather than right handed and preferring flapjacks to bacon and eggs for breakfast. A mole on his wrist has disappeared and has appeared in the same place on the double’s wrist. In various sporting contests The Prisoner finds himself being continually defeated, despite his previous status as a swimming and fencing champion. He almost reaches the point of mental breakdown before he begins to remember flashes of the ‘treatment’ he has been put through.  By deliberately electrocuting himself he is able to reverse the process, leading him to confront the imposter, who - under pressure from The Prisoner - reveals his name is Curtis.  After a struggle between the two, Curtis gives the wrong password to Rover, who smothers him to death. The Prisoner then attempts to escape by pretending to be Curtis. But a few personal details give him away and the helicopter which is supposed to be airlifting him away returns to the ground. The bars slam over his face again.

 

Feely’s intricate plotting is cleverly accomplished, although there are a number of anomalies in how the story pans out. For Rover to suddenly kill someone for giving the wrong password is inconsistent with its behaviour in the rest of the series and The Prisoner seems to find it rather too easy to wrench information from Curtis. The ease with which he reverses the conditioning is also rather too convenient. The scenes where The Prisoner confronts Curtis (and wins a ‘punch up’ with him) seem to us today to be the least believable in the episode, though it is perhaps unlikely that contemporary audiences would have been quite so discerning. Despite this, the episode as a whole is very memorable, much of which can be put down to the subtle way that McGoohan plays the two characters slightly differently, Rogers’ performance as a rather slimy Number 2 and (perhaps most strikingly) the young actress Jane Merrow, who plays ‘Alison’, a friend of The Prisoner’s who has been practising a mind reading act with him. At the cumulative point of the contests Alison is called upon to choose which of the two ‘Number 6’s’ she has the established mental link with. She has no choice but to choose the imposter, for which she later expresses her regret. Having a character not known by a number being engaged in the kind of activity which it is highly unlikely the Village authorities would actually allow may be another inconsistent detail, but Merrow’s performance in this rather haunted-looking role is highly engaging and convincing.

 

The episode is also highly effective in visual terms. The effect of having ‘two McGoohans’ onscreen is done by using conventional split-screen effects. This was a well established technique but is achieved seamlessly throughout. The ‘imposter’ wears a white jacket to identify him, a necessary visual device without which the viewer would be utterly and hopelessly confused.  Much of the story of The Schizoid Man is told visually and the novelty of having ‘two Prisoners’ within the visual established setting is very striking. While the episode lacks the dream-like ambiguity of Free For All, it again presents much of its action subjectively from The Prisoner’s point of view. Its manipulation of plot confusion, which certainly involves the viewer, has a maddening logic which is very distinctive of the series. One of the major themes of The Prisoner is how social control can repress an individual’s consciousness of self, and The Schizoid Man provides one of the most searching examinations of this theme. The episode also provides some reflection on the crudity and barbarity of much of the behaviourist practise which was being applied within the mental health system and infers that such methods could well be used by a totalitarian state to control its citizens. Thus, despite its flaws, it succeeds in extending the allegorical scope of the series.


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                            six: the general



 

In The General  the emphasis shifts from the Village authorities’ investigation of The Prisoner to their manipulation of the entire community. The plot centres around ‘Speedlearn’, a new form of brainwashing which is being used in the Village. Ostensibly it is being used to ‘teach’ a nineteenth century history course which, by means of the Village’s mysterious ‘futuristic’ technology, can be memorised by anyone who watches a Speedlearn TV broadcast. The Villagers are, as ever, very enthusiastic about what their masters have decided they should engage themselves in, and are seen busily ‘testing’ each other on their knowledge of the course. Everyone, naturally, is word perfect, though the course merely teaches its ‘students’ to ‘parrot the facts’ rather than show any understanding or apply any reasoning to them.  Number 2 (played again by the nervous Colin Gordon who featured in A, B and C), boasts at one point that what is happening is merely a trial for the possible future brainwashing of whole populations.

 

Naturally, we are in the realm of dystopian satire here, although to call The General ‘an attack on the conventional education system’, as many commentators have done, may be a misreading. In fact the satire is directed far more towards the way that various forms of propaganda can be ‘pumped out’ to a receptive population via the mass media - a sly comment, perhaps, on what McGoohan regarded as the rather ‘moronic’ mentality of  much contemporary TV. The General, however, is one of the more overtly melodramatic episodes of the series. The final revelation that the mysterious ‘General’ is in fact a giant computer is rather predictable. Number 2 boasts to The Prisoner that The General can ‘answer any question’. The Prisoner types in the question ‘WHY?’ and the machine explodes, killing the Professor. The moral of the story (written by Lewis Grieffer) is, to say the least, blindingly obvious. The mechanism of introducing a sympathetic Village official (Number 12, played by John Castle) who helps The Prisoner gain access to The General, is reasonably well handled, though the characterisation of The Professor  as a rather stereotypical ‘dozy scientific genius’ who has created The General is very conventional.

 

  Despite such limitations, The General remains one of the most fondly remembered Prisoner episodes. After the heavy psychological stresses of A, B and C, Free For All and The Schizoid Man, here there is little personal threat to our hero and he can happily ‘play detective’. Perhaps the most inventively comic scene is the one in which The Prisoner, having been given a secret access code by Number 12, attempts to infiltrate the Village broadcasting system, intending to broadcast a message condemning Speedlearn which has been secretly recorded by The Professor.  Disguised in the Village’s regulation top hat, morning coat and dark sunglasses, The Prisoner inserts a card in a machine which is then taken and read by a tiny mechanical hand while a robotic Village voice explains that putting the wrong code number in ‘will be fatal’. McGoohan plays this with characteristic deadpan cool. The following scenes where he dispatches various guards are the kind of tongue in cheek ‘play fighting’ which often featured in shows like The Avengers.

 

However, The General does touch upon some ‘deeper’ themes. The Prisoner’s dismissal of the brainwashed population of The Village as ‘a row of cabbages’ is splendidly contemptuous and his ultimate destruction of the ‘infernal machine’ is certainly enjoyable. The depiction of the exchanges between The Prisoner, who is determined to expose The Professor’s plan and The Professor’s wife (sensitively played by Betty McDowell) touch upon some important issues related to moral culpability.  When she rather desperately insists to The Prisoner that she and her husband are working in The Village voluntarily she seems to be quite knowingly trying to justify the fact that she and The Professor are in fact merely ‘being used’. The episode’s most moving moment occurs in the final frames, after The Prisoner has delivered his ‘unanswerable question’ and The Professor has been killed by the exploding machine. In a brief, silent, tableau The Prisoner approaches her as she sits in grief on a bench, but then moves on as if he just cannot think of what to say. This final touch adds an odd but effective counterbalance to the prevailing humour of the episode. The General also points to a shift in emphasis of the series from The Prisoner’s attempt to escape (which he does not try to do at all here) to his involvement in the machinations of Village politics. As the series progresses, this will increasingly become his main preoccupation.


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                     seven: many happy returns




Many Happy Returns is a crucial and often undervalued episode of The Prisoner. It comes at a point in the series where we have become accustomed to the set up in the Village, and the relationships within it. Now we are suddenly and unexpectedly transported outside our ‘comfort zone’.  We have already seen a number of surreal or ‘weird’ scenes, especially in Free For All and A, B and C; but these could be explained as being seen from The Prisoner’s point of view when he was under chemical ‘mind alteration’. What happens in this episode is never really given any logical explanation. Perhaps the whole thing is a dream - though, if this is the case, perhaps the whole series is a dream. Certainly events in this episode progress with a kind of dream-logic, where fantastic things occur, hopes and raised but then dashed with a sickening sense of inevitability.

 

The Prisoner wakes one morning to find that the Village is entirely deserted. This is, of course, a considerable shock to him but he soon rallies and builds himself a raft to escape. He sets sail, carefully logging the days and hours at sea. After an encounter with some nasty gun runners who try to kill him, he is washed up on a shore which, to his great surprise, turns out to be none other than that of England. After stowing away in a lorry which drops him in central London, he revisits his old address where the current incumbent, Mrs. Butterworth - a rather attractive and somewhat flirtatious middle aged woman - feeds him and lends him some clothes. Then he goes to see his old bosses and struggles to convince them about his capture and incarceration in the Village. Finally they agree to travel in a British jet plane to find the location of the Village. As soon as he does, the pilot grins at him, says ‘Be Seeing You’ and pushes the eject button. Soon he is back ‘home’ in a Village which is now occupied again as normal. He is greeted by ‘Mrs. Butterworth’ (in reality the new Number 2) who brings him a birthday cake.

 

In a sly reference to Kafka, the director is listed in the credits as ‘Joseph Serf’, in fact a pseudonym for McGoohan himself. McGoohan takes the radical step of making almost the entire first half into a ‘silent movie’. Only when he speaks to Mrs. Butterworth does he actually have a conversation in English with another character. The sequence where he fights the gun runners features typical ‘action hero’ dynamics but is justified by the need to maintain the tension in the story during the fairly lengthy sea voyage. What is most impressive about McGoohan’s directorial approach, though, is the way he uses the characteristic patterns of visual repetition of a long running TV series for clever ironic effect. Although he has escaped from the Village and is (apparently) back in the ‘real world’ we then see him re-treading the steps we have become so familiar with from the series’ dramatic and engaging credit sequence. After spending time in the London flat where he is originally gassed and captured, he drives off to see his former employers in the distinctive hand built sports car that we glimpse him driving at the beginning of every episode. The first person he sees there is the official to whom he delivers his resignation every week. It is as if we are somehow being ‘led backwards’ through a series of events that we are by now very familiar with.

 

The other especially distinctive feature of this episode is the acting by the three principal guest stars, Georgina Cookson (who plays the rather impishly seductive Mrs. Butterworth) and those two renowned British character actors Patrick Cargill and Donald Sinden, who play The Prisoner’s bosses in London ‘Thorpe’ and ‘The Colonel’.  All three seem to assume a sense of knowing irony, as if they are playing their parts in a psychological game, the result of which is inevitable. There is an especially memorable moment when, just after The Prisoner has taken off on his quest to locate the Village, the two bosses stand on the runway and The Colonel shakes his head knowingly to Thorpe before delivering the deliciously ambiguous lines ‘He’s an old, old friend who never gives up’.  Certainly McGoohan was fortunate to be able to procure the services of two such accomplished actors for what are little more than cameo roles. Whether Thorpe and The Colonel are actually in on the Village authorities’ plot is left for us to decide. Just before the plane takes off, a suspicious-looking ‘milkman’ arrives on the scene and appears to take the place of the official pilot. Whether this is done with the consent of the bosses remains ambiguous. 

 

This is only one of the ways in which the episode leaves us to wonder exactly ‘what is going on’. Is all this real, or not? The fact that The Prisoner is washed up, as if by accident, on the south coast of England is incredible enough. When he arrives the first people he meets are Romany gypsies who do not speak English, further delaying the dramatic realisation of where he actually is. When he arrives at a road and looks through the bushes the viewer is given one of the series’ most effectively defamiliarising ‘jolts’ as the sight of that most distinctive piece of ‘national iconography’, the British bobby with his distinctive pointed helmet, appears in front of us. And although the scepticism of Thorpe and The Colonel at The Prisoner’s story is believable, as is the way he has to work hard at convincing them to authorise a reconnaissance mission, the way events unfold through time now becomes very strange. Whereas the ‘silent’ sequence in the first half of the episode apparently takes several weeks, the action of the second half seems to take place within the space of two days. We know this because, when he first talks to Mrs. Butterworth, she reveals that the next day is his birthday. (The date given is actually McGoohan’s real birthday). Back in The Village, she presents him with the cake on what must obviously be the following day. Naturally she says ‘Many Happy Returns’ to him, the irony of which is glaringly (and infuriatingly) obvious.

 

There are a number of logical questions raised which lend credence to the interpretation that all these events have been some kind of hallucination or dream. Why was the Village deserted? How come the only characters he actually speaks to are really working for the Village (if we accept, as seems highly likely, that The Colonel and Thorpe are ‘in on the act’)? How is it that, despite the fact that he is now in the presence of familiar work colleagues, we still do not find out his name? At one point The Colonel (in an apparent joke) actually calls him ‘Number 6’. And how has Mrs. Butterworth managed to reappear in the Village so soon? We are left with a nagging feeling that perhaps the entire set up has been a more sophisticated version of the deception practised on The Prisoner in the earlier Chimes Of Big Ben.

 

In terms of the development of the series, Many Happy Returns marks a significant turning point. After this The Prisoner clearly realises that his goal of a ‘conventional escape’ is unrealistic. It seems certain now that his own employers must have been involved in his incarceration in the Village and that the Village itself represents some kind of world wide organisation which has - at the very least - prominent agents in top positions in governments throughout the world.  Perhaps it even controls those governments. The implications for the extended political allegory of the series are considerable.  The Village now becomes symbolic of social control in a way that makers the issue of whether it represents ‘The East’ or ‘The West’ irrelevant. It now becomes increasingly clear that the only way that The Prisoner can reach his goal of truly becoming a ‘free man’ is by subverting and eventually destroying the structure of the Village itself.

 

Many Happy Returns is a brilliantly audacious piece of televisual art, demonstrating clearly that McGoohan understood that the medium of television could be used in its own distinctive way to present a political and philosophical discourse on ‘the state of mankind’.  By relying on our accumulated knowledge of and familiarity with various elements of the series, he lures the central character (and by implication the viewer) into an apparent ‘escape’ which only leads to a greater and more profound ‘imprisonment’. Many Happy Returns signifies that The Prisoner has become far more than a story about a secret agent, and its subtle use of the medium of television already points the more discerning viewer towards the kind of expansive, mind-boggling and (for a television series) utterly unprecedented directions that it will take in its concluding stages.

 

 

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                     eight: dance of the dead





One of the most remarkable things about The Prisoner is that it manages to incorporate a great variety of dramatic modes in the course of its seventeen episode run. While Many Happy Returns incorporated its dream logic into an action-adventure based scenario, Dance Of The Dead is more obviously surreal and contemplative. Its plot, such as it is, almost seems irrelevant as the viewer is sucked into its mysterious visual and verbal enigmas. Oddly, perhaps, both episodes are scripted by the same writer, Anthony Skene (who also wrote A, B and C). Here the direction is by another one of McGoohan’s major collaborators, Don Chaffey, an accomplished movie director well known for his special-effects-laden fantasy Jason And The Argonauts (1963). Chaffey brings to the episode a sophisticated awareness of cinematic mise en scene, especially in his use of costume, lighting and locations, which help create several scenes that are especially unsettling.  Also particularly impressive is the performance of Mary Morris, an actress who had previously played the part of Peter Pan on stage, as the only female Number 2 who occupies an entire episode. (I have included a chapter on sexual politics in The Prisoner in my book Be Seeing You: Decoding The Prisoner which refers in some detail to this episode).


Dance Of The Dead centres around a ‘carnival’, supposedly an annual event organised by the Village, participation in which is - as usual - hardly a matter of personal choice. The episode begins with attempts by a ruthlessly sadistic Village scientist played by the craggy, rather scary-looking Duncan Macrae, to extract information from The Prisoner by means of torturous behaviourist ‘therapy’. This is quashed by Number 2, who insists that more subtle means are more appropriate. Again the importance of not damaging The Prisoner is stressed. The Village authorities are particularly keen to try to ‘convert’ him to their side. In this episode The Prisoner himself seems rather depressed and lacking in his usual defiant spark. While normally he is courteous to women in a rather old fashioned way, here he finds himself having to deal with them more dismissively. He is particularly rude to a rather cheerfully annoying young woman who has just been appointed as his maid and sneers at her carnival costume. He is also very aggressive to a pale, nervous woman who has been given the job of his observer. We see him disposing of his drugged cocoa and escaping into the night, to a cave on the outskirts of The Village where he finds the dead body of a man which has been washed up on the shore.  In the only hopeful moment in the episode, he plants a ‘message in a bottle’ in a plastic pouch inside the man’s wallet and drags the body out to sea, in the hope that some help may come from the outside world as a result. At this point he also encounters the pathetic figure of Roland Walter Dutton, his former colleague, who has been severely  tortured and ‘broken’ by the Village authorities and is quite aware that they will soon ‘finish him off’. 

 

The scenes depicting the Carnival itself become increasingly bizarre as the ‘carnival’ comes to bear more and more resemblance to a rather avant garde stage production. Every character appears in a costume. Number 2 is Peter Pan (a male character traditionally played on stage by a woman), the Village scientist is Napoleon and the observer is Little Bo Peep. The Prisoner’s allotted costume is the old suit he wore before being captured. Naturally, he is appearing ‘as himself’. The encounter between The Prisoner and Number 2 on the beach (examined in more detail in Be Seeing You: Decoding The Prisoner) is full of strange, disjointed, almost Pinteresque dialogue. The carnival itself is a riot of colour, with Villagers appearing in a range of fanciful and exotic costumes. The depiction of the carnival is a remarkable piece of visual realisation, with the contrast between the brightly coloured costumes and the blank, lifeless expressions of the Villagers being especially chilling and evocative of the ‘soullessness’ and pretence of the ‘compulsory fun’ that the supposed celebration represents. In fact the whole event has been set up as an excuse to conduct a theatrical ‘trial’ of The Prisoner, in which Number 2 is the judge and the ‘jury’ consists of Little Bo Peep, Napoleon and the creepy ‘Town Crier’ (played with great menace by Aubrey Morris). We also see Dutton, dressed as a Jester, now clearly reduced to a drooling shadow of himself.  The Prisoner is found guilty and a mob descends on him, supposedly ready to kill him. He escapes into another room where he is confronted by ‘Little Bo Peep’ and Number 2. Number 2 informs him that his ‘message in a bottle’ has been changed to give the impression to the outside world that he is dead.

 

The entire scenario has been a kind of sadistic masquerade, in which Number 2 has manipulated The Prisoner into a kind of ‘spiritual defeat’. The figure of the ‘expendable’ Dutton is presented as a kind of dire warning as to what could happen to him if characters like the Village scientist had their way. So Number 2 poses as The Prisoner’s friend and protector. Her revelation that, as far as the outside world  is concerned, he is now a ‘dead man’, is intended to be another factor in making him think that there is no way he can ever really escape and that his eventual capitulation will be inevitable. In both Many Happy Returns and Dance Of The Dead the female Number 2s have conspired to break his spirit of resistance. Dance Of The Dead is one of the darkest episodes of the series, with little leavening humour. It creates a compellingly claustrophobic atmosphere, illustrated by surreal and sometimes disturbing imagery. It presents ‘death’ in a number of ways, especially through the pathetic figure of Dutton, who to all extents and purposes is ‘already dead’. Being ‘broken’ by the Village results in a  kind of ‘spiritual death’, from which there is of course no ‘escape’. The episode ends with the unstated threat hanging over The Prisoner that this kind of ‘death’ is the one that may well await him.


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                            nine: checkmate



In this series and in my book Be Seeing You: Decoding The Prisoner I have dealt with the episodes in the order they were broadcast. There has been some debate among Prisoner fans over the years about what should be considered the ‘correct’ running order of the series. Of course, The Prisoner is basically a TV ‘series’ rather than a serial, although its premise demands ‘introductory’ and ‘final’ episodes. The conventions of a TV series demand that the majority of episodes can be watched without the viewer necessarily having seen previous instalments. In this way viewers can ‘latch onto’ a series at any point.  So many of the arguments about ‘series order’ are actually rather spurious. For instance, there are some who insist that Dance Of  The Dead should come earlier in the series merely because The Prisoner utters the words ‘I’m new here’. There is, however, a fairly strong case that Checkmate, which was broadcast ninth, should be watched earlier. With its focus on establishing the visual locations around the Village, it would perhaps work better as the second or third episode of the series. Also, The Prisoner displays a certain naivety about how the Village works here which conflicts with the lessons learned in Many Happy Returns and Dance Of The Dead.  On the other hand, it may be argued that Checkmate justifies its position as the ‘middle’ episode of the series because it marks a ‘last gasp’ desperate attempt by The Prisoner to escape from the Village, along with his first serious attempt to destabilise its hierarchy.

 

Checkmate is directed (like Arrival and Dance Of The Dead) by Don Chaffey in a visually lavish style. It makes great use of the locations in Portmeirion, showing us a number of vistas unseen in other episodes. Its plot revolves around a human chess board, one of the most distinctive visual elements of the series. The chess game, which we are presented with at the beginning of the episode, is a clear metaphor for the Village’s control over its ‘subjects’. The story begins with The Prisoner, noticing that one of the ‘human chess pieces’, referred to here only as ‘The Rook’, has disobeyed instructions and moved to an unassigned place on the chess board (before being taken away to the Village ‘hospital’ for ‘readjustment’). The Prisoner identifies The Rook (and the old man directing one side in the game) as potential allies and sets out to find out ‘who are the Prisoners and who are the Warders’ in the Village.

 

In order to do this he takes on the persona of a ‘Warder’ himself on several occasions, to test out who responds submissively and who does not. He gathers together a band of ‘Prisoners’ and plans an escape attempt with them, which involves the construction of a home made radio to send out an SOS message for help to passing ships. This is complicated by the authorities brainwashing another ‘piece on the board’, a young woman referred to here as ‘The Queen’, to fall in love with him. The locket she carries around her neck with his picture is in fact an electronic device which is supposed to register her despair if he attempts to escape, thus warning the authorities of his plans. Realising this, he foils the plan by taking the locket away from her. Eventually The Prisoner and his co-conspirators stage a ‘coup’ by taking over Number 2’s office. The Prisoner responds to a signal from a nearby ship and rows out alone to meet it. The ship, however, is controlled by the Village and The Prisoner is confronted by a screen on which the smooth-talking Number 2 (Peter Wyngarde) speaks from his office, having convinced the conspirators that The Prisoner was a ‘Warder’ not a ‘Prisoner’ and having reassumed control. After a hasty fight sequence The Prisoner attempts to take control of the ship but, inevitably, Number 2 engages Rover to bring the vessel back and quash the escape attempt. The Prisoner’s big mistake had been that, once confronted by what seemed like the opportunity to escape, he chose to do so alone rather than go back to include his fellow ‘Prisoners’. Thus he is hoisted by his own petard and earns their mistrust.

 

Although it uses neat and effective visual symbolism, Checkmate is really one of the series’ more ‘lightweight’ episodes. Although it provides McGoohan with the chance to engage in some neat comic acting, the introduction of the (forced) ‘love interest’ by The Queen seems somewhat contrived. The use of the Villagers as mere ‘pawns’ (as referred to earlier in Arrival) on a chessboard is visually appealing but rather limited as an actual plot device. The notion that the Village contains so many potential resistors seems to contradict most of what we have been told in previous episodes. Although they score an easy victory in the end, the Village authorities’ power here seems rather oddly limited. They lack the apparent omnipotence they display in Free For All, Many Happy Returns and Dance Of The Dead and they seem rather too preoccupied with the idea that The Prisoner might actually escape. The way in which the ‘rebels’ can take over Number 2’s office without the intervention of the usual security guards rather stretches the credulity. After the surreal terrors of the previous few episodes, Checkmate is rather too neatly tied up.

 

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                         ten: hammer into anvil



Hammer Into Anvil is the first of a series of episodes in which The Prisoner begins to turn the methods of the Village against itself.  Since early episodes like A, B and C it had become very apparent that the Number 2s were themselves Prisoners, subject to the control of whoever was at the other end of the outsize red telephone placed prominently on their desk. We presume, of course - although we are never told - that this is Number 1.  On several occasions we see the Number 2s being apparently afraid that their failure to ‘break’ The Prisoner will signal not only their removal but their demise. Here The Prisoner senses this key weakness in the power structure of the Village and exploits it to the hilt. Hammer Into Anvil is a dramatic investigation into the psychology of totalitarian political systems, in which our hero exploits the paranoia inherent in all such systems, be they fascist, communist or nationalist. Its plot is perhaps the most cleanly structured in the series and it balances a number of comic moments against instances of violent rage with great effectiveness.

 

Much of the reason the episode works so well is that the highly literate script (written by poet Roger Woddis, a writer whose work deals prominently in ethical questions) allows full rein for the acting talents of McGoohan (here at his cynically controlled best) and Patrick Cargill, who plays the increasingly paranoid Number 2. Cargill (who had also played a brief, but different, role in Many Happy Returns) was another one of the major TV actors recruited to play The Prisoner’s main adversary. He was adept as a light comedian and entertainer (his most famous role being in the contemporary sitcom Father Dear Father) but also at playing particularly twisted villains. In the oft-repeated 1960 children’s TV serial The Long Way Home he played an especially sadistic leather-coated Nazi, Herr Grosnitz. In Hammer Into Anvil  his character is immediately revealed as a sadist in the first scene where he torments a young woman (number 73) in the Village ‘hospital’ so much that she commits suicide by throwing herself out of a window.  The Prisoner is soon on the scene and vows to take revenge, a threat which Number 2 dismisses with sneering contempt, telling The Prisoner that he will ‘break him’.

 

The Prisoner executes his campaign with brisk efficiency, exploiting the weaknesses her can already sense in his adversary. In the Village shop he carefully listens to six copies of the same record (Bizet’s L’Arsienne Suite), knowing that the shopkeeper will report his actions to a puzzled Number 2. Then he leaves blank pieces of paper hidden in the stone boat, which Number 2 immediately has analysed by sceptical Village scientists. Later he leaves a message in Spanish - a quotation from Don Quixote - in the ‘Personal Ads’ column of the Village newspaper. He rings the hospital and leaves a cryptic message with one of the doctors about a ‘report on Number 2’.  In each case his actions are reported by Villagers but Number 2 fails to see that he is being deliberately provoked by the scattering of meaningless clues. By now the increasingly paranoid Number 2, who has taken out his anger on those who have reported the ‘suspicious behaviour’, is convinced that The Prisoner is actually a ‘plant’ sent by The Village authorities to entrap him. The Prisoner’s tactics grow increasingly bizarre. He buys a cuckoo clock from the Village shop and leaves it outside Number 2’s door. Number 2 has it taken away by Village bomb disposal experts, who discover it is a hoax. He attaches a meaningless coded message to a pigeon which Number 2 has shot down. Meanwhile Number 2’s loyal acolyte, a young man called Number 14, vows to ‘destroy’ The Prisoner on Number 2’s behalf, but The Prisoner deliberates subverts his position by meeting him in a café and appearing to whisper ‘secrets’ to him.

 

As a result of all these actions Number 2 - now convinced he is the focus of a conspiracy by everyone that surrounds him - turns on all his staff, dismissing not only Number 14 but also the familiar bald-headed Village controller and even the mute, ever-loyal midget butler. Alone in his office he is confronted by a triumphant Prisoner, who - playing along with Number 2’s paranoid theory that he is indeed a ‘plant’ - convinces him to resign, arguing that the actions Number 2 has taken against him have been disloyal. Number 2 is now a psychological wreck and The Prisoner’s plan has worked perfectly. His boast that he will be ‘Hammer Into Anvil’ (quoting Goethe’s poem Another) to destroy The Prisoner has been dramatically reversed.

 

Hammer Into Anvil is one of a number of Prisoner episodes that could easily be adapted as a stage play, with its clearly defined focus on dual protagonists. Its clever use of references to Goethe, Cervantes and Bizet are well integrated into the episode’s thematic structure.  Cargill’s performance as Number 2 is one of the most memorable in the entire series. At the beginning he adopts the kind of smooth, practised persona audiences would have been familiar with from his appearances in a number of popular television shows. But as the episode progresses he becomes increasingly nervous and prone to outbursts of sudden anger, screaming madly at his subordinates as he dismisses them one by one. In contrast, McGoohan begins by being angry but becomes more and more controlled as the episode progresses. In this episode, The Prisoner remains in control throughout. He has now discovered how to isolate and exploit key weaknesses in the Village’s power structure and will continue to do so in the episodes which follow.



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                                              eleven: it's your funeral


In It’s Your Funeral The Prisoner delves even further into the internal politics of the Village. In Hammer Into Anvil he had learned that he could become a ‘player’ by exploiting the weaknesses of the Village’s system of psychological control. Now he takes the process even further by backing one member of ‘the establishment’ against another.  Although the Village authorities attempt to use him as a pawn in their game, he reverses the process and begins to manipulate the situation himself. He is first approached by a young woman, Number 50, who claims to be trying to enlist his help in stopping a plot to assassinate Number 2 which, if successful, will apparently lead to reprisals being taken against the whole Village. The Prisoner is naturally dubious, assuming this is another plot by the Village authorities to use his weakness for helping ‘damsels in distress’. Indeed, as The Prisoner is fully aware, Number 2 (Derren Nesbit) is observing the whole scene from his office.  But when he later realises that Number 50’s father, the Village watchmaker, is indeed building a bomb to blow up Number 2, he comes to believe her story. Thinking he is protecting innocent fellow-Villagers he then informs Number 2 of the plot against him. Number 2, however, does not appear to take the threat seriously.

 

The reason for this is explained on The Prisoner’s next visit to the Green Dome, where he is surprised to see a different, older Number 2 is in place. This Number 2 (Andre Van Gyseghem) now claims that all the other Number 2s were mere interim replacements for himself and that he is the ‘real’ Number 2, who has arrived for his Retirement Ceremony on the Village’s upcoming Appreciation Day. He counters The Prisoner’s warning of an assassination plot by showing him (faked) film of him reporting assassination plots to all the previous incumbents of the swivel chair. It becomes clear to The Prisoner that he has been caught in a plot by the ‘new’ Number 2 to kill the ‘old’ Number 2. The assassination will then be blamed on ‘terrorists’ and reprisals taken, so strengthening the ‘new’ Number 2’s regime. The Prisoner then intervenes by intercepting the watchmaker, taking away the device for detonating the bomb (which has been placed in the official Village seal of office that will be ceremonially handed over from one Number 2 to another) and giving it to the ‘old’ Number 2, so allowing him to escape in the Village helicopter.

 

After the precisely structured plot of Hammer Into Anvil, It’s Your Funeral has a rather convoluted (and scarcely credible) storyline. Writer Michael Cramoy’s interpretation of Village internal politics seems to be generally inconsistent with the rest of the series. The watchmaker’s daughter claims that she is involved in ‘jamming’, a process by which ‘subversive’ Villagers can ‘fight back’ against the authorities by creating false conspiracy theories to create confusion. It seems unlikely, from what we know of the Village’s methods so far, that anyone who practised such techniques would not immediately be dealt with most severely. In this case the fate of the girl and her father at the end remains unknown. The device of introducing the ‘real’ Number 2 (and his explanation about previous Number 2s) is unconvincing as we have been led to believe that most of them have actually been removed because of their failure to ‘break’ The Prisoner). The watchmaker himself is something of a stock ‘mad scientist’ character and the plot detail of having the bomb in the Village seal of office is really rather silly. It is all too easy here for The Prisoner to turn the tables on the ‘new’ Number 2. The issue of the supposed ‘reprisals’ that might be taken against innocent Villagers is clumsily handled - The Prisoner seems to swallow the watchmaker’s daughter’s explanation of this piecemeal. Ultimately one also has to ask why he really cares about the plot and the ‘reprisals’ idea seems to have been thrown in rather carelessly as justification for his concern.

 

Despite the existence of the ‘murder’ plot It’s Your Funeral is most notable for its comic elements. The scenes where The Prisoner takes part in the strange game of ‘kosho’ (which also featured more briefly in Hammer Into Anvil) that involves the participants bouncing around on trampolines dressed in helmets and red cloaks are also quite amusing, though they have no real relevance to the plot. McGoohan’s dryly measured performance includes some deft comic touches, especially as he concludes his ‘business’ with the ‘new’ Number 2 by assuring him that he is sure a similar arrangement will befall him on his retirement. The notion of the Village having an ‘Appreciation Day’ is very much in character with the inane façade of ‘community life’ and ‘democracy’ that we see throughout the series. The unveiling of a completely featureless monument on Appreciation Day decorated by the single word ‘ACHIEVEMENT’ is an effective ironic touch.  But the Village in It’s Your Funeral does not seem to be the sinister ‘totalitarian state’ which appears in many of the other episodes. The very idea that rival Number 2s would jostle for power in an environment that is so utterly controlled by ‘the powers that be’ seems unlikely. There is, of course, only one real power in the Village and that is the unknown person on the end of that red telephone…

 

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                  twelve: a change of mind





A Change Of Mind is a disturbing, bitingly satirical and visually arresting episode in which the Village authorities wage a full scale psychological battle with The Prisoner. Roger Parkes’ script creates a sense of the fervid intensity of Village ‘mob rule’ that is only equalled in the earlier Free For All. McGoohan’s own direction brilliantly exploits the setting of Portmeirion and the established iconography of the Village to create a truly unsettling effect. John Sharp, as the pudgy, soft spoken Number 2 creates an air of subtle menace and McGoohan is called upon to show us a range of moods from acquiescence to anger. The episode completes a trilogy - with Hammer Into Anvil and It’s Your Funeral - of episodes in which The Prisoner intervenes in Village affairs and comes out victorious. But whereas in the previous two episodes he is not himself specifically the focus of the authorities’ efforts, here the full force of their methods are turned against him in one of their most effective attempts to ‘break’ him. The episode contains several particularly poignant moments and marks the last instalment in which the setting of Portmeirion is prominently featured in terms of dramatic location shooting.

 

The episode features various members of the Village tormenting, denouncing and ostracising The Prisoner. It features the series’ most effective portrayal of the Village as a paradigm of Orwellian totalitarian rule, with the actions of the Villagers being reminiscent of those of many ‘ordinary citizens’ under Stalin and Hitler. The story begins in the Prisoner’s ‘exercise area’ in the woods where he is set upon by a group of Village thugs who accuse him of being ‘antisocial’. This is the first of a series of terms used in the episode to denote the refusal to conform. The Prisoner dispatches the thugs but is then called to appear in front of the Village Committee to explain his ‘bad attitude’.  On the way in he sees an accused Villager confessing that he has been ‘inadequate’ and ‘disharmonious’. Many hints have been given through the series that the Village achieves social control through torturing, drugging and operating on its ‘citizens’ and here these themes are brought to the fore, rising as they do to a crisis of social paranoia. At the same time the visual contrast between the Village ‘jolly uniforms’ (of vaguely Edwardian ‘beach costumes’ combined with undertakers’ top hats) and their actions is thrown dramatically into relief.  

 

The Prisoner’s first encounter with the Village ‘Committee’ is relatively mundane, as he is warned against being ‘disharmonious’ and the ‘chairman’ of the group ends by suggesting they all ‘have a nice cup of tea’. But, under the constant surveillance of Number 2 and his assistant, the stony-faced Number 86 (Angela Browne), he encounters more and more evidence of the steps the Village will take to make its citizens conform. In the hospital he encounters a twitchy, clearly brain-damaged man who claims to be ‘happy now’, having been subjected to what seems to have been a brain operation to remove his ‘aggressive tendencies’. We also glimpse another man in the hospital being subjected to brutal ‘aversion therapy’ to ensure that he conforms. Soon The Prisoner is called before the Committee again and told he will be soon be subjected to ‘instant social conversion’. He does not yet know what this means but his experiences in the hospital seem to suggest that the Village is now prepared to operate on his brain to secure his co-operation.

 

Of course, such a procedure could have been carried out on The Prisoner at any time since his capture.  But the Number 2s have always been prevented from doing this by the imperative - clearly directed from Number 1 - not to ‘damage the tissue’. The goal of the authorities has always been to win The Prisoner over to their side.  This has not changed. But now Number 2 enacts a clever plot to convince The Prisoner that, this time, they are prepared to go further than before. As the episode progresses the way the images and events pile up in front of The Prisoner become increasingly rapid, strange and surreal. The second encounter with the Village Committee sees him being spun round rapidly, lights flashing, before everything goes black. When he opens his eyes the room is suddenly empty. On returning to the Village streets he finds the Village newspaper declaring that he has been declared ‘unmutual’. He is attacked verbally and physically by the umbrella-bearing, matronly ladies of the ‘Appeals Sub Committee’ who berate him for his ‘unmutuality’.  Meanwhile the other Villagers ostracise him by refusing to engage in the usual inane pleasantries. This seems to have a considerable emotional effect on the normally impervious Prisoner. By now, the viewer can conclude that he is being drugged and that what we are seeing - conveyed memorably by the intense pace of events being depicted - is very much the subjective impression of someone who is ‘under the influence’.

 

The operation to ‘lobotomise’ The Prisoner is carried out in such a way as to convince him, in his drugged state, that it is real. It is televised in front of the whole Village. Afterwards he is welcomed back into the ‘Community’ by the compliant Villagers and Number 86 is sent to ‘look after him’. But when he sees her dropping something into his tea his suspicions are roused and he only pretends to consume the next ‘dose’. Now his faculties begin to return. He tricks Number 86 by switching tea cups with her so that she quickly becomes extremely ‘stoned’. There is a memorably comic scene when they both sit on a bench and she declares ‘I’m high… I’m higher than Number 2.” From here on, The Prisoner takes control. Realising that the operation was a fake and that the majority of the Villagers are, like him, probably under ‘chemical control’, he plots a devastating revenge on Number 2. He hypnotises Number 86 to report to Number 2 that the plan has worked and that he is ready to comply with the authorities’ wishes. When he meets Number 2 he says he wants to make a full confession in public. In the final scene, with the whole Village assembled, he begins by professing his loyalty then suddenly changing tack, taking Number 2 completely by surprise. Having got the crowd behind him, when he suddenly declares that ‘Number 2 is unmutual!’ the Villagers join in with him. The episode ends with Number 2 being ignominiously pursued by a crazed mob.

 



So The Prisoner has successfully discovered and exploited his captors’ key weaknesses. His realisation that he can use his guile and intellect to manipulate the Villagers to his own ends gives him a confidence that he has never had before. This success points towards the themes of the final episodes of the series, in which his moral and psychological tussle with his captors will reach its bizarre and ultimately mind boggling conclusion...



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        thirteen: do not forsake me, oh my darling


 

As The Prisoner moves towards its conclusion we are presented with a series of episodes that take us away from its by-now-familiar structures. The first three of these veer wildly off in different and wholly unexpected directions. Do Not Forsake Me is arguably the least effective episode in the entire series. It shows clear signs of being ‘thrown together’ in a very short time and its plotline is largely a mixture of pseudo sci-fi and clichéd spy genre elements. And strangely enough, it hardly features Patrick McGoohan at all. In fact the episode had to be concocted without him owing to his commitments for filming his role in the thriller movie Ice Station Zebra. There are very few Portmeirion exteriors and much use of standard ‘stock footage’ of foreign lands as well as clips from earlier episodes of the series. As a result the episode sorely lacks the visual richness that characterises most of the series. With its contrived plot, conventional fight scenes and unconvincing locations, it often resembles one of the weaker episodes of Danger Man.

 

The story centres around a plot by the Village to get hold of Professor Seltzman, an elderly scientist who has invented a machine which can transfer the mind of one person to another (and vice versa). The Village already has possession of the machine but needs Seltzman (who has disappeared) to show them how the reversal procedure will be carried out. A Village operative known as ‘The Colonel’ (Nigel Stock) is flown in to be the subject of the experiment and naturally it is The Prisoner who will be the one his mind is exchanged with. Thus it is engineered that Nigel Stock, not McGoohan, plays the main role here. Stock, an accomplished actor who was very familiar to contemporary audiences for his role as Dr. Watson in the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes series, plays the part reasonably well though he does not attempt in any convincing way to imitate any of McGoohan’s mannerisms. When The Prisoner wakes up in this unfamiliar body he is very shocked and confused - especially as his memory has of his stay in the Village has been temporarily wiped. But he knows immediately that he must find Seltzman (who he had had contact with on one of his last assignments before being imprisoned) to get the process reversed. This leads him on a trail that first involves attempting to convince his former employers who he really is (although they don’t seem convinced), then piecing together some photographic evidence he had left behind to find Seltzman’s location. He then takes off in his car and drives to the village in Austria where Seltzman is posing as the local barber. But both Potter, a British agent and a sinister unnamed Village operative have been on his trail. After a confrontation with Potter, The Prisoner is gassed by the Village man and is brought, along with Seltzman, to the Village. There Seltzman reverses the operation but plays a trick on the Village authorities. The Prisoner’s mind is returned to his body, but Seltzman places his own mind into ‘The Colonel’s body and escapes while his own body (housing The Colonel’s mind) dies from the trauma of the procedure.

 

The ease with which Seltzman escapes is one of the episode’s major anomalies. We see the helicopter taking off with him in it, but Number 2 seems powerless to recall it. And what will happens when the helicopter lands on ‘Village territory’ at the other end? The final scenes of the episode seem especially ‘rushed’ and unconvincing. The scenes in London featuring The Prisoner’s fiancée Janet and her father, the Secret Service boss Sir Charles, are also very redolent of standard TV ‘spy story’ conventions. The need not to ‘name’ The Prisoner when he is in a normal social setting also leads to a number of awkward exchanges. At one point he refers to himself by the hitherto unheard-of code name ‘ZM73’. At Janet’s birthday The Prisoner (Stock), trying to convince her of who he really is, kisses her passionately. This is the only time we see The Prisoner indulging in any kind of ‘love making’ in the entire series. It is certainly hard for the audience to really believe that this is the same person. And while the nature of the plot creates plenty of scope for the kind of dreamlike hallucinogenic imagery as seen in A Change Of Mind, Free For All and other ‘subjectively’ shot episodes, the opportunity is missed.

 

There are a few aspects of the episode, however, which widen the scope of the series and there are a few effective moments of quirky self-reflective humour. Do Not Forsake Me is the first episode to begin with a prelude to the main credit sequence, presaging its complete absence in succeeding episodes. When the sequence is introduced, it is also shortened. We also see Stock re-enacting the credit sequence by driving the car into the familiar underground tunnel and striding down the iconic dark corridor towards the office we’ve seen him resign in so many times. The use of another actor to play The Prisoner is arguably a radical move (certainly unknown in 1960s British TV series) and again the scope of Village activities is extended far beyond the Village. To some extent these defamiliarising elements prepare us for the far more radical changes which lie ahead. Vincent Tilsley’s script has a few clever moments. When the British intelligence officers in the pre-credit sequence look through a series of slides to try to find the evidence of Seltzman’s location that The Prisoner later unearths, particular emphasis is put on slide ‘Number 6’. The waiter who greets The Prisoner in the village of Kindersfelt, Austria,’s first words are ‘Welcome to the Village’. And, in a little joke that the public (not knowing the whereabouts of the series’ main location as yet) would fail to understand, Seltzman’s previous address is given as ’20 Portmeirion Road’. Overall, however, the episode’s failure to convince in the absence of McGoohan only serves to throw more light on what a powerful authorial presence he has throughout the rest of the series.


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                   fourteen: living in harmony



Television is a particularly intimate medium. The existence of a long-running TV series demands great loyalty from its audience. In the pre-video era viewers even had be prepared to organise their lives around being in a particular place at a particular time to watch their favourite show. For such intense interest to be sustained, audiences had to personally identify with specific characters and enjoy the  reassuring familiarity of established settings. However, the most memorable episodes of a TV series are often those in which a sudden shift or reversal happens in the particular established pattern. A good example of this was Mirror, Mirror, an early episode of Star Trek in which the cast were suddenly plunged into an alternate universe where we saw what a ‘bad Spock’ and a ‘bad Kirk’ would be like and how, under slightly different circumstances, the beneficient democracy of the Federation could have become an ‘evil empire’ bent on military conquest. The episode was especially successful in that it helped define both the characters and the political background of the series by presenting their antitheses. Thus the pattern of familiarity was redefined by a deliberate dramatic transgression. Such transformations can be defined as being especially televisual -that is, they use the specific characteristics of the medium of television to create a particular aesthetic result. A similar effect in more recent times was achieved in an episode of the long running Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) called Once More, With Feeling (2001) in which (as the result of the casting of a supernatural spell) all the characters began bursting spontaneously out into song. Here the defamiliarising effect is achieved through the deliberately signposted use of another well known genre (the musical) being superimposed on the already-established generic setup of the show. Much of the effect comes from the shock the audience experiences by having their familiar expectations shifted. Yet such ‘genre-bending’ also necessarily requires considerable suspension of disbelief in the audience. Therefore, these transformations have to be achieved by using a certain tone of playfulness, in which programme makers and viewers appear to ‘co-operate’ in a self consciously ‘knowing’ (and intimate) way, with each other.

 

Living In Harmony’s sudden and (initially) unexplained shifting of The Prisoner into a Western setting is more than just a comic parody, despite its playful use of Western conventions. The episode - which was written and directed by McGoohan’s most sympathetic collaborator David Tomblin (from a story by Tomblin and Ian Rakoff) - is staged and filmed in a subtly surreal style which is highly appropriate for the story.  Much of Living In Harmony is shot ‘straight’ but at times we notice that the camera seems a little ‘wobbly’ and that there is an unusually prominent use of close up shots at times. The camerawork is naturalistic enough for us to believe, for a time, that this is a ‘real’ western but veers away from conventional techniques just enough to make us doubt the veracity of the story. The plot features a number of familiar elements taken from different types of western. The reluctant sheriff who will not carry a gun recalls High Noon, the protagonist being nameless is a feature of the then-contemporary ‘spaghetti westerns’ directed by Sergio Leone and featuring Clint Eastwood, as is the ‘Mexican’ character. Valerie French plays Kathy, the ‘saloon girl with a heart of gold’ who features in numerous westerns.  There is also the inevitable climactic ‘shoot out’ scene. 

 

The outstanding feature of the episode is the extraordinary performance of Alexis Kanner as ‘The Kid’. The young, impulsive ‘punk’ gunslinger is another standard western figure, but here Kanner plays the character (who is mute throughout) as dangerously twitchy, lascivious, trigger-happy and ultimately psychotic. It is a highly theatrical, expressionistic performance, and Tomblin pays much attention to the way the character is lit in a number of scenes where the camera lingers upon him. Kanner was a highly promising young actor of prodigious talent, who had played Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company under the direction of Peter Brook. He had made a name for himself in 1966 in his brief role as the highly unconventional DC Matt Stone in the long running British police series Softly Softly. His performance here gives the episode a highly discomforting quality which may have contributed to the decision by CBS not to include the episode in the first two American network runs of the series.

 

The episode begins with a credit sequence which (to some extent) parallels the familiar opening of The Prisoner, but in a western setting. We begin with a shot of a horse instead of a car. McGoohan (referred to here as The Prisoner) is seen handing in his sheriff’s badge. When he tries to leave the town he is set upon by a gang of toughs, who are seen beating him up as the ironic title Living In Harmony comes on screen. He is deposited in the middle of ‘Harmony’, the Western town where the story is set. Upon entering a saloon he finds his whisky being shot away from him by The Kid, whom he subsequently (and completely coolly) knocks out. He talks with Kathy, the saloon girl, who (as we might expect) seems to be attracted to him. Then he confronted by The Judge (David Bauer, the real ruler of the town of Harmony) who tries to persuade him to resume his position as sheriff. He refuses but is prevented from leaving town again when the horse dealer asks for an extortionate amount of money for a horse. Meanwhile, in a rather shockingly violent scene Kathy’s brother is lynched and hung by an angry mob, showing us how violent and corrupt the town is. The Prisoner is put in jail, supposedly for his own protection, while a crazed, wide-eyed Kid (currently employed as his jailer) practises poses with  his gun in front of him. Kathy arrives at the jailhouse and pretends to seduce The Kid, her real intention being to steal a key to help The Prisoner escape. When The Kid falls drunk, he escapes from the jail and steals a horse but is recaptured again as he tries to leave town.

 

Deposited back in the saloon, he finds himself in the middle of a mock trial, conducted by the Judge, not of himself but of Kathy for helping him escape. He is told she will be released only if he resumes his role as sheriff. He agrees to do this but refuses to carry a gun. Immediately he is challenged by the town ‘roughnecks’ and gets into several fights. When The Kid shoots and kills a harmless local in the saloon merely for flirting with Kathy, a ‘concerned citizen’ called Jim approaches The Prisoner and offers to help him ‘clean up the town’. Jim, however, is murdered by the ‘bad guys’. Then, in perhaps the most disturbing scene in the episode, The Kid strangles Kathy to death when she refuses his advances. This is the final straw for The Prisoner.  He straps on his gun and meets The Kid in a shoot out, which he wins. The shoot out is at first filmed conventionally, but when The Kid falls dead he seems to topple over suddenly in a most un-naturalistic way. The Prisoner returns to the saloon for a final confrontation with The Judge and a gang of four of his men. He manages to shoot The Judge and most of the gang but is finally shot himself.

 

At this point the pretence of the Western setting is abandoned. Instead of dying, The Prisoner merely holds his head as if the bullets have given him a very bad headache. He falls to the ground but moments later we see him in his ordinary Village clothes, wearing a set of headphones.  Soon he discovers that what he thinks are the figures of the other main characters in the story are in fact just life size cardboard cut outs and that the town of Harmony is really just a façade of buildings set within the Village. Meanwhile, back at the Green Dome, we see the same actors who played the Judge, the Kid and Kathy, now in their ‘real life’ roles as Number 2 and his assistants Number 8 and Number 22. It is revealed that the whole scenario has been created by giving The Prisoner hallucinogenic drugs and that everything else has been done by technology and autosuggestion. Number 2 expresses anger that the plan, devised by Number 8, has failed. The Prisoner then appears in the room. He surveys the faces within and leaves in silent disgust. Number 22, now overcome with emotion, follows him back to the Harmony setting, pursued by Number 8. When they reach the saloon Number 8 suddenly reassumes his psychotic ‘Kid’ persona and kills Number 22. He then climbs up to the balcony and dives off, killing himself. Number 2 arrives too late to prevent any of this and stands in despair, while The Prisoner walks off in disgust.

 

Living In Harmony is a stunning and groundbreaking piece of televisual art, brilliantly conceptualised and executed. Having broken down the pattern of familiarity the audience is used to, it gradually reintroduces it. The entire plot, after all, is yet another attempt by the Village authorities to ‘break’ The Prisoner. In this case the pressure to conform is represented by the way in which he is manipulated into first donning the sheriff’s badge and later the gun. The transposition of the story into a different generic setting strongly suggests that the kind of power structures and social manipulation seen in the Village are rooted in historical contexts and the existence of the episode further widens The Prisoner’s allegorical significance. There is always a Number 2, it suggests, and behind him a Number 1, whatever scenario is being enacted. The episode is, like much of the series, also very much a product of the ‘psychedelic’ era of 1967-68, here perhaps most explicitly as it is revealed that the entire western scenario, as we the audience see it, is a hallucination brought out by the use of a LSD-type substance. Tomblin and McGoohan here are literally taking the audience on a ‘trip’. A ‘bad trip’, perhaps, as this is actually the most violent episode of the series.

 

In addition to its considerable cinematic qualities, the episode is also highly theatrical in its conception and execution. The setting of Harmony is in itself a kind of stage set and the main story is a kind of ‘play within a play’. Kanner’s eye-catchingly physical performance is unforgettably compelling. When knocked out and later shot by The Prisoner he does indeed fall over exactly like the cardboard cut out he is later shown to be. His final fall from the saloon balcony is similarly theatrical. Ultimately the story unfolds as a tragedy. Both Number 8 and Number 22 have been drawn too far into the drama and cannot escape the destinies of the characters they are playing. Living In Harmony thus gives us multiple levels of meaning. It is an entertaining genre romp, an allegorical tale, a cinematic discourse and a theatrical tragedy all rolled into one. It suggests that television, so often seen as the source and location of the banal, can be an all-encompassing art form with unlimited potential.

 

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                fifteen: the girl who was death


Following the wildly different scenarios of the last two episodes, The Girl Who Was Death takes us off on a mad ride in an entirely different direction. Although the normal credit sequence is restored, we are plunged without explanation into a very peculiar romp which turns out to be a ‘fairy tale’ that The Prisoner is telling to some Village children. Although most episodes of The Prisoner include some humorous content, The Girl is the only one which can be called an outright comedy.  Although the episode takes place in 1960s England, it has a stylised neo-Edwardian feel which recalls many episodes of the contemporary Patrick MacNee-Diana Rigg era of The Avengers. Although we get a short final scene with Number 2 and his assistant bemoaning the fact that The Prisoner has ‘given nothing away’ (Naturally his storytelling efforts are under surveillance), this is clearly not a serious attempt by the Village to extract information. The episode works as light relief in between the dark Living In Harmony and the demanding theatrical-cinematic extravaganza of the concluding episodes. Writer Terence Feely (who also wrote The Schizoid Man) had worked on early episodes of The Avengers and had written for The Saint, Thunderbirds and other popular series of the day.  Here he lets his imagination fly as the episode moves through a range of very different locations in rapid succession.

 

The story is a kind of ‘boy’s own spy drama’, in which a nameless secret agent (played, naturally, by McGoohan) is on the trail of a Schnipps, megalomaniac scientist who plans to launch a rocket which will blow up London. The ‘girl’ of the title is Schnipps’ daughter Sonia, a very stylish and sexy young lady who is also a ruthless murderer. Much of the episode consists of her efforts to despatch our hero. She does this in a series of colourful ways, firstly with an exploding cricket ball, a poisoned pint of beer, a suffocation attempt in a Turkish baths, an exploding radio in a Tunnel Of Love ride at a fairground. In each case he maintains his cool and survives. The sequence in which he (very calmly) orders a long succession of strong alcoholic drinks to make himself sick after the poisoning attempt demonstrates McGoohan’s exquisite comic timing. He appears in various disguises, including a full ‘deerstalker and sideburns’ Sherlock Holmes. Eventually he follows the girl to an abandoned stock yard where he has to negotiate his way through an elaborate series of death traps while being continually regaled by her seductive tones. Thinking she has finished him off she takes off in a helicopter (which, improbably, he clings to the bottom of to follow her) and lands in a field near the lighthouse where Schnipps and his troops are based. Schnipps has a full blown ‘Napoleon complex’. He is dressed as the Emperor himself and, having captured The Prisoner, explains to him his dastardly plans to destroy London with the lighthouse (which is in reality a rocket) and divide the country amongst his ‘marshals’. But The Prisoner has already disabled Schnipps’ soldiers’ weapons and he escapes, leaving the lighthouse (with Schnipps and Sonia inside it) to blow up.

 

The episode manages to cram a great variety scenes into its forty eight minute time span, so never letting its comic momentum slow down. David Tomblin’s direction is full of surprising visual juxtapositions. The performance of Kenneth Griffith, a Welsh character actor of considerable gravitas (who later made a name for himself as a leading documentary film maker), as the megalomaniacal but dithering Schnipps, is a great comic turn and Justine Lord as Sonia is suitably cool and stylish.  To some extent the episode is a kind of tribute to its stable mate The Avengers, but it takes all that show’s comic elements and exaggerates them wildly. There is no doubt that McGoohan and Tomblin are purely engaging in some fun here, but the exercise is carried off with considerable panache, demonstrating again that the basic scenario of The Prisoner could effectively be adapted into a range of different genres. That ‘Schnipps’ and ‘Sonia’ later turn out to be Number 2 and his assistant in ‘real life’ shows that The Prisoner is still cocking a snook at the Village authorities. As the episode ends he stares into the camera with a twinkle in his eye and whispers …Good night children… everywhere… the famous end-catchphrase of the BBC’s Children’s Hour.

 


It can be argued that to some extent the elements present in The Girl Who Was Death prepare us for what happens in the final two episodes. The ‘lighthouse that is a rocket’ presages the ending of Fall Out (in which Griffith reappears in a more serious role) and the theme of childhood will be the major one in the next episode, Once Upon A Time. Along with Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling and Living In Harmony, the audience should be prepared (if they are not already) for a very unconventional ending to the series. Yet McGoohan was about to unleash two episodes of an unsuspecting public which were to take not only The Prisoner but the medium of TV drama itself into unknown, unheard of regions…




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                     sixteen: once upon a time




In order to properly gauge the impact of its iconoclastic concluding episodes, it is important to remember that The Prisoner was a mass audience show which included many of the typical conventions of slick 1960s TV action-adventure series. There are highly stylised fight scenes and car chases (accompanied by dramatic theme music) and the episodes, for all their groundbreaking thematic concerns, tend to follow a formulaic structure. Although the protagonist does not necessarily ‘win’ each conflict (as he would in Perry Mason or The Avengers) each of the first thirteen episodes returns us at the end to the familiar scenario of the Village. Viewers could therefore ‘pick up’ on a series at any point in its transmission. The distinctive iconography of The Prisoner - the penny farthing, the midget butler, the bizarre costumes and that ‘weird balloon’ - was another source of attraction for the mass audience. Then there was the presence of McGoohan himself, whose ‘action persona’ attracted male viewers and whose apparent indifference to ‘romance’ made him a figure of fascination and fantasy for female fans. But what most attracted viewers to The Prisoner, and ‘hooked’ them into following it week by week, was its building series of enigmas. Right from the beginning (as we see in the credit sequence) it had posed a series of questions which, as yet, we still had no answer to. Who ran the Village? Where was the Village? What on earth was ‘Rover’, the strange balloon - like guardian of the Village?  Why did The Prisoner resign? Would he manage to escape and if so, how? And, perhaps most pressingly of all by now, Who was Number 1?

 

It’s important to remember that the mass 1960s TV audience was very attuned to contemporary ‘secret agent’ dramas. The 1960s was, after all, the height of the Cold War and the threat of world wide nuclear war was omnipresent throughout the decade, even after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis had abated. Popular books, films and TV series about spies were hugely popular, ranging from John Le Carre’s cynically realistic and morally ambiguous novels such as The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1963) and The Looking Glass War (1965) to the spoof American series Get Smart  (1965-67). In Britain Danger Man, The Avengers and Man In A Suitcase were extremely popular TV series and of course the James Bond films, beginning with Dr. No in 1963 were massive world wide successes. With the existence of the real Cold War making such stories rather politically sensitive there was a tendency for the hero figure to discover that his enemies were not in fact the Soviets but a ‘third force’ (often led by a crazed megalomaniac) intent on world conquest. The epitome of such villainous figures was Ernst Stavro Blofeld, who featured in the Bond film Thunderball as the head of ‘Spectre’, one such ‘third force’. By the time of the final episodes of The Prisoner it was already pretty clear that the Village was some kind of ‘third force’ whose its powers on a world wide scale seemed to be extensive.  Thus, it was natural for many of the audience to assume that the shadowy figure of ‘Number 1’ might be some cat-stroking power-crazed figure like Blofeld, bent on world domination. There is little doubt that McGoohan deliberately played upon such expectations. Yet in fact, until he wrote the final episodes, even he himself did not know who ‘Number 1’ was.  Those who expected a conventionally ‘satisfying’ answer to the question of who the leader of the Village was (not to mention all those other questions) to be delivered were to be sorely disappointed.

 

Instead, we are presented with two episodes which break all the rules and conventions of popular TV series and take us into the realms of absurdist drama, psychological and philosophical symbolism and ‘psychedelic’ fantasy. Both are written and directed by McGoohan and demonstrate his great abilities as a theatrical writer and a cinematic artist, as well as his tremendous range as an actor. Once Upon A Time is a theatrical tour de force, quite explicitly based around Shakespeare’s ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech from As You Like It and heavily influenced in its form by Pinter and Beckett’s dramatic techniques, especially the veiled threats of violence implicit in Pinter’s dialogue and Beckett’s absurdist exchanges. The story also has a definite Oedipal theme. Most of the action takes place in ‘the Embryo Room’, which exists in the ‘bowels’ of the Village somewhere beneath the Green Dome and is set up like a minimalist piece of ‘in the round’ stagecraft. Here Number 2 engages with The Prisoner in a procedure called ‘Degree Absolute’, a psychological ‘duel to the death’- a kind of last resort for the Village authorities who have continually failed to ‘break’ him. Leo McKern, who played Number 2 in The Chimes Of Big Ben, is recalled for this ultimate challenge. As before, The Prisoner himself is heavily drugged (and probably ‘brainwashed’ by the mysterious Village ‘mind machines’ like the overhead light in his apartment which descends down upon him). He is regressed to childhood and taken through a series of ‘test’ situations which simulate those of a journey through life. Because of his drugged, infantilised state he accepts the ‘theatrical’ minimalism of the ‘stage set’ as real. Number 2 plays a series of authority figures - father, schoolmaster, employer, interrogator…

 

The encounters between the two are intended to break The Prisoner’s resistance and make him conform to the ‘paternal’ authority of the Village; to identify in his childhood identity the core of his rebelliousness and to change and co-opt it. In order to achieve this, various scenarios are enacted. In the beginning The Prisoner is a small child, licking an ice cream. Then Number 2 is his schoolmaster, threatening him with the punishment of ‘Six of The Best’. Later were see him at graduation day, being rewarded for his efforts. Number 2 plays his employer, whispering to him that he has been selected for ‘top secret’ work. He also plays his sports coach, goading him in a boxing batch and later a Judge with The Prisoner as a defendant in a road accident case and a Nazi interrogator with The Prisoner as a captured World War Two airman. The exchanges are characterised by a number of absurdist single word dialogues, moments of extreme violence (with the ever-present silent butler intervening at one point when The Prisoner attacks Number 2 and pins him to the floor) and ever more desperate attempts by Number 2 to force The Prisoner to tell him why he resigned.

 

Gradually the power balance between the two men changes as The Prisoner grows more and more into his real adult self. We get a strong sense that Number 2 has been prepared to undergo the same psychological ‘brainwashing’ as The Prisoner in order to take part in this ‘ultimate experiment’. As the episode nears its close The Prisoner begins to get the upper hand and the ‘Degree Absolute’ clock begins to run out of time.  Finally Number 2 realises he has lost and, now ‘imprisoned’ by The Prisoner behind the bars of the ‘self contained vehicle’ at one end of the ‘stage set’ he hears the words ‘DIE SIX DIE!’ being repeated and collapses, apparently deceased.  The Village Controller arrives and promises to take The Prisoner to Number 1.

 

Once Upon A Time takes the audience through a series of intense psychological states. The Village’s attempt to ‘get inside The Prisoner’s head’ is its most thorough yet, but even when reduced to a child like state The Prisoner still has an implicit sense of what is ‘secret’. All through the series the successive Number 2s had been obsessed with the notion of trying to find out why The Prisoner resigned from his job. This has becomes a potential symbolic ‘breaking point’. If he gives them this information, they feel, his further ‘confessions’ will follow. The Village’s intention has always been to try to win him over to their side, so that his talents can be put to their use. This struggle symbolises that way in which society attempts to force individuals to conform to its norms’. McGoohan himself is playing a game with the viewers, challenging them to see beyond the obvious. Here The Prisoner transcends its own status as a socio-political allegory and begins to enter the realm of the spiritual and the transcendent. The Prisoner here becomes an ‘everyman’ figure being taken through the stages of life and being confronted with an invasive evil spirit - some might call it ‘Satan’ perhaps, but certainly it is a stealer of souls. His struggle to keep his ‘secrets’ represents any individual’s battle to maintain their essential self worth against the external forces which continually seek to destroy it.

 

And yet… The Prisoner’s supposed triumph may be nothing more than an illusion, a façade created by the Village to give him the impression he has ‘won’ the battle. After all, it is they who have defined the terms of the conflict. When he sees Number 2 die his face shows no triumph, only a grim anger.  There seems little doubt that, in the course of the mental and physical struggle, the two combatants have seen much of themselves in each other. Number 2 is, after all, also a Prisoner. As, the series now suggests, are we all…

 


But the question remains to be answered:  Of whom or what are we a Prisoner of? What is the force that holds us all down, stops us realising our full potential? Who is it that wants to steal our souls in exchange for material wealth and comfort? Who, indeed, is Number 1?

 

It is worth bearing in mind the oft-repeated Village slogan here: …Questions are a burden to others. Answers a prison for one’s self… 

 


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                        seventeen: fall out
 
                                                               Nothing you can do that can’t be done….

 



And so, finally, we get all the answers (or do we?) The Prisoner escapes (Or does he?) and triumphs over his captors (Or does he?) And, yes, he finds out who Number I is (Or does he?)

 


Does Fall Out depict a resolution to the enigmas posed by The Prisoner or is it itself a further enigma, an extended joke at the expense of the audience or does it reveal fundamental truths about the modern condition?


The neckbone, certainly, is connected to the headbone…

 

With the extraordinary final episode Patrick McGoohan pushes the scope of The Prisoner to the furthest reaches of his imagination. Fall Out is a triumph of instinctive art, composed in a solitary continuous frenzy by McGoohan. It defies every dramatic convention established in the history of television. By then, he could do what he liked.  The series had been cancelled anyway. So… what the hell?...  He had now assumed full authorial control. Fall Out is a kind of spontaneous composition, written in the same kind of spirit as Kerouac’s On The Road, Ginsberg’s HowlA Day In The Life. It is a kind of howl of protest against rational logic, a summation of the spirit of the times (1967-68) when ‘revolution’ was certainly in the air. Its first airing was an iconoclastic moment, as important in the history of televisual art as the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring was to modern classical music or Bob Dylan’s 1966 performance of Like A Rolling Stone at Manchester Free Trade Hall in response to the audience cry of “Judas!” was to modern rock and roll. Of course they booed, they howled in protest. McGoohan himself claimed he was ‘hounded’ out of the country after the episode was shown. The tabloid newspapers joined in the ‘protest’ against this ‘rubbish’ he had foisted on us. He never worked in Britain again. But here, as in those other moments when the artist faces the derision of the audience, McGoohan delivers his most powerful and imaginative demonstration of the potential of his medium as an art form. He lays down a gauntlet few have ever tried to pick up. or The Beatles’

 

And the thighbone’s connected to the shoulder bone….

 

After his triumph in Once Upon A Time The Prisoner is escorted intro a large underground chamber. As he walks through the subterranean passageways a jukebox plays The Beatles’ psychedelic anthem All You Need Is Love. On reaching the chamber he is told that soon he will be introduced to Number 1 but that first ‘certain formalities’ have to be fulfilled. He sits quietly in a throne-like chair, saying little, a detached smile on his face, and watches the ‘trial’ of two ‘examples of revolt’: first, a young man, Number 48, dressed like an early hippie in flowery shirt and top hat and secondly, Number 2, who is, by some mysterious process, brought back from the dead. He then is escorted to meet Number 1, who though he glimpses only briefly turns out to be himself, or at least an evil, leering version of himself.  Then, with the help of Number 2, Number 48 and the butler, he attacks the guards and in the confusion escapes from the Village. A rocket rises from the Green Dome, presumably containing Number 1. The Prisoner and his compatriots escape in the self contained vehicle featured in Once Upon A Time. Soon, having dropped Number 48 on the way, they are on the road to London. When they arrive Number 2 returns to what was obviously his previous position, in the Houses of Parliament. The Prisoner, accompanied by the butler, stands surveying the scene. In the final scenes we see him back in his car in a repeat of the first scene of the credit sequence, driving at great speed towards us. The bars slam in front of his face.

 

McGoohan himself is, oddly, mostly an observer. He has very few lines in the entire episode. The main dramatic energy is supplied by three other actors. The returning Alexis Kanner gives another mesmeric performance as Number 48, involving his rendition of the old spiritual ‘Dry Bones’ which (in a surreal ‘Hollywood musical’ moment) the entire cast of judge and jury join in with. Leo McKern plays a newly ‘liberated’ Number 2 no longer in thrall to his masters and Kenneth Griffith (Schnipps in The Girl Who Was Death) plays The Judge, who presides over the ‘trial’ scene. This scene is given a very strange edge by the fact that the jurors are wearing white robes with half-black/half-white animal masks covering their faces. When the Judge speaks they all bang their fists down in unison and when The Prisoner tries to speak they all shout him down by talking very loudly at once. The Prisoner is told he can ‘lead them or go’ and, naturally, chooses to accept his passport and a large wad of cash before being introduced to Number 1.

 

All through this scene, a large rocket with a kind of prominent winking ‘eye’ (from which steam emanates) can be seen. This is where, by way of a spiral staircase, The Prisoner goes to meet Number 1, who stands at the controls of the rocket. When Number 12 turns round he is wearing a hood. The Prisoner pulls this back to reveal a monkey mask. The Prisoner rips this off and there, for a split second, he sees his own face. Number 1 runs away, laughing demonically.  This is clearly the crucial moment - the final revelation of the entire series. Yet it is presented in such an offhand way that the casual viewer could easily miss it. And there were no domestic VCRs in 1968 to wind back the action…  So not only does McGoohan make the final revelation of the identity of  Number 1 completely bizarre and logic-defying, he also forces us to rub our eyes and try to believe that we really saw that… No cat-stroking megalomaniac. No new Hitler about to take over the world. When The Prisoner finally looks into the face of the one who controls everything, when he tries to reveal who the source of all this evil is, he sees only himself. But only for long enough so that he, and we, can question the entire thing. Is this real? Is this a dream, or a hallucination?  Has the entire episode been yet another set up? Is it really possible that that voice on the end of the big red phone all through the series has been none other than The Prisoner himself? Is that why there were so many instructions ‘not to damage the tissue’? So, in that case, is he really a Prisoner at all? Is any of what we have seen in the last seventeen weeks real?  Just what kind of bloody game has that McGoohan been playing with us?

 


Fall Out proceeds with a kind of mad, relentless, logic. The figures behind the animal masks are like the TV audience itself, a Greek chorus baying for blood or shouting in agreement at the raising of a gavel or the holding up of a hand. They are the forces of unthinking conformity, those who obey unquestioningly, those whose souls have truly been stolen. The Village itself is a kind of vision of hell, or perhaps purgatory, where soulless minions mindlessly do their masters’ bidding. And outside the Village is the real world. To reach London The Prisoner no longer has to sail the oceans or be transported in aeroplanes. Because the Village is just down the road. The Village is round the corner. The Village, ultimately, is in our own heads. We are all Number 1, the ‘one’ who must be ‘looked after’.  We must not ‘damage the tissue’. As the butler enters The Prisoner’s house in the closing scenes the door opens automatically, just like it does in The Village.  And as The Prisoner rips off that monkey mask to reveal his own face staring back at him, we see the final bars from the end of each episode crashing down in front of us as a voice calls out ….I! ….I!....I!....  and ‘I’ is ‘1’ and ‘1’ is ‘I’ and (to paraphrase John Lennon) ‘we are all together’.  

 

 However one might interpret the final episode of The Prisoner, it seems to be clear that McGoohan is giving a message of individual responsibility. In allegorical terms, we all live in the Village. We are all Prisoners. In Fall Out McGoohan asks us the Final Question of so many he has asked us throughout the series. ‘How far’ he asks us ‘are we prepared to go to be free? ’ In Fall Out  he stages a ‘revolution’ in which the voice of youth, the voice of the establishment and his own voice join together in the struggle for freedom. Today we live in a world in which - as the series prophesised - technology would give our ‘masters’ the means to control us not by brute force but by subtle and all-embracing forms of social control. In the Post 9/11 world, where governments use the fear of terrorism and the technology of computerisation to attempt to gain more and more control over each individual citizen, The Prisoner is even more relevant than it was when it was made over forty years ago. And, though Fall Out was made during and was clearly influenced by, the ‘psychedelic’ era of the late 1960s, the message of individual responsibility it sends out is no ‘hippie dippie’ fantasy. Despite its fantastical setting, it presents us with the hardest and harshest of truths. If we want to sit back and acquiesce to the creation of a new totalitarianism, we can just let it happen. We can be, as The Prisoner describes the Villagers, …a row of cabbages… The only way to change things is to change ourselves, to take full and rational control, to fight the oppression with our own will power (even if we are declared ‘unmutual’). But first we need to overcome that soothing voice in our ears that is forever telling us not to fight back, to acquiesce to the inevitable. Now we know who that voice belongs to. It is the voice of Number 1…



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BE SEEING YOU: DECODING THE PRISONER can be obtained through Amazon HERE

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I'm always happy to receive any feedback on my writing. 
Email me at chris@chrisgregory.org


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Copyright of The Prisoner and all its associated plots, scripts, etc. are all the
property of Carlton International Media Ltd. No breach of copyright is intended

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LINKS TO PRISONER SITES
:

THE PRISONER ONLINE
Lots of interesting stuff on new and old series
http://www.theprisoneronline.com/

'SIX OF ONE' PRISONER APPRECIATION SOCIETY WEBSITES:
This is the most active Prisoner fan organisation.
www.sixofone.co.uk
www.ThePrisonerAppreciationSociety.com
www.sixofone.org.uk
www.portmeiricon.com

THE ANORAK ZONE: GUIDE TO THE PRISONER
http://www.anorakzone.com/prisoner/

'THE PRISONER 6' WEBSITE
A fairly new site with some info/previews about the new series
www.the-prisoner-6.freeserve.co.uk

PORTMEIRION WEBSITE
The website about the original location of The Prisoner
www.portmeirion-history.co.uk

FRENCH PRISONER WEBSITE
www.leprisonnier.net

GERMAN PRISONER WEBSITE
www.match-cut.de

DANGER MAN WEBSITE
www.dangerman.org.uk

TAUSPACE SCI FI AND FANTASY SITE
Some links to various scifi and cult websites
http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/tauspace/fantasy/intro.htm

NEW SERIES WEBSITE
http://blogs.amctv.com/the-prisoner

THE UNMUTUAL
'Alternative' Prisoner fan club site
http://theunmutual.co.uk/

BBC PRISONER WEBSITE
http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/cinema/features/the-prisoner.shtml

THE PRISONER ON TWITTER
https://twitter.com/PrisonerOnline

THE PRISONER ON FACEBOOK
http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Prisoner-2009/43699677062?ref=search

THE PRISONER ON WIKIPEDIA
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Prisoner

DVD OUTSIDER
Interesting article
http://www.dvdoutsider.co.uk/articles/articles/p/prisoner2.html

Wednesday, September 09, 2009 12:00:35 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [14]  | 

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