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18 June 2014
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By Jonathan Morris

When I was about fifteen, I joined the drama club at school. Many of my happiest memories of being fifteen are related to that drama club - Zero Hour. We put on plays - I remember one woefully patronising play-for-schools someone had written called Stronger Than Superman. This later became the source of a devilishly obscure in-joke in series three of The League Of Gentlemen.

When we weren't putting on woefully patronising plays, we would pull the drapes around the drama club room, switch off the lights, and do an 'improvisation'. Ged, the teacher, would put on some music - usually Peter Gabriel-era Genesis - and the twenty-odd of us would come up with something, using what props and costumes we would find.

Because we were nauseating adolescents, the improvisations would inevitably end up being about paranoia, and alienation, with people trapped in some Pinter-esque purgatory.

We were just kids. We knew no better.

What's Patrick McGoohan's excuse?

'Oh come now', I hear you cry. It was the Sixties. This was the time of Head and Hair. This was the time of that bit of stock footage they always dig out of the guy in a top hat buying a red jacket on Carnaby Street. This was the time of that other bit of stock footage of the strawberry-blonde, quite ugly, girl at a Beatles concert clutching her cheeks and screaming hysterically.

In particular, in the late Sixties there was, with psychaedelia, a move in the popular arts towards two things. Firstly, the naivety of childhood - Jonathan Miller's Alice In Wonderland, side two of Ogden's Nut Gone Flake (featuring the incomprehensible Stanley Unwin, who made a career out of sounding as though he'd recently had a stroke, and who would later find his way to Portmerion via The Tube. Or, as he would put it, 'later go merrybold into Porting marion verily the tube-ee-oh deary me yes.')

Secondly, as a result of the popularisation of LSD-induced cod-self-psychoanalysis, artists began to celebrate the 'random' - rather than being straights and logical, let's be hippy and be intuitive. The idea being that chance determination would give free rein to the expression of subconscious ideals, and thus reveal a deeper truth. The first thought that popped into your head became the best one by dint of being first. Work would no longer be revised, or have its meaning worked out consciously - rather, it would be left in its spontaneous form, and the listener or observer would be left to make the connections.

This is what I think of as being the 'hey, it can mean whatever you want it to mean' philosophy. A philosophy of which many attic-dwelling Alan Moore devotees are great followers. A philosophy, I believe, borne out of artistic cowardice, arrogance and incompetence. A cop-out, lazy, any-old-bollocks-will-do philosophy.

You see, there are two types of people in the world. There are those who, when presented with something they don't understand, go, 'well, I wish they'd explained that better'. And there are those who, when presented with something they don't understand, go, 'oh, I wish I was cleverer, then I might have understood that.'

Two types of people. The ones who think the fault lies with the material, and the ones who think the fault lies with themselves.

I place myself in the first camp. If I don't understand something, I want it explained again, properly. In simple terms.

However, up in the attic poring over Halo Jones is someone who doesn't think that way. They think that if something is confusing and ambiguous that it is not a sign of incompetence, but a sign of genius. They think it means the author is cleverer than them.

You can probably see where I am going with this.

I'm not the only one to feel this way. In Revolution In The Head Ian MacDonald has a delightful rant on the subject (the page relating to Glass Onion - of which, more later). You should read the book yourself, but I'll just quote one wonderful sentence.

'To treat chance-determined productions as identical with material intentionally vested with meaning is to meddle in a relativism that can only escalate towards chaos'.

Yes. What he said.

It's better to be incredulous than credulous.

Anyway, those two things of the Sixties - childhood, and the subconscious being revealed through free-association - that's what Once Upon A Time is about. It's a train of thought chugging through the canyons of Patrick McGoohan's mind.

Nowadays, in this jaded age, the only way of telly becoming exciting is for them to go gimmicky on us, and have episodes shown 'live'. If Once Upon A Time had been shown live, that might excuse its shortcomings. If it had been shown live - and unrehearsed. And unscripted. Performed in real time, made up as it goes along.

Because, basically, that's what this episode is Patrick McGoohan and Rumpole McKern in a room, surrounded by black drapes, talking crap.

That's the problem with free association. It can afford a valuable insight into the workings of the inner mind. But it can also be complete complete bollocks.

Ball cocks

And so it goes on. Slime in this ear. Slime in that ear. Don't you ever yearn for change?

At least we had an excuse. We were fifteen. It was dark. We'd just had Peter Gabriel-era Genesis played at us.

I'm not knocking free-association per se. The Girl Who Was Death had a wonderful, shaggy-dog-story-ness to it. It was like a magpie, flitting from wacky idea to wacky idea. Whereas Once Upon A Time is, as the expression goes, stuck up its own arse.

Anyway - what actually happens in the episode?

Well, opening titles as usual, in which Patrick McGoohan spills script editor George Markstein's tea. By this stage, of course, script editor George Markstein had resigned. Why did he resign? I have two theories. My first theory is that he was fed up with his scripts being rewritten by the lead actor - he wanted The Prisoner to be a fantasy spy thriller show, and he wasn't keen on it being a vehicle for McGoohan's paranoid adolescent pop-political delusions.

My second theory is exactly the same as the first except it also includes some potentially libellous rumours.

Rover is in the chair. What does it mean? Hey, it can mean whatever you want it to mean!

Rumpole McKern is back as Number 2 and he's still laughing heartily at the slightest provocation. I think it's supposed to be sinister.

Number 2's red phone has shrunk! It used to be really huge, and now it's phone-sized again! I hope this discrepancy is explained in the final episode, I feel it may be important.

We learn that Number 2 has reached the end of his tether. He's tried every possible ruse - putting Number 6 in charge of The Village, drugging him, making him switch places with a duplicate number 6, drugging him, hypnotising him, chasing him with a big white wobbly tit, drugging him, letting him escape, making him sheriff of a fake cowboy town…

He decides to go for broke and risk everything to break Number 6.

What does this involve?

[Trumpet fanfare]

It involves… a Special Machine!

Yes, having used all the other Special Machines, it's now time for the final Special Machine.

What else does it involve?

[Trumpet fanfare]

It involves… drugging Number 6!

Well, all the other drugs they've tried haven't worked. But maybe if they drug him and use the Special Machine, they might just crack his McGoohan scowl of silence.

Number 6 is regressed to a baby. We know this because he's grinning - Patrick McGoohan never grins, except with Mrs McGoohan - and eating an ice cream. He is taken beneath the control room...

... which is not, as I had suspected, a big dormitory. It is, in fact, a corridor. Leading to a room, much like the room of my old drama club. It's filled with children's toys and has a caged area to one side. There's a big science-fiction clock on the wall - I have no idea how people tell the time by looking at it, it doesn't have numbers on or anything.

There's also the fat midget guy! Wearing sunglasses! And shaking a rattle!

You know, I think the fat midget guy is my favourite part of The Prisoner. No matter what happens, he remains enigmatic and cool.

More TV shows should have an enigmatic fat midget. I think that's what Strictly Come Dancing is missing. He should be there, standing to one side of Patrick Kielty or whoever presents it, being enigmatic and fat.

Oh, but this marks a sudden downturn in the quality of the show. Remember, we're only a dozen episodes away from Arrival. That episode was beautiful - it was smart, it was sharp, it looked like Bond, it was on location, it was witty, it was fast.

And now it's just two blokes talking bollocks.

How does Number 2 intend to get Number 6 to talk? What is the ultimate torture in The Village?

You won't believe this.

You honestly won't.

The ultimate torture in The Village is...

... being caned by a midget.

There are, apparently, places you can go, if you want to be caned by a midget. I say 'apparently' because I've looked and I haven't found any. I think being caned by a fat enigmatic midget might be fun.

Patrick McGoohan wrote this episode. It tells us stuff about him. You might almost say it was semi-autobiographical. So what Patrick McGoohan fears most of all is… having someone of diminished stature spanking him repeatedly on the backside.

Having failed to extract the necessary, Number 2 then challenges Number 6 to a duel. First up is boxing. Then fencing. Then Twister.

The duel also fails to work - because Number 6 is SO DAMN HARD - so Number 2 goes over to the props box (just as we did, back in drama club) and becomes a judge.

I'm not quite sure how, but this develops into a buggy chase. Yes, at the beginning of this series there were proper chases, in cars, on roads. And now it's reduced to two blokes chasing each other around a playpen.

Oh, the fat enigmatic midget guy has a mini-minimoke! How sweet!

As the episode goes on, it becomes more and more ragged, less rehearsed, and more improvised. There is no direction. It's a cutting-room compilation. It's all over the place.

Number 6 tricks Number 2 into getting into the cage - this is hokey stuff - and, for no adequately explored reason, Number 2 dies.

The victorious Number 6 is led away… to meet Number 1! It looks like we're finally going to get some answers.

It's time for the pay-off.

Shown on BBC Four on 30th July 2004.

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