Wednesday, 17 November 2010

McGoohan in his own words: "I question everything. I don’t accept anything on face value."

Anyone briefly scanning web-pages to get an idea of what the 1967 Prisoner is like, before they watch it, is likely to be confused by many things, and many contradictory opinions. Just as McGoohan hoped, when he commented in later years, "I suppose that it is the sort of thing where a thousand people might have a different interpretation of it”. However, I suspect the majority of current opinion about one episode in particular, Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling will concur in not thinking that highly of it. It is usually dismissed as a filler episode and the episode is generally regarded as not having much going for it.

In fact, of all episodes of The Prisoner it is Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling that most resembles McGoohan’s earlier vehicle, Danger Man. It’s very structure duplicates the earlier series, opening with a prequel sequence, which then segues into the usual prisoner opening titles, exactly as Danger Man did for six years prior in popular television. The episode even introduces into The Prisoner a character named Potter, the name used for an agent in the latter episodes of Danger Man. This name also gets used within a tongue-in-cheek sequence in the more light-hearted The Girl who was Death. By the time of that episode McGoohan and his writers were clearly having a little fun as well as signalling their demolition of the 'theatrical' fourth wall. 

Unlike The girl Who was death however, Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling is played very straight and the concluding moments are indeed quite earnest - with references to the splitting of the atom and the laws of unintended scientific consequences, as well as a naively hopeful escape by Professor Seltzman.

Curiously, in recent histories of the show this episode is suggested as having being written at the last minute. The often exemplary book that accompanied the 2007 DVD release suggest, on page 224, that the script was written very late on in the series construction, “Before leaving the series George Markstein had phoned Tilsley to see if the writer had further ideas for the series, but to no avail” However, at first sight, this written history seems to be completely contradicted by Tilsley himself. “They were very pleased with the first one [Chimes of Big Ben] …. And I think I was asked almost immediately, Will you write another?”  see about 2 minutes into this video 
Watching that video snippet is quite odd because the preamble commentary is seeking to present this episode as having been written sometime after the Spring of 1967, when it is made apparent by Mr. Tilsley's opening words that he actually had the script in the Autumn of 1966. The commentary is good Propaganda but poor journalism.

However, if, as my last Blog mentioned, George Markstein effectively left the series after six episodes, as older histories of the show suggested, then perhaps these two conflicting stories are not so contradictory. That might be a subject for a future Blog. The written histories of the production of this show are riddled with many such inconsistencies where the history writers choose to reinterpret what people appear to have actually said.

In a similar way, it is startling to note that the very first fans who began to study this series as more than just a passing piece of TV ephemera actually thought Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling was the richest, most complexly rewarding program in the series. That was the opinion expressed in the viewing notes published to accompany the Ontario Educational Communications Authority study of the show in 1976 – a College/Open Learning course, which involved the series being re-broadcast and this exercise culminated in the well-known Troyer Interview with McGoohan in 1977.

Why, I wondered, has this episode such an opinion dichotomy? One of the reasons I suspect is that very few Prisoner watchers nowadays approach this programme with an open mind. Instead they will have cribbed reviews and accounts of the show, and have speed-learned that this episode was commissioned merely in order to allow for McGoohan’s absence at very short notice from the set of The Prisoner, whilst he filmed Ice Station Zebra in Hollywood. It is evident from the account from Vincent Tilsey’s that this is in fact not the case and the script of Do Not forsake Me Oh My Darling had been commissioned almost immediately after delivery of the fifth script: Chimes of Big Ben, in the midst of the primary location production work. The script was one that McGoohan and Tomblin had evidently held back for some time. Tomblin is quoted in Andrew Pixley’s book, on page 224, “Patrick got an offer to do a film called Ice Station Zebra and it did clash with our programme so I suggested we transplanted his mind into another actor”.

Many *official* published accounts of the making of The Prisoner ramble about an unsubstantiated plan for there to be a second series of the show and that Do Not Forsake me Oh My Darling was commisioned as the opener for this because within the dialogue there are references to the prisoner having been away for a year. The reason for the episode not entering production until the later time was a long-planned deliberate one, as explained by David Tomblin. Cause and effect often become very muddled in the *official* histories as authors seek to pursue their own historical agendas, rather than balancing all the known facts.

Patrick McGoohan’s bodily absence is often advanced as one reason why this episode should not be taken as canon to the show itself. However, actually watching the episode gives a very different impression. The very casting of Nigel Stock has some significance. The vagaries of fame mean that nowadays people see Nigel as just a strangely incongruous replacement. However, Nigel Stock was already an acquaintance of McGoohan. They both featured in the 1954/55 movie, The Dambusters. Stock was a guest-star in the Danger Man episode, Loyalty Always Pays and if they did not know one another before that, they would certainly have found something very much in common to talk about with one another then, because Nigel Stock had portrayed the vicar in the play Serious Charge in 1953, when the play was first written and performed in repertory. The West End version of this play gave Patrick McGoohan his first big London success in the theatre, in 1955 as the vicar. Nigel Stock was also well-recognised in the mid-Sixties as Dr. Watson from BBC adaptations of Sherlock Holmes so he was no makeweight as a TV personality – certainly not a face unknown. At ten years older in real life than Patrick McGoohan however, he carried a little more middle-aged spread and his hair was not so thick upon his pate; a very stodgy-looking Number Six in fact. Current viewers just see this as mildly unappetising, and have lost sight that this was the whole point of the episode – that Number Six found himself in an alien body.

The earlier fans in Canada were not so speed-learned and they realised that one of the underlying themes of this episode was the very important agenda that whilst Number Six found himself free, he was trapped in another man’s body. Using his mind and skills, and having learned lessons from all the tricks the village had played on him in Chimes of Big Ben and Many Happy Returns Number Six might simply have made himself scarce… and escaped. The fact that he did no such thing illustrates that McGoohan was quite concerned to explicate that for an individual, it was not just the mind that mattered; it was an individuals’ whole being - including their body. The inclusion in the plot of a fiancée provides an important mechanism to point up, in a decorous way, one of the key reasons why a person’s body is of as much importance as their mind to their existence as an individual. Number Six would rather return to prison as Himself than be free as someone else. This is at the root of the complexity that the Ontario College evidently saw and makes this episode as important in the prisoner canon as any other. Several episodes explore this especial aspect of what it is that makes a person an individual - Schizoid Man, A, B&C and Change of Mind as well as the final episode itself of course. Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling is part of the exploration of that conundrum of Individuality and adds an important ingredient.

The episode does however share a characteristic with another latterly produced episode, Living In Harmony, in that it seeks directly to place The Prisoner within a well-known story medium. In Living in Harmony the traditional Cowboy format is used, whilst Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling apes the format of Danger Man / Secret Agent itself. In many ways these two episodes took the tale of The Prisoner no further forward but served to entertain the viewer whilst instilling the realisation that The Prisoner was just telling a story exactly as other traditional formats could. It was perhaps in this sense that McGoohan himself referred to filler episodes. He was treading water in terms of the primary tale that he was seeking to tell, but that did not indicate that the producers did not applyjust as much care to making them into pieces of good quality work as  any other episode.Indeed, Living in Harmony took longer to shoot than High Noon itself!!

Therefore it would be wrong to suggest that McGoohan was not as involved or did not devote as much care to Do Not Forsake me Oh My Darling as the episodes his own body was actively feaured in. The care taken in the many voice-over scenes where Number Six realises he is no longer who he thought he was demonstrates the co-ordinated approach McGoohan and Tomblin employed and also how cleverly they devised an episode wherein the viewer did not see their hero that much, but nevertheless his presence was ubiquitous via his voice. The episode also features some of the cleverest hints in the entire series about who Number One might be. In the scene when Number Six goes to collect his photographs there is this dialogue as the shop-owner locates the year-old film very quickly:

Six: Oh, that was quick
Photographer: Oh –it’s only one sir
Six: It’s been signed for already
Photographer: Yes, a stupid clerical error I’m afraid. One of our juniors handed over your transparencies, in mistake for this number. Pure carelessness of course – confusing the last figures Oh One and One Oh.

Earlier in the script when Number Six is being prepared for the first mind transference, the disembodied voice of Number Two tells him: Take it easy! Take it easy! It will all be one, in the end.

As with all clues that McGoohan placed throughout the series, these would not be noticed at the time, but only later, when the whole secret of the show had finally been revealed, would their significance become apparent. Quite possibly McGoohan just saw them as little wordplay jokes of his own, not ever expecting the study of his work that occurred later. However their presence in this episode show the care lavished upon it. McGoohan’s other small jokes, such as the Seltzman envelope bearing the address “Portmeirion Road” (reportedly in McGoohan’s own hand-writing) demonstrate his personal interest in the minutiae of this episode, and this notion is backed up by archivist Andrew Pixley who notes on page 233 of his book, “with the return of McGoohan [from America] several re-shoots were called for..” Incidentally the presence of that envelope notation also demonstrates that no second series beginning with this episode was planned. It is a truism that McGoohan had promised the owner of Portmeirion that the resort would not be *publicised* until the end of the whole series. McGoohan would not have been dropping hints about the real village if he had expected his show to be running on television for a further three months after Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling was broadcast.

McGoohan's careful attention to all aspects of his show, is also evident in the continuity between this episode and Fall-Out which both utilised the A20 as a route element of the plot. Beachy Head is mentioned too, linking the episode with The Girl Who was Death and Many Happy Returns. The title is a clear misnomer that cleverly linked the episode directly to Living in Harmony with the resonance of the theme song from the classic Western movie, High Noon. There is even a link back to the other script penned by Vincent Tilsley that emphasises the coherent place of this episode within the series. In Chimes of Big Ben, when Nadia and Number Six are in the crate they have a conversation. Nadia flirts with Number Six, asking  "Big Bill" some personal questions, culminating in asking him if he is married. She receives a firm negative in reply. But at that point Number Six also demands that she stop talking. He perhaps feared the obvious next question that a woman might ask would be the one word query “Engaged?” Number Six would not have wanted to risk giving the village information about his fiancee would he, because at that stage he had no idea that his fiancée’s father (his boss) knew all about the village. Do Not Forsake me Oh My Darling becomes the very first time Number Six, discovers beyond doubt that his own side are as complicit as any other side in his imprisonment. The curtains are drawn wide. he sees the stage clearly for perhaps the very first time.
Do Not Forget Me, Oh My Darling
  Check out my own reworking of this episode at my alternative storyblog here: