Skip to main content

That was the best fruitcake I’ve ever tasted.

The Prisoner
7. Many Happy Returns


We want information.

Number Six awakes in a deserted Village. Fashioning a raft, he sets out to sea. After several weeks of sailing, Six encounters some gunrunners. He overpowers them but when they break free, Six flees their vessel and washes up on a beach. He encounters some gypsies and, despite the fact that they don’t speak English, it soon becomes clear that he is in Britain. Avoiding a police roadblock, he climbs in the back of a truck and eventually arrives in London. Returning to his house, he finds that it is now occupied by Mrs Butterworth, who has also taken possession of his car. She provides him with food and clean clothes and he sets off to see his former superiors. Informing them of the Village and detailing his journey, he is initially met with scepticism until the facts are independently confirmed. Six boards a jet to scout for possible locations of the Village, but he is unaware that a Village operative has replaced the pilot. Ejected, Six parachutes back into the Village. It is still deserted, and he returns to his house where the appliances switch on as if by magic. Mrs Butterworth, revealed as Number Two, walks in holding a birthday cake. She greets him with “Many happy returns”.


So how do you like it?

The problem with Many Happy Returns is that it isn’t particularly inspired. We’ve already seen Six escape the Village, in the second episode no less, and this repeat performance is very linear in form, pedestrian even. Whilst the episode is action-heavy (Six doesn’t even speak until 23 minutes in), it fails to grip as a story. The Number Six we see here is no wiser regarding his lot, allowing himself to be willingly led by the nose and expecting the audience to follow suit. We know going in that this is an elaborate ruse of some kind, but the inconsequentiality of it all comes as something of a, not too welcome, surprise. Perhaps if Many Happy Returns possessed a modicum of wit the shrug of the bad taste joke ending would be more effective.


George Markstein, the self-styled co-creator of the show, thought a lot of this episode, the thirteenth shot (the last one in the first production block and the also the final one he was involved in). He also rated the (superior) Chimes of Big Ben, and thought they both showed neat storytelling. Which is very telling, as this is the kind of unimaginative spy fare that could show up in any old series. There’s an overriding feeling of “So what?” to the piece. What was even the point of the powers-that-be of the Village laying on this scheme? Anthony Skene penned the episode and, given that his previous form delivered two of the best, A. B. and C. and Dance of the Dead, the lack of verve here is even more disappointing.



The powers-that-be of the Village aren’t depicted pursuing the usual “Why did you resign?” information. If the final scene tells it correctly, Two cooked the whole thing up as a twisted birthday present. Which in itself doesn’t make any sense, as the Village would have to know exactly how long it would take Six and his hand-made raft to reach London. There are far too many variables at play, including Six possibly drowning en route, being disposed of by the gun runners (unless they are Village operatives adding a touch of verisimilitude to Six’s escapade) or being blown off course. There’s not even any telling that he would have gone by sea. His initial recce shows the Village surrounded by mountains, and it’s a toss-up between which is more dangerous, a spot of climbing or seafaring.


Now, there’s an argument to be had that none of this is really pertinent; requiring the story to align itself too closely with thorough logic misses the point that there is no release for Six anywhere. He can go back to London, speak to his heads, and still he can’t escape the clutches of the Village. This is also the episode that bears the legend “1” on the door of Six’s house, an announcement of the existential crisis of its protagonist. I could accept the case for a metaphorical reading of Six’s return if there was anything more than that to get one’s teeth into. But the whole exercise (and it does feel like an exercise, especially the stripped-down first 20 minutes) is so stragihtforward and unexceptional, it’s difficult to really mount a defence.



The lustre of the opening scenes in the deserted Village soon wears off; there are some very pretty shots (Six up the bell tower) and some nice touches (the black cat, who will return the following week). On the plus side, since we’re used to seeing his double on location shoots, McGoohan is in pretty much every frame. Less surprisingly so when you realise that he also directed the thing, under the pseudonym Joseph Serf. As a visual exercise, Serf’s work can’t be faulted. It’s the material he is working with that doesn’t stand up.



Because there’s so little intrigue (this is an action travelogue, really) the mind is set to wander and the resulting questions that arise can only lead to dissatisfaction. Since we aren’t privy to Six’s doubts, we assume he’s a bit of a doofus to go along with things. One might have expected a Six who had been trapped in the Village this long to call his guards’ bluff and sit tight until they showed their hand. Anything that comes to easy is sure to lead to failure.




Six: Where is this?

Still, there are a number of nicely judged scenes along the way. The fake-out with the gypsies, suggesting this is a foreign land, is quite clever. And there’s an amusing bit of action prior to this where you realise that having a bedraggled Patrick McGoohan pursuing you down a quiet country path would be a rather unnerving experience. There’s a wonderful editing flourish when Six, stirring in the back of the truck in which he has secreted himself, hears loud noises and leaps out. McGoohan’s reveal, that he is on a busy London street, is outstanding.


Six: Tomorrow’s my birthday.

His interaction with “Mrs Butterworth” (Georgina Cookson, who also appeared in one of the dream sequences in A. B. and C.; make of that what you will) is engaging, and it’s fun to see Six (or Peter Smith, as he introduces himself) viewed almost as a bit of a toy boy by the frisky Cookson. There’s a nice little sign of the times aside too when, in response to Six suggesting she must think he’s crazy, she replies “Who isn’t these days?” Six demolishing a plate of sandwiches is one of the few overtly humorous moments in Many Happy Returns, and that might also be part of the reason the episode as whole fails; it lacks the panache and flourish of the series at its best.


Six: I also have a problem. I’m not sure which side runs this Village.
Colonel: A mutual problem.
Six: Which I’m going to solve.


It’s nice to see Six in his car, driving through London “for real” and not just as part of the opening credits, but what follows feels like we’ve seen it all before. Because we have. The difference between the “try to convince your superiors” here and in Chimes of Big Ben is that it isn’t (as far as we know; it might be) a ruse. At any rate, it isn’t a ruse designed to extract information. Patrick Cargill’s Thorpe (Cargill appeared as Two in the episode shot prior to this one, but broadcast three down the line, Hammer into Anvil) takes a line of suspicion, while Donald Sinden’s Colonel has a more benevolent air (Sinden and Cargill are disappointingly underused, given their calibre).


At least the expected issues they have with him (it looks dodgy that Six resigned, disappeared and then returned) are not reduced to the old interrogation routine, which is something. Another positive is the intentional ambiguity over whether or not the Colonel and Thorpe are in on the plot. We are shown that their checks on Six’s story are actually carried out, but this doesn’t necessarily protest their innocence. Six’s doubt over who runs the Village (“A place with many means of breaking a man”) is never resolved. We assume the Village agent infiltrated British Intelligence and bopped the actual pilot on the head, but he may just have been given the nod to step in.


Colonel: He’s an old friend. Who never gives up.


The pilot’s parting shot to Six as he is ejected (“Be seeing you”) is suitably flippant, and Six’s impassivity at his return is appropriate (but again, surely Six would know better than to unguardedly get into a plane destined for his former prison – doesn’t he realise that’s asking for trouble?) 



Unless we’ve been fed a line, this episode appears to resolve where the Village is located; somewhere off the coast of Morocco, southwest of Portugal and Spain. But with the flora and skies of North Wales.


Many Happy Returns falls resoundingly short in terms of wit and invention. If this was Markstein’s ideal vision of the show then it’s a blessed relief he flounced off. When the best scene of an episode involves Six eating some sandwiches, you know you’re in trouble. Whilst Many Happy Returnsis not actually bad (only one episode of the series gets two thumbs down), it’s quite close to being banal.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Even after a stake was driven through its heart, there’s still interest.

Prediction 2019 Oscars
Shockingly, as in I’m usually much further behind, I’ve missed out on only one of this year’s Best Picture nominees– Vice isn’t yet my vice, it seems – in what is being suggested, with some justification, as a difficult year to call. That might make for must-see appeal, if anyone actually cared about the movies jostling for pole position. If it were between Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody (if they were even sufficiently up to snuff to deserve a nod in the first place), there might be a strange fascination, but Joe Public don’t care about Roma, underlined by it being on Netflix and stillconspicuously avoided by subscribers (if it were otherwise, they’d be crowing about viewing figures; it’s no Bird Box, that’s for sure).

Life is like a box of timelines. You feel me?

Russian Doll Season One
(SPOILERS) It feels like loading the dice to proclaim something necessarily better because it’s female-driven, but that’s the tack The Hollywood Reporter took with its effusive review of Russian Doll, suggesting “although Nadia goes on a similar journey of self-discovery to Bill Murray’s hackneyed reporter in Groundhog Day, the fact that the show was created, written by and stars women means that it offers up a different, less exploitative and far more thoughtful angle” (than the predominately male-centric entries in the sub-genre). Which rather sounds like Rosie Knight changing the facts to fit her argument. And ironic, given star Natasha Lyonne has gone out of her way to stress the show’s inclusive message. Russian Dollis good, but the suggestion that “unlike its predecessors (it) provides a thoughtfulness, authenticity and honesty which makes it inevitable end (sic) all the more powerful” is cobblers.

We’re looking for a bug no one’s seen before. Some kind of smart bug.

Starship Troopers (1997)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi trio of Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers are frequently claimed to be unrivalled in their genre, but it’s really only the first of them that entirely attains that rarefied level. Discussion and praise of Starship Troopers is generally prefaced by noting that great swathes of people – including critics and cast members – were too stupid to realise it was a satire. This is a bit of a Fight Club one, certainly for anyone from the UK (Verhoeven commented “The English got it though. I remember coming out of Heathrow and seeing the posters, which were great. They were just stupid lines about war from the movie. I thought, ‘Finally someone knows how to promote this.’”) who needed no kind of steer to recognise what the director was doing. And what he does, he does splendidly, even if, at times, I’m not sure he entirely sustains a 129-minute movie, since, while both camp and OTT, Starship Troopers is simultaneously required t…

Mountains are old, but they're still green.

Roma (2018)
(SPOILERS) Roma is a critics' darling and a shoe-in for Best Foreign Film Oscar, with the potential to take the big prize to boot, but it left me profoundly indifferent, its elusive majesty remaining determinedly out of reach. Perhaps that's down to generally spurning autobiographical nostalgia fests – complete with 65mm widescreen black and white, so it's quite clear to viewers that the director’s childhood reverie equates to the classics of old – or maybe the elliptical characterisation just didn't grab me, but Alfonso Cuarón's latest amounts to little more than a sliver of substance beneath all that style.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

Now we're all wanted by the CIA. Awesome.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
(SPOILERS) There’s a groundswell of opinion that Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is the best in near 20-year movie franchise. I’m not sure I’d go quite that far, but only because this latest instalment and its two predecessors have maintained such a consistently high standard it’s difficult to pick between them. III featured a superior villain and an emotional through line with real stakes. Ghost Protocol dazzled with its giddily constructed set pieces and pacing. Christopher McQuarrie’s fifth entry has the virtue of a very solid script, one that expertly navigates the kind of twists and intrigue one expects from a spy franchise. It also shows off his talent as a director; McQuarrie’s not one for stylistic flourish, but he makes up for this with diligence and precision. Best of all, he may have delivered the series’ best character in Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust (admittedly, in a quintet that makes a virtue of pared down motivation and absen…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…