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

Prepare the Heathen’s Stand! By order of purification!

Apostle (2018)
(SPOILERS) Another week, another undercooked Netflix flick from an undeniably talented director. What’s up with their quality control? Do they have any? Are they so set on attracting an embarrassment of creatives, they give them carte blanche, to hell with whether the results are any good or not? Apostle's an ungainly folk-horror mashup of The Wicker Man (most obviously, but without the remotest trace of that screenplay's finesse) and any cult-centric Brit horror movie you’d care to think of (including Ben Wheatley's, himself an exponent of similar influences-on-sleeve filmmaking with Kill List), taking in tropes from Hammer, torture porn, and pagan lore but revealing nothing much that's different or original beyond them.

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…

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

Outstanding. Now, let’s bite off all the heads and pile them up in the corner.

Venom (2018)
(SPOILERS) A 29% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes can't be wrong, can it? To go by the number of one-star reviews Sony’s attempt to kick-start their own shred of the Marvel-verse has received, you’d think it was the new Battlefield Earth, or Highlander II: The Quickening. Fortunately, it's far from that level of ignominy. And while it’s also a considerable distance from showing the polish and assuredness of the official Disney movies, it nevertheless manages to establish its own crudely winning sense of identity.

You can’t just outsource your entire life.

Tully (2018)
(SPOILERS) A major twist is revealed in the last fifteen minutes of Tully, one I'll happily admit not to have seen coming, but it says something about the movie that it failed to affect my misgivings over the picture up to that point either way. About the worst thing you can say about a twist is that it leaves you shrugging.

Well, you did take advantage of a drunken sailor.

Tomb Raider (2018)
(SPOILERS) There's evidently an appetite out there for a decent Tomb Raider movie, given that the lousy 2001 incarnation was successful enough to spawn a (lousy) sequel, and that this lousier reboot, scarcely conceivably, may have attracted enough bums on seats to do likewise. If we're going to distinguish between order of demerits, we could characterise the Angelina Jolie movies as both pretty bad; Tomb Raider, in contrast, is unforgivably tedious.

If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose.

Phantom Thread (2017)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps surprisingly not the lowest grossing of last year's Best Picture Oscar nominees (that was Call Me by Your Name) but certainly the one with the least buzz as a genuine contender, subjected as Phantom Thread was to a range of views from masterpiece (the critics) to drudge (a fair selection of general viewers). The mixed reaction wasn’t so very far from Paul Thomas Anderson's earlier The Master, and one suspects the nomination was more to do with the golden glow of Daniel Day-Lewis in his first role in half a decade (and last ever, if he's to be believed) than mass Academy rapture with the picture. Which is ironic, as the relatively unknown Vicky Krieps steals the film from under him.

The whole thing should just be your fucking nose!

A Star is Born (2018)
(SPOILERS) A shoe-in for Best Picture Oscar? Perhaps not, since it will have to beat at very least Roma and First Man to claim the prize, but this latest version of A Star is Born still comes laden with more acclaim than the previous three versions put together (and that's with a Best Picture nod for the 1937 original). While the film doesn't quite reach the consistent heights suggested by the majority of critics, who have evacuated their adjectival bowels lavishing it with superlatives, it's undoubtedly a remarkably well-made, stunningly acted piece, and perhaps even more notably, only rarely feels like its succumbing to just how familiar this tale of rise to, and parallel fall from, stardom has become.

I will unheal the shit out of you!

Hotel Artemis  (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hotel Artemis is all set up. It's solid set up, undoubtedly – a heightened, John Wick-esque criminal world by way of John Carpenter – but once it has set out its wares, it proceeds to pulls its punches. One's left more impressed by the dependable performances and Drew Pearce's solid footing as a (debut feature) director than his ability to develop a satisfying screenplay. 

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …