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.