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You must risk either one of us.

The Prisoner
16. Once Upon A Time


We want information.

Number Two is pressed back into service in order to find out the reasons for Six’s resignation. He demands to do things his way, which requires enacting the treatment known as Degree Absolute. This comprises a weeklong psychological test in which the patient and therapist are pitted against each other. Only one may emerge intact. A regressed Six is taken through various stages in his life, from childhood onwards, by Two, who takes the role of law and authority in every case. Six eventually turns the tables on Two, who submits to Six and expires having failed to discover the reason for his resignation. The Supervisor enters, and asks Six what he desires. Six replies Number One and the Supervisor says he will take him there.


So how do you like it?

After the flamboyant extravagance of The Girl Who Was Death, the penultimate episode of The Prisoner brings the series back down to earth with an exercise in theatrical minimalism, Once Upon A Time takes place largely within the confines of one set, and focuses on the battle of wills between Six and a returning Two. The result packs an intensity of performance and a sense of claustrophobia that cannot be found in any other episode. However, in its way it is no less heightened and offbeat than the episodes that surround it. Fall Out receives all the attention (rightly, perhaps), but Once Upon A Time has a persuasive claim to being the most disturbing instalment of The Prisoner, stripped bare to its creator’s thematic essentials and reliant on the emotional weight brought to bear by its star and most recognisable guest-starring Number Two.


It’s stating the obvious that no one has any arguments about where Once Upon A Time should be placed in The Prisoner’s running order (although those who favour the 13-episode first season theory point to The Chimes of Big Ben as a possible finale, with a business-as-usual climax). The only dispute comes into play regarding the intent. As the sixth episode filmed, was Once always intended to presage the eventual denouement? I find it difficult to see it in any other context, even if I didn’t favour the view that McGoohan only ever had one season in mind. It would be a particularly insulting knock-back to tantalise the viewer with the promise of meeting Number One at the end of the first season, only to return nine months later and say “Sorry, you’ll have to wait some more”.


Besides which, the episode is utterly atypical, even by the series’ standards (it’s been reported that it resulted from a pared down budget due to earlier excesses – usually known as a capsule episode – but I don’t know how true this is; it may be adding 2 and 2 and getting 5). It is also claimed that it was the straw that broke the back of erstwhile camel-come-script editor and claimant of the keys to the show’s true nature (if only pesky McGoohan hadn’t gone his own silly way) George Markstein. He refused to work on it (this is the guy who was obsessed with the show being a continuation of Danger Man, wanting to iron out all the eccentric bumps and link Six explicitly to John Drake).


It’s probably fitting then, that McGoohan cited Once Upon A Time as his favourite episode; it’s intrinsically his vision for what the series is all about, the requirements of traditional adventure narrative be damned. About half the series achieves top rank status from me, and Once Upon A Time is one of those, although it’s a few rungs down the ladder of the top tier. Once is undoubtedly the least “fun” episode of the series, a draining experience not just for the actors (famously it had a decidedly deleterious effect on returning Two Leo McKern, who was driven to distraction by McGoohan and had to take a break from filming; some reports suggest he suffered a nervous breakdown, others a heart attack, but I think his pronouncement that his co-star was a “dreadful bully” is sufficiently illustrative) but for the viewer.


The cryptic adversarial rounds, as many have noted, bear more than a touch of early Harold Pinter, although other influences feed in too.  Moor Larkin cites the 1954 play The Prisoner by Brigit Boland, which provides the template of close quarter interrogation and twists in the prisoner-interrogator set up.


The single spartan set, around which the actors shift as the power play progresses, makes it unsurprising that the script was eventually put on as a stage production (at the 1990 Edinburgh Festival) but director Don Chaffey ensures the results feel anything but static. His last of five gigs on the show, Chaffey had had set the visual template of The Prisoner (the only episode in the first six filmed to be directed by someone else was Free For All, courtesy of McGoohan).  His canvas here is not the geography of Portmeirion but the landscape of the face; its fracture, bafflement, madness and hysteria. The energy created by the conflict between Six and Two is palpable and immediate; there’s a looseness akin to free-form improvisation in the interplay that belies a carefully controlled environment.


Once Upon A Timeis the high water mark for the recurring themes of mind control, unquestioning obedience and brainwashing; here they are removed from the hardware machinery or pseudo-science of brain chemistry and played for full-blown psychological horror. We are only given the vaguest impression of the process by which Degree Absolute renders Six iinto an impressionable state, but by this point we don’t need to be nursed with spurious explanations.  The modish view that science could provide cures for a diseased mind, either through drugs or counselling, here finds expression in a distinctive corruption of the ideals of psychotherapy by way of Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man (as found in As You Like It). 


Two takes us on a tour of Six’s past and present in an attempt to root out the reason for his resignation. In presentation the methodology is bastardised, such that McGoohan’s feelings on the practice generally remain unclear; rather than being used to sooth or mend an addled mind, Two attempts to break open the nut that conceals Six’s secrets. However, this in itself suggests suspicion on the director’s part; the sane contented mind is the one society dictates at that time, open to corruption and bending with the will and decrees of those in power.


Two: If you think he’s that important, there’s certainly no alternative.

Degree Absolute (the original title of the episode) is ushered in by Two with warnings of extreme action and necessary caution. Rather than an irreversible science experiment, the danger relates to the balance between the parties involved. One might infer a master-servant relationship in psychoanalytic practice that McGoohan sees as inherently unhealthy. And of course, it’s Two (the practiser) who ultimately pays the price. Two refers to the process as “Til Death Do us Part”, fully aware that he could succumb rather than Six (“You must risk either one of us”). As is noted when Six emerges victorious, “Sometimes they change places”; it is a risk “if the doctor has his problems” (and what doctor is perfectly balanced; what person is perfectly balanced?) As Two explains, there can only be one party to win out, to one extreme; “That is why the system is known as degree absolute”.


Two: All the world’s a stage, and all the mean and women mere players.

The Seven Ages of Manspeech from As You Like It is specifically referenced – twice – in the episode, forming a neat structural framework for the otherwise loose interaction between Two and Six. Two leads Six to the interrogation room (lest we are fooled by the trappings of children’s games, the bright spotlight above provides the befuddled Six with repeated a reminder that this is not play; a spotlight beneath which Two eventual succumbs); the latter is a puzzled infant nursing an ice cream. There are numerous costume changes for Two (including some freaky '60s eyewear) We segue into the second age, where Six is a schoolboy berated by his teacher. 


Then, naturally since this is McGoohan we’re talking about, we skip the lover and encounter something much worse (the banker). The soldier is switched to our last encounter with Six, which is a curious choice that doesn’t quite work in terms of the episode’s narrative structure, with justice taking place next (justice decreed upon Six; one might argue the risk taking soldier is the Six called before the judge, but justice doesn’t fit with his bombardier guise either). The process is severed thereafter and, with positions reversed, Two assumes the last two stages – old age and incapacity – as he loses his mind and then his life (only to be reborn in Fall Out, to start the process over again; when we last see him he appears to be heading off to work in the city, having revolved to the position of justice again).


Part and parcel of this format, and the introduction point to Six, is the use of nursery rhymes and fairy tales. While The Girl Who Was Death revelled in the playful side of bedtime stories, Once Upon A Time embraces the sinister potential of childhood comfort blankets. It’s creepy enough seeing adult Six reduced to the state of a child, but the motif isn’t dropped when he moves on the through the ages. We take in Humpty Dumpty, Jack and Jill, Pop Goes the Weasel and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Invariably the references involve heated shouting of the lyrics, like some kind of precursor to traumas exposed by Primal Scream Therapy, or mispronounced semi-nonsensical mangling of the words. Non-coincidentally, the rotund Two ends up overtly identified with Humpty, who has a great fall (out, but Number One can put him back together again).


If the marker of the responsible role of the individual in society runs throughout the inquiry into Six, the paramount theme of ego is also at its most transparent here before the finale. McGoohan’s parable about “a man destroying himself through ego” here finds two egos locked in struggle, from which Six’s victory turns out to be hollow (to the ego at least; it leads to the revelation/realisation that he is the perpetrator of all the befalls him). The Seven Ages of Man might be seen to write large the artifice of ego, the mere “playing” of a role for threescore years-and-ten before shuffling off this mortal coil. Death is a great leveller in that regard. Is Six’s resignation a consequence of overpowering ego checked, then? The conceit of taking on the responsibility of righting the ills of society (because “too many people know too much”)? Does his recognition of this lead to release, so he can learn to stop worrying and love the fall out, and so resume his place in the mix (as per the end of the last episode)?


Two: I’m not an inmate!

Two gives us another clear indication of the absence of true control of destiny. It’s another layer in the realisation that there is no real freedom of thought and action, except that which we grant to ourselves. Two has been pressganged back into service against his wishes. He’s under such duress that he’s off his food. There’s even a Rover sat wobbling in his chair, observing him, a disturbingly perfect fit for the designer seat.


Two: I told you last time you’re using the wrong process. I do it my way! Or not at all.

The well-worn rejoinders between Six and Two are now mere rhetoric (“Why do you care?”; “You’ll never know”), going through the rehearsed motions, but more than ever before this episode is a study of Two rather than Six. Most notably, it is a full 15 minutes before we gain a proper audience with our hero. Prior to this, the focus is on Two’s point of view and predicament. We’re insufficiently enabled to rally behind Six because he arrives in a reduced state of will. Even though Two is the interrogator and the adversary, the mode of identification lies partly with him.


Two: He thinks you’re the boss, now.
Six: I am.
Two: I’m Number Two. I’m the boss.
Six: Number One is the boss.

He tells his superior, “I am a good man. I was a good man. But if you get him, he will be better”.  Is this a reference to Two’s morality or his citizenship? And does he mean Six will be a more loyal subject if he is won over? A superior subject? Two, bested, finds flimsy support in the meaningless titles granted to him by the societal structure to which he has pledged allegiance. And which has discarded him (“You’re free. You are Number Nothing”, Six tells him). Once he no longer has a number, a means of validating his being, he no longer exists within society and he is expunged.



Two: BANG! (If I fail.)

McKern gives an immense, full-on performance as Two. It’s no wonder he was fried by the experience. It’s not only an emotional, but also a startlingly physical feat. He is buffeted, bounced and battered. And, having seen Two put through the mill when after all he is just another victim of processing, it feels like an appropriate restatement that he should be rebalanced and reprieved in the following episode (of course, just doing one’s job is an argument used to support many an atrocity).


Six: You chose this method because you knew the only way to beat me was to gain my respect and then I would confide.

We see precious little of Six in a “normal” state before his experiences Degree Absolute, but what we do see suggests a man in some degree of agitation. However, when did we last see him in a normal-ish environment? A Change of Mind, really; before we witnessed body swaps, mind meddling and the telling of tall tales. So if his barracking of the man with the umbrella seems excessive (we’ve seen similar before. but not generally without provocation) it may be a consequence of recent pressures. Alternatively, it’s just the ill-fitting continuity that results from shuffling Once so far away from the point at which it was made.


The various scenarios played out with Six find him mostly resisting through familiar means; he hits on repetitions (“Five! Five! Five!”) or resorts to nonsense-speak (“Half a pound of pop”). It looks at first as if the roles will assume classical Freudian positions (“I’m your father. Do I ever say anything that makes you want to hate me?”) but the embattlement is marked by broader lines of anti-authoritarian and reactionary behaviour, much of which revolves around notions of honour.


Two: That is cowardice.
Six: That’s honour, sir.
Two: Don’t talk about such things.
Six: We should teach it, sir.

Six, sporting a school boater (McGoohan was sent to a private school), is accused of talking in class. He denies it, but refuses to squeal on the guilty party (for which “You will take six of the best”; administered by the butler, no less). He refutes the accusation of cowardice, which Two returns to repeatedly as a button to push; a means by which society can manipulate the individual’s sense of moral direction. “I’m a fool, not a rat,” he tells Two, sure of his high ground.


Provoked, Six strikes Two and the sparring moves onto outright pugilism. Two goads Six, first at boxing and then fencing (“Kill, kill, kill” instructs Two). Again,Two pushes Six and gets stabbed for his troubles; “Afraid to prove you’re a man. You’re resignation was cowardice, wasn’t it?” Six’s weak point is an assault on his honour so he is impelled to respond.


Two: This is a cover for secret work.

The scenes at the bank also echo McGoohan’s actual experiences; he worked for a short stint at a financial institution before he became an actor. Here it forms his induction into the world of spy-dom (it also represents a trade requiring full integration into the system and all its morally corrupting influences). The secret work itself is used to present a dichotomy that surely gave the actor pause while working on Danger Man. Brought up before a judge, he is charged with “driving at great speed in a restricted lane”. Six counters that it was a matter of life and death. The rules don’t apply to him because “Such business is above the law!” (which he can’t go into because it is confidential). It’s a not dissimilar argument used for mass surveillance by the security agencies; the rules that apply to us don’t apply to them because it’s for out greater good, even if that greater good incrementally breaks down our notional civil liberties.


As noted, the final encounter with one of his “ages” takes place at a curious juncture. We have already seen the bars of imprisonment push back and the interrogator and interrogated change sides as Six gets the better of his Two. Why the scenario then continues is unclear; Two was losing, now he is in control again. For reasons of flow, for timing? It’s not quite right, as the bombing raid sequence feels unnecessary and superfluous. Added to this, Six would barely have been in his teens when World War II was in full swing.


Two: You resigned for peace?
Six: For peace of mind.
Two: Why?
Six: Because too many people know too much. I know too much. I know too much about you!

There’s the real possibility that Six actually reveals the truth of why he resigned in this episode. Earlier, Two asks him if he resigned because he’s sorry for everybody. Which is somewhat facetious, but not so far from the reason Six ultimately gives; that too many people know too much. There is not enough freedom to be, to live undisrupted and unobserved. Six has reacted against the society that would lock him and everyone else down. It’s a greater irony then that, if this is the truth, Two doesn’t stop right there and move on. As a reason, it certainly fits with the broader themes of the series and it makes a lot of sense that the reason are not ones that threaten national security or particularly need to be kept secret. Six keeps them to himself because he sees it as nobody else’s business but his own; his silence goes to the heart of the issue.


Nevertheless, Two clearly doesn’t think it’s true, as he asks again when posing as the German interrogator. Whether or not Six is telling the truth, I don’t think we’re going to get a better answer; it’s notable that after this he calls Two a fool and an idiot – who else but a fool and an idiot would hear the truth and not believe it? (Although, Two may have been distracted by Six telling him “You are an enemy”; Six knows so much about who Two really is that he knows where his loyalties really lie, be they on the side of the Village and not Britain (or democracy), or wherever.)


Two: You must conform. It is my sworn duty to see that you do conform.

As with the continued circular questioning, the need to conform is an all-consuming mantra. Obedience to the norm is paramount; individuality in its face must be crushed. Six repeatedly denies the charges that he is a member of the Village, a unit (not a person) of society. McGoohan, never one to follow the pack, proved this when he disappeared, except for a side career in Columbo guest spots, following the show.


Two: Society is a place where people exist together. That is civilisation. The lone wolf belongs to the wilderness. You must not grow up to be a lone wolf.

Lone Wolf was the working title of Danger Man, but that’s about as George Markstein as this episode gets.


Once Upon A Timeisn’t particularly an episode for levity; there’s humour in there, but it’s of the darkest, most twisted variety. Perhaps the only jolliness is when Two shows Six the mod cons in what is later revealed to be the back of truck; “It even has a waste disposal”. The pinnacle of ‘60s hi-tech desirability!


Supervisor: What do you desire?
Six: Number One.
Supervisor: I’ll take you.

In the absence of Two, it’s left to Peter Swanick’s Supervisor to provide the victor’s spoils (Angelo Muscat’s butler has been on hand throughout, finally siding with Six; he will be rewarded with release in the last episode). The Supervisor’s “We shall need the body for evidence” offers an applicable description of the court setting in Fall Out (where the body gives evidence) yet it’s understandable that the promise of meeting the boss had no one really expecting what would transpire, despite the hints through preceding episodes. Even given the series’ antic position, that would be too far out. 


Once Upon A Time continues the unexpected path struck by the previous three Prisoner episodes and the high quality of the directly prior, but very different one. The frothy fantasy funnies of Girl metamorphose into Once Upon A Time’s queasy psychodrama and then transform once again for the psychedelic breakdown of Fall Out.







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