Sunday, 24 August 2014

Allegory in The Prisoner: Checkmate

It's interesting, watching this Prisoner straight after Department S's Black Out, where I commented on the dodgy use of medicine in that show. It isn't actually half as dodgy as the use of medicine here. On the one hand, people are over-medicalised, & of course it's anything like nonconformity that is marked down as a disease. On the other hand the 'treatment' is clothed in a facade of kindness.
Also similarly to the last episode of Department S, when placed into its historical context in the heady 1960s, this episode becomes a terrible warning of the way in which society was perceived to be going. The chess game is a rather obvious allegory for the way society pushes people into ordered positions, & the Village is an allegory of how this is inescapable. Power, control, the use of emotion, the misuse of medicine & psychiatry are all servants to the theme here: society's control is inescapable.
I must confess to yet another Prisoner heresy here: I feel that in allegorical terms this episode almost completely defeats its own object. It does this by the excellent visual of the chess game, which is almost certainly the one thing everybody 'remembers' of the series, which unfortunately makes everything else pale into relative insignificance. The other aspects of the allegory here are really the servants to the main point, but things such as the contemporary wariness of technology can tend to go unnoticed. The fact that the Village masquerades as a holiday camp, with Number 2 asking people how they are on the beach, could reference a projected future world of no work, where all the jobs have been given to computers, leaving the humans ever more at the mercy of the all-controlling State. The recurring Prisoner theme of them-&-us/black-&-white is also used, all examples of what could happen if society gains the sort of control over us depicted in The Prisoner.
Finally there is an interesting element of what could be interpreted as magical thinking here: as Number 6 is returned to The Village, The Butler places a pawn back on a chess board. The implication is almost that that chess board is actually how the captives of The Village are manoeuvred! (It's reawakened my wish to write a Prisoner post (I doubt it would be more than one) on the subject of The Butler Did It In The Prisoner!) It's almost as if there is a sense in which everything else is subordinate to the chess game - despite having a number, the rook is referred to as the rook throughout the episode, & the 'players' in the piece are intentionally turned against each other, just with the variant that it's deliberately unclear who is on which side.
From a non-allegorical point of view, Peter Wyngarde, in a relatively subdued role for him, still makes a somewhat flamboyant Number 2 (is that mascara I see?). His...languid tones in the opening dialogue interestingly make Number 6 sound rather petulant & childish by contrast - the firmer tones of most Number 2s don't have this effect to my ear.
One niggle is that the voice commanding the rook in the water dispenser behaviour modification, is very clearly that of Patrick McGoohan! Another is the use of familiar face Ronald Radd as the rook.
So to sum up - clearly an intentionally allegorical episode of The Prisoner, unfortunately marred by the fact that the allegory is so obvious, almost laboured, & depicted so effectively, that all the subtexts of the episode can go unnoticed.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Department S: Black Out

This Department S first & foremost at this length of time, hits me as a real blast from the past. I've only ever seen a couple of episodes of Jason King, the successor to Department S, & for no reason I could fathom didn't take to it, but this episode of Department S actually seems to press some of the same buttons. It does this by accessing the same luxury zeitgeist that so many sixties series tapped into. I like to think of the show's contemporary viewers watching the show in a flat (already a decade old, though) in Park Hill in Sheffield, or the local example would be the Castle Bromwich estate in Birmingham. Before these developments went horribly wrong, there was a real sense that things would get better, & that slum living was over once & for all for the inhabitants of these palaces. They would also watch a film in the city centre of an evening, & could eat continental food - even I was taken to Gino's Omelette Bar in Birmingham as a child. All of these things seem so normal to us today that it is easy to forget the newness of the post-War jet-setting aspirations. This episode furthers the aspirations by including opera throughout, a restaurant critic, & foreign travel at the drop of a hat. This was, of course, the heyday of Fanny Cradock & Egon Ronay - am I imagining it or does Sinclair bear a passing resemblance to Egon Ronay?
If it taps into post-War British aspirations, & sensibilities, it also taps into the contemporary fears. Thalidomide had made the medical profession a fearful thing: given what it can do by mistake, imagine what it could do if it set out to make people, say, forget things! This is very much the impression of medicine also given in The Prisoner, ironically at an age when psychiatric medications were taken like water for any small anxiety. 'Get Bridget a capsule, Woolf,' was very much the order of the day.
There are some of the familiar faces that I normally dislike in this one, including Richard Caldicot (pictured, trying to explain something he's forgotten to Paul Stassino). However, David Sumner plays Dr. Wolf. I recognise him from two episodes of The Avengers, one in which he plays a scheming boyfriend, & another in which he plays the victim of a rogue interrogation. Neither could have prepared me for the way in which he manages to appear both incredibly young & terribly psychopathic in this one. He really does act an excellent, cold, killing, calculating, conscienceless, baddie here, to the extent that even I don't mind that I recognise him.
Otherwise we're almost, but not quite in Diabolical Masterminds territory here - the difference being that the location for the masterminds in question is somewhere exotic rather than a decayed stately home in Dear Old Blighty. Annabel requires the necessary kink. Plus Jason King is an interesting peacock-like variant on Steed appearing without warning at the crucial moment & deflecting disaster. All in all, an excellent spy show, drawing on many late sixties aspirations & fears, with Avengers overtones, & full marks to David Sumner.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Allegory in The Prisoner: Dance of the Dead

Picture credit:
You wouldn't believe the trouble this episode's giving me. I normally like at least to cast a glance around what other people on tinternet are saying when I write a post, if only to clarify what I'm thinking myself, but this episode of all others seems to have attracted so much commentary it's impossible to absorb. I'm therefore reduced to my own jaundiced view.
In fact this one ought to be perfectly simple to write about from an allegorical point of view, since in many ways it has the most obvious allegorical content of death & life. Even its title is inspired by a famous mediaeval allegory:
'dance of death, also called danse macabre,  medieval allegorical concept of the all-conquering and equalizing power of death, expressed in the drama, poetry, music, and visual arts of western Europe mainly in the late Middle Ages. Strictly speaking, it is a literary or pictorial representation of a procession or dance of both living and dead figures, the living arranged in order of their rank, from pope and emperor to child, clerk, and hermit, and the dead leading them to the grave. The dance of death had its origins in late 13th- or early 14th-century poems that combined the essential ideas of the inevitability and the impartiality of death. The concept probably gained momentum in the late Middle Ages as a result of the obsession with death inspired by an epidemic of the Black Death in the mid-14th century and the devastation of the Hundred Years' War (1337–1453) between France and England. The mime dance and the morality play undoubtedly contributed to the development of its form.' (
The allegorical use of the idea here is a little too obvious for my case, so obvious in fact, that knowing McGoohan it arouses my suspicion. The allegory seems to be both that Number 6 can only live through the Village, the message expressed so often elsewhere in the series, & yet also it seems that the joke is on the dancers in the carnival. The whole point is that actually they are dead already. The point of the extermination order is the fact that only death will truly come through The Village. The significance of the telex machine coming back to life would be that life comes from the outside world, in this reading, the final reinforcement of the allegory of the radio.
Apart from this whacking great allegory there are a number of other things in the episode that interest me from an allegorical point of view. I'm having difficulty working all of these threads into a coherent theory which would encompass the whole episode, so this post will mainly consist of some thoughts about different things.
Dutton, for one. Dutton has a name. Dutton, Dutton, Dutton, Dutton. We know the character's name & can say it. He is the only character in The Village whose name we know. He is ordered for extermination in this episode. I wonder whether there's a connection between the name & death, here? Number 6 is always the great rebel in The Village, yet we never get to know his name. It isn't even as if Number 6 has no external identity: his fancy dress is his suit from the outside, while Dutton is dressed in Village stripes (at the start of the episode). I would theorise that Dutton's identity is given to indicate that his external status equates to death. The Village functions almost like a cult here, so that the only way to life is through the Village. The repeated stress that Number 6 is valuable & not to be destroyed both allows him a Village identity & is at odds with his projected destruction in this episode.
I want to know what the number is of the cat. That would be a very interesting thing to work out.
I like the rather playground way Number 6's observer says to him:
'You're not allowed animals, it's a rule.'
In fact the childish element here is the other thing that really piques my interest. It's a game, she says of the carnival, before Number 6 is hounded by the crowd after a kangaroo court. The sense of irresponsibility & childishness is first seen in the doctor's wrecklessly experimenting on Number 6. But it reaches its height in the fact that Number 2 has Peter Pan as her fancy dress costume. She evokes the theatrical tradition of cross-dressing, in a more gender-oriented reading of this episode, but from an allegorical point of view the message is clear: she represents the person who will not grow up.
Since I'm having difficulty uniting all these strands, what's the betting I'll return to Dance of the Dead at some point?

Monday, 18 August 2014

Department S: The Duplicated Man

(I will return to The Prisoner soon: I just need time to get my head round allegory in Dance of the Dead!)
Classic Avengers territory, here, as far as questions of identity, doubles, deception, & state secrets are concerned. Watching Department S this time has really made me re-evaluate it as a successor to The Avengers, in a rather Series 6 mould, in terms of bizarreness, eccentric, flamboyant characters, & an organisation behind the characters' odd lives.
Of course I have my usual gripe that the actors' faces are too familiar from sixties TV & have a tendency to make you wonder where else you've seen them - Basil Dignam & Robert Urquhart would be the ones that do that to me here. I'm intrigued by the impressive use of Steed's library - the books that appear in Stable Mews - that I can spot in no fewer than three locations in this episode. I don't always disapprove of repetition!
Of course this is a piece where momentous matters of state are covered in a rather frothy confection. It reminds me actually of the sort of questions of security raised by Danger Man - the security checks on Anthony Harvey clearly didn't exist or failed miserably to ensure his reliability here. He is described as one of the best agents of MI5 - but he not only planned a complete disappearance, but was ill-advised enough not to cover up his tracks enough. MI5 is clearly asleep on its laurels there. The other thing is it does not escape Department S that it is possible that the accident has been arranged as a test of security, in which case the pilot has been 'sacrificed'. Heavy stuff, indeed, & also the sort of stuff calling into question the integrity of our security services.
Further Avengers features are the mother, the home the mother is in, the silver snuff box, the fact the baddies are so stereotypically Cold War-era baddies, & the Tara King hair & car sported by Rosemary Nicols. A further similarity is that at one point Peter Wyngarde speaks American English when he says 'don't wait dinner' (that is American, isn't it? I'm sure it's only intransitive in British English) - a suggestion that this show was being made with an eye to the American market, just as the later Avengers were.
Of course it's a question of classic spying, double-dealing, & of course it all ends in tears. This is perhaps the most Avengers-esque part of it: going over to the other side will come to no good. *But* the double-dealing extends to the heights of MI5 - a more nuanced spin than The Avengers would ever have put on this plot. In fact the final message is quite nihilistic - there's no point to sticking to either side ultimately; they'll both have it in for you.
I wouldn't want you to think that my comparison of this episode to The Avengers is derogatory in any way: it's an excellent show, with real suspense, & perhaps a worthy descendant of The Avengers.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Department S: Last Train to Redbridge

I was surprised to find, on checking just now, that Department S only consisted of one series, when I really thought it had two. I'm not thinking of Jason King as a second series; I realise I'm thinking this because the way the DVDs in my boxed set are divided into two sections. I'm also thinking it because of the nature of the programmes: there is an assurance about the later episodes, that show the series had become established, & that is no more the case than with Last Train to Redbridge.
One of the things I find most interesting is the way the episode looks. In terms of the choice of images it has much to interest, views are changed quickly enough to maintain visual interest. The choice of what you see maintains interest as well - I always say you can't go wrong with the appearance of a coffin on the telly - it's one of the more obvious symbols! In this episode the fact the visuals are slightly overdone is no shame - the baddies look like baddies & can't be mistaken for anything else.
Another image it's difficult to fail with on television is a train, in this case a tube train. In fact this episode presses a real button for me by featuring one of the famous 'ghost' London Underground stations. It is one of my great sorrows that I've never been in one. Even the story of the old posters is echoed in a relatively recent unearthing of intact old posters at Notting Hill Gate underground station. If you're interested in this I like this BBC article as an introduction: Like many things formerly hidden, the online urban exploration community has allowed us to see these stations without the attendant danger!
Apart from the bound-to-succeed settings, the actual sets are fairly standard late-sixties sets, which come across as rather drab. In fact in many ways - perhaps because of the London setting & the bizarre plot - this Department S feels like a late Avengers episode.
Although, I'm telling a lie there. The sets may only look drab against the fabulousness that is Peter Wyngarde: no Avengers set ever had to compete with that. I must stop being catty here - I think it would be easy to criticise how over the top he is, & so miss the point that Department S is supposed to be (in the slang of the era) 'way out', & so a way out character can be excused! One of the things that set me off rewatching Department S was my godmother telling me, somewhat red-faced, that she had a wild crush on Peter Wyngarde in the seventies, which she had to admit was rather ridiculous in hindsight. In this episode he actually shows his true mettle as an actor: with real versatility he does playboy, author, drugged abductee, in quick succession.
I suspect I'd avoided watching Department S again for fear of wearing out their repetition value, perceiving them as somewhat ephemeral fripperies. I think I've underestimated their quality - certainly after repeated rewatchings of this episode I'm still finding interest in it . In fact I'm not really 100% au fait with the plot yet, so it may even be somewhat over-complicated for a bear of little brain. Nonetheless I would give this one my stonking good television award, for plot, atmosphere, characterisation, &, at this distance of time, period detail.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Allegory in The Prisoner: Many Happy Returns

It may be cheating to reference my own blog, but this is what I wrote about the allegory of this episode when I was examining the plausibility of Number 6 being John Drake:
'The allegory about the shower & the coffee percolator in Drake's cottage, which don't work before he leaves The Village but do when he returns, is often taken to mean he has no life outside The Village (, but I think could also refer to dependence on The Village authorities, a truly institutional point to make.
'The home element in this episode is actually more important than it may seem. He manages to 'escape' from The Village (albeit unknowingly with his captors' blessing), & goes home, that is to that place that represents all that is most important for everyone, right? I can't believe I've missed it all the other times I've seen this, but the house is only Number 1!' (
That is clearly the 'received' way to understand the allegory in this episode, & I want in part to go with that understanding. On the other hand when you concentrate on the allegory here alone it suddenly becomes interesting.
If the Village represents something, then it is interesting that it is empty. Well, it isn't empty: the point is that Number 6 is there. Again it strikes me how the Village can be clearly read as his own brainchild, dream, city (with all that represents). The very fact he is left alone there implies that he has rights of access. Who has the automatic right to enter Number 2's room? Number 1, that's who.
And all this is done without intelligible (to English speakers) speech for much of the episode. It once again stresses his lack of need for anyone else. If any episode was all about Number 6, this one was.
The moral lesson for him of this episode is to lose his touching faith in the authorities, who will clearly be one step ahead of him at every point. For me this is the point at which Number 6 is no longer credible as John Drake, who surely ought to have lost all respect for his erstwhile masters in the events towards the end of Danger Man!
I have another theory. If The Village represents Number 6's own (unacknowledged & certainly subconscious) dream escape from his normal life, then his former home must represent what he *thinks* is his own persona, home, security, identity. Seen like this, the allegory is that Number 6 must enter into reality & see what he has actually done, rather than seeking the security of the wrong thing. He is *almost* deluded in his refusal to face reality. The number 1 on the door of his house almost screams: 'It's you! You're the source of this!'
Mrs Butterworth allegorically reinforces this: by being the interloper in what he thinks is his own, she loud-pedals the message that he is wrong. Then by proving to be the new Number 2, she screams this message even louder, that the Village is his own creation & dream. So se is both interloper in his (wrong) dream, & the hated authority figure in his actual dream of escape, allegorical for the fact that people often don't like their dreams when they get them.
She speaks to him cosily, almost intimately; she refers to missing her husband (well we all know what that means). I love that she approaches him in the exact same way when she brings him his birthday cake as the new Number 2. This intimacy underlines that he has himself put the figure of authority in place in The Village, whether understood as a real spies' village, or an allegory for his dream escape.
The birthday cake of course underlines the recurring death & rebirth imagery of The Prisoner. Perhaps he's actually learned the lesson, & realised something at any rate about The Village. Just as the darkness & light may (in my humble opinion) be understood best in dualist terms rather than orthodox Christian terms, so I feel this rebirth may be more like a Masonic initiation than baptism. He is almost literally blindfolded & bound at the beginning, but enlightened at the end. I feel that having escaped from a prison of whatever sort, it may not be the best idea to go to your home address - symbolic of his darkness. His trust of the authorities is also allegorical for this.
The sound track is interesting. One of the fanfares used to announce tannoy items in The Village is played once or twice. It may just be me, but this gives an impression that the whole world is The Village!
Of all the episodes of The Prisoner, this to me is the most unreal, & therefore best understood as an allegory, since there are a few major problems with the plot. It simply isn't possible to make the number of people in The Village just disappear overnight, especially prisoners with dangerous knowledge. The way Mrs Butterworth responds to this supposed complete stranger coming to her door is also incredible, & ought to have been another warning sign to Number 6. In fact the whole plot of the episode is incredible - in reality it must be easier & cheaper to keep a prisoner in than deliberately let him escape & return, but then the intention here is plainly to point to the reasons for the empty Village, events on his journey, & the return of the people on his return.
I wouldn't like any of this to detract from the original allegorical point, of Number 6 not having a life without The Village. When he goes into the world outside The Village, he can't really be sure who is who. Incidentally I love Patrick Cargill as Thorpe: he has one of those voices that you only get through smoking. The possibilities are only two: they know about The Village or they don't (they obviously do, & aren't saying). But it is another example of Number 6's 'darkness', or rather naivete, to expect to go back to the Establishment figures, in whose sides he has plainly been a thorn for years, & expect them to believe him or trust him. It is also incredibly naïve to trust them, when he himself doesn't know which side (in the Cold War) owns The Village. You cannot escape Them, that's the point.
An excellent episode allegorically, understandable in several different ways, as are all Prisoner episodes. The plot has some incredible aspects, but these are helpful to an allegorical reading of this one.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

The Avengers: The film reviewed with reference to the original series

I've been wanting to go through the Avengers film, looking at inspirations from the original series, for some time, although it's probably only been this year I've realised how derivative this was. This realisation was certainly from reading other people's blogs, but I'm afraid I didn't make a note of where I first saw this. So I intend to give my view of it, with approximate time references for places where I can identify inspirations from the original series. Perhaps I'd better state at the outset that I don't hate The Avengers film. I've written some of why not here:
I simply don't take to the opening titles at all: they're bland, don't draw you in, don't announce that this is The Avengers. Failure.
02:57 The antecedents in the original Avengers for a cosy English village which turns out to be full of murderers & diabolical masterminds are legion: The Town of No Return, Murdersville, to name the most obvious ones. From the start the film is therefore actually on classic Avengers territory (the cosy British Empire at risk), with the twist that this village is revealed to be a training ground. At least the Ministry is training its agents in their true field of operation.
03:36 The murderous policemen could reference Murdersville, as could the milkman trying to bottle Steed.
03:54 Alice with the knives in the pram recalls the dead bodies carted round in prams in The Quick Quick Slow Death.
05:11 Macaroons for Mother. The only time I can think of Steed sending anything to Mother was a postcard (that was actually a plot) in Stay Tuned. Yet Steed's relationship with Mother in Series 6 was clearly not purely a boss-employee one, judging by the way Mother uses Steed's flat & drinks his way through the drinks cabinet.
05:30 The obsession with weather is clearly from A Surfeit of H20, blown up in scale somewhat. It is a pity, really, that that becomes the theme of the film, since it is so limited. It would have been better to have several Ministry cases running parallel to one another.
06:09 Mrs Peel as the personification of modernism, is of course classic Avengers, right from the appearance of her apartment in The Town of No Return onwards. And of course it is classic Avengers for Steed to represent tradition & the Establishment. Again the relationship is here given a twist by him setting her up break convention.
Watching the film through this time I'm more aware of what people don't like about it : the dialogue between them is too self-consciously 'clever', & the flirtation is too obvious.
08:34 In Series 6, the Ministry's headquarters was the ultimate in moveability. Here i feel the nature of the Ministry is changed by having a permanent headquarters. The underground entry is of course reminiscent of The Prisoner: I wonder whether other iconic sixties series were consciously drawn on for this?
08:55 Mother under water. Mother was under water in They Keep Killing Steed, of course.
10:08 Two Mrs Peels. A recurring theme in The Avengers, changes of mind or identity. Change of appearance features in They Keep Killing Steed, and Who's Who???
11:45 Gentlemen's outfitters play a key role in The Quick Quick Slow Death, & the whole thing of being a gentleman features in The Correct Way to Kill & The Charmers. Here it is the setting rather than the role of the setting that is used.
14:30 Drinking tea formally from bone china while travelling features in The Town of No Return.
17:00 Wealthy (& incidentally dangerous) eccentrics feature highly in The Avengers, so it's difficult to think of a specific model for Sir August de Winter.
17:30 The rampant foliage & particularly abnormalities of plant life are reminiscent of Man-Eater of Surrey Green.
20:50 A telephone box as access to somewhere else is used in Super Secret Cypher Snatch (in that case, to Mother's secret office).
22:00 The line about shooting trespassers is like a line in Silent Dust.
23:45 The complete lack of sympathy Mrs Peel gives an injured Steed is reminiscent of a similar scene in Death at Bargain Prices.
25:55 BROLLY - The Avengers is keen on acronymns, especially for organisations, such as PURRR.
26:12 The baddy in Mr Teddy Bear is known by that name but is only depicted by an actual teddy bear once, he never actually dresses up in a pastel-coloured teddy bear outfit! I do feel the outfits here give the correct atmosphere of dissonance given the deaths in this scene.
30:10 I like this fight scene a lot - it's classic Avengers.
32:25 It is also classic Avengers magic for the fake Mrs Peel to jump off a high building & just keep on reappearing in the programme with no explanation of how it didn't kill her!
32:40 The Ministry mobile headquarters is straight out of False Witness.
42:00 Visually, at least, abandoning the wrecked car & walking across the fields to their destination is reminiscent of The Hour That Never Was, even to the extent of Alice knowing a back way in.
48:07 The running round in circles, in fact the situation of being locked up in a great house by a diabolical mastermind, comes from The House that Jack Built. I prefer the classical environs here to the more obvious set there.
52:34 Steed comes under suspicion several times in the original series, such as in The Curious Case of the Countless Clues. Normally it is for his partner to prove his innocence, but here Rhonda sorts security clearance for him at the Ministry.
53:26 The idea of invisibility (which there proves to be a fake) is used in The See-Through Man, which also features examples of the sort of deranged or disastrous science that Colonel Jones talks about.
It is clear that the references to the original Avengers series come thick & fast at the beginning, thinning out as the film progresses. I'm frankly torn here. On the one hand I want to say the film is a failure because it is too derivative - in a superficial way - of the TV series. On the other I want to say it's a failure because it stops sticking to the Avengers 'recipe' at around an hour. Perhaps it is possible for it to fail in both ways.
How would I like an Avengers film to shape up? It should keep the proportions of the series, in terms of not having a prolonged denouement like this film has. It would be better incorporating several plots at once - one is definitely not enough. It could even be that the plots are interrelated or result from one mastermind. It is difficult to envisage The Avengers without Steed, & unfortunately at this stage Steed would have to be played by someone other than Macnee. I personally don't object to that but it will always be a stumbling black for many of the fans. Above all it should stick to the unreality principle of the original series. It would be difficult to see how it could be adapted for the more explicit depiction of sex & sexuality usual today, which only ever remained implicit in the original.
Having asked myself that question for the first time, I'm inclined to think The Avengers should be left firmly in the sixties. The New Avengers is a slightly different animal, although I was surprised how faithful it was to the original when I came to write about some. The New Avengers is really out of a different stable - it *feels* more like The Professionals to me. The Avengers is a one-off, it is difficult or impossible to repeat without making a parody of it. Springbok Radio didn't parody it - I think those radio adaptations are the most successful there can be. As a film, well I'm not sure anymore. That said, given the difficulty of tinkering with a national institution, I wouldn't really want to criticise this film for having a good go at it, even if it falls down in places.