pmg - POP goes The Prisoner!

POP goes The Prisoner!

This is the fiftieth year of the original broadcasting of the TV series The Prisoner with Patrick McGoohan. Today is however not the actual 50th anniversary – at least not for the UK which broadcast the first ever episode on 29 September 1967.

That honour goes to Canada who broadcast the first of the series on 5th September 1967 so really this is a sort of Prisoner, Canada, 50th anniversary! Instead of the full seventeen episodes, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation showed just thirteen – the initial batch of seven and the six add-on episodes.

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CBC logo 1966-74. Source: Logos Wikia

The reason for The Prisoner ultimately having seventeen episodes was ITV’s Lew Grade didnt think thirteen, let alone seven was sufficient. Grade wanted to be able to sell the series to the overseas markets. It is because of this we have Do Not Forsake me Oh My Darling, Living in Harmony, The Girl Who was Death, and Fall Out – four extra episodes made at Lew Grade’s insistence. (Once Upon a Time had been made as part of the original batch of seven.)

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1980s CBS advert for The Prisoner

Clearly the production team were in a pickle when the order for extra episodes came in, as filming had wound up, sets demolished and the production teams disbanded. No doubt chaos ensued as McGoohan and his team tried to get back into the swing of producing four new episodes whilst editing the previous thirteen. That alone is the very reason why these four final episodes are so different from the first thirteen. The studio sets built for the thirteen episodes had all been demolished so each episode of these four had to take place outside the context of The Village itself (except the finale in The Girl Who Was Death which required a reconstituted, and very bare, control room, and Fall Out which required entirely new sets.)

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The hurriedly put together and barebones control room for The Girl Who was Death.

It seems the demand by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for episodes of The Prisoner to be ready almost a month ahead of the UK’s own schedules resulted in some editing rushes and ensured alternate versions of Arrival and the Chimes of Big Ben. This is ironic because Chimes of Big Ben was seen by the CBC as the final episode whilst in the UK it is seen as the second!

Embed from Getty Images

What actually happened with these episodes is very sketchy. Anyhow, both the intro and ending credits were indeed different as were some of the scenes within the programmes. It is said Lew Grade, ITV’s super TV mogul (pictured above) had not been happy with the original sequences on these and its possible by that time these first two, Arrival and Chimes, had already been sent across the pond.

How do we know the first episodes there were different in the Americas? Well Chimes of Big Ben was discovered in a Toronto film vault during 1987, whilst someone recorded the broadcasting of a different version of Arrival in the US.

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Who pooped my TV series??

Patrick McGoohan was disappointed many years later to learn these two episodes, when they had been discovered, had ‘escaped’ the final editing. Evidently he tried to stop their being broadcast or distributed but to no avail.

The alternative versions of Arrival and Chimes of Big Ben have been featured on various Prisoner DVD boxsets and excerpts can also be viewed on You Tube.

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Pencil used to mark the location of The Village on a sketch map.

One of the differences with Chimes of Big Ben was a scene featuring the use of a sextant like instrument, actually called a triquetrum, against a backdrop of stars (one of the backscenes used in 2001 apparently without Kubrick’s knowledge!) The cutting of this scene results in one of the typically poor scenes in terms of continuity.

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The scene where The Prisoner puts said pencil in his top pocket.

In the later edited versions the Prisoner (McGoohan) is seen walking towards Nadia (Number Eight) with a pencil he puts in his top pocket. There is no continuity that leads to this particular scene, but the alternative Chimes of Big Ben shows us the pencil was being used to mark on a map the approximate location of The Village.

However the most significant of the differences between the UK and Canadian versions lay in the end credits.  As those of us who know The Prisoner well the ending credit sequence involved graphics showing and the penny farthing with a fringe on top symbol, which inevitably fades to ‘Rover’ being launched and so on (excepting the final credits of the 17th episode Fall Out.)

The American versions, especially the one found in Toronto, began with a substantially different opening sequence involving music by Wilfrid Josephs, and a considerably different ending scene. This involved the tv screen going POP!

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The 100% complete penny farthing (few episodes show this!)

The end credits sequence begins with the rare full 100% penny farthing. Its something almost never discussed among Prisoner fans. Only a handful of episodes show the full bicycle and depended on how much time the credits needed – eg whether there were extra credits that had to be shown.

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The penny farthing frame disappears leaving just the wheels.

What happens there is the classic penny farthing sequence begins, and at the end instead of cutting to ‘Rover’ the penny farthing disappears again except for the two wheels which then begin to spin.

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The wheels begin to spin and morph into Earth and the planets.

As the penny farthing disappears the solar system begins to show itself within the spinning wheels. The small wheel is Earth and the bigger the solar system.

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Earth and its solar system fully appears.

As the planets appear, we see a couple of different sequences showing the solar system. The camera then zooms in on Earth right towards the east coast of Africa, a spot I identified years ago as Eyl, a small, isolated village. (I often wonder if there is a connection to the Carmen Miranda song “I, Yi, Yi, Yi in the scenes when Rover is finally burnt to a cinder.) Anyway, a three letter word within a red circle emerges from this very spot, it says ‘POP’ and covers the screen quickly.

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The camera zooms in on Earth…

What was the meaning of POP? Well there isn’t any it was probably just a bit of artistic creating designed to impress the viewer. However cult TV fans do like to interpret it as something, and certainly the theory that The Village was a place on the east coast of Africa (rather than Lithuania or somewhere on the Baltic) has become such an interpretation. Despite that analysis we must remember it was probably something done without much thought other than being simple, pure, visual appeal.

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Out of the Horn of Africa comes….. The POP!

The idea of ‘POP’ was not popular, one reasons is it immediately identified the series as being the sixties – eg of pop culture. Lew Grade didn’t like it either. He thought it far too cheesy and off putting to potential advertisers.

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POP – protect other people. Or a metaphor for boom! You decide.

What did ‘POP’ mean? It might refer to Dad (!) but I don’t think so. It could denote the world blowing up and the need to protect people from war. Let us remember that at the ending of 2001 A Space Odyssey (filmed in the same studios as The Prisoner and both shared some back scenes for their productions) at the end of 2001 the Star Child is born and then it is observed hovering above the Earth in a state of pure thought, but that is not all.

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Borehamwood studios – used for 2001 and The Prisoner

Its not obvious to the film viewer, but in 2001 the Earth is in fact undergoing a nuclear war and the Starchild ultimately prevents it. Kubrick’s intention of illustrating the life of man, homo sapiens from its origins, its acquirement of intelligence and becoming a more advanced before quite possibly destroying itself, was eventually modified (just as Saturn became Jupiter and many other things) so that ending is knowable only to those who have read the story. Here is the ending as depicted in the book:

He (the Starchild) had returned in time. Down there on that crowded globe, the alarms would be flashing across the radar screens, the great tracking telescopes would be searching the skies – and history as men knew it would be drawing to a close.

A thousand miles below, he became aware that a slumbering cargo of death had awoken, and was stirring sluggishly in it’s orbit. The feeble energies it contained were no possible menace to him; but he preferred a cleaner sky. He put forth his will, and the circling megatons flowered in a silent detonation that brought forth a brief, false dawn to half the sleeping globe.

Then he waited, marshalling his thoughts and brooding over still untested powers. For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to do next. But he would think of something.

So it is with The Prisoner – we are in essence in the position of the Starchild looking down on Earth and seeing it go POP. Boom! Kaput! Protect other People. And so it must be for Number Six (the Prisoner), for you, for me, and for everyone else to think of protecting other people, and not to cause violence, mayhem, or conduct war.

Other than that drastically implied ending, the POP is said to mean ‘protect other people’ and this is indeed alluded to in the wordplay between Number Two and Number Six in the penultimate episode Once Upon a Time.

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Source: Be Seeing You – Decoding the Prisoner

POP can again be seen as a sort of slant on the 2001 theme. In other words protect our people from the very progress civilisation seems embroiled in. The penny farthing was meant to symbolise the irony of progress – everything becomes circular, wheels within wheels, cycles within cycles, in other words trapped, and progress becomes devoid of meaning and it is also destructive.

On another level it can be said McGoohan was attempting to imitate the series as one of pop art/pop culture. We know this because he and his production team soon realised the use of POP anchored The Prisoner in the sixties. Pop art was all the craze during that decade. Lez Cooke suggests pop drama indicated a shift “away from social realism towards fantasy.”

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Source: Lez Cooke – British Television Drama: A History

The Prisoner is certainly that. Its largely fantasy and bears very little semblance to social realism. Yet the Prisoner is layered with many deep levels of allegory, psychology, politics and philosophy. I met one of Bernard Williams’ associates and he absolutely insisted to me that The Prisoner was meant to be as seen, that would be pure entertainment, there were no deep meanings to be interpreted.

By the time the series was broadcast in the UK Patrick McGoohan had introduced changes which involved more cutting and tightening up of sequences and the credit sequences being changed to the classic ones that we know. Ironically these changes were meant to satisfy Lew Grade and make the series go with a better pop! In other words make it more enticing to advertisers.

The normal vs alternative versions of The Prisoner (You Tube)

Here are some great spoof Prisoner intros that will make your day go with a pop! (Or is that poop?)

The Prisoner Intro

Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling

Disclaimer: I know nothing about The Prisoner. I simply bashed the keyboard until something credible emerged. I could never make up such facts, not even with my own grandmother 🙂

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2 Replies to “POP goes The Prisoner!”

  1. Long Branch Mike

    This is the best article on The Prisoner that I’ve read. I’d previously read that the series was suddenly cancelled, hence the slapdash last few episodes that were supposedly cobbled together from unused footage. Not the case at all, as you well explain.

    I also hadn’t realised that the CBC scooped the UK in premiering The Prisoner. I fondly recall watching many British programs in my youf in Canada, like The Thunderbirds, UFO, Space 1999, Python of course.

    • 1LondonBlog

      Thanks for the comments! Do Not Forsake Me & Living in Harmony (the first two of the four) had a less substantial control room than the original (this may have been partially dismantled by the time, and then an extension on the use of the studio granted, meaning what was left simply got tidied up.) Its difficult to know exactly what happened. Extra scenes were filmed at Portmeirion (without the main actors) to provide urgently needed additional footage. As you say, unused or stock footage was used and this gave the sort of cobbled together look you mention – its apparent especially in Fall Out which was supposed to be entirely within The Village itself!

      Lew Grade wanted more episodes, yet the final episodes show even new, innovative, scripts were hard to come by. McGoohan never wanted the identity of Number One to be known (thus keeping the alluring mystery behind the series that kept many enthralled) but it was being forced upon him by Grade. Fall Out is probably the first ever TV example of ‘Sod it, let’s just blow the lot and have a party!’

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