03 December 2006

I Am Not a Number, I Am the Green Man

Yesterday I finished reading the first volume of the Prisoner script book (a birthday present from B.), and watched the director's cut of The Wicker Man (part of the three-disc DVD boxed set, a birthday present from J-P[1]).

Both are really very splendid. It's fascinating to see how the original scripts for the first eight Prisoner episodes changed -- usually for the better, though sometimes not -- generally at the instigation of Patrick McGoohan, who had some very definite ideas about the sorts of thing his character would and wouldn't do[2]. Robert Fairclough's editorial apparatus is somewhat erratic and poorly-formatted, but the actual material is well worth any Prisoner fan's time.

The Wicker Man director's cut is also (mostly) an improvement -- not that the original is in any way shabby, but the extra time gives more opportunity for the tension to mount, and the pre-credits sequence set before Sergeant Howie comes to Summerisle makes more sense of some of the later revelations. It's a phenomenally fine film, as I mentioned here last year when I first got around to experiencing it.

However, reading the T.V. scripts and watching the film so close together made me aware of how extensive the similarities are between the two works' underlying conceptions. In that earlier entryI noted in passing their shared evocation of paranoia, but the parallels seem to go rather deeper than that.

[NB: What follows includes SPOILERS for a 33-year-old film and a 38-year-old television series. If you've somehow managed to avoid learning about the plot of either during your life so far, and you still think you might want to watch them one day, then I suggest you go and look at some kittens.]

Both The Prisoner and The Wicker Man are set in isolated microcultures. Both set a single righteous man against the community as a whole. In each the central character is a representative of authority -- Number 6 is a covert government agent, Sgt Howie a police officer. Each protagonist is pious, self-righteous and unlikeable as well as genuinely heroic, while their antagonists are charismatic and seductive as well as sinister. Like the film, many episodes of the T.V. series centre around a deception played out as a trap for the hero, in which the entire community is complicit, including the apparently innocent victim acting as bait. In both, pageantry, ritual, processions and music play a significant part.

(Also, of course, both villages are populated by middle-aged British character actors of the 1960s and 70s -- including John Sharp and the ever-hammy Aubrey Morris -- but that's perhaps of rather less interest.)

The Wicker Man was made five years after The Prisoner, but belongs identifiably to the same era. It's possible that the TV series was an influence on the film, but if so Anthony Shaffer and Robin Hardy don't discuss the fact. What's more the script clearly has a lot in common with Shaffer's other work (especially Sleuth) and that of his brother.

I suspect the similarities help to explain why The Wicker Man, like The Prisoner, immediately grabbed my imagination and gave it a good shaking the moment I first saw it. (Quite why these patterns fit the inside of my head so well is another matter.) What's currently interesting me, though, is whether these similarities translate to shared themes at a deeper level.

Clearly the two works belong to different genres and media: The Wicker Man has a horror film's freedom, even in the 70s, to deal overtly with matters of sex and religion, while The Prisoner has its own genre-based concerns of dystopian politics and social satire.

There's little in The Wicker Man to suggest that Sgt Howie's justifiable paranoia has anything of the Cold War about it. The Summerisle villagers are feudal rather than communist, religious rather than secular and reconstructionist rather than revolutionary. What Howie finds awaiting him is a version of the culture which (supposedly) preceded Western christendom, not that which threatened to succeed it.

On one level, however, Lord Summerisle and his subjects, however enthusiastic about their island's past, are clearly nothing but a bunch of hippies. Howie's appalled reaction is in many ways that of a conservative member of the establishment faced with the licentiousness and disrespect for convention of the younger generation. This is particularly obvious when he interrupts the multiple couplings on the village green, but is equally apparent in his appalled reaction to discovering that the island's schoolchildren are not being taught christian values. In the 1970s, neo-paganism was already part of the counterculture.

Number 6's Village, too, is seen in these terms more often than one might expect. Though natural rebels against the Village's totalitarianism, hippyish characters are shown as being part of its apparatus in A Change of Mind; in the original script for The General, "a fair proportion" of the brainwashed students are said to be "long haired and bearded"[3]; and even in the final episode, Fall Out, where the scruffy, flower-adorned, hip-talking Number 48 appears as an archetypal rebel, his revolt is ultimately subsumed into the Prisoner's paradoxical reassertion of the authoritarian status quo.

One of establishment shibboleths of the time, of course, was precisely that the Soviets were infiltrating Western society through its rebellious youth subcultures. Odd bedfellows though they may have been, Summerisle's neo-pagans and A Change of Mind's Maoist-seeming "Social Group" would have been seen by some as aspects of the same deliberate erosion of traditional (but not too traditional) British values.

More interesting, however, are the themes of faith and sacrifice. While The Prisoner's Village has obvious cultish overtones, the one nod towards making its inhabitants religious is in their obscure use of a salute apparently used by the early church. Where Sgt Howie is explicitly a pious, judgmental, conservative christian, Number 6 is the secular model, espousing similar values without ever commenting on their provenance. Indeed, some explicit references to religion were excised from the script for The Chimes of Big Ben, apparently at the request of the devout McGoohan.

The boundaries between Number 6 and the actor who played him are often difficult to discern, which has led some critics to attempt interpretions of the series as religious allegory. These are rare, though, and tend to be no more convincing than those of secularist critics who see the oppressive Village as representing organised religion.

The ritual with which The Wicker Man culminates sees Howie becoming, in theory "king for a day", allowing him to stand as a sacrifice to propitiate the gods and restore the fruitfulness of the island's crops. The Prisoner's Village shows no interest in agriculture, choosing to replace it with technology. Nevertheless, its rulers never seem to last for very long.

For the most part, each episode of The Prisoner features a different Number 2. Some of them are seen retiring peaceably, or handing over the reins to their predecessors: others, however, are evidently punished for their failure. Of the two who do come back, Colin Gordon's character ends A., B. and C. convinced that he is about to be hauled over the coals by Number 1, before returning for a lucky escape from death in The General[4]. Leo McKern's Number 2 survives The Chimes of Big Ben without mishap, but the events of Once Upon a Time culminate uniquely in his death.

Lord Summerisle's trick, of course, lies in persuading the villagers to sacrifice Howie instead of the true king, his lordship himself: the sacrifice's "kingship" is an entirely notional one. In this respect, the Prisoner episode which comes closest to embodying the same ideas is the election episode, Free for All. At the end of this story, Number 6 has been elected to the position of Number 2, his opponent and predecessor having conceded defeat. A triumphal procession leads him to the Green Dome, where he finally attempts to take charge of the Village.

It's a trick, of course.

Thanks to the Village, Number 6 has become both a king and a fool. He represents the law, being both a covert agent of the British government and the rightfully-elected head of state of the Village. Given his attitude to intimacy, he may even be a virgin. He hasn't, of course, come to the Village of his own free will (although the eventual revelation of Number 1's identity in Fall Out may cast doubt even on that), but in other respects Lord Summerisle would consider him the perfect sacrifice for the continued smooth operation of the Village.

Number 6 isn't burned alive. Instead he's beaten up, more brutally than usual, with his arms held spreadeagled in a crucifix position, before his formerly compliant aide (who seemed, like Rowan Morrison, to be an innocent in all of this) takes the reins of office and returns him ignominiously to his home-from-home. Despite experiencing not-infrequent birth imagery, and being declared dead at least once, Number 6 is never given a death scene of his own.

However, the point about sacrificial godkings -- not that this would have been of much comfort to the late Sgt Howie -- is that their death is seen as a precursor to rebirth. As Miss Rose explains to him, the "life force" of the dead lives on in the form of animals, trees and -- as they hope will happen in Howie's case -- in crops. In the light of this, the fact that McKern's Number 2 is resurrected by technology in Fall Out begins to look rather less like the christian allegory some have painted it as, and more like an S.F. recapitulation of just this type of ritual.

McGoohan's Number 6 and McKern's Number 2 aren't the same person, of course. But Fall Out is, in some readings, a strongly psychoanalytical text, and it certainly presents both men as archetypes of rebellion. Might they -- and Number 48, the Butler, and for that matter anybody else in the Village up to and including "Rover" -- not be aspects of the same person, just as Number 1 is?

If The Prisoner is interested in ancient pagan models of sacrifice and rebirth, then it's evidently in a far less overt way than The Wicker Man. On the other hand, the recurrence of remarkably similar patterns, in a ritual context, suggests that at the very least there's some subconscious referencing going on[5].

Both The Prisoner and The Wicker Man are enormously dense texts, with complex, sometimes apparently contradictory things to say about their subject matter, both overt and hidden. The idea that they might be able to illuminate each other may, I admit, turn out to be slightly mad. Still, I'm reasonably convined that they have more in common than would appear on the face of things.

[1] Lots of people at the party asked me, "Is that the new one?" No, it bloody isn't.

[2] The most egregious example is the nonsensical ending of the otherwise excellent episode Dance of the Dead, which would have ended with Number 6 embracing his Observer, waltzing with the dead-eyed, historically-costumed Villagers in a ritual masque... were it not for McGoohan's insistence that he was only going to dance with Mrs McGoohan. This man was considered for the part of James Bond.

[3] Fairclough's marginal note explains: "A reference to the emerging 'hippy' look that youth culture was beginning to adopt in the mid 1960s. Such a period-specific look was dropped when the scene went before the cameras." It's a shame that nobody thought to do the same when "The General" itself was revealed to be a light-bulb flashing, tape-spooling, punch-card-regurgitating giant metal box of a computer.

[4] Originally these two episodes were intended to be shown together in reverse order, with Gordon's Number 2 barely surviving the events of The General and then spending A., B. and C. on borrowed time. The script of The General was amended to allow him to live.

[5] Not, obviously, to The Wicker Man itself -- but quite possibly to Robert Graves' The White Goddess or James Frazer's The Golden Bough.

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