Sunday, July 7, 2013

It's Time to Speedlearn with The General

The Prisoner is one of the most interesting pieces of television ever made. From the 17 episodes made, there have been years and years of debate and discussion about every aspect about the series. In some ways, I am almost intimidated to write anything about the series since everyone seems to have strong opinions about everything. The meaning of each episode is under tense scrutiny to the meaning of Patrick McGoohan’s vision and even the order in which the episodes should be watched is debated. That in of itself makes the series so fascinating but that is really just the start.

In my mind, I don’t think there is a series on television that had a more cohesive look than The Prisoner. Visually, it is stunning. The bright colour palette employed in the series is great but each member of the Village has a distinctive look to go along with their duties. There is definitely a historical Victorian look to the characters but updated, in some cases, with more colour. I am thinking about the people who work in the shops or out at the cafĂ© versus Number 6 or Number 2. Obviously, it is important to mention Portmeirion which is used to its full extent as the Village yet never feels overly used. The palette of Portmeirion complimented the costumes. Beyond that, everything seemed to be tied together with the typeface that was used on everything written in the Village, whether it is signage, name badges or the maps. It was everywhere. The font equivalent is called Village and no doubt that there are other ones out there too.
I first started watching episodes of this series around 1989. The one thing that stands out to me all of those years ago was how awful the quality of the film prints were that were shown on TV. As with so many of my recollections, I first saw this on KTCA. The quality of the episodes was really poor. The series was released at the time on VHS through MPI and the quality on the tapes did not seem that much better though I did love the covers for the VHS! It felt nearly impossible to get a decent set of episodes. I seem to recall that after the episodes were released on VHS they were also put out on Laserdisc too. I had a few of those put out by MPI and I also seem to recall a set of Laserdiscs put out by Columbia House too. Then, they all disappeared. It was really hard to find VHS or Laserdisc copies of the series. It seemed that getting a complete nice quality set of episodes of The Prisoner was impossible.

Finally the DVD age arrived and we, as consumers, were treated to some new restorations of the series but even then it wasn’t quite sure which was better. Carlton released a set in the UK and so did A&E in 2001. They both looked fine at the time but not perfect. It seemed like we were so close yet so far from having it all looking good. Thankfully there is Network. Network is a company in the UK that releases a ton of wonderful vintage British television. They have released well-known stuff like The Prisoner and countless of other older series that are deep from the archives. Network took matters into their own hands and did an amazing restoration of The Prisoner.
I did not get the Network DVD set released in 2008 mainly because I knew that something better was going to come along.  There had been some rumblings for some time that an HD transfer was being prepared for this series. I didn’t have a Blu ray player yet but I knew that this would be an essential purchase. When it came out, I bought the release that came in the big black box and included the wonderful viewing notes by Andrew Pixley. This set isn’t available anymore and I am so glad that this is the version I bought. The quality of the episodes is absolutely stunning. It is a treat to watch it yet with everything else, it seems I cannot wait to get all of the episodes to something in stellar quality. Yet when I do get them, I never watch them. Thankfully I have this blog which forces me to do so….

The General TX: 03/11/67
This is a really interesting episode to The Prisoner as it really isn’t about Number Six. Up until this point in the series, depending on which episode order you subscribe to, the series has been about getting information from Number Six in all sorts of different ways. This is different. The purpose of this episode is to not to try and get information from Number Six nor has there been any plot to try and trick him into giving out information. The entire Village is subjected to Speedlearn. You can take on a three-year university level course in three minutes. Everyone in the Village takes on the lecture given by the mysterious General.

There is not just the General there is also the Professor. We first meet him running along the beach trying to escape. His students and other security members from the Village following him to recapture him. While running along, the Professor drops a tape recorder where he recorded a message with anti-General messages and speaking against the Speedlearn. The way the Speedlearn lecture works is kind of creepy. People go back to the houses and watch their TV. The Professor comes on to explain more about Speed Learn. We then get this incredible picture of Peter Howell as the Professor. It comes at us slowly. I LOVE that picture. It was a picture of Peter Howell from Spotlight. It fits the episode wonderfully and I feel it captures the 1960s. It’s beautifully lit and properly mysterious.
After the Speedlearn, everyone seems to know the answers to the same 4 or 5 questions. In fact, when asked a question, the recipient will answer it word for word the exact same way. Number Six is intrigued with Speedlearn. He visits the house where the Professor resides and meets his wife. His wife teaches art and expression but is not amused by the way Number Six expresses his creativity of her. He sketches here in a general’s uniform. Inside the house, he finds that she made head busts of a few people including the current Number Two, a past Number Two (Leo McKern) and Number Six. She made a wax bust of her husband the Professor that Number Six smashes yet I am not so sure what purposes it made.

Someone else who is not happy with what is going on is Number Twelve. He gets in touch with Number Six to start explaining what is going on with the professor and the General. Originally Number Six found the tape recorder that the Professor recorded his anti-message but hid it to pick it up later. Number Twelve found the device and instead of turning it in he held onto it to give back to Number Six.  Speedlearn was a way to send information directly into the cerebral cortex. Right now it’s just history lessons being put into the brain but it could be anything. Number Twelve works in the Administration Department and is attached to this project. He doesn’t like what is going on and is going to get Number Six to help him stop this.
Number Twelve provides Number Six with a way to get into the Town Hall where the next lecture will be broadcast. Instead of playing the lecture, Number Six will replace that recording with a copy of what the Professor recorded earlier that decries the General. There are a couple really cool design features in these scenes. First, everyone who enters the Town Hall is wearing a top hat, black overcoats and sunglasses. It is a very distinctive and cool look. I think it looks great and makes all of them look elitist. That works for me. Secondly, the medium that the lectures are recorded are on very thin cylinders. I like the idea the in the Village there is advanced technology that we, in the normal world, would never see. Something I am less-enamored with is the little box that opens up to put the Town Hall entry token. It’s a Thing Money Box inspired by the 1960s series The Addams Family. You place a coin on the box and Thing’s hand comes out and quickly snatches it back into the box. Maybe I am not a big fan because I knew immediately what it was whereas on original broadcast, that may not have been the case with most people. Yet, what I do like about it is that it is quirky and original which is what this series is all about. If it wasn’t for doing things like that, this series would not be nearly as well-remembered.

Before the transmission of the Professor’s alternate lecture can began, Number Six is caught. Prior to transmission, in the board room the screen showed all of the different sections such as audio, camera, etc. on screen to give a final check that they are ready for the broadcast. Number Two sees Number Six and sends guards after him. When Number Six recovers, he is brought to see the Professor and to meet the General. The General is a big computer. The Professor gives the General questions and the General answers. Number Two clearly knows that Number Twelve is the one that got Number Six involved and is about to have the Professor ask the General that very same question to prove that is the case. It is at this time that Number Six has a better question to ask the General. For whatever reason, Number Two agrees to Number Six asking the question.
Number Six types out the question and they enter it into the machine. Suddenly, the General starts to sputter and spark. The Professor and Number Twelve (for some reason) runs up to the General to try and shut it down. They both are killed when the machine blows up. I say they are both killed yet Number Twelve does ever so slightly move when he is dead. Number Two asks Number Six what was the question. Number Six replies, “It's insoluble, for man or machine ...W-H-Y Question mark : Why ?" The Prisoner becomes very deep.

For one episode, Number Six actually has an ally in a helpful position. It is unclear what Number Twelve’s complete intentions were but to take it at face value, it shows that Number Six had someone who could have helped him. In that case, it makes sense that Number Twelve needed to die. Number Six have made friends in the Village before but none of them were really in a position to help him escape from the Village.
Colin Gordon may be my favourite Number Two. I really appreciate his David Niven-like looks and the way he approaches the role. He is seen drinking milk often or is it milk of magnesia? He seems like it is a very stressful job and he is doing what he needs to do. He is also not completely against hearing what other people have to say. Number Twelve questions whether they are going about the matter of the Professor the right way. It looked like Number Two was interested in his opinion before Number Twelve said too many wrong things. This may have been the catalyst for Number Two realizing that Number Twelve was involved with brining Number Six to the town hall.

Number Twelve was played by John Castle. I have seen him in Lillie, The New Avengers, I Claudius, 1990, Thomas & Sarah, Midsomer Murders and many more. Other notable cast includes Michael Miller who has appeared in two other episodes of The Prisoner plus Doctor Who The Time Meddler as Wulnoth. It also has Keith Pyott who played Autloc in the Doctor Who story The Aztecs plus also was in Mr. Rose, Out of the Unknown and The Avengers.
Patrick McGoohan is great in this. For most of the episode Number Six has the upper hand. Number Two knows he has the Professor’s tape recorder and Number Six knows that Number Two knows he has the tape recorder but he is so sly about it. It’s fun to watch. In the first two acts, it’s almost like Number Six is an incidental character just investigating what is going on with the General. I do have to admit, I prefer McGoohan as John Drake in Danger Man. I guess I like him because he seems so invincible in that series.  When can I get that on Blu Ray?

I mentioned how the visuals match so well together but another element really stands out in this episode and that is the music. The incidental music is composed by Albert Elms and it is fantastic. There are a couple of distinct musical themes in this episode. One for when we see the Professor or the Speedlearn lecture and also a great sort of theme when Number Six is looking around the Town Hall. These are very memorable and wonderful for the series. They are amongst my favourite cues of the whole series.
As I mentioned above, the quality of the episodes themselves are stunning. After all of these years of trying to get good quality copies of the episodes, we have this beautiful HD transfer of the episodes. Here is some comparisons between my Carlton DVD release of 2001 and the Network Blu Ray release. Click on the image and arrow to the next one to see next frame:

Patrick McGoohan was Executive Producer of the series. He worked himself to exhaustion trying to get the series made and he drove many people over the edge because he was extremely demanding of his crew. It’s too bad he was like that yet we have this wonderful series.
I heard that there was a 2009 series called The Prisoner….not interested.

Next week: I take a look at the second episode of the wonderful adventures of Jeeves & Wooster. I look at Bertie is in Love.
Have a great week!
Do you have feedback, article requests or want to talk about a program but do not want to leave a public comment? Feel free to drop me an e-mail at

I am on Twitter: @FromtheArchive

Also please subscribe to my From the Archive: British Television Blog Facebook Page for updates about new articles.


Dave G said...

Those screenshots look great! Even though I have the Network dvd set I am still tempted to get the Bluray set some day. Know anyone who wants a full set of The Prisoner laserdiscs?

Greg said...

I would be interested in taking pictures of the covers and I actually would be interested in taking a rip of them for historical purposes. Are these the MPI releases?

Dave G said...

I believe they are the MPI releases - would have to dig them out of the box to make sure. Might be a good reason to get together one of these days/months/years.

Greg said...

Sounds like a great idea. Maybe it will be time for another Viewing Society soon.

Joezilla said...

The frame v frame comparison blew my mind. I watched all these on old VHS tapes from a local rental shop(pe) in the 90s.

I never purchased these on DVD. Is there a version you would recommend for someone looking to re-watch the series?

Greg said...

Hi Joezilla,

What country are you in? Are you looking to get a DVD version or Blu Ray?

Thank you for visitng the site! :)

Take care,

Anonymous said...

Once again it is an espionage drama from the late 60's that gets my interest. When it was originaly broadcast, it seemed the whole nation stopped to watch - our family certainly did!
Although it could be said that it quickly became 'samey', with No6 attempting to escape by cooking up some outlandish plan, only to be thwarted at the last minute by an equally left-field action by 'the village', it never became boring because of 1) Patrick McGoohan's incredible, angry and defiant performance and 2) the use of Port Merrion as the backdrop for most of the story. The odd architecture and maze of tiny walkways gave an other-worldly feel.
Apparently McGoohan's perfectionism almost derailed the series several times. His insistance on last-minute script changes and re-shoots often delayed delivery of the film rolls to the TV stations, with the film being laced up for transmission with just minutes to spare.
As the series approached the final episode, a whole nation watched and waited for the explanation. Just who was the Prisoner? Was it John Drake of Danger Man? Who were all those strange people in the last hour? What the hell was going on? And to everyone's annoyance, there were no answers, only more questions. I suspect even McGoohan and his colleagues had no idea where the series was headed and were quite glad to finish it no matter how confusing it was.
The Prisoner remains one of the most enigmatic TV series ever. Thank goodness it has been restored to its original glory.