8. Dance of the Dead
We want information.
An attempt to extract information from Six, using a fellow prisoner named Dutton, meets with failure. Two, who was not party to the experiment, has other plans. She intends to use persuasion with Six, who is invited to the annual Village Carnival. Six discovers a body on the beach. He retrieves a radio from the dead man and sends the corpse back out to sea with a distress message attached. Dutton encounters Six, and tells him he spilled his secrets but that the Village did not believe him. Six attends the Carnival costume ball, where he learns that the body has been recovered. Two tells him it will assume Six’s identity and the outside world will believe him to be dead. Put on trial (the participants all in costume) for unlawful use of a radio, Six calls Dutton as witness but realises his friend has been lobotomised. Six is sentenced to death and flees the ballroom pursued by Villagers. Re-encountering Two, Six says he will never give up and is met with Two’s mocking laughter in reply.
So how do you like it?
Dance of the Dead is one of four episodes that were considered as the follow-up to Arrival (the others being Free for All, Checkmate and the transmitted number two Chimes of Big Ben). As such, it is one of the prime picks for reordered personal preferences, often ending up slotted second or third. It’s easy to see why many choose to move it, as it includes references to Six being “new here” and the Village generally has the air of unfamiliar territory. There’s also the carrot on the stick of its citing as one of McGoohan’s seven essential scripts, even though this “gospel” appears to have been enshrined without the actor specifying which episodes they constituted.
However, since I pig-headedly refuse to become a mutual Prisoner fan and so stick to the transmitted order, it’s heartening to find an array of reasons to keep it exactly where it is; at number eight. There is an episode with the theme of death writ large, and it follows an episode where Six is denied permanent escape in the cruellest manner possible. In a sense, Many Happy Returns represents the death of any hope he had left (even though his manner here remains typically rebellious).
When Six says he is “new here” it could be justified simply as being relatively new to the Village (however long the duration of the previous seven instalments represents; months, rather than the years of confinement of many residents). After all, he is asked if he has attended the annual carnival before, so a good number in the Village will experience it as a regular bash. But the line could also be taken as meaning that Six is new here because he is a returnee. Dutton asks him how long he has been there, and he replies “Quite recently”.
Dutton: And London?
Six: About the same.
Of course it’s about the same; he was there only last week! Then there’s the black cat, also a feature of Many Happy Returns (Six’s sole Village co-habitant there). Both scripts were written by Antony Skene, and, although Returns came significantly later in production order (and Dance was subject to many post-production teething problems), the feline feature of Returns now embodies a dramatic reveal; she was Two’s animal eyes on the ground all along. Admittedly, one could call that either way (Returns placed after Dance, and it’s a reminder that, even though the Village is empty, Six is still being watched). But, considering the argument that the broadcast order is arbitrary in places (along with the one suggesting it’s no more considered than making sure there were Portmeirion-filmed stories liberally sprinkled through the run), the moggy occupies a curiously specific back-to-back presence.
There are other factors that favour the broadcast position. After Returns, a boy’s own action-adventure and a break with the Village, Dance serves to redefine Six’s servitude with a dose of surrealism headier than anything hitherto. Where previously Six was to be broken by any means possible, be it by conditioning (A. B. and C., The Schizoid Man) or trickery (The Chimes of Big Ben), now such methods have been discarded (following that nasty birthday prank).
We open with the Doctor (Duncan MacRae) applying tried and tested methods to no good result and being reprimanded by Two for his expediency. That approach won’t work anymore. It’s now the turn of female cunning. First of all, express perverse kindness (a birthday cake, no shows of force) and now apply a kind of benign coercion. As Two (Mary Morris) tells the Doctor, “He must be won over”. As if in acknowledgement of this, Six won’t undergo any further conditioning until A Change of Mind; four episodes down the line.
There is also, if we are to believe Two’s threats, the little thing of Six being announced dead to the outside world. The corpse at the end of Dance is set to be passed off as Six; place Dance before Returns and you have to ask why no one greeted Six with “We thought you were dead, old chap” when he resurfaced. As for the electrified Town Hall, maybe this was only enforced following his Returns return (and subsequently discontinued; it’s a nice little quirk, giving the Rover some personality as it decides Six can’t go in).
I’m not going to suggest any of this is seamless. It quite clearly isn’t, but it seems wilfully perverse to get bogged down in rearranging the episodes when that’s surely the very least of the series’ talking points. I won’t labour this, then, except to also note that a distance from Free for All makes sense as they both – albeit coming from entirely different directions – make a point of showing a vibrant Village scene revolving around a major event.
If Free for All is a more straightforward satire of the idea of making a difference in a democracy (Russell Brand would be proud), Dance has no illusions as to the limitations of the system (“We’re democratic – in some ways”). Here, the stick with which to beat the non-conformist is heavier and wielded with greater impunity; the punishment for breaking (nonsensical) rules leads to the crazed justice of “the people”. One wonders if the climax of Dance influenced The Wicker Man, made six years later. The sense of horror at a community standing in judgement of one who does not meet their standards is common to both. That, and Aubrey Morris.
Skene talked a fair bit about his approach to Dance, and how he came to a show that was a blank slate (or a void, as he put it). He said he was much influenced by Kafka, specifically The Trial. The theme of rules and punishment is foregrounded in this episode (and the trial scenario will, of course, be revisited in Fall Out), and common to both Dance and The Trial is an experience of surreal and inexplicable law making. Joseph K does not even know of what he is accused; Six is charged with illegal possession of a radio. The Maid (Denise Buckley) admonishes Six for breaking the rules in nearly the first scene (“I’ve a good mind to report you”), and protestations of ignorance will ultimately prove no defence.
Maid: You’re not allowed animals it’s a rule.
Six: Rules to which I am not subject.
When he brings the cat home, both repeat the exchange. Curiously, this rule either does not apply to Two or she breaks it and suffers no consequences (as an infraction it is sure no greater or lesser than radio use). Additionally, the cat ties into a surreal, almost supernatural, quality to the episode; she is Two’s “familiar” as she represents her eyes and ears on Six (his animal observer, 240/Bo Peep is his human one) and is “very efficient” at her job.
Of course, Kafkaesque themes (McGoohan was not so familiar, with the author) are intrinsic to the series; it just appears that in this case Skene was expressly drawing from the author. And there are additional influences skewering the mix. Skene drew on Jean Cocteau’s adaptation of the Orpheus myth. Six’s trial itself is in an underworld, one where the verdict is death (and where bodies are stored in filing cabinets).
As in Cocteau’s film, there are visual allusions to the other side of the veil when Six can see the pursuing Villagers (as with Cocteau’s café patrons, out for the protagonist’s blood). The title of Dance references the Danse Macabre, where the dead remind the living of the transience of earthly distractions; death is the only constant amongst all of us.
Six: I thought there was a cabaret.
Two: There is. You are it.
This is an episode where the lines of dreams, reality and philosophy are at their blurriest. Two’s repetitive pronouncements that Six has ceased to be (“It’s you who died in an accident at sea”, he doesn’t have a costume because “you don’t exist”) take on a ghastly wit as she informs him the reason the Villagers want to kill him isn’t the result of some mistaken conclusion they’ve reached but because “They don’t know you’re already dead”.
Indeed, their blood lust is possibly the most chilling moment in the whole series; a possessed mob acting with the approval of law. Then there is the evidence of death all around; the body washed up on the shore, and the lobotomised Dutton. Only his shell remains. But the flip side of this is that it is all a game, an entertainment. As Two informs Six, he is the cabaret. There are different inferences to be drawn depending on where you are standing.
But the very things Two uses against Six are the ones he holds as proof of his continued sense of identity. For Six, his suit means “That I’m still… myself” (but, as presented, his “self” resembles a super-slick Bond agent in a tuxedo). Two warns Six “If you insist on living a dream, you may be taken for mad”, to which he responds that he likes his dream. “Then you are mad” she rejoinders.
As if in confirmation of this, the rest of the episode presents a scenario where insanity reigns and attempts to crush Six. The ending, as a destroyed telex begins working again, indicates the rules of nature have gone awry. Maybe because Six is now in Hell? Six has remained defiant (“You’ll never win!”) but the surrealism of the revived telex suggests existential connotations for Six himself.
Six: Is he here tonight? The man behind the big door?
In Skene’s scripted ending for the episode, following his destruction of the telex, Six leads 240/Bo Peep in a dance, joining the Villagers in the ballroom. As the tempo increases they dance more energetically. There is a final shot of the Village in the dark. The argument that Six’s “death” (conforming to the Village’s rules) allows him to persevere, still possessed of a “free” mind but outwardly obedient, would be reasonable if the series were to have been reconfigured, but I can see why it was rejected. The chosen ending appeals because Skene unwittingly shows that Six cannot “die” while One lives, and vica versa. “I was allowed… virtually to show Number One, even if he was an unbreakable telex…” In a sense, this is the closest the show gets to laying out the core point. Six could conform, but he still would not have surrendered ego (One), which refuses to die. (Or maybe it was all just a way for McGoohan getting around dancing with a girl.)
Two: We’re democratic – in some ways.
Six: Just as long as it’s what you want.
Two: Just as long as it’s what the majority wants.
Although much of what we see and hear has a familiar ring to it, it is the tone that sets if off. However, rules are central to this episode rather than a constant backdrop; The Prisoner will return to directly addressing what happens when Six breaks the rules in A Change of Mind, although that episode devolves in a standard ruse to get Six to talk. It’s the distancing from an identifiable scheme that marks out Dance. Ruminations on democracy indicate that it is anything but, with legal processes that are fudged or ridiculous. The final word of the Village, and democracy, is that, “Without rules, we should exist in a state of anarchy”. This is the same democracy that issues licences to commit injustice.
Six’s judges, based on the French Revolution (“They sawed through the dead wood didn’t they?”), are all heads of state of different sorts (Queen Elizabeth, Nero, Napoleon) none of whom exemplify democratic processes. Six is sentenced to death for committing a “minor infraction” but we are told he has broken rule after rule (as he noted at the beginning, they do not apply to him); his punishment is a consequence of his efforts against the community. The treatment he receives follows on neatly from Many Happy Returns. His mind is not under attack from the probes of science; it is his grounding in a reality he can identify and resist that is threatened, as its fundamental laws have become monstrously distorted.
Six: Never trust a woman. Even the four-legged variety.
McGoohan’s prickliness over being called onto share romantic scenes with actresses, or any kind of overt contact, is legend of course. How much substance there is to this and how much it is overblown scuttlebutt, I don’t know. Dance is interesting for how head-on it is in terms of Six’s relationship with the female of the species; Two even says right at the top that she will try to find him a nice young lady.
There are more significant female guest stars than male, and Six is watched and reprimanded by women at every stage. The sexy Maid (Denise Buckley), who is a stickler for the rules but has the intention of friendliness, turns out to be Six’s fiercest antagonist.
Meanwhile, the Observer/240/Bo Peep (Norma West) has a much more typical relationship with Six; required by the Village to work against him, she ends up falling for him/sympathising with him. 240 has a conscientiousness absent from the Maid, so feels things more deeply (“There are treatments for people like you”). But she cannot countenance his treatment and so is removed from her position (“Observers of life should never get involved”). The cat, meanwhile, does a bang-up job.
Two: I don’t want him broken. He must be won over.
Which brings us to one of the best Number Twos and the only female Two seen throughout an episode. Mary Morris brings a piercingly intelligent, hard-edged-yet-jaunty demeanour to her Two. She is cheerful and confident, charismatic yet slightly off. There is never a trace of doubt in her mind about her approach (“This man has a future with us. There are other ways”). Six’s wild spirit can be tamed and he will be revealed as a model citizen. Morris wears male garb and there is no suggestion of her resorting to feminine wiles to get her way. Tellingly, when it comes to fancy dress, she picks Peter Pan (a role typically taken on stage by a woman; just ask Bonnie Langford).
As with other Twos, we see conflict involving subordinates (none with superiors this time, though). William Lyon Brown’s doctor is over-confident and deserves a good dressing down, yet Two accords him surprising tolerance (“We’ll overlook that and put it down to enthusiasm”). But the conclusion to the episode is enigmatic for both Six and Two; often there is an express indication of triumph or defeat for one party. While Two’s laughter suggests she is in the superior position, it’s not as if she has demonstrated Six’s inferiority; she has merely emphasised the inescapability of his situation.
Six: I won’t be a goldfish in a bowl.
Six is on authoritative form. However much his London experience may have dented his confidence, he isn’t showing it. At this point the series is still keeping ideas of One at arm’s length, but the existential fugue forming around Six keeps dropping hints. The contrast between Six and Dutton (Alan White) is pronounced. The latter possesses neither Six’s status nor his willpower; he told them everything (“Everything I know. The irony of it is they don’t believe me. You know I didn’t have access to all the vital stuff”) but on this occasion there is no elaborate attempt to hoodwink Six (except in the doctor’s failed experiment at the start). This is no familiar face up to no good like Paul Eddington in Arrival.
And Dutton’s attitude is one of stoic resignation. He has already given up hope when he encounters Six (“Soon Ronald Walter Dutton will cease to exist”). The reveal of Dutton as a mindless fool is the physical manifestation of what he already knows will come to pass. Dutton has already lost. Unlike Six, he is expendable. Six refuses any appeasement. That’s why his “You’ll never win” is so important. He would never choose an easy way out (Two: You’re not thinking of jumping? Six: Never). And he would never make it easy for his captors; he’d rather spend the night on the beach than prove Two right (“He’ll eventually go back to his room. It’s the only place he can ever go”). His tone is by turns caustic, dismissive and charming. His approach to women is eternally suspicious (aside from le chat) resulting in infuriation (the Maid) or reproof (“You’re a wicked man” says 240).
Don Chaffey directed Dance, his third of four episodes (including the defining Arrival). He was responsible for informing much of the series’ visual tone. And its idiosyncrasies. These include cheerful window dressing such as flower men (Six: Supposing I don’t want any flowers? Flowerman: Everybody has flowers. For carnival tomorrow), evocative vistas (Two greets Six, Mr. Tuxedo, amid a striking beach sunset) and horror tropes (the distorting lens as the throng pursue Six).
Thematically dense, Dance of the Dead is one of the strangest and best episodes of The Prisoner. Strewn with symbolism and surrealism, it has so many elements that at times there is a danger of loss of focus. In that respect, it’s not quite as successful as the similarly loaded Free for All. Nevertheless, the chances are that, when prompted, most will cite it as one in a handful of the most memorable stories. Perhaps that’s reason enough to bundle it as one of McGoohan’s seven essential scripts.