15. The Girl Who Was Death
We want information.
Colonel Hawke-English, batting at a cricket match, is killed when he hits an exploding ball, done in by a mysterious woman dressed all in white. Six is assigned to the case, involving a plan by Professor Schnipps to destroy London with a rocket. Six replaces the colonel on the field and foils an identical attempt on his own life. He follows clues that lead him to his local pub, where the woman poisons his pint. Six improvises an antidote by imbibing a series of tipples that make him sick. He avoids being steamed to death at a Turkish bath by Sonia (the woman) and then gets involved in a boxing match. He follows Sonia’s message to the Tunnel of Love ride, escaping an exploding tape recorder. He pursues her around a fairground and then in a car chase. This leads to an abandoned village in which Six overcomes a series of traps. Sonia believes she has blown Six up along with the bulldozer he was driving, but he hides on the back of her helicopter and arrives at Schnipps’ lighthouse. He is Sonia’s father, and he and his men are plotting their takeover of the UK. Schnipps is dressed as Napoleon while his men are in soldiers’ uniforms. Six booby-traps their weapons but is apprehended and bound. The lighthouse is revealed as the rocket, on a countdown to lift off. Six breaks free of his bonds, sabotages the rocket and makes off in a boat, as Schnipps and Sonia are blown up in the lighthouse, still “on the launchpad”.
Six is revealed to be telling Village children a bedtime story, observed by Two (who looks like Schnipps) and 17 (who looks like Sonia). Two hoped Six would reveal something about his resignation but is disappointed to find Six is on guard at all times. The prisoner looks into the monitor screen at his captors, smiling as he says, “Good night, children… everywhere”.
So how do you like it?
The Girl Who Was Death is the third successive “atypical” Prisoner episode, following the hijinks of The Portly Fellow Who Wasn’t Quite Six and Carry On Up The Schizoid Cowboy. The final two will also be off the beaten track, but are more intrinsically linked to the series’ mythology, topping off the whole premise in suitably antic fashion. As such, Girl may be seen as the most successful of this trio. Indeed, it’s a deliriously demented delight. Gone is the brooding existential straightjacket that impinges on Six, replaced by a madcap, metatextual funfair. As a one-off, it’s a sublime slice of ’60s psychedelic strangeness. And the generally tac
It has been suggested that, should the most outlandish episodes in the series brief run rank among your very favourites, you’re probably not really getting the “true” essence of the show. Which is a curious position, particularly when the “true” show is one that only really stutters when it gets caught in the constraints of repetition of format and plotting. By its nature it is at its best when it is striving not to be “mutual”. It’s why McGoohan (or whichever forces conspired to end The Prisoner when it did) was highly astute to cap the show before it got stale. The “true” show rails against normative narratives, and you can feel it creaking ever so slightly when there is nothing going on behind the veneer.
It should be noted too, on the flipside, that Girl comes after two not wholly successful format-busters. Both Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling and Living in Harmony adopted the window-dressing approach of mixing up the show’s iconography without locating a distinctive spark within the episodes themselves. Thus, you have a recast, starchy Six in a rote hunt for a missing scientist. It’s a bore. And the transfer of Six to the Old West should have been a vibrant oddity, but it is so dedicated to the trappings that it ends up much like any other ‘60s TV western series but with added Welsh countryside. Another attempt to break with the “typical” “get information from Six” structure (although this is the “reveal” of both Harmony and Girl) is Many Happy Returns, but throwing Six back in London is only at first arresting and also underwhelms. It’s because none of these tackles the conceptual vitality of the show that they are some of the least interesting beyond the spangly surface.
Girl, in essence, might be regarded as more of the same. It is, after all, Six telling a bedtime story to the Village kids (those pesky Village kids, eh? Always getting in Six’s way when he’s out for a good brooding walk. Actually, no they aren’t). A story eavesdropped upon by Number Two (Kenneth Griffith) and his assistant (Justine Lord). This could be regarded as derivative in itself, hot on the heels of another episode where Two and his assistant are cast in the make-believe surroundings that Six has fashioned (Living in Harmony).
But it’s the freewheeling, spoofy content that makes this episode stand-out, and the framing devices is rightly the slenderest of threads. Girl just wants to have fun with all things spy-like, revelling in the perfunctory links propelling Six from one set piece encounter to the next (which is pretty much how Bond works) en route to a showdown with a villain beset by delusions of grandeur. The series’ oblique template is removed enough from identifiable storytelling reality as it is, refusing to address hows, whys and whens in a conclusive fashion. Girl gleefully rubs viewers’ noses in this, affectionately mocking the conventions and devices of other secret agent shows and movies.
That said, Girl also owes a heavy debt to the archest of The Prisoner’s ’60s peer group. The Avengers began in a fairly straightforward revenge/spy manner, becoming less and less dedicated to anything approximating realism as it progressed. The tone was playful, light and frothy, camp too, with a self-consciousness about the eccentric stories that Steed and his current partner embroiled themselves in and little interest in guiding principles of the genre (such as intrigue and tension). If The Prisoner carries over something of the stylistic extravagance of that series, Girl wholeheartedly embraces its humorous excesses; ultimately it goes even further, effectively breaking the fourth wall in the last shot.
The Napoleon-fixated villain of Girl might be seen as a riff on Bond-ian crazies, but Schnipps (also played by Griffith) has far more in common with The Avengers’ weekly parades of deranged Little Englanders. So too the titular Girl, clad in a white miniskirt, boots and ensemble-matching hats, WWI German helmet, mac, or parasol. She’s the kind of dangerous deadly lady you’d expect to see Steed and Mrs Peel matched against rather than 007 (outside perhaps of Diamonds are Forever and its predilection for stylised whackiness).
The Prisoner companion suggests a Danger Man episode, The Ubiquitous Mr Lovegrove, may have been the inspiration for Girl, but it’s difficult to see much link beyond both featuring hallucinatory moments. Girl is altogether more fantastical, while Lovegrove is really quite grounded as John Drake questions his reality when strange events befall him. It has far more in common with A. B. & C. There are nods to Bond, though, such as the associate reading From Russia With Love, and Desmond “Q” Lewellyn appearing as a doorman.
It has also been intimated that Girl was an unused Danger Man script, but the veracity of this claim seems dubious. Terence Feeley, who penned The Schizoid Man, wrote it based on an idea from David Tomblin (who directs with welcome energy and panache) and has indicated that it was originally planned as a ninety-minute special (dropped scenes are pointed to as evidence). Whatever the truth of the matter, Feeley (who was a co-director of Everyman Films with McGoohan and Tomblin, so probably had some knowledge of the behind-the-scenes business) and Tomblin would both go on to work on UFO, though not on the same episodes, so perhaps their more surrealistic inclinations made an impression on Gerry Anderson.
Sonia: I’m beginning to love you in a way. All my life I’ve been looking for a real opponent.
Justine Lord, who had appeared in The Avengers some six years previously (in Propellant 23; Robert Anton Wilson would have loved that title), is given the most carefree and abandon-filled of female characters in the show. Sonia poses a direct threat to Six in a manner not seen by a woman since Two in Dance of the Dead. Is it a coincidence that a character who expresses feelings of unbridled “love” towards our protagonist, and embraces swinging ’60s fashions and (a few) sensibilities, is found in a world of fantasy and make believe, where she is no “real” threat to the very proper McGoohan/self-involved loner Six? Perhaps it is, but it makes for a good line of argument if you want to take that position on the show’s creator and lead character.
Much fun is hard with the deadly woman scenario (“You may not see my face but you may know my name. My name – is death”) but her haunting of Six is not malevolent, rather it is exuberant. She sees each new attempt to dispatch him as a source of joy/sexual pleasure (her cries of “Wheee!” as she lobs grenades at him), with her every failure only inflaming her ardour (“I don’t want to kill you anymore. You’re the best”). Her lurking on the periphery of Six’s pursuit is the source of much amusement, such as her exiting past him in the pub just as he heads to evacuate the contents of his stomach, or her recorded message that Six discards idly in the Tunnel of Love only for it to explode as it hits the water. There’s a sprightly, irresistible and infectious energy and enthusiasm to this concoction.
Does the Girl embrace free love in her own murderous way (the suspicious take of the later generation observing it all on the production side)? Her devotion to Six is expressed only as that of a latest line of conquests that cause similar raptures when she deposes them (“You really are the most entertaining lover I’ve ever had”). If there’s a disappointment here, it’s that the cat and mouse pursuit (and reversals thereof) falls away once Schnipps’ lighthouse is reached, and with it the prominence of Sonia. She is reduced to the unlikely role of (her mad, incompetent) daddy’s girl. On one level, this suits the overtly fictional styling of the episode, on another the lighthouse section just can’t compete with the breakneck inventiveness that has preceded it.
Schnipps: You’re not the Duke of Wellington, are you?
Griffith, a Boulting Brothers veteran, was well versed in playing for broad comedy, and his Schnipps is as much a pompous, cartoonish, idiot version of villainy as Harmony’s Judge is a cold, ruthless depiction. One reflects Two at his least confident and resolute, the other at his most blindly bent on results regardless of the consequences. Schnipps is a very parochial baddie; “For the last 26 years, he’s been building a super rocket to destroy London” (only in a fairy tale would nothing be done about it for all this time). He models himself after a great leader (curiously, given his apparent all-Englishness, Napoleon) and has a ridiculous plan for ruling the country in which his small body of men will be appointed as marshals of jurisdictions, with accents to match. They are underwhelmed by his “gift” of Chelsea Barracks (“Ungrateful swine”) and his daughter is to be given Bond Street (of course). The silliness of his plan may evoke Avengers, but there’s surely a Bond dig in there, at just how unlikely it would be for any minor force inside a volcano (or wherever) to take control of a country.
Griffith doubles up as Two, of course, and also reappears in Fall Out as the President. Does Two get shunted from his Two role to the apparently more judicial position (at least he will be costumed as such)? The paralleling of Twos and their fictional counterparts may be one of the few areas where Girl comes off weaker than Harmony; there’s a sense that Schnipps could be more eccentric and twisted but he’s played only for easy chuckles.
Photographer: ’Ere what’s your game, sunshine? I’ll spread your nose all over your face. I’ll punch you up and down this fairground. You’ll never pick up your teeth with a broken arm. I’ll tear off your leg and beat you over the head with it.
McGoohan & Co also reuse several other familiar faces. There probably isn’t much of a conclusion to be reached from the return of Alexis Kanner, who was the Kid/Eight in Harmony, except that his cameo as a photographer represents hip youth at work, the theme of which travels into the appearance of 48 (the revitalises Eight?) in Fall Out. The dubbed dialogue is very funny, of course.
We also encounter Christopher Benjamin again, for the first time since the opening episodes. There he played the Labour Exchange Manager and then Two’s assistant. He doesn’t have the most lauded of roles here either, punished for his failure to prevent the death of the Colonel by being consigned to the traditional “informant” role of shoeshine (“It’s our form of Siberia”). Benjamin, a jovial and bountiful presence, serves to remind us (if we need it/remember him) of the show’s beginnings, and that all has come full circle and is one in the interchangeable world of the Village. This kind of in-referencing finds slightly less overt checks with the casting of an actual John Drake as the bowler who blows up the Colonel and nearly does so for Six (Tomblin has him loom up to the lens in a particularly grotesque caricature as he lets fly his ball). There’s also a repeat visit to the Beachy Head lighthouse, which we previously saw in Many Happy Returns, as Schnipps’ base of operations.
Potter: It was so damned unsporting.
Six: It certainly wasn’t cricket.
And what of Six? Most obviously, except for the epilogue, he is in his civvies and an array of costumes that takes in a Sherlock Holmes outfit (to facilitate McGoohan’s stunt double passing himself off in many shots, as the actor was busy with Ice Station Zebra) and immense side-whiskers. He’s an especially flippant, upbeat version of Six with something of the acid wit and quips of Bond. McGoohan, the man who spurned Bond, really gets into the spirit of the piece, making the most of any opportunity a scene holds for comic interplay and quick quips.
While the opening credits are as ever, the episode’s stall is set out immediately thereafter. We see the open pages of a book, depicting a multicultural gathering in traditional dress; the Village of the World? Such pictures punctuate piece, announcing pre- and post- ad breaks. The ensuing cricket match also gets an illustration (the Village Green), and the scenario of being called in to investigate the most English of pastimes in the most English of settings is Avengers through-and-through. The nursery rhyme/make believe theme is further underlined with the tune of “Boys and Girls Come Out to Play” on the soundtrack. The Colonel was “one short of his century” when he went up in smoke, as the newspaper headline announces.
Six: Thank you very much.
Record: What was that?
A recorded record in a groovy record shop initiates Six’s mission. It’s a record that talks back when Six is nonchalantly dismissive of his instructions. This not only references Mission: Impossible, but also actively draws attention to the artifice of the tale, something that will continue throughout. One can all but see the hand turning the page and the asides to the audience as it progresses. If we weren’t fully aware that this was a self-aware fiction, such an exchange seals the deal.
Something similar happens during the car chase, as Six pursues Sonia only for her to wave her finger at him. As she turns it, so the screen turns upside down, her pursuer and his car with it, to a disorientated response from Six. Perhaps the most obvious reference point to this kind of playfulness is The Princess Bride, in which characters break from the children’s tale trappings to make asides and references to the fiction, for the adults in the audience. Six takes off after Sonia to “Witchwood” where, rather than a gingerbread house, there is a Butcher’s, a Baker’s and a Candlestick Maker’s, replete with deadly traps.
Barmaid: The same again, sir?
Six: No, thank you. One of those is quite enough.
Prior to this, a series of crazy encounters with death befall Six. The highlight is his poisoning by pint in his local pub. There’s the juxtaposition of imminent doom with cheerfully relaxed music, and Six’s decisive response to the news at the bottom of his glass is to order a series of vomit-inducing shorts (“Brandy, whisky, vodka, Drambuie, Tia Maria, Quattro, Cointreau, Grand Marnier”). It’s a very witty, cool but decidedly non-Bond response to an assassination attempt (Bond would never go and throw up, although we don’t see Six actually doing so).
M.C.: Have a good clean fight. No kicking, no butting or gouging, except in moderation and when I say break, break.
The attempt to steam Six to death at the Turkish Baths also recalls a scene in Thunderball a couple of years earlier (Six breaking free in full sleuthing outfit is wonderfully inappropriate), while his pugilism bout incorporates a lovely twist, in which his opponent Killer Kaminski (Michael Brennan, who actually appeared in Thunderball) is more concerned about his prize ugly mug being improved than winning (“Take it easy this face is my future. You might knock it back into shape”).
Sonia: Ingenious. Nobody’s ever thought of that before.
The fairground sequence is an endearingly obvious mixture of stand-ins and rear projection (not unlike many of The Avengers location shoots in that respect, and of course frequent “exterior” sets and Six close-ups in the Village), in which the playful farce has Six repeatedly mistake the photographer’s model for Sonia.
The snares in store at Witchwood are as inventively devised as the earlier poisoning attempt; trapdoors with electrified spikes below, candles emitting cyanide gas. And Six’s solution to the latter problem, with a pair of bellows, is especially bright. Tomblin’s comic timing is precise, counterpointing Sonia’s instruction “If the candles are blown out, they explode” with Six taking a deep breath that he then does not release at the nearest burning wick. The ensuing scene with Six in a digger, the Girl lobbing grenades at him and a very nutty accompanying “mechanical” score is perhaps not the peak point of the episode but illustrates how off-the-wall this is willing to be.
Sonia: Mountain rope. It could hold an elephant.
Six: I must remember that next time I go climbing with one.
Fall Out climaxes with a large hidden rocket launching, and Girl, perhaps as a foreshadowing, concludes its bedtime story with one exploding. Six has little in the way of obstacles when it comes to overcoming his adversaries in the lighthouse (“The lighthouse itself is the rocket!” he parrots in synch with Schnipps, stealing his thunder). Even the chair securing him obligingly yields to his bid for freedom (an amusing riff on heroes’ “With one bound he was free” scenarios). There is an assortment of bad taste jokes about the effects of a rocket blowing up (“I’ll just go to pieces”, “Bon voyage darling. Think of me when you hit the town”) and, if the slapstick of Six taking out guards as “O’Rourke” (complete with dodgy Irish accent) and then the father and daughter (“I forgot to turn the gas off”) isn’t as creative, it is still pacy and of-a-piece.
Six: And that is how I saved London from the mad scientist.
Of course, every episode of every spy show or movie ends with a big fight and a big explosion. In particular, those escapades of 007. The pullback reveals that Six (now familiarly attired) is reading to the Village kids from The Village Storybook. They are in the Village dorm, surrounded by an assortment of toys including a prominently-placed Village golly. The meshing of the telling with a spurious attempt at reasoning (“Well it was worth a try, number two”; “He told them a blessed fairy tale. That one wouldn’t drop his guard with his own grandmother”) is charmingly sloppy. And then Six, ostensibly looking at his captors but invoking BBC’s Children’s Hour, announces “Good night children… everywhere”.
Thus, this is a test-run for the audience’s capacity to digest a dissection of the TV and tales they undiscerningly consume generally. Fall Out would air in a couple of weeks. Instead of an easy-going commentary on the fiction of the fairy tale, a light comedy, it would instead inflict a full-on psychedelic road show of insanity as Six is revealed to be his own worst enemy at the behest of his rampant ego.
The last two episodes would be heavy hitters, so Girl is the stark antidote; a light frothy confection that has a ball playing with, dissecting and commenting on the tropes it embraces. Other series would clutch the meta-to their bosoms in years to come, although they would rarely be quite so free ranging; Moonlighting’s Atomic Shakespeare is a contender. The X-Files’ Jose Chung’s From Outer Space also plays loose with the standard devices of its series. In both cases, the conventions of the shows are mocked through the second hand/unreliable narrators. It’s a great tactic if the material is sturdy enough to support such interrogation, and the writing, characters and performers are likewise iconic enough to foster this treatment. The Girl Who Was Death is the most atypical of the atypical Prisoner episodes, which makes it no less of a classic Prisoner episode.