‘I Am Not a Number: Decoding The Prisoner’ by Alex Cox

A controversial analysis of Patrick McGoohan’s evergreen TV classic.

“The maverick film director and writer’s critical gloves are off from the get go.”

“More happens in two hours of McCabe & Mrs. Miller than in an entire season of Deadwood”, Alex Cox boldly states in the introduction to I Am Not a Number: Decoding The Prisoner. It’s being published at the end of September to coincide with the Fiftieth anniversary of Patrick McGoohan and George Markstein’s still amazing technicolour fantasy, a one-off TV series which had McGoohan’s eponymous title character imprisoned in “the Village”, a disorientating seaside community. While Cox sees The Prisoner as the artistic pinnacle of television film making, otherwise he is dismissive of episodic TV in general: It’s “dull” and “takes one idea and runs with it very slowly.”

The maverick film director and writer’s critical gloves are off from the get go. Fair enough: There’s nothing wrong with having controversial opinions and I enjoy reading them. This particular statement, though, struck me as rather ill-informed for such an erudite man as Cox. Malign recent TV drama like Deadwood and, by extension, you have to dismiss The Wire, The Sopranos, Ray Donovan, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul… Some of them might have gone on too long but, as a whole, were they really only created to fill up airtime because “100 episodes is the goal”?

A lot of enthusiasts of modern and vintage television will read Cox’s book and I’ll bet that, like me, they’ll frown slightly over his remark about their favourite medium. As I said above, the man’s more than entitled to his beliefs, but just by reeling off a list of names of recent TV shows I’ve shown that his argument doesn’t really hold water.

This slightly arrogant, selective view extends to the four books Cox primarily used for reference for his monograph, one of which, The Official Prisoner Companion, was published as far back as 1988; the most recent, Rupert Booth’s McGoohan biography Not a Number, came out in 2011. Between these two, there’ve been a lot of other books – some by me, admittedly – built on a lot more detailed research and varied first-hand testimony than the four Cox has consulted; significantly, he hasn’t talked to anyone who worked on The Prisoner first hand. Again, this is his choice, but I believe it should be in the job description of the TV archivist/researcher/analyst to look at as many sources of information as possible.

‘I Am Not a Number: Decoding The Prisoner’ By Alex Cox (Kamera Press).

Perhaps Cox’s failure to read more widely about his subject is why I Am Not a Number comes across as rather dated. The bulk of the text is 17 story synopses, which have a few contextual and historical observations thrown in. Who, in 2017, needs a book of plot breakdowns of any series, when the source material is so easily accessible? Ignore those, and what you’re left with, in the ‘What We Have We Learned?’ sections that follow each episode write up, is essentially a 1980s’ fanzine article analysing who the Prisoner is, who runs the Village and what the correct order of the episodes is supposed to be.

The latter is the key selling point of the book but, rather than imaginatively juggle episodes for various theoretical reasons as the fanzine writers of yore did, Cox insists that the production order of the episodes is the ‘right’ one and then sets out to prove it.

It’s amateurish to look for consistency by watching the stories in the sequence they were made, especially when Cox’s conclusions aren’t backed up by much documentary evidence. He places all the episodes written first and first shot in Portmeirion, the series’ primary location, at the beginning – Arrival, Free for All, Dance of the Dead, Checkmate and The Chimes of Big Ben – which is sensible if rather obvious, as in all of them the Prisoner is shown to be new to Village life.

Even then, there’s no real case to be made for a definitive episode two, three, four or five. Apart from the two-part conclusion of Once Upon a Time and Fall Out, the stories were written to be self-contained and unconnected, like other ITC film shows of the time such as The Saint and Man in a Suitcase. Because of this narrative disconnect, there are discrepancies all over the place, so Cox is really looking for character development and storyline coherence that isn’t there. That’s rather ironic, as the TV series he disses in his introduction is rich in those qualities.

His major conclusion is questionable. Cox seems obsessed with the idea that the Prisoner isn’t a secret agent who resigned, despite a stack of evidence in the series to the contrary – some of which he ignores – because it doesn’t fit with his theory about the man’s identity (see below). As A.B. and C. is a key piece of evidence in support of the Prisoner being a former spook, Cox dismisses the story as “unreliable” because a lot of it takes place in a dreamscape. This despite the fact that the Prisoner is shown meeting two espionage contacts he knew before he was brought to the Village.

“Why on Earth would the UK fire an ape with McGoohan’s face into space? As a theory, it’s more out there than anything McGoohan ever came up with.”

Not being able to get around Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling’s presentation of the Prisoner as a “tuxedoed spy” either, Cox decides that writer Vincent Tilsley’s simply hadn’t read the other scripts, so his story didn’t fit into the (non-existent) “coherent narrative” of the other episodes. Whichever way you look at, this is a distorted way of considering what happens on screen.

My favourite part of the book are Cox’s audacious theories about the Village and Number 1, based on what happens in the last episode Fall Out:

The Village is on the English coast, a short drive from London. All the Number 2s and the rest of the personnel were “patriotic Britons’’ trying to break the Prisoner for the good of the British secret state.

 It gets better:

The Prisoner was a rocket engineer. After he quit his job, in a slight against him Village scientists created Number 1, the ‘pilot’ of the Number 1 rocket, by cloning the Prisoner’s features onto an intelligent ape. The ‘1’ on the creature’s robe and the side of the rocket signifies “British Lunar Mission 1,” as ‘Number 1’ is a truncated title for the UK’s first moon shot. It’s the name of the whole expedition, not the Village mastermind.

Now, Fall Out is such a jumble of wildly surreal images that, on the face of it, it could be argued that Cox’s interpretation of the on-screen evidence of The Prisoner’s central mystery is as valid as any. On the other, it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever: for all its visual anarchy, Fall Out has a clear narrative through-line that the Prisoner has become the ‘Number 1’ man in the Village and is offered control, so him coming face to face with an apparently insane doppelganger – a combination of the id and superego, as in Freudian psychological theory – is a logical and satisfying conclusion. Cox ignores this completely.

Why on Earth would the UK fire an ape with McGoohan’s face into space? As a theory, it’s more out there than anything McGoohan ever came up with.

This is the odd thing about I Am Not a Number: for a director who has produced such experimental narratives as Repo Man (1984), Sid and Nancy (1986) and Searchers 2.0 (2008), Cox’s overall interpretation of The Prisoner is a surprisingly literal one. He does discuss symbolism, but not in any depth.

As a serious study of its subject, I Am Not a Number only comes fitfully to life in the epilogue, with an interesting look at The Prisoner’s cultural and artistic context. In this all too brief section, Cox speculates on ground breaking artistic talents of the time becoming involved in the making of the series – Lindsay Anderson or Nic Roeg directing an episode, Samuel Beckett perhaps writing one – but, frustratingly, this stimulating line of thought goes no further. For me, this is where the book should have started.

The review copy I read was supposed to be the final version of the text, but there were a few glaring errors. “Village heavies” practice the “cult of Rover” in Free for All, not Arrival; script editor George Markstein’s surname in places becomes “Markham”; tradecraft – as in the skill set of secret service agents – inexplicably becomes “traidcraft” and on page 196, the dialogue of the Prisoner and Dutton has been reversed. Minor mistakes, perhaps, but added to virtually no primary source research and a minimal bibliography, these faults unfortunately suggest sloppiness. Kudos, though, to Cox for identifying how much Sergio Leone’s early Spaghetti Westerns inform Living in Harmony, something I’ve never seen remarked on outside my own writing.

The biggest plus in the book was Cox’s discovery of an ITC story information booklet in Hollywood in the 1970s. This apparently confirms that The Prisoner was initially meant to have a first series of thirteen episodes: it was to finish on a cliffhanger at the end of Once Upon a Time, as the Prisoner conclusively defeats Leo Kern’s Number 2 and is taken to Number 1. It’s the only piece of original research in the book.

If only there’d been more. I Am Not a Number’s stylishly mod cover promises so much.

But still… I’ve just spent nearly 2,000 words arguing against a film director’s conclusions about a fascinating, confounding, 50 year-old series, and I’ve been typing it up on the 9 hour train journey up to Portmeirion, where the official anniversary celebrations for The Prisoner are being held on Friday 29 September. Whatever I think of Alex Cox’s book, this online argument only serves to underline how much The Prisoner still fascinates, compels and inspires people, even after all this time. And that’s a great thing.

“Many happy returns, Number 6.”

 Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’. His biography of the actor Ian Carmichael was one of ‘The Independent’s Top 10 Film Books of the Year for 2011.

‘I Am Not a Number: Decoding The Prisoner’ By Alex Cox is published on Kindle, 29 September, by No Exit Press, via Amazon Media EU, with the hard copy out on 7 December from
Kamera Books, RRP £9.99.

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  1. Interesting that OUAT is still listed as 16 and not 13 if it was indeed a cliff hanger for a second series of perhaps another 13 episodes. Also I see that Many Happy Returns is shown as episode number 2 which of course was where it was shown on the C4 screening in the 80’s!

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