The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Wednesday, June 06, 2007
Part Three: “revive hopes of progress in pop music”

“A, B And C” seems to me one of the most remarkable episodes of The Prisoner. Although not part of McGoohan’s preferred seven-part central canon, it nonetheless seems the most contemporary of the seventeen episodes which were made. Inventing virtual reality about a quarter of a century before the event, that week’s Number 2, convinced that Number 6 was about to defect and wanting to find out what information he was selling to the “enemy,” contrives with the aid of a seemingly compliant woman scientist (Number 14) to drug his dreams and hook Number 6 up to a machine where his dreams can be visualised and, if necessary, manipulated. Without manipulation they see only a loop of Number 6 striding into his boss’ office and throwing down his letter of resignation. Number 14 comments on his single-mindedness. Number 2, in partial awe, murmurs “Sometimes I wonder if he’s human.”

They introduce three characters (hence the episode’s title) known to Number 6 and who could have been involved in his decision to resign and, presumably, defect. The three dream episodes artfully add up to a systematic deconstruction of the sixties spy caper template, all taking place at the same party; in the first we meet “A,” played by the young Peter Bowles in exactly the manner in which he was briefly typecast as the suave, moustache-twirling villain in most ITV biscuit cutter melodramas of the period. He has already defected, attempts to persuade his old colleague to follow suit, and when that fails, kidnaps him; cue the standard action sequences as Number 6 makes his escape.

In the second (for this episode hardly exists in “reality”), “B” turns out to be a rather knowing woman, and as ambiguously related to Number 6 as all the female characters in The Prisoner appeared to be. But, frustrated at the dream going nowhere beyond routine (and perhaps deliberate, for Number 6 gives subtle indications here that he knows the dream is being manipulated) chitchat, Number 14 attempts to put words in “B”’s mouth via a microphone and it backfires – the confident, sassy “B” suddenly becomes a gibbering, frightened wreck, and Number 6, instantly smelling a rat (even while asleep), says contemptuously, “You are not who you pretend to be. Excuse me,” and vanishes into the party crowd, most of whom now appear curiously statuesque in the nocturnal garden.

For the last dream, Number 6’s drug dose is doubled; even though Number 2 realises that this is potentially fatal, he is by now desperate to find out what, if anything, he was selling. Now the sixties party scene is grotesquely distorted, all Third Man angular cameras, dissonant music, Number 6 yelling out incoherent blurts; gazing like a maniac into a twisted mirror, he turns it as though steering a sinking ship and sets it straight. “C” turns out to be Engadine, the party’s hostess, and together they exit from the party to be driven to the point of “no turning back” – in other words, his defection. But the journey, even given ITC’s budget constraints, is strangely artificial; the garden gates close automatically, like a set of theatre curtains or the door of Number 6’s house, the urban back projection as they sit in the car seems to be deliberately inflated, and the square where they eventually arrive resembles a stage set, complete with creaking floorboards where the ground should be.

A masked man emerges; Number 14 suggests that he could be considered “D.” Meanwhile, Number 2 is practically having an orgasm at this previously entirely unknown prospect. But Number 6 remains stalwartly cynical; striding towards the man, he demands to see his face, and then, in one of the most chilling scenes ever to play on British television, he turns towards the camera, towards his captors, and indeed towards us, as he intones with heavy irony, “We mustn’t disappoint them” – a miniscule but shattering movement of eyes towards camera – “…the people who are watching,” rips the mask off “D” and turns him brutally towards the camera; it is Number 2’s terrified face. “I knew, of course,” says Number 6. “Now – show THEM!” Both men gaze directly at the viewer. “SEE?” he taunts.

From the unreal, this story has suddenly moved into the hyperreal, or the superreal; the challenge to the viewer is a summary of the series’ general challenge – what is identity, reality, freedom, goodness, evil? None of Oliver Hardy’s frustrated camera glances, taking the audience into his confidence; McGoohan seems to be confronting his audience, scaring the shit out of them.

And also out of the actual Number 2, who is now a broken man, watching dazedly as Number 6, still in the dream, strides into his office, the same office where he is now standing. Confused beyond rationality, his eyes wildly dart between screen and reality. Number 6 extracts from his pocket the envelope he has been carrying all along and gives it to Number 2 to open. From it he pulls a number of travel brochures and leaflets and, defeated, lets them all fall from his hands. “He really was going on holiday,” murmurs a quietly satisfied Number 14 (who of course has secretly been on Number 6’s side all along).

“I wasn’t selling out,” says Number 6 in the dream. “That wasn’t why I resigned.” Fade to the opening resignation loop.

Fancifully I take all of this as an extended metaphor for the confusion felt by the Establishment on the promised derangement of post-Pepper psychedelia. The episode’s drug theme hardly needs to be underlined, but it is significant that The Prisoner remains one of the very few programmes allowed to use Beatles music as part of its soundtrack – the Beatles were, unsurprisingly, huge fans (especially, and predictably, Lennon), sampled huge chunks of the programme on their 1967 Christmas fan club disc, and there are further excerpts buried deep in the misty layers of “Revolution 9” (which of course stands for 6 turned upside down), and they eagerly allowed McGoohan to use “All You Need Is Love” to soundtrack the final episode’s massacre. Confronted with things that were ambiguous and straightforward, the old order reeled in exactly the manner which compels Number 2 to chain-drink glasses of milk.

(And by far the most remarkable performance in “A, B And C” is that of the great character actor and James Joyce lookalike Colin Gordon as a Number 2 petrified nearly to the point of stone; after decades of being a bureaucratic comedy foil to Norman Wisdom, Tony Hancock and others – and, in slightly later life, to the embryonic Goodies - he plays the role as though he had been waiting all his life to do so, and his unilateral telephone conversations with Number 1 indicate that he is already close to the point of collapse. This is why it feels wrong to run “The General” after “A, B And C,” where Gordon again appears, but this time as a boisterous, confident and sardonic Number 2 – indeed the screenplay of “The General” originally called for his character to be killed by the computer explosion at the end, but McGoohan was so impressed by Gordon’s performance – not to mention the slow realisation that killing off Number 2 would drive the series into a premature cul-de-sac - that he immediately re-engaged him for the next shooting script, which was “A, B And C,” where his character has faded into pale, shivering defeat)

This, I think, is the major positive resonance from Sgt Pepper, and it is reflected throughout The Prisoner – there are the gaily coloured costumes, the unusually bright sunshine, but also the encroaching shadow of doubt or morbidity, the question of realness, and a defiantly British randomness to counteract any notions of “order.” And those rays spread in diffuse direction and sometimes set off explosions of their own – it was not long after Paul Haines had sent Carla Bley some poems for her to set to music that Bley heard Sgt Pepper for the first time and immediately knew what she wanted to do with his words. The vast majority of Escalator Over The Hill was composed throughout the second half of 1967, and the subsequent three years spent living and borrowing from hand to mouth to get it recorded, waiting for musicians to become available or slotting sessions in between other major projects like Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra (nearly everyone on that landmark record turns up on Escalator) and Michael Mantler’s “Communications” sessions – the latter ranking with Brötzmann’s Machine Gun as the definitive onomatopoeic response to the revolts and variegated blood of the noticeably less lovable summer of 1968.

But Escalator was eventually completed, and released in early 1972, and it is a tribute to Pepper that, if not itself the greatest record ever made, it did cause the greatest record ever made to be made; in these last 35 years, nothing else has come close to matching its genius and transcendence, and in its confident mixture of bubblegum, improv, pre-glam cabaret, white noise, proto-indie, post-psychedelia, distressed MoR and real world music it sums up everything that was good and possible in 1967.

Since Escalator is also the missing link between “Revolution 9” and “Reality Asylum” (and yet also between the Velvets’ “Murder Mystery” and the Monkees’ “Porpoise Song,” or between “White Rabbit” and Stockhausen’s Hymnen, or between The Threepenny Opera and Sgt Pepper, or…) it seems eerily apposite that things like “Mouldy Old Dough” should fit into that post-Pepper lineage as surely as, say, Roxy’s “The Bogus Man” or Saint Etienne’s “Avenue” (worlds within worlds). Scott Walker’s Tilt could easily have been titled A Day After The Life. And, of course, The Dark Side Of The Moon and everything that Roger Waters’ Floyd did thereafter examines the question of what actually does happen if you can’t come down. Avoid the quadruple jam sessions, the gauze of crass costumery, the unearned pomp of those who misread Pepper; its real, if secret, legacy trickles down everywhere in music where there is a potential for the primary coloured fabric to be torn, in order to expose – blackness? Cardboard? Blood? The sea? The off chance of a beating heart? Never a thought for ourselves? Be seeing you?

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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