The Blog Formerly Known as Rebel Prince

Cult TV, Gen Y rants, and endless opera.

The Prisoner Rewatch: Part Two

Posted by therebelprince on August 16, 2009

“Are you going to run?”

“Like blazes! First chance I get.”

“I meant run for office?”

— Number Two and Number Six, “Free For All”

There’s some great exploration of the Village in this, the second installment of our classic Prisoner rewatch: “Free for All” and “Chimes of Big Ben”.

A disclaimer, as always: the episode order for The Prisoner is notoriously uncertain, so I’ve taken my cue from the good folks at The Prisoner US Homepage.

It’s election time in “Free For All”, and Number Six runs against Number Two (Eric Portman) for the viceroy position. If he wins, Six will be able to get to the bottom – or rather the top – of the mystery. With his apparently non-English speaking assistant, Number 58 (Rachel Herbert), Six sets about rallying the people to his cause.

“Free For All” is a very enjoyable episode, and gives us a lot of information about the Village, but it also suffers from the somewhat schizophrenic nature of the series as a whole: too many themes and ideas which are never coherently separated from one another. There’s the overall mystery of the village, of course, but then there’s Patrick McGoohan‘s blatant satire on politics. Here, the citizens respond to speeches based on pre-written placards held up by the Butler (Angelo Muscat), and a press conference with a reporter (Harold Berens) is a complete farce, carrying on no matter what Six’s actual answers are! It’s all fascinating, and shows us the painful-yet-pathetic consequences of any prisoner who dares to grow complacent. Yet, this gets forgotten in the climax.

To top it all off, there’s a rather sudden escape and chase sequence in the final third of the episode which does prefirgure the regular routine of escape attempts that Six will undertake from here, but also feels somewhat tacked on. The ending makes up for it however. After a failed brainwashing, and a landslide victory in the election, Number Six is told by the cruel 58 – now revealed to be the new Number Two – that nothing has changed. Herbert is quite terrifying in her final scene as she very nearly convinces Six that they’ve already broken him, and there’s no way out.

There’s various oddities of Village life – apparent clones among the villagers, a strange cave in which sunglass-wearing soldiers ‘worship’ Rover- which we’ll never see again. These first three episodes, along with “Checkmate”, were filmed somewhat separately to the rest. Most of the shooting was done at Portmeiron (if I ever visit Portmeiron now, I daresay the beauty will be overwhelmed by an innate sense of dread), hence the greater amount of beach chases and the like that we’ve seen thus far. In “The Chimes of Big Ben”, however, we’re mostly on the studio lot.

“Chimes of Big Ben” is the first of my favourite episodes of the series. McGoohan’s chemistry with Leo McKern as Number Two is infectious (notably in their beachside talk, where Number Two posits a future where “the whole Earth” is the Village), and Nadia Gray is also convincing as a new arrival, Number Eight, who – despite his suspicions – promises that she has a way out of the village. Eight seems a well-matched equal for Six, complaining as she does that she is also “not a number”. Again, there’s some great village life going on here with the arts and crafts competition that conceals their escape plan. It’s a bit of a pity that later episodes tend to forget about the citizens of the Village, and the entire place seems to become one big laboratory designed solely to handle Six, but for now it’s all being expertly handled.

I think the denouement of this episode – redone not once but twice in the series’ short 17-episode run – is probably the best of those three. On his return to London, Number Six’s reunion with his former bosses Fotheringay (Richard Wattis) and Colonel J (Kevin Stoney) is completely convincing, and the moment when we realise that this has all been a plan to get Six to confess why he resigned is a great shock. The fact that this conspiracy extends all the way to the top of his own government agency show him and us, just how much of a danger he is in. And, coming on the heels of two episodes in which Six has been shown just how little power he has, it’s nice to see the Village attempt a genuine con to get his faith.

I fully support these four episodes being the “first” four of the series: it’s here, in “Chimes of Big Ben”, that Six finally learns not to trust anyone. When he’s returned to the Village, realising at last that his one friend was a willing agent for the other side, Six knows he’s going to be on his own in this battle. I’d argue also that the consistent quality of these first four episodes will never again be repeated in the series (as we’ll see soon enough). McGoohan had wanted a miniseries, but he was instead offered 13 initial episodes with an unspecified number to follow. He gamely did his best, but it will become clear very soon that after his inital episodes had been filmed, McGoohan had little else to say: and knew it.
Image from The Anorak Zone
And then there’s Rover. The strange white weather balloon of death gets his most prominent outings in these early episodes (because, of course, he’s much scarier on a real beach than in a studio set). We never entirely know how – or if – Rover is controlled by someone in particular. Certainly he can be deployed – when the time is right, the word is given and the lava lamp rises to release him – but it’s never really explained why sometimes Rover is used to kill and other times it is a soldiers-only mission. Personally, I like to think that the scene in this episode – where the soldier gather around Rover either reverently or sycophantically – suggests that perhaps the technology is faulty, or too clever for them. People must watch Rover constantly, or who knows when he will turn against his masters?

Either way, I’m not sure if Rover’s shape or colour are a particular reference to anything in particular. It’s well known that the Rover design was a last minute replacement for another – and while that doesn’t preclude Rover from having all sorts of meanings, I personally think he merely represents the ever-watching eye of Big Brother. Aside from that rarely calm sea (only truly quiet in the most crushing escape of all, in “Many Happy Returns”), Rover is the most constant reminder that these people can never leave. Some, like the chess player in “Arrival”, have accepted that they’re all pawns. Many others have either been drugged into submission or entered a state of willing denial. And after this episode, Six will almost always be alone in his fight. Is this a metaphor for human society as a whole? Stay in your place and your station for if you try to leave, there’s merely the emptiness and suffocation of death by Rover. In this way, perhaps The Prisoner isn’t out of place – and won’t be so out of place when the remake airs in November – for our society. This choice of maintaining one’s station in life or facing a never-ending fear is the running theme of 2000s art television, encompassing The Sopranos and Mad Men among its many converts. Perhaps Patrick McGoohan just got there early?

Diverse observations:

Leo McKern‘s return in “Once Upon A Time” at the end of the series run actually has little to do with his character’s popularity. “Chimes of Big Ben” was filmed at the end of the first 13-episode cycle, right before “Once Upon A Time”. It was only for additional scenes, and then for “Fall Out” that the greatest Number Two was asked to return.

And according to the Prisoner website – although I’m sure I’ve heard it elsewhere too – McGoohan had a real thing about intimacy. Reportedly, his own daughter in a wig fills in for some of the more personal scenes with Number Eight in “Chimes of Big Ben”. A little weird, sure, but in the world of The Prisoner that seems downright normal.

Next week, we run the gamut of Prisoner episodes as we look at the formidable “Checkmate“, the lacklustre “The General” and the fascinating “A, B and C“. Be seeing you!


2 Responses to “The Prisoner Rewatch: Part Two”

  1. I wouldn’t believe all that you might read on *prisoner websites*. You mention that it is well-known about the balloon replacing a mechanical Rover? As late as 1989 the fan club heirarchy didn’t believe that story. McGoohan told them about it in 1977, but his supposed fans concluded he had just made it up.

    I daresay the other guff you have read about his daughter is similar fan-fantasy. She would have been about 14 at the time btw. McGoohan maried in 1951.

    Enjoy the show though.

    • therebelprince said

      Wow, thanks for those details Moor, I didn’t know that. (Interesting blog too, I’ll have to browse through your archives at some point!) It seems like Prisoner fans are the most conflicted TV fans out there. Possibly, IMO, because they’re reading a lot more into things than actually exists. But I’m intrigued by this show, and I wish we didn’t have to sort out so much of the fact from the fiction!

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