The Prisoner: The Chimes of Big Ben

If You Go Down to the Woods Today
The Prisoner: Episode 2 The Chimes of Big Ben
Written by Vincent Tilsley
Directed by Don Chaffey
No.6 "The whole Earth as The Village?"
No.2 "That's my hope. What's yours?"
No.6 "I'd like to be the first man on the moon!"
The Village
has a new inmate, and No.6  a new neighbour. She's Nadia, an Estonian cypher clerk who knows the real location of The Village. Meanwhile, No.2 is organising an Arts & Crafts Exhibition. Concerned that Nadia is suicidal No.6 promises to look after her in return for doing something for the Exhibition. But No.6 is planning on escape, and Nadia can help him.
I'm following the ITC recommended viewing order, for reasons I'll explain in a series overview, but is the same as its only network showings in the U.S. on CBS Summer 1968 (barring "Living In Harmony" which wasn't shown) and in the U.K. on C4 in 1984 (it was NOT networked originally, various ITV regions showed episodes in differing order, on different days and at different times, between September 1967 and February 1968, with HTV in Wales and Ulster TV not showing it until 1968), and it's the one used for DVD releases.
Actually this was the second filmed story but unhappy with the finished article, McGoohan reshot (notice the fake Portmeiron beach when Nadia is returned by Rover), so it was the fifth completed.
Following on from the first episode, audience expectation would be that McGoohan would escape from The Village. So this episode is much more concerned with narrative than later episodes, with a much more forward moving plot driven narrative thrust, though there are some thematic tropes. Thus it was handed to veteran TV writer Vincent Tilsley, and film director Don Chaffey (who shot this back-to-back with the opener "Arrival"). It's  a great story, with just one plot hole, brilliantly directed by Chaffey, who'd worked on Danger Man and The Baron for ITC, as well as feature film Jason and the Argonauts (1963), one of my favourite films of that peplum genre. Tilsley handles the characterisation and dialogue superbly, while Chaffey knows how to shoot exciting action sequences, and let's not forget he's working with one of Britain's greatest cinematographers, Brendan J Stafford BSC.
Leo McKern is excellent as No.2, and McGoohan was highly impressed by him, so much so that he recalled him twice to the show. The way he can instantly change from good natured friendly chap ("if you have so much as a bad dream you'll come to me") to malevolent villain ("whimpering"), is amazing, but then he does have some good dialogue. Like the first episode he and No.6 engage in some witty repartee, with words used as rapiers, such as the above comment, and over the chess set when No.2 says "We must play some time", No.6 replies "Certainly we must, by post!". The narrative drive is good, from the moment Nadia takes her first swim, through No.6's work of art (what is it?), the boat escape, the journey to London, to the denouement, which would have been a surprise to the original audience, and anyone new to the series coming to it without foreknowledge, who wouldn't have been clued in to the diabolical lengths The Village will go to to get No.6 to confess. 
There's also the question of The Village's real location (assuming of course The Village is  a real place, but this far in the series there's  no reason to doubt that). Nadia gives it as Lithuania, only five miles from the Polish border. Much has been made of the fact that this contradicts later information in the series that it's located in either South Portugal or North Africa (or an island in between). Let's clear this straight away. The whole escape is a sham, a lie, remember? So there's no reason to accept Nadia at all. Indeed, one of the scenes McGoohan cut from the original (and is in the 'alternative version') is a scene where No.6 uses a triquetrum (an ancient Greek measuring device) to locate the general position of The Village. If he did so, he would discover Nadia's lie, and there's no way The Village (or the series creators) would want No.6 to know where The Village is, certainly not so early in the story arc. 

What's that you say? The plot hole, I haven't said what the plot hole is. Don't you know about suspense? Oh, alright then. Even if the boat only had to go five miles, you wouldn't want to row that distance, especially as you wouldn't know whether there'd be a cross current, and speed would be of the essence. No.6 clearly has built  a mast for his boat but he has no sail? He buys No.38's tapestry of No.2 as the sail. Despite the amusing irony of No.6's escape taking place literally under the gaze of No.2 (and doubly ironic because it really is), there's no way No.6 could have known that someone would make  a tapestry for the Exhibition large enough to act as a sail. Nadia could have told him, but that would immediately raise his suspicions, and the evidence on screen is that No.6 is fooled right up to the chimes of Big Ben. It's the reason I've marked an otherwise excellent episode down.
Even though this episode is more concerned with narrative than theme, there are  at least three key themes here. The first is the appalling way that authoritarian collectives can co-opt and corrupt the concept and the reality of community. This was  a current concern of the mid-60s (still is),  where collective action was being replaced by rampant individualism (the tune in, turn on, drop out generation) at the same time the concept of community was being revived as a corrective to the acquisitive and destructive individualism of Western capitalism, with all its attendant social problems. McGoohan has stated in many interviews that the tension between collectivism and individualism was the core of the show, and it doesn't take  a genius to see that in the basic premise, but what is subtle about the show is the way the series vacillates its support for either of these so-called warring opposites, both actually vital to the health of the body (personal, social, and political). As it's the start of the series we're obviously rooting for No.6's individualism, as we're mean to (only later would this become problematical). For this episode, the way No.2 and The Village quite happily torture Nadia, bug berate No.6 for not settling down an fitting in, is chilling, more so because they seem so damn reasonable. The idea of a democratically elected local council and its Arts & Crafts Exhibition is shown to be the hollow sham it is when all the arts & crafts exhibits are on one subject alone, No.2 himself. And when No.6 wins, is anyone in doubt who made that decision. It wasn't the local council, despite the three judges ("Brilliant. It means what is is. Oh, no, I mustn't influence you, it's your decision", says the Chief Torturer to his inmates and victims). 
Which neatly brings us to the second theme tackled here, the role of art in society. Firstly, let's admit that there's a bit of a joke here about the parlous state of Art Criticism (indeed fine art itself) in the 60s. Of course, the meaning of a work of art is simply what is, i.e. the form it takes and what has been included and what deliberately excluded (see Susan Sontag's excellent review on Ingmar Bergman's 1966 film Persona in her book Against Interpretation). There's always a danger in translating a non-verbal artform into verbal terms, and importing meaning from outside the artwork to 'explain' its meaning, the most obvious being those two fallacies, the 'pathetic' (The exterior world metaphorically represents the emotional or interior state, e.g. a man walking in the rain, here the rain represents the man's emotional state, i.e. sadness, rain being tears) and the 'biographical' (that the work of art reflects its creator, which means if you can learn about the artist you'll understand their work better, which denies the artist the possibility of imagination and invention). But with Pop Art and Abstract in the ascendant in the 60s there's a sly suggestion that "it means what it is" is the ultimate cop-out for Modern Art, a questioning of which is seen as philistinism rather than critical scrutiny. The fact that No.6 makes up the meaning to disguise the fact that his abstract isn't art, but a boat disassembled, adds to the joke.
More seriously, as mentioned , all the exhibits barring No.6's are about No.2. In a dictatorship, all art supports the state and carries its imprint (that which doesn't is removed from history). Our Glorious Leader is always venerated. There were cultural wars behind The Iron Curtain (indeed, one was actually happening in Czechoslovakia as The Prisoner was being made), but they were quickly crushed. That's an obvious point. But to paraphrase Chomsky's assertion that the role of the intellectual in modern Western societies was to lie on behalf of the state, it's also true that nearly all art and culture (at least high culture) functions to support society's view of itself (or at least the one the power elite presents to it's members). Even entertainment, by making the consumer not look at and scrutinise critically their society through diversion, serves this function. Youth culture at the time might have been beginning to question their respective societies, how they functioned and for whose benefit, but even that was being dissipated by entertaining diversions, like fashion and drugs. Certainly mainstream art & culture was complacent at the time, particularly about the increasing poverty of its own citizens (British economy was in decline, disguised by it's Commonwealth & Colonial imports, as demonstrated by inflation and increasing homelessness and slum housing) and the quiet escalation of the War in Vietnam. It's one of the reasons the Profumo affair so rocked British society (and the war for American), and why the authorities from 1967 began to clamp down on youth culture. The Village has no doubt. Art and Culture is to celebrate the powerful, and the reward is three thousand work credits. McGoohan consciously wanted his series to get the audience to ask such questions, and later episodes would look at the misuse of medicine, the perversion of psychotherapy, the manipulation of education, among other topics. This is not accidental, it's an essential component of the show, and I would argue of its longevity and success with responsive viewers. After all, how may time scan you watch a show that's just about a man's escape from a prison, no matter how stylishly told.
This also dovetails nicely into the last theme explored, best exemplified by the opening quotes. The growing concern that the so-called Free West, and the so-called Dictatorial East were beginning to increasingly resemble each other, like Philip K Dick's novel A Scanner Darkly. No.2 doesn't mind which side, if any, runs The Village, he sees The Village as a blueprint for a new internationalist society, the World as The Village. No.6 is appalled, but history has proven that No.2 was right. Nowadays, Britain is one of the most surveilled societies outside China, it has more CCTV and secret camera coverage. This is not conspiracy theory, but truth. Just ask any police force about CCTV coverage in the battle against crime. In 1967 we were appalled at the villagers having nearly all their lives caught on camera, but nowadays we demand the police put in CCTV into our communities (and set up Neighbourhood Watches) as a deterrent to crime . Also, everyone that has a mobile phone (which, let's face it, means everyone in the Western World) has a GPS tracker in it so that your location can be traced. Credit card transactions and cookies on computers observe our spending habits and browser habits. And what has happened to the Communist World? Both Russia and China are run by individuals who only believe in nothing but Money and Power for its own sake There's no longer any pretence to building towards a Workers paradise. As long as you don't attempt to interfere with this, you're left alone (but under observation), something Capitalist societies were historically accused of. It's called Globalisation, and with the rise of Multinationals whose economies are larger than many a state and tax-havens that make the idea of national governments power to actually change this state of affairs a relic of the20th Century. We are living in The Village, now. Indeed we turned Big Brother into a TV entertainment. I often wonder what McGoohan thought of that. Did he smile ruefully, or did he weep with sheer exasperation? When No.6 has returned to London and speaking to Colonel J. he says "I came back because it's different here. It is different here?". Note the sense of desperation. Is it different?
Lastly, a word about the excellent acting, from Nadia Gray to the small roles of Wattis and Kevin Stoney as No.6's ostensible colleagues. So, a thoughtful but also exciting piece of engaging cultural entertainment. Can I join you on the moon, Pat?

VILLAGE rating (out of 6): No.5
Cast

The Prisoner .................................................................. PATRICK McGOOHAN
Number Two .................................................................. LEO McKERN
The Butler  ..................................................................... ANGELO MUSCAT
Nadia ............................................................................. NADIA GRAY
General .........................................................................  FINLAY CURRIE
Fotheringay  .................................................................  RICHARD WATTIS
Colonel J. ...................................................................... KEVIN STONEY
Number Two's assistant ................................................ CHRISTOPHER BENJAMIN
Karel .............................................................................. DAVID ARLEN
Supervisor.....................................................................  PETER SWANWICK
Number 38 ...................................................................  HILDA BARRY
First Judge .................................................................... JACK LE-WHITE
Second Judge ............................................................... JOHN MAXIM
Third Judge  .................................................................. LUCY GRIFFITHS
Be Seeing You!
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Comments

  1. This is my all time favourite Prisoner episode, I loved his threat of coming back with a machine gun!

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