The Prisoner: The Chimes of Big Ben

Six: "She came across a secret file."
Colonel: "On how to catch a spy in six lessons?"

Let's give a big, warm welcome to my favorite Number Two, Leo McKern! He's definitely memorable, a big step up from the more forgettable Twos. He appeared so jovial and fun, starting an arts and crafts festival in the Village, and teasing Six about his sense of humor. And yet, he always followed the fun with serious threats, like a period at the end of a sentence.

This time, the communism metaphor was hard to miss. Number Two wanted (or let's be coy, he said he wanted) the entire world to be like the Village. Six even referred to him as the Village "Chairman", like Mao. All of the exhibited arts and crafts, except the abstract escape boat created by Six, had Number Two as their subject. And the plot revolved around Six's discovery that the Village was supposedly behind the Iron Curtain. Except it's probably not, since Six now knows that his former superiors are involved.

At least Number Two wanted Six to remain whole. This particular method was a rather kind way to get Six to break, when you think about it. No brainwashing, no torture, unless you count all those hours in a big wooden box with no bathroom, and the hope Six must have felt but carefully concealed. Six was simply tricked into believing he was back home and was actually about to tell one of his former superiors why he resigned when the untimely chimes of Big Ben revealed the truth.

Six is changing. He is now outwardly cooperative, joking about his own resistance. He initially played along with Number Two, treating Number Eight's arrival confusion rather cruelly as he himself was treated. His approach to this episode's escape attempt seemed more practical than anything else, like, Okay, I'll play, let's see how far this gets and how much I can learn, but I'm not counting on it being real. He wasn't even surprised or angry when Eight betrayed him; he probably expected it. It's like Six has realized and accepted that it's going to be a long game.

There were several wonderful bits in this one. My favorite was Six matter of factly sticking the loud speaker in his refrigerator and shutting the door. My second favorite was him dropping three lumps of sugar in his tea. It was pretty much his way of saying, you think you have me figured out, but guess again. And Six also said quite pointedly that he plans to escape, return and wipe the Village off the face of the earth. His anger is better concealed, but it is certainly not gone.

This might be a good time to talk about the multiple number twos. I think The Prisoner sacrificed some character development and dramatic tension by having a new Number Two in nearly every episode. Casting only one actor, hopefully a strong one like Leo McKern, would have made the conflict between Two and Six more personal. But it's also clear that the changing face of Number Two was intended as a statement about the core theme of the series, the individual versus the collective. In The Prisoner, Number Two is the revolving face of collective evil management. Good times.

Using the trusty Wikipedia, I put together a list of Number Twos and the actors who played the part. It's here.

Ben P Duck Number Five says...

Number Five: The birds are certainly flying south early.
Number Two: What kind of information is that? Is it a pass phrase?
Number Five: No, no, it's a spy joke. You reply: "And the flowers have all wilted." Then I will give you the punchline.
Number Two: Very well, if you insist. "And the flowers have all wilted."
Number Five: I'm sorry. Your clearance isn't high enough for the punchline.

In one way of thinking, the whole twentieth century was a struggle between freedom of the individual and the power of the collective, and this series was ambitious enough that it was willing to tackle this issue (which is by no means a simple one) head on. By the time it was over, The Prisoner had considered this problem with a level of sophistication that frankly has never been duplicated. The question is not so much why was the series short or bizarre, but how on earth did it get on TV in the first place.

Part of this was about the BBC and the subversion of authority there that seemed to spread more easily than in U.S. television (Monty Python being the most lasting example), but a big part of it was also approaching the issue in the classic way that great sci-fi and genre fiction has always done. Sci-fi, at least until Star Wars, was viewed as so unimportant and the province of nerds and teenage boys that you could talk about anything you wanted without fear of being taken too seriously. The Prisoner mixed the spy thriller with science fiction elements, which thanks to James Bond and all of his lesser imitators, including Patrick McGoohan's own stint as Secret Agent John Drake, was already as instantly recognizable to audiences as Westerns would have been in the mid-1950's. The difference here is that this show was never about cheap thrills or gadgetry for its own sake. It probed issues which were the meat of political and philosophical discussion then and now. It was always Beckett meets Bond, which must have been a bit of a disappointment to many viewers.

This episode actually had the look and feel of an episode of a spy show for the first time, but it also expanded the world of The Prisoner into one of a much broader conspiracy which reached to both sides of the Iron Curtain. These are the seeds of the conspiracies in The X-Files and Fringe. It begins to hint that there are things afoot that reach beyond what even Number Six suspected, and make his resistance that much more vital.

But I have said too much already.

And BTW, seriously, that's a real joke told by spies.

Back to Billie for bits and pieces:

-- This episode aired second, but it really does feel like Six has been in the Village awhile. Another reason why I decided to go with the production order of the episodes.

-- The previous Number Eight "vacated the premises." But I thought the Queen in "Checkmate" was Number Eight?

-- Nadia, Number Eight, was supposedly an Olympic swimmer, but she couldn't outswim Rover. Three Rovers, a big one and two babies, dragged her back to the beach, and there was a weird visual effect when it got her. That was new.

-- Number Eight kept calling Six "Big Ben" while they were languishing in the box. I can probably assign all sorts of reasons for that, other than the obvious fact that Six is from London.

-- The Admiral is no longer at the chessboard. His place was taken by the General.

-- The loudspeaker said the weather would be good for the next month. We don't even have weather reports that good in 2012. Well, this is science fiction.

-- Fotheringay had a shipwreck on the wall behind his desk.

-- I guess we can now assume that the Village isn't in Lithuania.

-- Leo McKern was our seventh Number Two. He was constantly adding notes to "section 42" of Six's file. 42 is, of course, the answer to everything. Although it wasn't back in 1967.

Quotes:

Two: "He can make even the act of putting on his dressing gown appear as a gesture of defiance."

Two: "You really are a model."
Six: "But I don't run on clockwork."
Two: "You will, my dear chap. You will."
Ah, communism. It's dehumanizing, isn't it? What a bludgeony metaphor.

Six: "The whole earth, as the Village is."
Two: "That is my hope. What's yours?"
Six: "I'd like to be the first man on the moon."

Six: "I'll join in. Try to settle down. I'll even carve something for the exhibition."
Two: (sarcastically) "If I turn her over to you, you'll do some woodwork for me. Is that your deal?"

Four out of four large shipping crates with no bathroom facilities,

Billie
---
Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.

6 comments:

Mark said...

@Billie ("She who must be obeyed"): My dad loved "Rumpole of the Bailey", which is a great showcase for McKern.

I've been reading about an alternate version of "The Chimes of Big Ben". Is it included with your DVD set?

Are you still planning on seeing "The General" after "A. B. and C." ?

Billie Doux said...

Hi, Mark: Yes, an alternate version of Chimes is in my DVD set, but I haven't watched it yet. A, B and C is next, followed by The General. I thought it would be easier for our readers to go by the DVD set order.

ChrisB said...

This one is, by far, my favourite episode to date. For the first time, I was actually emotionally invested in Number Six and, while I knew that his escape was highly unlikely, I was hoping that he could make it happen.

I agree that this would be an awkward second episode. A lot of time has passed in the "real" world (Fotheringay says that there has been "a gap of months" since Six disappeared) and, even in this episode, six weeks pass while he is building the boat. I also don't think that the "escape" would have the same resonance if we hadn't seen some unsuccessful attempts in earlier episodes.

For the first time, I saw Six at least playing at conforming, something that I haven't seen much of before. This, too, would have seem very awkward in a second episode. Having said that, we see a blue windbreaker that hardly looks like the "uniform" worn by the rest of the inhabitants of The Village.

Speaking of time, I loved Six's comment about being the first man on the moon. When this originally aired, Neil Armstrong and his footprint were still two years away. It dated the episode in exactly the right way.

I agree that Rumpole, sorry Leo McKern, is the best Number Two I have seen. I loved the interactions between him and Six and they seemed on a much more even playing field intellectually than some of the others. I agree with Billie that the same Number Two, even across multiple episodes, would have added another level on tension.

Vincent Tisley, the writer of this episode, did an audio commentary that was very interesting. He talks about the fact that two important scenes he wrote were changed because Patrick McGoohan refused to have even slight sexual contact with a woman other than his wife.

The first scene is the one where Six and Nadia are talking in the dark with the radio playing. Tisley wanted them to be kissing, but McGoohan refused and, instead, put in the business with his hands covering his mouth. The second was the crate; they were meant to be sharing one crate, not in one divided. Tisley was not, to put it mildly, impressed with these changes.

Billie Doux said...

Great comment, Chris. I haven't listened to the commentary yet (I do have the set, and probably will) but I'd already heard that tidbit about Patrick McGoohan. I think he was a devout Catholic -- am I right? There's another actor today who is the same -- he refuses to do love scenes, or at least anything explicit: Jim Caveziel of Person of Interest.

ChrisB said...

Yes, Billie, he was a devout Catholic and his faith drove many of the decisions he made about his career. In fact, in the commentary to the first episode, the men speaking talk about the fact that McGoohan was considered for Bond at one point, but refused to play such a philanderer.

I didn't know who Jim Caveziel was, so I looked him up on IMDB. Interestingly, he played Number Six in the 2009 mini-series of The Prisoner. How's that for maintaining certain standards!

Tim Thomason said...

Another sexual reference not mentioned here (and my favorite):

Early on, Number Six tells Number Two that he's going into the woods with Nadia. Number Two's response: "Naughty, naughty."

A tsk, tsk moment, sure, but it seems that the Village (or Number Two) is A-OK with Number Six and Nadia having some fun in the woods. Six immediately qualifies his statement that he was just going to pull off some woodworking, but the implication is still there.