...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Day 3208: THE PRISONER 42nd ANNIVERSARY: The Chimes of Big Ben


Yes, it's a week late – Daddy was kidnapped by the Village but I was able to disguise myself as a weather balloon and rescue him. Unless it was all a terribly bad-taste hoax to promote a new reality show: I'm a Former Secret Agent… Get Me Out of Here!


Trust, escape, deceit, betrayal. Business as usual in the Village.

The Prisoner observes the arrival by helicopter of the new Number Eight, and later Number Two invites him to watch from the Green Dome as she goes through the same disconcerting awaking that he went though in "Arrival", first finding herself in "her own home" and then discovering that it, and she, has been transplanted to the Utopian (literally "no place") Village.

Concerned that Number Two's methods may be driving her to suicide, the Prisoner agrees to a deal: he'll take part in the Village crafts contest in return for being given charge of her. She claims to know where the Village really is and, under cover of "joining in", together they plot an escape to London.

Only hearing the chimes of Big Ben will convince them they are safely home… but will it be safe to answer the questions about where they've been all this time?

what's your number, please

Well, this one is clearly not the second episode: the Prisoner is too settled in, too well acquainted with the ways of the Village, too chatty with Number Two to still be so very "new" here.

Watching the New Number Eight, Number Two asks: "it's just like old times. Do you remember your first day?"

This has to be some time since "Arrival".

But then he is still willing to believe that the Village is somewhere that he can escape from in something so mundane as a sailboat and he's in no way facing up to the full level of paranoia and doublethink that his captors indulge in. His boat-disguised-as-art-installation is hardly the most cunning of camouflage, and yet he is quite blasé about his success. Writing for the BBC website, Jonny Morris puts his finger on the nub when he asks: "why isn't he suspicious that no one is more suspicious?"

In return, the Village is still pussy-footing around putting the real pressure on; Number Two wants him broken, but not in pieces. Interestingly, this week brings forward the issue of the resignation again; interesting because Number Two is clear that it is only a minor mystery, but it is the key with which he will unlock the Prisoner's resistance: once he gives up that, the rest will follow.

We later get an answer but no details: it was a matter of conscience. We can probably assume that that answer is honest – it is only afterwards that the Prisoner rumbles the deception.

Early on, we are told that there is to be an exciting new competition, and that entrants will have six weeks before the exhibition. The Prisoner's escape attempt takes place the night after the prizes are given out, so at least six weeks have passed during the episode.

The journey to London is a matter of hours, of course; something that the Prisoner carefully checks using his borrowed watch, but arriving in London his bristly boss, Colonel J, tells him that he disappeared after his resignation and he's been missing for "months".

"Months" could be anything up to a year, but suggests probably less than "six months". Taking the "month-to-an-episode" assumption, that would mean "Dance of the Dead" takes place a month after "Arrival" and then "The Chimes of Big Ben" starts a month after that, and ends in the Colonel's office six weeks later, or two-and-a-half months since the Prisoner disappeared. That sounds just about right, maybe a little short.

The other reason for placing this story ahead of next week's "Checkmate" is that it makes sense that as a result of the double-cross here that he decides he needs a method to tell prisoner from warder, a plan he puts into action next time.

the new number two

This is the first of two (or three) appearances for Leo McKern as possibly the most well-remembered face of the Village's chairperson, certainly the one whose full-bellied laugh made it to the "Power Themes" version of the theme tune.

It's also the first glimpse we get that all may not be well in the Green Dome. For all his full-on fruity bonhomie and bluster, this Number Two is prone to fits of rage when the Prisoner lands a particularly successful moment of defiance upon him. He is no way in as much control as his predecessors from "Arrival" or "Dance of the Dead".

He often jokes with the Prisoner, loudly dictating pointed notes for the Prisoner's file, but it is an aggressive, probing, angry sort of humour, using wit as a weapon – what a pity it's such a blunt one.

He also admits that he too is a "prisoner": "We're both lifers – I know too much" he says, when the Prisoner challenges him on this. He makes out that he is accepting of this, making the best of a tight situation and living well as a result. But it seems he's also realising that he may only be a small cog in the machine, and outside of the Village not such a big fish after all. Number Eight's parting remark, "it was a good plan and you did your best", is more the sort of kind remark made to an unfortunate underling, than something you say to the boss.

He may also feel he is living on borrowed time: if he's given up the information he had, he can only hope to win a longer life by being useful, and his fate after what happens here therefore remains uncertain.

His philosophy is very SpECTRE: East West, mere points of the compass. Number Two presents a face of not caring which side the Village is actually "on"; he claims that it is a model for a perfect future world – again Utopian – and when both sides see what they've created there.

But this is also another sign of his insecurity: outside the Village, he is nothing, so he would deny that the Village can have and outside. Everything is to be within his ambit!

Thus asked what he wants, his answer: the whole World as the Village.

The Prisoner's typical response: then I want to be the first man on the Moon.

follow the signs

If you were going to write "The Prisoner" – and if you weren't bonkers in the nut the way McGoohan is – then "The Chimes of Big Ben" is almost certainly the episode you would end up writing. It is completely mundane, the most "spy drama" episode that the series comes up with: the "twist" telegraphed from practically the opening titles.

Obviously it's all been a set up, and obviouslyNumber Eight – another powerful but untrustworthy woman – was in on it from the very beginning. Is it a clue that where he discards his number at once, she keeps hers on, even on her swimming costume, even when ostensibly committing suicide? For the numerologists again, 8 is 6 and 2.

In the same vein, Number Two's notes for the file keep going in paragraph 42 – another 4 and 2 like last time, though his subsections go 2, 3, 4, 5 and then 1. If you don't know what that might mean, then go directly to "Fall Out", but don't expect to pass "Go"!

(Also, confusingly, this week Number 54 is a retired general – and he's definitely not a flirty maid!)

This week, the ultra-mild flirtation around the terms "Big Ben" and "Big Bill" is as close as we come to any romance but then the Prisoner is willing to compromise, to "deal" with the Village if he thinks a woman is in peril.

And the Village is definitely beginning to get to him. His automatic distrust of Number Eight when she arrives leads directly to him behaving towards her as the other Villagers behave towards him. And for the first time he fully accepts the Village's mark on him, telling her: "Sorry – no names. I am Number 6. You are Number 8."

For Number Eight, it's all been a consummate acting job on her part; that's why I refer to her as Number Eight, and not "Nadia" the name she gives to him, as though we can trust that. It's all just to get the Prisoner to trust her, not trust her completely but just enough so that she can prime him to expect the chimes of Big Ben. Those chimes are to make him feel that he's home, feel that he's safe, so that then he will answer the Colonel's question.

The irony, what little irony there is in this so straight episode, is that it nearly works, and it's only those very chimes that give the game away at the end.

who is number one?

You would expect it to be Leo McKern, but I'm actually going to give this week's episode to a scene-stealing turn by Kevin Stoney in a truly incredible moustache as the Prisoner's boss: Colonel J. If you've ever seen Danger Mouse, you'll remember the mouse detective's superior is a Chinchilla called Colonel K. That is exactly what Kevin Stoney's moustache looks like here.

It's a small part, but a vital one: this is someone that the Prisoner ought to trust, but his staccato questioning and over-the-top delivery, carefully reminiscent of Number Two, provoke enough distrust to send our hero right to the brink as he starts to realise, to draw on a movie parallel, just how deep the rabbit hole goes:

"Are you sure you don’t know about the Village? …Are you sure you haven't got a Village here? …I risked my life, and hers, to get us here because I thought it was different. It is different, isn't it?"

Or, if you prefer an Arnie metaphor to a Keanu one, he's the chap who turns up in "Total Recall" to warn that it's all a dream. Except he can't quite stop himself from perspiring.

next time…

That would be telling.

Be seeing you.


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