...a blog by Richard Flowers

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Day 3222: THE PRISONER 42nd ANNIVERSARY: Free for All


For obvious reasons we actually watched this on WEDNESDAY, just before Mr Andrew Britain's History of Marrmite. It's a jumbled up, reactionary, aren't-they-all-just-the-same view of politics… and so is "Free for All".

Here's Daddy:


Written by "Paddy Fitz" aka Patrick "Paddy" McGoohan, and make of the Fitz what you will, "Free for All" sees the Prisoner enter its "barking mad" phase. It is election time in the Village, and Number 2 persuades the Prisoner to run against him for the job of chairman with a promise that if he wins "Number 1 will no longer be a mystery" to him.

This turns out, like all too many "campaign promises", to be rather more nuanced in outcome than the Prisoner might have hoped.

(He ends up essentially alone in control – see if you can work out where this is headed.)

"Do you intend to run?"

"Like blazes, first chance I get."

He should have stuck to his first answer; agreeing to this election may have been a bad mistake. First he is shocked to see that the Villagers already have anticipated his decision and his campaign posters are ready instantly, even if they react to his manifesto for freedom with hilarity. Then he is invited to the formal final meeting of the outgoing committee who blank-facedly refuse to answer his questions before a maniacal Number Two 2 orders the Prisoner sent for testing as punishment for this "breach of etiquette".

"Testing" involves a nice cup of – laced – tea with a kindly Civil Servant who more than a little resembles Michael Palin's character in "Brazil". After which, a blissed out Prisoner finds himself mouthing the nostrums of the Village and winning the approval of the crowd.

With everything going his way, the Prisoner seems to become more and more distressed: trying his crudest escape attempt yet – by boat, see my remarks about the sea last time – getting dragged back by Rover; turning to drink, finding an apparently garrulous Number 2 in the hidden drinking den, only to get another dose of the Village's brain juice instead of a slug of the good stuff. Each of these humiliations sees him returning to Village double-talk even stronger than the last.

Victory, when it comes, is a landslide, with even Number 2 throwing in the towel, pinning on the rosette, and handing over the control room in the Green Dome. But being able to push the buttons doesn't really mean he's in control. Step forward the real new Number Two to, literally, slap him down.

"Will you never learn?"

Even without mentioning the surreal discovery of four be-sun-glassed Villagers sat around watching Rover like a television or a guru, you have to ask yourself: "what the Hell does all that mean?"

what's your number, please

This isn't, obviously, the first time that the Village messes with the Prisoner's head, but here they stop pussy-footing around with psychology and start using chemicals, drugging and brainwashing him at least twice. This is a marked step up from their previous practice, even if they insist that they don't want to "damage the tissue".

For his own part, the Prisoner also escalates things, trying to seize control so that he can free all the Villagers, not seeing that there's an obvious contradiction in that:

"Obey me and be free!"

And clearly "Free for All" is a major turning point. It was certainly an important episode to McGoohan.

For these reasons we put "Free for All" as the climax of the "early" or "trying to escape" phase of the series.

Elections have been referred to before but clearly there haven't been any, so we can guess this is a later story than "Arrival" which doesn't really help us, but also "Dance of the Dead" where Number 2 says "we're democratic, in our way".

There's a bit of a puzzle: in "Dance of the Dead" the Prisoner doesn't recognise the Town Hall; yet in "Free for All" he doesn't seem to know where to find it – going to the "Free Information" board in order to look it up. These seem contradictory; I'm going to say that it seems slightly more likely that he learns of the Town Hall in "Dance of the Dead" but, since it won't let him in except under special circumstances, he doesn't bother to work out the direct way there from his residence (he follows Number 42 there from the bandstand and later Number 2 takes him there from the beach). Or maybe it moves about.

We're also told the elections are annual so, big assumption that that's not a lie, we say that he's been in the Village less than a year.

In his address to the crowd, the Prisoner promises (among other things) to discover who are the watched and who are the warders. To me, that seems like an acknowledgement of his defeat in "Checkmate", an admission that he needs to find out from control because he can't work it out for himself. Couple that with the Count in that story chiding him for not realising that some of the "prisoners" are actually guards and we infer that "Free for All" must follow "Checkmate".

Then there's the Prisoner's reaction to women, clearly well documented by now as Number 2 refers to knowing his prejudices when assigning Number 58 as his election staff. Previously we've seen him faced off with a woman who is in charge ("Dance of the Dead"), a woman who follows him around ("Checkmate"), and a woman who deceives him ("The Chimes of Big Ben"). And now we complete the picture with one who does all three.

the new number two

Ah, now this is a tricky one. There are in fact two possible candidates for who is this week's Number 2: Eric Portman who's in the titles, wears the badge and is the Prisoner's rival candidate in the election; and Rachel Herbert, the crazed-seeming maid-cum-lady-driver whose badge reads 58 until she discards it at the end leaving herself with Number 2's rosette and indeed Number.

Was she really Number 2 all along?

She is obviously right at the centre of the plot, watching the Prisoner from up close and subtly driving him (and sometimes not-so-subtly: how did someone "new" know about Number 2's secret drinking den, then?). He knows, because by now he's totally paranoid, that "Number 58" is a spy, although it doesn't seem to occur to him that she might in fact be the boss. Her made-up-sounding foreign language is a clever blind: it's so grotesquely over the top that it throws off his critical thinking. It's a stunning performance, all wide-eyed and childlike enthusiasm, making her sudden turnaround all the more impressive, stunning even when you know it's coming.

And at the end, she is a strong and powerful figure, dominating and patronising the Prisoner, positively regal in the reveal of her stood in control with the Number 2 rosette proclaiming her true identity, almost up there with Mary Morris.

Contrast that with Eric Portman's more world-weary figure. Now a lot of that will be part of the "act" – most obviously made clear in the magnificent "drinking den" scene.

But there are other scenes where he is not putting on a show for the Prisoner, where he seems nervous and under pressure, notably when taking instructions over the phone. We infer that it is Number 1 on the line, though it's not the big red "Number 1-phone" we see later, so it's not impossible that it's Number 58 aka the real Number 2 giving him his orders.

When in the Council Room he condemns the Prisoner for "testing", he becomes frenzied, almost unhinged, repeatedly banging his gavel as he sends the Prisoner down, down, down. It can't all be an act as he's later, over the phone, chastised for it and apologises.

follow the signs

I have to admit, I find "Free for All" a very difficult episode: it looks very much like it ought to mean something more, but that meaning persists in slipping through my fingers.

On a superficial level, what, exactly, does the Village get out of this exercise? Is it simply trying to put him under so much stress that he cracks? Do they think that proving some abstract point about the nature of democracy versus government will tip him over the edge?

And yet surely he cannot be so naïve as to believe that a prison, no matter how psychedelic the conditions, would actually have a system in place for one of the lunatics to take over the asylum? He must realise that this is all a ploy. Is he genuinely just playing along while waiting to think of a better plan? It's hard enough trying to spot where he's under the Village's brain control and where he's coming out of it again.

This lack of proper plot logic tends to sharpen the crudity of the allegory, make me less willing to forgive something that is trying so hard to be clever that it may just end up being very dumb indeed.

Alex, too, finds it a really weird mix, primitive and advanced at the same time. Bits, like lady Number 2's somewhat crass "my regards to the homeland" (reminiscent of the "my new masters" remark in "Arrival"), seem to be unpolished, first ideas about how this works; but there are other bits, like gentleman Number 2's sly encouragements as the Prisoner harangues an unmoved crowd, that are far more sophisticated.

"Free for All" has the word "allegory" loitering like an enormous neon elephant in the room. The need to make a point heavily outweighing any request that the plot make coherent sense.

Our "everyman" hero goes into politics to try and make things better for everyone, but ends up looking and sounding just like the regime he seeks to replace; once he is in power he discovers he is a powerless as he was before. Is this profound or profoundly naïve?

Remember, when McGoohan says this is how things work in the Village, he's not saying this is how they work in the World; he's saying this is how they work in a World that is wrong.

You can't just dismiss this as unsophisticated political analysis: it remains true today that this view of politics is held by a great many people and leads to alienation and extremism.

The Prisoner's democratic victory is overturned by apathy – the Villagers worshipping Rover – and by violence – the mechanics who beat him up. That's not just a crude reference to the way German democracy fell to Hitler, but also a warning.

Along the way, there's a sly pop at the press: every question is answered "no comment"; every answer turned into rhetoric for the status quo, except when the Prisoner says "mind your own business" which is rendered as "no comment". Identical twins 116a and 116b appear as the press-photographer and newspaper boy, while the journalist himself is 116, perhaps suggesting they are all just drones or perhaps prefiguring the Village council, alternating men in stripy tops and women in single colours, all numbered 2a, 2b, 2c and so on. (And the council chamber is a sight: like a rocket silo, with the Prisoner on a dais in the middle surrounded by the silent, unresponsive council, while Number 2 in person sits, gavel in hand, at the big desk in front, though behind him raised up is a throne on which sits a tall pyramid surmounted with a glowing eye like an Illuminati symbol standing in for Number 1.)

The Prisoner retains our sympathy throughout, driven to run away, driven to lash out, driven to drink it's clear that it's "the system" (here represented by spy-thriller tropes of drugs and brainwashing) that is warping his character. If anything, that is a plea for greater understanding of our elected representatives, not condemnation of them.

Nevertheless, it would be true to the series to say that democracy cannot represent the individual. No matter how we vote – Labour, Liberal, Conservative, None-of-the-above – we cannot all win simultaneously; there has to be compromise and sharing or someone loses.

There's an argument, a big argument, to be had about how much we share power: that is, how much power we allow, say, the government to have. When government takes more power, does that mean more or fewer people are winning? But that isn't the argument here. The Village and the Prisoner both have extreme positions: the Prisoner doesn't believe in compromise; the Village doesn't believe in sharing

who is number one?

It has to be Eric Portman for the character arc he plays, starting off the undisputed master of the Village, keen to have an opponent in this election because, as the Prisoner puts it, everyone votes for a dictator (in the end, everyone does) through the funny cruelty of him egging on his opponent's speech, down through the madness of the Council to the final helicopter departure, knowing that he is playing the role of someone playing a role.

We return to that scene in the cave where he pretends to be a broken old man, sharing little secrets and indiscretions, telling the Prisoner there's no surveillance. And the fool believes him. And then, with Prisoner mickey-finned on the floor, he sloughs off his avuncular, drunken persona as easily as he shrugs off his blanket. As Alex says: both actions leave him "cold".

Oh, and he's developed the ability to teleport. He speaks to the Prisoner on the telephone and appears on the television clearly at home in the control room in the Green Dome. But the instant the Prisoner hangs up on him, he's at the door, the Mountain coming to Mohammed.

next time…

That would be telling.

Be seeing you.


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