Tuesday, 14 September 2010

The Prisoner Challenge: The Chimes of Big Ben

"Where am I?"
"In the Village."
"What do you want?"
"Whose side are you on?"
"That would be telling. We want information. Information... information..."
"You won't get it."
"By hook or by crook - we will."
"Who are you?"
"The new Number 2."
"Who is Number 1?"
"You are Number 6."
"I am not a number, I am a free man!"

The Chimes of Big Ben was the second broadcast episode of The Prisoner, and as such it contains a number of firsts for the series. It is the first episode to contain the exchange I have quoted above between Number 6 and Number 2 (sometimes voiced by the actor playing Number 2 that episode, sometimes not) as the second part of the title sequence.

It is also the first episode where Number 2 is played by Leo McKern, though - unusually but not uniquely - not the last. He is a fantastic actor who I have recently been watching in Rumpole of the Bailey.

His Number 2 makes for one of the best antagonists in the series by making him, in only a few lines of dialogue, a more rounded and believable character than many of the others, with the suggestion that he was once a prisoner like Number 6 but now a convert to the side of the Village.

I understand there is a bit of a question of why this is the second episode of The Prisoner. In it Number 6 is clearly shown to have been in the Village a while and become accustomed to some aspects of Village life, unlike in some (broadcast) later episodes such as Dance of the Dead.

I think the answer may lie in the way this episode, in its opening moments, makes explicit something that was only suggested in Arrival: that if Number 6 tells them why he resigned, he loses. Take this exchange between Number 2's assistant (played by Christopher Benjamin, who was also in Arrival) and Number 2:

Assistant: "He doesn't even bend a little."
Number 2: "That's why he'll break. It only needs one small thing. If he will answer one simple question, the rest will follow - why did he resign?"

This establishes the conflict at the heart of not only this episode but also the series as a whole.
Alternatively it could be that ITV broadcast the episodes in any old order, and it was only luck that Arrival was shown first.

There are direct parallels between this episode and Arrival when Number 6 is shown Number 8 (Nadia) waking up in the Village for the first time and acting much as he did when he first woke up and saw an exact replica of his room but with the Village outside.

Of course the situation is then flipped when he meets her and it is Number 6 playing the part of the local, with all the knowledge of the Village that she lacks.
"Oh I'm frightened," she says to him outside Number 2's house.
"Goodbye," is his only reaction to this.
"I've done nothing wrong," Nadia insists. "I've committed no crime, all I did was resign." This line confirms, if there was any doubt, that she is a direct counterpart for him. How does Number 6 respond to this?
"No use telling me." Without sympathy. It seems clear that after the events of Arrival (and however many more chapters that have passed since then) Number 6 is already suspicious that she may be a trap for him.

But when they meet again she acts suspicious of Number 6 and takes him as one of Number 2's assistants - a trap for her? He is eventually convinced she really is a prisoner after witnessing an escape attempt foiled by Rover that lands Nadia in the hospital, and then her apparent suicide attempt.

Is Number 6 still being quite naive though? His 'abstract art' consisting of the hull and mast of the boat to be used in the escape attempt - did he really think they wouldn't see it? Or am I just being cynical, having seen this episode before?

Though I have to say I think using the tapestry of Number 2 as the sail is a touch of genius.

"Orange Alert. Orange Alert." Rover attacks Number 6 and Nadia out at sea, just when they're within sight of Nadia's friends and it looks like they have escaped. As with Rover's attack on Nadia earlier, this lends credibility to the escape.

I find the sequence showing their 'escape' to London is somewhat reminiscent of scenes in From Russia With Love, where James Bond is escaping Eastern Europe with Tatiana Romanova.

There is a bit of a cheat at this point in the story - the scene in London with Fotheringay on the telephone, which Number 6 couldn't be aware of, can surely therefore only exist to keep the audience thinking the 'escape' is real.

When they get to 'London' the Colonel's...

Big Gay Longcat says: It's Kevin Stoney!

The Colonel's debriefing of Number 6 in 'London' is possibly the closest they ever get to him admitting why he resigned. But at that very moment their plan is foiled by the smallest of errors - forgetting the time difference between Poland and England.

"Why did you resign?"
"I resigned because, for a very long time... just... just a minute, it's 8 O'Clock."
The Colonel doesn't realise the significance of this statement - that Number 6 has seen through their plan in that instant - and he tries to carry on.
"That's right - the night is young and there are many questions. First: why did you resign?"

Patrick McGoohan's performance of Number 6's reaction to this is amazing, the way he walks out of the room, out of the building, and says nothing except "Be seeing you" and rejoins the Village. He won't break.

And, of course, Nadia was one of them. Number 6 underestimated the lengths the Village went to to make her performance convincing, but they cannot use a trick like that on him again. So the episode ends as it must - Number 2's plan is defeated and Number 6 is still a prisoner.

Next: A. B. and C.

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