Skip to main content

Good people, it is my pleasure to present to you the one and only Number Six!


The Prisoner
4. Free For All

We want information.

Number Two persuades Number Six to run in the Village elections. Six is to be assisted by Number 58 (who speaks no English). He accuses the town council of mindless complicity and as is consequently forced to undergo the Truth Test. When he emerges he begins to crack and mounts an escape bid. Following a stint in the hospital he begins running an effective campaign. Despondent again, he is led to a bar in a cave that serves real booze, where Number Two is having a tipple. Six is drugged again and awakes on polling day. He firmly grabs the vote from a bowdlerized Number Two. However, when he arrives in the control centre he discovers that power is not his. He is beaten up and brought before the actual Number Two, who was 58 all along.

So how do you like it?

Free For All sees Patrick McGoohan firing on all cylinders. This was only the second episode filmed, and it’s one he both wrote and directed. Coming so early in both the run and broadcast order, there’s a sense that the star has a surfeit of ideas he needs to express. It’s extraordinarily densely packed; nearly every scene counts, and you’re never more than a minute or two away from one of the series’ defining sequences or statements.


If Fall Out is his defining statement on the deceit of the self, Free For Allallows him to get off his chest the charade of democratic society. Freedom within such a system is a complete illusion, and control is total. Even at the top. Or, especially at the top. But the grimness of the episode isn’t about what McGoohan’s saying, or even the way he presents it. The automated showmanship of electioneering and unreflective responsiveness of Joe Public are rendered in a colourful round of confetti, speechifying and applause. McGoohan ensures the campaigning is both attractive and lively and utterly without content or value; it’s a slightly frothier, much much witty version of the real thing.


No, the darkness comes from the plight of Six. On this occasion he isn’t getting anywhere. He’s constantly one step behind his captors, whose primary motivation this time isn’t to extract that all important information. It’s to ritually humiliate him. It never feels like he has a chance, because he doesn’t. Even his escape attempt (the necessary bit of action to keep viewers attentive) comes suddenly, born of despair and desperation rather than intent.


Two: Good morning, good morning. Any complaints?
Six: Yes. I'd like to mind my own business.

I don’t really see how you could argue for this episode being much earlier in viewing order than fourth. True, Six is clearly someone who doesn’t know the ways of the Village at his point. But it doesn’t feel right that he should be thrust into the limelight too soon after his arrival. And, after his flight in The Chimes of Big Ben and psych-out in A. B. and C., a re-statement of the core Village experience seems appropriate. Yes, he says he will “Run like blazes” the first chance he gets, but he’s talking to a new Two; it doesn’t have to be a stick to beat down the placing of Chimesbefore it.  The desire to fit too much continuity on the show seems like a mistake. The experience of the Village needs to have that slightly fractured, endlessly the same, disorientating one-step-forwards-two-steps-back quality to it.


Six: Um, whose move?
Two: Yours only. Confide... and we concede.

There are many precursors here of course, and continuations. When Two arrives at Six’s door having only just talked to him from the Control Room, it’s the kind of translocation that follows on from the more fantastical elements seen in Arrival. As is the strange meditation session Two happens upon as he is being pursued at the climax (four men where sunglasses, sat around a Rover). 58 is yet another duplicitous female. Although, to be fair to Six, he never trusted this one (and that in itself is an argument for placing the episode where it is). Then there’s the game motif again, with references to Hoyle’s card strategies. Curious that chess is not the de facto game of comparison. In any case, his run for office is a match where opposition has no real meaning.


Six: What physically happens if I win?
Two: You're the boss.
Six: Number One's the boss.

The first five minutes are stacked full of ideas, subtext, commentary, irony and allusions. Every exchange between Two and Six is pregnant with implication. Six’s probing inquiry as to the nationality of the breakfast cuisine (“French?”) meets with a deeply non-committal “International” from Two (The Chimes of Big Ben only gave Six a skewed idea of the location of the Village).  And McGoohan has his ideas for the series climax right here at the start, with the elusive promise of revelation concerning One’s identity dangled as a carrot to persuade him to run for office.


Two: If you win, Number One will no longer be a mystery to you, if you know what I mean. Anyway, I'll introduce you properly, and we'll see how you feel after assessing the madding crowd.

It’s striking how the McGoohan’s treatise in Free For All hinges on the illusion of choice; he was saying this during the 1960s, a period that looks like it held genuine diversity of opinion compared to the endless middle ground of today’s political landscape. He acutely presents the farcical nature of politics; it is not to be taken seriously on the one hand (as Two observes, “Humour is the very essence of a democratic society”), as it is innately corrupt, but take the system seriously and attempt to confront it or (worse) change it and it will destroy you.


Two: Some of these good people don't seem to appreciate the value of free elections. They think it's a game.
Six: Everyone votes for a dictator.

Two’s every statement drips with irony, and arguably it is Six’s ego that eventually gets the better of him. He is arrogant enough to allow himself to be goaded into running when he knows it is meaningless; he can’t resist rebelling (Two comments that his outlook “is particularly militant and individualistic”). McGoohan’s feelings couldn’t be clearer about the manufactured nature of the whole process as the butler holds up cards instructing the crowd to chant “Progress! Progress! Progress! Progress! Progress!” on cue.


As Two, Six would find him the position of a powerless puppet. And he knows this; his unvarnished tirade of insults at first the villagers and then the council is as much about his own impotence in his situation as it is about telling some home truths. At first there is laughter in response to what should be fundamental truth (“I am not a number. I am a person”). Then he sets out his forfeit agenda.


Six: In some place, at some time, all of you held positions of a secret nature and had knowledge that was invaluable to an enemy… Like me, you are here to have that knowledge protected... or extracted… Unlike me, many of you have accepted the situation of your imprisonment and will die here like rotten cabbages… The rest of you have gone over to the side of our keepers. Which is which? How many of each? Who's standing beside you now? I intend to discover who are the prisoners and who the warders. I shall be running for office in this election.

Particularly amusing is his round of press interviews, as each “No comment” response is noted down as clear policy agenda, until Six actually replies to a question.


Reporter: How do you feel about life and death?
Six: Mind your own business.
Reporter: "No comment."

Of course, the pre-conditioned media have written the news before it is even made, and Six reads his full election interview seconds after the interview finishes (in this case the surreality of the Village is used for satirically believable purposes).


But this brief respite is just a prelude of Six launching into another attack.

Six: Who do you represent? Who elected you? To what race or country do you owe allegiance? Whose side are you on?... This... farce... This twentieth-century Bastille that pretends to be a pocket democracy... Why don't you put us all into solitary confinement until you get what you're after and have done with it?... Look at them. Brainwashed imbeciles. Can you laugh? Can you cry? Can you think?... Is this... is this what they did to you? Is this how they tried to break you till they got what they were after?... In your heads must still be the remnant of a brain. In your hearts must still be the desire to be a human being again.

Six is pissing in the wind, of course, but does any politician listen to their electorate once they gain office? Six, and McGoohan, is at his least subtle during this scene. He’s all but begging to have someone do the nasty in response.


We’ve seen Six interrogated and brainwashed before, and we’ll see it again, but I particularly like perverse civility and visual simplicity of the sequence in Free For All. We are told that “the Test” “Came from the Civil Service. It adapted immediately ” and presumably its enforcer did likewise; it would be appropriate if the most effective of inquisitors comes from the most banal and bureaucratic of institutions. The visualisation of what is happening to his mind is On a screen behind Six, two lines converge on his silhouette’s pineal gland. When he tells the truth a circle approaches his brow along the upper line, when he lies a square does likewise along the lower. When they converge and then merge with his image, the process is complete. Six passes out.


When Six is back on the campaign trail, his language quickly reduces to easily digestible sound bites, sounding insightful but accompanied by little substance.


Six: Place your trust in the old régime: the policies are defined, the future certain. The old régime forever... and the old Number Two forever? Confession by coercion, is that what you want? Vote for him and you have it! Or, stand firm upon this election platform and speak a word without fear! The word... is "freedom". They say "six of one and half a dozen of the other"... not here. It's "six for two and two for nothing" and six for free... for all... for free for all! Vote! Vote!

He has been refitted as the ineffectual candidate of the people. We know what happens if anyone attempts otherwise (A Very British Coup). Nevertheless, his potshots at Six are extremely witty and replete with the politician’s skill at twisting words; the innocuous becomes the specious. And he preserves the kind of clipped charisma that we expect of an unaffected Six. Particularly wonderful is the manic crescendo he reaches when replying to Two’s question with “and more play!”


Six: Far be it for me to carp, but what will you do in your spare time?
Two: I cannot afford spare time.
Six: Do you hear that? He's working to his limit! Can't afford spare time! We're all entitled to spare time! Leisure is our right!
Crowd: Six for Two! Six for Two! Six for Two! Six for Two!
Two: In your spare time, if you get it, what will you do?
Six: Less work... and more play!


The episode is not all perfection, though. The effectiveness of the treatment Six undergoes is never fully clear, except to the extent that it has an effect. Initially he seems to return to the canvassing fray, but loses it again for the action sequence. I quite like that this turns up out of nowhere. McGoohan’s acknowledging that for all its out there appeal his series needs to touch a few bases of traditional ITC fare (even if the big chase ends in a giant balloon squashing you). 


But I’m not sure it entirely works to have him recover then lapse again, at which point he visits the cave bar. This is an episode where we are distanced from his mental state; he doesn’t have a plan we hope to see him pull off, he’s just ebbing and flowing with the current of whatever Two is throwing at him. So I don’t think the bar scene is needed. It’s a nice idea that there’s a dive where those wanting a hit of the good stuff can go, if they’re in the know.  But the put-on of fake drunk Two, and dosing Six again, seems like an unnecessary repetition (was Six being fake drunk at the Cat and Mouse Club, or just weirding out?) Perhaps there wasn't sufficient conviction that we’d get that he was under the influence. Or maybe McGoohan had said all he needed to with the “debate”; those scenes are so well done that you’re left wanting more.


Even when Six’s actions are a bit of a downer, McGoohan brings an indomitable spirit to the character. So his desperate, futile attempt to provoke the villagers to unchain themselves (in spite of the abject indifference they showed to any real probing earlier) sees him racing about like a man possessed. Six also delivers one the series’ funniest lines as he encapsulates the contradictory nature of any system of governance that claims to preside over free individuals.

Six: I am in command! Obey me and be free!


The climax is little more than a series of escalating humiliations. First, in a state of tranced bewilderment, Six is slapped about by 58. Then he escapes, only to be set upon by guards who stretch him out in a Jesus Christ pose (which can’t have escaped McGoohan – Six has a Messiah Complex?)


Fifty-Eight: Will you never learn? This is only the beginning. We have many ways and means, but we don't wish to damage you permanently. Are you ready to talk?

Again, this might be used as an argument for placing the episode right at the beginning but I think it works that after a few failed attempts the powers that be want to make it clear who’s boss, leaving the talking for another time. Her “Give my regards to the homeland” to the fake Two also suggests the early tug towards providing nuggets of a traditional spy series.


The reveal of the real Two as 58 works to an extent (it certainly establishes what as strong actress Rachel Herbert is). The only problem is that the subterfuge has no value; it’s not as if her role-play entrusted her into Six’s confidence; quite the reverse. I guess she just got a kick from really annoying him by talking gibberish and then slapping him about a bit. Eric Portman, a Michael Powell regular during the 1940s, makes an extremely genial Two. He never gets into a flap, but that’s probably because he isn’t actually Two (and his “performance” certainly explains his drunk acting in the bar scene). Portman only had a few more screen roles, dying in 1969.


Free For All is one of the purest distillations of The Prisoner, and certainly one of its bleakest episodes. If it doesn’t do its hero much good, it didn’t serve Don Chaffey well either as he was originally set to direct. McGoohan took over the reins (reportedly after disagreements). The result is a testament to the director-writer-star’s vision.  And as political commentary goes, it never gets old.










Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

What ho, Brinkley. So, do you think we’re going to get along, what?

Jeeves and Wooster 2.4: Jeeves in the Country  (aka Chuffy)
The plundering of Thank You, Jeeves elicits two more of the series’ best episodes, the first of which finds Bertie retiring to the country with a new valet, the insolent, incompetent and inebriate Brinkley (a wonderfully sour, sullen performance from Fred Evans, who would receive an encore in the final season), owing to Jeeves being forced to resign over his master’s refusal to give up the trumpet (“not an instrument for a gentleman”; in the book, it’s a banjulele).

Chuffnall Hall is the setting (filmed at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire), although the best of the action takes place around Bertie’s digs in Chuffnall Regis (Clovelly, Devon), which old pal Reginald “Chuffy” Chuffnell (Marmaduke Lord Chuffnell) has obligingly rented him, much to the grievance of the villagers, who have to endure his trumpeting disrupting the beatific beach (it’s a lovely spot, one of the most evocative in the series).

Jeeves is snapped up into the e…

What I have tried to show you is the inevitability of history. What must be, must be.

The Avengers 2.24: A Sense of History
Another gem, A Sense of History features one of the series’ very best villains in Patrick Mower’s belligerent, sneering student Duboys. Steed and Mrs Peel arrive at St Bode’s College investigating murder most cloistered, and the author of a politically sensitive theoretical document, in Martin Woodhouse’s final, and best, teleplay for the show (other notables include Mr. Teddy Bear and The Wringer).

Don't give me any of that intelligent life crap, just give me something I can blow up.

Dark Star (1974)
(SPOILERS) Is Dark Star more a John Carpenter film or more a Dan O’Bannon one? Until the mid ‘80s it might have seemed atypical of either of them, since they had both subsequently eschewed comedy in favour of horror (or thriller). And then they made Big Trouble in Little China and Return of the Living Dead respectively, and you’d have been none-the-wiser again. I think it’s probably fair to suggest it was a more personal film to O’Bannon, who took its commercial failure harder, and Carpenter certainly didn’t relish the tension their creative collaboration brought (“a duel of control” as he put it), as he elected not to work with his co-writer/ actor/ editor/ production designer/ special effects supervisor again. Which is a shame, as, while no one is ever going to label Dark Star a masterpiece, their meeting of minds resulted in one of the decade’s most enduring cult classics, and for all that they may have dismissed it/ seen only its negatives since, one of the best mo…

Ruination to all men!

The Avengers 24: How to Succeed…. At Murder
On the one hand, this episode has a distinctly reactionary whiff about it, pricking the bubble of the feminist movement, with Steed putting a female assassin over his knee and tickling her into submission. On the other, it has Steed putting a female assassin over his knee and tickling her into submission. How to Succeed… At Murder (a title play on How to Succeed at Business Without Really Trying, perhaps) is often very funny, even if you’re more than a little aware of the “wacky” formula that has been steadily honed over the course of the fourth season.

You just keep on drilling, sir, and we'll keep on killing.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)
(SPOILERS) The drubbing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk received really wasn’t unfair. I can’t even offer it the “brave experiment” consolation on the basis of its use of a different frame rate – not evident in itself on 24fps Blu ray, but the neutering effect of the actual compositions is, and quite tellingly in places – since the material itself is so lacking. It’s yet another misguided (to be generous to its motives) War on Terror movie, and one that manages to be both formulaic and at times fatuous in its presentation.

The irony is that Ang Lee, who wanted Billy Lynn to feel immersive and realistic, has made a movie where nothing seems real. Jean-Christophe Castelli’s adaptation of Ben Fountain’s novel is careful to tread heavily on every war movie cliché it can muster – and Vietnam War movie cliché at that – as it follows Billy Lynn (British actor Joe Alwyn) and his unit (“Bravo Squad”) on a media blitz celebrating their heroism in 2004 Iraq …

This here's a bottomless pit, baby. Two-and-a-half miles straight down.

The Abyss (1989)
(SPOILERS) By the time The Abyss was released in late summer ’89, I was a card carrying James Cameron fanboy (not a term was in such common use then, thankfully). Such devotion would only truly fade once True Lies revealed the stark, unadulterated truth of his filmmaking foibles. Consequently, I was an ardent Abyss apologist, railing at suggestions of its flaws. I loved the action, found the love story affecting, and admired the general conceit. So, when the Special Edition arrived in 1993, with its Day the Earth Stood Still-invoking global tsunami reinserted, I was more than happy to embrace it as a now-fully-revealed masterpiece.

I still see the Special Edition as significantly better than the release version (whatever quality concerns swore Cameron off the effects initially, CGI had advanced sufficiently by that point;certainly, the only underwhelming aspect is the surfaced alien craft, which was deemed suitable for the theatrical release), both dramatically and them…

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …