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.










Popular posts from this blog

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves (2018) (SPOILERS) I'd heard this was a shameless  Heat  rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum, so maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but  Den of Thieves  is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can't even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.

This guy’s armed with a hairdryer.

An Innocent Man (1989) (SPOILERS) Was it a chicken-and-egg thing with Tom Selleck and movies? Did he consistently end up in ropey pictures because other, bigger big-screen stars had first dibs on the good stuff? Or was it because he was a resolutely small-screen guy with limited range and zero good taste? Selleck had about half-a-dozen cinema outings during the 1980s, one of which, the very TV, very Touchstone Three Men and a Baby was a hit, but couldn’t be put wholly down to him. The final one was An Innocent Man , where he attempted to show some grit and mettle, as nice-guy Tom is framed and has to get tough to survive. Unfortunately, it’s another big-screen TV movie.

Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists!

Don’t Look Up (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s testament to Don’t Look Up ’s “quality” that critics who would normally lap up this kind of liberal-causes messaging couldn’t find it within themselves to grant it a free pass. Adam McKay has attempted to refashion himself as a satirist since jettisoning former collaborator Will Ferrell, but as a Hollywood player and an inevitably socio-politically partisan one, he simply falls in line with the most obvious, fatuous propagandising.

Captain, he who walks in fire will burn his feet.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) (SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen returns to the kind of unadulterated fantasy material that made Jason and the Argonauts such a success – swords & stop motion, if you like. In between, there were a couple of less successful efforts, HG Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon and The Valley of the Gwangi (which I considered the best thing ever as a kid: dinosaur walks into a cowboy movie). Harryhausen’s special-effects supremacy – in a for-hire capacity – had also been consummately eclipsed by Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C . The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the expected Dynamation template – blank-slate hero, memorable creatures, McGuffin quest – but in its considerable favour, it also boasts a villainous performance by nobody-at-the-time, on-the-cusp-of-greatness Tom Baker.

Archimedes would split himself with envy.

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) (SPOILERS) Generally, this seems to be the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad outing that gets the short straw in the appreciation stakes. Which is rather unfair. True, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger lacks Tom Baker and his rich brown voice personifying evil incarnate – although Margaret Whiting more than holds her own in the wickedness stakes – and the structure follows the Harryhausen template perhaps over scrupulously (Beverly Cross previously collaborated with the stop-motion auteur on Jason and the Argonauts , and would again subsequently with Clash of the Titans ). But the storytelling is swift and sprightly, and the animation itself scores, achieving a degree of interaction frequently more proficient than its more lavishly praised peer group.