The Prisoner: episode 2 – The Chimes of Big Ben – discursion


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The Chimes of Big Ben, written by Vincent Tilsley, was the second episode of The Prisoner to be broadcast but the fifth episode to be produced, part of the bloc of four episodes filmed largely, but not exclusively, on location in Portmeirion. It guest-starred Australian actor Leo McKern as the new Number Two. McKern and McGoohan did not get on well, and McKern was critical of his host on set, but the on-screen chemistry between them is palpable: their scenes together are battles not only of will but of charm, and a mutual respect between Number Two and Number Six, as opponents worth each other’s time, underlines every line.
As a result of this performance, McKern was asked to stay on for the next episode, in contrast a studio-bound performance that is a two-handed battle of wits, to the death, then planned to be the cliff-hanger that would end series 1: Once Upon a Time. We’ll get to that episode in due course.
As we’ll see when we move through the series, episodes of The Prisoner fall into three broad categories: Escape, Revolt, Resistance. The Chimes of Big Ben is very much an Escape episode, one of the two most complex and wide-reaching the series will feature. During its course, Number Six physically leaves the Village, makes contact with his former superiors in London and actually gets back to London – only to find he has been the victim of an elaborate hoax, under the control of the Village even at his most independent of action, and that he has never escaped at all. Worst still, but for the chance intervention of a water-logged watch, Number Six is made to realise that he would have been beaten.
At the beginning of the episode, the audience learns, as if in passing, that the Village want more than just the information in Number Six’s head, they want him intact, turned as an agent for them. And that the unexplained reason for his resignation – a piece of information of no (presumed) strategic or security significance – is seen as they key to effecting this. If Number Six can be made to disclose just one thing, his resistance will be snapped.
One of the series’ key themes is the Prisoner’s absolute strength of will, his utter, uncompromising determination to resist. The Chimes of Big Ben both tests and reinforces this determination.
Nadia is introduced to the Village as a trap. Number Two’s seemingly casual efforts to ensure Number Six sees her arrive and, via the security cameras, her awakening and discovery of her own transportation, are deliberately meant to echo the Prisoner’s own arrival. Naturally he sees through it, and so does the audience. Never trust anyone.
But then the game develops little underhand tendrils. Nadia is equally paranoid about Number Six as he is of her. She rejects him as a trap, but even as she does she lets slip an aside that hints at knowledge Number Six wants. This is reinforced by her attempt to escape by swimming, after which Number Two plays deliberately on the former agent’s chivalry by showcasing Nadia as a confused, self-destructive damsel-in-distress.
Sardonically, Number Six agrees to cooperate, but only in the most superficial, unimportant manner, by taking part in the art exhibition (which, naturally, he exploits to build a boat by which to sail out, under the guise of an abstract triptych, the significance of which can then be ‘explained’ in a skit on modern art).
In the meantime, Nadia confirms the point that the Prisoner suspects, that he needs to know, that she knows the location of the Village. And that she is in contact with a Resistance Group conveniently close at hand, who can effect a return to his own side once Nadia leads him to them. The Village, we learn, is in Lithuania, about thirty miles from the Polish border.
Or is it?
The escape begins after Number Six wins the exhibition and its prize (he was always going to, whatever he did), converts his abstract into a boat and sails off with Nadia for ‘Poland’. In the morning, close to their destination, he and Nadia are pursued by Rover and have to swim for it, but the Resistance is waiting with a ready-made and scheduled plan to get them to London. As his watch has stopped, due to the immersion (a swift reminder that this is 1967 we’re talking about), Number Six takes the fisherman’s watch, which will prove to be so crucial to the denouement. He’s still not trusting anyone, he finds out the schedule for the trip, which he and Nadia will undergo in a packing case (without a toilet), and the watch will help him check that each legs feels right and lasts the right amount of time.
However, it appears that the Prisoner isn’t quite as untrusting as he should be at this time, as he doesn’t for a second question the fact that the Resistance are waiting for his and Nadia’s arrival with packing case, lorries, ships and aeroplanes lined up ready to take him to the home of British Intelligence in London. Given that Nadia has been sequestered in the Village for approximately six weeks (the loudspeaker announcement on the day of her arrival states that the exhibition is to take place in six weeks time), when and, more importantly, how has she got a message through to be ready for them that very morning?
It’s one of the biggest plot-holes in the entire series, and the question is not just fudged, it’s completely ignored. Not even a line from Nadia that, just before she was taken, she had alerted the group that she might need help and to be ready at a moment’s notice. Which is the best I can come up with and that’s stretching things implausibly.
Leaving this yawning hole behind, the story moves to the escapees destination, a well-appointed office in London, full of street sounds, traffic and Big Ben’s bells. Two old colleagues await Number Six, Fotheringay and Colonel J. Fotheringay is played by Richard Wattis, a neat little ploy to buy into the series’ implicit ties to Danger Man: Wattis was a recurring character in that series, as Fotheringay, a smug, self-impressed Foreign Office official who was frequently John Drake’s contact.
The Colonel, played by Kevin Sharkey (who is credited as Colonel J but referred to only as The Colonel, a title that would be vested in two other characters as the series progressed), is Number Six’s old boss. He’s waspishly genial, welcoming but suspicious, quick to point out that the Prisoner has nothing to offer as surety: he was a very highly-placed Agent with access to top level information, who abruptly resigned, giving no reason, who disappeared for several months, only to  suddenly send a message that he was returning from behind the Iron Curtain. The Colonel’s suspicions are valid indeed!
And Number Six is about to tender that very vital piece of information when chance and a 1960’s non-waterproof watch combine to activate his suspicions: it has been a very elaborate piece of bluff all along.
The price of freedom is eternal vigilance, and eternal paranoia. Do not trust anyone.
What do we learn from The Chimes of Big Ben? It’s the first, and surprisingly the only episode to toy with the idea of The Village being under the control of an Iron Curtain country, something that would have been almost a given in Danger Man, or any other espionage-oriented Sixties thriller series: Danger Man‘s justly famous Series 2 episode ‘Colony Three’ is a classic example.
In this light, the two British agents become Double Agents, and Nadia – who retains her faint Eastern European accent after she ceases to play ‘Nadia’ – is briefly positioned as a senior official in whatever organisation is in charge, giving a good report on her return. Just as with Cobb moving on to his ‘new masters’, the hint is pretty strong that the Village is enemy territory.
But it’s not in Lithuania: don’t believe that for a minute. And still don’t take it for granted: nothing Number Two says or does out of earshot of Number Six rules out the possibility that the Village may yet be in British hands: the escape to ‘London’ has not gone unassisted in that quarter.
Like Arrival, there’s an Alternate Chimes of Big Ben available in the box set, though this cut has been known for far longer than the Alternate Arrival. The only difference in the story is a very brief scene of Number Six taking sightings using a primitive version of the ancient Greek instrument, the triquetrum. He’s trying to work out where the Village is. Presumably the scene was dropped mainly on the basis that the Village would never have allowed him to attempt this, but also because the idea that the Prisoner was homing in on the rough whereabouts of the Village would afford too much substantiation to the Lithuania claim.
More interestingly, the Alternate Chimes is the only place where we can see Wilfred Joseph’s original theme music (pre-McGoohan’s whistle and Ron Grainger’s arrangement of the well-known tune) in context, and see the original end to the closing credits. Joseph’s music doesn’t start until the Prisoner is leaving the underground garage, having committed his resignation and is quite atmospheric, although unbelievably fussy.
Of most interest are those credit closing moments. When the Ordinary is fully-built, instead of cutting to the stock scene of Rover scudding across the waves, instead the Ordinary fades away,leaving only its wheels. These start to spin, before melting into images of the Moon and the Earth set against a star-field Then the stars go out, Earth expands to fill the screen, and silently explodes, revealed a red field on which, in big letters, is the word POP.
That was intended to end the credits each week, but was abandoned, probably as being too confusing, mysterious and psychedelic. But it would have been a mystery, not to be explained until the end of series 1, when the letters would have been revealed to be not POP but P.O.P., and to stand for…
Well, let’s get to Once Upon a Time in its own time.

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