The Prisoner: In the Village

Where am I?
In the Village.
But what is the Village?
“The Village is a place where people turn up. People who have resigned from a certain sort of job, have defected, or been extracted. The specialised knowledge in their heads is of value to one side or the other.” (Number Six to Colonel J. in The Chimes of Big Ben).
The central image of the Village is of the chocolate-box, folly Italianate exterior, populated by people dressed in striped and piped holiday clothing, in perpetual sunshine, doing aimless things with a contented air, all of which disguises a modernistic interior: large, circular rooms, steel-lined corridors, laboratories full of massive computer banks with whirring tapes (the one area in which the series, most obviously, does not anticipate the future). Inside, the hidden controllers, outside, the controlled.
The dichotomy is the heartspring of the series, the future against which McGoohan wanted to warn, and did so in vain.
If we look a little closer at the actual dynamics of the Village, other than as they relate to the fixation with Number Six, we quickly realise that the title of ‘The Village’ is misleading. A Village is where people live, work, play, a place where generations mingle, or else form strata, side-by-side. Immediately, there is a problem. The Village has its share of old residents – the Admiral with his chess-set, Number Eighty-Six with her tapestry – but the other end of the scale is conspicuous by its absence.
There’s a brief reference to the ‘Village Children’ in the weakest of the ‘filler’ episodes (which we’ll come to), but nowhere else are they referred to. Indeed, looking at the series as a whole, there are very few actors or actresses who appear to be under the age of thirty, and only two of them – Alison in The Schizoid Man and the Watchmaker’s Daughter in It’s Your Funeral – in major roles.
Even though the Watchmaker’s Daughter refers to a group of younger inhabitants who call themselves ‘Jammers’, she is the only one to appear.
This microcosmic society is something of an unbalanced one.
Nor is it a working society. There are those who undertake jobs: gardeners, waitresses, maids and cleaners, electronics repairers, staff at the hospital, at least one shopkeeper (who probably has a monopoly, adding a layer of irony to his cheerful hope in Arrival that he’ll “have the pleasure of (Number Six’s) custom.” But the vast majority of the Villagers do no such things. They sit at the beach. They listen to the band concerts. They march in the band. They walk or cycle around the stone pond in the Village centre endlessly. They perambulate with no direction. They work not, nor do they toil.
The holiday camp appearance of the Village is more than just an image.
Who are the Villagers? We know that they are Prisoners and Warders, and that it is not possible to tell which is which (Number Six is given a clue as to a reliable method of doing so, in Checkmate, only for it to blow up in his face). Nor is it simply that those who work in the Village work for it.
Are all of them former spies, that is, people of an unusual talent for dissemblance, a high degree of intelligence, logical thinkers and planners, possessed of specialised knowledge that prevents them from being allowed to go free? That is what we are initially led to think, though The Rook in Checkmate is explained as a scientist. The sheep-like nature of the Village’s inhabitants is more plausible if the make-up is not exclusively former agents.
And, as we will see in Checkmate, Number Six is able to put together a small team of people wishing to escape.
And is Number Six the only problem case the Village has to handle? That it seems so is the nature of the thriller series format: McGoohan is the hero and, in keeping with the assumptions of the time – both creators and audience – all things must focus upon and be filtered through him. Cobb, in Arrival, initially appears to be in the same boat as Number Six, and a lot further along in the programme, but (though Number Six remains unaware of this, he is a defector. On the other hand, Number Six meets a second former colleague, Roland Walter Dutton, who is undergoing extraction of his secrets in Dance of the Dead, and his plight is horribly real.
Add to this Number Two’s insinuations in The Chimes of Big Ben that the previous Number Eight has tried to escape, with disastrous consequences, and we are reminded that the Village is not quite as harmonious as it is so frequently represented. Whilst we focus on Number Six, who is the Village’s top priority, we should accept that, elsewhere, other plots of Escape, Resistance and Revolt are in play, for all we know.
It’s a shame that this could not have been addressed more directly in the series, as would have been possible nowadays. An escape attempt wholly independent of Number Six, one that he sought to contribute to but was refused because the other prisoner did not trust him; or that he was invited to join but did not, assuming it was entrapment when all along it was real. In a series where one of the underlying themes was paranoia, these are strong subjects, and would have contributed to the Village’s overall menace by showing it as directed against someone other than their principal Prisoner.
There is some of that to Checkmate, but perhaps it might have diffused rather than broadened the series? The point of Number Six’s paranoia was that it was always justified.
One final point: given the isolation in which the Village exists, what of the logistics of it? The Village is home to some 250 people at least, people who eat, drink, wear clothes, pursue hobbies. We rarely, if at all, see books, which may be banned, though the materials for writing exist, but the resources to entertain and occupy so many people must exist – where do all the materials come from that go to create the Art exhibition?
Yet the only contact with the outside world is a single helicopter, once a day.
How do they do it? It’s a mundane question and we can all devise mundane, off-stage answers. Yet the absence of such answers on screen, the shying away from even thinking of the question, helps to support the essence of the Village as a bubble: a Brigadoon, a fairy-world that has no need for the real world and is, in fact, magically independent of everything.
In the end, the Village remains what it is, an artificial environment, a surreal place of detainment that is Holiday Camp and Prison in both of its respects, where the smile of the captors presides over the jollity and everybody does what they want and what they are told because the two have become the faces of the same coin. McGoohan/Number Six protests loudly, but the noise of the laughter of the happy campers rises everywhere and overwhelms all warnings.
We all live in the Village now.

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