The Prisoner: episode 4 – Free For All – discursion

Be Seeing You

Free For All was the fourth episode of The Prisoner to be broadcast, and the second to be filmed, after the introductory episode, Arrival. It was written by Paddy Fitz, a pseudonym for Patrick McGoohan, whose first commercially produced script it was, and also directed by McGoohan, who had previously directed three episodes of Danger Man. Unlike the sunny, sunshine aspects of almost every other Portmeirion-based episode, Free For All seems to have been filmed during a cool, almost autumnal spell, of which McGoohan takes great advantage in directing a dark, often sinister episode.
After an Escape story and a Resistance story, it would be satisfyingly symmetrical to discuss Free For All as a Revolt episode. Indeed, that was my initial intention, until another re-watching demonstrated that that was altogether too tenuous a suggestion. The episode has an Escape element, clumsily inserted midway, and an ending that attempts to drag the whole affair into Resistance, and these categories have a greater claim on the episode, but the truth is that Free For All is nothing more than what it is on the surface: an open, unsubtle satire on politics that uses The Prisoner as its vehicle, without ever properly integrating its theme into the series.
McGoohan’s script was in line with a rising number of television stories about the artificiality of Politics, and its manipulation by those in charge. Number Six is initially cynical as to the whole idea that the Village is a democracy at all. I mean, even as early as this, it’s as obvious as can be that the notion is unreal, and it would have been equally as unconvincing had Free For All been broadcast as well as filmed second.
This hands the script some early and easy targets: Number Six’s cynical agreement to run exposes a campaign already set and organised for him, the Press put words in his mouth, which are already set in type and being sold, the ‘outgoing Council’ is every bit the complete farce Number Six treats it as being. Not for nothing does this sequence lead directly to the (appropriately) underground chamber where Number Six is brainwashed into becoming the typically false candidate. McGoohan can’t resist slipping in a line about his brainwasher having recently arrived from the (British) Civil Service and adapted immediately.
So far, so good, and the later scenes of Number Six, throwing himself whole-heartedly into campaigning, and trading political snipes with Number Two across the Village square by megaphone, are equally good.
The first problem lies in between. This sequence begins promisingly enough: Number Six is spouting the complete Village line, of Fascist benevolent control in return for compliance. He catches himself at it, and is horrified. But where you’d expect some element of realisation, an understanding that he is being brainwashed and/or drugged to be the Village’s trained monkey, instead, he panics, enters a paranoid fugue, attempts an absurd escape by grabbing a boat and sailing off into the bay. The scene immediately dips towards farce as he’s pursued by the Village helicopter: not unusual in itself, save that it’s being piloted by Number Two himself, whose only contribution is to warn one of the mechanics struggling with Number Six from braining him with a pole.
The situation gets even more ridiculous as Rover is launched (with reused footage from Arrival) and, instead of staying on the motor boat to confront it, Number Six jumps into the sea to do so. He is brought back by three Rovers, is not taken to the hospital, and lies there in his bed experiencing a medley of scenes from the episode so far. This last bit is pure filler, the sign of an episode that is running short, and that’s the whole feel of this sequence. It’s illogical and sloppy: where do the other Rovers come from? If Number Six’s brainwashing is cracking, why doesn’t he get a booster? Given also that this is the only action sequence in the entire programme, from first to start, the episode is nothing but a crude insertion to fill in time, executed with insufficient thought for the damage it does to the overall episode.
Because, of course, Number Six’s conditioning does indeed go on to fray, and the Village have to reinforce it.
It doesn’t matter that, second time around, this is much better approached and acted upon, it is second time around, and it lends a certain amount of drag to the episode. It suggests that the episode has so few ideas of how to sustain itself that it has to resort to repetition.
The approach is far more sophisticated. This time, Number Six starts to get a little drunk with the assumed power of his candidacy, enough to want to get physically drunk, which is not possible in the Village nightclub (The Cat and Mouse – nice touch). He’s taken to what appears, at first, to be a place of privilege, where those in power can indulge themselves in ways not available to the ordinary Villagers. It’s everything that the Prisoner would expect to find, but even that is pure misdirection, intended to manipulate Number Six into drinking a drugged Village concoction that he would otherwise not have touched with a bargepole.
This is explicitly stated to get the Prisoner through to Election Day, and indeed we jump directly there. Predictably, Number Six wins, and unpredictably but to great effect, the crowd react with silence and an indifference that borders on hostility. This leads into the end game.
Number Two, on this occasion, is played by veteran Eric Portman, who had a very solid film career behind him, the highlight of which being his performance as the Magistrate Thomas Culpepper, who is also the ‘Glueman’, in the Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger film A Canterbury Tale. His Number Two is written to be someone that, in other circumstances, the Prisoner could have trusted and liked and Portman, one of the two oldest Number Twos to be appear in the series, impresses with his encouraging, slightly mellow approach.
This does not totally conceal an inner steel, seen in the Still, when, after convincingly playing the part of a man trying to cope with the stress of command, he instantly snaps back into a cold, determined commander, fully in control of himself.
Portman gives us an early hint of the man within during the Council Chamber scene: he is the man with the gavel which, when Number Six is sent spinning and starts to be dropped into the underground chamber, he is seen banging frenziedly, holding on the the wooden block as if it might escape from his vicious hammering.
But the star of the episode, without doubt, is actress Rachel Herbert as Number Fifty-Eight who, on the evidence of this episode, deserved a considerably more successful career than she appears to have enjoyed.
Herbert has the unenviable task of speaking a language completely foreign to everyone in the episode. She’s further burdened by this language being completely fictional: Herbert prepared for this role by listening to tapes of a Yugoslav friend talking, applying the rhythms and intonations of that language to her nonsense dialogue.
We know her to be a Village agent, and that in some way she will betray Number Six, even as early as the fourth episode we have learned enough to expect that, but Herbert plays Number Fifty-Eight completely at odds to everyone else. In her maid’s outfit, complete with its little white cap, she is an overgrown child, operating in a world she is all but disconnected from, excited, happy, devoted to what she is doing. That she is capable of great, indeed exaggerated seriousness is demonstrated when Number Six works out how to say ‘Be Seeing You’ in her language, which she rapidly turns into a serious declaration, as if it is a patriotic oath.
Above all, it’s her lightness of touch, the constantly happy expression that makes her such an appealing character throughout the episode.
And which makes her transformation, at the end, into the English-speaking new Number Two all the more stunning and effective.
Firstly, in character as Number Fifty-Eight, she becomes serious. Her grin disappears, she is cold-eyed in looking at the conditioned Number Six, and there is genuine viciousness, and contempt, in the series of devastating slaps she delivers to Number Six’s face.
But this is mere foreshadowing of the chilling moment where she reappears on the dais, as Number Two. Everything of Number Fifty-Eight is gone: her face is serious, implacable and, without the maid’s cap, Herbert simply by her eyes, makes herself look as if she has aged ten years. Her accentless, unemotional English, containing at its best a contempt for the prisoner for even thinking of resisting, is a dreadful shock, and it is very much one of the worst defeats the Prisoner suffers in the whole series.
Rachel Herbert also has an historical place in the series as the first female Number Two. The series has often been criticised for an underlying misogynistic tone, and it’s true that, of the three, perhaps four women who occupy the dais, only Mary Morris in Dance of the Dead plays a substantive part AS Number Two. Given Herbert’s performance over the episode as a whole, an episode in which she and McGoohan were on opposite sides would have been absolutely fascinating but, as we will consider later, McGoohan’s discomfort at working with women would probably have ruined any such script.
And, in our underlying wish to discover which side actually runs the Village, let us not overlook Herbert’s remark about ‘Give my regards to the homeland’ which suggests that, whosever Village this is, it isn’t Britain’s – Civil Service transferees or not.
Returning to the story as a whole, its main problem is that, as I said earlier, it never fully integrates itself into the series. At its very end, the script tries to present itself as a complex plan aimed at breaking Number Six’s will, by demonstrating the sheer size of what he has to contend against. A later story uses an identical approach but in a way that is fully integrated into the world of the series. McGoohan’s enthusiasm for his satirical subject is too open and distracting: that’s obviously the reason for the story.
The fact is that the nominal aim of the plot, the suggestion held out to the Prisoner that he will meet his ultimate warder and be put into a position where he can exercise Village power directly against  Village interests, is so far-fetched as to be impossible to take seriously. Number Six even has to be drugged/brainwashed three times over to play his part.
What’s good is good, and of this Rachel Herbert is the best, but despite McGoohan’s contention that this is one of the episodes he would always stand behind – part of the original seven proposed – I find it lacks too much of structure to be one of the best episodes.

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