Film 2020: One of our Aircraft is Missing

Even an eleven-disc DVD boxset of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s films can’t encompass all the good ones (though it could if they dropped They’re a Weird Mob for this). One of our Aircraft is Missing was an official Propaganda film, created on behalf of the Ministry of Information, made and released in 1942. Because it was made by The Archers (naming themselves as such for their fourth film as a team) it stands out as a masterful piece of realistic film-making, a determinedly naturalistic piece that represents to perfection the attitude to the War.

One of our Aircraft is Missing took its title from a phrase that regularly appeared on BBC radio news broadcasts (where it was more usually “…has failed to return”, which was thought to be too downbeat). It appeared between 49th Parallel and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and can be seen a part of a spectrum running between the three films.

The film reverses the scenario of 49th Parallel, which depicted the German survivors of a submarine trying to get across and out of Canada, arguing among themselves and gradually losing crew members at each stage. Powell and Pressburger apply the same structure to the six-man crew of a British bomber, shot down over Holland whilst returning from a successful bombing raid on Stuttgart: the Brits stick together as a team and are aided by the Dutch to evade the Germans and return to England.

The film was made in black and white, and whilst its production standards are generally high, those scenes shot in darkness have a grainy, rough look to them that helps blur the aerial shots, and especially those of the raid which are of table-top models, and integrate these into the story. It’s an entirely low-key affair, without a music score, which takes its own good time in developing its story and eschews melodrama and violence until the very end, where there is first a fist-fight in a cellar, and then – the only direct gunfire – a sentry on a swing-bridge firing a fusillade of shots at the sextet paddling a rowing boat furiously out to sea.

Needless to say, the six airmen are a mixture of types. Pilot John Glyn Haggard (Hugh Burden) is an ex-diplomat and the only Dutch-speaker in the crew, second pilot Tom Earnshaw (Eric Portman) is a sheep farmer from Halifax, navigator Frank Shelley (Hugh Williams) is an actor, wireless operator Bob Ashley (Emrys Jones) is a professional footballer, forward gunner Geoff Hickman (Bernard Miles) never explains his civvy street profession and rear gunner George Corbett (Godfrey Tearle), the oldest of the crew by some ditance, is a baronet and is actually Sir George, though the crew usually only refer to him as George and whereas, in the plane on the mission, the hierarchy is by military rank and role, on the ground the six men are equals, with Sir George’s seniority, and his army experience in the First War placing him in a leading role.

A film like this is necessarily very masculine, but Powell and Pressburger were encouraged to write strong female roles among the Dutch resistance. Pamela Brown plays Else Meertens, an English-speaking schoolteacher who is the crew’s first point of contact, and a sternly suspicious one at that, deterined not to be taken in by German spies seeking to infiltrate the Underground: there has been no report of a crashed plane in the Netherlands that night.

This much is true. In a slightly contrived manner the film introduces itself by B for Bertie, due home at 04.26, flying along empty and crashing to its destruction in collision with an electric pylon at 04.31. The film then rolls back to cover the mission from the start. B for Bertie delivers its bombs on target but is hit by an anti-aircraft shell, knocking out its port engine – not on the model, mind you. When the starboard engine packs up, everyone bails out, only for it to pick up again and get the plane, without its crew, back to England. all to set-up this nevertheless invaluable scene.

Else sets the wheels in motion to get the five airmen (Bob Ashley is missing but is found playing football) across country to the coast, via a series of passes for travel, each for different circumstances, getting the airmen closer to a route of escape. First to attend church – Catholic, much to the bruised feelings of Earnshaw and Hickman, who are both Chapel – then to a bethrothal party, to the football match where Bob is reunited (including a neat little passive Resistance stunt of which Gandhi would have been proud) and lastly hiding in a provisions truck taking them to Jo de Vries (Googie Withers in an untypical role).

Mrs de Vries is another Resistance leader, hiding in plain sight as a Nazi supporter, bitterly hating the British for killing her husband in an air-raid – he is alive and broadcasting from London as an announcer on Radio Oranj. Jo (pronounced Yo) is a determined, capable, highly-organised figure in the underground network that gets stranded British airmen back to Blighty, and both she and Else are figureheads for Holland, under duress but never conceding. Both get mini-speeches of defiant determination that their country will not suffer rule indefinitely. We threw the sea out of Holland, Else angrily proclaims. Do you think we will suffer the Germans?

It’s only now, so close to the end, that the Archers allow physical danger to intrude. Before this, the Germans are a tense background presence, an ever-present but only potential danger: an officer stalks into a silent church during Sunday Mass, says nothing, looks round, retreats. Now the escape is threatened by three Germans who have discovered Jo’s wine cellar, and its wine, and who have to be overcome in a brief fist-fight if the rowing boat is to be allowed to leave. The final punch is a glorious left cross, swung by, of all people, Sir George. And where everbody gets a handshake from Jo, he gets a hug, about which he grumbles that that’s one of the disadvantages of age, as that’s the only reason he was so favoured!

Ah yes. I spoke before of Aircraft being on a spectrum between 49th Parallel and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Whilst the parallels with its predecessor are obvious, the connection to Blimp lies in a line of dialogue cut from the film, a brief conversation between George, the eldest, and Bob, the youngest, in which George tells Bob that he is what the Baronet was when he was younger, whilst he is what Bob will be when he is older. There’s an entire film in that line, commented the editor who cut it out, David Lean. That film was Blimp.

The rowing boat escapes the river, though not without shots being fired, during which George, at the tiller, is shot. It’s done with magnificent underplaying, a stiffening, a stifled grunt and a determination to stick to his task. Nevertheless George is seriously wounded, enough so that he can’t be moved from the German rescue buoy in the North Sea where the crew take shelter (a war innovation only dislosed during film causing a re-write for which Ministry permission was necessary). So the Navy tow the whole shooting match back home!

At this point a caption announces that this was the end of the story but the Actors – a quick credit list – and the Technicians – another list – wanted to know what happened afterwards. So we jump three months. Recovered Corbett reports for duty and joins his crew, who are glad to have him back. The six are reunited, to fly another, more modern, roomier bomber, this time on a raid on Berlin.

There are other Archers films out there but, with one possible exception, the ones I’ve seen don’t match up to the body of work in the boxset, plus Aircraft, and the ones I haven’t seen don’t look to be appetising. This, however, deserves to be ranked among the second level of Powell and Pressburger’s ouevre. It’s a propaganda film but, so far as such  thing may be possible, it’s an honest one. It even allows Jo de Vries to cast the Germans in a more human light, as an unhappy people who want others to like them, unable to understand why, in the midst of all their parading as the masters of the world, they cannot find friends.

And incidentally, in a small role as the Priest, it gives a film debut to Peter Ustinov.

An excellent experience, and a slice of history. It may not be a masterpiece, but in that excised line it became responsible for one.

Film 2019: A Canterbury Tale

Amongst Powell and Pressburger films, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and A Matter of Life and Death will always be my two favourites, but each time I watch A Canterbury Tale, it sets me to rethinking that preference. Opinions may always change, and I can foresee a day when this minor-key film, made in black and whie in 1944, between those two films, may slip between them in my preference and estimation.

Despite coming after the controversial Colonel Blimp film, A Canterbury Tale aroused no ill-feelings and enjoyed the full co-operation of all those required to make it, including the British Army. It’s a long, and in some ways sprawling experience, deliberately taken at a gentle pace in keeping with the Kent countryside in which 90% of the film is set. After the War, like Colonel Blimp, the film was cut savagely, and for America The Archers were forced to replace narrator Esmond Knight with Raymond Massey, and add bookends featuring Kim Hunter (both were then filming A Matter of Life and Death) that, ironically given the subsequent treatment of Colonel Blimp, turned the film into one massive flashback.

The film can be described in deceptively simple terms as a detective story, though the mystery is given away at the beginning. The detective story – who is the Glueman and why is he pouring glue on the hair of young women? – is non-existent as a whodunnit, and almost mystical as a whydunnit, and is used solely to provide a narrative spine for the film’s other and primary concerns. The film is in truth a love story, not a human love story, although three such relationships underlie it, but a love story to the Kent countryside of Michael Powell’s childhood, married to a mystical sense of the unity of time and place that derives from the Canterbury pilgrims of time past, bound on the Pilgrim’s Way to Canterbury Cathedral.

Three of the film’s stars were unknowns at the time of filming, each in their first role. Two, Dennis Price and Sylvia Sims, went on to substantial careers but the third, US Army Sgt. John Sweet, was the true amateur and in many ways the most important figure in the film. The part was originally conceived for Burgess Meredith but the producers opted for a complete unknown, to glorious effect.

Three strangers get off a train on a dark Friday night at Chillingbourne Station, ten minutes from Canterbury. Two ave been posted there, the third leaves the train in error. British Sergeant Peter Gibbs, a cinema organist in civvy street, is posted to the Army camp, Alison Smith, a former shopgirl, is posted as a Land Girl to a Mr Thomas Culpepper, and US Army Sgt. Bob Johnson is on the 72 hour furlough, first in Canterbury, then London, and misunderstands the call for ‘Canterbury next station’ (the station master is a minor role for Charles Hawtrey).

Walking up to the Town Hall to register their presence, Alison is attacked by the Glueman. The trio chase her assailnt into the Town Hall, wherein he ‘disappears’. No effort is made to doubt the instant suspicion that he is the local Magistrate, Mr Culpepper (Eric Portman): magistrate, gentleman farmer, enthusiast for local history, and a kind of quasi-squire to the village. He’s also a classic women-hater, though hate is too strong for his actions. He dismisses the idea of Alison working for him on his farm (she is taken on by a woman farmer with far less prejudice), as he dismisses the idea of women – his mother excepted – as being worth botthering with.

Culpepper’s motives can be discerned by his concern, indeed overwhelming enthusiasm, for sharing his local knowledge and love of his place on Earth by lectures to the soldiers: he is pouring knowledge into their heads. There’s an interlocking off-key logic to his antics as the Glueman. He is warning off the local girls from going on dates with soldiers when ‘their’ men are in the Services, overseas, and he is diverting the soldiers to his lectures by cutting off their ability to get dates. When confronted, as the film enters its final and extraordinary sequence, Culpepper acknowledges his guilt on Earth but is unrepentent of his actions by reference the the greater good that he sees.

He’s got away with it so far mainly because he is Mr Culpepper. He is a part of the Village, almost of the land itself and as such cannot be suspected. It takes three strangers to suspect and, with simplicity, obtain the evidence no-one else would look for.

What Culpepper doesn’t suspect, despite his rootedness in the Pilgrim’s own land, is thatPeter, Alison and Bob are themselves pilgrims, bound for Canterbury to receive blessings that all need in this ongoing War. Alison, despite her self-confident forthrightness, is a lost soul. Once she spent thirteen days in a caravan outside Chillingbourne with her geologist fiancee. They couldn’t marry because his father opposed it, thinking a shopgirl beneath his son. Alison has the caravan, in storage in Canterbury, but Jeffrey was a pilot who was  shot down.

Bob too is a lost soul. He’s a conscript to a War in a country far away, a chance visitor to aland far different from his own in Oregon, but in which he, the outsider, the observer, sees far more correspondences than he could ever imagine. He and the wheelwright are both men of wood, talking the same language, both gently surprised that their practices 5,000 miles apart, are identical. He receives an invitation to lunch as if he was an old friend. But Bob, like Alison, has no future. He has a girl, back home, a blonde about whom he says little because Bob Johnson doesn’t talk that way, but what he says reveals the depth of his feelings: a walk in the woods, silent for two hours and hen both saying the same thing at the same time. The one you can be silent with in comfort is the one, but she no longer writes to him. The War has taken his future away too.

Peter, the cyncical, over-bright, slightly sneering one, is different. Alison and Bob are lost but they have kept their souls: Peter has lost his. A classically trained organist with dreams of becoming a church organist, he has settled for playing in a cinema. An easy life, on good money, nothing to do, nothing to be for, he regards action and achievement as ridiculous. Peter is the empty man and its no coincidence that, despite his growing liking for Culpepper – all three grow to like him as they investigate him further – he is the most determined to see him face justice. Peter has lost touch with that part of him that could create and has become creation’s other face, destruction.

What of Culpepper himself? Throughout the film, until that final sequence, he isimpervious, giving up nothing of himself, only showing his humanity in his  thirst to preach his land. He is a misogynist, and it’s not hard to see him as a repressed homosexual (Portman himself was gay). His automatic response to Alison is dismisssal, coupled with disdain for her being female. Yet as the film progresses, he has to make adjustments, and you can see each stage in his face.

First, she attends his lecture (later, when he is explaining his motives as the Glueman, she simply siggests he might have invited the girls to his lectures too). He’s supercilious with her until she identifies herself as the fiancee of the geologist who discovered Belgian coins on the Pilgrim’s Way, coins that found there way into no Museum: Alison admits she has them.

Then when she disturbs him on Sunday afternoon, on the Way, lying in the long grass, looking at the clouds, the fact Alison shares the same imaginative sympathy he possesses, that she can hear the horse, the harness, the conversation of the pilgrims of the past, sees him open up in genuine interest in her. It’s a brief moment of harmony, shattered by the passing of Bob and Peter, unaware anyone is present, confirming that the three have identified Culpepper as the Glueman.

Pilgrims made their way to Canterbury to receive blessings or to do penance. To reach whatever end there is, they must arrive in Canterbury. All three Pilgrims, and Culpepper, share a carriage on the same train on Monday morning, he to the Bench, they to the aims that will separate their brief alliance forever. Despite Culpepper’s admission of his motives, Peter is determined to bring Justice and punishment down on his head. Alison is on her way to the Agricultural Commission, Bob to meet his buddy Micky Roczinski.

What follows is a glorious and shamelessly emotional ending. Bob meets Micky outside the Cathedral that has awed him, awed him enough that he has needed to keep his feet on the floor by remembering that his grandfather, his line, built the first Baptist Chapel in Three Sisters Falls, in wood, ‘and that was a good job too’. Micky’s a cliche American, big, boisterous, loud-mouthed, but he is an instrument of Heaven in his way. He is carrying letters, from Sidney, Australia, from Bob’s girl: she has joined the WACs. Micky Roczinski gives Bob Johnson his future back.

Alison finds her way to the yard where the caravan is stored. It’s immobilised, its tyres requisitioned, but worse still it is lifeless, dark, dusty, full of moths eating its curtains, Jeffrey’s greatcoat. Almost bizarrely, Culpepper has followed her.  He is  clumsy and awkward, beginning by gently castigating any importance a caravan has, a transient thing that one time or another, has to move, a thing that never becomes part of anything. He’s clearly abut to offer Alison somehing more permanent, established, in a place he knows she loves. What Culpepper cannot see is that whilst Alison loves Chilingbourne and the Pilgrim’s Way, she loves it throughh Jeffrey, and whilst he may not be here to share it with her again, she loves it through, of and because of him.

But pilgrim’s come to Canterbury to receive blessings. The yard owner steps up, with news he has had to hold, not knowing where Miss Alison is, only that she’s coming to Canterbury. Mr Jeffrey’s father is here, wanting to see her. He’s waited two weeks. His business with her is important. He has news: Mr Jeffrey is in Gibraltar. Alison sways a moment as her future is given back to her then, a typical English girl, she rushes into re-airing the caravan. It will be needed again, it will be shared. Culpepper has gone, unable to share her good fortune. His penance has begun. It is  Jeffrey’s father who escorts Alison into the Cathedral, who touches her shoulder, who smiles on her, reconciled and caring only that they two have a blessing to be shared.

And Peter? Before he parts from Bob and Alison he lets slip that this is the day, his lot are off. Canterbury is seeing them off, with a march through the town and a special serviceat the Cathedral. Peter still has no thought but pursuit and vengeance. But Superintendent Hall is that the Cathedral, more concerned with the day than any petty reports. Peter pursues him. But inside the Cathedral, gazing up at its vast, stern, majestic interior, his soul is restored to him. The elderly church organist climbs to the organ loft. Peter follows him, restoring a lost page of music. He gazes at the organ in awe. The cynical, crusty old man recognises a fellow musician. He played the organ in a circus. He does not disapprove of Peter’s choice of career, but he completes the blessing by inviting Peter to play the organ: first, for his own pleasure and redemption Bach’s Toccatta  and Fugue, then, for the men he will serve beside, and to Bob and Alison who do not know it is their partner, Onward Christian Soldiers.

Last time I wrote about this film, I speculated about what happened afterwards to Bob and Alison and Peter. For Bob and Alison I foresaw, I still foresee, marriages, peace-time contentment, long lives. But for Peter I still see nothing but a death in battle. Bob and Alison were given back their futures, but Peter was given back his past, his soul. There is a darkness about him that I cannot see alleviated. His blessing is to reach his future in a state of grace.

There is so much else that I love about A Canterbury Tale, so many simple lines, momentary descriptions, the unhurried depiction of life in wartime that nevertheless has not broken the bond between people and place. Culpepper is an extreme example of this and, in comparison, a strident version. Everyone else is simply living what he longs to express. Not for nothing is the final shot the boy’s armies, local kids all, great-grandfathers now if they have lived this long, playing with the football Bob buys them, as reward for their alliance.

And US Army Sgt. John Sweet, in later life a teacher. That he is an amateur is self-evident, alongside the rest of the cast. But it is that stiltedness, that awkwardness that brings a truth and an honesty to his remarks. Bob is the stranger, the alien, but the one most ready to absorb, and be absorbed into his surroundings, to see what is diferent and what is nevertheless the same about this oddball place. You can tell he loves Three Sisters Falls, that he will never leave there once duty returns him, but he will never forget.

A minor film? No, not at all.


The Archers: A Matter of Film and Glory – no. 3: A Canterbury Tale

Three Pilgrims in the usual light of night

A Canterbury Tale has all the makings of a minor film: shot in black and white, during the Second World War, in essence a love story about Kent. It would be easy to assume that its major interests lie in the historical shots of bomb-ravaged Canterbury, which come at the end of a two hour stretch of film that, until its last quarter hour, has confined itself to the (fictional) village of Chillingbourne, ten minutes journey from Canterbury by train, over a sun-drenched summer weekend.
But do not underestimate The Archers. A Canterbury Tale may have been a commercial failure, and may have been available for years only in a crudely edited version that cut out many evocative scenes that were inessential to the film’s vestigial plot, but it has been restored and is recognised as another subtle and beautiful production by Powell and Pressburger.
The film stars Dennis Price, Sylvia Sims and US Army Sergeant John Sweet, with Eric Portman in a major supporting role, though the posters reverse things and make Portman the star and the other three his support. Price and Sweet play Army Sergeants, British and American respectively, Sims a shopgirl turned Land Girl and Portman the local magistrate and gentleman. Burgess Meredith was originally considered for Sweet’s role but the latter, an amateur, was preferred, and is superb, a brilliant choice by that very amateurism.
The trio are pilgrims on a modern day pilgrimage, not that they are aware of this, and in only one case consciously, until the film’s conclusion. That the film involves pilgrimages is made explicit by its introduction, referencing and set in the time of the Canterbury Tales.
There is a bravura leap into the Twentieth Century, executing a cinematic trip that no doubt inspired Stanley Kubrick in 2001 – A Space Odyssey. A gaily adorned courtier releases a hawk from his wrist, which flies away across a shallow valley until, at peak distance from the camera, it cuts into a Spitfire, diving back across the valley and passing over the head of the same man: on guard duty in battledress.
So our pilgrims meet, all three getting off the train in the blackout of Friday evening at Chillingbourne Station. Price is Peter Dawson, returning to camp outside the Village. Sims is Alison Smith, arriving to take up duties as a Land Girl working for the principal landowner, Mr Colpeper, and Sweet is Sgt. Bob Johnson, bound for Canterbury on a 48-hour pass, who mishears the Conductor’s call of “Canterbury next station” and decants himself from the train, only to find he is stranded for the night.
As the trio walk towards the village in the dark, a shadowy figure accosts Alison, pouring glue into her hair. He escapes, seeming to enter the Village Hall under pursuit from Peter and Bob, though the local police, despite being in the Town Hall itself, are far from quick at taking this assault up.
It’s not the first: Alison is the eleventh local girl attacked in this manner by an assailant they have taken to calling the Glueman. The following morning, still enraged by what has happened, she commandeers Bob, and later Peter, persuading the former to remain in Chillingbourne to help her solve the case.
So the film is to be a Detective Story, although it’s not really a detective story at all: the Archers make very little effort to conceal that Colpeper, who has no time for women, is the Glueman, though over the weekend that ensues, the unexpected trio gather enough conventional evidence to prove the case to sufficient a level to take to the Police.
Though Colpeper is of that breed, more recognisable in olden times, of women-haters, without necessarily any sexual/homosexual component, and refuses to accept Alison as a Land Girl (she moves elsewhere to a farm worked by a female owner who is only interested in competence), his motivation for his glue-pourings is by no means simple nor, necessarily, dishonourable.
In his own way, he is targeting girls who he sees as betraying their beaus who are in active service overseas, effectively warning them to stay true. On another, metaphysical level, he is a lover of his county, eager to impress its history, its beauty and its values into any minds he can meet: metaphorically, he is seeking to pour knowledge into their heads, deflecting the women from impure thoughts.
Though the gradual detection of Colpeper’s activities forms a narrative spine for the central section of A Canterbury Tale, it is the least important and, ultimately, interesting element of the film.
As they progress through this idyllic English summer weekend, we learn about the pilgrims. Peter is a classically trained organist, but he is wasting his talent, playing for easy money in night clubs, jobs that demand only a fraction of his ability. Though it is Alison who instigates the investigation, in the end it will be Peter who is hottest in his pursuit of Colpeper, and most determined to involve the Police to bring the Magistrate to Justice.
Indeed, it is Peter who, as the pilgrims approach Canterbury sharing a railway carriage with Colpeper, who becomes overtly self-righteous, as if he, not Alison, is the victim of the Glueman’s depredations His is the deepest emptiness of our pilgrims, the one that will require the greatest blessing to fill.
Of the pilgrims, only Alison knows Chillingbourne from before the War: She and her architect boyfriend spent a fortnight in a caravan on the Pilgrim’s Way, above the village. Though very much in love, they were unable to marry, facing determined disapproval from Geoffrey’s father over her lowly status as a shop assistant. Now all Alison has is the caravan: Geoffrey was shot down over the Mediterranean.
And Bob, the wondering eye who is our eye into this corner of England, he is of a woodworking family. Though a stranger to England, he and the local wood-dealer speak the same language, understand the same things: he is invited to dinner. But he too has a sorrow: his girlfriend back home has not replied to his letters for six months, and he sees a future of emptiness.
Through all their eyes, and especially Bob’s, we see life in wartime in this corner of England. Midway through the film, there is a splendid boy’s game, a river attack in glorious Swallows and Amazons style (one of the sections deleted for many years).
Interestingly, though he is aware that Alison suspects him, Colpeper softens towards her over the weekend, coming close to an admission and an explanation of his motives, though the moment is spoiled by the appearance of Peter and Bob, the former of whom is now personally, indeed aggressively committed to exposing Colpeper.
In contemporary terms the last twenty minutes of the film would probably be regarded as out-and-out sentimentality. Both film-makers and audience have together grown too cynical in the intervening years to be comfortable with the idea of happy endings, even if the film is, underneath all, a tale of Pilgrimage. And Pilgrims who travel to Canterbury must hope for blessings.
They gather on Monday morning, under the sun, to catch the train into Canterbury. Bob’s leave is almost over: he will meet Micky Rozinski at the Cathedral, which he has promised his mother he will visit. Alison is going to the Agricultural Commission, but plans a side-trip to the yard where Geoffrey’s caravan in in store. And Peter is bound for the Police Station, for an interview with Superintendent Hall, where he will present their evidence against Colpeper.
But their companion on the ten minute train journey is Colpeper himself, making his Monday morning trip to sit on the Magistrate’s Bench. Their confined carriage is like a court in itself, with Colpeper on one side and his accusers in a row facing him.
Colpeper doesn’t seek to defend himself. Alison and Bob are hesitant, but Peter is accusatory, determined to see the Glueman brought to justice. Colpeper explains himself by reference to his lectures: once the British Army Camp was established outside Chillingbourne, he had sought to educate, to open the eyes of the soldiers, but his lectures went unattended because off-duty the soldiers preferred to spend time with the village girls.
So Colpeper attacked the girls, to frighten them away, pouring glue into their hair just as he sought to pour knowledge into the men’s heads. Alison cannot resist suggesting that he should have included the ladies from the outset.
On arrival at Canterbury, our pilgrims separate. Before they leave each other, Peter intimates that this is a special day: it is the eve of D-Day, and the Army is going to cross the Channel. There is to be a special service at the Cathedral.
Peter goes to the Police Station, but the Superintendent is not present. As well as the service, there is to be a parade through the Town and this is occupying his thoughts. Peter is still hot for justice, and heads for the cathedral, where the Superintendent may be found. Once inside, looking for someone who can direct him, he approaches an elderly, acerbic man who is the Cathedral organist, and who pays him scant notice. Drawn to the organ, Peter follows the organist, returning to him a page of music that he had dropped.
In the organ loft, his evident admiration of the Church Organ, and his admission of his own training and current status softens the old man’s attitude to him. After all, the elder once played organ in a circus, for 22 shillings a week. He invites Peter to play: Bach’s Toccata and Fugue rolls out through the cathedral.
Alison has, with difficulty, found her way to the yard where the caravan is stored. It is in an area of town that has been badly damaged by bombs, but the yard still stands and the caravan is still laid up. But its tyres are missing, commandeered for the war effort. It is dank and dark, full of moths, deteriorating horribly.
Colpeper has followed Alison here. Awkwardly and ineffectually, he tries to console her, by running down the caravan as an impermanent thing, but his clumsy attempt at wooing her ends abruptly when the yard owner bustles up, berating Miss Alison for failing to leave an address. Mr Geoffrey’s father was there a fortnight earlier, is still in Canterbury. Alison panics, fearing that he is trying to claim the caravan, which is hers, is all she has left of Geoffrey. But this is not the case. Mr Geoffrey’s father has been looking for Alison, has stayed to find her. He has news: Mr Geoffrey is in Gibraltar.
For a moment, Alison’s vision (and that of the camera) blurs and sways, but as the implication sinks in, she rushes to the caravan, throws open its windows, begins to air it. Her future has been given back to her. She turns to Colpeper in excitement, but he has left without a word.
As for Bob, he is impressed by the size and splendour of the Cathedral, and whilst there is no comparison, he is also filled with pride that it was his grandfather who built the first Baptist Chapel in Three Sisters Falls, with good wood. He locates Micky Rozinski, using a cine camera outside, and gets dragged off into a local cafe to drink tea. Whilst Micky boasts of his time in London, Bob brings up the Pilgrim’s Way and his weekend in Chillingbourne, but expresses regret that Pilgrims to Canterbury no longer receive blessings.
Gleefully, Micky corrects him, producing from his pocket a bundle of letters, seven weeks worth. Their stamps are unfamiliar: they are from Australia: Bob’s girl has joined the WAACS.
Two of our Pilgrims have now received blessings, blessings that restore to them futures that they had thought lost. The military parade and its band have reached the Cathedral, and everyone files inside. Alison, with Geoffrey’s father, passes Colpeper in the doorway: the Glueman lowers his eyes and will not look up until they have passed. In the organ loft, the organist points out Superintendent Hall to Peter, who has no use for him now. At a signal, he launches into the opening hymn, ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’.
The churchgoers sing lustily, until the Cathedral bells drown them out. For a moment, we look from the bell-tower to the spires of the Cathedral, the shot seen in the film’s opening moments. The credits begin to run. The final background shot shifts back to Chillingbourne, as the gangs play a kick and rush game of football with the ball bought with Bob’s money.
The more I watch A Canterbury Tale, the more I think upon the future of our Pilgrims. After all, the film ends on the eve of D-Day, the invasion of Europe, an invasion on a scale greater than any in any War in history. Two of our Pilgrims are servicemen, the third the fiancée of another serviceman. What lay ahead for them?
For Alison, I see the future she hoped for: marriage, children, a long life with the young man who she has loved for so long and who she thought was dead. The blessing she receives is, in its way, the reversal of death, and within the logic of a universe in which blessings occur, that cannot be given with one hand and snatched away with the other.
Bob, our Holy Innocent, is to me equally destined to live. He has feared and doubted, and his doubts have been refuted. The unnamed blonde is the right girl for him – the reference to walking in silence in the woods for ours and then both saying the same thing is of great personal significance to me – and the path ahead for this couple is equally clear. Bob will live, will return to Three Sisters Falls, will marry, will build the lumber business carefully and solidly. In thirty years time, he and his wife will tour England, and he will take her to Chillingbourne, tracing that strange weekend he spent there, during the War.
But Peter. I cannot foresee such things for the British Army Sergeant. Peter’s absence hasn’t been in love, in a caring, sharing partner. He’s been the outsider among our Pilgrims, dragged away by his duty at first, only joining the detectives long after they had begun their enquiries, and yet the most vigorous, most determined of the pursuers. Peter’s been full of an aggression, an anger that hasn’t affected either of the others, as if he personally has been the victim, and of something more serious.
What Peter has lost, and which has been restored to him in the Cathedral, is his soul. Instead of the music he loved from childhood, Peter has diverted himself into comfort, indulgence, sterility and it has reflected back on his personality. The Cathedral organ allows him to recapture that part of his soul, but inside, my intuition tells me that it is only a temporary reprieve. I have the strongest feeling that Peter Gibbs does not return from Western Europe.
Only Colpeper is left unfulfilled. The pilgrims have come to Canterbury and received their blessings. Ahead lies the invasion of Europe that will succeed in winning the war. For the moment, a service, and the Canterbury Bells, give thanks to God. Even for an atheist like myself, it’s an extraordinary outpouring of joy, an extremely moving finale. No, this film is not minor, not minor at all.

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.

The Prisoner: episode 4 – Free For All – synopsis

Thunder crashes. The credit sequence runs. Number 6 is just finishing dressing when the phone rings. He refuses to acknowledge his number, saying only that it is the number of the phone. It is a call from Number 2, but his voice comes from the TV set, not the phone.
The new Number Two is an older man, hair-thinning, adopting a charming manner. He asks if Number Six fancies a chat, but Number Six replies ‘The mountain can come to Mahomet’ and hangs up. Almost immediately, his door opens and Number Two enters, greeting him as ‘Mahomet?’ Number Six acknowledges the thrust.
Number Two has brought a cooked breakfast with him, laid out by Number Fifty-Eight, a pretty, dark-haired woman in a maid’s outfit. She is initially shy and silent, but when she speaks, it is in an obscure East European tongue that Number Six does not recognise. Number Two describes her as a new recruit, from Records, who is expected to go far.
Their breakfast chat starts with the usual sparring over what the Village want from Number Six. Number Two drops into the conversation that it is the start of their Election Campaign and asks Number Six if he’s going to run. He automatically responds, ‘Like blazes, the first chance I get’, but Number Two is not deflected. He suggests Number Six should run for Office: his.
Number Six clearly does not believe this. Their deliberations are interrupted by the boom of a bass drum, and the band, from outside. It is a carnival atmosphere, with placards saying ‘Vote for No. 2’
Number Six follows Number Two, full of curiosity. The campaign is like an American rally: he and Number Two are driven round to the Colonnade overlooking the stone pond, where Number Two addresses the crowd by megaphone. The crowd respond to cue cards turned over by the Butler.
Number Two bemoans the lack of opposition as unhealthy in a democracy and puts Number Six forward as a new resident with an individualist outlook. Number Six takes the megaphone. He is openly contemptuous of the crowd, all of whom were once like him but who, unlike him, have accepted their imprisonment and will die here like rotten cabbages. (“They’re lapping it up,” Number Two encourages him). He ends by announcing he is running.
Immediately the crowd cheer and produce placards of Number Six. He is hustled into his own election mini-moke, driven by Number Fifty-Eight, who is grinning and excited,like a happy child.
The following morning, Number Fifty-Eight is waiting outside Number Six’s house. Number Six doesn’t want her, especially as she doesn’t speak English. He tries to walk to the Council Chamber, where he is due to attend the meeting of the outgoing Council. She intercepts him by the Town Information Map, learning how to work it and drives him the rest of the way. Number Six clearly finds her disturbing.
As they drive away, two men leap onto the mini-moke. Number One Hundred and Thirteen writes for the local paper, the Tally Ho, and Number One Hundred and Thirteen b is his photographic colleague. The reporter asks a string of political questions, to each of which Number Six replies ‘No Comment’ and the reporter writes down a bland political answer, until he asks the P’s opinion on life and death. Number Six replies ‘Mind your own business’ and the reporter writes ‘No comment’.
They leap off the mini-moke and rush off. A young man, identical to Number One Hundred and Thirteen b is selling the Tally Ho: Number Six’s interview is already in print.
At the Council Hall, Number Six descends into a steel-lined, high-ceilinged circular room. Number Two sits at a high table before which is a dais which Number Six takes. The Council – twelve people, male and female, differing ages, stand at lecterns numbered 2A – 2L. They are silent and motionless throughout, even when Number Six questions them as to who elected them, who they represent etc.
He loses his temper and denounces the whole thing as a farce. His dais suddenly spins out of control, then takes him underground, releasing him into a red-lighted corridor. He stumbles along this, his equilibrium destroyed, and ends in another round chamber, in which an avuncular, immaculately dressed man is sat at a desk, and offers him tea.
This is the Labour Exchange Manager (another new arrival: came from the Civil Service and adapted immediately). He talks to Number Six is a cheerful, open-handed manner, before imprisoning him in his chair and conduct a test which involves reading Number Six’s thoughts about why he has entered the election – to take over and organise a break-out.
When Number Six is released, he has been brainwashed. He eagerly solicits the manager’s vote, and emerges from the Labour Exchange to throw himself whole-heartedly into campaigning, with Number Fifty-Eight at his side.
The campaign rapidly goes to his head and Number Six finds himself parroting messages about the Village and conformity that he violently opposes. Close to cracking, he tries to flee. Surrounded on all sides, he steals a boat from the jetty, though two mechanics jump on board to struggle with him. He heads into the bay, pursued by Number Two in the helicopter. Though he succeeds in throwing off the two men, he is halted by Rover and returned to the Village.
When he recovers, he once again resumes campaigning, attracting more followers than Number Two. Number Six gatecrashes the latter’s rally, trading exchanges by megaphone from opposite ends of the square, but his constant struggle against the brainwashing starts to surface that evening in the night club. In something of a trance, and acting as if already drunk, bNumber Six demands genuine spirits, not non-alcoholic substitutes and starts to get aggressive. An alarmed Number Fifty-Eight drives him to a deserted area and directs him to a cave mouth.
Inside, Number Six finds an illicit still and a drunken Number Two escaping the pressures of his office, and making his own negative comments about the Village. The brewer is a brilliant scientist who the Village leave alone to pursue his passion and write equations, which they photograph weekly. Number Six accepts a drink, but collapses as soon as he finishes it. Number Two immediately throws off the pretence of being drunk: the drink has been calculated to last until the Election is over.
Election Day is a clear win for Number Six. His box overflows with black rosettes and theer are no white rosettes for Number Two, who concedes defeat and casts his vote for his opponent. Number Six appears to be in shock. Number Two announces him as the winner, but the crowd stand in silence, and disperse when Number Two and Number Fifty-Eight take Number Six to the Green Dome.
In the ante-room, Number Two hands things over and leaves. Number Fifty-Eight leads Number Six into the deserted Control Room. She runs around excitedly, pushing buttons to see what happens, even leading a still-stunned Number Six into the doing the same.
Suddenly, she turns serious. She leads Number Six to look at the whirling pattern of lights on the screen, then, as he stands, hypnotised, slaps him viciously across the face several times.
Number Six comes out of his brainwashing to find himself in control. Ironically, he loses control, pushing buttons frantically, screaming over loudspeakers that everyone is free to go. The Villagers ignore him completely.
A stretcher is rolled into the control room and two men rise through the floor to drag Number Six away. He breaks away, through the door from where the stretcher has come. He finds himself in a cave passage, where four men, in boilersuits and dark glasses are sat in a semi-circle around a Rover. They turn to watch as the two men catch up with Number Six, subdue him and start to beat him severely.
Number Six is dragged back into the control room, semi-conscious. Number Fifty-Eight has taken the dais, wearing Number Two’s rosette. In accentless English she asks if he will never learn, that this is only the beginning. There are many methods they can use but they do not wish to damage him permanently: is he ready to talk? Number Six’s only remaining defiance is to lapse into unconsciousness.
The new Number Two talks to the old Number Two in the helicopter. She asks him to give her regards to the Homeland. Number Six is taken back to his cottage.