The Prisoner: Accusations of Misogyny

‘Be Seeing You’ – Rachel Herbert as Number Eighty-Four

When Rachel Herbert took the dais at the end of Free For All, transitioning from Number Eight-Four to Number Two, she became the first woman to take charge in the Village, albeit for only a couple of minutes.
Only three other female Number Two’s followed her. One appeared onscreen for, literally, two seconds in It’s Your Funeral, another, like Herbert, was only revealed in the closing seconds (no spoilers), leaving Mary Morris, in Dance of the Dead as the only female Number Two to be billed as such, and to act with authority.
And she was a late replacement for Trevor Howard, for whom the part was written.
All of which, and more, leads many fans of the series to accuse it of misogyny. After all, doesn’t Number Six say, in the afore-mentioned Dance of the Dead, “Never trust a woman, even the four footed kind.”
How you approach that claim depends, in large part, in what you define as being misogyny. For me, it’s present when women are devalued and demeaned simply because they are women. It need not be actively expressed: there are many men (and not a few women) whose misogyny is subtle and hidden (often from themselves) but can be identified from what they do, rather than what they may say.
But when investigating an historical work, we do have to distinguish between active misogyny and what merely reflects the times. The Prisoner was made some years before the active feminist movement came into being, and reflected attitudes towards women that were fixed by history, and the traditional denying women of opportunities to demonstrate themselves as capable in so many fields.
With refreshing, but very rare, exceptions (such as Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise) thrillers were an exclusively masculine pursuit. Women could be victims, distractions, enemies and assistants, but the prevailing mindset did not admit them as heroes and initiators in their own right. Ultimately, they were there to be rescued.
And the Prisoner isn’t there to rescue anyone but himself. Though Number Six does, in Revolt episodes, act in an altruistic manner, it is generally for the preservation of the community, or to prevent the development of an idea with negative implications for the future. The only exception to this is in Hammer into Anvil, which is in response to a damsel in distress: the basic stereotype.
On that level, The Prisoner is a misogynist show, just like nearly everything else around it.
The Prisoner being a thriller, it might have expected that Number Six would become involved with at least one woman who might be on his side, and in The Chimes of Big Ben he does, temporarily, appearing to be ‘courting’ Number Eight. But it’s increasingly obvious that he is using her (albeit chivalrously, in that he is getting her out as well) and that he finds Nadia’s increasingly romantic attitude to him irritating.
With that coming as quickly as the second broadcast episode, and with Nadia revealed as the agent of a complex and far-reaching attempt to entrap him, Number Six’s heightened paranoia towards everybody is enhanced and thus he rules out any further stories on that topic, almost from the start.
Indeed, for the rest of the series, there are only two women with whom Number Six enjoys any kind of friendly relationship: Alison, in The Schizoid Man, towards whom he adopts a somewhat avuncular aspect, until she betrays him, of course, and his fiancée Janet, who he actually kisses in Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darling. But he’s wearing Patrick Stock’s body at the time: McGoohan himself would never have done it.
It’s grist for the misogyny mill that, without fail, all the women in the series (except Janet, who is outside the Village) betray Number Six. On the other hand, with very rare exceptions, everybody betrays the Prisoner, so we shouldn’t read too much into that.
One of those rare exceptions is Number Twelve in The General. But it’s important to note that the other is the Watchmaker’s Daughter in It’s Your Funeral. Though she’s manipulated by the Village to draw in Number Six, she is unaware of this. She’s a Village rebel in her own right, and she assists him throughout. So that’s one woman at least who doesn’t betray.
That there is so little of feminine wiles being used to entrap Number Six can be put directly down to Patrick McGoohan. Happily married, with children, the fervently Roman Catholic McGoohan was noted in being a Sixties male sex symbol who avoided sex of any kind. He had already turned down the role of James Bond, before it was offered to Sean Connery, because of the character’s ‘immorality with women’ and on another occasion he went on record about what he saw as television’s responsibility, as a visitor to the home, not to expose children to immoral behaviour.
McGoohan, who had at one point trained to be a priest, was so adamant on this point that he had it written into his contract that, even for the first series of Danger Man, that he would not be required to do any kissing.
Women do take prominent roles in The Prisoner. There’s a strong, influential female presence in all but a handful of episodes, but the most prominent example of an absence of female involvement in the story comes in the final two episodes, when the conclusion of the drama is worked out.
Finally, let’s return to our sole active Number Two, Mary Morris.
Needless to say, perhaps, the role was not written for her. Originally, Trevor Howard was intended to play the part, in which he would have appeared in a Jack the Ripper costume in the episode’s fancy-dress sequence. However, Morris plays the role exceptionally well. Dressing her as Peter Pan exemplifies a certain impishness to her performance that never detracts from her implacability as Number Six’s enemy.
And Morris, a veteran actress, makes use of her harsh  voice and her wizened, wrinkled appearance, a look that ought to suggest homeliness and grandmotherly charm, to demonstrate an absolute ruthlessness, especially in the episode’s jarring conclusion. Morris’s age removes even the remotest sexual element from the relationship (one suspects McGoohan could accept her only on that basis). She’s superb but I can’t escape the conclusion that, like Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Alien, it’s because the role was originally written for a male character.
Overall, and I admit to being biassed by my love for the series, I don’t find The Prisoner consciously misogynistic. I think it’s a reflection of the times in which it was made, albeit heavily influenced by McGoohan’s Roman Catholic beliefs. But there have been reports that McGoohan was genuinely uncomfortable in scenes requiring him to get close to any women on set.
But it cannot be denied that The Avengers, especially during Diana Rigg’s years in the series, did portray Emma Peel as an independent-minded, forthright, strong character in her own right, and I am well aware of the Hellfire Club episode when I say that.
The case against The Prisoner is strong, but not, in my verdict, overwhelming.

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.