The Prisoner – The Chimes of Big Ben

Episode 2: The Chimes of Big Ben

Looking back at it there was a lot that the script had to do in ‘Arrival’. It sets up the whole premise of the show, takes us round the Village, shows us how it works, and then manages to squeeze in a plotline as well. In comparison the pace of ‘The Chimes of Big Ben’ feels a little slower and this episode’s story can be more complex. But first things first…

The opening sequence is a little different from ‘Arrival‘ and this is the sequence that will be used for the rest of the series. There are a few shots cut, including the doors marked ‘WAY OUT‘, but the main difference is the end of the sequence where we see some shots of Number Two’s Observation Room and Number Six running on the beach. We hear a short conversation between Number Two and Number Six that ends with the series’ most famous quote “I am not a number! I am a free man!” In the conversation Number Six asks “Whose side are you on?” and the reply is “That would be telling.” Now at the start of every episode, there is an emphasis on secrecy and keeping Number Six in the dark. Perhaps the Village is a test? It is being run by his own side who are testing him to see if, given enough pressure, he would give up their secrets?

At the start of the episode we have no idea how long Number Six has been in the Village. This could be his 7th or his 57th. The speakers in the Village crackle into life and the woman’s cheery voice urges everyone to wake up. Number Six rolls over, pulling the bed covers over him before giving up as the radio in his room continues to loudly carry the woman’s voice in. He gets out of bed and picks up his dressing gown. Number Two (Leo McKern) is watching on a screen and remarks to his assistant “He can make even the act of putting on his dressing gown appear as an act of defiance.” This Number Two (another new one) comes across quite moody and annoyed. I get the impression that he has been in the Village some time and is frustrated with Number Six’s refusal to cooperate in any way. His assistant (Christopher Benjamin) tries to reassure him that Six will “crack” eventually but Number Two exasperatedly replies “I don’t want a man of fragments!” My interpretation of this is that whatever information they want from Number Six, they need him to still be mentally intact in order to give it to them. They don’t want him to become a wreck with his mind destroyed by torture. Meanwhile, Number Six continues with his small acts of defiance, ‘little victories’, by putting the radio in the fridge. Prisoners having little victories over the guards and the prison system is best explored in the BBC series Porridge (1974-1977), set in HM Slade Prison. It’s all about getting one over in order to keep their sanity, or at least a little bit of themselves. Here it is Number Six’s way of saying he will not be made to keep to all the small rules and aspects of the Village that he totally despises. The message is individualism.

In ‘Arrival‘ it was an ex-Admiral playing chess and in this episode it is a General (Finlay Currie). Number Six plays with him whilst talking about the Village. The General tells Number Six that “You’ll be here for as long as you live“, “no point in being uncooperative” and there is “no point in fighting battles you can’t win“. In response Number Six quizzes the General; “Perhaps you came here of your own free will?” and when the General brings up his military past Number Six asks “Which regiment was that? Which army?” The General does not answer. It is clear from his questions that Number Six is highly suspicious of everyone in the Village and after the events of the previous episode we know that he has good reason to be. The General could just be an old man who has been in the Village for a long time and knows that it cannot be beaten. He could be genuinely seeking to help Number Six. But he could also be a plant intended to persuade Number Six to give up his information. It really is impossible to tell. Everyone looks alike in the Village. They all look like prisoners. Number Six knows that not all of them are.

Leo McKern is this episode’s Number Two

Number Six goes with Number Two to the green domed building and once again they drink tea together. Number Two checks Number Six’s file, which tells him that he does not take sugar. I like how civilised this all is and it is a contrast to Number Two’s snarky and sinister remarks. Six tells him “But I don’t run on clockwork” and Two replies “You will my dear chap, you will.” Number Two is determined that Number Six will be made to conform to Village life. He will fit in and his defiance will disappear. However, Number Six still has confidence in his ability to overcome whatever the Village may throw at him. As he sips his tea Six tells Two that he intends to escape, come back, and “wipe this place off the face of the Earth, obliterate it, and you with it.” He then reaches for the sugar bowl and puts three lumps into his tea. Obviously this last gesture is solely to rile Number Two, who must now decide whether to amend Number Six’s file, and it is another nice inclusion of Number Six’s small acts of defiance.

Number Eight, Nadia, apparently from Estonia

We are introduced to the ‘new Number Eight’ (Nadia Gray). We never met the old one but it is made clear that he or she disappeared. Number Six remarks that “There was no funeral” and Number Two replies “It’s not always possible; you need a body“. This really could mean anything. What on earth happened to the previous Number Eight? Drowned? Burnt? What happens to those absorbed by Rover, like the man we saw in ‘Arrival’? Dissolved? Blown into atoms? Who knows. This can be as disturbing as your imagination allows.

The new Number Eight will ultimately be revealed to be working for Number Two but it is debatable how soon this starts. Is she a plant from the start? Looking around she asks Number Six “Who are these people? Why are they here?” and he replies “Why are you here?” This can either imply that they are all there for the same reason, or, more likely in my opinion, given Number Six’s now suspicious nature, he is genuinely curious. He may pose the question rhetorically, but he is undoubtedly wondering whether she is a real prisoner or simply posing as one. She tells him “All I did was resign” so she is apparently just like him. Number Eight goes for lunch with Number Two and is with him for quite a long time. This is what brings me to question her position. Did she arrive as a prisoner who is then offered the chance to leave providing she sets up Number Six? Or did she come voluntarily in the first place and her lengthy meeting with Number Two is merely a further detailed briefing on her task? She goes for a drink at Number Six’s house and says “I didn’t expect it to be like this“. She claims she saw a file on the Village. Is that what she’s referring to? Either way, from this point on she is definitely working for Number Two. She’s a former Olympic swimmer and swims out to sea from the beach. Number Two sends Rover after her. Rover emerges from beneath the sea and rather beautifully glides across, pressing down on her, appearing to drown her. Rover and two mini-Rovers bring her back to the beach, unconscious. This must be planned in some way. She agreed with Number Two to try and escape somehow, in order to make a show in front of Number Six and convince him that she really is a prisoner. It works. When she’s in hospital Number Six demands that she be released. He trusts that she is a prisoner now and knows she has information about where the Village is. He promises Number Two that he’ll “join in. Try to settle down“.

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Number Six makes a piece for the Arts and Crafts Fair that is really parts for a boat. At sunset he and Number Eight (real name Nadia, from Estonia) head off from the beach in the boat. At sunrise they are spotted and Rover is sent after them but they make it to the shore just in time. A man on the shore shoots at Rover and although holes appear in it, it does not deflate as you might expect for a balloon-like object. Rover chasing them must just be for show. Perhaps they thought Number Six would be suspicious if the escape was too easy. So far Rover has never failed to catch someone before.

Number Six just about escapes Rover for the first time

The Village is said to be in the Baltic, thirty miles from the Polish border. Six gives the man a coded note and Nadia translates what to do with it. Six and Nadia get into a wooden crate, but not before Six has taken the man’s watch, his own having been water-damaged. We see them on the back of a truck, being loaded onto a ship and finally a plane. They arrive in the office of a man called Fotheringay (Richard Wattis). There is the sound of traffic from outside. Number Six recognises the Colonel (Kevin Stoney) and Fotheringay and shakes both their hands. Big Ben chimes. Number Six and the Colonel are left alone to talk.

Number Six is asked about Nadia. “In the Village-” “The Village?” “She was known as Number Eight. Don’t you know about the Village?” Number Six is suspicious of everyone now, even those he used to know. The Colonel replies “I’m here to ask the questions, old boy.” Both of them want answers. Both are suspicious. The Colonel continues to plead ignorance about the Village. “What village?” “Oh yes. Forgot you don’t know, do you?” Number Six replies, sounding decidedly unconvinced. Number Six then gives a marvellous summary of the Village:

“The Village is a place where people turn up. People who have resigned from a certain sort of job, have defected, or have been extracted. The specialised knowledge in their heads is of great value to one side or the other. Are you sure you haven’t got a Village here?”

Number Six really is not sure which side operates the Village. The Colonel gives us a timescale, saying that Number Six has been gone months. He resigned, disappeared, then reappeared from the other side of the Iron Curtain. Naturally ‘they’ are suspicious. This does tell us for the first time for certain that Number Six worked for the West. Although we know he was in London before he went to the Village, we had no actual evidence of who he was working for at all.

The Colonel (Kevin Stoney). A very posh British man

Big Ben chimes. “Why did you resign?” “It was a matter of conscience.” Number Six agrees to give up his information on the condition of his own safety as well as political asylum for Nadia. As Big Ben’s gongs finish Number Six glances at his watch. “I resigned, because for a very long time – just a minute…eight o’clock.” The Colonel tells him that the night is young. Number Six’s mind is whirring. “My watch says eight” until he finally hits on it. He had worked out how long it would take them to get from Poland to London. “Would you care to explain to me how a man in Poland came to have a watch showing English time when there’s an hour’s difference?!” It’s a very clever way of having Number Six realise he has been hoaxed. For the rest of us, there’s also the fact that he has heard the chimes of Big Ben twice within a few minutes. Number Six pulls a plug out and the noise of the traffic ends. Opening up a wardrobe he finds a tape player. The music here is very effective. As Number Six walks out there are soft chimes and mounting tension in the music. He opens the final set of doors to reveal the Village and begins to walk away. He looks back to see Nadia at the doors with Number Two. He gives her a rather defiant “Be seeing you” and walks off. Later in the observation room, the dialogue between Nadia and Number Two firmly establishes that Nadia was a plant. Finally, she tells Number Two “Don’t worry. It was a good idea and you did your best. I’ll stress it in my report.” Who does she report to? Clearly someone higher than Number Two and one whom has authority over him.

The reel-to-reel tape recorder is discovered!

The Village

We find out a few other things about the nature of the Village in ‘The Chimes of Big Ben’. Number Six offers Nadia a drink at his house; all of them are non-alcoholic. Whisky costs 24 work units and vodka is 16. How horrific. So why doesn’t the Village have alcohol? In the last post I talked about the Village having an ‘enforced happiness’. This can be seen as a way of keeping the population docile. When Number Eight arrives Number Two tells Number Six that her house in the Village is an exact replica of her own home. If you were eagle-eyed enough you would have spotted that this is also the case with Number Six’s. It is a lot of effort to go to but it is important for the Village. It makes the prisoners more relaxed, makes it feel more like their home and gives them one less reason to act up. They have all sorts of amenities to keep them content and occupied. The Village dislikes dissent and rebellion. They wants order and conformity. As revealed by Number Six’s conversation with Number Two, they want the inhabitants to run like clockwork. This is why they can’t have alcohol. The Village can’t risk the prisoners becoming unpredictable or even violent. The must all be one and the same. Personally, I would find it just another deprivation of freedom.

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Number Six has an interesting conversation with Number Two. Six asks Two “Has is ever occurred to you that you’re just as much a prisoner as I am?” “Of course” Two replies nonchalantly “I know too much. We’re both lifers.” This is an interesting revelation about Number Two. It may or may not apply to all the Number Twos. It shows that you can run the Village, you can be in charge of everything and still be a prisoner. It does make me wonder what would happen if Number Two chose to escape. But perhaps he doesn’t want to. Even if he is a prisoner, perhaps he would be in too much danger if he were to leave the Village because of what he knows.

Number Two goes on “I am definitely an optimist. That’s why it doesn’t matter who Number One is. It doesn’t matter which side runs the Village.” “It’s run be one side or the other?” “Certainly. But both are becoming identical.” The way they talk about ‘sides’ here convinces me that the sides involved are those of the Cold War, i.e. East and West. The Prisoner is not really about the Cold War. Number Six is not fighting Communism – he’s fighting the Village. That is why, as Number Two says, it doesn’t matter which side runs the Village. Either way, Number Six would still be fighting them. As for the comment about both sides being identical, a fantastic fictional example of this is John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963). In le Carré’s novel the East German agent Fiedler tells the British agent Leamas “All our work – yours and mine – is rooted in the theory that the whole is more important than the individual.” It is a very interesting concept to explore but I digress. Number Two explains what he believes the purpose of the Village to be. One side “created an international community, a perfect blueprint for world order. When the sides facing each other suddenly realise that they’re looking into a mirror they will see that this is the pattern for the future.” Number Six seems somewhat amused by the idea. “The whole Earth, as the Village?” “That is my hope. What’s yours?” He instantly responds “I’d like to be the first man on the moon.” When this episode first aired in 1967 of course, man had not yet made it to the moon. Maybe it is meant as an absurd remark but Number Six’s reply to this is so quick and said without thinking that I like to think it is his genuine fantasy. Thus we have a little more revealed to us about Number Six.

Who is Number Six?

Whilst they are travelling in the crate, Nadia asks Number Six if he has a wife and he answers simply “No.” A while later she asks him if he’s engaged and he does not answer. She could be trying to find out more about him for the Village or could simply be making conversation. So Number Six may or may not be engaged. It would explain why he isn’t taken in by the advances of any of the women in the Village and it could even be an explanation for why he resigned. Secret work and family life don’t exactly go hand in hand. However, personally I just don’t see it. Before Number Six was kidnapped he was about to go away somewhere sunny and if there had been someone in his life, he would probably have met up with her. Also, some mention of her would surely have come up during the series so in my mind Number Six is a single man.

A couple of times this episode Number Two updates Number Six’s file. As revealed in ‘Arrival‘, the Village has a file on Number Six that goes into great detail. However, this episode reveals that not all of the file is strictly objective. This episode Number Two adds “persecution complex amounting to mania, paranoid delusion of grandeur” and “over-weaning sense of self-importance. While here, his egomania has, if anything, increased.” These additions are all based on Number Two’s own encounters with Number Six and are rather exaggerated. Not everything in the file can be trusted. But we do find out that age 15 he was top of his class in Woodwork!

A portrait of Number Two is clearly visible through the middle

Having agreed to submit an entry to the Arts and Crafts Fair, Number Six puts his woodwork skills to use by spending a day in the woods carving “a series of abstracts“. When he enters the fair we see a mixture of paintings, drawings, sculptures – all sorts. Every single one of them is of Number Two. The General has made a chess set. He proudly shows Number Six the king, who has Number Two’s face. The fair is an example of submission. Number Two might be a prisoner himself but he is the symbol of power and authority in the Village. It is basically the Village’s prisoners kissing Number Two’s arse. Number Six is asked to explain his piece, called ‘Escape’, to the judges. When he is finished, one of them (Lucy Griffiths) says to him “The only thing I really don’t understand…” “Yes?” “Where is Number Two?” That is some serious arse kissing. Actually, although Number Six’s piece is the only one not to feature Number Two, the camera angle means that when the piece is shown there is a gap in it, meaning that a portrait of Number Two in the background can be seen in the dead centre of Number Six’s piece. So what is the symbolism of this? Unintentional as it may be, his piece still ends up having Number Two in the middle of it, just like everyone else’s. Perhaps no matter how much Number Six tries to escape or beat the Village, he is ultimately doomed to become a part of its collective, just like everyone else.

This episode shows us Number Six settled into the Village after a few months and his determination to retain his individualism. It also demonstrates that there are those who are happy to join the flow of the crowd and how difficult it is to avoid it. This episode’s Number Two sees the Village as a blueprint for the whole world. Perhaps it is a reflection of how challenging it is to retain one’s own sense of self when we are surrounded by rules and customs that could have us all act one and the same. Once again this episode Number Six has been tricked and given false hope of escape, although this time the purpose seems to have been to trick him into giving up information. Finally, we now know that even if Number Six’s side do not run the Village, they certainly know about it and are happy to leave him there.

Be seeing you.


  1. Anonymous

    I thought this episode, being second, was brilliant because it established that Number 6 is intelligent, proactive, and was damned good at his job as a spy if he notices something as small as the number of chimes by Big Ben. It shows Number 6 is not just being petty when he takes 3 lumps of sugar or commits other small acts of defiance … he's doing his best to keep them all off balance. We needed that because the only thing we saw in "Arrival" was that he was contrary and could pilot a helicopter and be fooled by a former co-spy. NOW, he's a man to be reckoned with.

    I had missed the point you caught about the portrait of Number 2 being in the background of Number 6's art piece. Interesting.

    Leo McKern (Rumpole of the Bailey) was a very effective Number 2, and probably came closer than anyone to getting Number 6 to reveal all. It's probably why he's the only one who came back. (Note: one other Number 2 was in two episodes, but my DVD box set has the two episodes in the wrong order. Be sure you watch them in the right order because in the second, they altered the opening credits again to avoid the "The new Number 2" line, since he wasn't new.)

    I was never certain it WAS one side or the other which ran The Village. I got the feeling The Village was run by someone like The Illuminati or some other non-governmental organization which wanted to control everything. Of course, the finale of the series cancels all bets, but I always treated The Village as being run by some independent outfit.

    One more note: I'll be curious to see your reaction to a later episode which seemed to indicate that, if not engaged, Number 6 was in a serious relationship with someone. I suspect there were more than a few continuity errors because McGoohan wanted to make only 7 (maybe 10) episodes but the network wanted more and eventually got 17. Adding those extra episodes probably added some conflicting details, like his girlfriend.

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