THE UNMUTUAL PRISONER ARTICLE ARCHIVE
PETER DUNN'S A-Z OF PRISONER ALLEGORY
G - Government of the people, by the people, for the people.
This instalment of our alphabetical allegorical argosy will reveal the answers to who runs the Village and why Number Six smashes the employment exchange managers executive toy. Intrigued?
It is quite interesting to note how much we are told about the Village authorities without us really noticing. In the very first episode we are told by Number Two during his helicopter ride with Number Six that there is a democratically elected council. We even meet this council in the episode "Free for All" and again in "A Change of Mind". Admittedly this group does resemble as Number Six puts it "A bunch of tailor's dummies" and they do seem somewhat under direction of Number but at least they are there and they are of course democratically elected. They are also not to be ignored without cost - the thugs in "A Change of Mind" are quite clear that "the committee wouldn't like" some of Number Six's activities. The committee also seems to have a number of offshoots including an education sub-committee in the General which seems to have the same penchant for top hats as the main committee. One could also mention the women's committee in "A Change Of Mind" and the prize committee in "Chimes".
The democratic elections are perhaps a bit of a waste as the lack of individuality in Village life constrains any political differences from arising. Another important missing political element is that of party politics. No collective party feelingis present among the Villagers. The inherent paranoia has led to only one faction arising within the prisoners - the jammers - and even they fall apart in "It's Your Funeral". Is it not unusual in a village containing a number of high ranking political dissidents - including Leo Mckern's Number Two should be so devoid of any ideological or party networks.
Even the village authorities seem curiously free of any politics - even office politics. Each act of rebellion within the administration is carried out by an individual alone. Each new administration purges just one individual from the old administration - if it purges any at all.
What I have always found interesting is the village does experiment with creating adversarial party politics within the Village but that these systems always flounder and fall into the sort of consensus that was present in the society of the 1960s. The two best examples of this are the Chess games and the election.
Chess games do seem to be a significant theme in more than one episode. We all recall the Human chess of "Checkmate" and may even remember Virginia Maskell learning the lesson "we are all pawn's me dear" in "Arrival" but Number Six is also seen playing chess in "It's Your Funeral". Chess with its two sides - one black one white - is obviously actively encouraged. What could be more adversarial than Black and White. Is it not interesting to note that black and white are the colours chosen for the opposing campaign rosettes in "Free For All". One could also point out the use of black and white in the costumes of Number Six and many Number Twos.
Of course the election taught Number Six a lesson - that power itself would not free him and that power could actually simple end up building more complicated prisons for himself and others as he said himself: "I am in command - obey me and be free!" I have often wondered what lesson the Villagers learned by this exercise- surely it was not all for Number Six's benefit?
I believe the villagers were told two lessons. One that heroes such as Number Six could be broken - and more importantly that adversarial party politics were an increasingly farcical concept that should be abandoned. A clearer picture of the Village's aversion to adversarial party politics comes with Leo McKem's speech in "The Chimes Of Big Ben":
Number Two: It doesn't matter which side runs the Village
Number Six: It's run by one side or the other?
Two: Oh certainly but both sides are becoming identical. A perfect blueprint
for World Order. When the sides facing each other suddenly realise they're looking
into a mirror, they'll see that this is the pattern
for the future.
Number Six: The whole earth as the Village.
Number Two: That is my hope.
This merging of political sides was a common theme of the 1960s both in the UK and in the UK's view of the world. British politics were still dominated by the theme of "Butskellism" or "Butskellian consensus". The term was derived from the names of the former Tory chancellor Rab Butler and former Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell. This phrase described a lengthy period in British post war politics in which all mainstream UK parties seemed to share the same policies and values on a vast range of core issues such as the economy, the need for a welfare state, even foreign policy. The political analyst R T McKenzie described the Labour and Tory parties of the 1950's and mid 60's as follows:
"two great monolithic structures now face each other and conduct furious arguments about the comp-aratively minor issues that separate them"
The world of the 1950s and 1960s was also beginning to find consensus politics appealing. The Democrat and Republican parties in the US were finding that the ideological divides within their parties were often stronger than those separating the two parties. The UN and Europe were pan national organisations still going through a honeymoon period in terms of global respect. At the same time national populations were becoming increasingly critical of their home governments and of the super power system. The Hungarian rising of 1956 showed the repressive face of communism and this lesson was to be reinforced in 1968 with the invasion of Czechoslovakia. The US had unnerved its population with the Cuban missile crisis and the escalating Vietnam conflict. Parties seemed bankrupt of ides, ideologies seemed flawed if not down right dangerous. What was left? If party and ideology had fallen then perhaps it was the time of the individual. The period of The Prisoner saw a paradoxical stress on the importance of the individual coupled with a longing for a strong individual to take charge politically. In the US the sense of loss following the assassination of Kennedy was acute. This led to an inordinate amount of leeway being given to the office of the President in the hope that a similar powerful political saviour would emerge. Unfortunately what they got was Richard Nixon who had previously lost to JFK. Nixon used the presidency's increasing power base to create what became known as an "Imperial Presidency" which eventually found itself in the nightmare of Watergate. However in many ways it did achieve much for the American people by exactly the sort of international consenual behaviour that Leo McKern's Number Two advocated. Nixon was an arch anti-Communist yet is formed close alliances with communist China and opened up the detente process with the Soviet Union.
In the UK the national tone was much more down beat. The loss of Suez in 1956 marked a period of imperial decline in which Britain began to look to Europe as a way of shoring up former glories. The urge for a strong political figure was not so strong but there was still a significant nostalgia for the Churchill period. China of course had a strong figure in the shape of Chairman Mao. The Soviets had just ditched two strong figures (Stalin and Khruschev and under Breznhev were unlikely to choose another strong charismatic leader for some time). It is clear however that, in the absence of effective ideology or party politics, the west would value strong leadership. I believe the Village being an allegory of the world at the time of filming also sought a strong leader.
Our first real inkling of the importance of this political question comes in the very first episode when the employment exchange manager asks Number Six about his politics. It is only at this point that the Prisoner becomes gngry enough to destroy the wooden toy that seems to be the employment exchange managers pride and joy. Why that question? Many of the previous questions had been equally challenging to his personal freedom. Why does he not respond until that point? Obviously this is to underline the importance of the political question.
"Free For All" of course sees the Prisoner elected as Number Two but this hardly matters as he was drugged into the role - it is stressed time and time again by Number Twos that when he finally comes over to the Village's way of thinking that it must be by his own free will. One should also note that he was only allowed to run for the post of Number Two not Number One. He chooses to run in the first instance because he will then discover the identity of Number One. However the process and the drugs pervert this noble path to the point were he seeks power almost for its own sake.
"Fall Out" is where the Prisoner is given his political apotheosis. Here the Committee disappears to be replaced by the assembly. Only two of the delegates of this assembly are seen by us Michael Miller (henchman in "The General", naughty villager in "A Change Of Mind") and Peter Swannick (The Supervisor). It is safe to assume by these delegates appearances and the name tags indicating particular responsibilities that these are all Village guardians of some sort. Number Six is here offered full political power over the Village. Only his leadership can take the village forward. The whole process was to test his endurance and ethical commitment - in short his suitability to be an absolute leader.
The Prisoner however frustrates their plans not only by declining their offer but acting in the most irresponsible ways possible to indicate hi unsuitability. He launches a nuclear missile (just like Kennedy threatened to in the Cuban crisis), after countless episodes were he showed how he despised guns he now starts indiscriminately killing people with machine guns (in some ways this reflects the indiscriminate killing in Vietnam), he arms a youth rebellion, and then abandons a large truck outside the hoses of parliament. He finally realises that he was being tested and trained for a political office which he feels would be as much of a prison as the Village. His own stiff-necked refusal to give had kept the process going and kept him a prisoner now was the time to break free.
Like everything else in the Village this leaves us with more questions than we have answered. OK, so we know that McKern was right - it really does not matter which side ran the Village. We also know about the importance of the operation of politics in society at the time as a crucial theme in The Prisoner but we are provided with no answers to the political problems of the time. Ideology is exposed as useless, party is exposed as a bankrupt symbol but even the vision of strong independent leaders is exposed as a dangerous path. Where then does that leave us?
It leaves us in the current climate with our own political parties struggling to find a political difference to distinguish themselves. As always we have to find our own answers. The Prisoner, as ever, just helps us focus on the right questions.
Click here to return to the Unmutual Article Archive
Click here to return to the Unmutual Home Page