Sunday, 6 July 2014

Allegory in The Prisoner: The Chimes of Big Ben

I always think the reference to Big Ben in the title of this episode is interesting. Number 6 never actually gets as far as Big Ben, in fact it is not what he is looking for in this episode.
Instead I think this episode is actually an allegory for our aspirations, our weaknesses, & how our aspirations become weaknesses if we let them. Looked at this way Big Ben is a symbol of what Number 6 wants - supposedly his freedom - but even that becomes such a preoccupation to him that it becomes a way in for the Village authorities to find a weakness. The imagery of course is a symbol of London, hence representative of apparent safety from The Village, but I feel can actually represent much more, since of course when we think of Big Ben we don't picture the actual bell but we picture the tower that contains it. The tower is actually the point here, always symbolic of aspirations, divorce from reality, protection, escape. Apart from the Tower of Babel & academics' towers of ivory it is also accessibly found in the Tower card of the tarot:
'Early printed decks that preserve all their cards do feature The Tower. In these decks the card bears a number of different names and designs. In the Minchiate deck, the image usually shown is of two nude or scantily clad people fleeing the open door of what appears to be a burning building. In some Belgian tarots and the 17th century tarot of Jacques ViƩville, the card is called La Foudre or La Fouldre, ("The Lightning") and depicts a tree being struck by lightning. In the Tarot of Paris (17th century), the image shown is of the Devil beating his drums, before what appears to be the mouth of Hell; the card still is called La Fouldre. The Tarot of Marseilles merges these two concepts, and depicts a burning tower being struck by lightning or fire from the sky, its top section dislodged and crumbling. Two men are depicted in mid-fall, against a field of multicolored balls. A. E. Waite's version is based on the Marseilles image, with small tongues of fire in the shape of Hebrew yod letters replacing the balls.
'A variety of explanations for the images on the card have been attempted. For example, it may be a reference to the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, where God destroys a tower built by mankind to reach Heaven. Alternatively, the Harrowing of Hell was a frequent subject in late medieval liturgical drama, and Hell could be depicted as a great gate knocked asunder by Jesus Christ, with accompanying pyrotechnics. The Minchiate version of the deck may represent Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden.' (
This is Ouspensky's interpretation of that the Tower card (& hence, for the purpose of my argument here, the symbolism of towers as such in Europe - I'm not implying that the fiercely Catholic McGoohan had an interest in the occult):
'I saw a lofty tower extending from earth to heaven; its golden crowned summit reached beyond the clouds. All round it black night reigned and thunder rumbled.
'Suddenly the heavens opened, a thunder-clap shook the whole earth, and lightning struck the summit of the tower and felled the golden crown. A tongue of fire shot from heaven and the whole tower became filled with fire and smoke. Then I beheld the builders of the tower fall headlong to the ground.
'And the voice said:--
'"The building of the tower was begun by the disciples of the great Master in order to have a constant reminder of the Master's teaching that the true tower must be built in one's own soul, that in the tower built by hands there can be no mysteries, that no one can ascend to Heaven by treading stone steps.
'"The tower should warn the people not to believe in it. It should serve as a reminder of the inner Temple and as a protection against the outer; it should be as a lighthouse, in a dangerous place where men have often been wrecked and where ships should not go.
'"But by and by the disciples forgot the true covenant of the Master and what the tower symbolized, and began to believe in the tower of stone, they had built, and to teach others to so believe. They began to say that in this tower there is power, mystery and the spirit of the Master, that the tower itself is holy and that it is built for the coming Master according to His covenant and His will. And so they waited in the tower for the Master. Others did not believe this, or interpreted it differently. Then began disputes about the rights of the summit. Quarrels started, 'Our Master, your Master,' was said; 'our tower, your tower.' And the disciples ceased to understand each other. Their tongues had become confused.
'"You understand the meaning here? They had begun to think that this is the tower of the Master, that He builds it through them, and that it must and, indeed, can be built right up to Heaven.
'"And you see how Heaven responded?"' (
These are exactly the sort of things that this episode is really about. In fact I'm impressed that I've managed to get so far into a blog post without once mentioning anything that actually appears in the episode under discussion! But the very title of Big Ben indicates that this episode is about looking for things we don't get. Number 6 is not looking for the right thing - or rather his desire to escape from the Village has exposed his vulnerability to deceit.
The vulnerability theme is continued in the fact that Number 6 actually winds up with a female partner in this episode. In fact she seems to fall for him & calls him (after correcting herself) Big Ben: Number 6 himself becomes the image of the unattainable aspiration & escape.
I posited in my post about Arrival that The Village could represent Number 6's desired escape from his existing life - an escape which turns sour. If he them tried to escape from his escape, he actually becomes a serial escaper, & the entire series becomes an allegory for not trying to escape from a situation you yourself have created, to a dream which will not be what you want it to be.
In fact all parts of the episode become an allegory for seeking the 'right' thing, rather than the relentless pursuit of the unattainable. I don't personally buy a Christian interpretation of the boat & mast, myself, but this episode could definitely be interpreted as being about seeking first the kingdom of God, then everything else will follow.
The craft competition is an allegory of a person crafting something he values. The General is an allegory for the man who has sensibly decided to stop fruitlessly seeking. Nadia is an allegory for a pawn who unfortunately falls for the subject she has been assigned to, losing the all-important focus that the show is about.
Numbers 2 & 6 do a roundabout dance in this allegory. When Number 6 takes sugar in his tea he is an allegory for the flexibility necessary to adapt to changing circumstances in ones pursuit of the desired goal. It looks as if Nadia is going to be his weakness at one point, but it is apparent that this is a trick. Number 2 tricks him, Number 6 seems not to fall for it, only to fall for the 'mirage' of escape to London. The chimes of Big Ben are an allegory of our 'idol' - a desire for the 'wrong' thing, & become an allegory for the elusiveness of the mirage. Incidentally, Nadia, as the only character - the only one apparently resident in the Village that is - in this one with a name, represents the real world. The characters from outside have names. The fact that Fotheringay asks Number 2 what his next assignment is indicates that The Village (whether or not it is Number 6's desired escape) & the 'real' world are not actually different. The fact that The Village is run apparently by multiple countries indicates that there is *no* escape. No escape & no point trying to craft an escape. Similarly Rover is round because the world is round, Rover is everywhere. In the alternate version of this episode, right at the end of the closing titles the wheels of the penny farthing become two worlds & fuse into one. It's just plain naff when it goes 'pop' & the word appears on the screen like 'pow' in a Batman episode, but the message is plain. The penny farthing (on people's number badges) indicates the supremacy of The Village, the wheels are round indicating the world. The Village is the world, Rover is the world. The Village & Rover are all in all.
Incidentally I had forgotten about the way the doors in The Village open themselves as you approach - not that remarkable in these days of a proliferation of automatic doors. Here they could indicate the level of surveillance under which The Village has its inhabitants - the machine has truly triumphed & we are part of it.
Number 6 is seen at his most human in Chimes of Big Ben, in my opinion, at least so far as Nadia is concerned. After Number 2 'gives' (& that idea should strike fear into the heart of all men & women) Nadia to Number 6, the domestic scene which follows feels almost as if he is in a sexual relationship with her. He is plainly not, but she falls for him. This is the nearest to intimacy that I think we see Number 6 or John Drake: I know nothing 'happens' but it feels as if they are a couple.
Finally, this episode is an allegory for how our aspiration, desires, even addictions, play tricks on us. When Number 6 is explaining the significance of his boat, & offering to buy Number 38's tapestry of Number 2 for his own home, he is plainly taking the piss. He actually tells the judges that his boat is an escape vessel (all but, I mean), strokes the ego of Number 38, who has not been on his radar before, then uses his prize to creep to Number 2. This should be an alarm bell in the paranoid Village, & is allowed to pass presumably, to allow his foiled escape attempt, which functions as an interrogation for the authorities. Deceit, trickery, duplicity, across the board. The main message remains not to be distracted from the important thing. It is not said what it is, but clearly for Number 6 it should have been keeping his mouth shut, because he *almost* let's the reason for his resignation slip.
The final trick in this episode is on the viewer: right from the start we are not let into the secret that the whole escape attempt is engineered by The Village, in fact the impression it is a real attempt is reinforced when we see Fotheringay on the phone saying he has received the message. Deceit within deceit within deceit. *We* could be excused for falling for it if we are seeing this as the second episode, & haven't yet grown a healthy suspicion of The Village. This makes it all the more shocking when Number 6 walks back out into The Village.
I thought it would be different. It is different, isn't it?

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