Sunday, 16 August 2015

Apartheid in The Prisoner: The Chimes of Big Ben

The portrait of Verwoerd's government is removed from
the parliament building. Cape Town, 1996
What can an attempt at escaping The Village and aiming for London possibly have to do with a Nazi-inspired eugenic oppressive regime on the other side of the world? The clue is in the title. Big Ben (although technically it is only the name of the bell) is of course the common name for the clock on Britain’s Houses of Parliament. Its chime is a symbol of Britain wherever we go. As such it represents the State, being placed in the major legislative building, it means home to the colonial nodding over his sundowner, it means freedom for the prisoner who has sneaked in a radio to listen to the World Service.
Of course in this episode the significance (which I have phrased in uncharacteristically sentimental terms) of Big Ben is turned on its head. In reality, Big Ben becomes the symbol of the State’s secret imprisonment of people and spying on them.  In this it is very clear that the State described in this episode is very much the same sort of state that created and ran apartheid in South Africa.
There is, for example, a strong emphasis in Number 2’s voice on the word ‘democratically’. The apartheid government was elected into power by the vote of all the South African citizens who had the legal right to vote. The law is created by the state and both the government(s) behind The Village and behind apartheid use their own created law to make themselves have right on their side.
Similarly the creation of law leads to the creation of a legal reality for the populace. This is of course almost completely manufactured. The Village is no more a real village than a ‘Bantu homeland’ was genuinely where that ethnic group belonged. Surely the major effect this show should have on the thoughtful viewer is to make him question some of his own presuppositions about his own state. I will guarantee at this moment there will be people reading this who will be thinking that their own state isn’t as bad as that portrayed in The Prisoner or the government of South Africa which implemented grand apartheid. And this is precisely the assumption being challenged here: the whole point of The Prisoner is that the state behind The Village is our state and The Prisoner is himself Number 1. And of course we like to think that our own state will police our ‘rights’ (in reality only given by the state, they’re not intrinsic), and while in Europe we are probably rather safer than most places in this because there is always a higher court in the form of the European Community, we tend to ignore crimes of our own governments. Britain’s actions against the Kikuyu in Kenya are awful, for example, as is the reluctance to give redress and the paucity of that redress.
There are of course two problems with the artificial legally-sanctioned creation of reality. The first is of course that while a majority of people will consider their own short-term interests over any long-term gain by fighting it, this situation will actively breed resistance in those minded to resist. I have also been watching the film Cry Freedom. I must remember that I come to the subject from a longer-term interest in the history of that part of the world, but it still strikes me as not half as brutal as the apartheid regime actually was. In the film, however, there are fears continually mentioned of informers, and of course these fears are among those actively resisting the system.
A totalitarian regime is necessarily doomed. Of course the apartheid regime in South Africa could never have been maintained for ever, since either pressure from outside, economic failure, or revolution would have had to bring the state to its knees. It is interesting to reflect on how The Village would have lasted in the longer-term. I have a feeling that it would have stood a better chance than the apartheid regime since it was not a whole country, and the relatively small number of ‘disappearances’ of people who would have had to be secretive about their work life anyway, would probably not be significant enough to raise queries in a well-intentioned observer.
And once again it is at this point that The Village departs from South Africa: the two set-ups are clearly the same sort of government, but clearly disagree in their fundamental purpose. If The Village had been directly inspired by South Africa, The Prisoner would take place in a much larger forum than a fantastic village. So my initial suspicion is once again confirmed, that The Prisoner has echoes of the apartheid regime in South Africa, but is probably not directly inspired by it.

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