"He can make even the act of putting on his dressing gown appear as a gesture of defiance...I want him with a whole heart, body and soul"
According to Wikipedia, "The Chimes of Big Ben" was the original "pilot" for The Prisoner. For the longest time, it was broadcast second (the Megaset below has it approximately fifth), and there was an "alternate version" with an extra scene and different end credits.
Unfortunately, as a pilot, "Big Ben" doesn't work - there's too much of an in medias res quality. Besides, it revisits several themes from the previous episodes - the nature of the Village, the chess motif, the reminder of the "democratically elected" committee and even Number 6 as outsider. However, as part of the continuing saga, it works - in fact, this is probably the first episode that moves Number 6's story along. We know that it takes place over a long period of time (six weeks, from beginning to end), and it really helps us establish that Number 6...isn't going to leave any time soon.
Of course, it also marks the premiere of Leo McKern as Number 2, who will not return until the concluding two episodes. Up until this point, McKern was best known for portraying Thomas Cromwell in the film version of A Man for All Seasons, and/or Clang, the Kali cult leader in Help! McKern's performance reminds me very much of a therapist working with a client - the almost gland handing friendliness contrasted with sheer aggressiveness. McKern's dialogue seems to this seemingly opposing concern and disgust - balancing an analysis of Number 6's behavior (citing the latter's "overweening sense of self-importance" and "egomania...has increased") with a slight sense of care (not wanting Number 6 to become a "man of fragments"; later on, reminding Number 6 that sharp objects are not allowed....perhaps suggesting that Village residents are not even granted the "escape" of suicide?). For this Number 2, learning why Number 6 resigned isn't enough, for "If (No 6) will answer one question, the rest will follow."
Like a poorly trained therapist, Number 2 encourages transference and dual relationships to develop between the two men. No longer is this merely about doing a job - this is personal. As stated in the quote above, the McKern Number 2 is not so much wanting to get information; he wants to win Number 6 over, almost to have Number 6 become an ally. So much so that Number 2 attempts to goad Number 6 with a Cold Warrior's worst nightmare:
Number Two: 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.Of course, Number 6 is overt where Number 2 is covert, casually announcing that he desires to "Escape, come back, wipe this place off the face of the earth, obliterate it...and you (Number 2) with it". It would not be surprising if this Number 6 came back later for a face off...
Number Six: It's run by one side or the other.
Number Two: Oh certainly, but both sides are becoming identical. What in fact has been created is an international community — perfect blueprint for world order. When the sides facing each other suddenly realize that they're looking into a mirror, they will see that this is the pattern for the future.
Number Six:The whole Earth as the Village?
Number Two:: That is my hope. What's yours?
Number Six:I'd like to be the first man on the moon.
Of course, this episode is also the one where Number 6 comes closest to having a female companion. (Of course, the highly moral and devout Catholic McGoohan didn't believe in romantic relationships on screen). Nadia, or Number 8 (in a coincidental nod to the last woman Number Six was involved with) becomes Number 6's...well, Number 6's relating to her eerily parallels the way McKern's Number 2 relates to Number 6. And during this time, Number 6 pulls off a massive hoax - building a boat in plain sight, and making another escape attempt. He succeeds...or does he?
Even though there's a seemingly circular nature to Number 6's attempt, later episodes may show that...well, that would be telling. But "Chimes of Big Ben" starts increasing the tension, ratches up the overall arc, and further engages the viewer by matters left unquestioned.
Too many "embarrassing questions", as his superiors point out, Number 6 hinting that his resignation was "a matter of conscience", the seeming omnipresence of the Village....create the sense of intense back story, and this episode helps bring the viewer into the greater question - and the premise - of The Prisoner:
Why did Number 6 resign? And...what else might he possibly know?
Coming soon: A Number Two two-fer. Number 6 meets "the economy pack". And introducing Mrs. Butterworth.
Be seeing you.
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