The Vision? “All the Earth one big Village?” Number Six

“The idea gave enormous scope and was, to my mind, a quite brilliant idea.” Leo McKern.

“It wasn’t new thinking; it was new thinking in a mass media.” Writer Vincent Tilsley.


Just How Do You Follow Arrival?

The dynamic, fast-moving and impressive opening episode, ‘Arrival’, with its dazzling cascade of ideas, images, and intrigue has both tantalised and gripped an audience, begun to exert a hold and already challenging it to do exactly what McGoohan wanted, to question, to become involved, and so become captivated. The UK viewing figures would bear this out. ‘Arrival’ garnered an estimated 11 million viewers and although the figures would fluctuate during the series run, reaching a high point of 11.7 million for ‘The Schizoid Man’, some 9.8 million enthralled admirers were determined to see the unmasking of Number 1 in the series finale.


So, with a heightened air of anticipation, those of us who became absorbed in the exploits of our nameless hero would eagerly tune in for the next instalment, wondering, “What’s it all about?”, “Who are his captors?”, and “When will he escape?”   After the startling, somewhat surreal, enigma that was the pilot episode, with all those questions posed, what next, we wondered. Well, things were going to get even more mysterious, more audacious, more seductive, with even more questions to taunt us. We were in for an entertaining and exhilarating ride.


There are arguments both for and against the suitability of screening ‘Chimes of Big Ben’ to follow ‘Arrival’. In favour is that it has a conventional plot structure that shares some of the characteristics of the pilot, focussing as it does on a new fellow prisoner and an escape attempt, whilst it still poses philosophical, psychological, and political questions. The script, by an accomplished writer with a proven track record, Vincent Tilsley, who was a known quantity to George Markstein, being in his ‘writers circle’, is both involving and polished. In addition, it contains much humour, bringing another dimension and acting as an added incentive to watch. Furthermore, the episode’s great strength is the presence of a radiantly confident Leo McKern as the boisterous and genial Number 2, whose voice is as comforting as mellow brandy, whether bantering with the P or discussing Nadia’s possible intent on suicide. Whenever a poll is conducted of ‘favourite’ actor – apart from McGoohan that is – in The Prisoner, it is always Leo who romps in easily clear of all others. Likewise, the three most accomplished and charismatic actors associated with the series are McGoohan, Kanner, and our Leo.


Another advantage, now that the P has a degree of acclimatisation to his situation, is that we witness a Village induction from the detached perspective of the P. Whereas in ‘Arrival’ we subjectively shared his disorientation, the succession of mounting surprises and shocks, here our familiarity is very much established. At this point, the viewer is unaware that the entire series revolves around probing the P’s mind in order to extract his secrets, his determination to escape, and his desire to face Number 1. The viewer may well imagine these opening episodes to be a prelude to the hero escaping into the wider world for further adventures. As Michael Dann, the American CBS buyer, so succinctly put it to Lew Grade after viewing ‘Arrival’ and being told the concept, “The film was magnificently produced, it’s beautifully done. But our hero’s going to lose every week and American audiences don’t like losers.” Apparently Americans find it hard to comprehend that a ‘hero’ can be a ‘loser’. This is a view that is open to debate, judging by the number of American Prisoner enthusiasts, not all think that way. So here, when the P finally discovers he has never left the Village at all, and is still confined, it really is a very ingenious plot twist. The viewer has been treated to an imaginative episode that successfully retains the essential ethos in the evolving narrative of the series, whilst posing the question of who runs the Village.


Viewed in context of course, we can see the episode should be screened later, certainly after ‘Dance of the Dead’, at the very least. Throughout ‘Arrival’ the P is intense and angry, endeavouring to make sense of the Village and his situation, probing and defining boundaries. Here he seems to have suddenly adapted, become much calmer, confident and settled, even exchanging the Village, “Be seeing you” salute, gently joking with Number Two. Contrast this with the subdued passivity, the resentfulness, restlessness, and largely reactive attitude in ‘Dance of the Dead’, as he stresses that he is “new here”. It is possible that ‘Chimes of Big Ben’ was screened after ‘Arrival’ both because it was the second completed episode and McGoohan liked both the script and the strong showing of McKern.


This script was submitted prior to the culmination of location shooting, so a small number of the opening scenes were filmed before the crew returned to Elstree. If we overlook some obvious studio sets and back projection, also a journey that includes road, sea, and air, without so much as a ‘comfort’ break, there is still much to savour. I can’t help but think of the ‘Dangerman’ episode, ‘Colony 3’ and comparing it to ‘Chimes of Big Ben’. The template for both is: ‘secret agent in remote village designed to contain spies, where all residents are monitored and, in theory, there is no escape.’ When all this is taken into account, we should still bear in mind, in an interview given to Howard Foy in 1990; McGoohan clearly stated this episode comprised one of his favoured seven when he expressed the view, not for the first time, “Ideally seven would have been enough, a proper progression shown in sequence. We know three of them, ‘Arrival’ has got to be one, Once Upon a Time’ and ‘Fall Out’, that’s three, ‘Chimes of Big Ben’ is another, ‘Many Happy Returns’ another, ‘Free for All’…” It was also one of Markstein’s. Speaking in a 1982 interview, he selected his favourite four episodes. ‘The Chimes of Big Ben’ and ‘Many Happy Returns’ both of these episodes explored the involvement of the ‘Outside’, hinted at the ‘World’ beyond the Village and yet brought us back each time to the fundamental core of the situation. I like both episodes for their neat story telling qualities and the way they were directed.” As we have noted, (when earlier discussing the relationship between McGoohan and Markstein), ‘Arrival’ was a third, with, ‘A Change of Mind’, completing the quartet.  Despite both the pedigree and this high regard from the star and script editor, the ‘Chimes of Big Ben’ has never scored higher than seventh in any of the ‘favourite episode’ polls conducted over the decades amongst Six of One members. Apart from exploring this dramatic story, with particular attention to a number of the more significant elements, we will consider the reasons it cannot qualify as one of the more memorable offerings.


Let us first see how the ‘Chimes of Big Ben’ came to be commissioned from the author, Vincent Tilsley, and also then consider in some detail his script.


Enter the Writer.

Tilsley was born into a writing family, his father, Frank, was a novelist and television dramatist. The young Vincent graduated in history from Oxford and became a story editor at the BBC, where he also began his writing career. In time he became prolific, contributing to many series and genres. Markstein, seeking out writers that might have the imagination required for writing for ‘The Prisoner’, sought him out. It is also possible that McGoohan was the spur that encouraged the story editor to seek out Vincent, as will be explained. In my research I managed to contact Vincent’s daughter, Joanna, and she was kind enough to engage in dialogue with me. Where this point is concerned, she had the following to say:


“In your chapter, you describe my father being approached by Markstein, and quote my father saying that he knew Markstein personally.  And I wondered whether it was Patrick McGoohan who had first introduced them, and if he had influenced Markstein’s choice.  This is because there was an existing connection between McGoohan and my father.  Twelve years earlier, in October 1955, BBC Television broadcast ‘Sunday-Night Theatre - ‘The Makepeace Story’, a cycle of four plays by Frank and Vincent Tilsley about a cotton family dynasty in Lancashire.’  Patrick McGoohan was cast in the starring role as Seth Makepeace in the first 90-minute play set in the period 1774-1783.  He was 27 years old, and had only six acting credits on his filmography.  According to my father (see 1973 Argus reference below), ‘The Makepeace Story’, knocked ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium’ off the top of the ratings”.  The popularity of ‘The Makepeace Story’ must been a significant boost to McGoohan's career.  He wouldn't have forgotten that, and I’m sure he would therefore have taken a subsequent interest in my father’s career.”


Vincent was at home in his St John’s Wood flat when, one morning, Markstein rang, asking if he could come round. Replying in the affirmative, the ‘Prisoner’ script editor arrived half an hour later. So early in the production was this that the writers guide had not yet been produced. All that Markstein could impart was to relate the premise and to give Vincent a copy of ‘Arrival’, the only completed script. In an interview I conducted with Vincent in 1981, he had this to say.


“George Markstein, who I knew personally, phoned me up, came round to see me the same morning, he was along in half an hour, it was that quick. He brought a script with him of ‘Arrival’, which was the only script at that time. He also told me about a camp up in Scotland during the war where unwanted people were put when they didn’t know what else to do with them. They were, sort of, conned into staying there. It was a kind of luxury prison camp. He asked me if I could think of a story. I’m sure it was on that visit, I don’t think there was a second, I think I thought of one there and then, I can remember sitting in the room saying it would be perfectly easy for any good set designer to reconstruct this room so that if I woke up I would think I was here. George liked the idea so said write it, so I did. The inspirational seed that was to become ‘Chimes of Big Ben’ was sown.


“I thought it could have been the beginning of the script. I wasn’t sure where it was going to be, it was just an idea that these clever devils who ran this village could do a thing like that, and it worked out it was the end bit.” I asked Vincent how long it took him to write the script. He responded, “It was quite quick, certainly within a couple of weeks. I think he gave me the go-ahead that morning almost; he may have had to check back with the office.


“I was told they’d spent a lot of money on ‘Rover’ and that it had to be the sub-star of the show. The supporting lead was ‘Rover’! There was a lot of it. They were very excited about it at that time; they had spent a lot of time and money building this thing.”


With this in mind, although the machine was abandoned, it’s role taken by the balloon. I asked Vincent for his thoughts. “I love the weather balloon, it’s much better.”


In the times I spent with Vincent, it was apparent from our first chance meeting that he was an idealist, therefore confirming he was an ideal candidate to write for ‘The Prisoner’. Like McGoohan, he too wanted to provoke viewers, stimulate them to question. He held what might be termed radical views but now would be seen as being mainstream, or if not would hover on the horizon of perception. For example, environmental damage, a flawed and unsustainable economic system, green politics, the concept of personal growth as an individual, and a fulfilling life out of ‘conventional’ Society. Writing for ‘The Prisoner’ gave him the opportunity, under the guise of entertainment, to surreptitiously smuggle into his script topics that he felt should create both the desired audience reaction and hopefully intellectual debate. He gave up scriptwriting in 1973. The given reason is that he developed writer’s block. However more likely it was because his final play, ‘The Death of Adolf Hitler’, was butchered. (It starred Frank Finley, who, for his portrayal of the dictator, won a British Television Academy Award.) Intended to have a duration of six hours, it was pared down to two in order to fit the schedules. According to contemporary newspaper reports of that time sent to me by Joanna it was the biggest single television drama ever mounted anywhere. It took Vincent six months to write, although, in all, including research, it was a year’s work.  He found the subject matter both absorbing and very dark. When finished, he checked into a nursing home where they put him to sleep for a few days in order to recover, he had found the experience had been so stressful and so exhausting.


I suspect that to see his work so severely savaged was the proverbial ‘last straw’ for Vincent who by then was somewhat disillusioned with compromising his values on the altars of conformity and convention. In fact, my suspicion was correct. Joanna was able to confirm, “In your chapter, you write that you suspect that the drastic cuts made to my father's screenplay for ‘The Death of Adolf Hitler’ was the proverbial ‘last straw’ for him.  It was.”


Being such an independent thinker, he became a psychotherapist. Certainly, he and I enjoyed a number of conversations on topics that were then way outside mainstream thinking. We shall hear Vincent’s voice again both later in this chapter, and also when we discuss the second of his scripts, ‘Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling’.


“Where am I?”

The episode opens with a truncated version of the full opening sequence seen in ‘Arrival’. Then, as the P looks out of the window, we see the main title. There then follows a series of well composed and filmed visuals in the distinctive cinematic style of Don Chaffey, over which we hear the following ‘call and response’ exchange. This will become the standard opening. So effective is this that, for any viewer who has not seen a previous episode, in a few short phrases and rapid-cut scenes, it neatly summarises and captures the core essence of the series framework.


This is where the voice is all. The tone, the timbre, the intonation. The guest artist must form each word with great care and precision, in order to summon the required element of expression. Some are more successful than others. Leo is supreme.


P: "Where am I?" Incensed, demanding.

Number 2: "In the Village." The response is nonchalant and very matter of fact.

P: "What do you want?"  Indignant, snappily.

Number 2: "Information!" Gently, with an undertone that is somewhat resolute and severe.

P: "Whose side are you on?" A trace of querulousness

Number 2: "That would be telling." We want information…information…information.  Reserved, and aloof, the insistent probing.

P: "You won’t get it." Determined.

Number 2: "By hook or by crook we will." Very certain and brooking no doubt.

P: "Who are you?"  Short, and with an element of defensiveness and doubt.

Number 2: "The new Number 2."  Less threatening, clipped, no trace of wavering of authority.

P: "Who is Number 1?" Still uncertain and somewhat hapless.

Number 2: "You are Number 6." A simple fact. Incisive, certain.

P: "I am not a number – I am a free man!" The cry from the heart. Anger and appeal.


Leo’s rumbling laugh in his distinctive rich and melodious tone, thoroughly amused at such a notion, is the response.


Very quickly the star realised he had an accomplished actor, and as he said in the aforementioned 1990 interview, “Leo was dead right for that… I wanted to use Leo anyway and we used him in ‘Chimes of Big Ben’, then I knew I was going to use him in ‘Once Upon a Time’. This was written by McGoohan in short order, as it was filmed next, straight after this episode, with the script pages appearing daily as McGoohan wrote them. Tony Sloman, the film librarian on the series confirmed in a 1996 conversation with me, “They realised they had a great Number 2”.


History does not relate how the viewing order came to be, nor who made that decision. It may have been a combination of circumstances, for example, bearing in mind that there was a certain reluctance by McGoohan to finalise what he felt were works in progress. “I think Pat was deliberately making sure that no one episode was ever really finished. I think he wanted to keep them so that they would all finally be put together at the last minute.” Len Harris - Camera Operator. My guess is that the running order comprised which episodes were considered ready for distribution. In any case, in the UK and the US the transmission sequence was different. 


© David Barrie 2024. All rights reserved.