“Obey Me and Be Free.” The archetypal episode as created by Patrick McGoohan. ITC press release.

Free for All as Political Satire, the Alchemy of words, and the Crafting of Language.

 “I think this episode is very iconic. I think he gets to say so much in this episode, it’s quite prolific.” Catherine McGoohan.

 “He hoped that people everywhere would pick up on it and create a network of like-minded people.” Rachel Herbert Number 58.

“I wish I could act like Pat can write”. Lewis Griefer writer of ‘The General’.


“It Tears at the Heart.” Unknown Prisoner Crew member.

Not scorched words seared onto tablets of stone, yet just as equally effective, the creator of ‘The Prisoner’ expressed his truth, pouring the very essence of an uncompromising man of principle; his unsullied vision, so carefully crafted in bold black type and emblazoned on the crisp virgin white sheets, that became the script: ‘Free for All’. It was the distillation of McGoohan’s thoughts, of his views gained by raw experience. His morals, backbone, and soul. The script of ‘Free for All’ was incendiary. Each carefully chosen word counts; has been skilfully composed to create powerful and profound statements; of both value and significance. Not a single word adrift. A rich text. Epitomising salutary matters and skewering targets. From a determined and tenacious man, who truly had fire and passion in his heart. Yes, ‘Free for All’ is instantly recognisable as a political satire, yet there is much more to cherish as we shall discover. The words erupt off the page, the dialogue crackles; clever, giving the viewer a frisson, a piercing emotional thrill, as we buckle up for the ride. Taking the screen by storm, this man could write!


Despite rigorous research, nowhere have I been able to find any interview where McGoohan has discussed ‘Free for All.’ He did once say, “I wrote it with 1984 in mind,” but this is likely to have been a general statement rather than specific. As we have discussed in the chapter, ‘Inspiration, Origins, and Sources’, there is a degree of cloudiness as to the spark that ignited the concept of ‘The Prisoner’. My view is that although Markstein talked of Inverlair Lodge, McGoohan was already instinctively thinking of the creative possibilities, so - being generous - let us allocate an initial structure to the script editor; however, the beating heart, the spirit of the series was entirely the star’s alone. “Markstein thought, despite any amount of dissuasion, that it’s got to be an extension of Danger Man.” Remember, in 1959, the actor had filmed scenes for ‘Danger Man’ in Portmeirion, and recalled, “This is a setting, which could be beautiful enough, mysterious enough, and confining enough, to be the base, for our man in isolation.” In effect, one man wanted a spy series, the other, an escape from a spy series. Left to Markstein we wouldn’t be discussing ‘The Prisoner’ now.


McGoohan, as writer, executive producer, star and director of ‘Free for All’ encapsulates the purest conception, the authentic embodiment with its core values, the allegorical direction, and this episode expresses a kaleidoscopic tableau of ideas as portrayed by the actor. Even the choice of episode title is ambiguous. The dictionary defines a ‘free for all’ as ‘a disorganized or unrestricted situation or event in which everyone may take part, especially a fight or discussion. A mass brawl in which many may participate.’ However, the term applied here refers to the election. Producer, business, and creative partner, David Tomblin said, referring to the nature of ‘The Prisoner’, “I knew Patrick and the way he thinks. But I’m not surprised other people found it oblique. It was oblique because Patrick is an oblique person. Hence, already we should realise that all will not be served up on a plate.


In addition to all the above, McGoohan was involved in both the editing and the assembly of the episodes. In a 1986 interview, McGoohan said, “I used to spend every spare minute I’d got in the editing room.” This confirmed by then trainee editor, Ian Rakoff, in his excellent book, ‘Inside the Prisoner’, in which he recounts working on the series with his senior colleague, John S Smith. He tells how McGoohan was a regular visitor to the editing room, often not arriving until 7 o’clock, or beyond. “Pat McGoohan was due to come in and sort out ‘The General’. We had not met him. All we’d heard so far was alarming rumour. Because of Pat’s extraordinary demanding schedule as writer, producer, director and actor, he only managed to get to the cutting rooms in the evenings, after the day’s shooting was over.” Ian adds, “He was consistently polite and never even remotely unpleasant”. Further, “In every conversation, among editors, any quality of creativity evident in the series had been attributed solely to McGoohan. The only good episodes were said to be the ones that McGoohan had written, co-written, or directed, or in some way left his stamp. Viewed from the cutting rooms, it seemed be almost entirely McGoohan’s show.” In a 1993 interview, film librarian Tony Sloman said, “Pat loved cutting and he was in the cutting rooms all the time. He used to go into Geoff’s and then come out and go into Lee’s, and then come out and go into Noreen’s, and come out and go into John Smith’s”. Andrew Pixley wrote, “With Foot editing this episode, McGoohan was keen to be involved with the editing process, giving him numerous orders and at times asking him to recut the episode in a different way.”


Choosing to adopt the non de plume, Paddy Fitz, (and this is only my conjecture,) the forename proudly acknowledging his Irish heritage, the surname honouring his beloved mother’s maiden name. His first commercial script, a mark, a statement, as now, with total control, he could write exactly what he wished; to express, undiluted, no compromise, a script he could be proud of, perhaps one that his family, peers, we audience, would recognise as making a statement that would certainly awake many from their inherent mental torpor. Generate that reaction he craved. That is, to question!


Interviewed for the 1984 Channel 4 documentary, ‘Six into One, The Prisoner File’, McGoohan said, “When I write my scripts, I do them very fast. The three I wrote for The Prisoner I did in 36 hours at a stretch for each one.” In this case I imagine he largely did. McGoohan possessed a burning intensity. No other actor could match him. Recalling his appearance in ‘Brand’, fellow cast member, Peter Sallis writes in his autobiography, “His effect on the cast, well certainly on me, was magnetic…His eyes, you couldn’t take your eyes off him, and they really did drill right through you. They had, in Patrick McGoohan, probably the only man in the Country who could have played that part… I’m tempted to say when he was on full throttle; he was the best actor we had.”


McGoohan played the man at ‘bay’ with a fierce passion. We all remember jumping as he thumped the table in the film, ‘Ice Station Zebra’, and Rock Hudson’s flaccid response. I suspect, given this intensity, it was embedded in other aspects of his personality, we know he survived on little sleep, worked up to 18 hours a day, getting up in the night to write, it’s perfectly believable he did as he said with this script. I would add that, unlike a commissioned screenwriter, the seed, the outline, probably much of what he wanted to say had already crystalised in his mind. It was merely a question of conveying those words as written form. But not quite all. As the reader will see, at least two speeches were added after the script was printed.  For the tale also grew organically. It may be that McGoohan was mulling over exactly what he wished to express, so deliberately left the writing until he was convinced that he had it ‘nailed’.


Bearing in mind that ‘Free for All’ was being drafted by McGoohan whilst Tomblin and Markstein were devising ‘Arrival’, the ideas and ideals of the star and executive producer were already emphasising the surreal nature and allegorical direction the series was taking. Filmed back-to-back with the pilot this episode showcases the Portmeirion location to maximum effect, being a dazzling cascade of fast-moving scenes enriched with intelligent and witty dialogue commenting on electioneering, political commentary, media manipulation, the temptation of power, brainwashing and mind-bending, identity crisis, the question of clones, venturing into the ultimate; Number One, and even idol worship. Directed both adventurously and cinematically by McGoohan, it stands head and shoulders above all other episodes as being an ideal candidate for demonstrating exactly what ‘The Prisoner’ is all about, coupled with the ‘why’ of its appeal.


In my ‘poll of polls’ of favourite episode, it is placed third after Checkmate’s claim of the top spot, and runner-up ‘Arrival’. Despite their obvious appeal, ‘Checkmate’, whilst hinging upon an inventive and shrewd plot device, a colourful, highly visual human chess game, also much engaging location footage, and ‘Arrival’s seamless introduction to the series philosophical framework, ‘Free for All’ explores and showcases deeper and more complex themes, whilst the electioneering storyline that drives the narrative is both sharply and clearly defined. The wonder of it was that it invaded the homes of viewers as primetime entertainment. This was taking a commentary on weighty matters to the masses. Yet it was the genius, the raisin d’etre of the series, the viewer presented with serious issues as an adventure.


Yet, how was it the cultural climate was ripe for this? Perhaps, emerging from World War 2 as an almost bankrupt nation, rationing into the 1950s, the legacy of Victorian prudery, social straightjackets, hypocrisy, and, (for example), double standards where sex was concerned, then WW2 uniformity, the grey buildings, grey skies, grey clothing, everything was grey, including outlook. The scandal of the Cambridge spies, Burgess, McLean, Philby. The Suez crisis, prime minister Macmillan alleging, “Most of our people have never had it so good”. Perhaps well meant, though some took it as patronising. The Cuban missile crisis. In 1960 the Evening Standard reported that a building company which minister of transport Ernest Marples still had shares in, had won the tender to build the Hammersmith Flyover, and that the Ministry of Transport's engineers had endorsed the London County Council's rejection of a lower tender further eroding confidence. Marples later fled to Monte Carlo to avoid being prosecuted for tax fraud. Then in 1962 it was revealed that John Vassall, a soviet spy, was discovered working for cabinet minister Tam Galbraith. Further scandal in 1963 over the minister of war John Profumo involved with a call-girl whose lover was also a Russian spy and the minister subsequently lying to Parliament. Until then politicians had been accorded a degree of deference, though it had been in decline for some time. As awareness of a wider world filtered through to the populace, so the disenchantment, between, “us”, and “them”, became more apparent. With the Conservative party seen by some as being run by ‘Toffs’, with three prime ministers in a row, all having been educated at Eton public school, this only seemed to be confirmation. The appeal of the Labour party, led by a perceived man of the people, Harold Wilson, enabled them to gain a wafer-thin majority of four seats in the 1964 election. As the newly elected prime minister he initiated a liberalising agenda that included decriminalising sex between men in private, relaxing abortion laws, abolition of theatre censorship, and the near abolition of capital punishment. Desperately needing to increase his majority, he went to the people once more in March 1966, increasing his majority to a comfortable ninety-six.  It would be true to say that the political atmosphere gave cause for optimism.

Is it any wonder that as respect for politicians declined, so a satire boom verily burst upon the scene with the opening of the satirical sketch show ‘Beyond the Fringe’ in August 1960. The leading architects of this were Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett, and Dr. Jonathan Miller. No target was sacred or beyond ridicule. Perhaps the most notorious moment was when Peter Cook impersonated the then prime minister, Harold Macmillan, mounting a scathing attack against him, whilst the PM was sitting in the audience. The BBC responded to the public thirst for satire by launching a radical and topical show that became both required viewing and the most talked about television event of the week; ‘That Was The Week That Was’, hosted by David Frost. Live and late, improvised and experimental, it controversially and energetically scaled the schedules. Upon its departure in 1963, due to the forthcoming general election, it left an indelible impression that lingered for over a decade. It was inevitable that sooner rather than later the printed word would appear, and in 1961 it duly had, with the arrival of ‘Private Eye’, a magazine in hock to no-one, not just satirical, but exposing injustice and wrong-doing, as it continues to do to this day. A Country that allows the extent of press freedom enjoyed by ‘Private Eye’ must be envied by those living under the dictators, despots, and tyrants that by day strut their stuff whilst at night they lay awake sweating with fear as they impose their will in this fragile world of ours. In the self-professed ‘free world’, youth particularly, humanity generally, were realising that a wind of change was beginning to blow.

As Society awareness of hypocrisy amongst the ruling elite was exposed, there was also a growing realisation that perhaps the real political power lay with the civil service ‘mandarins’ in Whitehall. In 1964 a particularly confident, conscientious, minister for housing, (with a decidedly confrontational manner), Richard Crossman, was crossing swords with civil servants in an effort to drive through Labour’s policies. In the 1950s and ’60s Crossman had a regular column in the left-leaning ‘Daily Mirror’ newspaper, in which he forthrightly expressed his views. He also kept a diary telling of the obstacles and difficulties he encountered. This was later published after his death. It became both an acknowledged and widely plundered source of material for the much-lauded BBC ‘Yes Minister’ comedy television series first transmitted in 1980. This following exchange describing the purpose of Government may be applied universally.


Sir Humphrey Appleby. Permanent Secretary, Civil Service: "Government isn’t about morality."

Jim Hacker. Minister for Administrative Affairs: "What is it about?"

HA: "Stability. Keeping things going, preventing anarchy, stopping Society falling to bits, being here tomorrow."

JH: "What for? What is the ultimate purpose of government, if it isn’t for doing good?"

HA: "The government isn’t about good and evil. It’s only about order – or chaos."

JH: "And it’s in order for Italian terrorists to get British bombs and you don’t care?"

HA: "It’s not my job to care. That’s what politicians are for. My job is to carry out government policy."

JH: "Even if you think it’s wrong?"

HA: "Well, almost all government policy is wrong. But frightfully well carried out."


In addition to the seeding of the greater confidence and awareness that encouraged many to question the status quo, the BBC was a dynamic force in presenting humour, current affairs, and dramas that were both radical and challenged the viewer. The Wednesday Play was recognised as being at the forefront of this new spirit. It was an ‘event’, often controversial and widely seen. Perhaps the most well-known example was the landmark social realism of, ‘Cathy Come Home’, directed by the socially aware Ken Loach, concerning a young couple subjected to the wiles of cruel fate that leaves them debt-ridden, homeless, with their children removed by social services. It premiered in 1966, so powerful that it has been subsequently screened a number of times, most recently in 2022.

However, the play that concerns us was written by a then fledgling playwright, the great Dennis Potter. Titled, ‘Vote, Vote, Vote, for Nigel Barton’, it has its roots in Potter’s own experience in standing as a Labour candidate in the General Election of 1964. He found the whole experience distressing and was so disillusioned with party politics; he afterward revealed he didn’t even vote for himself. In his play the young idealistic yet naïve Nigel stands for election but the bruising campaign wears him down, erodes his ideals, and in an election speech he attacks the "empty platitudes" of all three major parties, to the disapproval of the other dinner guests, who attempt to silence him by banging on the table. This was screened in December 1965 and may well have influenced McGoohan, as it did many. In a 1984 interview, Lewis Griefer said, “People were realising, they were alienated from political forces… politics was getting nastier and nastier… that was the sort of thing that Pat was aware of, not as a politician, but as a human being.”

At the play’s climax, Nigel addresses the camera, breaking the fourth wall, reminding the viewers that it's polling day tomorrow and that, in the end, the political trickery they have seen is ultimately their fault, and then asks them to vote for him anyway. Isn’t cynicism the last refuge of the idealist?

This then was the political landscape, the mood of the times in which McGoohan had the green light from Grade, the funds, the trusted personnel, to embark on his revered personal project. And he was nobody’s fool. He was fiercely intelligent, an inquiring mind, acutely aware of what was going on in the world around him. It is no wonder that he decided to write about what he saw, what he knew, what he believed, what he hoped. The erosion of the right of the individual to be individual in the face of uncaring civil servants, political chicanery and ineptitude, a faceless bureaucracy. ‘Free for All’ was his highly articulate statement and broadside at convention.


With this chapter, the reader is beginning to realise that I am attempting to do exactly what I think McGoohan wanted us to do; first, to ask “What’s it all about?”, and secondly, to “Question everything”. To refuse to accept, “That’s the way it is”, but to ask, “Why, how did it become like this?” I have set the scene, let us now explore.  ‘Free for All’, after which, we dissect, discuss, and evaluate the episode’s major themes.  Let us question everything! So, cue thunder.


“The Mountain can come to Mahomat.”

The Village. The room. The man. The telephone.

“What do you want?”

The P is irritated. No mood for compromise.


© David Barrie 2024. All rights reserved.