THE UNMUTUAL PRISONER ARTICLE ARCHIVE
"A LIFE IN HARMONY?" By Jill Mills
I was five years old when I first tamed the Wild West. I would gallop away on a specially allocated, already springless chair in our living room, to the strains of that music the more ignorant among you may know as Rossini’s ‘Theme from ‘William Tell’’. My mother succumbed to endless badgering and made a series of masks from old black-out curtains, whilst my baby brother was a ridiculously unwilling faithful Indian companion. Later, I was the only kid in our class who knew all the words to the ‘Rawhide’ theme, and I remember getting into deep trouble for ripping the frill off a party dress, (they always did this in films), in order to bandage a teddy winged in the shooting arm. What does any of this have to do with ‘The Prisoner’? Only to serve as partial explanation of the fact that one of my favourite episodes is ‘Living in Harmony’.
It is, I know, a largely overlooked instalment of Number 6’s adventures. Fourteen weeks in, and a slot to fill, it is generally regarded, often none too kindly, as a filler when the ideas started to flag. Recently, Channel Four nearly left it out altogether. I can’t say I was surprised – for when it begins and the arid landscape of a hundred other bushwacker sagas fills the screen, followed by a sight of that familiar face under a cowboy hat the first reaction is; wrong station; the second, disappointment that the creative well ran dry and they were reduced to this. Doesn’t every flagging series have a western episode? ‘Star Trek’, you may recall, made an attempt to re-write the history of the Earp-Clanton feud. Well, you were wrong, and you should have learned by this stage not to take anything about ‘The Prisoner’ for granted! Those who leapt to conclusions and mentally switched off their involvement after the introduction made a rash mistake. I know, I know, it’s been as good as admitted that some episodes were duds to fill the quota. WHAT DO THEY KNOW? THEY ONLY WROTE IT! For there is more to Harmony, on many levels, than meets the eye, and more to this particular permutation of the programme than the fact that Himself fancied doing a Western.
Have you ever wondered why Westerns are so popular? With their predictable ingredients and precise locations they seem to fufill a deep-seated need for archetypal characters and modes of behaviour. The villains do not all wear black hats any more. They can be rustlers, bushwackers, claim jumpers, crooked railroad presidents or double dealing card sharps, but in all cases the thrill of the showdown, the shoot-out and the punch up persists. We all recognise the smoothie whose smarm and smile can talk the farmers and homesteaders, all ineffectual self righteous indignation, out of their land. The love interest, be it rancher’s daughter in culottes and necktie, dancehall girl in feather boa finery or straightlaced schoolmarm from Back East, serves to scream and get captured at inconvenient moments, and of course to get in the way of the hero. The hero – could be anyone. He’s a man with no name passing through. He rides, shoots straight and sometimes has to fight. He’s a Real Man. In this location of mountains, canyons and prairies he is as self-sufficient as his own camp fire as he lies on his bedroll and listens to the night noises.
The wide open spaces are an integral part of this myth, but from time to time, after travelling across dusty plains through the cactus and the sagebrush, he comes to a town. The towns are all the same: one dried dirt street, one saloon, one hotel, one sheriff’s office. Harmony? The name does not matter but “the folk around here don’t much like strangers”. Here he will rise to face what challenges him, do what a man has to do, and ride out again as if nothing very much has happened…
Of course, all this is the most extreme of fanciful fiction. In the battle of Hollywood versus History the truth about the American frontiersmen lost out badly. Look at those sepia tinted archive photographs and you will wonder who all those gloomy, ill dressed, old fashioned people, standing around in the mud, could possibly be. Showdowns were a problematical thing with guns that couldn’t hit a barn door in a hundred yards, nor was there a lot of time for Doris Day clinches when life was as nastily primitive as roughing it can really be. Forget about the sweet log cabin with gingham curtains and a white picket fence to keep out the Indians, and wonder instead why we identify so strongly with the sanitised stereotypes on the silver screen.
Romanticised outdoor life apart, it is our hero’s confident moral assurance that we all crave. (This before the protagonist became anti-hero, traded in his white hat for one of a shade of grey and his self-reliance for more dubious, less clear-cut standards.) With his rock-solid ethical convictions he is prepared to be the one man who stands alone in the face of mass coercion or frightened inertia. Consequently, he is often the catalyst in a situation previously at stalemate. His unequal fight against the odds moves the action along and brings it to its denouement. Finally, his actions compel us again to examine the dilemma of violence. In ‘Shane’ and dozens of other lesser vehicles the genre returns again and again to the gunslinger who wants to retire, only the ambitious kids won’t let him, and to the work-weary sheriff who wants to hand in his star.
So, Number 6, at the Village’s contrivance, encounters, in a drug-induced hallucination a corrupt Judge, a psychopathic Kid and a smitten saloon girl. The situation they confront him with in Harmony is a re-working of the dilemmas that have faced him all along, and their various appeals to love or hatred are fresh attempts to reach into the man behind all that self control and “pluck out the heart of his mystery.”
To what extent is a man the master of his own soul? Just how “free” can you be without imposing on the freedom of others? Will there, should there, always be things one is prepared to kill for? In Harmony the Prisoner learns one cannot not be involved in the lives of others, but when violence wins the rule of law stops. (He straps on his gun but feels compelled to throw away his badge – thus he can only defeat them on their terms.)
I have never admired the Prisoner more than when, with scant disorientation, he comes round from the final shoot out, realises the true nature of the cardboard cut-out world around him, and shrugs off the fantasy, which gave release of a sort, for the grimmer claustrophobic reality of the Village. When the woman playing soiled dove and the man playing mad killer are led back irresistibly to the scene of their fictions to kill and be killed in earnest, they are doing so because their glamorous but doomed roles had come to mean more to them than a ‘real’ world of sordid manipulations. But between the cliché and the archetype lies an individual who eludes distinct definitions. Number 6 is strong enough to exist in such a framework whilst continuing his steadfast rejection of it. How many of us would be able to do the same? How many of us would want to? After all, when I was five, I wanted to be the Lone Ranger. Nothing much seems to have changed.
Hi, ho, Silver! Awaaaaay!
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