Pros and Cons in Free for All

© 1994 Rosemary Camilleri, PhD

“Great writers and artists should engage in politics only to the extent needed to defend themselves against politics.” –Anton Chekhov, writing in praise of Emile Zola’s stand on the Dreyfus Affair

“History… is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken.” James Joyce, Ulysses

Most viewers would probably regard Free for All (FFA) as political satire. Yet it is also a startling example of surrealism and an account of a strangely elaborate con game. Among other things, I’d like to suggest it may also conceal some commentary about homelier kinds of power and their disguises.

Despite its surrealism, FFA has the symmetrical structure of classical drama. At the episode’s precise midpoint, Number 6 is vainly fulfilling his early vow to “run like blazes, first chance I get.” Around this grim midpoint, the beginning and the end stand as symmetrical opposites. The episode begins at the Prisoner’s cottage, with the Prisoner self-possessed and aggressive (“What do you want?”). For number 6, it also ends at the Prisoner’s cottage; but by then he is carried there on a stretcher, unconscious from a beating. In addition, FFA begins with the appearance, in rapid succession, of Numbers 6, 2, and 58. It also ends with Numbers 6, 2, and 58, but in starkly altered roles; all three have held power (however briefly) as Number 2. Finally, the episode begins and ends with telephone calls from Number 2.

There may even be a symmetry between FFA and Fall Out. Early in FFA, Number 2 predicts that if Number 6 wins the election, “Number 1 will no longer be a mystery to you, if you know what I mean.” What does he mean? That Number 1 is the Prisoner himself, and that winning will in some way reveal that darker self? This suspicion is supported by the musical score: we hear the same music when Number 6 wins the election in FFA and, in Fall Out, when he’s taken to meet Number 1. (If FFA predicts that Number 1 is the Prisoner himself, then we might take seriously what Number 6 is told in the Truth Test: “You are afraid of yourself.”)

Con Games
If there is a verbal theme to FFA, it lies in the puns on “confide. In the fast repartee of the opening scene, one of Number 2’s early thrusts is “Confide, and we concede.” Here “confide” means “give us information.” But “confide” gets another twist early in the Truth Test encounter, from the Labour Exchange Manager who is a con artist (as in “con,” to gain another’s confidence by a ruse; to swindle). The Manager says silkily, “You are afraid of yourself. You are aware of that. Good. You are honest. That is of use here. Honesty inspires confidence. And confidences are the core of our business. See how honest I am being with you?” First he uses “confidence” to mean trust; then he adds an “s” to make it mean prying into secrets.

To highlight this double talk, McGoohan punctuates it with a cut to the Control Room. There we see Number 2’s admiration: “Very good technique. Where did you get him?” “The Civil Service. He adapted immediately.”
Announcing the Truth Test, the Labour Exchange Manager assures Number 6 that “Everything you think here is in the strictest confidence.” But this expression is an oxymoron—as was 2’s introduction of “the one and only Number 6.” For only if the Prisoner’s thoughts are not confidential at all can they even be the subject of such bogus assurances of confidentiality.

There is yet another use of “confidence. After Number 6 has been brainwashed in the Truth Test, he emerges to meet the crowd. Number 113B (previously the photographer) now carries a microphone and asks the candidate, “What do you think of your chances now?” Number 6 responds with a smile, “I have every confidence.” This cliché, in the context of so many puns on “confide,” sounds sinister.
(Note to American fans: Lest all of these “confidence” puns seem puzzling in political satire, remember that the “vote of confidence” is a regular and crucial part of all parliamentary governments. A vote of confidence may be called in response to a crisis, and failure to win it can revamp the government.)

And what, in fact, is the Truth Test, where thoughts will be held in “strictest confidence? It is depicted on a sort of graph, where a circle rolls downhill, and a square struggles uphill. This looks like a race between and easy lie and a difficult truth. But the two merge at the forehead of the trapped Prisoner’s profile. When they do, the brainwashing process seems complete. Have the Village masters rendered truth and lies indistinguishable to Number 6? Is this what it takes to make a political candidate?

Subliminal Balloons
Earlier, when Number 6 meets “the madding crowd,” he utters the famous line, “I am not a number, I am a person.” For only a few frames (look quickly) the screen is filled by a yellow balloon. It bears the hand-lettered word VOTE. Then, almost before the viewer’s mind can register it, it’s gone with an audible pop, and we see the crowd laughing derisively. (There is another such pop after the newly brainwashed Prisoner affably tells his interviewer, from the back of the campaign buggy, that he’ll give Number 2 “a run for his money.”)
What does this VOTE balloon mean? Is it an attempt at subliminal persuasion? If it is persuasion, does McGoohan mean it sincerely? Or does it merely illustrate another means of brainwashing—by subliminal TV advertising? If so, why does McGoohan insert the VOTE balloon right after such a stirring line by Number 6?

Since these balloons also appear in the preproduction script, where Rover was a sort of VW with a blue light, we can conclude that McGoohan planned balloons well befoe Rover took shape as that quasi-natural stifling bubble. Balloons are big appearances with no substance; they suggest that corrupt power disintegrates when it’s challenged or that a con game is convincing until it’s sprung like a popped balloon. It is also worth noting that “pop” is prominent in more than the “lost” Chimes episode and in Once Upon a Time. In Arrival, just before the first Number 2 appears, his musical theme is “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Perhaps “pop” holds a message about corrupt power, both political and paternal: it may loom and threaten, but if you have the courage to needle it, it bursts.

In any case, the FFA script has an old man on a pennyfarthing bicycle carrying a VOTE balloon, which pops loudly causing the crowd to laugh and cheer. But as soon as 6 delivers his “I am a person” line, the stage directions read:
Silence. A sense of embarrassment. They move restlessly. In the background the old man of the pennyfarthing bicycle is blowing up a fresh balloon. He is still astride the bicycle which is held erect by two public-minded citizens. The balloon bears the word “vote” now upside down. It bursts. The old man is convulsed with laughter.
Old Man: “He’s him. We’re us.”
The crowd joins the laughter.
The Prisoner (to himself): “You must be somebody.

But in the same script, after the Prisoner’s speech proceeds to “Who’s standing beside you now?” the two people who supported the old man’s bicycle move away. The old man must pedal it frantically to safety. Was this discarded scene meant to imply that politics divides people? Or that Number 6’s individualism, imposed on lesser mortals, merely alienates them?
All that’s clear is that, in FFA, the entire political process is bogus. People, like truth and lies, are indistinguishable. The crowd responds to cue cards. As soon as Number 6 becomes a candidate, he sees prefabricated campaign signs and instant followers. It is all an elaborate con game; even when you win, you’re beaten.

The Lives of Political Pros
One of Number 6’s instant followers is Number 58. Earlier, as the maid who delivered breakfast, she had been cool to 6. But as soon as he is a candidate she is adoring and inseparable from him. When Number 6 complains, Number 2’s response is curious. He implies that 6 has been assigned a maid who doesn’t speak English because 6 has rejected maids who could report on him. But even before that, 2 invites 6 to reflect on 58’s appeal: “quite delightfully charming, don’t you think?” Number 2 adds that not only the buggy but the “lady driver will be at your disposal for the election period—and anything else you may desire, within reason.” Is 6 being offered 58 as a sort of political groupie?

At firs I thought so, and then chided myself for reading too much into the line. But in Dave Rogers’s book The Prisoner, he summarizes FFA and writes, “She [Number 58] will be at his disposal for the election period—and for anything he might desire, within reason. The preproduction script reads “anything else you require within reason”; but the final cut uses “anything else you may desire within reason,” a line delivered by Number 2 with his eyebrows raised. It seems 6 is being conned into accepting Number 58 as a perquisite of power. Of course, Number 6 rejects this temptation. But even its oblique mention in a McGoohan screenplay should cause us to reflect. A vociferous foe of gratuitous innuendo, McGoohan seems to be telling us, quite matter-of-factly, something he knows about the world of power. Something he does not like.

Of course, Number 58 will turn out to be a devious and powerful foe. The only hint of her malevolence is that she follows many of her occult phrases with “Tic. Tic.” We all know where that will end.

Next, reluctantly chauffeured toward the Town Hall, Number 6 is practically ambushed by Number 113 and his “photographic colleague, Number 113B.” These two are a regular Tweedledee and Tweedledum, like Merchant of Venice’s Salerio and Solanio or hamlet’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Not only does 113 invent canned answers to his own questions, but 113B chants annoyingly, “Smile. Smile. Smile.” This syncopation adds to the disorienting effect of the whole scene and satirizes the way the press manipulates public figures.

Then 113B (played by the same actor) seemingly splits into two men, photographer and news vendor. Number 6 looks from one to the other in dazed unbelief. Later in the episode, after Number 6 has been brainwashed and emerges from Town Hall as a mechanical candidate, 113 and 113B have exchanged roles. Number 113B interviews the candidate; 113 points the camera.

What is the message? In the Village’s political allegory, people are not only numbers, they are interchangeable numbers. Of course there is no real political freedom, and candidates are prepackaged products. But the packaging itself is done by nonpersons—anonymous, interchangeable units such as the 113s. McGoohan was no admirer of the press; but these pale-jacketed ciphers don’t even have their own numbers (they share 113) or their own roles (they trade off).

Of course, before the Prisoner can be brainwashed, he must be herded into the Town Hall. To accomplish this, the Village authorities send Rover—against a revealing backdrop. Fans will remember that, back in Arrival, Rover first appeared after a sustained shot of the Hercules statue and its Rover-like globe. Similarly, in FFA, Rover first appears against the Hercules statue. The comparison is inevitable. Rover, the embodiment of stifling emptiness, resembles the burden under which Hercules stoops. But this burdened statue is not of Atlas, the mythical Titan who perennially shouldered the universe as a punishment for refusing to conspire in Zeus’s rebellion. Rather the Village statue is of Hercules, the lionskin-clad mortal who shouldered the universe because he was conned into doing so, and who got rid of his burden by a similar con game. The Hercules statue could symbolize the Prisoner series: a strong man who has somehow let himself bear the world’s weight.

Furthermore, Hercules reappears at the nadir of 6’s career as demagogue. When 6 has finished speaking from the stone boat and is touring on the Mini-Moke, he climaxes his campaign speech with “… Six for Free for All. Vote. Vote.” And he says these words just as he is coming around the Hercules statue. The words are about freedom, but the picture is about someone conned into servitude. It is a global picture reinforced by Rover the globe chair of Number 2, the spherical eye of the Control Room, and even the drums and balloons of this Village election.
Before 6’s subterranean brainwashing, there is another allusion, this time to a more obscure classic, G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. This astonishing novel, as François Riviere points out, is part of The Prisoner’s literary heritage. Thursday’s protagonist is Gabriel Syme, a moral individual and a philosopher, who is introduced to anarchist terrorists when he is lured to a table that starts spinning and drops down into a red-lit, vaulted passage—just like the one in FFA.

The Mechanical Candidate
In the subterranean chamber, Number 6 is brainwashed and becomes a political automaton. Out of his own mouth comes the occult language of Number 58. (Incidentally, McGoohan himself wrote these syllables; to enhance their realism, actress Rachel Herbert recorded a Yugoslavian friend reading the words, then she mimicked that accent.) Even when 6 is speaking English, he discourses in what Hélène Oswald calls pure langue de bois (wooden speech). Doubletalk represents the rhetoric and accents of a demagogue.

In the first scene Number 2 appears on 6’s T as a silhouette. In the Truth Test graphic, 6 is a similar profile, and watching that Truth Test, those in the Control Room see both 6 and the Manager as silhouettes. Finally, when 6 finishes his own “live” telecast, the TV screen shows a visual pun: the two candidates “neck and neck.” (As for visual puns, is the final beating in the Rover cave a gruesome pun on the expression “beaten in the election”? In the script, 6 originally asks 2, not “What physically happens if I win?” but “What happens if I beat you?”)
The occult language seems to be 6’s breaking point. When he hears himself speaking it, he seems to half awaken from a dream. He is horrified and tries wildly to escape. Overcome by Rover, he is taken to hospital, where in a dream he remembers his day since that breakfast with Number 2—everything except his Truth Test brainwashing. That seems to remain in place. He is further brainwashed by the descending circular light over his bed. Later, standing in the stone boat, he reads a speech full of overblown promises. A still photograph reveals the pink-coated 113B standing in front of the listening crowd—reading from a bunch of papers, perhaps a press release version of the speech. In any case, Number 6 has again become an automaton: a smiling mouthpiece full of empty talk.

His speech at the stone boat is merely fatuous, but his public “debate” with Number 2 is interestingly predictive. Six asks, “What do you do in your spare time?” When Number 2 says he has none, 6 taunts him with “working to his limits.” Asked about his own spare time activities, 6 responds, “Less work. More play.” But that’s what spare time is. All this would simply illustrate empty campaign talk, except that a few scenes later we see what Number 2 supposedly does in his spare time: drink. And what he actually does: continue his job by manipulating victims like Number 6. Somewhat like a cat playing with a mouse. In short, there is no spare time; if one allows it, power consumes one’s life.

Cat, Mouse, and Alcohol
At the Cat & Mouse nightclub, in his own “spare time,” Number 6 shows signs of reverting to his rebellious self. (In the script, 6 stood on the nightclub stage and sang a disjointed song that ended with “Never let me go. Ever let me go. Let me go. Go. Go. Go. Go….”) In the film, acting tipsily, he insists on an alcoholic drink, and throws a tantrum at Number 58.

But even the tantrum may be manipulated. Earlier, just before the nightclub waitress comes to their table to offer nonalcoholic drinks, another waitress with a steaming pot walks very close to their table and off into the interior of the cave-like nightclub. The next time we see a steaming pot, it will be in the cave where a numberless man is making liquor. Perhaps the waitress’s pot is meant to be cooked grain, corn mash, or whatever else the scientist will use to make gin, whiskey or vodka. Can it be that, by this steaming pot, the Village masters want to induce a craving for alcohol, so they can lure Number 6 to the cave. There they lull Number 6’s suspicions by letting him see an apparently drunken Number 2 who pretends that his political role is only a public façade. This, then, is Number 2 in his “spare time”: pretending a benevolent concern for Number 6, saying “to hell with the Village,” and promising free thought and covert alcoholism as perquisites of power. This “confidence” is a ruse to con Number 6.

And who is distilling the alcohol? John Cazabon plays this still operator, who is actually collaborating with Number 2. Cazabon had appeared in several episodes of Dager Man (Secret Agent), including The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove, a frankly surrealist episode that some have called a precursor to The Prisoner. There Cazabon played an undertaker (Man in Black) who called at Drake’s house to remind him of his mortality. In The Prisoner, Cazabon will reappear in Once Upon a Time, as the man with an umbrella who is so secretive while the Prisoner tries to guess his number. The numberless man? A sign of death?

The still operator (in the script, he is “Man in Cave”) has re-drugged the Prisoner “to take him right through the election.” The election is glaringly public—no private ballots and no dissenting votes. But it is an empty victory: the triumphal fanfare gives way to dead silence and a plaintive “For he’s a jolly good fellow” as the Villagers turn away, followed by (herded by?) the Butler and his umbrella. Instead of leaving, Number 58 accompanies Numbers 2 and 6 to the Green Dome, which appears in a long shot past the Hercules statue. Lest we think that Number 6 has really won anything, he is led by the hand—a role he would never have tolerated in his right mind. And he is led, like a sleepwalker, right past the parked buggy-ambulance that waits to cart him away after 2 and 58 spring their trap.

Prisoner fans know what follows. Number 58 starts lapping Number 6 across the face. He, only partially awakened to his senses, urges the Villagers to “obey me and be free”—yet another oxymoron. He runs but finds himself in a cave where Rover is worshipped, and he is beaten up by thugs. As 2 leaves by helicopter, his phone call to 58 reveals she is the next Number 2, and that they had planned everything. A con game.

Home Rule
Certainly FFA satirizes politics. And the press. And the “spare time” diversions of the powerful. And the devious or banal language of power. But beyond the satire there remain some mysteries. For this episode only, writer McGoohan used a pseudonym from his mother’s name (Fitzpatrick), but in a form (Paddy Fitz) that is so ethnically stereotyped that it verges on the childish. For another thing, McGoohan, an avowed pacifist, created a violent “Rover Cave” scene. Surely, even against Ireland’s violent history, luring the winning candidate to a surreal cave and ritually beating him up doesn’t count as political satire. Does it? In fact, when one comes to think of it, quite a lot of McGoohan’s Prisoner screenwriting called for violence in caves. Behind such atavistic violence, there might be anger.

Where did McGoohan acquire the anger about arbitrary power that animates not only FFA but the entire Prisoner series? It could have to do with religious rules; in the script, he originally had Number 2 say of Number 58, “she comes from a religious family.” On the other hand, that religious reference could be just part of 2’s plot to con Number 6. McGoohan has claimed that The Prisoner’s theme was with him “since I could think about anything at all.” And the two figures of the treacherous Number 58 and the falsely paternal Number 2 suggest that domestic violence, as well as political abuses, could be among the many meanings of The Prisoner. One is trapped in unpredictable violence hidden behind a façade of benevolence, with double-meaning language and no hope of escape. And one ultimately recognizes that violence within oneself.
Perhaps in the end, writer Paddy Fitz said it best in the final line of FFA: “Give my regards to the homeland.”


Carrazé, Alain & Hélène Oswald 1989. Le prisonnier: chef-d’oeuvre télévisionnaire. n. p.: Éditions Huitième Art.

Rogers, Dave. (1990). The Prisoner: I am not a number, I am a free man. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble.

Riviere, François. (1989). “Pourquoi?” ou le Club des Invisibles. In Alain Carrazé & Hélène Oswald, (Eds.), Le prisonnier: chef-d’oeuvre télévisionnaire. (pp. 24-28). n. p.: Éditions Huitième Art.

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