Chess, Boxing, and Acting with Reference to ‘The Prisoner’

© Jimmy Driver.

Chess, boxing, and acting: they would appear to be different worlds at first, but perhaps there is a submerged connection. Perhaps all three processes share some common ground. Chess, boxing, and acting are three cultural activities that are played out according to certain rules. This is a look at these three areas of human achievement and the relationships among them in the context of the life and work of Patrick McGoohan and others.

Patrick McGoohan excelled at boxing as a schoolboy, and for a while after that. He was also a very keen chess player. His career as an actor is already familiar and needs no further comment from me.

McGoohan was not alone: some other individuals have also been passionate about both chess and boxing. Terry Marsh, for example, is described in his autobiography ‘Undefeated’ as:

‘A boxer who was a chess champion, a Royal Marine Commando and a fireman....Having won every domestic boxing title from boyhood through to manhood he went on to retire as the undefeated British, European and World Champion.'

Sean Connery was also successful as a sportsman and bodybuilder before his acting career took off. He later played the title role in ‘Requiem For A Heavyweight’. There is a photo of McGoohan and Sean Connery playing chess on the set of the film ‘Hell Drivers’ during a break in filming.

Frank Bruno’s book, ‘Frank Fighting Back’, makes charming, touching reading. The book does use a vocabulary that I occasionally found obscure. I had to ask an ex-boxer friend what ‘diss’ meant. I thought ‘duckers and divers’ were people who used a swimming pool. When I read ‘people have been wicked’, at first I took it literally.

The book mentions Bruno's interest in chess and acting as well as boxing. While on a visit to Colombia for medical treatment, he played chess with other guests at his B and B. They were from El Salvador and Venezuela, so playing chess was a social activity that was not dependent on a common language.

Bruno has also had a career in the theatre, in panto particularly. He played Juliet, alongside Lenny Henry. He has also worked with Michael Barrymore and others. Never having seen any of his performances, so far, I am of course not qualified to offer an assessment of his acting talent.

The book's perspective on pain represents an interesting departure from our traditional Western view of pain as mere failure or defeat:

‘It's not the physical pain I was worried about. It never is in boxing, because your adrenalin is rushing through you so fast you don't notice the bruises.’

In that respect, the book in some way resembles Benedict Allen's work about preliterate societies. Pain plays an important cultural and psychological role in these societies, as part of the development of the individual:

‘We, the more strongly made boys, had learned to grin and bear pain, our youngers to see inspiration in our strength.’

At another point, Bruno describes shutting down during a boxing match:

‘I was in that world where there are no thoughts. It's hard to describe unless you've been there.... There isn't any pain, because there is so much adrenalin running through your veins and your nervous system has been closed down by the force of the blow.’

I have followed boxing for many years. For me, it is emphatically not just two men having a fight: it’s a sport I watch to admire the physical fitness, the alertness, the agility, and the bravery which are all essential to a boxer.

I started watching the heavyweights and developed to the lightweights. I have the impression of watching two different sports: with the heavyweights, obviously there is more power and with the lightweights, there is more skill and accuracy. An ex-boxer friend said lightweights are like dancers who throw a punch occasionally.

Another boxer told me your feet are more important than your fists in boxing. The light middleweight Herol ‘Bomber’ Graham was fast on his feet. He put on boxing shows in pubs and clubs in Sheffield, where he would have an assistant tie his hands behind his back in the ring and then invite members of the audience to try to hit him. No one could ever lay a glove on him.

Recently, a young man from the North-East of England, who had a problematical personal history, won a gold medal in the Commonwealth Games. He said boxing had saved his life.

What Roland Barthes wrote about wrestling applies to heavyweight boxing too: there is no science of the future. I once sat next to a famous boxer in the audience at a boxing match; he said there was no saying who was going to win a heavyweight match: ‘There could be a lucky punch’.

Boxing, wrestling, and martial arts: all share some special quality; all provide some need that is not answered elsewhere.

Is boxing chess with the body? Is chess boxing with the mind? Essential processes in both are observing and understanding your opponent, his strengths and weaknesses. It means knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, too. It means using your energy to your best advantage. It means identifying where the two of you are or are not defended. It means focusing on your assets and avoiding your liabilities.

Stanley Kubrick was a boxing fan of long standing and a very accomplished chess player. His cinema and photographic work are outstanding.

His enthusiasm for boxing, chess, and the screen were obvious; boxing and chess often appeared in his visual work. His early work included ‘Prizefighter’ in 1949, a photo essay about the middleweight boxer Walter Cartier. Cartier formed the subject of Kubrick’s first film, ‘Day Of The Fight’. The film and photo essay contrast Cartier’s boxing with the rest of his day-to-day life..

Kubrick’s 1955 film ‘Killer’s Kiss’ is about a boxer's love affair and, like ‘Day Of The Fight’, features a realistic bout.

Kubrick’s cops and robbers film, ‘The Killing’ followed the next year. It is the story of a failed robbery perpetrated by a gang that includes a fighter, Nikki, and a wrestler, Marvin, played by Kubrick’s chess chum, Kola Kwariani. Some members of the gang plan the crime in a scene at a chess club.

Paul Duncan comments about ‘The Killing’:

‘This is a meticulous, step-by-step, chess-like explanation of how everything that man does is doomed to failure because of his self-destructive impulses’.

In ‘Killer’s Kiss’ and ‘The Killing’, Kubrick takes a familiar cinema genre and makes it his own. These films use the big screen in the same way ‘The Prisoner’ uses the small screen: they unfold their story using narrative conventions, while simultaneously subtly undermining those conventions.

‘Paths Of Glory’ is Kubrick’s 1957 war film, based on a novel of the same title by Humphrey Cobb. Paul Duncan notes:

‘We can see that the chateau is the generals’ battleground. The chateau’s marble floor is chequered like a chess board, making the soldiers appear to be pawns in the generals’ power game.’

This is an echo of the metaphor in ‘The Prisoner’ episode ‘Checkmate’: chess pieces representing power relationships. Again, the characters are deprived of their power and manipulated by an external force.

Kubrick’s 1968 film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ was contemporary with ‘The Prisoner’. It revived the science fiction genre. As noted elsewhere in the Unmutual web site:

‘MGM’s Borehamwood’s massive soundstages were home to not only ‘The Prisoner’ but also landmark epics such as “2001: A Space Odyssey”.’

For me, one of the most powerful moments in cinema is the scene in the film where one of the astronauts runs round in a circular track in a spaceship in space. He punches the air: his boxing movements are accompanied by the music of Khachaturian. He is doggedly affirming his humanity in a sterile environment. It raises questions about human development: are we going round in circles in our lives? Are progress and civilisation also going round in circles? Are we trying to fight an imaginary or invisible foe? At another point in the film, an astronaut plays a game of chess against on-board computer HAL.

Kubrick's talent at chess earned him the epithet ‘The Master’ in the Washington Square Park where he played. When he left his job at ‘Look’ magazine to work full-time in the cinema, he generated income from these matches, where he could make around $3 per day.

The relationship between chess and filmmaking has been identified elsewhere.

‘Many people have made the observation that chess requires logic, order and strategy, which are the tools a film maker needs to bring to a project. In chess each situation must be assessed coolly before any move is made - this is reportedly an attitude that Kubrick brought to his film work.’

Kubrick’s own comment was:

‘Among a great many other things that chess teaches you is to control the initial excitement you feel when you see something that looks good. It trains you to think before grabbing, and to think just as objectively when you're in trouble.’

There is a photo of Stanley Kubrick and George C Scott playing chess on the set of ‘Dr Strangelove’ during a break in filming. It is reminiscent of the photo of Sean Connery and McGoohan playing chess on the set of the ‘Hell Drivers’.

I don’t actually play chess any more, and even when I did (30 years ago) I was never great at it. I did also play other board games: draughts, Monopoly, Cluedo, Risk, Scrabble, and many others. We also played Dungeons & Dragons and other games (some of which we invented ourselves). A personal favourite of mine was the Transformation Game, which I have only ever played twice. It takes two and a half days and there is no winning or losing. It is quite an experience and it does influence one’s approach to other games: it is more about process than product. The important point is to be committed to the game, not to beat your partner.

Chess appears a number of times in ‘The Prisoner’. In ‘Arrival’, Number Two says he needs to know where the prisoner’s sympathies lie. It is a question of whose side one is on. He also says the admiral is ‘an excellent chess player’. The chess match that ensues between the prisoner and the admiral is a reminder of the series’ context: it is set against the background of the Cold War, an adversarial contest involving people in navies and armies. The chess pieces represent political and military power.

In ‘The Chimes Of Big Ben’, the admiral is replaced by the general as the prisoner’s chess partner. When the latter asks which regiment the general was in - and which army - he gets no answer.

The word ‘resign’ features in their dialogue in parallel to Number Two’s quest for information: for the answer to the question, why did the prisoner resign? There is a chess set beneath the loudspeaker in the prisoner's cottage, which is a token of the village social control.

The general shows his chess set at the art exhibition; the king, the largest and most powerful chess piece, is a representation of Number Two. In the background is the suggestion that political power is symbolic, superficial, and arbitrary.

The episode where chess is most central to the series’ narrative is of course ‘Checkmate’. The queen's pawn is a metaphor for social and political control. This control appears throughout the series as the village. It appears elsewhere in the audience’s lives, too, as the power of the state. The rook tries to avoid this control. When the prisoner is recaptured, the pawn is placed onto the chess board as a symbol of this control. Chess pieces seem to have a hierarchy: pawn, knight, rook, queen, king etc. But this hierarchy is superficial. All are controlled by the player.

This control is enforced through a power relationship. Michel Foucault identified some of the contexts in which this power relationship appears: as ruler over subject, as prison guard over prison inmate, as Judge over defendant in a trial, as medical practitioner over patient, as teacher over pupil, and so on. The hospital scene in ‘Checkmate’ is another example of this power relationship.

Stephen Gallagher’s Article ‘Prisoner Versus The Panopticon’ is a very clear elucidation of these power relationships. These relationships are maintained using a number of strategies. The article describes how the look of one person to another is one of these strategies. This explains the relevance of the village greeting ‘be seeing you’ and the accompanying gesture, suggestive of a camera lens. It also explains the frequent use of screens and cameras in the series as people in the village are observed by the authorities.

Living chess, with human beings playing chess pieces, as actors, is the type of game that appears in the ‘Checkmate’ episode. The actors wear elaborate costumes representing the different chess men. There is a history behind it:

‘Chess as a struggle between opposing individuals or armies inevitably invites personification.’

‘The idea came very early of enlarging the board to the size of a courtyard and replacing wooden pieces by living actors - and we had “living chess.” ’

From the 1400s, living chess became a popular regal and aristocratic pastime at the ducal and Royal Courts of France and Italy. It permeated society as a whole. Gizicky gives examples of living chess in Poland, Germany, Finland, Belgium, Austria, Britain, and elsewhere. The chess champion, Alekhine, witnessed a game of living chess in China in 1933. Sometimes the knights appear on horseback and the bishops on donkeys. The actors sometimes carry weapons.

‘The fifteenth century produced some gruesome variants. Sultan Mohammed I developed the engaging habit of sending captured men straight to the executioner. In Spain, a Dominican member of the Inquisition, Pedro Arbues, ordered unfortunate victims of persecution to stand in as figures in a game of living chess played by two blind monks. Each time they captured a piece, they condemned someone to death. Tsar Ivan the Terrible, notorious for his cruelty, was also said to have played living chess for the lives of his subjects. “Dying Chess” might be a better name.’

Gizicky gives a history of chess. There were adversarial boardgames played thousands of years ago, in ancient Greece, Egypt, and elsewhere. There were boardgames and dice in Tutankhamen's tomb. It is impossible to be absolutely certain about the origin of chess. The first reference to a game we would recognise as the ancestor of chess appears in India in the 500s. It was a four player game, which spread to Persia, and then to the Arab countries, Spain and the rest of Europe.

Language is evidence of history. Many sports originated in Britain or became popular here. The vocabulary of sports in continental European languages often involves words of English derivation. In French, for example, ‘match’, ‘round’, and ‘boxe’ (spelt with an e) are all used about boxing.

In French and Spanish, the words for Bishop, ‘Evêque’ and ‘Obispo’, are not the words for a chess Bishop: ‘Fou’ and ‘Alfil.’ ‘Fou’ means ‘court fool’ or ‘court jester’ in French, which perhaps explains the donkey in living chess. ‘Alfil’, like most nouns that begin with that syllable, is of Arabic derivation.

Fighting and combative sports appear a number of times in ‘The Prisoner’. They form an integral part of the series’ story. At some points, fighting is informal and unorganised; elsewhere in the series, it is formal and organised. An example of informal, unorganised fighting is a moment near the beginning of ‘A Change Of Mind’; the prisoner defeats two thugs sent by the village, as he prefers to train on his own, rather than in the village gymnasium. They are there to persuade him to desist from being ‘unmutual’. An example of formal organised fighting is the Kosho practice in ‘It's Your Funeral’.

In ‘Once Upon A Time’, there are a number of power relationships acted out. One of them is boxing coach to boxer. Again, this is an echo of Foucault's work. The relationship between form and content is essential here. We see a TV drama that asks implicit questions about acting elsewhere: are those in positions of authority just actors? In this respect, the series resembles Jean Genet’s play ‘The Balcony’, which was later made into a film, but in an expurgated version. ‘The Balcony’ also explores power relationships and acting.

This should all be seen in the historical context in which the series was written and first seen. The Cold War was an important phenomenon in the consciousness of the series’ writers and viewers. It was also a conflict between two sides, played out according to certain rules; this forms the background to the series.

The concept of play is of the utmost importance when considering boxing, chess, and acting. This applies in the context of ‘The Prisoner’ as it does to other cultural phenomena.

Play is distinguishable from work, as play is not part of the essential everyday business of creating the conditions for our lives. Play appears in many forms, most of which are discernible in our language. We use the word for music: playing the guitar, playing the piano, the marching band playing Strauss’s ‘Radetztky’s March’ in ‘Arrival’. We use the word for sports: playing cricket, playing tennis, playing rugby union etc. We use the word for other games too: playing bridge, playing poker, playing Monopoly, playing draughts, and of course playing chess. We use the word for acting: Patrick McGoohan played the prisoner; Leo McKern played number 2 etc. We use the word for children’s pastimes: ‘the children are playing in the garden’; the schools have playgrounds etc. I have very often observed how children's play involves role-playing in the same way drama does: one child plays the bus driver and another the passenger, for example.

Special laws apply to play that don't apply anywhere else in our lives. Johann Huizinga thought play was the definitive characteristic of humanity. He thought ‘homo sapiens’ - wise man or knowing man - had been replaced by ‘homo ludens’ - playing man.

He also identified the relationship between play and religious or magical practice. He notes how play of these kinds takes place in a sacred space.

‘Formally speaking, there is no distinction whatever between marking out a space for a sacred purpose and marking it out for purposes of sheer play. The turf, the tennis-court, the chessboard, and pavement hopscotch cannot formally be distinguished from the temple or the Magic Circle.’

This applies to the human chessboard in ‘Checkmate’.

Comparing ‘The Prisoner’ with other television series, I notice that is some common ground with ‘Auf Wiedersehen, Pet’.

The first two series were amongst the pinnacle of my television viewing. The two Timothy's, Healey and Spall, put in brilliant performances. There is a scene at the end of Series 1, where the builders’ hut burns down. I felt I had got to know these seven men, and so much that they cared about was inside and went up in flames. It was the end of their money and the end of their dreams. At the same time, the writers, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, resisted any temptation to make their characters cute or sweet or lovable.

Series 2 saw our lads move from Germany back to Britain and then to Spain. There was a long interval between Series 2 and Series 3: the best part of 20 years. I was thrilled to hear a third series had been made. I watched it with eager anticipation.

It was a different writing team for Series 3 and 4. The men went to Russia (briefly), America, and Cuba. The last two series just served up familiar - and outdated - British stereotypes about class.

The dialogue was weak:

‘You’re a thick brickie from Geordie-land: you wouldn't know someone called Tarquin.’

I just cringed.

Not only had the writing gone down: the acting had, too. The main actors’ lack of conviction was very clear from watching the performances. They didn’t care about what they were doing any more.

The original idea for ‘The Prisoner’ was to create a series of seven episodes. McGoohan had a number of meetings with Grade at the television company, while the series was being filmed. The requirement was gradually extended to more and more episodes. They were written by different writers, with different styles and there are of course some inconsistencies, which have been mentioned elsewhere.

I understand the last two episodes were produced under considerable constraints: the budget and time were running out. I am sorry to say, it shows.

What happened to ‘Auf Wiedersehen, Pet’ also happened to ‘The Prisoner’. The quality of the acting was not the same at the end of the series as it was at the beginning. It was acted without conviction.

The same would apply to ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Doctor Who’. For me, the best series were the early ones. The standard of acting gradually deteriorated after that.

I have spent a lot of time in the company of people with whom I didn’t share a common language. I notice what people are expressing through their facial expressions and body language. This is perceptible with boxers and actors.

I have seen boxing matches that have been wonderful: breath-taking skill was visible. It can be magical! Other times, I have seen boxers do what they had to do without conviction. The boxer's attitude to the match is even communicated before the match begins: his body language when walking to the ring can seem to say:

‘This is my chance for a moment of glory, of magic’

Or just:

‘I somehow agreed to do this. I'll get it over with as soon as possible and go home and have my tea.’

This is a sad, embarrassing moment. So is watching bad acting: I felt the same way watching the actors’ performances in the last series of ‘Auf Wiedersehen, Pet’.

Are the worlds of acting, boxing, and chess so different as they seem? At the end of the day, it is all about giving it your best shot and that applies to all three of them.

Jimmy Driver

I am much obliged to Rick Davy for his help with this article.


Benedict Allen: ‘Into The Crocodile Nest A Journey Inside New Guinea’ Paladin 1989.

Paul Duncan: ‘Stanley Kubrick Visual Poet 1928 To 1999’ Taschen 2008. There is a minor inconsistency: the book gives the year for the film ‘Day Of The Fight’ as either 1950 or 1951.

Jerzy Gizicky: ‘A History Of Chess’ translated from Polish by A. Wojciechovski,
D. Ronowicz, W. Bartoszevksi, with a chapter by A. Wood, Abbey Library London 1972.

Frank Bruno with Kevin Mitchell: ‘Frank, Fighting Back’ Yellow Jersey Press London 2005, 2006. The 2005 edition lacks the last chapter.

Johann Huizinga: ‘Homo Ludens. A Study In The Play Element In Culture’. Paladin 1970.

Terry Marsh: ‘Undefeated’. (This book is available through the Web).

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