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18 June 2014
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Picture

By Jonathan Morris

Note: Although shown as episode eleven, this was watched as episode three.

This is the definitive Prisoner episode. It has it all - colourful location footage, an imperturbable Number 2, iconic imagery, and a cracking plot. It has twists, it has turns, it has George Coulouris as 'Man with Stick'.

Even when I'd never seen an episode of The Prisoner, I knew it featured people as chess pieces on a chessboard. I knew it featured Patrick McGoohan as a pawn. It's just so... right.

When people remember The Prisoner fondly, they remember this episode. They remember Arrival. They remember Free For All and The Chimes Of Big Ben. The bold, well-constructed, action-adventure stories.

It's one of the contradictions about The Prisoner that it is celebrated for its weirdness and ambiguity, and yet it does weirdness and ambiguity so badly. The Prisoner is strongest not when it is being cryptic, but when it is being straightforward. When you know what is going on, you get involved. Weirdness and ambiguity have a disorientating, distancing, and ultimately deadening, effect on the drama.

So Checkmate is The Prisoner playing a strong game.

Okay, so there is a subtext, but it's so in-your-face you can hardly call it 'sub'. The moral, the thing for attic-dwelling Alan Moore fans to say "aaaah" about, is that life is a bit like a game of chess, with the people as mere pawns. Except when you have a giant chessboard, with people standing on it dressed as pawns holding up signs saying "I am a pawn", it rather loses its metaphor quality.

This is Allegory For Beginners.

Where the allegory falls down is that the episode is about not knowing which side people are on, where everyone is playing a game of double-bluff. It's about suspicion, mistrust, and paranoia.

So not really like chess at all then. More like Buckaroo.

Indeed, I do wonder if they have other giant games in the village. Do they have a massive Kerplunk for special occasions? Or maybe a vast Twister mat? Do they assign different members of the village to letters, and play scrabble? If they did, I bet Number 6 would be a Q, don't ask me why. And he'd do something really clever, like get 'Quiz' on a triple word score or something.

During the chess game, Number 6 chats up a Queen. He wants to know whether she is one of Them, or one of Us. But he has to be careful, because if she's one of Them she might out him as one of Us. But if she is one of Us, and Number 6 seems too keen, she might think he is one of Them pretending to be one of Us and so she might betray him to Them in order to give the impression to Them that she's not one of Us but is in fact one of Them.

Maybe there is a subtext after all.

Checkmate is about gaydar.

Okay, it's a bit of a leap, from board games to the detection of homosexuality. I'm reading between lines, I'm filling in blanks. But the episode is all about questioning one's identity, the pressure to conform, and the urge to break free and be a bit camp, bleach ones hair, wear a t-shirt three sizes too small and sing Love To Hate You by Erasure.

Which is what the Rook does. He's fed up - he wanted to be Queen, they never let him be Queen, the beasts! - so he flounces across the board, hand on hip, and announces that he's mating the King. Check!

There is only one response to such blatant poofery. There's a grumbling roar. Everyone freezes. And elegantly, languorously, Rover the wobbly killer tit comes to wreak its inflatable revenge. The message is clear. Fear the bosom, but do not attempt to resist it, for it shall come for you.

This week Number 2 is played by Jason Wyngarde. He looks dashing, if somewhat effeminate in his scarf, blazer and mascara. He has a droll, well-spoken manner and is extraordinarily camp.

But is he the only gay in The Village?

Number 6 meets with George Colouris, famous mainly for appearing in the Doctor Who adventure The Keys Of Marinus and rather less well known for appearing in Citizen Kane. He therefore holds the distinction of having been in at least two things which it is physically impossible to watch all the way through.

As Number 6 chats with Colouris - 'Man with Stick' - check out the body language. There is definite flirtation there. Colouris explains that it is getting increasingly hard to tell the difference between being one of Us and one of Them these days. After all, every Pawn has it in him to be a potential Queen.

He couldn't make it more obvious if he started stroking Number 6's knee.

Number 6 is still rather naive in this episode. He thinks he can tell the difference between Us and Them simply by ascertaining a person's disposition. It seems oddly trusting of him not to consider the possibility that one of Them might pretend to be one of Us.

Number 6 and 'Rook' gather all of the villagers they believe are on their side. The 'Rook' builds a radio and contacts a passing boat, claiming they are survivors of a crashed aircraft.

The villagers put the searchlight out of action, allowing Number 6 to be picked up. Only then does he discover that he has been picked up by one of Them - Jason Wyngarde!

But that's not the twist. The twist is the person who betrayed Number 6. It wasn't the Queen. It wasn't the 'Man With Stick'. No, it was 'Rook' - even though he was one of Us. He sold Number 6 out because he thought Number 6 was one of Them.

As I said earlier, the definitive Prisoner episode. It has it all. Thrilling exploits, paranoid chicanery and a red-hot simmering subtext about whoopsies.

Repeated on BBC Four on 9th July 2004 at 11.25pm.

 
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