Archive Post: The Prisoner

This post was originally an article for my 60s fanzine that existed in the mid-nineties. There has been some mild editing for corrections and to remove outdated information. 

Regular Cast-
Number Six – Patrick McGoohan
Butler – Angelo Muscat
Supervisor – Peter Swanwick
Voice of Village Announcer – Fenella Fielding

Devised by Patrick McGoohan
Executive Producer – Patrick McGoohan
Producer – David Tomblin
Script Editor – George Markstein
Theme Music – Ron Grainer

Everyone who has ever watched The Prisoner has a differing opinion on its themes, concepts and underlying plots, but most agree that there was nothing like it on television at the time and precious little like it since.

After spending four days viewing all 17 episodes of the series, I can understand how it can be interpreted on various levels. Basically the show is entertainment, with wonderful imagery and excellently constructed and witty scripts, but lurking under the surface is a darker theme. Whether you interpret The Village as a prison in which ‘the enemy’ seek to extract information from top agents, or as an analogy for man’s self-imposed imprisonment within the conformity of society, the methods used to try and break Number Six and make him fit in are frightening and at times dramatically Orwellian. At the same time, the stylistic designs and settings have kept the look of the show fresh, unlike some other shows which have become dated over the years.

The basic premise behind the programme is of a top British secret agent who has handed in his resignation without any explanation. Later that day he is kidnapped and transported to The Village, a sinister internment camp at an unknown location. There he is given a number, Six, and a constant stream of interrogators, known only as Number Two, attempt to discover the reasons behind his sudden departure from his job, ‘by hook or by crook.’ The fact there is a different Number Two every week indicates that failure is not tolerated! As Six resists disclosing his precious information and conforming to the social patterns of The Village, he faces the ever-present question of the identity of Number One and which side is in control.

Part of the enigma of the programme is the fact that while Six wonders about Number One, the audience is wondering about the identity of Number Six. Many people, including the show’s script editor George Markstein, are adamant that the character is John Drake and the show is a continuation of Dangerman. However, Patrick McGoohan denies this. Even in the closing moments of the final episodes, as the names of the participating actors appear on the screen, the protagonist is billed simply as Prisoner.

Questions play an important part in the series. Most of Number Six’s dialogue is questions. Then there is the famous opening exchange (’What do you want?’), the omnipresent question of the identities of Number One, Six, and the people who run The Village, the reason for the resignation, the list is endless. However, there are no direct answers. In a way, The Prisoner is an early form of interactive TV. The viewers are left to interpret events and decide on their own perceptions of the outcome. When you look at it in this way, the programme truly becomes a pioneering piece, striking a blow for independent thought by not handing the audience all the answers on a plate.

You may think that a show set in a mysterious, but aesthetically pleasing prison camp has the potential to become stale very rapidly, however, The Prisoner (as a programme) used various methods to ‘escape’ the confines of The Village. Dream sequences, fabricated escapes and even a children’s bedtime story are used in imaginative ways to keep the series ticking over without familiarity setting in.

After my mammoth video session, there are a few episodes that stand out as shining examples of Classic television, at least in my opinion anyway. ‘The Schizoid Man’ is a doppelganger tale with a clever twist. It’s obvious which Number Six is the real one, but because it’s so obvious you become doubtful of your own perceptions. The episode leaves you sure that whoever is running The Village has a devious mind, and more than capable of breaking lesser men than Number Six in an instant. ‘Hammer Into Anvil’ is truly a classic. As an act of revenge Number Six uses every psychological trick he can to make Number Two (played superbly by the late Patrick Cargill) so paranoid that his authority is undermined, and he is pushed over the edge. The role reversal, although an oft used plot device, is here used to great effect, as Number Two slowly degenerates into complete paranoia. ‘Living In Harmony’ takes us away from The Village. Number Six is subjected to a hallucinogenic drug and acts out a Western scenario in which he is a retired sheriff who refused to carry a gun. The best thing about this episode is the opening sequence, a cowboy film style remake of the original resignation scene used since the first episode.

The final two episodes are often quoted as televisual classics. Of the two, the penultimate, ‘Once Upon A Time’, is the one I prefer. The massively ad-libbed dialogue between Six and Two is so fast-paced it’s breathtaking. I watched this episode late one night with only my sister and myself in the room. She was busy working on something else but didn’t mind me watching a video. At the end of a particularly dramatic exchange between the two leads, I suddenly heard my sister exhale. She was so sucked into the scene she had been holding her breath! From then on she stopped what she was doing and finished watching it with me. Imagine our parents’ confusion when their usually squabbling offspring spent the next day re-enacting parts of that particular episode. Even now we occasionally punctuate silences with the odd ‘pop’, which is guaranteed to confound most company.

The series has continued to have an influence on television, mainly due to its memorable imagery. Even now, occasionally a TV show will tip its hat to The Prisoner, or an advert will purloin the familiar themes and visuals to sell anything from cars to insurance. Most television homages are spoofs on the series ( or perhaps that should be ‘humourous tributes’) ranging from a couple of Tube shows including a special titled ‘The Laughing Prisoner’ to popular sit-coms such as Sorry and 2.4 Children. Even other genre shows have got in on the act, most notably Babylon 5. The show’s creator is a big fan of The Prisoner and hoped to persuade Patrick McGoohan to appear in the series before the end of its five-year story arc. Babylon 5 contained various Prisoner references including coded messages on display screens and more noticeably Bester (the dastardly Psi-Cop played by Walter Koenig of Star Trek) and a traitorous security officer’s used of the greeting ‘Be Seeing You’ to indicate hidden conspiracies. Apparently there have also been Prisoner references in The X Files.

Guest Stars – Paul Eddington, Patsy Smart, Peter Bowles, Donald Sinden, Patrick Cargill, Duncan Macrae, Victor Maddern, Annette Andre, Mark Eden, Wanda Ventham, Nigel Stock, Alexis Kanner

Number Twos – Guy Doleman, George Baker, Leo McKern, Colin Gordon, Eric Portman, Anton Rodgers, Georgina Cookson, Mary Morris, Peter Wyngarde, Patrick Cargill, Derren Nesbitt, Andre Van Gysegham, John Sharp, Clifford Evans, David Bauer, Kenneth Griffith.

* The Village is, in fact, a hotel. Portmerion was the vision of the architect Clough Williams-Ellis.
* Portmerion has been used for various music videos including the Supergrass hit – Alright.
* Various TV shows have also used Portmmerion as a location, including Doctor Who, Citizen Smith, Brideshead Revisited, The Tripods, Bread and The Beatles Anthology.
* Two actors have played Number Two more than once – Colin Gordon and Leo McKern
* The birthdate of Number Six is the same as Patrick McGoohan’s – 19th March 1928
* It’s claimed that 5000 weather balloons were used in filming, as Rover, the Village guardian.

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Author: anne-marie

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