THE PRISONER (1967)

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The Prisoner

Probably the most cultist and analysed show in television history. Ex 'Danger Man' star Patrick McGoohan was the British spy who resigned abruptly from his job, only to be kidnapped and transported by persons unknown to 'The Village', where everyone was known by number -and names were never used. It was the task of Number Two (a different actor each week), to discover why McGoohan (Number Six), resigned in the first place, and whilst Number Six remained persistently tight lipped for his reasons -so his interrogators would remain silent when asked the question "Who is Number One?"

The series was seen by many as a direct follow on from McGoohan's previous series in which he played secret agent John Drake, and although McGoohan himself insisted that it wasn't the same character, it has been suggested that this claim may have been made to avoid having to pay a hefty royalty to Danger Man creator Ralph Smart. There has always been dispute over who originally came up with the idea for The Prisoner, both McGoohan and script editor George Markstein laying claim. From the formers point of view, an isolation camp for British Agents who knew too much had figured in the Danger Man episode 'Colony Three', and it was whilst on location for this series that McGoohan discovered Portmeirion in South Wales, which featured as 'The Village'. However, whilst serving with Army Intelligence during the second World War, Markstein had supposedly discovered the existence of a remote Scottish castle which acted very much as an isolation centre for military personnel, whose knowledge of classified material made it impossible to allow them their freedom during such a sensitively dangerous period. (Many years after, Markstein would cite this as his prime inspiration for The Prisoner's core concept).

The Prisoner was a stylish production with the star as executive producer and very much in control of the direction the series took, indeed it was McGoohan himself who penned the final episode, "Fall Out" which promised to give all the answers -but ended up asking more questions. We never actually discovered who Number One was although at the beginning of each show when McGoohan asked the question, 'Who is Number One?' he received the reply, 'You, are Number Six'. Or could it have been "You are, Number Six!"?, for certainly in the final episode Number 6 actually removes a mask from the face of the supposed Number One -only to reveal himself underneath it. This would be a not-unreasonable assumption, given the fact that McGoohan exerted an almost draconian directorial control over every aspect of the series' production, although another possible candidate for the real identity of "Number One" could well have been the legendary Lew Grade (the managing director of ATV), since the show's star was always acutely aware that ultimately, the final fate of the series rested in Grade's near-all-powerful hands.

This of course is a prime example of the ambiguity that has kept fans of the series debating for years hence, even after (many years later) Patrick McGoohan claimed that his intention was for The Prisoner to be an allegory in which the people, places and happenings hide a message, the message here being that we are all prisoners of ourselves. Of course no one would dispute the actors claims, however it should be noted that the series was planned for thirty six episodes but Grade refused to commission any past 17, therefore the ending may have been hastily written. One thing is for certain, "Fall Out" left many viewers at the time feeling confused and frustrated at the outcome. Years later in an interview with the Prisoner Appreciation Society, Six of One, McGoohan admitted that there was "-an outcry, I nearly got lynched and had to go into hiding."

These days The Prisoner has a bigger following around the world than anyone could have imagined when it was first broadcast between 1967 and 1968. From time to time there have been rumours of an intended feature film, but to date nothing has transpired. (Although at the time of writing this original review it had been reported that a scriptwriter and production crew had been appointed, and McGoohan would also be involved in some executive position, six years later the project seems no closer to realisation). All the episodes are available on DVD and almost forty years on from their original broadcast they stand up well to the test of time.

By turns infuriating, complex, oblique and thought provoking, The Prisoner stands, even today, as a perfect example of original and entertaining television story telling, as well as the almost overpowering need of one complexly gifted man to challenge the limits of a too often ephemeral and trivial medium. The Prisoner is highly recommended...be seeing you!

Review: : Stephen R. Hulse and Laurence Marcus 1999.

for Television Heaven