We want information.
Yes I know, I know, but please bear with me, as I have to confess I came late to the TV series The Prisoner. I kept hearing about from mates of mine, but I never really connected with it for some reason. Dodgy bootleg VHS copies were doing the rounds and people whose opinion I trusted were raving about it, but I was unmoved. It all looked and sounded, well, a bit silly.
In fact at the time, I even corrupted the shows famous line of ‘I am not a number, I am a free man’ to ‘I am not a plumber, I am a freemason’.
Yeh I know sacrilege, I can only apologise.
Then, well it all changed, owing to the re-runs of the episodes on Channel Four in the early 90s and I found myself slowly drawn in. I loved the opening titles, the car – a Lotus 5 KAR 12OC – the legendary theme music by Ron Grainer, the penny-farthing artwork and the cut of the jib of the lead actor Patrick McGoohan, you know the very stylish blazer with white edging. So, bit-by-bit, I found I was looking forward to each week’s episode more and more.
McGoohan was the UK’s highest paid TV actor at the time of making the programmes, and fresh from the success of the TV series ‘Danger Man’. Head of independent Television Lew Grade then backed him all the way with the idea of ‘The Prisoner’ commissioning it through his company ITC Films.
As to what it was really about, well tough call that, but here’s a Mumper’s guide to get you going.
It was first aired on Fridays in the UK in September 1967 and McGoohan, an intense, driven actor and individual, not only starred in it but also co-created, wrote and directed many of the 17 episodes. In them, he played a secret agent, the name never disclosed, who suddenly resigns. As a result, he is kidnapped and held in a picture postcard perfect looking coastal village, the location of which is later revealed as the Italianate style Portmerion in Gwynedd, North Wales, designed and built by Sir Clough Williams Ellis circa 1925.
Here all sorts of strange and I mean very strange, goings-on are commonplace. Looking back now, with a more informed head on, it had elements of the Cold War combined with surrealist fantasies, mixed with a strong feel of the pervading counterculture of the times in which it was made.
McGoohan is given the title of Number 6. He is surrounded by hundreds of other people, all seemingly going about their everyday jolly lives, though they too have no names, only numbers. He soon realises he can’t trust anyone there.
Anyone trying to break free of the village was soon set upon by a giant bouncing white balloon, known as Rover. Our man Number 6 – ‘I am not a number, I am a free man’ – is viewed as uncooperative and is therefore closely monitored by the chief administrator Number 2, reporting back to Number 1. McGoohan is desperate to find the identity of Number 1. Different actors played the character of Number 2. This begged the question, was that to confuse Number 6, you the viewer or because the previous incumbent had been disposed of for not getting the relevant info. required?
‘I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered…’
Ok? Still with me? Of course you are. Good, then I shall proceed…
Those in power want information. Like, why had he resigned? They then use a variety of ways to try extracting it from McGoohan, drugging him, messing with his mind etc., but he won’t break.
Slowly (well, it was slowly for me) you work out this is very much a battle of the individual to stay just that, in among a crowd mentality. Rumour has it that elements of the programme were out of control during the making of it, and if true, the ensuing confusion is part of the charm. Certainly, McGoohan took no prisoners, all puns intended, in making it.
The final episode ‘Fall Out’ was aired in Feb 68, with Number 6 apparently finally escaping back to London. The sight of McGoohan and the butler played by Angelo Muscat, running for the 59 bus still makes me laugh to this day. The reaction to the ending – why, how, what? – was so strong by those caught up in the programme at the time, that it is said, McGoohan had to go into hiding for a while to avoid constantly being asked ‘what it all meant?’
After an initial 13 episodes, a second series was intended, but instead, the run was extended to the final 17 programmes.
In a way, that is how it should be. Over 50 years later, it is fair to say The Prisoner and the story behind the making of it is still being debated and analysed. No wonder then, I was confused the first time/saw it.
Years later, I now know it to be clever, inventive, droll and very inspiring. Sure, elements of it still leave me scratching my head, but they are so beautifully presented, that that makes it a massive part of its attraction.
Patrick McGoohan said in 1977 – ‘your village may be different from other people’s villages, but we are all prisoners.’
Amen Patrick, amen.
The Mumper of SE5