“I am not a number, I am a free man!” Robert Fairclough revisits Patrick McGoohan’s timeless revolutionary classic
Paying another visit to the Village where that man got chased by a white balloon.
The cost was £75,000 an episode – £1.2 million in today’s terms
Imagine Peter Capaldi being given millions of pounds to make his own TV series. It’s partly his idea, he’s going to star in it, write some of the episodes, direct several and he’s also the executive producer: artistically, what he says goes. It’s all been decided on a handshake – no contracts – and Capaldi has absolute carte blanche to do what he wants.
Unlikely? In the regimented TV industry of the 21st century most probably, but in 1966 that’s exactly what happened. At that time, one of UK TV’s most popular stars was Patrick McGoohan, a compelling Irish-American performer, with acting credentials as varied as Henrik Ibsen’s gravely philosophical play Brand and the tough movie thriller Hell Drivers (1957). By the mid-’60s McGoohan, along with Roger Moore in The Saint, was the top international export of the Independent Television Company (the international arm of ITV’s London and Midlands network, Associated TeleVision). McGoohan starred as John Drake, the laconic spy hero of ITC’s film series Danger Man, which had made $8.25 million for the company in worldwide sales.
Unsurprisingly, McGoohan had a lot of clout with ITC. When he told his flamboyant boss Lew Grade he wanted to leave Danger Man to diversify into other areas of television, with his own series and production company Everyman Films, the ITC chairman listened. Considering McGoohan’s new idea “so crazy it might just work”, Grade indeed gave his protégé the go-ahead and funding on the strength of a handshake. McGoohan’s concept had been in his head for a long time. “Since maybe about seven years old,” he revealed in the 1983 documentary Six Into One: The Prisoner File. He was fascinated by “The individual against the establishment, the individual against bureaucracy, the individual against so many laws that were all confining.” McGoohan’s social observations were given a structured context by George Markstein, the journalist and writer the actor had employed to help him develop his own projects. With a detailed knowledge of espionage, Markstein knew of a World War II holding facility for spies who were a security risk, Inverlair Lodge in Scotland. This became the basis for the new series and gave the show its title – The Prisoner.
If McGoohan’s creative freedom was a television first for an actor, the series boasted several others. The Prisoner was given a striking visual look by a six-week location shoot in the North Wales coastal village of Portmeirion, an enchanting architectural folly founded by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis in 1925. A colourful, disorientating mixture of buildings that had represented China, Italy, the Middle East and Switzerland was ideal for a stylised open prison that could be anywhere in the world. Add to that the construction of futuristic interior sets at MGM’s film studios in Borehamwood and it’s easy to believe that The Prisoner was the most expensive British television series made in the 1960s. The average cost was £75,000 an episode – over a staggering £1.2 million in today’s terms.
The series’ most significant innovation was its deliberate ambiguity. While enigmatic, surreal dramas like Twin Peaks, Lost and Life On Mars are familiar today, in the 1960s such an approach was usually the preserve of the occasional TV play, avant-garde cinema or literature.
An unnamed ex-spy held among a population of people with numbers instead of names – McGoohan’s character was given the designation Number 6 – pitched against a hi-tech prison state called “the Village” whose controllers remained unknown, had more in common with Franz Kafka and George Orwell’s persecuted antiheroes Josef K and Winston Smith than TV action men; like his literary predecessors, Number 6 often wouldn’t win. The content of the stories was no less challenging. For
The Prisoner’s writers, the blank canvas of the Village was an allegorical playground for different aspects of 1960s’ society. The Cold War between the capitalist West and the communist East, political satire, education, hallucinogenic drugs, popular psychology, consumerism, modern art and pop music – none other than The Beatles – all featured prominently. Together with The Avengers, The Prisoner was also one of the first TV series to be self-aware, with quoted influences as diverse as chess, Westerns and, notably, Shakespeare. “There was room in The Prisoner for drawing on other sources as it wasn’t into profound reality or hard-edged modern realism,” observed Roger Parkes, writer of the episode “A Change Of Mind”. “It was a fantasy, and fantasies do that all the time.”
At a time when computers were almost exclusively in the hands of governments or corporations, new technology was central to the ahead-of-its-time, 24-hour surveillance culture of the Village, reinforcing the sense of paranoia emerging in the 1960s about society being controlled by hidden forces. The concealed cameras, streamlined security control room, bubble-like Rover guardian and experiments in the hospital also reflected the sense of unease in contemporary sci-fi, from Doctor Who’s Cybermen to HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), about the direction in which science was heading.
If there was huge potential in The Prisoner’s format, McGoohan was concerned that stretching it to ITC’s usual package of 26 episodes would exhaust the concept (and him). Originally favouring a seven-part miniseries, he apparently compromised on 17; unfortunately, this increased workload is where problems began. Don Chaffey, the director McGoohan worked with on the initial Portmeirion filming, left after a disagreement. Two others, Roy Rossoti and Robert Lynn, were sacked by McGoohan, while Robert Asher, a third director who was let go, was allowed to keep his credit. McGoohan replaced three of them, adding to the pressure he was under.
There was also tension with Markstein. The script editor was privately aggrieved at his lack of credit on the series he’d co-created, as well as McGoohan’s rejection of two scripts he’d approved. Unhappy with the bizarre direction in which, he felt, McGoohan was steering The Prisoner, Markstein left after the first production block of 13 episodes. “McGoohan became a prisoner of the series and it’s never nice to see that happen to a human being,” he said in 1983. “The combination of ambition, frustration, wanting to be a writer, director, actor… It did something to him that wasn’t very good and it was reflected in the series.”
Markstein was specifically talking about the final story “Fall Out”, which brought The Prisoner to an end in the most extreme episode yet. Writing and directing a psychedelic trial, McGoohan fused fact with fiction: the revelation that the Village controller Number 1 was the insane alter ego of Number 6 and therefore the ultimate gaoler – “Get rid of Number 1 and we are free,” as McGoohan put it – was a clear parallel with his position as the series’ now sole, exhausted creative force. A profound statement for a family TV series to make, “Fall Out” left viewers baffled, angry or both – the ATV switchboard was jammed with complaining phone calls – and a subdued
McGoohan departed for Los Angeles and career as a guest star in movies and TV. Apart from 1973’s musical feature film Catch My Soul (which also had a lukewarm critical reception) he would never have such control over a project again. A year later, Everyman Films’ short career finished in the bankruptcy courts with debts of over £60,000.
Time, however, has proved McGoohan’s instincts right. The Prisoner was also ahead of its time as one of the first British TV series to be made in colour; the ITV networks changed to the colour system at the beginning of the 1970s and when late-night repeats of the series began in the middle of the decade, they led in 1977 to the establishment of one of the UK’s earliest and longest-running TV-based fan organisations, Six of One, which since then has helped keep interest in the series alive. The 1980s saw a boom in
interest in vintage television and, in 1983, The Prisoner was broadcast again by Channel 4. At the same time, the series’ anti-establishment message and striking imagery has been referenced and spoofed by everyone from punk band The Clash to car maker Renault. Crucially, The Prisoner’s most enduring legacy is that its mix of the intellectual – serious themes like freedom, identity and the ethics of science – and the populist – action sequences – is now a staple of modern fantasy TV series like Colony and Orphan Black.
Interest in reviving the series has never really gone away. After years of false starts, a flawed TV resurrection took place in 2009 (see left), and, on the eve of The Prisoner’s 50th anniversary, director Ridley Scott has expressed interest in (another) potential big-screen remake.
But the quality of the original is what keeps people coming back, as is evident from a new series of audio plays set in the ’60s Village. When The Prisoner was first shown, A Clockwork Orange’s writer Anthony Burgess defined the appeal of the series when he observed: “It is Orwellianism transferred to the world of the [TV] commercial in which machines work beautifully, everybody is on a kind of holiday and wears a blazer with a redcoat number… and the interrogators are as jolly as the commercial priests of the washing machine or wrapped cheddar.”
A profound statement for a family TV series, the final episode left viewers baffled and angry
Further information on Patrick McGoohan and The Prisoner can be found at www.theunmutual.co.uk.
Concept art for “A Change Of Mind”.
McGoohan multi-tasking on final episode “Fall Out”.
Concept art for “A, B and C”. McGoohan shoots his two minutes of footage for the “Do Not Forsake Me…” episode.
Never work with children or Rovers… Sunny day in Wales shocker! Location shooting in Portmeirion.