THE PRISONER

“I am not a num­ber, I am a free man!” Robert Fair­clough re­vis­its Pa­trick McGoohan’s time­less rev­o­lu­tion­ary clas­sic

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Contents -

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.

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