How did this show ever get made?
The mysterious ‘Village’, an evil balloon. As ‘The Prisoner’ turns 50, Matthew Sweet revisits one of TV’s strangest series
It’s a Friday night in September 1967. You’ve switched on ITV. What do you see? A sullen sky. A broad horizon. A road to nowhere. A wasp-coloured Lotus 7 roars towards the camera, past the landmarks of Whitehall and into an underground car park. The driver, a handsome fury in a charcoal-grey turtleneck and blazer, storms through a door marked “WAY OUT” and into the office of a superior, where he bellows and rants and disturbs the tea-things with his fist.
You’ve probably seen him before. It’s Patrick McGoohan. The actor who plays Danger Man, the small-screen James Bond who never shoots anyone, never kisses anyone, and whose glamorous locations are all on stock footage.
His new series, though, looks different. With thrilling briskness, the title sequence tells a story that would keep some rival productions occupied for weeks. The angry hero is tailed home by a hearse. Knockout gas surges through the keyhole of his living-room door. A robot arm in a hi-tech archive files his photograph in a cabinet marked “RESIGNED”. And then comes the Wizard of Oz moment. A bleary-eyed recovery, many miles from home, in one of television’s most memorably sinister environments. A coastal settlement of winding lanes and well-kept floral borders, where the inhabitants are known only by their designated numbers, and order is kept by a sentient weather balloon called Rover. The Village. A place of murderous quaintness. A British gulag.
Fifty years ago, The Prisoner began serving time. McGoohan – its star, executive producer, and sometime writer-director, a hard-drinking, intransigent Irish-American actor with a sharp Olivier-like edge to his voice – became Number Six, a former secret agent who knew too much to be permitted his freedom. For 17 weeks, he struggled against the mysterious authorities of the Village, personified by Number Two – not an individual, but an office occupied by a shifting cast of guest stars. (Leo McKern, Mary Morris and Peter Wyngarde were memorable incumbents.) He resisted their mind-bending tricks and interrogation techniques, attempted to escape by land, sea and air, and strove to solve the defining mystery of the series – who is Number One?
When the final episode, “Fall Out”, was broadcast in February 1968, that question was answered – with a scene that turned the series inside out, and still feels like a secret that shouldn’t be spoiled. Five decades later, The Prisoner is still detaining audiences in its cryptic, dreamlike world. Even the lifeless 2009 remake has not prevented new viewers from discovering the original on DVD and download, and pondering its mysteries. Few television programmes have offered such searingly bold imagery – human beings reduced to chess pieces; Rover’s smooth plastic skin smothering a rebellious mouth; Number Two, wrapped in a college scarf, and perched in an egg chair under a green dome – and left so much space for the viewer to theorise about the significance of what they’ve seen. To me, Number Six seems related to the dreamers and Angry Young Men who energised the previous decade of British culture: not so young now, but with a chill determination to break through to the truth, no
‘The Prisoner’ was about trying to escape the strictures of English life
Lifeless remake: James Caviezel and Ian McKellen in the 2009 version