How did this show ever get made?

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Television -

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

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