Communications

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The Prisoner (1967) - The series that showed us what TV was capable of.

The Prisoner (1967) - The series that showed us what TV was capable of.

I'm 14 years old and we have driven miles and been in the car pretty-much non-stop for hours. It was summer and we were going on holiday.  The destination?  A little like the character in The Prisoner I'm unable to tell you where it was exactly - but it was a small, unremarkable, town on the west coast of Wales.

My Dad spent, literally, the whole week in bed suffering from some mystery illness that was probably flu - unable to move from the bed and a complete mess.  How he got us there will forever be a mystery and as soon as we arrived he took to the mattress and didn't move again until it was time to go home.

The town was not a holiday destination.  The small apartment we'd rented came with the use of a small speed-boat (sounds fancy, I bet it really really wasn't) which I never even laid eyes on (apparently too young to drive the thing myself and my mother unwilling), and the town had been chosen not for the location itself but how it was within easy striking distance of castles, historic railways and, most importantly, (retrospectively, to me) Portmeirion.

I knew nothing about this peculiar place.  A miniature town built on the North East coast of Wales in and built in the style of a Mediterranean coastal village (argued by many to be based on Portofino).  Built by an eccentric with a ton of money, its construction had started in 1925 and lasted 50 years.

If you've never been aware of such a place even existing and are one day just taken there - after a few days of visiting the usual types of tourist places - the surprise will blow your mind. It will possibly strike you as one of the most insane places you could ever hope to visit. Walking down to the beach, next to the hotel, when the water is out you are faced with a vast flat expanse - for all the world looking like a never-ending desert.  Looking straight out; a range of hills, almost mountain-like, miles in the distance and to the right the sea nowhere to be seen.  The buildings all looking not quite right, out of place, too perfect and often feeling like small versions of what must surely be a real building somewhere else. 

You even get a glimpse of Rover at the end of this clip.

The clocktower at the top of The Village, looking down on everything else; where No.2 lives in the show and the CCTV room are located was, from the outside, pristine.  I stood on my toes and managed to look in through a high window.  The inside looked like it hadn't been touched since filming ended.  In the middle of a wrecked shell of a large hall was a mass of debris.  A white, oval, egg-chair sat among it all.  No.2's chair - though I didn't know what it was at the time.  There was another one inside the No.6 apartment/gift-shop, actually used by the guy selling the merchandise. Outside the shop one of the buggy/cars that feature in the show.  The wheels were each chained and the thing hadn't moved for years and was full of rust.

All this stuff lying around from a world-famous TV show, and it was just being allowed to sit and rot.  No one was trying to make a feature of these things or anything.  It still strikes me as deeply weird.  Maybe things have changed since.

I found myself drawn to this deeply strange place, for some unknown reason. The majority of the village is rented out during summer by the property owners, but there was one odd little building that you could just walk into.  It was in a state of some disrepair and dark and cool, despite it being the height of summer outside.  In the show No.6's apartment is reasonably spacious, but the real entrance and structure, is actually tiny inside.  There were trestle-tables set up here. Boxes full of magazines, booklets, fan-written novels and show guides, badges (pins, for our American readers). 

"I am not a number, I am a free man!"

"I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered!

Another was simply a white badge with the picture of a black silhouette of a penny-farthing bicycle, with the number "6" written on it in red.  

I didn't know what any of this was other than a brief explanation that a TV show had once been made here.  I didn't know what any of this was but I knew I wanted in - I bought a mass of merchandise for a show I'd never seen.  Such a deeply weird place, a fan-club selling merchandise out of the shell of No.6's house, some vague second-hand recall from my mother about a spy show.

Take all my money.

Back then there was no way other than VHS video to watch this show.  When I had a birthday or Christmas rolled around or something, I'd be given the next tape in the series.  It didn't feel like I'd chosen to like this odd television show from years earlier - it felt like it had chosen me, somehow.  As soon as I actually saw my first episode I was, of course, smitten.

Originally broadcast in 1960 and lasting 4 Seasons and 86 episodes - Danger Man (re-titled Secret Agent in the US) had made a huge star out of Patrick MacGoohan.  Originally, the show - initially 30 minute episodes (with adverts) had bombed in America and while much of the funding for the show came from the UK and a company called I.T.C the lack of US investors put a dent in the budget, and it was cancelled.

A few years passed and Danger Man was sold and shown all over world and repeated over and over.  It became a massive hit.

The show came back.  Now an hour-long programme it ran for another 3 Seasons (though the last Season is, technically, only 2 episodes long - and incidentally the only 2 to be filmed in colour).

It's difficult to conceive, now, just how much of a star MacGoohan had become.  He could have done anything - people were throwing money at him. Any film, any television show, any subject. And he chose to do The Prisoner.

MacGoohan was no stranger to Portmeirion - it had appeared in an episode of Danger Man (called "Colony 3") where it played a specially constructed town where soviet spies were schooled in the ways of Western life and culture. The place stuck in his head and niggled, developed into something.  The Prisoner was born.

Exactly who MacGoohan's character is, who he worked for, where The Village is and who and what the other people who also live there have done or who they may be employed by are all mysteries. The iconic opening - acted out silently while the theme tune plays - furnishes us with all the information we're going to get.  MacGoohan drives fast through the streets of London, down into the bowels of a shadowy building.  He storms into the office of some important figure where he goes into a meltdown, raging at the man (whose face we don't see), slams his fists on the desk. He has just resigned from his job, outraged by something unknown, his exact occupation... unknown.  He goes home and starts packing a suitcase - at which point gas begins to pour into the room.  He hits the floor, unconscious.  He awakes to find himself in a deeply strange place.  Seemingly in the Mediterranean going by the climate and look of the place.  No one will answer a straight question and no-one has a name or refers to his.  Instead everyone has been assigned a number, pinned to their lapel, and they call each other only by their numbers. His is Number 6.

And that's the opening of every episode.

Patrick being absorbed by Rover.  Again.

It's a famous line that when India play Pakistan at cricket that you won't find a soul on the streets - everyone is infront of a television somewhere and they won't be moving until the match is done.  The same is said of how things were with The Prisoner and its transmissions in the UK - pubs emptied, streets cleared - it was a huge ratings hit. At first.  

There were only 17 episodes made of The Prisoner, and the reason for this number depends on who you listen to.  There are never any easy answers when it comes to The Prisoner.  According to later interviews MacGoohan saw it as, basically, a short mini-series lasting 6 or 7 episodes. Lew Grade, head of the production company, explained to him that selling a show that was so short to the international market would be next to impossible and so raising the budget would be too difficult.  Grade wanted a much longer season - 20 plus episodes - something he could sell like Danger Man.  Eventually MacGoohan, it's generally accepted, decided that he would be able to produce 17 episodes without spreading the concept out too thinly.  He wrote and directed a number of them under pseudonyms.  It has been claimed that the show was cancelled and that is why there is only one season, and even that the nature of the last episode was a reaction to the cancellation, but there is no proof to support this claim at all.  If you understand the show and what it really is about you also understand that it can only really end in one sort of way. And it got to exactly where it had to go.

Prisoner episodes tend to follow a familiar formula and the general conceit is the same.  We know that MacGoohan, or No.6 as we should perhaps call him, was likely a member of some sort of security service and has knowledge of highly sensitive information.  What made him leave?  Where was he going? And, perhaps, most intriguingly of all - who is it that is running The Village, this place he now finds himself?  Is it his former employers who think they have a defector on their hands, or is it a foreign power trying to pry those secrets out of his head?

Torture, violence and memory manipulation is used but very sparingly, as if those running the place know these things won't work.  Instead, ways of trying to gain his confidence and encourage him to place his trust in someone are often tactics.  He becomes aware of someone who is planning to escape. Does he help them? Or is this him being manipulated - to see where he would go, what things he might say to an accomplice?  Or are the other people wearing numbers in The Village all like him - people who can't be allowed out in the world, because they just know too much.  Or are they a mixture of innocent people and those working for The Man?

It's a fantastic idea.  You can't trust anyone, or their motives, ever.  The whole place is self-policing.  Though it's also heavily monitored - we regularly cut to a control room where operatives study the many hidden cameras and microphones.

The question No.6 would most like have answered is, of course, who is No.1?  Who is it running the place?  Whether we actually ever find out or not is open to debate and your interpretation of the ending.  We regularly meet No.1's sub-ordinates, though; No.2.

No.2 runs the village.  Nearly every episode No.2 is a different character and actor, just given the same suffix (only once is the part played twice by the same actor).  They all have their own ways of trying to manipulate MacGoohan - trying to get inside his head.  Surprisingly, he often knows them from his previous life - they worked for the same organisation as contemporaries or they were more senior to him.  What does this mean?  That they're double-agents, or that they still work for the people No.6 did, and they're being sent in to take a crack at him - work out what makes him tick? It's a mystery.

No.6 confronting a No.2 in his lair.

Not being able to trust anyone is self-policing, as is the constant monitoring, but also the lack of information doesn't help.  MacGoohan can't figure out where he is.  He goes to the shop and asks for a map and is presented with a map of the village and nothing outside of it.  He asks for a bigger map, something he hopes that will extend and give details of a coastline away, or other town names - something.  He is presented with a much much larger version of the same map. It's funny, and positively Chekhovian. 

When MacGoohan gets bored and decides to mount an occasional escape attempt, say by stealing one of the small golf-cart type vehicles that are used for everything around The Village - from delivery trucks to small buses - and he takes off across the sand (more to get a reaction from his captors than in hope of actually getting somewhere) we do see him sometimes pursued by black polo-necked goons - who he delights in beating the hell out of, but the main deterrent for straying too far is Rover.

Run through the forest, build a raft and try to sail off and Rover appears - a gigantic white ball. Sometimes appearing from a cloud of bubbles from under the sea, or coming from out of sight and descending from the air, he envelops his victim - swallows them whole.  And they wake, sometime later, usually in their bed completely unharmed.  Rover was actually a large number of giant weather balloons.  They exploded constantly and were each very expensive.  The crew dreaded having to try and work with them.

Surreal?  Sure.  But while most episodes are played as short action dramas where No.6 pits his wits against whomever No.2 is that week, episodes usually function just as well - if not better - as morality tales, or philosophical conundrums.  Each episode is a game of chess, but the pieces are in different places each time.  How do you react in different situations?  How long can you keep playing the games?  How long until you break and you just accept life in The Village - stop trying to escape, stop listening to people who say they want your help and you accept your lot and just live there?

That was always the point of The Prisoner.  It looked like a futuristic, slightly surreal, James Bond, but it never was.

Much of the audience didn't realise this though.  They thought this was an action thriller and would build to an action-thriller climax, with explosions and fights and an explanation of the conspiracy.  They didn't get any of that. Many people were furious.

It wasn't that the British public weren't agreeable to their mainstream TV shows being somewhat strange - there had, after all, been a rather popular show featuring an alien-humanoid zipping around the cosmos, human side-kick in tow, in an old Police telephone box fighting universe-threatening entities for a few years now (originally conceived as a kid's show to help explain science and maths to them, Dr. Who was just as popular with adults as with smaller people).

No, the problem was that here you were able to ignore the subtext; you could if you wanted, just see it as a conspiracy thriller.  Many people then, and still now, believe The Prisoner to be a sequel to Danger Man (MacGoohan always claimed it wasn't; others attached to the show say different).  The audience had expectations and, for many, they weren't met.

I'm not going to discuss the end of The Prisoner, only to say this - it goes where it needs to go. It ends up at the only place it can.  It arrives at the destination it was always travelling to.

Many people will find most episodes very enjoyable, but the end?  It's not for everyone.

The reach, the influence, of The Prisoner however - despite whatever some of the reaction at the time may have been - is impossible to quantify.

This page here - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Prisoner_in_popular_culture -  represents a mere fraction of what The Prisoner led to and the art and culture that grew from it - a series that wasn't just ahead of its time, but doesn't belong in this one, either.  Or any other.  It is, resolutely, its' own thing - singular, unique and a rare masterpiece.  But it showed creators the possibilities of the medium, and over time attitudes have shifted - people came to see it as something quite extraordinary.  And many of the things you watch on television now which, if you think about it, have some weird out-there concepts, wouldn't exist if it wasn't for what came before them; someone had to go and break down some walls, someone had to change attitudes to what television should and could be - even if it meant they got an absolute kicking for doing it.  

We need our Patrick MacGoohan's.

Be seeing you.

Chris Coates

 

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How have I never heard this? : Wolf Parade - Shine a Light

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Why have I never heard this? : Pavement - Space Ghost Theme 2