Imagine the pitch that was put before TV executives around 1967, attempting to get this show aired on their networks:
‘So whattaya got?’
‘There’s this spy…right. And he quits the service. But he’s got all this stuff in his head, and that’s a big deal. So he gets sent to this place where they attempt to get him to cough up all his dirty secrets. We’ve got 17 episodes in all.’
‘I see. So it’s 17 episodes consisting of him being tortured?’
‘Well there’s obviously more to it than that. It’s a bit allegorical, a bit dystopian. It’s one man’s struggle against an unsympathetic and overseeing society. But essentially…yes.’
‘And you’ve got 17 episodes of this?’
It’s probably a good thing I never tried my hand at marketing. The 17 episodes did indeed get an airing. And repeat airings. And a cult following. It’s inspired tie-in novels, computer games, comics. You can get it on Blu-ray. There’s a Prisoner Appreciation Society. Rotton Tomatoes scores it at 100%. Hell, they even held ‘No.6’ music and arts festivals at Portmerion, where the series was set, up until 2018.
Wikipedia will tell you all about it, as will numerous other internet sites, so I’m only going to give you my take on the show. If you want more detail it’s all out there if you hit the search button, or maybe even watch the series yourself.
I wasn’t allowed to stay up and watch it when it first came on the tele. I was 7 years old at the time so I can’t be too resentful. I did see the trailers that were on earlier in the evenings though, and they looked very interesting. And very wierd. I eventually did get to see it when it got shown again, around 1976 I think. It was on then around pub closing time. All the good tele then was on at weekends around pub closing time. You’d get edgy 60’s movies like ‘Blow Up’ on the Friday. ‘Bilko’ on Sundays I seem to remember. The Prisoner slotted effortlessly into the Saturday slot. And yes, it didn’t disappoint. It was certainly unlike other TV that was about then. I would never have gone as far as joining an appreciation society or anything like that, but I was probably a bit obsessed, and it was a topic of discussion at school or in the pub (good old 70’s).
And after all this time I thought I’d give it a go again, watching it on my 17 DVD set I bought some years ago. What a saddo…I know. Currently I’m at episode 7 and I’ve no doubt I’ll stick with it to the end. So, without droning on too much, what’s it like after all these years?
First thing I’d say it’s all about ‘location-location-location’. Portmeirion was absolutely the ideal setting. This whimsical, eccentric faux-Italian village in Wales is perfect as a prison disguised as a holiday destination. It would have fitted in beautifully with the 60’s fascination with fantasy stuff like Alice in Wonderland, fantasies that would manifest themselves in movies such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. And the accompanying music in the show is often jazzed-up renditions of nursery rhymes and songs; ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ springs to mind. Once again this chimes with the time it was made. John Lennon and Syd Barratt to name but two, liked to bring childish themes into their songs, and the use of children and playgrounds in a menacing way runs through literature and movies to this day.
It’s ideas and themes were radical for the time it was made. Numbers instead of names. The laughing at the idea of personal freedom. And CCTV was a long way off then. Episode 3, ‘A, B and C’ is effectively ‘Inception’: dream manipulation. OK, Nolan gives a pretty convincing scientific explanation and in The Prisoner it’s more spool tapes and electrodes. But essentially it’s the same thing. And the episodes do get more ‘out there’ as the series develops. My personal favourite was always ‘The Girl who was Death’ – episode 15 – absolutely bat-shit mental, like an even for them over the top episode of The Avengers (60’s show, not the Marvel thing). There’s also the, for the time, mandatory ‘computers are taking over’ episode. Terminator series anyone? Our hero defeats the computer incidentally, causing it to self destruct, by asking it the ultimate unanswerable question. Google ‘The Prisoner. The General’ if you want to know what it was. Not sure what you’ll hate most: the question itself or my utter smartarsedness.
There are some cringeworthy aspects for sure. I cannot believe Patrick McGoohan was once considered for the role of James Bond in Doctor No. If I were being kind I would describe his acting as ‘eccentric’. I suppose it works to some extent given the nature of the show, and it was mainly his idea so it was always going to be him as the lead. When he’s with women though, he comes across as a creepy uncle, and some of his grand statements sound like…well, he comes across as a pompous cock as opposed to a rebel. His body language is great though. He gets the caged tiger effect off to a tee, and does project himself as a serious threat through his posture and manner.
‘Rover’, the big bubble thing that the village deploys to retrieve inmates attempting to escape, carries as much threat as the massive tit in the movie ‘Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask’. And the concluding episode is utter nonsense: intriguing maybe in it’s absurdity, but it answers no questions, offers no suggestions as to who or what was calling the shots, and it’s no way to finish the series.
Like I said, I’m still at episode 7, and maybe I’ll add some more thoughts after I’ve watched a few more. I honestly don’t know what kids watching it now would make of it. They’d laugh out loud at bits I’m sure. I still think it’s relevant as opposed to sitting merely as an eccentric period piece. Things like ‘Britbox’ seem to have been successful so maybe it still has an audience. Maybe there will be a younger set of wierdo’s bidding ‘be seeing you’ to their mates while dodging flying crockery and other blunt objects.