Where am I?
Much has been written of The Prisoner over the years. Perhaps even more than comparable cult series, it’s very finite duration has encouraged fans to pore over its every nuance and quirk. I have to admit that, whilst I’d count it among my television favourites, I have tended to resist over-analysing the series or any impulses to weave together its disparate threads into a text providing clarity and definition. I don’t much care whether Number Six is really John Drake, why he resigned (it’s pretty much the series’ MacGuffin; unimportant except in that it drives the plot) or who is running the Village (although, the question of the identity of Number One is ultimately the kernel of McGoohan’s vision). I like to think my affinity for the series is more akin to Patrick McGoohan’s elusive repose when quizzed on his brainchild. I have revisited it on numerous occasions but have always seen it as a show best left to resonate unchaperoned within the mind, rather than one to obsessively break down into intellectualised compartments.
And since, in plotting, the series breaks down to variations on one theme (Six’s resistance and attempts to escape), it seems to me that its attraction is at least partly an instinctive one; Number Six’s struggle is both iconic (in the originality of its presentation) and mythic (the individual standing firm against the forces massing against him). As such, it becomes more natural to embrace the series for its existential ruminations and the rhythms of its surreal stylistic flourishes than to seek a grounded explanation for it all; attempting to break down the rich symbolism will make the series no more rewarding because, ultimately, it is an “experience”.
That may sound slightly superficial, and I’m not suggesting that exploring the themes and ideas, intentions and meanings, of any work of art (I use that word as a catch-all for any creative endeavour across media) may not be a very satisfying or fulfilling one. Anything we identify with is ripe for further investigation. But, in the same way as when you first see (say) 2001: A Space Odyssey, the undistilled experience is a primal one. You can spend years analysing the meanings Kubrick (consciously, and this may be a distinction between his approach and that of McGoohan) imbued in every frame of his films but, likely as not you, will never be 100 percent certain of the conclusions you reach (and quite possibly you will become lost within the exponential warrens of ideas that are struck open). And more than likely your first encounter with one of his films will be the most profound one.
The Prisoner continues to be provocative because it achieves a rare alchemy of ideas and images; McGoohan had carte blanche, and with it he dared to be different. You can fall flat on you arse when you are unrestricted or, rarely, you can produce something that will endure. At any other point, it’s unlikely that events would have conspired to produce the series (even though McGoohan cites its themes as longstanding preoccupations); a combination of post-Danger Man ennui and the invigoration of the growing counter-culture mood. The series’ resistance to easy answers and satisfactory resolutions feeds directly into our relationship with ourselves and our place in society (and, thence, the universe). So our impulse to see it as a direct reflection (as if it was made just for you or just for me!) our own personal predilections or fanciful notions about the world is encouraged. In the world of Number Six, it seems that the more we look for answers (or blame) without, the more we end up coming full circle to ourselves. But even that is debatable subtext; certainly, what keeps me coming back to The Prisoner is that it is so forcefully and confidently enigmatic.
Six: Be seeing you.
It is philosophically rich, of course. McGoohan had big ideas and topics to explore. Other series since have proved inscrutable to a greater or lesser extent, but they haven’t come from a clear motivation in that respect. David Lynch’s Twin Peaks is replete with the director’s heightened sensibility, but it is as resistant to breaking down as anything the director has done; fundamentally so, if you start asking questions like, “What is the director trying to say with this?” Lost set up its stall around big spiritual and metaphysical ideas, seemingly viewing life as one great synchronicitous mystery, but became so caught up in waving the carrot of withheld answers, just out of reach, that it floundered and collapsed in on itself in the final furlong. If they’d been wise, Damon Lindelof et al would have recognised that, even if you think you have a clear vision (and the final season very much suggested that they did not), you should resist spelling it out for your audience lest it loses its lustre. Both Fall Out and 2001: A Space Odyssey (both 1968) endure because they let the audience reach their own conclusions, staging their revelations through images rather than words. For all its early promise, Lost fell quite spectacularly in its later reveals, snagged on prosaic and mundane imagery and revelations that elicited shrugs from unconvinced viewers.
But (almost) enough of Lost (for now, anyway). Except to say that both series shared the bait of final revelation when they were first shown, and both met with howls of protest when they failed to deliver. The press pack for the series claimed, “The secrets are revealed as the series progresses”, which may have been sheer optimism on ATV’s part rather than a deliberate attempt to mislead. Robert Fairclough comments (in The Prisoner – the official companion to the classic TV series) that “There is no little irony in the fact that The Prisoner’s perceived faults became its major selling points and ensured it longevity over the years”. One cannot see such a fate befalling Lost. Even Twin Peaks, by ending on a cliffhanger, has ensured that its appeal is as much bound up in whether a revival could happen, and what did happen to Dale Cooper in the Black Lodge, as to its broader Lynchian idiosyncrasies. The Prisoner very definitely ended, but it refused to provide closure.
Two: I suppose you’re wondering what you’re doing here?
Six: It had crossed my mind. What’s it all about?
Two: It’s a question of your resignation. The information in your head is priceless. I don’t think you realise what a valuable property you’ve become.
David Tomblin was one of the credited writers of Arrival. In contrast to some of McGoohan’s colleagues on the show, he appeared understand the thrust of the concept and why Fall Out was the inevitable conclusion (“If you sit down and look at it and think about it, it’s about a man destroying himself through ego”). That’s not to say it was where he would have gone, since his preferences were for action/adventure, but unlike George Markstein he did not find himself in conflict with the show’s creator. It’s certainly the case that the series’ reputation works backwards from how it ends; would its heightened milieu have appealed to successive generations without it?
Six: You won’t hold me.
Whilst rarely as self-consciously arch as The Avengers, The Prisoner shares that series’ attitude towards bold and distinctive flair and style; the later series of The Avengers were shot on film, and few other British TV series share their awareness of the medium. Arguably, The Prisoner is more experimental but neither have much interest in presenting realism. The Avengers’ attitude is playful and camp, its surface elements so foregrounded that its shallowness becomes what would now be seen as postmodern commentary, be it in familiar plotting, dialogue, fashion, etiquette or Britishness itself.
The Prisoner draws on elements of this; for example, the spy thriller structure. But McGoohan’s motivation is to insert subtext rather than the thing itself. The Avengers’ surreality rarely has resonance, but The Prisoner is keen to confront our modes of perception and so creates a world where everything is recognisable but unnervingly off-kilter. Except in its Marvel comics namesake, The Avengers has been relegated to a benign ’60s curiosity. Even without Fall Out, The Prisoner would be seen as edgier and more inquiring than the adventures of John Steed and his female accomplice. But, if it had featured a less obscure ending, or had just stopped dead, it would surely not elicit quite the same levels of interest. McGoohan expressed delight that the finale had stirred people up: “As long as people feel something, that’s the great thing. It’s when they’re walking around and not thinking and feeling, that’s where all the dangerous stuff is”.
Two: A lot of people are curious about what lies behind your resignation. They want to know why you suddenly left.
Arrival was written by Tomblin and Markstein. The latter was the series’ script editor until he fell out with McGoohan over the direction of the series. Markstein appears as grounded and tangible, McGoohan flightier and more experimental. One was making a slightly satirical spy series, the other was only interested in those elements as trappings to explore much weightier themes. Additionally, McGoohan saw his concept as a very limited, self-contained one. He had only seven episodes in mind; it was Lew Grade (owner of ITC, which made the series and previously produced McGoohan’s claim to fame Danger Man) who persuaded him to commit to something more substantial. McGoohan has stated that he embellished the political elements in the pilot; as production continued he and Markstein would move in opposite directions.
Markstein now comes across as the somewhat aggrieved party in respect of the series, his (dubious at best) claim to being the true creator of the show buried under the force of personality and ideas that McGoohan brought to it. But even if one credits his claims, would it have endured if it had gone Markstein’s way? Purportedly, he proffered the concept for a series centred on a “holiday camp” where spies who represented security risks were sent, based on his research of an actual location in Scotland. Yet this idea appears nascently in the earlier Danger Man. and his vision was free from the more fantastical and abstract elements that make The Prisoner what it is. McGoohan’s ideas.
Markstein thought the finale was “nonsense” and had left the series by that point. This took place at the end of the first production block, which had included Once Upon A Time, and episode he considered especially symptomatic of how the series had blundered headlong down the wrong path. Only four episodes were made in the second block; if Grade had original envisioned as two lots of thirteen episodes, it seems clear that McGoohan wanted to draw a line under it (suggestions that the actor had become entangle in a runaway horse that needed to be reined in seem all together exaggerated).
McGoohan was keen not just to scratch the itch of a long-term interest in the role of the individual in society and its structures (be those structures the establishment, bureaucracy, laws or the church) but broach more metaphysical ideas (the next step on from identifying oneself, one’s ego, as the real impediment to freedom is to ask where God lies in all this). There is, perhaps, a conflict between the broad thrust the show takes and what it ultimately reveals as its focus; where does the critique of conformity lie if the flaws of society are just window dressing to the dilemma of existence. If self gets out of the way, does it cease resisting the status quo? Actually, there’s no paradox here that isn’t present in its simulacrum of the real world; such themes must to co-exist because few of us can “get out of the way of ourselves” while functioning in an ordered society.
Markstein reduces the meaning to simple allegory; the Village represented the welfare state, of which he nursed deep suspicions. So the Village is a nannying structure providing everything for free to its obedient population. He might not have resisted broader societal themes that McGoohan obsessed over, but he had no truck with the hallucinatory existential dilemma that is its culmination. But most things were straightforward in his mind; Number Six was most definitely John Drake, and the “truth” regarding the Village is disappointingly mundane (it was Drake who originally came up with the idea).
Quite possibly it’s true that McGoohan was not always an easy guy to work with, and that on The Prisoner he became progressively more domineering as production progressed. In the end, my sympathies lie with him because his impulses are expansive and daring; he was willing to break moulds that his script editor saw as rigid (be they narrative, stylistic or philosophical).
McGoohan interest in the burgeoning youth movement also saw him embrace and discuss many of the artistic and aesthetic developments that occurred during the era; this is personified by Alexis Kanner’s Number 48 in Fall Out, and the ironic use of The Beatles’ All You Need is Love further targets it. The visual inventiveness of the series stands out in a way that little television does, a sign of the influence of films on McGoohan (ITC’s shows were all glossy productions, shot on 35mm, and frequently utilised film directors, but until The Prisoner formal experimentation was a rarity).
But McGoohan’s rebellious impulses could not be mistaken for an unreserved embrace of ‘60s counter-culture. He shared their suspicion of authority and social-awareness but The Prisoner reflects a very cerebral, rather than sensual, quest for liberation. The actor’s Catholic upbringing may have fed directly into his views of morality, although they do not appear to have extended to a veneration of religion or the church (possibly, he just considered monogamy of a deep and abiding value that happened to tie in with his upbringing). Not only was Free Love not for him, he actively discouraged romantic trysts in his screen roles.
Number Six’s curtness, and at times dismissiveness or borderline cruelty towards female characters in the series, works to the advantage of a character so obsessed with his own agenda that there is no room for anyone else. Apparently, Number Six’s diffidence wasn’t for want of trying on the part of writers (the actor reportedly turned down Bondout of distaste over the – heroic – character’s predilection for violence and debauchery). McGoohan shared a religious background with Mel Gibson, once mooted for Number Six in a film version of the series (praised by no less than McGoohan, who was cast in the actor’s Braveheart). And, if he also once shared Gibson’s love for boozing, he clearly did not fall prey to struggle with personal demons that has afflicted the latter.
We want information.
Number Six awakes in the Village. He meets Number Two, who sets out the agenda; they wish to know why he resigned. Number Six attempts to escape, aided by Number Nine, but this is a ruse. The helicopter inn which Six has taken flight is brought back to the Village.
So how do you like it?
As an introduction to the series, Arrival pretty much tells you everything you need to know. It also sets out the rough template for how the majority of episodes will be structured; Number Six is in opposition to Number Two (who is replaceable). Each installment is driven by the incumbent Number Two’s attempts to extract the reason for Six’s resignation. Six attempts to escape, and sometimes it looks as if he might succeed. He forges alliances with other residents of the Village, none of whom he completely trusts and some of whom may be working for the powers that be. Occasionally, he meets someone he knew on the outside.
Six: I will not make any deals with you. I’ve resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own.
Two: Is it?
The rhythms of the episode come from the back and forth between Two and Six, one antagonising the other (although, occasionally, these roles are reversed). Those rhythms are further emphasised across all aspects of production. Actors hold theatrical poses, sometimes becoming tableaus, the editing of shots and music shifts from the jaunty and lyrical (Six’s perambulations) to punchy and dramatic (the handheld taxi ride, crash zooms on tannoy announcements, pauses as a band marches by, surreal shots of treatments, beach fisticuffs that will stand as action scenes on more than one occasion, the ghostly wobblings of Rover before pouncing on its victim to a shrieking aural accompaniment). Dialogue is at times almost Pinteresque in its subtext, saying one thing but meaning another, replete with corresponding pauses. Characters speak in staccato sentences, Six’s curt cadences especially so. Naturalistic delivery is abandoned in favour of dramatic, and at times unusual, emphasis (to a degree, you feel that the form of the series is following its star’s natural idiosyncrasies).
Two: So how do you like it?
Two: It can grow on you.
As such, interaction is not hewn in the usual manner of a series; what Six leaves unsaid is often most important, and abstraction of motive and meaning lead the way. McGoohan and his cast and crew consistently emphasise this. If Six is raging, Two will be calm and silky. If one of the inmates is eager or hysterical, Six will be clipped and distant. Characters will talk around subjects rather than face them, implying threats beneath a veneer of good manners. The contrasts hit a groove whereby the form and manner of many of the episodes is instantly recognisable, which lends itself to individual preferences as to the running order. The musicality of the production resonates with a kind of inner tension that can be found, differently conveyed, in the comedic works of Wodehouse or Waugh; once the beats become familiar, the pleasure is in the nuances of the form.
The narrative of the series is established in a manner not dissimilar to the likes of The Invaders or The Fugitive; the first episode presents a mission statement for the character, a goal they need to reach. There is the suggestion of a serial format, but the reality is that each week they find themselves in a holding pattern. The greater “arc” only moves forward again for Six as a character with the penultimate episode, Once Upon A Time. In that sense, it’s not so dissimilar to the attitude taken by ’90s series such as The X-Files, where character and progression of the alien invasion plotline are on pause outside of season openers, finales and mid-season two-parters. Everything else in between is (just about) business-as-usual.
Two: A lot of people are curious about your resignation. They want to know why you left.
Don Chaffey calls the shots on the episode that sets the tone for the series. It was his first of four Prisoners, and as an ITC veteran he was well familiar with the strictures of TV production. He was working in films more frequently at that time, but not as prolifically (Jason and the Argonauts, One Million Years B.C. and Pete’s Dragon are probably his best-known big screen credits). Following The Prisoner he served stints on The Avengers and The Persuaders but spent most of his last working decade on forgettable ‘80s US series (including Charlie’s Angels, T.J. Hooker and Matt Houston).
The title sequence is iconic in so many ways, a superlative micro-narrative that wordlessly informs us of Six’s resignation and kidnapping, accompanied by Ron Grainer’s driving score (a previous, slower version exists, and two composers’ offerings were rejected before the final choice). The pacing of the theme perfectly fits the visuals ticking along for the “exposition” before reasserting itself for the dramatic incidents.
I have to admit that I rate Albert Elms’ incidental music even more highly, however. If Grainer’s score, great as it is, could be translated to any number of other series of the period with little comment, it’s difficult to imagine Elms’ frequently quirky, playful accompaniments in another show.
Indeed, Elms encourages a sense that Six has awoken within an outward benign but, beneath it all, insidious fairy tale landscape. Portmeirion represents something of a child’s eye evocation of an adult world, the Italian style affirming only the attractive elements of village architecture. When Six stumbles into it, freshly arrived in Oz, or Wonderland, he is soon accompanied by Elms version of the nursery rhyme “Pop goes the Weasel” (the end credits were initially intended to climax with the word “POP” against a background of the Earth). Later, we hear “What Do you Do with a Drunken Sailor?”; familiar childhood themes are reinvented to disquieting effect. Initially the Village appears deserted but soon the inhabitants are revealed. They all dress alike, wearing bold but warm, deliberate colours or “uniforms”. Everything is prettified conformity. There is a veneer of unquestioning friendliness that conveys sinister undertones. All is familiar, yet at once heightened and distorted.
Electrician: In an emergency, we walk.
The contrast between the luxuriant, rural exteriors and the futuristic, automated interiors is both striking and incongruous. It is testament to the choice of Portmeirion that this seems unsurprising; the location sets the skewed scene perfectly. And that emphasis on contrasts is everywhere; the public-school blazer and scarf attire of the Number Twos and the anachronistic penny-farthings against the Bond/Dr. Strangelove-esque design of Number Two’s control room. The groupthink instructions to Villagers range from the curiously oppositional (“Walk on the grass”) to the overtly Orwellian (“Questions are a burden to others, answers a prison for oneself”).
Number Six: What was that?
Number Two: That would be telling.
So Markstein is on a back foot from the off, really, if he seriously thinks “his version” had a chance. This is announced as a weird, dislocated environment from the outset. Would John Drake (whose photo appears in the title sequence), thrown into this world, not verbalise the fantastical sight of all the Villagers stopping dead in their tracks (not just stopping, freezing in time) as Number Two instructs, “Wait”? When the Rover then proceeds to burble through them, Number Six acknowledges the strangeness of the guard, but he is mostly implacable in the face of the odd. (McGoohan designed a more down-to-earth, mechanical guard that proved unusable).
Since abnormal elements permeate the episode, its presence could not be labelled a game-changer, but it is iconic enough in sound and image to become the first port of call in summarising the show’s most oddball qualities. The imagery of it apprehending its prey, faces distorted as if in a mould, is nightmarish. Markstein can only have baulked when he first saw the footage.
Two: I think we have a challenge.
These other elements range from the mundane (the proliferation of lava lamps, as if they represent some sort of primeval, kinetic power source at work), to the peculiar (the Aptitude Test, where Six puts a round peg in a square hole as the Labour Exchange Manager tinkers with a mobile), to the bizarre (the seemingly twin/cloned gardener/electrician) to the utterly impenetrable (the Group Therapy sessions, where straightjacketed patients are replaced by a bald man dressed in Six’s former garb; his laughter is deranged as he appears to be floating an egg-like object (baby Rover?) in the air in front of him – even if dressing in Six’s clothes is a ploy, everything else about the sequence gleefully defies explanation).
Tannoy: Good morning, all. It’s another beautiful day.
But, if those elements veer from obvious satire, there are undercurrents of such commentary to be found in most scenes. So much of the show takes almost effortless pot shots at Englishness as to render picking out instances virtually redundant. The obsession with weather is repeatedly picked up on, and the attitude that places the Village at the centre of the world (“We only have local maps, sir”) conveys both the little Englander mindset and the Kafkaesque nightmare Six finds himself trapped in (“Welcome to your home from home”, a pad in his residence completes for him how he should react; “Arrived today. Made to feel very welcome”).
Telephone Voice: Are you Number Six?
Curiously, it is Six who confirms his numerical status initially. Admittedly, he’s responding to the identification on his ringing telephone but it’s an irony given his vehement denial of such coding. McGoohan is inscrutable, be it angry, amused or just plain stoical. He is a mind unto himself, often silent and implacable, but he the actor’s face compellingly conveys an alert and vibrant intelligence. Six carries an air of moral rectitude and purposeful resolve. It is his certainty that propels the series, and its antagonists, towards the revelation that this aspect is what it’s all about.
McGoohan also has an amazing awareness of the iconography of pose. Lew Grade thought he moved like a panther, but it’s the shots of him standing, legs slightly apart, head-to-toe in black, that announce Six as a mythic presence.
Two: A man like you is worth a great deal on the open market.
The opening discussion with Two defines Six as a commodity. As per the mood of the age, he has “dropped out”. But he is not permitted to exist outside of the dictates of a (in this case) capitalist ideology. He must conform to that system either by surrendering what is of value (“Information”) or yielding and reintegrating.
Six: I don’t know who you are, and who you work for. And I don’t care. I’m leaving.
Six’s lack of curiosity is at variance with that of the viewer (at least, during the show’s initial run, and first encounter with the series). The preservation of his concept of freedom is all that is important, but at every turn this is revealed to be unfeasible dream. His every action appears scrutinised and recorded (“One or two eggs with your bacon?”, the plate revealing they knew already), from child to adult (on the pages of a book shown on the Control Room’s giant screens); the accepted model of the surveillance society.
This element of control is played with throughout the show, the reveal commonly used to show us that, despite his alertness, the hero has been deceived. And the chess motif is established at the outset of the series (both Nine and Six play the Admiral, who cheerfully tells the former, “We’re all pawns, my dear. Your move.”); Six sees his predicament as a game of strategy from which he should surely emerge victorious (because there have to be rules in any game).
Six: Has anyone ever escaped?
As the episode progresses and the “week’s plot” is introduced, we see Six’s acid wit surfacing (“What are they here for? St Vitus’ Dance?” he asks on sighting a troop of elderly residents) and his abrupt, enraged manner (“Get out!” he yells at the maid, interrupting the pastoral muzak pumped into his quarters). As mentioned, Six’s attitudes towards women are very anti-heroic, and mark him out from the traditional, debonair ladies’ man of (say) Simon Templar in ITC’s other big hit The Saint. He is untempered by emotional appeals (“Your services will not be required tomorrow”) and you can almost see the gears whirring that position any female as an Eve-in-waiting. Anyone of the fairer sex will inevitably lead him into trouble or worse. Any action that approximates the knight in shining armour is based upon moral evaluation rather than empathy or feeling. But this is part of his appeal; his aloofness and status as a man apart from other men raises his status (Mr. Spock across the Pond in Star Trek also attains a position of being an island, and a concordant worship for the insights he perceives from such a lofty place).
In Arrival, the “temptress” is Virginia Maskell’s Number Nine. She’s shown to be working for Number Two, so Six’s suspicions are proved correct. Although, in this case, the woman is the (weak?) reluctant collaborator. It is Cobb (Paul Eddington), whom Six recognises in hospital and so trusts as an old friend and colleague, who is revealed as the true deceiver. His death is faked to ensnare Six in a rather rudimentary plot designed, it seems, to make clear how pointless it is to attempt escape. Cobb’s parting remark to Two (“Mustn’t keep my new masters waiting”) suggests the kind of intrigue and revelations in store that Markstein would no doubt have favoured. As it is, the rhyme and reason of the Village remains undefined.
Nine: Can you… fly a helicopter?
The plotline of Cobb and Nine isn’t all that engaging in retrospect; it’s a functional scene setter, introducing us to the template and designed to confirm to that Six needs to keep his guard up at all times. The bars slamming shut on Six’s face as the end titles begin serve to punctuate this.
Two: For official purposes. Everyone has a number. Yours is Number Six.
Six: I am not a number, I am a person!
Two: Six of one, half a dozen of another.
While the switch in Number Twos is useful in establishing the revolving door aspect for the show, it’s a shame that the establishment charm of Guy Doleman is replaced by the more functional presence of George Baker. Doleman was appearing as Colonel Ross in the Harry Palmer series around this time, and his presence brings echoes of Ross’ disapproval of Palmer’s working-class insolence (again, the conflict between youthful spirit and conformity). Baker’s a dependable screen presence but never very vital (he played the dogged Inspector Wexford in Ruth Rendell Mysteries); notably he dubbed George Hamilton for the sequence where Bond impersonates Hilary Bray in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Paul Eddington (of Yes, Minister/Prime Minister and The Good Life) plays Cobb and Christopher Benjamin (his legendary legerdemain best witnessed in Doctor Who’s The Talons of Weng-Chiang) has an amusing scene as the Labour Exchange Manager. But there’s little chance for anyone, aside from Doleman, to make much impression. This is wall-to-wall McGoohan’s show, and his performance is transfixing.
Nigh on perfect as an introduction, Arrival only perhaps diminishes through over-familiarity with the template it sets out. It’s astonishing how fully formed McGoohan’s vision is. The lie is that the series suddenly careered into madness towards the end; the weirdness is all present and correct from the outset.