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The Prisoner Review

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by AVForums Oct 12, 2009 at 12:00 AM

    The sixties were a wonderful time for television, I remember those days fondly from a very early age watching the likes of Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, Fireball-XL5 and re-runs of Super-Car. For those a generation above me though they had the likes of The Avengers, Danger Man, and The Prisoner. The fashion was for James Bond, with The Fugitive and Man in a Suitcase coming up the inside on television. It can be argued however that although Bond is a British agent his techniques were rather American in nature... all gung-ho and brash. Eventually the a-typical British agent came to our screens as Patrick McNee as The Avenger's John Steed.



    Prior to that though Patrick McGoohan was a particular fly in the ointment for television studios. He rejected the role of Bond and Simon Templar because it didn't quite fit into his own particular philosophies or life-style. McGoohan was against rapid progress, thinking that man's ability to control his own destiny was quickly being taken away from him. He wanted a secret agent to use his head before his fists or a gun, and thought that both Bond and Simon Templar had it too easy with the latest and greatest of gadgets. To these ends he was signed up to play John Drake in Danger Man. Written into his contract was no guns unless absolutely necessary, no love scenes and a limited amount of kissing. You have to understand that on the back of Bond this went against everything the television studios wanted. Ultimately though it worked, and worked so well that when McGoohan went to Lew Grade a few years later to tell him he was not continuing to play Drake, Grade pleaded with him to either stay or come up with a new idea.



    That new idea was The Prisoner and along with George Markstein and David Tomblin, McGoohan penned seven 50 minute episodes where a British secret agent suddenly resigns only to find he is drugged, abducted and incarcerated in a prison with no walls. His captors wish only one thing from him, to find out why he resigned. McGoohan's character, known only as Number 6 (and credited as The Prisoner in the final episode), does not know who kidnapped him, nor does he feel he needs to justify any personal choices he makes for his own life. He refuses his gaoler's requests, the unknown organisation fronted by an invisible Number 1 whose spokesman, Number 2, voices all concerns. A battle of wits ensue: Number 2 trying to break Number 6's will and Number 6 forever trying to break the system... never to conform, and certainly never to submit those personal freedoms which he holds to be far too dear to trade. Those seven episodes though were not enough; Lew Grade loved the idea, saw it as a continuation of the bankable Danger Man product but knew that he would have difficulty in selling just seven episodes elsewhere, and to where it really mattered... the United States. He wanted 26 episodes from McGoohan, the perfect number for any serial in the States as it fits into the schedule like dove tails in wood.



    First things last, let's get the episode order (as presented in this gorgeous locked Region B Blu-ray set, with the extras on Region 2 DVD) out of the way first; and I say presented because over time there have been certain discussions as to the correct running order of the series.




    1. Arrival.

      Someone who we subconsciously know as a spy resigns from his job. On returning to his home he is drugged to awake in 'The Village', a small self contained community. People are no longer individuals and are referred to by their number. Escape and understanding is the only thing on our incarcerated protagonist's mind.

    2. The Chimes of Big Ben.

      Nadia joins The Village and with her help Number 6 devises a plan which will let him once again hear the chimes of Big Ben.

    3. A. B. and C.

      Number 2 thinks he has the key to why Number 6 resigned and narrows it down to one of three people he may have met prior to arriving at The Village. A drug induced sleep will allow Number 2 to examine these possible theories.

    4. Free For All.

      Number 6 is coerced into running for the position of Number 2. Can he drum up enough support to find his way to the ultimate position of power?

    5. The Schizoid Man.

      Number 6 is replaced with his doppelgänger in a slight twist where Number 2 tries to convince the real Number 6 that he is, in fact, Number 12.

    6. The General.

      Teaching has evolved and a full degree course can be covered in 3 minutes. Too good to be true or a surreptitious attempt to control people's thoughts?

    7. Many Happy Returns.

      Number 6 finally manages to return home but is concerned about who are his allies and who not. Can he indeed remain 'free'?

    8. Dance of the Dead.

      Number 6 is destined for execution for being in possession of a radio. This execution is to be performed after a fancy dress party.

    9. Checkmate.

      Can Number 6 finally differentiate between the gaolers and those living in The Village against their will?

    10. Hammer Into Anvil.

      Number 2 brutally kills another prisoner. Number 6 takes offence and seeks out his revenge.

    11. It's Your Funeral.

      Number 2 is targeted to be assassinated however Number 6 must intervene and stop it otherwise innocent parties will take the fallout.

    12. A Change of Mind.

      Number 6 is defined as "unmutual" and is ostracised from the small village community. His condition must be treated by the powers that be until once again he is a happy member of society.

    13. Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling.

      The Saltzman technique allows one man's mind to reside in another's body and this is what Number 2 inflicts upon Number 6 in an attempt to seek out the ageing Saltzman.

    14. Living in Harmony.

      The Judge of the mid-west town Harmony, insists that Number 6 take on the role of sheriff. Reluctant to do so Number 6 simply lives as quietly as possible until his friends are used as blackmail against him.

    15. The Girl Who Was Death.

      A fairy tale for spies, where an unknown secret agent avoids capture by a woman who is intent on his demise.

    16. Once Upon a Time.

      Number 2 and The Village finally understand that to get the information they need from Number 6 drastic measures are needed. Measures which will see the death of one, or both, of them.

    17. Fall Out.

      Number 6 triumphs over his earlier ordeal to be given the opportunity to meet Number 1 and to finally gain his all important freedom.


    This list is the same as earlier incarnations of DVD releases and, in fact, the original broadcast order in the late 60s. Since that time though there has been some argument if these were shown in the correct order. They were not filmed in that order and a number of people have tried to put together a definitive list. Closely studying each individual episode for time codes and other clues, two independent lists are now in circulation, each purporting to be the correct order in which to view these episodes. The episode list created by a public service broadcaster in the US, and sanctioned by McGoohan himself, has the running order at 1, 4, 6, 5, 7, 8, 6, 2, 3, 14, 11, 13, 12, 10, 15, 16, 17 whilst the six of one society in the UK has the running order slightly differently at 1, 5, 6, 2, 8, 7, 9, 3, 4, 12, 10, 11, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17. At the end of the day I suppose you have to have a hobby of some description and this has to be better than collecting numbers off diesel locomotives, but it does go to show how dedicated some of the fraternity are regarding this most iconic of television moments.



    Admittedly stretching those initial seven episodes out the overall storyline is a little diluted. Eventually McGoohan provided thirteen episodes to fit in with the American TV schedules however near the end of that run Lew Grade needed an ending which McGoohan, at the time, couldn't really identify or define. Eventually he spent time constructing another 4 episodes to finally round the series off. It is more than apparent that the quality of some of the middle, and certainly two of those final four, do not really have the same style or substance of earlier episodes. Of the final 17 it is generally regarded as fact that those original seven core episodes are 1, 8, 4, 9, 2, 16, 17. Without a doubt these episodes sum up what McGoohan was trying to get across. In his opinion he thought that man was progressing too quickly for his own good, and this is reflected in The Prisoner by the Penny Farthing. He thought that this progression spelt ultimate doom for the human race and in the years which followed he never once thought that this might not be the case. This progression also had a damning side effect that technology was racing so far ahead that governments had the power and will to isolate and control the individual like never before. Like Orwell before him this was a concept well ahead of its time. Who now has access to my medical records, who can see me on CCTV, who in fact stores all my emails and internet browsing to throw back at me when the time is ripe? All of this and more McGoohan was pointing to in The Prisoner, when he said "Be seeing you..." he really meant it!



    Credit for these episodes and the ideas behind them cannot entirely go to McGoohan though, that accolade falls to George Markstein and David Tomblin, both of whom McGoohan knew from Danger Man. Markstein would continue his screen writing career and eventually co-write The Odessa File as well as that other iconic television series Callan. Again though it is his work on The Prisoner for which he will be remembered. It is said that Markstein had the shallowest of associations with the spy network during the second world war and Markstein himself often indicated that his idea for the series was based on actual events from that conflict where some people where held in isolated conditions for the security of the country. These people though never knew they were actual prisoners, simply there receiving training or other such instruction. Markstein can be seen at the start of every episode, give or take a couple, as he is in fact the small gentleman sitting behind the desk which McGoohan stamps with his fist. It would be McGoohan and Tomblin though who would bring the series to its conclusion.



    It's apparent towards the end of the series that McGoohan and Markstein had a major falling out. McGoohan was becoming more and more affected by production and shooting schedules, who knows even some of the bizarre, paranoid plot lines themselves may have been taking their toll. What can be ascertained though is that he became completely obsessed with the project and the character he was playing. Actors complained that he was treating them too roughly in certain scenes; others (Leo McKern) simply couldn't take any more and had a nervous breakdown whilst filming.



    With its underlying themes of a society in total control and the loss of individuality, all masquerading as a simple spy story, McGoohan needed a setting which was universal... neither UK, USA or USSR, but somewhere which could have been anywhere and everywhere. Somewhere with a cosmopolitan feel would have suited best and McGoohan fondly remembered a small Welsh village where the very first episode of Danger Man was filmed; that place Portmerion, North Wales. Spoken now in revered hushed tones, Portmerion is almost regarded as an additional character in the series. Sir Clough Williams-Ells, knighted in 1971 for services to architecture, designed and constructed his Italianate styled village between 1925 and 1975 (indicating of course that it still wasn't finished in his eyes whilst The Prisoner was being shot there). He loved the Italian Mediterranean look and feel and wondered why he couldn't have it, bar the weather of course, on his own doorstep... so he built it. Portmerion is a gorgeous village and perfectly reflects the feeling that McGoohan was trying to portray, a universal village of no country or state. Yearly, thousands of Prisoner fans take the annual pilgrimage to Portmerion to congregate amongst others who share their common appreciation of this classic television series. 40 years after the initial broadcasts these people still fondly remember the excitement they felt whilst watching those first few shows. That feeling for most ardent prisoner fans has not diluted over the years; they return time and again to episodes watched many times before to see if they can either glean some other piece of information contained within or actually try and understand the episode for the first time. Watching The Prisoner is both infuriating and an absolute joy. The former when you just don't quite get all of the subtle nuances, the second when that little light bulb above your head bursts into action.



    Eventually though all good things must come to an end and The Prisoner was no different. The public and Lew Grade demanded an answer, one which McGoohan had difficulty piecing together. Even to this day there are essays written about those final two episodes and the meanings they contained. People decry the final instalment, Fall Out, saying it's a far too confusing or it doesn't really answer any of the questions raised but personally I don't feel this is the case. That final episode is glorious and perfectly sums up the individual and personal freedom concepts that had been at the core of the series. Who is Number 1, who imprisons you the most... in the end it's all too obvious and a throw away comment in The Chimes of Big Ben subtly hint at the shape of things to come: things which we and McGoohan already know though, that our whole world is rapidly becoming The Village, with all its inhabitants prisoners of their own making. If you want confusing episodes then look at the penultimate one... because that really is out there. Markstein's original ending is perhaps the one which the viewing public really wanted to see. This version had Number 6 resigning just so he can be taken to The Village. In this version Number 6 actually came up with the concept for the organisation he worked for, and now wanted to infiltrate the village he designed to see which country was actually running it.



    Fall Out was an apt name for the final title because of the viewing public's nuclear response. It is said McGoohan had to go into hiding for a while because the public felt cheated, they felt as though no answers were given. They had wanted everything rounded off nicely but they should have known better. A word of warning to anyone these days watching Lost... if you're expecting everything to be handed to you on a plate then think again because it's not going to be given. As people now still discuss The Prisoner some 40 years on, will Lost still be discussed ten or twenty years from now? Isn't that the definition of defining television? One that outlasts its peers not necessarily in terms of television air time but in terms of how it is discussed and studied afterwards? The Prisoner has its ups and downs, high moments and some lows but in the main it is absolutely compulsive television viewing and should reside in anyone's collection.