Beautiful, sartorially elegant, thought-provoking, decades ahead of its time, fun and exciting; The Prisoner deserves its position as one of the most influential television dramas ever.
The bombastic opening sequence is a short-film in its own right. From out of thunderous clouds our hero (we never know his true name) slips his Lotus 7 effortlessly through the swinging streets of 60s London. Eyes set defiantly on the vividly-hued horizon, he never remarks on how little traffic there was in those days; probably because he has far weightier matters on his mind.
Parking near Parliament, he rushes through dimly lit corridors of power to his superiors. Our hero is almost certainly employed in espionage. Slamming his fist down on the desk with enough force to smash a cup he holds aloft his letter of resignation and storms out.
Again we coo over the slender lines of the Lotus as he drives home, unaware of the following black hearse. Gathering his things in the flat, he is oblivious to a stream of gas shot through the keyhole. The towering edifice of London melts away as he falls to the floor.
He wakes in his flat. No! Not his flat. A replica of it located in…The Village.
There are many people in The Village, all known by a number. No one can leave without the say of Number 1. We never meet Number 1 as he relays all orders through Number 2. And Number 2 is never the same man. Our man is Number 6, inheriting the number from the poor soul“released”before him. Number 6 spends his time resisting integration, constantly looking for escape or ways to confound the management. Number 1 wants to know is why he resigned, a fact Number 6 wishes to keep to himself, as is his human right. Keeping up?
Even if you’ve never seen The Prisoner you are probably familiar with some of its powerful iconography. Here production design is as important as story. There’s the setting; Portmerion, a 1920s folly on a grand scale, full of winding alleys and faux-Mediterranean architecture. Then there are the straw-boaters, multi-colour umbrellas, school blazers and penny-farthings that lend the place its unique charm. And there is ‘Rover’, a featureless, globular white entity, taller than a man and with a mind of its own. Rover lives under the sea, rising from the depths to envelope escapees before either dumping them rudely back in The Village or killing them.
Seventeen episodes comprise the entire set, so it won’t take days of your life to watch the lot. Stand out episodes include A, B & C (where Number 6’s dreams are probed by Number 2 only to have Number 6 turn the tables in a startling cat-and-mouse gambit), Many Happy Returns (where Number 6 wakes to find The Village deserted, allowing him to build a raft, make it to London and confront old colleagues), Hammer Into Anvil (my personal favourite, in which Number 6 takes down the current Number 2 in a deviously vicious manner), The Girl Who Was Death (a bizarre episode where Number 6 relates a strangely prescient James Bond-style fairy story to some Village residents) and the last episode; a two-parter in which Number 2 makes one last effort to break Number 6 before we lead into the final, mind-bending hour and the reveal (or not!) of Number 1.
Intrigued? I have barely scraped the surface of the joys to be wrung from this show. Even the creators of Lost admit that a lot of their series was cribbed from The Prisoner. The Beatles were certainly big fans too, so if you like it you’ll be in illustrious company. The available high-definition Blu-Ray set is of excellent clarity and highly recommended.
In this age of ubiquitous surveillance, The Prisoner presents a chilling vision of where society is heading. It is also tremendously lively, witty and surreal in equal measures. It was conceived, largely written by and starred Patrick McGoohan, a self-confessed rebel with a personal concern for individuality and freedom. Comparison to other works is difficult but the 1964 series Danger Man (also with Patrick McGoohan) almost serves as an unofficial prequel to The Prisoner. Oh, and forget about the useless 2009 television remake with Ian McKellan. It’s an ill-judged stain on the boots of the 60s original.