WHERE am I?
In The Village.
What do you want
We want information, information, information…
You won’t get it.
By hook or by crook, we will.
Who are you?
Who is Number One?
You are Number Six.
I AM NOT A NUMBER – I AM A FREE MAN!
Ha Ha Ha Ha Haaaaaa!
In 1966, after playing Danger Man for nearly ten years, Patrick McGoohan decided to create something a little different. His inspiration: a picturesque Welsh village he had shot an episode of Danger Man in a few years previously. He was to become creator, writer, director – and the highest paid actor in the history of television to that date (£3000 an episode, a phenomenal sum in 1966).
The first episode was shown in 1967 and the impact was instantaneous. Just watch the opening credits and you will understand why people were hooked: A cloudy sky, thunder and lightening. Cut to a long road. A car thunders down that road. Cut to the man behind the wheel, a determined expression on his face. He drives into a car park, then marches down a long corridor. Cut to his feet pounding along the floor, then to his angry face. The music reaches a crescendo as the man bursts into an office, paces back and fore giving an unseen man a piece of his mind, then a crash of thunder as he hurls his resignation letter on the desk; a louder crash of thunder as he slams his fist on the desk, then he storms out. He leaves the car park. The music drops menacingly as a sinister car begins to follow him. He arrives home, starts packing – then gas begins to fill the room. He collapses. When he recovers he is in his own room. But then he looks out of the window – and sees The Village.
The episode hasn’t got past the opening credits and the viewers are already breathless.
Suddenly we are thrown into a bizarre, surreal world where people have numbers, cameras invade every household and even The Village looks like something out of a story book. This is an alien environment and we share Number Six’s first taste of it.
People do everything to order, freezing as one when told to do so. A man tries to break away, only to be trapped by a giant white ‘balloon’. These ‘balloons’, known as Rovers, and the sentinels that keep the Villagers in line.
For the Villagers, there is no world outside. The Village has its own TV station, its own newspaper (The Tally Ho!), its own record label, even its own radio station. People conform. Those who don’t are brainwashed in a sinister hospital. The episode closes with the Prisoner’s first of many attempts to escape. But, like Alcatraz pre-1963, no one had ever escaped from The Village.
There is a Prisoner appreciation society called Six of One (so called after Patrick McGoohan’s response to questions about the Prisoner’s number: “Six of one – half a dozen of the other.”). And the picturesque village of Portmeirion, where it was filmed, is now a Mecca to which die-hard fans regularly flock.
It has maddened, thrilled, baffled, irritated, shocked and driven people to distraction. But just what, exactly, is all the fuss about?
Originally intended to run for two seasons of thirteen episodes, The Prisoner was the most baroque piece of television ever created. Even the number of episodes was unusual – not that THAT was intentional: when they reached episode thirteen they realised that maintaining the quality for another thirteen episodes was impossible. After all, there’s only so many things that can happen in a small village and, even considering the bizarre nature of the stories, there wasn’t much further they could take it. The Prisoner had escaped,led a Prisoners’ revolt against the gaolers, waged a one-man war against a particularly sadistic Number Two, met a doppelganger (where would Sci-Fi be without a doppelganger storyline?), prevented the assassination of a Number Two, had been elected to the position of Number Two himself, and had had his brain transferred into another man’s body. This last story was typical Prisoner, but it was born of desperation. Patrick McGoohan was away filming Ice Station Zebra with Rock Hudson. The actor Nigel Stock took the part of the man whose body Number Six’s mind was transferred into. McGoohan was Number Six himself was only seen on monitors, being dragged out of his house in a scene lifted from episode two, and in flashback during the transference scene. Number Six spoke a few lines in the dying seconds of the episode. It worked, but the next two episodes showed just how bereft of ideas they had become by that stage.
Living in Harmony had Number Six being brainwashed into thinking he was a Marshall of a Western town [and where would TV-SF be without the token Western episode: witness Star Trek, Doctor Who, Red Dwarf, Star Trek: The Next Generation – Ed]. The Girl Who Was Death was a ludicrous, over-indulgent fantasy in which everyone had a whale of a time sending up the Bond films. If ever evidence were needed that the idea had run its course, these two episodes would have been exhibits A and B. However, Patrick McGoohan had taken up his pen and was busy writing the last two episodes.
Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple. Episode seventeen was called Fall Out, an amalgamation of images which left a lot of people thinking they had been slipped a dose of LSD: rockets flew, a chorus danced and sang, people ran, donned fancy dress, an apparently dead Number Two was brought back to life. The finale saw the Prisoner running and running and running. As the credits rolled, thousands of people leapt out of their seats with a collective shout of “That can’t be it!”
But it most certainly was.
Today, Patrick McGoohan will tell you, tongue in cheek, that he had to flee the country to avoid death threats after that episode was screened.
Watching it for the umpteenth time you are forced to wonder if he presented the world with an enigma, or if he just played an enormous practical joke on everyone? If he did, a lot of people enjoyed it. When, in 1983, Channel 4 repeated it (albeit getting the episodes in shit order) they pleased many fans who for years had bombarded ITV with requests for repeats. Today, addicts like me have bought the entire series on Channel 5 video. The Prisoner has come a long way since the final episode was shown back in 1968.
It is the same with The Prisoner: you just have to go with the flow and put your own interpretation on things. Only Patrick McGoohan knows what that last episode was about – and his lips have been sealed for the last 30 years. I don’t think there’s any chance of him talking now and I hope he doesn’t. The Prisoner is a unique piece of television. Long may the fans be thoroughly non-plussed by it.