When I was a teenager I became fascinated by a late-night programme on Saturday TV. This series took place in a strange Italian-style village where people wore identical blazers and straw hats and rode around on penny farthings or in Mini-Mokes. Although each hour's episode had its own storyline, the underlying story seemed to be a conflict between one man (Number Six, never referred to as anything else) and the largely faceless powers who ran the Village, embodied usually in the changing persona of Number Two. At the time I didn't understand the concept of existentialism, but I watched breathlessly to the end of the series, when in a bizarre final episode Number Six and two others, Numbers Two and Forty-Eight (the latter a young gun-slinger, Western style) escaped from the island. Even though I hardly had a clue what it all meant, it was great.
Twenty years on from those late nights in front of the TV and about thirty years after the close of the series, the Prisoner is still truly Cult TV. One might even say it was TV's finest hour, especially as the series was not made on the more intellectually-oriented BBC2 or Channel 4 but rather on commercial TV. Lew Grade later confessed in a TV interview (with his son!) that he didn't really understand what it was all about either, but that he thought it made great entertainment. Therein lies the crux of its durability: the Prisoner has the power to entertain as well as to provoke.
For those who have never watched the series, the basic synopsis is this. A man drives furiously into London, parks in an underground car park and strides purposefully into some sort of (Government?) office, where he slams down an envelope on the desk in front of an older man (his boss or department head, presumably) and for good measure slams his fist down on the table before marching out and returning to his London flat. As he is packing, outside a black hearse draws up and an old undertaker walks slowly to the fron door. Inside, the viewer sees a stream of gas pour through the keyhole, incapacitating the main character (ably played by Patrick McGoohan). He passes out, and when he awakes thinks he is still in his flat until he looks out of the window and is shocked to find himself in an unknown place, a village on an island. Thereafter the conflict in the story is between McGoohan's character (designated "Number Six" - in the Village, people are only referred to by their number) who wants to escape from the island, and the forces running the Village, who use every means at their disposal to try to establish why Number 6 resigned. Most of the episodes in the series involve a new plan by these forces, usually "Number 2", the nominal head of the Village, to break Number 6, and Number 6's resistance and ultimate survival.
Part of the appeal of the series must lay in its universality. Neither the Village or the island are named and their whereabouts are vague. The authorities are normally faceless, except in the case of Number Two (whose position was normally filled by a different person each week), his small, silent but dangerous butler, and in a crisis, the fearsome "Rover", a sort of sentient sphere which would surface from below the waves and bounce or blow around the Village with a roar, literally engulfing anyone threatening to escape. Even science fiction, with at least its named alien races and identified starships, was never this abstract. Thus the viewer could identify with McGoohan's character in his daily life. This might apply particularly to younger viewers who felt the pressure to conform to society's norms, not all of which seemed logic- or ethically based. Older viewers, however, could probably identify with the final Number Two in the shape of Leo McKern, brought back from the dead in the last episode to face the judgement that he had conformed to the system for so long that his rebellion against it was hypocrisy. (Later in the episode McKern succeeds in escaping with Six and 48 to London, where he dons a pinstripe suit and bowler hat and is seen walking past the House of Commons). This was nevertheless not a "youth" programme, since McGoohan himself must have been in his thirties and Number Six was no youthful hippy idealist: rather a hardened professional (spy, by implication) who had revolted against the system. The youth element was actually Alexis Kanner's Number Forty-Eight, a disturbed young man who played a gun-fighter in one episode, only to become so obsessed with the character that he was killed, only to be brought back to life (like McKern) for the last episode. He too escapes and is last seen trying to hitch a ride, first in one direction and then another. All three of these characters seem to embody a type of person: the man of principle, the disgusted older conformist, the reckless young man.
There was, too, a certain amount of stylishness about the series. The sets incorporated the latest Sixties technological fads - big cordless phones, big mainframe computers, the idea of electronic surveillance overshadowing the citizen - together with the curious fashions of the blazers, the boaters and the Italian architecture of the Village (actually Port Merion in Wales). With the current fad for retro fashions and music from that era, the Prisoner's appeal must be as strong as ever in this area at least. Unlike a lot of cult TV, some of which seems to thrive on tackiness, The Prisoner also had strong scripts and reasonable to excellent acting. Several known actors made appearances, including Leo McKern, Alexis Kanner, Paul Eddington, Kenneth Griffith, Patrick Cargill, Peter Wyngarde, Anton Rodgers and Peter Bowles. Finally one must not overlook the excellent theme tune written by Ron Grainger, who also wrote the theme tune to Dr Who.
George Markstein, the initial scriptwriter (who appears in the opening credits as the man behind the desk) left about halfway through the series, leaving McGoohan with seemingly a lot of ideas but possibly less certainty on how to pull them together. Thus some of the later episodes were more abstract, including "The Girl Who Was Death", a completely surreal episode in which Number Six is pursued across England by The Girl Who Was Death and her father, and "Living In Harmony", where McGoohan finds himself as a reluctant hired gun in a frontier town in the Wild West. Under pressure to conclude the series, McGoohan wrote a two-parter. The first, "Once Upon A Time", involved a final desperate attempt by Number Two to break Number Six by going alone with him into "Degree Absolute", having mentally programmed Six's mind to regress to childhood and relive his life. Only one can leave the chamber alive, but in a turn of the tables, it is Number Six after Number Two apparently dies. The episode culminates in the Controller then coming in and basically conceding Six some sort of victory. In the final episode, "Fallout", Six is led into an underground chamber (past rows of jukeboxes playing the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love") where a large group of masked and robed individuals are seated, rather like the UN, and presided over by Kenneth Griffith wearing a judge's outfit. Number Two and Number Forty-Eight are then brought back to life, Two expressing his disgust at the system he has served all his life and Forty-Eight speaking in Beat-like expressions of unfocused rebellion and incoherence. The judge explains in rather poetical terms the fault with the rebellion of each of these two, but praising Number Six's consistency in never yielding. The assembly then grant him the keys to his car and a million pounds in travellers' cheques, invite him to reign over them and become the new head of the Village, and request that he make a speech. When McGoohan attempts to address them, however, he is interrupted by a chorus of chants from the assembly every time he begins to speak, until in the end he is shouting to make himself heard. The message seems to be that despite their eagerness, the masked individuals (literally faceless) cannot really understand him, only parrot-like repeat his words.
The part that most baffled and angered regular followers of the series was the final unveiling of Number One. At the judge's invitation Number Six stepped inside a tower (later to be revealed as a missile) and ascended a spiral staircase to see another white-robed figure apparently standing holding a crystal ball with his back to him. As this figure turned to reveal a black-and-white mask as worn by the rest of the assembly, Six tore it off to reveal the mask of an ape. In turn he tore this one off, only to reveal.... the face of Number Six! In fact even then the face was hardly distinguishable: the first time I saw this episode I didn't realise who it was supposed to be. Number One/Six then flees shrieking with laughter down the staircase. Subsequently Six goes further underground and releases Two and Forty-Eight, and they burst out into the assembly room with submachine-guns blazing, mowing down everyone else to the continued strains of "All You Need Is Love". As the judge escapes he orders an evacuation, and at this point things get even more surreal as the missile-cum-tower takes off while the entire population of the Village flees in a fleet of helicopters and Rover apparently self-destructs to the sound of the song "I Yi Yi Yi Yi (I like you a lot)". Despite having been on an island for the rest of the series, Six, Two and Forty-Eight flee in a lorry with a cage on the back, driven by the butler (Angelo Muscat). Six drops off Forty-Eight and then Two, and then ends up back in his flat, where the butler closes the door. The question inevitably rises with the closing shot of the flat, similar to the one in the opening credits: Is history doomed to repeat itself?
Despite the existentialist feel of the whole series, viewers apparently felt cheated by the shock ending and jammed ITV's switchboard for hours to complain. McGoohan in fact left the country in a hurry and spent a large number of years working in the United States, although he seems to have come back into favour somewhat, having played Edward I in the film "Braveheart". (In a TV special following a showing of the series in the Eighties, he tried to explain the ending at least as an allegory). But despite the virtual impossibility of any sequel, The Prisoner continued to command a following in the subsequent years, and television networks continued to show the series in its entirety at intervals. If anything it increased in popularity, being moved from a late-night Saturday slot in the Seventies to prime-time TV in the Eighties and Nineties, with every episode being released on video. Fan clubs and fanzines (with titles often taken from the series, such as "Six of One") have also abounded ever since the first showing, and Port Meirion in Wales has made a virtually industry of the Prisoner cult.
I did hear rumours of a film version of The Prisoner with Mel Gibson as Number Six, but such a project seems unlikely to succeed, if only because The Prisoner itself is a time capsule of a period of British TV. Similarly, although some fans have written books and novels taking some of the ideas further, these have only had a limited appeal.
On a lighter note, a memento of some of the memorable if clipped phrases from the series:
"You are Number Six...." (Number Two)
"I am not a number! I am a free man!" (Number Six in reply to the above, at which Two bursts into harsh, cackling laughter).
"Be seeing you!" (accompany this with thumb and middle finger held together to form a circle in a form of salute to the person you are bidding farewell to)
"Lovely day" (standard greeting in the Village, where conversation is always completely banal)
"I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered." (Number Six in the first episode)
"Yellow Alert" (the Controller, whenever "Rover's" services are needed).
"Good luck with your exams" (new social greeting in the Village in the episode "The General").
"Love, love, love..." (jukebox refrain as Numbers Six, Two and Forty-Eight blast their way out of the assembly chamber).
Please note: some of these links may have expired since this page went up a few years ago. I am currently trying to work through them to remove the dead ones. Thanks to Rick Davy for pointing this problem out to me!
Six Of One is, or has been claimed as, the official Prisoner fan club, going since 1977. Recently there has been some fallout and disagreements, and certain claims can be found on the site www.sixofone-info.co.uk. Please note that I am including both links as I am not in a position to judge the merits of the case, so readers should visit both pages and make their own minds up.
The Unmutual is a free source of news and contains a lot of interesting material, as well as links to other Prisoner sites and material.
The Penny Farthing is the Prisoner fanzine by and for the Liverpool Prisoner Group.
Prisoner Guide and Links compiled by Liam Relihan. It's also worth skipping straight to the Interview with Patrick McGoohan from 1977, as McGoohan opens up a little about some possible interpretations of the Prisoner, particularly the final episode.
Wayne Robertson's Prisoner Page is one of the best I have seen, complete with downloadable Prisoner font.
TV Guides -