“I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered!”— the Prisoner (Patrick McGoohan)
One of the best television series ever made was The Prisoner, which addressed such issues as the rights of the individual, the electoral process, education, identity and the nature of freedom. It also didn’t provide easy answers or “pat you on the head” moralizing sermons. This 17-episode 1967 series co-created by and starring the late Patrick McGoohan forced viewers to not only consider such issues, but also to think for themselves. Something most people weren’t used to doing, especially when seated in front of a TV set.
On the surface, the series concerned an unnamed man (presumably a government agent) who is abducted to a place called the Village following his resignation. He seeks both to escape and to find out which side of the Iron Curtain runs the place. Everyone in the Village is identified by a number, with the public face of the Village’s power represented by “Number Two.” A new Number Two appeared in each episode (though two actors, Leo McKern and Colin Gordon, made repeat appearances in the role). The Village seeks to break the Prisoner’s spirit so he’ll accept that he’s “Number Six.” Those in charge also want to know why he resigned, information Number Six refuses to divulge.
The Prisoner was filmed in the Italianate resort of Portmeirion in Wales (which I visited on July 17, 1988), though the location wasn’t identified until the final episode. The Village’s pleasant and appealing exterior hid a sinister undercurrent.
The mix of architectural styles also would make it difficult for the characters to determine exactly where they were.
The series establishes three contradictory locations for the Village, leaving viewers to wonder if those contradictions were mistakes owing to the speed of TV productions or if, in-universe, there was more than one Village, with its “guests” occasionally moved from one to another while unconscious in order to frustrate any attempts at determining where they were.
The series was also a metaphor, so the actual location of the Village isn’t that important when you think of it from that point of view.
As I said, The Prisoner explored a number of issues. In the episode “Free For All”, McGoohan, who wrote (as “Paddy Fitz”) and directed, addressed political campaigns and how they’re covered in the media. Number Six is maneuvered into running for the office of Number Two. He finds the idea of elections in the Village amusing.
“Elections? In this place?” he asks Number Two (Eric Portman), who replies that the Villagers make their choice every 12 months.
“Are you going to run?”
“Like blazes, the first chance I get.”
“I meant run for office.”
In that episode, we’re treated to banal campaign promises (Number Six literally promises winter, spring, summer or fall); and in a meeting of the outgoing council, the council members just stand there as Number Six demands to know who elected them and to what place or country they owe allegiance. And all “proposals” of the council are “carried unanimously” by Number Two as the council stands mute.
That episode also finds Number Six “interviewed” by Number 113 (Harold Berens), a “reporter” for the local “newspaper” who supplies his own answers to his questions.
To give just one example:
Number 113: “How are you going to handle your campaign?”
Number Six: “No comment.”
Number 113: “Intends to fight for freedom at all costs.”
Seconds after the “interview” is over, Number Six discovers that the edition of the paper just then coming off the press contains the story, “No. 6 Speaks His Mind.”
By the way, in the fall of 1988, I took a class on the presidency and suggested to the teacher that we screen and discuss “Free For All” in class because of its commentary about the election process and how candidates are sometimes covered in the media. He nixed the idea, arguing it might somehow have a negative effect related to the then-current election.
I’ve always found that argument ludicrous. A fictional election on a 1960s British TV show was going to somehow adversely affect American college students voting in a presidential election two decades after the show aired? Let’s stay real, shall we?
Education was another issue addressed in The Prisoner. In “The General”, the Speedlearn “educational” process imparts information directly to the cerebral cortex, but those who take the three-year course “Europe since Napoleon” in three minutes— and have the information “indelibly impressed upon the mind”— can only parrot back the exact information beamed into their head. People who take the “course” learn when the Treaty of Adrianople took place (September 1829), but when Number 12 (John Castle) asks Number Six what it was, Number Six can only give the date.
“Wrong,” Number 12 says. “I said what, not when.”
To number Six, those who are “educated” through Speedlearn are “a row of cabbages.”
“Indeed,” Number Two (Colin Gordon) replies. “Knowledgeable cabbages.”
But how knowledgeable is someone when that “knowledge” is so limited?
In 2009, the cable channel AMC broadcast a six hour mini series reinterpretation of The Prisoner in cooperation with ITV. It starred Jim Caviezel as “Six” and Sir Ian McKellen as “Two.” I may discuss the remake in a subsequent entry. One thing I liked about it is that it told its own story and went in its own direction, rather than trying to retread the same ground McGoohan explored.
If you enjoy thought-provoking TV shows, The Prisoner is well worth checking out.
Be seeing you.
Copyright 2016 Patrick Keating