The 1960s was the decade of the spy. What with James Bond, Our Man Flint, Matt Helm, UNCLE, Mission Impossible, and The Avengers, it seemed that everyone was wisecracking, driving sports cars, being listened to by hidden microphones and generally saving the world by the use of improbable gadgets.
One man, however, was different. One man stood out from the crowd. On the surface he was every inch the '60s spy - sportscar, wisecracks and all. But this character was different. He didn't want to be a spy any more. So he resigned. And thereby hangs a tale...
Patrick McGoohan was well known as the star of TV's Danger Man - a standard espionage/action based TV show, shot in black and white. He wished to get away from the formulaic plots of the show and produce something more thought-provoking. As the star of a successful show, and incidentally a successful movie star as well with credits including Ice Station Zebra (which would be released the following year), he was able to get a series commissioned.
Portmeirion is a hotel unlike any other. It was an ongoing project for many years for the architect Clough Williams-Ellis. It takes the form of an Italianate village on the coast of a peninsula in northern Wales. It features an odd juxtaposition of styles and buildings, and is very carefully planned to present the visitor with engaging and interesting views wherever they stop. It was not very widely known until The Prisoner was shot there, although it had famous links well before - Noel Coward wrote Blithe Spirit in one of the cottages there in May, 1941. It was also later used as a location for the Doctor Who story 'Masque of Mandragora'.
The basic idea of the show is elegant in its simplicity, and is shown in the opening credits of each episode. The protagonist, whose name we never get to know, is some form of government agent. Who he is and what he does, we never find out. He drives his open top Lotus Seven sports car through the streets of London to a clandestine location. He delivers what looks like an angry tirade and a letter to a man behind a desk, and storms out. This letter is his resignation. He returns to his home, and quickly begins to pack a case. However, an ominous black car draws up outside, and a gaunt old man in traditional undertaker's garb approaches the door. Gas comes through the keyhole, and our hero is overcome. He wakes in a room he does not recognise, in a bizarre village he does not recognise, and every week has the following exchange with a disembodied voice:
Prisoner: Where am I?
Voice: In the Village
Prisoner: What do you want?
Prisoner: Whose side are you on?
Voice: That would be telling... We want Information
Prisoner: You won't get it
Voice: By hook or by crook... We will
Prisoner: Who are you?
Voice: The new Number Two
Prisoner: Who is Number One?
Voice: You are Number Six
Prisoner: I am not a number... I'm a free man!
Voice: [Mocking laughter]
The Village, it transpires, is some sort of retirement home for ex-agents - somewhere to keep people who know too much 'on ice'. Nobody in The Village has a name - everyone is referred to only by their number. It is in an isolated location, and its boundaries are protected by automated sentries called 'Rovers', which look like big white balloons that smother would-be escapees. 'Rover' was one of the more overtly surreal elements of the show.
The Village has its own paper, the Tally Ho (local stories only), labour exchange (local jobs only), hospital, taxi service (local destinations only...) and even elections. It also has its own sinister sounding catchphrase, suggesting the constancy of the surveillance in the place; villagers, when taking their leave, will usually say... 'Be seeing you.'
It is constantly unclear who among the denizens are the prisoners and who the guards - indeed this is one of the central themes of the show.
Almost every episode had a new 'Number Two' - the man in charge, tasked with breaking Number Six and finding out why he resigned. Occasional dark references were made to 'Number One', but the identity of that character was not revealed until the final episode, when it posed more questions than it answered.
The show ran for 17 episodes of an hour each, shot in colour at a time before British television was broadcasting in colour. Although it featured an acceptable amount of action and adventure, it also had an underlying thoughtfulness rare in TV shows of the time. It posed questions about the nature of identity, trust, reason and motivation, and didn't pretend to have pat answers. It was not terribly successful on its first run, and in particular the wild surrealism of the final episodes, and the lack of an easily understood conclusion led to confusion on the part of studio execs and viewing public alike. The casual viewer expected a series like The Fugitive, and was probably watching to see whether The Prisoner would escape and to find out who Number One was. When the final episode suggested that 'Number One' was the prisoner himself, and he finally 'escaped' to what was hinted was merely another prison, the overwhelming reaction was one of confusion and frustration.
However, viewed 30 years on, it is remarkable how little the show has dated. The sheer oddness of the location and the costumes gives it a timeless quality which is only lost on the rare occasions when Number Six returns briefly to normal society.
The combination of Kafkaesque plots, conspiracy theory paranoia, action, and thought provoking themes guaranteed this series cult status. It stands even today as one of the best examples of the art of television.
A Prisoner Fan Site, which includes information such as episode guides, original transmission dates and pretty much everything you need to know.
The Official Prisoner Appreciation Society, Six of One.
The Official Portmeirion website.
The Prisoner entry on the Internet Movie Database.