The Prisoner - The TV show

4 Conversations

The 1960s was the decade of the spy. What with James Bond1, Our Man Flint2, Matt Helm3, the Men4 (and Girl5) from U.N.C.L.E., 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 sixties 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...

The Star

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", he was able to get a series commissioned.

The Location

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 about 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 Idea

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 undertakers 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?

Voice: Information

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

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 and smother wouldbe 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.

The Boss

Every episode had a new "Number 2" - the man in charge, tasked with breaking Number Six and finding out why he resigned. Occasional dark references were made to Number 1, but the identity of that character was not revealed until the final episode, and posed more questions than it answered.

The Show

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 if "The Prisoner" would escape and to find out who Number 1 was. When it turned out that "Number 1" was the prisoner himself, and when he finally "escaped" to what was hinted was merely another prison, the overwhelming reaction was confusion.

However, viewed thirty 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 to normal society briefly.

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.

1Sean Connery - what do you mean, other actors?2James Coburn3Dean Martin4Robert Vaughan and David McCallum5Stephanie Powers

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