The Prisoner: The Complete Series Review
Alongside Star Trek, The Prisoner must be the most written about television series of the Sixties. No other show has come close to generating the same number of books, articles and studies, and while today most of its ITC spy series stablemates have lost their once glamorous lustre, these seventeen episodes continue to generate huge interest, with fans worldwide still making an annual pilgrimage to Portmeirion in North Wales where its exteriors were shot and a long-mooted remake (heresy!) shortly to make its debut. Like Trek, there are two main reasons for its lasting appeal, its leading man (or men in Trek’s case) and the fact that while assuming the basic trappings of its ostensible genre the series was always intended to produce something far more profound and insightful for those viewers who were willing to delve deeper. Unlike Roddenberry’s creation, however, which as often as not abandoned its lofty ideals and ended up producing a load of rubbish, McGoohan’s series never wavered in its core aims, so that even the lesser episodes – the second half of the season is considerably weaker than the first – have merit, even if some (A Change of Mind, Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling) repeat similar ideas as earlier instalments. At its heart is an Orwellian battle of the individual against the collective, the struggle to retain individuality in a world that demands you conform, a desire to remain free of a state which believes it can control your every thought and action and is determined to make you bow down to its will. This was hot stuff in the Sixties, not only in the battle between capitalist freedom versus communist control, but between right and left, the squares and the hipsters, those sending troops to Vietnam versus those who didn’t understand why the whole world couldn’t chill out, man, and let it be. The Prisoner came along at just the right moment, seized the zeitgeist and presented its own, very unique, take.
The story is of course well known. The show’s protagonist, known only as Number 6, the nom de plume given to him by his captors, resigns in a fit of fury from a government posting for reasons unknown. Arriving home, he begins to pack his bags to flee the country, only to be overcome by a noxious gas pumped into the room by mysterious top-hatted assailants, and pass out. On waking up, he finds himself in the Village, a bizarre, self-contained community which has all the outward appearance and trappings of a small, pleasant holiday town but with two differences: no one has a name and you can’t leave. Try, and a big furious inflatable balloon called Rover (never liked that name) will come bouncing out and smother you before dragging you back, although quite how it manages this is never quite clear. Who controls the Village no one knows; its mouthpiece is a continually changing cavalcade of Number 2’s (The Prisoner’s equivalent, say, of Batman’s weekly guest villains), each of whom is charged with finding out why Number 6 resigned. Number 6, understandably, does not take kindly to this and refuses to play ball, and so begins an elaborate game of cat and mouse. Each week, a new Number 2 tries to break his obstinate foe down into confessing, and each week Number 6 fights back, all the time trying to find a way to escape. But where is the Village? Who runs it? Why are they so interested in him? And who is Number 1? (Not a great mystery, if you listen to the opening narration.)
It’d be very easy, in these days when you can’t open a newspaper without reading a column decrying the erosion of our civil liberties or citing the fact there are now more CCTV cameras in Britain than grains of sand on a beach, to say that The Prisoner has only grown in relevance over the years. One contributor to this set’s Making Of even goes so far as to say that the show is timeless. That may be true, but it’s also very much of its time – put someone who knows nothing about the show in front of an episode and ask them which decade it comes from, and there will only ever be one answer. From the moment of its conception, every strand of its DNA is from the Sixties, every inch of its being saturated in that time’s politics, society, fashions and social mores. In their bright clothing the young inhabitants of the Village look as though they’ve just arrived straight from Carnaby Street, ready to start a revolution, which of course is what the show is all about. Foreshadowing the Summer of ’68, Number 6 is the ultimate counterculture hero, rebelling against the system and then battling against it as it tries to wrest him back into their power. Episodes featuring mind-bending drugs, corrupt elections and underground movement determined to create change are all products of the time, as is an overriding paranoia that they are out to get us. It's no accident that at the series’s end our hero escapes with the help of a freewheeling hippy and a reformed (literally) civil servant, sent on his way by a chorus from the Beatles’ All You Need Is Love. Number 6 might have been too suave and dignified to hand out flowers or make the V sign, but you know which side of the dividing line he’d be on when the water cannons came out.
The notable thing is that, like many of ITC’s shows with an eye of the American market, while much of its occupations were at the very least transatlantic, its style is completely British, and not just in a sense that this could have been an episode of The Avengers, had that show taken itself seriously. Alongside the penny farthing motifs, bowler hats, and general eccentricity, there's also an interesting contrast in attitude to be drawn between spy shows made in the UK as opposed to the US. In America there is a very clear, straight forward line drawn between Us and Them, the goodies and the baddies, one which is never challenged or even seems to occur to anyone involved. The enemy is always some satanic outsider, a heavily accented fellow or Rosa Klebb-like female who rule the roost over poor, misguided peasants who if only they had a chance would see the light and come to embrace truth, justice and the American way. The only way to manage that, though, is to go in and sort things out - in the decade of Vietnam, the Mission: Impossible team would weekly invade some foreign state and bring their own brand of regime change. The Prisoner, on the other hand, is far more ambiguous. It does not cast things in such simplistic patriotic terms - indeed, it does the very opposite, its subversive nature suggesting that the "goodies" commit as many grave sins as those they fight. With its bright colours, cheerful tannoy and apparently limitless supply of goods and services it's difficult to believe the Village is part of the grey, joyless countries behind the Iron Curtain, and by the series’ end it’s hard to draw any conclusion other than that his captors are from his own side (not least the fact that nearly all the Number 2s are very evidently British.) You would never have been able to make such a show in the States. (Indeed, in moments of whimsy I like to imagine that the Village is actually being run by an Impossible Missions team - they have similar operations in M:I many times - determined to get the truth of his resignation.)
And of course, it's also one of a kind because of McGoohan. In a manner which would have doubtless delighted his fictional counterparts’ tormentors he became consumed by the show, fanatical, obsessing over every little detail from script to editing suite, to the point where it almost broke him (indeed, some would say, looking at the final episode Fall Out that it did.) He didn't come up with the initial idea, but he took it, ran with it, and as the series ran on becoming incredibly proprietorial to it. The net result is there to be seen on every screen. Rarely has a lead actor so commanded and dominated a show, making a character who in other hands could have become a cipher memorable and unique. The Prisoner is determined, intelligent, and above all has a clear moral sense – the episode Hammer Into Anvil, in which he systematically sets out to have vengeance on a Number 2 who has crossed the line, shows that all too clearly and contains probably McGoohan’s strongest performance. When first he arrives he’s like a caged animal, throwing himself in a frenzy against the bars of his cage, before realising that it’s no good; the bars are too strong, and in that direction lies only physical harm and madness. He reassesses, and his sardonic sense of humour becomes his saviour, amused and almost relishing the absurdity of the situation. He knows he can’t overtly defeat the Village, so he settles down. He plays the game. He adopts a routine, playing regular games of chess, reading to the local children, going through the same morning rituals day after day, all the time knowing that given time and patience he will get his chance, seizing every possible small opening he has and turning it to his advantage. Early on he allows the wool to be pulled over his eyes a couple of times - The Chimes of Big Ben and, until the end, A, B or C, but by the middle part of the series no trick the Village tries to pull on him gets close to working, and indeed in the second half of the series he becomes increasingly dominant, scoring palpable victories leading up to his final showdown with Leo McKern’s Number 2 in Once Upon a Time. Throughout it all, with the obvious exception of Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling, McGoohan is on screen practically the whole time, magnetic, vital, and focused.
That said, it’s also at times a rather cold performance. The show’s tone is relentlessly, almost monosyllabically, determined, and while there’s plenty of quirkiness and moments of humour, even they are usually so grim that they fail to alleviate the situation. Because the show is very much about ideas, it has little warmth, so that once it becomes clear we are engaged in what is essentially a purely intellectual exercise it’s almost impossible to emphasise with Number 6’s predicament. The odd time he escapes one feels no joy, and those episodes in which he emerge triumphant we can’t really share that triumph with him. The Prisoner is an admirable figure, but I’m not sure he’s especially likeable. The contrast between him, say, and Bond or Steed is most notable in The Girl Who Was Death, one of the last episodes which is intended to be a more light hearted pastiche of an episode but which isn’t quite as much fun as it should be, purely because it’s Number 6 going through it (or not, as it turns out.) Had the series ended in a more conventional manner, I’m not certain one would have ultimately felt any more satisfied than in the way it did for the reason that Number 6 wouldn't have perhaps shown any particular pleasure at a final victory.
But then, perhaps it was inevitable that the last episode was never going to be conventional. Much argued over, down the years it has divided people into those who think it is a brilliant, if head-scratching conclusion and those who think it’s a load of codswallop. It is, actually, neither, but while there is much to defend in it – Number 6 standing trial against his tormentors is a very logical premise - I can never watch it without feeling that ultimately it’s nothing more than a giant cop out. Surrealism for its own sake might have been all the rage at the time, but for a series as intellectually rigorous at this one it won’t do, a capitulation which says, as baldly as McGoohan said to Grade, “I don’t know how to end this.” That Number 6 is Number 1 is not a problem as long as one accepts that the whole series has been nothing other than a pure allegory – i.e, that the surface level of simple spy drama is ultimately unimportant – but that is not the case. Yes, the show is layered deep in meaning, but it is also, quite plainly, a spy story – the one cannot exist without the other, and the finale’s problem is that in its over-eagerness to provide some kind of summing up of the show’s higher themes it ignores almost totally the simple need of rounding the story off in a pleasing manner. It lets down the audience. Furthermore, there’s a curious moment right at the end which seems to negate the entire show’s central ethos. As Number 6 walks back into his home, after having escaped the Village, his front door closes behind him with the same sound as the doors in the Village make. We can never, the suggestion seems to be, really escape our own Village. For a show based entirely around the rights of everyone to assert their independence, it’s an extraordinarily fatalistic note on which to end. You can’t escape, so you might as well not bother. The Prisoner’s efforts are, ultimately, futile. Very odd.
And yet that’s one of the main reasons the show has lasted – that last episode, more than any other, sealed the deal in regards of the public perception of the show as a unique and rather special series. Overall, the inscrutability of the seventeen episodes is somewhat overstated – most are actually quite straight forward in what they are saying – but it is that substance, and the style in which the stories are told, that have ensured it has stood the test of times. This was a genuine, heartfelt show, one without artifice as well being one of the relatively few with a higher purpose in life than simple ratings and profits and at the heart of that was McGoohan. He was right about one thing - he himself never escaped the show's legacy. When the finale screened there was uproar, one woman even accosting him in the street, and for the sake of a peaceful life he decamped to the States where he remained for the rest of his life. It’s not true, though, that he never spoke about the series afterwards – this set contains at least two post-series interviews he gave, I have a book from the Eighties with a three page talk with him, and there was of course that Simpsons episode in which he actually reprised his role, so he was hardly a Thomas Pynchon about it. But the show’s impact was such that he was always under its shadow, and for a period in the Seventies he didn’t work at all. It was only later on, when his features had changed sufficiently, that he came to work again regularly (he’s barely recognisable in two out of the three Columbo episodes in which he appears) but even at the end of his life he was still asked about it, receiving, and very politely declining, year after year an invitation from Six Of One, the official fan club, to come and attend their meetings. The show, he always said, spoke for itself. It did, but through his voice, and that's why the fact there's a remake coming up is somewhat laughable. The Prisoner was led (not created, mind) by a very particular man at a very particular time about very particular things, (which is somewhat ironic given its lead, nameless character, is there to a certain extent to represent us all) and no remake will ever come close to repeating that. It can’t. There was only one Number 6, and it's very fitting in the end he turned out to be Number 1. Really, what other ending could there have been?
Network’s 40th Anniversary SD release of The Prisoner rightly drew much acclaim upon its release a couple of years ago (including from Eamonn in his review here) winning Best TV DVD at the 2008 Home Entertainment awards. Not surprisingly, then, this BD release is essentially the same, retaining all its SD predecessor’s material and throwing in some HD transfers and a handful of new extras as a bonus. The set is comprised of four BDs which hold the episodes themselves (five per disc aside from the last) as well as extras directly relating to those episodes (the commentaries, individual image galleries and trailers) and then a further two regular DVDs with the other extras. Also included is Andrew Pixley’s Making Of book, which I haven’t seen, but given the author is essentially Mr TV – his extensive research and articles on television from the Sixties through to the present day, most notably in his Doctor Who archives, is peerless – I can’t imagine it’s anything less than the authoritative account of the production.
The menus are very attractively laid out. After the obligatory copyright notice, Rover rumbles towards us to engulf the screen, revealing Network's logo. The main menu consists of a shortened version of the opening sequence playing on loop, with four main options in a strip along the bottom: All Play, Episodes, Free Information (extras) and Establishment (audio and subtitle options.) Simple but very effective. The menus for the two extras discs are a little different, melding footage from the final scenes of Fall Out with lava-lamp-like floating shapes, the list of extras in the foreground. The episodes themselves are subtitled, but sadly the extras are not.
The most important thing to note is the AV. I never got round to buying the SD Network set, and as such for years have been used to watching the somewhat grubby, dullish Carlton discs which came out at the beginning of the decade. On playing the first episode in this set, then, I felt not unlike Dorothy stepping out of her grey, sad existence into a world of vivid colour and brightness. Suddenly the Village, which before now had looked like it was stuck under a particularly heavy raincloud, had sprung to life, the primary colour palate, lush greens of the surrounding forests and cold sands of the beaches and seas brought back into joyful, vivid focus. The clarity and sharpness of the image is first rate, although the very minor downside is that a couple of the backdrops for the exteriors shot in the studio are now far more obvious, complete with actors shadows being cast against them (check out the forced perspective shot of the cabinet film room in the opening for an example.) The prints have been beautifully cleaned up, too, with only a very occasional mark on them now, and the colour levels never feel anything but authentic, making this look as good as I’ve ever seen it. Below are some comparison shots between the three versions – as said, because I don’t have the 2007 set, my thanks to Eamonn for providing those images. The two SD versions are on top, Carlton set on the left, Network on the right, then below the new BD versions.
The Audio is equally strong. Importantly you get the choice to listen to either the original mono track or a new 5.1 mix, and while of course the former is the preferred option, the new mix does have its moments. Crowd scenes have an added vibrancy, whether it be the party atmosphere of A, B or C or the very different gathering in Dance of the Dead, while the audio trickery of Once Upon a Time is given extra dimension. Whichever you pick, both speech and music is crisp and clear, and again it’s difficult to find anything to fault - even that thunder strike in the opening has added weight now.
It’s very rare you can call a set “definitive” but as far as supplementary material goes it’s difficult to think of anything Network have left out that could have possibly been included. The amount of time and effort that went into compiling both archive material and new features is second to none, the collection being unquestionably one of the most impressive sets I’ve had the fortune to review during my six years at DVD Times. Inevitably, the one regret is that McGoohan himself is largely absent, the notoriously reticent actor politely but firmly declining the chance to appear when it was being put together, only sending a note which opens the discs’ major documentary Don’t Knock Yourself Out in which he basically says he wants the series to speak for itself. He did, however, officially endorse the set, which is pretty impressive by itself, and now that he is no longer with us we can safely say this collection is as definitive as you’ll ever get.
As said, the major documentary is Don’t Knock Yourself Out (94:53), an engrossing account of the making of the series which collects together what feels like every major contributor, both in front and behind the camera, who was still around when it was made two years ago, from numerous different Number Twos (many of whom, like Derren Nesbitt, cheerfully admit they hadn’t a clue what they were making) through to the various writers and directors who often found themselves coming up against McGoohan the auteur. There’s even extensive use of a rather grumpy archive interview with George Markstein (conducted, for some reason, in the back of a cab) and Lew Grade. The documentary covers the full story, from the first moment of inspiration for the show from Markstein to the series’ fractious shoot (with many not shy of noting McGoohan’s increasingly difficult behaviour) and on to the reaction to the finale and show’s subsequent reputation. It also, in concentrating on the practicalities of the show, resists the urge to spend much time speculating on the show’s deeper meaning, for which we should be thankful. Having the luxury of time, along the way it goes into detail, discussing most episodes at some length, the near-disaster of the first version of Rover, McGoohan’s sudden desperation when he finds himself faced with a show he hadn’t a clue how to end, and the consequent way Fall Out was written. A wonderful account.
Complementing this are Commentaries on seven episodes. Again gathering together a goodly number of original contributors, these are alternatively fascinating and somewhat disappointing. Several of the commentators, such as director Peter Graham Scott on The General, are now rather elderly and have a tendency to ramble, fall silent or occasionally wander off the point entirely. This isn’t always a bad thing: I found director Pat Jackson’s solo track on The Schizoid Man, which he uses as an excuse to present a series of anecdotes on the highlights of his career, rather enjoyable, but those searching for consistently intimate details on the making of individual episodes might be frustrated (although I did chuckle at Scott’s main comment about Lew Grade – “He always seemed to pick on me!”) Others, like writers Vincent Tilsley on his episode The Chimes of Big Ben and Roger Parkes for A Change of Mind, start off well but then evidently run out of things to say, leading to long gaps. Inevitably the two tracks of most interest are those for Arrival and Fall Out (if only McGoohan had been persuaded to contribute to the latter!) and while the commentators singularly fail to enlighten us as to the meaning of either, they do provide the most consistently interesting tracks of the seven. Fall Out’s two commentators are Eric Mival, the show’s music editor, and Noreen Ackland, the editor who recalls sitting in her suite with McGoohan while he obsessively went over and over the same footage for no readily apparent reason while she watched, increasingly mystified. She doesn’t say much else but Mival is good value (as he is also in another extra below), evidently knowing what is expected by keeping the chat going throughout and trying to draw his somewhat quiet companion into reminiscing. The pair on Arrival, Production Manager Bernie Williams and Film Librarian Tony Sloman, are almost as good, but again occasionally lapse into silence in between discussing the practicalties of the early days of production. These two are joined in Dance of the Dead by that episode’s editor John S Smith –as the latter came to be known in the production as “the man who saved Dance of the Dead” (McGoohan originally having demanded, on seeing the first cut, that the entire episode be scrapped ) his inclusion was somewhat mandatory, although in the end he doesn’t add anything particularly new to his account of the affair in Don’t Knock Yourself Out!
As well as newly commissioned features, Network have trawled the archives and retrieved a huge amount of material from the production. Each episode has its own first-run Trailers (there are also a further two generic trailers for the entire series also included) and an Image Gallery with the original musical scores as accompaniment. There are also no less than five further image galleries to look through. The Promotional Image Gallery (2:18) speaks for itself and doesn’t feature anything particularly unexpected, while the 1967 Press Conference Gallery (2:33), which seems to have taken place on the set of Once Upon a Time, is notable mainly for seeing McGoohan looking surprisingly relaxed and what looks to have been a rather good spread for the visiting journos. The Production Designs Gallery (0:51) meanwhile is a brief but fascinating look at some of Jack Shampman’s original artwork for the show which has some impressive and expressive artwork on its own, but in the end it’s the collection of Exposure Strips (10:30) which is the most substantive of these additional galleries. To save money each day’s rushes were printed in black and white, with one frame on each strip of film retaining its colour for a reference point. This is a collection of those individual frames, with a brief caption explaining what we’re looking at (which you have to be speedy in reading as the 200 frames whizz by quite quickly.)
There’s plenty of moving footage from the time as well. The most interesting are the Behind the Scenes films (45:43), a collection of mute recordings of the filming of Arrival and Checkmate by producer Leslie Gilliat (who left swiftly after) and various sight-seers and visitors to Portmeirion. This early on McGoohan doesn’t appear particularly stressed and can even be seen smiling on a couple of occasions, while various technicians busy themselves setting up shots and extras are marshalled into position. As a supplement, there’s also a brief snippet of Rover Footage (0:26) which feature the original tests for the hastily envisaged white balloon replacement for the original, disastrous Rover which, as you can see in the Behind the Scenes footage, looked like nothing but a cupcake stuck on a go-kart and was quickly determined to be wholly unsuited. Slightly less interesting is the Filing Cabinet Footage (2:29) which is basically the shot of the cabinet from the opening sequence with the word “Resigned” in a multitude of different languages. Initially the Lava Lamp Footage (7:43) sounds equally unthrilling, but given that it consists of eight minutes of nothing but waxy blobs floating around, separating and coalescing again, and is thus almost certainly the most psychedelic extra of all time one can’t but applaud its inclusion and feel that McGoohan himself would have heartily approved. Finally there’s a McGoohan Montage from Arrival which is an extended collection of photos of the actor, which also feature in Don’t Knock Yourself Out. A collection of silent off-cuts, as well as some of the footage in these extras, is also included in the form of Textless material (10:35). All of the extras in this paragraph are mute.
You might think all that is enough for archive material, but there’s more. No less than three versions of the Textless Titles (3:07) appear, one with Ron Grainger’s score and, more interestingly, two with the previous two themes which were rejected by McGoohan, one by Wilfred Josephs and one by Robert Farnon which sounds like a more shrill more version of John Barry’s Bond scores. Joseph’s music is also featured in a music-only version of Arrival’s Original Edit (50:37), which you can also watch as normal. As an extra to this extra you can also watch the opening sequence in a split-screen before and after restoration version, so that one can appreciate just what a difference has been made. This version of Arrival has been cleaned up too, but not to the same degree as the main episodes – the Original edit of The Chimes of Big Ben (50:46), on the other hand, has not and looks fairly ropey, having a damaged and faded print.
And still that’s not all. Put the second extras disc into your PC and you’ll find a whole raft of PDFs of printed material from the time. There’s more than one draft for each of the seventeen episodes to compare (indeed for some episodes there are four or five drafts included), publicity material from both the Sixties and later reshowings, magazine and novels covers, call sheets from the set, and most pleasingly of all two copies of the Tally Ho (in which some of the articles are somewhat garbled.)
As extra incentive to upgrade, Network have thrown in a handful of new extras to entice you. You Make Sure It Fits! (9:16) is a very interesting piece with music editor Mival as he discusses his time on the show, and shows us a log book he used to keep track of the various scores. On the other hand, The Pink Prisoner, (9:21) an interview excerpt from Peter Wyngarde, filmed during his contribution for Don’t Knock Yourself Out, is bizarre. The interview itself is entirely sensible – he talks about what made the show so good, the identikit nature of other ITC spy shows, and joshingly says he’d like to appear in the remake – but the interviewer affects a “Mmm-mmm-mmm” type of question, as though he’s got a sock stuffed in his mouth, which Wyngarde nonetheless seems to understand perfectly well. It’s obviously a joke I’m not getting – I just don’t see the context for it – but he seems to enjoy himself. The most painful of the new extras is a clip from Television’s Greatest Hits (2:56) from the 1980s. How they managed to get poor McGoohan to appear on what appears to be a somewhat inane show hosted by Mike Smith, in which the presenter lobs him with a couple of inane questions while an inane audience cheer him on, is a complete mystery. You can almost see the actor wondering what the hell he’s doing there.
Finally, the most interesting extra of all of them is undoubtedly Roger Goodman’s Audio Interview With Patrick McGoohan (47:47). As opposed to the silly TV’s Greatest Hits thing, this is a serious interview in which McGoohan is the most open you’ll ever hear him about the show, and while he disseminates at times, repeating some of the fallacies that others have cited in Don’t Knock Yourself Out we finally do get insight into both his intentions for the series and turmoil during production. (How it came about can be seen at this website.) This alone would be worth the price of admission and puts the cap on what is a remarkable package. Be seeing you!
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