The Prisoner: 40th Anniversary Special Edition Review
Sometimes it's good to be reminded of what a magical world that we live in. Without ever suggesting that he was a part of the counter culture then blooming around Carnaby Street or Haight-Ashbury, The Prisoner, by coincidence or by means of something in the water, is as fanciful, as psychedelic and as plain odd as anything else produced in the late-sixties. 1967 was the year of The Graduate, Belle de jour, Bonnie And Clyde and Point Blank. It was the year of The Doors, Sgt Pepper's, The Velvet Underground And Nico, Are You Experienced? and Axis: Bold As Love and Forever Changes. And on television, in amongst The Golden Shot, Crossroads, Coronation Street and the pre-Head Monkees came The Prisoner.
What these more out-there examples of the arts did was to prove that anything was possible. You could wear your granny's glasses, dress like a day-glo army general and declare yourself The Walrus and few would bat an eyelid. You could mix the stargazing of Instellar Overdrive and with knowing a mouse called Gerald and no one would care. John Boorman brought the revenge story of Point Blank to the screen as did Arthur Penn with the bloody Bonnie And Clyde and both were significant steps forward. Patrick McGoohan was no less daring, becoming so steeped in the Italianate village of Portmeirion as to produce a head-spinning tale of secret services, escapes, fairy tales, drugs, westerns and outlandish conspiracies. More importantly, he posed a riddle only to never provide an answer, thus creating the labyrinthine television experience that we, forty years on, find so thrilling. "Who is Number One" begat the killer of Laura Palmer and the where, why and how of Lost.
The Prisoner opens with McGoohan's secret agent resigning from his employment. Returning to his flat, he is drugged and abducted, waking up sometime later in an unusual little seaside village from which there is, apparently, no escape. Called to the village hall, he discovers that the eccentric front of the village, which is to be known only as The Village, hides a very modern command room at the centre of which sits Number Two. To our hero he says, "Good day, Number Six...For official purposes, everyone has a number. Yours is number Six!" Number Six is led on a tour of the Village, where, curiously given their status as prisoners, everyone seems perfectly happy, if dancing in an odd manner. "What are they here for? Saint Vitus' Dance?" is what Number Six asks Number Two of them. However pretty the Village is, Number Six is determined to escape. The identity of Number One, the whereabouts of the Village and its purpose can all wait, at least until he returns to destroy it.
Other than the suggestion that each man is a prisoner in a jail of his own making, I don't believe there's much meaning to be taken from The Prisoner. Instead, it's a near-perfect fit for the small village in which it is set, Portmeirion. Should you ever visit Portmeirion - and I would recommend that you do - you will likely watch a short film that describes the making of the village. Clough William-Ellis only had the grand intention of building a place that he described as a, "...site for my own satisfaction; an ensemble that would body forth my chafing ideas of fitness and gaiety and indeed be me." In 1925, he began work on Portmeirion, opening a hotel a year later to finance the building of the village, finally completing it in 1976. The detail in Portmeirion came over time as William-Ellis made his way across Europe and, finding discarded statues, ruined fountains and other architectural details, paid a nominal amount for them and had them shipped to Wales. Today, Portmeirion is a wonderful mess of architecture from different places and eras, of tricks of perspective, of colour and of a series of buildings that climb up a hillside, from the hotel at the bottom to the Watchhouse at the top.
The Prisoner is not so very different from Portmeirion. It is a television concoction made up of bits and pieces of preceding shows, notably Danger Man and of fairy tales, science fiction, westerns and spy dramas. It contains echoes from the past - penny farthings, straw hats and blazers - as well as gadgets from the plastic wonderland of the late-sixties, such as spherical chairs, one-piece telephones, multicoloured umbrellas, Mini Mokes and a moneybox with a skeletal hand snatching out at coins. It also offers just as many moments that are completely of itself, including the famous Rovers - giant balloons that enforce the strict no-exit policy of The Village - the farewell of, "Be seeing you!" and a structure of names and numbers that seems to reflect how important one is to the Village.
If there's much that's vague about this then that's a reflection of the show itself. The Prisoner, as has McGoohan over the years, avoids giving any answers. A perfect example of this is in the person of Number Two, which is a role that appears to be occupied on a rotational basis. Dismissed due to failure? Broken on the wheel of Number Six's psychological games? Currently living in another Village in another part of the world. Leo McKern played Number Two three times, Colin Gordon twice and even Peter Wyngarde did it once but only once is it suggested what happens to any of them when, in the show's final episode, Fall Out, Leo McKern is seen entering the Houses of Parliament by the Peers' Entrance. There is even a female Number Two in Free For All and, later, in Many Happy Returns, Dance Of The Dead and It's Your Funeral. As for Number One, his identity is tantalisingly out of reach with Number Two dangling carrots like, "If you win Number One will no longer be a mystery to you, if you know what I mean" in front of Six. McGoohan and The Prisoner never confirms or denies anything.
"If you know what I mean." It's a perfect line with which to define The Prisoner. At once, it can appear to be a fantastic in-joke that McGoohan is very much alone in being in on and, most likely, the same one his Number Six is excluded from it. In spite of what little co-creator George Markstein has said over the years, such as his saying The Prisoner takes place in a resort-like prison for retired agents who are then so broken as to reveal the state secrets that they carry with them, The Prisoner becomes a game of cat-and-mouse between Numbers Two and Six. Free For All sees Number Six standing for election to be the new Number Two - nowhere else is it suggested that one can be voted into this position - while The Schizoid Man has Number Two bring a double of Number Six, perhaps himself a spy, to the Village in an effort to break him. Number Six escapes a deserted Village in Many Happy Returns while he later drives Number Two to break in revenge of his killing of a young girl in Hammer Into Anvil. In the final set of episodes, Number Six takes up the post of sheriff in a Western town called Harmony, settles back into his old job in the Village fairy-tale of The Girl Who Was Death while in Once Upon A Time, Numbers Six and Two ready themselves for a duel to the death.
In addition to everything else mentioned, the odd flavour of the show comes from McGoohan being forced to extend its run from his preferred seven episodes to ten to ensure a sale to US network CBS. Living In Harmony and The Girl Who Was Death add a clear sense of the surreal to The Prisoner, not least the sight of a heavily-disguised Number Six playing cricket with an exploding ball or his drinking poisoned pints of bitter. These episodes, which are less convincing that the first ten (up to Hammer Into Anvil) and do much to make one believe there is really no purpose to The Prisoner other than as surreal fantasy, a psychedelic whimsy to match The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. Never is this more so than in the show's final episode Fall Out, which ends with a possible reveal of those behind Number Two's throne in the Village, the trial of Number Six, a shootout to the tune of All You Need Is Love and an escape to London on the back of lorry while singing Dem Bones. We may even learn who Number One is.
Then again, if you listen very carefully to what is said in each and every episode, it's perfectly clear who Number One was from the very beginning. Once again, The Prisoner reveals what a peculiar show it is with the answer to the answer to the one question that sustained the audience's interest being there all along. The Prisoner, though, is very much more than the question of who is Number One. The joy of The Prisoner is coming to it without very much forewarning, to realise that the reputation of the show is as nothing when compared to how bizarre, colourful and unique these seventeen episodes are. It's probably no coincidence that one of your favourite episodes will be one of the first that you watch largely for being an entry into such an odd and unforgettable experience. For me, that will be The Girl Who Was Death from a mid-eighties Channel 4 showing of the episode. In spite of it being one of the less episodes, that episodes has all the madness and treachery that one expects of The Prisoner even though next to nothing of it actually takes place in the Village. But immersed in the series, all the charm, psychedelia, conspiracies, cultishness and peculiar British take of the world of The Prisoner is evident, wonderfully so in the very best episodes. It is genuinely one-of-a-kind and will, if you're lucky, inspire such devotion as to have you visiting Portmeirion and waving, "Be seeing you!" It's so very easy a thing to do.
Network have done outstanding work on restoring television shows before now. The Champions was a superb set but their best work to date was on their release of Series 1 of Space: 1999 that was so much better than the Carlton set as for there to be no comparison between the two. This, however, is probably their best release yet with such an immediately impressive restoration of the material that it invites comparison with the most outstanding archive releases from Warner Brothers. fruits of this were seen very early on with the image comparisons that Network put up on their website, which is still available via this link.
However, I did wonder if, given that all of these screenshots were taken from early on in the series, that it would be Arrival, The Chimes Of Big Ben and A. B. And C. that would have benefited most from Network's restoration, a thought that most buyers of the set will jump between the early, better episodes and Fall Out. So to compare the Carlton release with this Network set, I headed for the final couple of discs and to Hammer Into Anvil, A Change Of Mind, Living In Harmony, The Girl Who Was Death and Fall Out. My comparisons are shown below with the Carlton version on the left and the Network restored version on the right:
Certainly, at a first, it does look very good. The outdoors scenes in particular look better than they've ever done with a clarity to the skylines and the backgrounds of Portmeirion that suggests Network have done much more than turn up the brightness and correct the colours a little. Of the screenshots included in Network's own comparison, the location shots are again the highlight. However, look more closely at the backgrounds and you'll see that it's often the Carlton release that's clearer. What I found in just taking these screenshots was that it was much easier to get a clearer image off the old Carlton set than it was with the Network release with the interlacing of the latter leading to a slight blurring of objects in the image. Look again at the screenshot of The Girl Who Was Death and compare the detail in Sonia's face and the mask on the wall in the Carlton shot (on the left) with the Network release and note that there's a much greater clarity, although it is slightly darker and with less colour, in the Carlton shot. The same goes for looking at the bush and lawn in the shot of McGoohan in Portmeirion and in the faces of the masked jury behind McGoohan from the Fall Out shot.
That's only really part of the story, though, as can be seen from the first screenshot, which comes from the episode Living In Harmony. It's obvious that the Network release looks much better with a clarity to McGoohan's face that's missing in the Carlton release and a much better framing of the image, which includes more material at the top and bottom of the screen. The same goes for the second screenshot from A Change Of Mind. That this isn't consistent throughout the set implies that Network were at least careful not to simply apply all changes to all episodes with their restoration actually looking at each scene and restoring it faithfully for this DVD release. The only shame about this is that it's not quite the complete improvement over the Carlton release, at least in terms of background detail, that it could have been.
Through this restoration, as well as including the original English Mono track (as a DD2.0 Mono) Network have also remixed the audio into DD5.1. To be entirely honest, there's very little happening in the rear channels or subwoofer throughout that for most of its audience, at least those who won't overlook a DVD because of a lack of DD5.1, the mono will be the preferred way of watching and listening to The Prisoner. Switching between the two, the mono track simply sounds richer, more full and offers the viewer a better listening experience. Network have done a fine job in cleaning up the audio track - it is a slight improvement on the Carlton release - and it's a pleasure to listen to throughout. The DD5.1 audio track, though, sounds thin and appears to offer a surround experience through the use of an odd phasing effect, which I've heard elsewhere but thought they could have done better with. To be honest, this DD5.1 track is more a selling point than a technical achievement, which, to this viewer who actually likes the original audio tracks, doesn't add anything.
Finally, one audience will be disappointed by this set and that's one that requires subtitles. While popping DVDs in and out, I confirmed that the Carlton release had subtitles throughout while this Network release does not. Having reviewed a fair amount of material from Network, I hadn't expected them but there's probably a reasonably-sized set of viewers who, as far as The Prisoner goes, will be better off sticking with the Carlton release for the subtitles.
Don’t Knock Yourself Out (94m53s): McGoohan explains much about his lack of involvement in retrospective documentaries in the quote that opens this feature on The Prisoner, "If whatever we wanted to say is not contained within the episodes of the series then I failed in the production of them and any amount of chit-chat now will not make good that omission." Therefore, without McGoohan, this extensive and exclusive documentary is not the final word on The Prisoner with contributions from many of those involved in the production of the series is as near as we're ever likely to get. Featuring interviews with actors Peter Wyngarde, Anton Rodgers, Michael Grade, George Baker and Peter Bowles, chief executive of Portmeirion Limited, Robin Llewellyn, Michael Grade and (in archive footage) Lew Grade and many of those who worked with McGoohan behind the scenes, this is a very fine feature that goes from McGoohan's finding of Portmeirion in an episode of Danger Man, through the making of The Prisoner to the reputation that has built up around it over the last forty years. It is always interesting, not least that it has the running time to support picking out episodes for a more detailed look, including how McGoohan planned, wrote and directed the ending of The Prisoner. Happily, it doesn't even offer a proper explanation of the show or its ending although it does acknowledge the audience's disappointment in that with the finest word regarding that ending coming from Bernie Williams, who says, "They wanted to see a guy there with a machine...Sean Connery saying, "I control this whole show!"" Well, there's no Sean Connery.
Audio Commentaries: There are a total of seven commentaries spread throughout the set and manage, by hook or by crook, to accompany the more important episodes of the show. The commentaries begin on the first disc with Arrival (Production Manager Bernie Williams and Film Librarian Tony Sloman) and The Chimes Of Big Ben (Writer Vincent Tilsley) and carry on to the second with commentaries on The Schizoid Man (Director Pat Jackson) and The General (Director Peter Graham Scott). Later episodes granted commentaries are Dance Of The Dead (Bernie Williams, Tony Sloman and Editor John S Smith), A Change Of Mind (Writer Roger Parkes) and Fall Out (Music Editor Eric Mival and Editor Noreen Ackland). These will never rank as high as a good many commentaries out there but they are rather fine tracks nonetheless, notably for their having contributions from members of the production team who actually worked on the show. The best commentaries here are those with more than one contributor, including Arrival, Dance Of The Dead and Fall Out as these tend to cover up for any lapses in conversation better than those with just one but without any involvement from Patrick McGoohan, these commentaries avoid the question of what the show was about. What we do hear are memories of the show, including their takes on McGoohan, the shooting of The Prisoner on the set and in Portmeirion and what they remember of the cast and crew who worked with them on each episode. What we don't learn anything about is what The Prisoner is actually about but, then again, that's for McGoohan to reveal and, as with the rest of the bonus material on this set, he is conspicuous by his absence.
Trailers: There are nineteen trailers scattered throughout the set, seventeen of which are episode-specific with the other two being generic ones for the entire show. All nineteen have been digitally restored for this set and though they're not up to the standard of the actual episodes, they don't look at all bad. Each trailer lasts for about a minute.
Exposure Strips (10m30s): To save costs, the daily rushes for The Prisoner were printed in black and white with one strip of colour film made available to the director and cameraman to check for colour. This feature presents a single frame from many of these rolls of film with a line of text explaining what it is that we're looking at.
Textless Titles (3x 3m07s): Three pieces of music were composed for the main titles of The Prisoner with this feature allowing the viewer to watch all three. The first of these carries the well-known Ron Grainger theme while the other two are by Wilfred Josephs and Robert Farnon.
Textless Material: This is a catch-all for various odds and ends of material that doesn't appear to fit in anywhere else. As well as Silent Cuts (4m03s) from various episodes, a Foreign Filing Cabinet sequence (2m29s), which will allow you to learn RESIGNED in various languages and a short piece on Rover (26s), we have a Patrick McGoohan Photo Montage (56m20s) that ends with an audio-only interview with the star by Roger Goodman, which is fascinating. This reveals much about The Prisoner, his making of the show, his relationship with the press and how unhappy he is at how his work on the show has been treated by others. Finally, we also have a short piece compiled from behind-the-scenes 8mm and 16mm footage including, it claims, the only existing material of the original and abandoned Rover - a go-kart with what appears to be a giant wedding cake on top of it - as well as, in a nice little touch, McGoohan standing beside and petting a Rover from the finished series. Also included is a set of Commercial Break Bumpers (26s), which, separated from the rest of the episode, are the penny farthing-starring drawings that bookend the breaks for advertisements.
Original Edits: There are two alternate versions of episodes included in this set, one for Arrival (48m38s) and another for The Chimes of Big Ben (50m38s). Arrival is, I believe, new and exclusive to this set and features the same restoration as has been granted all of the other episodes in this boxset while the alternate version of The Chimes of Big Ben is the same as that included on the old Carlton release. As well as these two episodes, you can also watch Arrival without dialogue but with the music and a Visual Comparison (3m49s) of the original print and the digitally restored version of the episode. Unfortunately, The Chimes of Big Ben is presented without being restored and there is a significant fall in the visual quality for this one episode.
Image Galleries: Like the trailers, these are spread throughout the set with each disc featuring a ten-minute (or thereabouts) image gallery for the three episodes featured there. The seventh disc in the set closes with three further galleries, a Generic Gallery (2m15s), one for the 1967 Press Conference (2m30s) and another for Jack Shampman's Production Designs (3m45s). Each one includes behind-the-scenes shots, production stills and off-the-set moments, which offer a very complete picture (no pun intended) of the production.
Scripts: Original scripts are available throughout the set as PDF files but aren't listed on the actual onscreen menus. However, explore the disc on a PC and they are there complete with scribbles from the production to guarantee their authenticity. The best material in the set comes on Disc 7 and demonstrates Network's commitment to tracking down all manner of printed material. As well as Prisoner-related covers to the TV Times and TV Tornado, we have two issues of The Tally Ho (the Village newspaper), call out sheets, publicity material, unused scripts and storylines, lists of recorded music, plot synopses, archive material from ITC and even a Christmas card. Frankly, there's more material here than I could ever have hoped for, leaving Network having excelled themselves once again in including printed material on PDF.
Production Guide Book: What with receiving only check discs for The Prisoner, I can't offer any view on what is, I'm sure, the best extra with this set, a book on the making of the series written by Andrew Pixley. About Pixley's book on The Beiderbecke Trilogy, I said that it was far and away the best addition to that set being well-written, authoritative and warmly appreciative of the shows in question. I have no doubt that this book will offer much the same experience for The Prisoner and will, given its inclusion in this set, be of considerable value. In fact, it's probably better-written and better value than any of the Prisoner-related books that are already available. If you do have this set, please leave a comment below as without sneaking into a HMV or the like to have a look, I can't really say what it's like.
For a very long time after beginning to review their releases, Network looked no more capable of releasing a special edition than putting a man on the moon. However, with releases like Space: 1999, The Champions, The Beiderbecke Trilogy and now this, they've proved that when they go about preparing a Special Edition, they deliver so completely that they have few that can equal them for their sourcing of bonus material. Certainly, this is a strong contender for television boxset of the year with a restoration that can be excellent, a set of extras that lacks only any recent involvement from Patrick McGoohan, which is no fault of Network, and such good taste as to have done all this with The Prisoner. This is a marvellous show and a marvellous boxset and I can't think of anything better to end this with than to urge you to buy this and to pay a visit to Portmeirion. You will not regret either.