It was 50 years ago, on 5 September 1966, that the cameras rolled for the first time in the Italianate village of Portmeirion as filming got under way for the cult 1960s adventure TV show The Prisoner.
The series was first broadcast in the United Kingdom from 29 September 1967 to 1 February 1968 and created such a stir amongst myself and my friends. We had never seen anything like it and each episode was greatly anticipated and became essential TV viewing. In fact no arrangements were ever made to meet up and socialize until each episode had concluded, that how much of a cult it became. Now in my late 60s, I look back on this series with nostalgia and a recognition of what a ground breaking and challenging programme it was. Who can ever forget the inimitable Patrick McGoohan uttering those immortal words “I am not a number, I am a free man.”
The programme starred actor Patrick McGoohan playing the part of Number Six who is held captive in a mysterious village where the residents are known only by a number. Each week, he would attempt to escape, only to find himself unable to break free from those who held him. But who were they? Why was he imprisoned? Which side were his captors on? And who was Number One?
The show was the creation of McGoohan, producer and director David Tomblin and script editor George Markstein who appeared in the opening titles, playing the role of the man to whom McGoohan’s character offers his resignation. But it was McGoohan who, as well as being its star, shaped the show, writing and directing key episodes.
Prior to filming in Portmeirion, the opening sequence had been filmed in August 1966, with McGoohan behind the wheel of a Lotus 7, navigating the streets of London before pulling up outside his home in Buckingham Place.
Once inside, we see him rendered unconscious as gas is pumped into the room, and we next see him waking up in an exact replica of his home, yet, as he pulls back the curtains, he reveals the mysterious village, his prison.
We soon learn that his incarceration is the result of his resignation, and his captors, led by Number Two, want to know why he resigned, although what role he resigned from is not revealed. Was he a spy, a scientist or something else? The opening sequence effectively sets up the rest of the show, packing an entire plot into just a few frames.
We never discover the real name of Number Six, though some fans believe The Prisoner followed on from McGoohan’s previous role as secret service agent John Drake in Danger Man, shown under the title Secret Agent in the US.
The role had made him one of the highest-paid talents on British television at that time, and he was even offered the role of James Bond, something he turned down as he was against the excessive use of guns and violence, preferring to use brains rather than brawn to solve a case.
Indeed, you could argue that The Prisoner was an extension of that, taking a well-trodden television format and pushing it to a new dimension, where the viewer has to do some of the work, to think and feel and interpret what they are seeing on the small screen.
The village itself is full of colourful residents, people whom Number Six views as having surrendered to conformity, who no longer resist their incarceration, or perhaps some are actually guards? Whom can he trust? He tells Number Two, played by different actors each week: “I will not make any deals with you. I’ve resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own.” It was a call for individualism at a time when revolution was in the air. Number Six will not reveal why he resigned,
.Many of the village extras were played by people recruited from the surrounding area and the town of Porthmadog, where the rushes from each day’s shooting would be viewed at the Coliseum cinema by McGoohan and the director. The location of the filming was kept secret from viewers until the final episode when the location was revealed, not a secret you would be likely to keep these days.
The programme ran for only 17 episodes, and was shot in colour to meet the demands of the all-important American market, though when first broadcast in the UK, in late 1967, it was shown in black and white, and drew audiences of around 10 million.
Since its broadcast, it has achieved cult status, perhaps thanks in part to its mysterious ending, and the revelation of who was Number One, something we won’t spoil here, so a new generation can enjoy it. But as McGoohan later explained, if audiences were expecting a James Bond-style baddy to appear, they would have been disappointed.
After the final episode was broadcast in early 1968, McGoohan is said to have gone into hiding to escape the anger directed at him, while the production company issued written explanations of the symbolism behind the show. But, looking back, perhaps that anger was misplaced or overblown.
Indeed research has shown that the show’s reception in the US was on the whole a positive one, with a demand for more episodes. Although, as McGoohan’s initial plans were to make only seven, that was unlikely, as he had already had to be pushed to make 17, again to ensure it sold to the US.
On the surface, it was a simple adventure story with elaborate sets created by art director Jack Shampan, yet underlying the gloss and beautiful 35mm colour footage the show asked questions about society and our roles and freedom within it. McGoohan was rarely drawn on the subject, but as time passed revealed a little, noting that it was about breaking down an individual’s will, yet it was also to be seen as an allegory.
He said that the “the village” was both an external and interior concept, reflecting the individual’s lack of freedom on many levels. He told author Alain Carraze: “We are all prisoners of this or that, many things, each in his own ‘Village'”.
The allegorical nature is more obvious in some episodes than others, though it is reinforced at the end when McGoohan’s character arrives back home in his Lotus and the door opens to his home where it all began. Of course not everyone agrees, with some critics and viewers left feeling bemused and wondering what on earth is going on, and what all the fuss is about.
Whatever you feel, it is undoubtedly one of the most surprising and influential programmes to grace the small screen, and possibly unique in the interest it generates nearly half a century on.