Part 2 of a post on The Prisoner television series (visit Part 1 here), which tells of a secret agent who resigns, is abducted and incarcerated in a superficially pleasant isolated village, given the denomination No. 6 and does repeated battle with the authorities/his superiors who use complex and often convoluted methods to try and have him tell them why he resigned.
Throughout the series No. 6 battles with his interrogators – who as mentioned previously were a series of different No. 2s – and repeatedly asks and tries to find out who No. 1 is – i.e. who is ultimately in charge of The Village. In the final episode No. 6 rips a mask off who he thinks is No. 1 and the viewer is very briefly shown a glimpse of a face that appears to be his or at least a mirror of his No. 6’s. This was decidedly not the “resolving of the puzzle” reveal apparently expected by much of the audience and many may have missed even that it was No. 6’s own face as the face is distorted and only seen for a few seconds; apparently as result Patrick McGoohan had to go into hiding for a few days after the episode’s broadcast due to disgruntled viewers besieging his home.
Such details and the layered history of the series’ production is part of what has helped to create and maintain its ongoing cult following and fascination, something which it shares with that other cult British behemoth The Wicker Man (1973), which has had a notoriously chequered production and release history.
Accompanying which the series is open to almost endless debate, particularly due to it not providing a neatly resolved explanation as to just what had been going on and why, alongside Patrick McGoohan being often reluctant to discuss The Prisoner.
(Above left: the Dinky Toys released version of the Mini-Moke as featured in The Prisoner, which was released in the 1960s and reflecting both its rarity and the ongoing interest in The Prisoner that now tends to fetch hundreds of pounds online.)
One of the first times that he did was when he agreed to a series of interviews with Chris Rodley in 1983 which were intended to be used in a documentary called Six Into One – The Prisoner File which would have been shown on British television. These interviews were plagued by technical difficulties and Patrick McGoohan, despite agreeing to them, was a rather reticent and elusive interviewee and they and would largely be left unused in the documentary, which Patrick McGoohan disowned and apparently particularly disliked – as did Chris Rodley.
However sections of them would appear in Chris Rodley’s feature documentary In My Mind (2017), in which he explores the making of Six Into One and which he describes as:
“…a rare opportunity to try and put things right. The chance to make a new film, the film Patrick McGoohan deserves.”
The resulting documentary is a fascinating and heartfelt insight into the way in which Chris Rodley attempts to put to rest the ghosts that appear to have haunted him since his first attempt at a Prisoner related documentary proved unsatisfactory, The Prisoner in general and also Patrick McGoohan’s character and motivations in making the series.
One of the No. 2’s who attempts to break and interrogate No. 6 in the series says of him “He can make even the act of putting on his dressing gown appear a gesture of defiance” and this sense of rebellion about almost everything is a core feature of The Prisoner, something which seems to be reflected in the character of Patrick McGowan as shown during In My Mind when he seems to angrily resent even the act of needing to sign in when entering a studio for an interview and his daughter says during the documentary that as No. 6 he was not playing a part.
This is further reflected in In My Mind when McGoohan says that the general themes of The Prisoner had been with him for years, since he was a young boy when he was brought up in a very strict religious household and gone to a school with strict schoolmasters, something which he describes as “the individual little boy up against this sort of pressure” and the sense of isolation that can be felt in such a situation. He goes on to say that this is what the theme of The Prisoner is; the individual in revolt against the bureaucracy.
To a degree period footage of In My Mind shows him to be, as is his character in The Prisoner, a person of unbending will, who needs things to be just so. An “awkward” character in some ways – Lew Grade who commissioned the series is shown saying the following during In My Mind:
“Somebody once asked me ‘How do you get on with Patrick McGoohan?’. I said very easily, I have no problems with him at all. ‘Well how do you do it?’. I said very easily, I just give in to him.”
The nature and production of The Prisoner also in one way reflects that of Sapphire & Steel (1979-1982) in that it created its own unique visionary world within conventional mainstream cinema and did not provide an easy or resolved ending for its viewers. And also both its creator Peter J. Hammond and Patrick McGoohan would not go on to produce another similarly auteur like very distinctive project, although intriguingly when talking in In Your Mind McGoohan says that its concept is still rattling around in his mind.
His reluctance to talk about The Prisoner is explained by his daughter during In My Mind as being in part connected to its deliberately unresolved nature and her father wanting to leave work open to individual interpretation – that he did not wish to explain too much about its meaning nor did he believe in actors giving away their secrets. At the end of the interviews recorded for Six Into One he says that if his interviewees have understood any of it, it will be disappointing as he’s done the best to confuse them.
He also talks about The Prisoner’s connection to fairy tales:
“Of course I always loved fairy tales… I imagine most of us do, we like the fantasy, our myths, our legends, our belief that the impossible is possible – that anything can happen within the mind… (The Prisoner) had something of a fairytale about it.”
The ornate setting of Portmeirion as the series’ shooting location does indeed create an almost fairytale like aspect to The Prisoner but as with many fairy tales darkness and corruption lurk just under the surface (or not even that far) and Patrick McGoohan says in a further interview section also shown during In Your Mind that he always felt The Prisoner was designed for 1984 and so it was ironic that it was being broadcast again at the tail end of 1983.
1984 was the year chosen by George Orwell as the name of his iconic dystopian novel of the same name that was published in 1949, with 1984 depicted as being characterised by an unrelenting surveillance of the population combined with an unbending repression, control and authoritarianism.
These aspects are shared with the nature of The Village in The Prisoner, although in contrast with the grim austere urban society depicted in 1984 its inhabitants are in some ways nearer to being well-kept pampered pets within a superficially pleasant location but this conformist facade proves to be one of the ultimate fictional expressions of “the village gone bad”.
In fact the control and surveillance in The Prisoner while not always as overtly brutally applied as in 1984 is in some ways more invidious as even in their sleep The Village’s inhabitants may be having their dreams surveilled and being subject to brainwashing and mind altering processes.
Ultimately the events in The Prisoner are shown as possibly being all part of some ongoing circle, as in its final shot there is a thunderclap and No. 6 is shown driving away on an open country road with a determined look in his eyes, repeating and mirroring the series’ opening sequence.
While this is not strictly a happy ending then it is at least one which shows that the unbending individual will eventually be free or hopefully have further moments of or a chance at freedom.
- The Prisoner opening sequence
- The Prisoner at 50 / trailer
- The Prisoner: 50th Anniversary Edition
- In Every Mind at Network’s site
- An In Every Mind review at The Unmutual – The Prisoner News Website
- The paperback of George Orwell’s 1984
Elsewhere at A Year In The Country:
- The Prisoner – Part 1 – A Visit to a Real Life High-Definition Dream: Wanderings 33/52
- The Wicker Man – Notes on a Cultural Behemoth: Chapter 10 Book Images
- Sapphire & Steel and Ghosts in the Machine – Nowhere, Forever and Lost Spaces within Cultural Circuitry: Chapter 15 Book Images
- Michael Radford’s 1984 Part 1 – The Privations of an Alternative Past, Present and Future, V for Vendetta and the Last Inch: Wanderings 19/52
- Michael Radford’s 1984 Part 2 – Pop Music Controversies and Pastoral Escape/Non-Escape: Wanderings 20/52