"Fall Out: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to The Prisoner” by Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore (published by Telos)

Why a TV program continues to captivate

What a program that was. British TV viewers had never seen anything quite like it when "The Prisoner” aired for 17 episodes in 1967-68, each as inscrutable as the last. What was it – spy story, sci-fi, fantasy, adventure, allegory, dream? A bit of each and more after a secret agent resigns, is kidnapped and taken to a mystery Village where "they” – whoever "they” are – want to pick his brain. A battle of wills begins. Viewers are hooked, a cult grows and we are still thinking about it in 2023.
21. October 2023 6:35

The Budapest Times was tuned in back in 1967 and we have our own word for what really was an extraordinarily enigmatic program (though doubtless others have used it) – phantasmagorical. We also have all 17 programs on DVD, and as it’s been a while since we saw them again, now is the time with this book in hand as a guide.

The book was actually first published in 2007, which would have been the 40th anniversary of the series, and now gets a fresh release, proving that the legend is living on. And if you doubt that, a “Selected Bibliography” –  selected, mind you  –  lists 14 books specifically about “The Prisoner”, magazines that accompanied a DVD release, publications from The Official Prisoner Appreciation Society, a handful of websites and two documentaries.

“The Prisoner” came about when Irish-American actor and screenwriter Patrick McGoohan tired of playing agent John Drake in the television series “Danger Man”, which had run for 86 episodes between 1960 and 1962 and 1964 and 1968. His quick decision to leave surprised many but McGoohan wanted something new.

The genesis of “The Prisoner” is usually attributed to a meeting of minds between McGoohan and writer/journalist/script editor George Markstein, who had worked on “Danger Man”. The two have disputed who actually came up with the idea but McGoohan was the dominating influence from the start and had overall creative control, taking a great interest in all aspects of production, including costuming, effects, casting and scripting.

He persuaded television and theatre impresario Lew Grade to take a risk and commission the series with a solid budget of £75,000 per 50-minute episode, £35,000 more than its nearest rival, and making it the most expensive series of its day.

Production values were therefore high, including filming in colour when most television was still in black and white. “The Prisoner” launched on September 29,  1967 and it had been as recent as July 1 that year when BBC2 introduced colour television to the British public with the Wimbledon tennis championships.

Portmeiron, a predominently Italianate hotel complex in North Wales, was chosen to stand in as the mysterious Village from which there was no escape. Architect Clough Williams-Ellis had founded the site in 1925, preserving “rescued” old buildings of interest and building new ones in attractive and interesting styles. The surreal architecture with its Mediterranean atmosphere gave “The Prisoner” an individual look to go along with its other peculiarities. These included high-tech interiors, tannoys, surveillance cameras and piped music, creating a bizarre combination.

McGoohan starred as Number Six, the leading role. We never learn his actual name (some theories hold that the Prisoner is John Drake, even though an evasive McGoohan denied this; if so, he would’ve owed royalties to the creator of “Danger Man”). After his abrupt and angry resignation as an agent in London, he arrives home but is gassed unconscious and wakes up in a recreation of his flat in the mysterious coastal Village.

“Where am I?” “In the Village.” “What do you want?” “Information.” “Whose side are you on?” “That would be telling. We want information. Information.” “You won’t get it.” “By hook or by crook we will. ” “Who are you?” “The new Number Two.” “Who is Number One?” “[Laughing] You are Number Six.” “I am not a number. I am a free man.” More laughter.

Nobody there has a name. Number Two is the leader who tries to get the better of the uncooperative new arrival. Number Twos change regularly, male and female, with a couple of programs having more than one, and a couple of Number Twos appearing in more than one episode. And if it wasn’t possible to get past Number Two, then Number One, if there was one, stayed far out of reach.

Number Six makes constant attempts to flee the strange colony. He is continually thwarted, particularly by “Rover”, a large balloon that chases down and smothers any would-be escaper. Rover halts an attempt by speedboat. An effort by helicopter sees the controls taken over remotely. Even when Number Six does seem to get back to London, the whole thing has been faked.

Most inhabitants though, dressed in their blazers and boaters, striped jerseys and college scarves, and multi-coloured capes, are basically compliant. The Village’s warders become just as frustrated as they deal with a man who will not bend or break and never gives up the fight. Then again, who are the warders and who are the villagers?

The book looks at all the unsettling goings-on. The authors say “The Prisoner” is set apart by its evasie quality of not being beholden to a single, or overriding, theory or metaphor. “It has, for instance, been seen as an allegorical representation of the battle of the individual against society; a fantasy or hallucination  in the protagonist’s mind; a ’The Truman Show’-style comment on the media; and many other things.” Could it be a Cold War thing?

Various elements went into its making. McGoohan wanted to challenge the conventions of the series with which he had become strongly associated, namely “Danger Man”. Markstein wanted a relatively straighforward, if claustrophobic and paranoia-laced, spy story. He eventually left the series. Add to this experimental and surreal ideas from European cinema, the individual ideas of the various writers and even ground-breaking British comedy of the 1950s and 1960s that punctured post-war social conservatism.

Alan Stephens and Fiona Moore look at all 17 episodes. What the authors don’t do, they make plain, is repeat facts, figures, statistics and technical data that have already been covered elsewhere. Nor are they interested in gossipy and/or salacious anecdotes or being too analytical (The Budapest Times might dispute this last claim, as the authors delve deeply). This isn’t intended to be the last word on the head-scratching program because there is always something new to discover, they say.

But having said that, it’s difficult to imagine there could be much more to unearth than there is here. Apart from the episode-by-episode dissection, there are essays that probe gender, sexuality (McGoohan censored any hint of romance) and ethnicity; the history and meaning of Rover; the askew order of the 17 episodes; and, the biggest secret of all, just who is Number One, the elusive figure behind the Village?

The order of the episodes is a primary topic of fan debate, with the only concensus being that the original broadcast sequence doesn’t make proper sense. The single agreement is on the introductory episode “Arrival” and the two-part finale, “Once Upon a Time”/”Fall Out” (which were filmed nearly a year apart). Everything in between is up for debate. And the oblique program 17 compounded all before by not really explaining anything at all.

It doesn’t get much weirder than “The Prisoner” a subversive and semi-impenetrable morass of gobbledegook, non-sequiturs, tangled continuity and mish-mashed genres. Watch it, read all about it, enjoy the experience and try to make sense, but don’t pretend to know what the hell it’s all about because we won’t believe you.

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