Portmeirion, setting for the original version of The Prisoner.- Photo copyright 1988 Patrick Keating.
“I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered!”- the Prisoner (Patrick McGoohan)
One of the best television series ever made was The Prisoner, which addressed such issues as the rights of the individual; the electoral process; education; identity and the nature of freedom, and didn’t provide easy answers or “pat you on the head” moralizing sermons. This 17-episode series co-created by and starring the late Patrick McGoohan forced viewers to not only consider such issues, but also to think for themselves. Something most people weren’t used to doing, especially when seated in front of a TV set.
On Nov. 15, the cable channel AMC will broadcast a six hour mini series reinterpretation of McGoohan’s landmark series in cooperation with ITV. It will star Jim Caviezel as “Six” and Sir Ian McKellen as “Two.”
On the surface, the original series concerned an unnamed man (presumably a government agent) who is abducted to a place called the Village following his resignation; and who seeks to both escape and to find out which side of the iron curtain runs the place. Everyone in the Village is identified by a number, not a name, with the public face of the Village’s power represented by “Number Two.” A new Number Two appeared in each episode (though two actors, Leo McKern and Colin Gordon, made repeat appearances in the role). The Village seeks to break the Prisoner’s spirit so that he’ll accept that he’s “Number Six”; and those in charge also want to know why he resigned, information Number Six refuses to divulge.
The remake will obviously not have the cold war as a backdrop- and McKellen plays “Two” in all six episodes- but will, I hope, address some of the same themes McGoohan explored. But through a modern day lens. If nothing else, we’ve become even more saddled with numbers (and other impersonal identifiers) today than in the 1960s.
In "Free For All", the election campaign between Number Two and Number Six gets underway.- photo courtesy AMCTV.com.
The original series was filmed in the Italianate resort of Portmeirion in Wales. The remake was filmed in Swakopmund, Namibia, originally a German colonial style beach resort. In both cases, the Village’s pleasant holiday resort exterior hides a sinister undercurrent.
As I said, The Prisoner explored a number of issues. In the episode “Free For All”, McGoohan, who wrote (as “Paddy Fitz”) and directed, addressed political campaigns and how they’re covered in the media. Number Six is maneuvered into running for the office of Number Two. He finds the idea of elections in the Village amusing.
“Elections? In this place?” he asks Number Two (Eric Portman).
In that episode, we’re treated to banal campaign promises (Number Six literally promises winter, spring, summer or fall); and in a meeting of the outgoing council, the council members just stand there as Number Six demands to know who elected them and to what place or country they owe allegiance. And all “proposals” of the council are “carried unanimously” by Number Two as the council stands mute.
That episode also finds Number Six “interviewed” by Number 113 (Harold Berens), a “reporter” for the local “newspaper” who supplies his own answers to his questions. To give just one example:
Number 113: “How are you going to handle your campaign?”
Number Six: “No comment.”
Number 113: “Intends to fight for freedom at all costs.”
Seconds after the “interview” is over, Number Six discovers that the edition of the paper just then coming off the press contains the story “No. 6 Speaks His Mind.”
How would McGoohan have addressed the roles the Internet, blogging and the 24 hour news cycle play in elections? Though none of the six episodes of the new miniseries are based on “Free For All” (they are based on other original episodes), perhaps the role such technologies play will still be addressed in some way.
A promotional poster for the new Prisoner mini series. Photo courtesy AMCTV.com.
By the way, in 1988, I took a class on the presidency and suggested to the teacher that we screen and discuss “Free For All” in class because of its commentary about the election process and how candidates are sometimes covered in the media. He nixed the idea, arguing it might somehow have a negative effect related to the then-current election.
I’ve always found that argument ludicrous. A fictional election on a 1960s British TV show was going to somehow adversely affect American college students voting in an American presidential election two decades after the show aired? Let’s stay real, shall we?
Education was another issue addressed in The Prisoner. In “The General” the Speedlearn “educational” process imparts information directly to the cerebral cortex, but those who take the three-year course “Europe since Napoleon” in three minutes, and have the information “indelibly impressed upon the mind”, can only parrot back the exact information beamed into their head. People who take the “course” learn when the Treaty of Adrianople took place (September, 1829), but when Number 12 (John Castle) asks Number Six what it was, Number Six can only give the date.
“Wrong,” Number 12 says. “I said what, not when.”
To number Six, those who are “educated” through Speedlearn are “a row of cabbages.”
“Indeed,” Number Two (Colin Gordon) replies. “Knowledgeable cabbages.”
But how knowledgeable is someone when that “knowledge” is so limited?
Whether the remake of The Prisoner is a strong enough project to stand on its own merits remains to be seen. If I get a chance to watch it, I will. If only to satisfy my curiosity. I hope, at least, that those behind the new series take it in their own direction, and don’t try to retread the same ground McGoohan explored. Perhaps they’ll have a different take on the identity of Number One.
The original Prisoner is available on DVD, and can also be watched online at AMCTV.com. It’s well worth checking out.
Be seeing you.
Copyright 2009 Patrick Keating