The Beginner's Page
No.2: “I suppose you're wondering why you're here.”
No.6: “The thought had crossed my mind. What's it all about??”
By the early 1960s, spy novels gripped the British populace. Such enthusiasm had blossomed after the Second World War and the development of the atomic bomb. Who had what? What was he going to do? How was he going to do it? These kinds of Cold War-related questions needed to be answered by a special (although often fictional) type of hero -- the secret agent. An important initiator of this movement were the James Bond novels, begun in the early 1950s by Ian Fleming. Starting with Dr. No in 1962, these became popularized movies.
Danger Man and the Origin of the Prisoner
Although Bond leaped directly from book to film, many spy stories were developed for television (some jumping to it from radio). In addition to The Avengers (1961) and, later, The Saint (1962), one famous series, Danger Man (1960), starred the central figure behind the Prisoner -- Patrick McGoohan. This was McGoohan's first major acting role in television. Shot in black-and-white, Danger Man featured the character known as John Drake, a secret agent who relies more on high-tech gadgets than brute strength. Other actors and actresses in this series played future roles in the Prisoner -- Jane Merrow, Derren Nesbitt, and Peter Swanwick, to name a few. You even get to see Virginia Maskell (“Arrival”) with the hat off. Whee!
Building interest from the James Bond movies, the U.S. aired the half-hour Danger Man serial a couple of years after the original British airdates, retitling it Secret Agent. It was a great success, and it culminated in the production of a second Danger Man series, lasting from 1964 through 1966. These were one-hour stories, which meant there was more time to focus on character development than the action-oriented first series. In fact, you can see some of Drake's frustration with his bosses growing, perhaps motivation for No.6's retirement in the Prisoner.
Most of the second series episodes were directed by Don Chaffey, who directed many Prisoner episodes. A few episodes were directed by Patrick McGoohan. George Markstein joined as script editor late in the run. Some episodes that may have influenced making of the the Prisoner include “View From the Villa ”, the very first episode of Danger Man. The episode was partially shot at Hotel Portmeirion, the same location used for the exteriors of the Prisoner! Another episode, entitled “Colony Three”, involved Drake infiltrating an isolate “Village” used by the enemy to condition agents. Only two episodes of the second series were shot in color -- “Koroshi” and “Shinda Shima” -- just before the Prisoner. (These two episodes would later be merged and finally aired as a single film in 1968. The character “Potter”, seen in “Koroshi”, shows up in the Prisoner episode “The Girl Who Was Death”.)
By early 1966, McGoohan had the vision of a new show crystalized in his mind and convinced entertainment executive Lord Lew Grade to push it to T.V. His new vision caused a somewhat awkward termination of Danger Man; however, McGoohan would use Drake's aura as a tool to promote this new series, the Prisoner. Production began in 1966 under the guise of a special, seventeen-episode limited-series spy epic.
Introductory Remarks About the Prisoner
Patrick McGoohan stars as a British government agent who abruptly resigns without indication and is immediately drugged and sent to a place known only as “the Village”. In the Village, no one is known by name. They are only known by a number, and Patrick McGoohan's number is 6. Throughout the series, the powers-that-be (namely, Number Two) of the Village continually try to find out why No.6 resigned, only to be thwarted time after time by No.6's steadfast refusal to give in.
The beginning of the series (roughly the first three episodes) involves the Village trying to force No.6 to give in via conventional methods (i.e., they try to ‘win him over’). The next six to seven episodes generally are a mixture of two central themes: 1) No.6 making complex attempts to escape the Village, or 2) The Village attempting to “break” him with rather unusual tactics. Often, these two themes occur simultaneously. After “Many Happy Returns,” No.6 gives up the idea of escaping, and instead concentrates on simply thwarting any of No.2's secret plans. This continues on until the final two episodes, which centralize around a last-ditch effort to ‘break’ No.6.
Originally, McGoohan intended only The Prisoner to be seven episodes long. These episodes were: “Arrival,” “Dance of the Dead,” “Free for All,” “The Chimes of Big Ben,” “Checkmate,” “Once Upon a Time,” and “Fall Out.” Later, ITC and Lew Grade egged McGoohan to do 26 -- a full season's worth. But in the end, McGoohan could only come up with 17 stories -- and that was that. Hence, it was considered one of the first mini-series of all time, being shown in 1967 in the UK, and 1968 and 1969 in the US. The PRISONER FAQ goes nto more detail about the original seven episodes, as well as listings of the other ten.
Much of the interior shots of The Prisoner were filmed at MGM Studios in Borehamwood, England. However, the exterior shots were filmed on location at a place called Hotel Portmeirion, located on a bay just southwest of Penrhyndeudraeth in northern Wales. The designer of Portmeirion, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, intended the hotel to be entirely unique, with buildings such as the Green Dome, and tourist curiosities such as the Stone Boat. It is still a hotel today. Interestingly enough, the map of the Village in “Arrival,” the first episode, strongly resembles the actual layout of Portmeirion.
We've also assembled a map giving the actual location of Portmeirion village in Northern Wales. Take a look!
Although Patrick McGoohan was the only actor who starred in all seventeen epsiodes, a few other actors were in many of the episodes. Angelo Muscat (the Butler), was in most of the episodes. So was Peter Swanwick, (the Supervisor). His boss, No.2, never was a fixed actor for every episode; usually there was a new Number Two each episode. Two exceptions were Leo McKern and Colin Gordon.
What Makes the Prisoner a Classic
By the time the final episode “Fall Out” was being conceived, the tug-of-war known as Influence had shifted slightly over to the U.S. because of Vietnam. Most people believe the The Prisoner was influenced by the peace movement. We can sense McGoohan's writing mood very different in the last episode than the time in which he wrote, say, “Free For All”. However, we can claim that all episodes share one theme in common, and that theme is rebellion.
The series focuses on the relentless attempt to be free from the tie-downs of society. It is the human quality in each of us to live independently, which is why The Prisoner appeals to us as a cult classic. It involves retaining one's own identity in a vast sea of peer pressure. We live in a society with over 5 billion people, and it becomes increasingly difficult to exist as individuals in a society without people telling us how to live. McGoohan attempts to show us that, in a society where we must learn to rebel or conform, we have been conforming much more than rebelling. We have let government ‘watch over us’ (as in the George Orwell book 1984) to the point that we have let it control our lives. We have let other people's actions influence us to the point that we, as individuals, mistakingly conform to these other people's ideals, and idolize these people as a result. McGoohan's message is to abolish this conformity.
On the other hand, by the end of the series, we have learned that we cannot rebel against society to the point of destroying it. We cannot coerce other people to ‘wear bells on their toes’ simply because it's a ‘rebellious statement.’ Moreover, 5 billion people cannot exist in a political state of anarchy if everyone rebels against authority. The point McGoohan is trying to make is that we need to rebel against society, but it should be our own personal way of rebellion. We must not assume that everyone else has the same needs and desires as we do, so we must learn to retain our individualism by ourselves. Thus, rebellion is an inward struggle, not an outward struggle.
How to View the Series
There is a lot of heated debate of the order of the seventeen-episode series. Although it is well known how the series was ordered when the Prisoner was orignally aired, most of the air dates did not correlate with production times in any way. Obviously, we have our own opinions on how to view the series. Unfortunately, our justification (in the Theories Page) *SPOILS* many of the episodes. We recommend you view them in the following order:
You may wish to examine the sites explicitly described in the Tally-Ho for other orderings of the series or spoiler-free episode summaries before deciding the viewing order. The order of the Prisoner DVD Box Set by A&E is reasonable, except we recommend watching “A. B. and C.” after “The General”.
We thought the Box Set was pretty good (our eight-word review of it), but we did have a few remarks about the box covers that we hope you enjoy.
McGoohan Credit List.
This is a list of other contributions from the star of the Prisoner.
©1996 Reed, Kent, and Kirby Meyer. Last modified: May 30, 2010.