BFI Thriller, a season of films that get the pulse and mind racing, ran at BFI Southbank from October to December 2017.
Fifty years ago, The Prisoner transformed primetime television drama into avant-garde art. Conceived by its star, Patrick McGoohan, in conjunction with George Markstein, this surreal swinging 60s classic was Kafka on Carnaby Street, a spy thriller that owed more to Buñuel or Beckett than Bond.
McGoohan starred in The Prisoner as Number Six, an unnamed British secret agent who angrily resigns on unexplained ethical grounds. He is immediately sedated and abducted, waking up in The Village, a picturesque coastal prison camp of sinister tweeness. More Butlins than Guantanamo Bay, the show’s main location was Portmeirion in north Wales, a magnificent mock-Mediterranean fantasy designed and built by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis.
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Over 17 episodes, the shadowy forces running The Village try to coerce Number Six into confessing the real motives behind his retirement, using a range of sneaky tricks and brainwashing techniques. He resists them all. “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered,” he barks. “My life is my own.”
A hard-drinking perfectionist, the Irish-American McGoohan did not suffer fools gladly. As the highest paid actor on British TV following his success in the more conventional spy series Danger Man, he had the clout to make The Prisoner in his own image, conceiving the basic premise as well as writing and directing several episodes. He even gave Number Six the same birthday as himself: 19 March 1928.
In an era when Britain had just three channels, this kind of star power carried real weight in ratings terms. And McGoohan arguably tested it to the limit, leaving behind one of the boldest and strangest TV experiments of all time.
Critically lauded on both sides of the Atlantic, The Prisoner ended prematurely in 1968, but its cult mystique remains. Behind the show’s trendy surface sheen of Sgt Pepper-ish psychedelia, McGoohan took great pains to make it as timeless as possible, a dark fairytale with allegorical resonance. Half a century later, this uncanny journey through the looking glass still has prophetic lessons for us about politics, technology, social conformity and television itself.
Here are six of them.
Number 1: The Prisoner predicted our current age of 24-hour mass surveillance
Made at the peak of Cold War anxiety about Orwellian police states behind the Iron Curtain, The Prisoner raised the unsettling possibility that even benign western democracies might spy on their own citizens.
Even in the cosy toytown idyll of The Village, a subterranean army of faceless minions monitor our every move, brainwashing us into being model citizens and quiescent consumers. And what’s more, we like it. This was years before the shock revelations of Watergate, and decades before Edward Snowden exposed the global mass surveillance of the NSA and other agencies.
“We’re run by the Pentagon, we’re run by Madison Avenue, we’re run by television,” McGoohan warned in a 1977 interview. “As long as we accept those things and don’t revolt we’ll have to go along with the stream to the eventual avalanche.”
Half a century after The Prisoner, Big Brother is watching everybody, and everybody is watching Big Brother.
Number 2: No Prisoner, no Twin Peaks
The Prisoner was the first auteur masterpiece of the TV era, shaped by a singular vision rather than committee-driven commercial imperatives. Like Twin Peaks, it was paranoid and surreal, a riddle wrapped in an enigma clothed in the Trojan Horse trappings of a populist primetime thriller.
McGoohan’s visionary show laid down the foundations for Twin Peaks, The X-Files, Lost and other mind-bending trips into the Twilight Zone. David Lynch even included a homage to the monkey-mask scene from the Prisoner finale ‘Fall Out’ in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), while X-Files producer John Shiban called McGoohan’s show “the Gone with the Wind of its genre”, and J.J. Abrams has admitted “there are elements of The Prisoner in both Alias and Lost.”
Number 3: The Prisoner cult has grown far beyond the original TV series
A prescient piece of pop art branding, The Prisoner spawned a host of viral memes decades before the term was even coined. The show’s quotable lines, bold visuals and unique sinister-friendly typeface (modelled on the Albertus font) continue to echo throughout pop music, TV, cinema and visual art. There have been homages to the show in Battlestar Galactica, The Matrix, G.I. Joe, Mad Men, SpongeBob SquarePants and many more. In 2000, McGoohan even sportingly spoofed his Number Six role by guesting on The Simpsons episode ‘The Computer Wore Menace Shoes’.
Dozens of bands including Iron Maiden, Altered Images, XTC and Supergrass have also paid tribute on record and in music videos. In 2012, the inaugural Festival N°6 took place at Portmeirion, its name and location directly referencing The Prisoner. Headliners New Order came on stage dressed in copies of McGoohan’s signature blazer from the show.
Number 4: A remake-proof classic will live forever
The Prisoner was so heavily imprinted with McGoohan’s personality that it has proved impossible to remake over the decades, despite numerous stalled attempts. Various big-screen adaptations have been mooted, with Kevin Costner and Mel Gibson as potential stars, and big-name directors like Christopher Nolan behind the camera. All came to nothing.
A six-part TV mini-series starring Christopher Eccleston was announced by Sky in 2006, then shelved. The US network AMC finally rebooted the series in 2009, co-starring Jim Caviezel and Ian McKellen, relocating The Village to a desert outpost in Namibia. An ambitious failure, it was soon forgotten.
Just last year, Ridley Scott was attached as director of the latest planned remake, but history suggests fans should not get their hopes up. Be seeing you? Don’t count on it.
Number 5: The Prisoner makes more sense in a post-truth, post-ideological age
Any political messages in The Prisoner are tangled and murky, but the show arguably resonates more deeply today than 50 years ago. McGoohan satirises the totalitarian horrors of communist China and Soviet Russia in episodes like ‘A Change of Mind’, but he also mocks the hollow spectacle of western consumer democracy in ‘Free for All’, when Number Six stands for election in The Village. “Brainwashed imbeciles,” he sneers at his fellow citizens. “Can you laugh? Can you cry? Can you think?”
A morally conservative Catholic who refused to do love scenes on screen, McGoohan was critical of social progress and state bureaucracy, but he also saw hope in the revolutionary youth movements of the 60s. A mass of contradictions, he ultimately believed the Jekyll-and-Hyde evil that lurks inside every person is “the greatest enemy that we have”. Hence the show’s psychedelic final twist.
Number 6: Always leave them wanting more
By fateful accident, The Prisoner ended up being McGoohan’s unfinished symphony. Unlike Lost or the original Twin Peaks, the show ended before jumping the shark into pretentious excess, and is thus remembered with almost universal fondness.
Lew Grade’s production company ITC initially commissioned a two-season series spanning 26 episodes, but cancelled it after just 17. The second series would have seen Number Six escaping The Village and travelling the world, but still pursued by his former captors and still a metaphorical prisoner of his own mind.
Freed from the pressure to pander to fans or advertisers, McGoohan wrote the series finale ‘Fall Out’ in a matter of days, a strikingly Brechtian allegory full of unanswered questions and cryptic clues that enraged some viewers. It ends on an ironically cheery cliffhanger as Number Six flees the Village and returns to London, his future unclear, his fate unresolved. “He’s got no freedom,” McGoohan explained in 1977. “Freedom is a myth. There’s no final conclusion to it.”