By Ivan Hutchinson
This article appeared in the Australian Video Age in the mid 1980s
Only 17 episodes were made, yet Patrick McGoohan’s tantalising thriller series is still one of the best-remembered television programs of the ’60s. It’s now on tape from Syme Home Video, and Ivan Hutchinson says it’s lost none of its appeal.
A push to screen the whole series came as a result of a poll run by a Melbourne newspaper seeking to discover which of the old television series people would like to see again, and The Prisoner won the nostalgia stakes at an easy canter. Writing this article at the time of the release on cassette by Syme Home Video of four episodes of the series (the rest will be issued in November and December) at least gives me the chance to explain to viewers who didn’t hear my explanation at the time why only the first episode was shown and not the rest of the 17-part series.
The answer was, in a word, unavailability. Executive producer ans star Patrick McGoohan, whose brainchild the program was, didn’t appear at all interested in selling the series to Australian television for late-night viewing when, in fact, it was being revived and shown (we learned later) in prime time in England on Channel 4!
Before discussing the episodes and their presentation, one more personal note about the series: I, like many viewers, was always fascinated by the setting – the village in which No. 6 (Patrick McGoohan) was trapped, a cross between Disneyland and Shangri-La and as menacing in its childlike beauty and mysterious inscrutability as any gingerbread cottage. Was it a set? Surely nowhere in the British Isles would there be that extraordinary mixture of architecture – colonnades, domes, statuary, campanile – surrounded, it seemed (when the prisoner was on the run) by ominous mountains and sea.
As the years passed and memories of the show had faded somewhat, so did my interest in the Prisoner’s village, although the interest revived when we ran Episode One on television. In 1984, while I was on a trip to Wales, relatives took me be car to a place which, as I was told, was famous for its pottery. The day was damp and, after a picturesque drive ending in a narrow road across tidal flats, we came through an archway to Portmeirion. I didn’t know what deja vu really meant until the shock of recognition as I looked around. It was all so familiar – the candy striped canopies, the signs, the pathways, the belltower, the awning covered buggies – and yet it wasn’t until I saw a framed picture of Patrick McGoohan on a nearby wall that I realised that here was the location for the series, faded since those film-making days as far as paint work was concerned but undeniably the same unique place.
Portmeirion, as it is today, was the brainchild of Sir Clough William-Ellis, one of the pioneers of the conservation movement. A successful architect, he wanted to share his enjoyment of landscape and buildings with as many people as possible, and he hoped that Portmeirion could be an object lesson in how a beautiful natural site could be developed without be spoiled.
Opened in 1926, it flourishes to this day and is now run by his descendants, his daughter Susan being the founder and designer of the famous Portmeirion Pottery. It was, to these eyes, a bizarre bu fascinating place, and whoever chose the location for The Prisoner couldn’t have chosen better – it has built-in quaintness and curiousness that is oddly disconcerting in those surroundings.
Back to the series. It was produced in 1967 and starred Patrick McGoohan as a secret-agent who, disgusted and angry, resigns from the service, is gassed and kidnapped and wakes to find himself an unwilling member of a self-contained, cosmopolitan community known simply as “the village”.
Each of the 17 episodes was a variation (often extraordinarily clever) of one simple idea: McGoohan’s attempts to escape from his surroundings and the various efforts of the controllers of the village to “break” him.
If, in the long run, the idea became repetitive and the famous last episode, written by McGoohan himself, hardly satisfies ardent, indeed desperate viewers wanting to know just what it really was all about. The Prisoner is still stylish, imaginative, entertaining television, with an edge to its pace and editing that has rarely been equalled in a series since those days.
The four episodes so far released come two to a cassette, without, unfortunately, any break between the two episodes. Since the stories were not continuous in a strictly narrative sense, there is some confusion as to when one ends and the next begins. Having the credits for each episode only at the end of the second one is also annoying; it seems a pity that there couldn’t have been at least a short break between each story, a breathing space as it were. Since the end credits are brief, these would have done nicely as a divider.
Having said that, let me hasten to add that the four episodes are excellent, the one called Many Happy Returns being one of the best of the series. The other three titles are The Arrival, the first episode which brings McGoohan (No. 6) to the village; Schizoid Man, a tricky piece in which No. 6 is confronted with his duplicate in an attempt to make him break; and A, B + C, another devious plot in which a new drug is used in an attempt to discover the reasons for the unbreakable No. 6’s resignation from the Intelligence. In Many Happy Returns, No. 6 actually does get away and back to London, but to tell you more would spoil the surprise.
Guest stars in the first episodes are plentiful: Australian Guy Doleman, Viginia Maskell and Paul Eddington in The Arrival, Jane Merrow as Alison in Schizoid Man; Donald Sinden and Patrick Cargill in Many Happy Returns and Peter Bowles in A,B + C.
Direction is shared by Pat Jackson and Joseph Serf and is indistinguishable in style one from the other, but the style itself is excellent. This is a series which, because of its fantasy element, hasn’t aged. I recommend it to all who don’t know The Prisoner. Fans won’t need the recommendation.