The Prisoner

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“I will not make any deals with you. I’ve resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered! My life is my own!”

Patrick McGoohan had become a superstar playing the secret agent John Drake in “Danger Man”¨(1960-1965). The series was a big hit and McGoohan allegedly the highest paid TV-actor in UK. But at the peak of his carrier McGoohan decides he has had enough of playing John Drake and simply resigns from the show. He has the idea for something new, a mini-series about a spy trapped in a prison for spies. In his own words:

“I’d made 54 of those (Danger Man/Secret Agent) and I thought that was an adequate amount. So I went to the gentleman, Lew Grade, who was the financier and said that I’d like to cease making Secret Agent and do something else. So he didn’t like that idea. He’d prefer that I’d gone on forever doing it. But anyway. I said I was going to quit. So he said, ‘What’s the idea?’ This is on the phone initially, so I met him on a Saturday morning at 7 o’clock. That was always the time we had our discussions, and he said ‘Alright, what’s the idea?” and I had a whole format prepared of this Prisoner thing which initially came to me on one of the locations on Secret Agent when we went to this place called Portmeirion, where a great deal of it was shot and I thought it was an extraordinary place, architecturally and atmospherewise, and should be used for something and that was two years before the concept came to me. So I prepared it and went to see Lew Grade. I had photographs of the Village or whatever and a format and he said ‘I don’t want to read the format,’ because he says he doesn’t read formats, he says he can’t read apart from accounts, and he sort of said, ‘Well, what’s it about?  Tell me!’ So I talked for ten minutes and he stopped me and said, ‘I don’t understand one word you’re talking about, but how much is it going to be?’ So I had a budget with me, oddly enough, and I told him how much and he says. ‘When can you start?’ I said Monday, on scripts. And he says, ‘The money will be in your company’s account on Monday morning.’ Which it was, and that’s how we started. Behind it, of course, was a certain impatience with the numerology of society and the way we’re being made into ciphers, so there was something else behind it.”

The series follows an unnamed British agent who abruptly resigns his job, apparently preparing to go on a holiday. While packing his luggage, he is rendered unconscious by knock out gas in his apartment. When he wakes, he finds himself held captive in a mysterious seaside village isolated by mountains and the sea. The village is further secured by numerous monitoring systems and security guards, including a balloon-like device called Rover that recaptures – or kills – those trying to escape. The agent encounters hundreds of people who “know too much” but live a comfortable life in the village as long as they confirm. They do not use names but instead they are assigned a number, which give no clue to the person’s status – prisoner or warder. So nobody can tell whom they can or cannot trust. In addition the agent, doesn’t know why he’s imprisoned, where he is or even who has imprisoned him, giving it all a quite “Kafkan” feeling. The village itself strengthens the surrealistic atmosphere. Mostly it looks like the agent has also been transferred back in time to the 1800’s and dropped in a health resort where people gather to drink from its well. The village even has its own brass band.

The agent is assigned Number Six but refuses to accept this new identity. “I am not a number! I am a free man!”  In every episode Number Six tries to escape but his efforts are thwarted, often by the menacing Rover.  He is monitored closely by Number Two, the village administrator who is the agent of a mysterious Number One. Number Two tries to pry information out of him, using a variety of techniques – hallucinogenic drugs, identity theft, mind control, dream manipulation, social indoctrination and even brain swapping. The agent manages to resist these attempts to break him. As each Number Two fails, he’s replaced by another. Sometimes he’s replaced to confuse Number Six. Various episodes explore and defend deep issues of privacy, integrity and individualism. 

Number Six: Has it ever occurred to you that you are just as much a prisoner as I am?

Number Two: Oh my dear chap, of course–I know too much. We’re both lifers.

Number Two: I am definitely an optimist. That’s why it doesn’t matter “who” Number One is. It doesn’t matter which “side” runs the Village.

Number Six: It’s run by one side or the other.

Number Two: Oh certainly, but both sides are becoming identical. What in fact has been created is an international community–perfect blueprint for world order. When the sides facing each other suddenly realize that they’re looking into a mirror, they will see that “this” is the pattern for the future.

Number Six: The whole Earth as the Village?

Number Two: That is my hope. What’s yours?

Number Six: I’d like to be the first man on the moon. 

The whole series consisted of 17 episodes, and was broadcasted in UK between September 1967 and February 1968. It was originally supposed to run longer but was cancelled.  McGoohan was given very few days to wrap up the series and wrote the last episode in complete secrect. When it was shown, it made headline news because of the controversy it created. The negative reaction was so intense that people apparently besieged McGoohan’s house and he had to leave London for a few weeks. People were used to get an answer in the final episode but here they just got more questions and confusion. 

Patrick McGoohan:

“When the last episode came out in England, it had one of the largest viewing audiences, they tell me, ever over there, because everyone wanted to know who Number 1 was, because they thought it would be a ‘James Bond’ type of Number 1. When they finally did see it, there was a near-riot, and I was going to be lynched. And I had to go into hiding in the mountains for two weeks, until things calmed down.”

“There are numbers here, there are no names, so you can’t expect it to end like James Bond, so you have an allegorical ending. Now (…) what is the most evil thing on earth? Is it jealously? Is it hate? Is it the bomb? What is it? When one really searches it’s only one thing, it’s the evil part of oneself that one is constantly fighting until the moment of our demise. The Jeckyll and Hyde if you like, but on a much larger scale.”

The series is available on DVD but several episodes can also be watched on YouTube.

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