Many Happy Returns

Fifty years ago today, cameras first rolled on The Prisoner, a television series envisioned by Actor/Producer Patrick McGoohan and Script Editor George Markstein.

An implicit (or explicit, depending on the account) continuation of McGoohan’s work on Danger Man, The Prisoner sees an unnamed government agent whisked away to the isolated Village. What follows is a seventeen-episode battle of wills between this Number 6 – everyone in the village has numbers, rather than names – and an increasingly devious succession of Number 2s (fnar), each of whom wants the answer to one simple question: Why did he resign?

The Prisoner has been described one of the most influential television series ever made. I think it’s certainly one of the most divisive – viewers and critics alike either love it or hate it.

Detractors hate how little sense it can make at times. Why is the village guarded by a giant white balloon creature (known affectionately as ‘Rover’ off-screen)? Just how can the village be in Lithuania, Morocco and the south-east of England? Why is everything so damn weird? (Even for 60s TV, The Prisoner really embraces surrealism and absurdism).

And those of us who love the series? Let’s be honest. We adore it for exactly the same reasons. Does it matter that the final episode was written in a rush, just before cancellation and is (likely) at odds with Markstein’s original concept of what The Prisoner should be? Not to me. Do I care that no one ever explains what Rover is? Nope. In fact, I’m really glad they don’t. What could they possibly say that would make things better?

A quick Google, on today of all days, will likely turf up a bunch of essays explaining the philosophical significance of the setting and themes, if you’re interested. Am I that concerned with the philosophical underpinnings attributed to The Prisoner? Not really. You can read anything into something so broad and inconsistent a canvas. If critics want to in order to justify their love for the show, that’s fine. Some of it may even be in there. Probably a great deal was intended, based on the few occasions McGoohan spoke on the matter. But between a troubled production, a falling out between McGoohan and Markstein, a jumbled screening order (the ‘official’ episode order is not the best viewing order), plots rearranged to accommodate McGoohan’s movie career, and the fact that McGoohan only believed seven of the episodes ‘core’ to the experience, I prefer to judge the show for what you see, not what you have to dig around for.

I’m generally there for the battle of wits between Number 6 and that episode’s Number 2. For those fleeting moments when McGoohan’s sardonic protagonist takes a stand against the suffocating surveillance, drug-induced illusions and physical force that the Village levels against its inmates, and comes out on top. For the reminder that no matter the forces arrayed against you, it’s always possible to make a difference – even if that difference is nothing more than refusing to give in.

That’s probably the reason I have a higher regard for many of the ‘filler’ (i.e. the ten episodes not considered crucial to the experience) than a lot of folk – these tend to be the stories where Number 6 gets to raise a figurative middle finger to the establishment. None more so than in Living in Harmony, an episode that went unshown in the US during the original broadcast run, because of what was seen as an anti-Vietnam message. Hammer into Anvil remains my personal favourite, closely followed by It’s Your Funeral – both of them ‘filler’ episodes, but equally delightful showcases of defiance.

The Prisoner’s a very luxurious television production for the time. Filmed in colour (itself a rarity) it has a movie-like scope and scale – aided in no small part by the decision to film in Portmeirion (which is itself a delight to wander around, if you ever find yourself in North Wales). Yes, the effects have aged badly in a lot of cases, but the cinematography is splendid, and the vibrant colours of the Village look absolutely stunning in HD.

The show also hails from an era in which character actors were the norm, rather than the exception. Leo McKern, Peter Wyngarde, George Baker, Derren Nesbit, Eric Portman, Kevin Stoney, Mary Morris, Paul Eddington, John Castle… The list goes on. If you like to imagine connections between TV shows based on the actors present, this is a real gem. Why was MP Jim Hacker so bumbling and useless? What happened to him to make him that way? Watch Paul Eddington in Arrival and learn the answer. Where did Tobias Vaughn get the backing to build his Cyberman army in ‘The Invasion’? And it raises some pretty serious questions about Inspector Wexford, let me tell you…

Joking aside, the performances in The Prisoner are generally top notch, with the actors coping manfully with some very odd lines. ‘Manfully’ I said, and ‘manfully’ I meant. There aren’t many women to be seen, and too many are the attractive lamps often seen in 1960s TV (and for many years after, sad to say). There are a couple of standouts, however – Mary Morris’s take on Number 2 is gleefully malevolent, for example. Actually, speaking of Number 2s, here’s a game for you: watch The Prisoner front-to-back, and each time there’s a new Number 2, try and assign a current Conservative politician to the role – it’s easier than you might think.

So, Many Happy Returns, Number 6. Let’s hope you’re still baffling and delighting audiences in another fifty years.

If you’ve never seen The Prisoner, don’t go looking for articles, just dive right in and immerse yourself in the experience. If you still want answers, then the internet is awash with them. Just remember, as the show so neatly puts it: Questions are a burden to others; answers a prison for oneself.

However, I’d recommend watching the episodes in the following order for a more consistent overarching plot:

  • Arrival
  • Dance of the Dead
  • Checkmate
  • The Chimes of Big Ben
  • Free for All
  • Many Happy Returns
  • The Schizoid Man
  • The General
  • A, B and C
  • Living in Harmony
  • It’s Your Funeral
  • Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling
  • A Change of Mind
  • Hammer Into Anvil
  • The Girl Who Was Death
  • Once Upon a Time
  • Fall Out
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