A British secret agent does not want to be in her majesty's service any more and exasperatedly resigns. His intended relaxation holiday however is thwarted when he is sedated in his flat and abducted to a strange location - a small village in no man's land, whose inhabitants only have numbers instead of names and are imprisoned by an unknown power. The former agent is now Number 6, but he refuses to submit to the mysterious authority, who wants to find out why he has resigned.
The Prisoner was of the most fascinating productions of British television history. It was not created by the honourable BBC, but the commercial station ITV, where in the 1960s and 1970s under the patronage of Lew Grade many today legendary television series were made. ITV was always open to new ideas and so the company became famous not only in England, but all over the world for its excellent television entertainment.
Secret Agent Man
When James Bond had only been a dream in the minds of Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli, there was already some heavy spying going on in the British television industry: Danger Man had been the first big television appearance of the British-Irish actor Patrick McGoohan, who between 1960 and 1961 in 39 half-hour-episodes battled with villains of all kinds. The series was created by ITV-executive Ralph Smart and was shot in black and white - it was a big success in England and all over Europe, but in the USA, the originally intended target audience, the interest was so low that the series was cancelled after only one season.
Patrick McGoohan, who had started his career in the 1950s with small roles on the stage, became a very popular actor with Danger Man, but he was also very choosy - in 1961 he even declined the invitation to play James Bond because he thought the character was immoral. But when the wave of spy-movies had really started, ITV was able to sell Danger Man sucessfully to the USA, so that in 1964 more Episodes where produced - this time in an expanded 45-minute format that allowed for more character development and sophisticated stories.
In the USA the new episodes of Danger Man were shown with the title Secret Agent and had a new title song by Johnny Rivers, which instantly became a huge hit. The series became a great success and the end did not come because the viewers, but the actor and now sometimes co-author Patrick McGoohan himself had lost interest. He had enough of his character John Drake and wanted to try something entirely different.
When in April 1966 the last episode from the third season of Danger Man was broadcast in England, new episodes were already in preparation. But Patrick McGoohan had very different plans and after only two filmed episodes he resigned from Danger Man in favour of a completely new project. Together with his author and collaborator George Markstein he had developed the quasi-sequel The Prisoner, which they presented to ITV chief Lew Grade.
Meanwhile Patrick McGoohan had become one of the most influential and best-paid British television stars, who could afford to cancel his own series. Something like this had never happened before, but Lew Grade trusted in McGoohan and allowed the unscheduled ending of Danger Man to procede. The two already produced episodes of season four, which were shot in colour for the first time, were put in storage and not broadcast for the time being. Now Patrick McGoohan had all the time to work on his new project, which would require all his attention.
A very special location
Long before The Prisoner even existed as an idea, Patrick McGoohan had discovered a fascinating filming location: Portmeirion, a small vacation village on the coast of Wales, which had been built since 1925 by the British architect Clough Williams-Ellis. He created an almost surreal miniature architecture with a very special mediterranean style, made partly from existing and newly created buildings. The complex had always been run as hotel resort and because of the unusual architecture it was occasionally used as a film location - amongst many other productions by a 1960 Episode of Danger Man.
With some stunning location shots of Portmeirion and a rough concept Patrick McGoohan managed to convince Lew Grade, who supplied a generous budget of 75000 Pounds for each episode and gave McGoohan complete power over the production. The Prisoner was not produced directly by ITV, but by McGoohan's own company Everyman Films, which he had founded together with his old friend David Tomblin, who together with George Markstein belonged to the creative originators of the series.
Espionage and science fiction
The idea of The Prisoner had originated years before, when George Markstein during his journalistic occupation in World War II noticed strange facilities where obsolete secret agents were accommodated. The theoretic question what would happen with agents when they resign became the basis for the new series, but the stories would have to far exceed the usual spy thrillers. Especially Patrick McGoohan had some far-reaching fantasy- and science-fiction elements in mind, which, however, would not be thrown into the plots just like that, but always with a down-to-earth background.
In spite of the seemingly unpretentious concept Patrick McGoohan had surprisingly intelligent and profound ideas, which reached from simple satire to social criticism and political statements, which were well-concealed, but not too secretive for the attentive viewer. The Prisoner was far away from the usual TV entertainment of that time, but it was made sure that the stories always worked on at least two levels to be accessible even for the average television audience.
The first episodes were written by Patrick McGoohan himself, George Markstein, David Tomblin and a team of fresh and unspent authors, who were able to implement McGoohan's ideas with a lot of imagination. When the shooting started in the autumn of 1966, only the scripts of four episodes were ready and the rest were written during production. The episodes were filmed by ITV directors with years of experience, among them David Tomblin and Don Chaffey, who had shot some episodes of Danger Man before. But Patrick McGoohan sometimes liked intervened when he was not satisfied with a director and took the helm on some episodes himself.
A lot of the budget went into the very elaborate production design. Many outside shots were of course filmed in Portmeirion, where only few adjustments were made and otherwise the unique look of the vacation village was utilized. Only a few signs with the distinctive old-fasioned typeface were set up, otherwise Portmeirion stood entirely for itself. Nearly all interior shots were filmed in Borehamwood's MGM studios, where the elaborately designed sets were constructed. Among them were not only the private rooms of the village's inhabitants, but also the command centre and other futuristic sceneries, which followed in the Footsteps of Ken Adam and were not too dissimilar to the designs of the early James Bond films.
Not only the sets, but also the imaginative costumes and props became the special hallmarks of The Prisoner. While Number 6 was usually dressed very plain in a dark jacked with the characteristic white stripe on the lapel, most of the other inhabitants of the village were clad in colourful costumes. Standard equipment was also a badge with the individual number and the iconic penny-farthing logo, which was used as the epitome of the Victorian era symbolizing the contrast between the futuristic and old-fashioned aspect of the village.
Number Six and his watchdogs
In the same manner the location Portmeirion had been kept secret until the last episode was broadcast, the identity of the protagonist was not clearly defined. The viewers were not given much background information, only in the dialogue-less title sequence the history of the character was revealed in some fragments. The Prisoner fights for his individuality, but his true name is never mentioned and he, like all other villagers, is only addressed with his number.
An equally large mystery was the identity of who controlled the open-air jail. The search for the elusive Number One and the always changing Number 2 are the subject of many Episodes, which nearly always revolve about escaping from the village, resistance to the overseers and the secret about the resignation of Number 6 without overshadowing the stories. Number 6 even has to endure psychological torture, brainwashing and other experiments, but also some not so drastic themes have been used, sometimes combined with a healthy dose of sarcastic humour.
Not to answer questions was one of the specialities of The Prisoner. This was completely intentional of Patrick McGoohan, who loved to confuse his viewers after Danger Man's years of relatively conventional entertainment. The plot was mostly shown from the perspective of Number 6, so that the viewers do not know much more than the protagonist. Almost every episode had lots of room for interpretation and many stories happened on a symbolic or allegoric level. What is real and what is imaginary was especially at the end of the series not always apparent.
Differences and problems
Originally Patrick McGoohan only planned to shoot seven episodes, but ITV insisted on a full series of 26. At the beginning of production it was agreed to film at least a double figure, of which 13 were finished before the scheduled production holiday in April 1967. Meanwhile Patrick McGoohan had gotten an offer from Hollywood which he could not refuse: he was given one of the main characters alongside Rock Hudson and Ernest Borgnine in John Sturges' war espionage thriller Ice Station Zebra.
While Patrick McGoohan was in the USA filming, one of his best friends and co-workers abandoned him: George Markstein left the team because he had enough of McGoohan's constant interference and addiction to control - what began as teamwork had become more and more a virtual one-man-show. Markstein had the job to coordinate the script writing and after this important position was unoccupied, the remaining authors began to run out of ideas.
Meanwhile, Lew Grade began to have doubts about Patrick McGoohan, especially after he had revealed to the ITV head that he had no idea how to end the series. The thirteen already produced episodes had also cost much more than originally planned, so that a compromise for the budget had to be found. McGoohan and Grade agreed to produce only four more episodes, because seventeen were already enough to sell the series abroad, especially in the USA.
When the shooting of the series was supposed to continue in August 1967, Patrick McGoohan was still in the USA, busy with Ice Station Zebra, but the production in England had to continue because the air dates had already been set. To waste no more time, a special episode was devised in which the mind of Number 6 was transferred into another body, allowing Patrick McGoohan to only appear in a few short scenes which could be shot later after his return.
Time was short because the first episodes were supposed to air in September and in February 1968 the last episode was scheduled for broadcast. Another problem was that nearly all good ideas and concepts had already been used and after George Markstein many others had left the team disenchanted. The remaining episodes were written and directed mainly by McGoohan and David Tomblin, the script of the final story was finished only a few days before shooting had begun.
An abrupt ending
It was one of the most peculiar and unusual finales of a series in the history of british television. Many viewers were very disappointed because Patrick McGoohan had left lots of questions unanswered and shot a surreal and ambiguous story instead of a clear resolution. The outrage was so huge that McGoohan had to leave England with his family for a while in order to avoid being overrun by rioting fans. In spite of this, he was at first enthusiastic about the intense reaction, because he undoubtedly managed to attract a lot of attention with The Prisoner.
Although the series managed to attract many viewers on its premiere in England and even the American broadcast was relatively successful, the financial result for Patrick McGoohan was largely absent. He had shouldered most of the overrun budget himself and was left with a large amount of production debt, which forced him to close his company Everyman Films. For many in the film and television-industry this was the proof that McGoohan was a difficult man to collaborate with and as a result, his dream project became an ambivalent success of which he did not much like to talk about.
Who is Number 6?
The identity of Number 6 continues to be the topic of intense discussion until today, although it actually has no real relevance to the plot of the series. In spite of the similarities to the main character of the predecessor Danger Man Patrick McGoohan has always strictly denied that Number 6 is John Drake, but this was apparently not only an artistical quirk: it wasn't McGoohan himself who had created Drake, but Ralph Smart. If the character would have been mentioned by name in The Prisoner, license fees would have needed to be paid to the creator.
George Markstein, who had later fallen out with Patrick McGoohan, but had significantly taken part in the creation of The Prisoner, alleged exactly the opposite: Number 6 had always been John Drake. In the end it is left to the imagination of the viewer, but the similarities between Number 6 and John Drake are so huge that there is only the logical conclusion that they are the same person.
A classic made by patience
In 1969 The Prisoner was shown with the Title Nummer 6 on German television, but the ZDF only had bought 13 of the original 17 episodes, leaving out the remaining four for unknown reasons. The unusually precise German dub, which in comparison to the deliberately funny translations of The Persuaders or Star Trek did not add new jokes and interpreted the text very accurately, succeeded to attract at least some interested viewers. Further German television broadcasts were however very infrequent, the last showing on a freely available channel was in the early 1990s until the french-german culture channel arte had re-broadcast all episodes in 2010 from the newly restored versions and had even dubbed the previously never translated four episodes into German.
Owing to many reruns in England and in the USA The Prisoner had experienced a great comeback in the 1970s and 1980, enlarging the fan basis by a large margin. This mainly happened because the series was far ahead of its time and the unusual mixture of espionage-thriller, fantasy and science-fiction was only accepted by the viewers long after the series was originally created. The Prisoner has aged well, because not many typical 1960s clichés were used, leaving many of the stories still up to date and higly relevant. The Prisoner has undoubtedly reached the status of a real television classic without suffering from symptoms regarding its age even after forty years.
The Legacy of The Prisoner
Patrick McGoohan had died unexpectedly in January 2009 at the age of 80 years after a brief illness. In the last years before his death McGoohan had mostly withdrawn into retirement and was only occasionally seen in movies or television. Together with some other filmmakers he had tried in 2002 to start a movie remake of The Prisoner, but the project was never developed further.
In late 2008 the American station AMC and the British ITV had produced a remake in shape of a six-part miniseries completely without Patrick McGoohan's collaboration, which was shown in November 2009 on American television, earning only scathing reviews. The Prisoner in its original 1967 version still remains Patrick McGoohans greatest achievement of a remarkable, but also humble career.
The Prisoner was first shown in England on ITV between September 29th, 1967 and February 2nd 1968. The German broadcast on ZDF followed between August 16th 1969 and April 25th 1970 in irregular intervals. There is no definitive order of episodes, but usually the order of the first ITV broadcast is assumed as a standard.
2. The Chimes of Big Ben
3. A, B and C
4. Free for All *
5. The Schizoid Man *
6. The General
7. Many Happy Returns
8. Dance of the Dead
10. Hammer Into Anvil
11. It's Your Funeral
12. A Change of Mind *
13. Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling
14. Living in Harmony *
15. The Girl Who Was Death
16. Once Upon a Time
17. Fall Out
Episodes marked with an Asterisk had not been broadcast in Germany in 1969. They were first released on DVD in 2006 with German subtitles only and have subsequently been shown on tv as newly dubbed versions in 2010, which were also released on DVD and Blu-Ray in the same year.
Link: Complete list of epsisodes with plot summaries from Wikipedia »
In Autumn 2006 the German DVD distributor Koch Media had a big surprise in store with the release of Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner and managed to produce the best DVDs of the series yet. But only two years later this version was superseded by a new edition from the British studio Network, who invested a lot of time and money into a complete restoration of the series which even had the blessings of Patrick McGoohan himself.
Network's new Prisoner boxset benefits mainly from the new restored transfers, which make the series look as good as never before and are only plagued by an annoying, but not fatal encoding error on some episodes. The heavily advertised 5.1-sound is unfortunately a complete failure, but the well-restored mono tracks are also included. Especially impressive is the bonus material, which consists of seven commentary tracks on the most important episodes by producers, authors and other contributors, a newly produced 95-minute documentary, hundreds of photos and all extras from the previous DVD like two alternative versions of the first two episodes, trailers and much more. But the most amazing extra is Andrew Pixley's Complete Production Guide in shape of a 285-page book.
Compared to Koch Media's German 2006 boxset, the packaging is unfortunately not as amazing: the book and a somewhat rickety clear plastic keep case with the seven discs are contained in a cardboard slipcase. Unfortunately no digipack has been used and while the designs of the covers are quite good, the discs themselves only have a disappointing generic artwork. Overall the design cannot really compete with the old German set.
The boxset reviewed in this article is the British DVD version. A Blu-Ray with the same extras including the book is also available in the UK since 2009. In the USA a Blu-Ray of the series has been released by A&E video and while it has all of the extras from the Network edition, it lacks the book and there is no parallel DVD version. A re-release in Germany on DVD and Blu-Ray from Koch Media with the restored transfers and the new German dubs of the previously untransmitted episodes has followed in 2010, but this release lacks all of the new bonus materials from the UK and US editions, only containing the extras from the previous German release.
For the new English DVDs of The Prisoner Network has spared no effort and produced a series of extras, which really deserve the term definitive. A completely new documentary, commentary tracks, mountains of archive material like countless movies, photos and text documents transform the extras of this DVD to a virtual treasure trove, which is even more completed by the 285-page book. Only the simple and unattractive menu design is disappointing, it can't match that of the earlier German DVD release.
The most important extra is not contained on the DVDs, but shares the space in the slipcase with the discs: Andrew Pixley's The Prisoner - Complete Production Guide. The 285-page book surprises with enormously detailed information about the production of each episode and also tells elaborately about the early history of the series - there is no better source of information about The Prisoner imaginable, this book alone is worth the price of the DVD boxset.
There are audio commentaries for seven of the seventeen Episodes with varying contributors. Arrival is commented by production designer Bernie Williams and film librarian Tony Sloman, Chimes of Big Ben by author Vincent Tisley, The Schizoid Man by director Pat Jackson, The General by Director Peter Graham Scott, Dance of the Dead by Bernie Williams, Tony Sloman and editor John S. Smith, A Change of Mind by author Roger Parkes and Fall Out by music editor Eric Mival and Editor Noreen Ackland. Everyone has much to tell from a very personal perspective which allows for an unique view into the production, although some of the participants tend to ramble a bit.
An Episodic Image Gallery with Music Cues can be found on each of the first six discs. Hiding behind these inconspicuous descriptions are ten-minute-films, each showing about 200 pictures for a group of three (or two on the last disc) episodes. These are not simple screenshots from the episodes, but in fact lots and lots of photographs which had been taken during production. The galleries are accompanied by a large selection of music cues, which represent a huge part of the recorded soundtrack of the series.
Every episode is equipped with its own trailer, with Disc 6 accommodating another two generic trailers.
Disc 6 also contains a large part of the extras, because only two instead of three episodes of the series are on this disc.
The Exposure Strip Gallery (10:29) contains 200 images of rare scenes with detailed text descriptions - these are actually not photos, but prints of 35mm film images, which were copied as a colour test on the black-and-white dailies.
The Textless Titles (3:07) are the intro and outtro without any text and are presented here with three different soundtracks with the music of Ron Grainer, Wilfrid Josephs or Robert Farnon.
The Textless Material (4:02) consists of even more scenes without text credits from a couple of other episodes. There are apparently some outtakes and many interesting aerial shots of Portmeirion.
Foreign Filing Cabinet (2:28) contains the short inserts, which had been produced in different languages for foreign distribution.
The Rover Footage (0:25) is a very short test shot of the rover balloon.
The Patrick McGoohan Photo Montage from Arrival (0:49) shows a series of images from the actor, which was seen in the first episode projected onto a huge screen.
Behind the Scenes Footage (45:32) contains an amazing collection of 16mm footage of Portmeirion from short-time producer Leslie Gilliat and even more 8mm material shot by vacationers during the production of the series - even the first version of the rover, looking like an oversized cake, can be seen here.
The Commercial Break Bumpers (0:18) were used during the british tv-broadcast before and after the commercial breaks.
Disc 7 contains the rest of the extras.
Don't Knock Yourself Out (94:52) by Simon Wells, Thomas Cock and Tim Beddows is the new, all-encompassing documentary about the creation of The Prisoner. Over forty people are part of it in many new interviews and archive footage, comprising nearly all key personnel of the production team. Only Patrick McGoohan is not interviewed, staying true to his principle that the series should speak only for itself - the documentary even begins with this message. There is no profound analysis, instead the making of the series is being told in a casual, entertaining, but also critical way. The whole story of the series is discussed from the very first idea to the last shooting days and the reactions of the viewers - even the many problems, especially at the end of production, are not left unmentioned and everybody is very outspoken. This documentary has done the impossible by reporting objectively about the series without washing too much dirty laundry in public.
Arrival Original Edit (48:37) is an early version of the first episode, which has been newly transferred and restored by Network for the new DVDs - not as extensive as the episodes themselves, but still in a remarkable quality. The differences to the completed version are mainly in some additional or alternative scenes and in the music of Wilfrid Josephs, which can also be heard in this restored version as an isolated music track.
Arrival Original Edit Restoration (3:49) is a short split-screen comparison of the new and old transfers of the early version of the pilot.
The Chimes of Big Ben Original Edit (50:38) was not restored like the first episode and looks as scratchy and faded as on the previous DVDs. In spite of this the episode warrants a closer look and is a precious archive gem.
Generic/PR Image Gallery (2:15) contains even more images and is stocked as good as the other galleries, but has public relations and commercials as its main theme.
Original Press Conference Image Gallery 1967 (2:30) shows photos of the famous press conference where The Prisoner was revealed to the public the very first time.
Jack Shapman's Production Designs Image Gallery (3:45) contains many wonderful concept drawings. Attached to this gallery film is a somewhat strange television interview with Patrick McGoohan, who is visibly irritated by the inane questions.
The DVD-ROM area in each of the seven discs also contains countless PDF files with several script versions of all episodes and a lot more material from the production of the series - as much as in a small library.