|Created by||Patrick McGoohan|
|Theme music composer||Ron Grainer|
|Country of origin||United Kingdom|
|No. of series||1|
|No. of episodes||17 (list of episodes)|
|Executive producer(s)||Patrick McGoohan|
|Running time||50 minutes|
|Production company(s)||ITC Entertainment|
|Distributor||Carlton Communications plc/ITV Studios Global Entertainment|
|Picture format||4:3 35 mm film|
|Original release||29 September 1967 –|
1 February 1968
The Prisoner is a 1967 British science fiction-allegorical television series about an unidentified British intelligence agent who is abducted and imprisoned in a mysterious coastal village, where his captors try to find out why he abruptly resigned from his job. It was created by Patrick McGoohan and George Markstein with McGoohan playing the main role of Number Six. Episodes covered various plots from spy fiction with elements of science fiction, allegory and psychological drama. It was produced by Everyman Films for distribution by Lew Grade's ITC Entertainment company.
A single season of 17 episodes was filmed between September 1966 and January 1968 with Portmeirion in north Wales standing in for the Village and interior shots filmed at MGM-British Studios in Borehamwood. The series was first broadcast in Canada beginning on 6 September 1967, in the UK on 29 September 1967, and in the US on 1 June 1968. Although the show was sold as a thriller in the mould of the previous series starring McGoohan, Danger Man (1960–68; retitled as Secret Agent in the US), its combination of 1960s countercultural themes and surrealistic setting had a far-reaching influence on science fiction and fantasy TV programming, and on narrative popular culture in general. Since its initial screening, the series has developed a cult following.
The series follows an unnamed British man (played by Patrick McGoohan) who, after abruptly and angrily resigning from his job (seemingly being a government security job), apparently prepares to make a hurried departure from the country. While packing his luggage, he is rendered unconscious by knockout gas piped into his London flat. When he wakes, he finds himself in a re-creation of his apartment, located in a mysterious coastal "village" within which he is held captive, isolated from the mainland by mountains and sea. The Village is further secured by numerous monitoring systems and security forces including a militarised, balloon-based device called Rover that recaptures or destroys those who attempt escape. The man encounters the Village's population: hundreds of people from all walks of life and cultures, all seeming to be peacefully living out their lives. They do not use names, but have been assigned numbers, which give no clue as to any person's status within the Village, whether as inmate or guard. Potential escapees therefore have no idea whom they can or cannot trust. The protagonist is assigned Number Six, but he repeatedly refuses the pretence of his new identity.
Number Six in the first episode "Arrival"
Number Six is monitored heavily by Number Two, the Village administrator, who acts as an agent for the unseen "Number One". A variety of techniques are used by Number Two to try to extract information from Number Six, including hallucinogenic drug experiences, identity theft, mind control, dream manipulation, and various forms of social indoctrination and physical coercion. All of these are employed not only to find out why Number Six resigned as an agent, but also to elicit other purportedly dangerous information he gained as a spy. The position of Number Two is filled in by various other characters on a rotating basis. Sometimes this is part of a larger plan to confuse Number Six; at other times, it seems to be a change of personnel made as a result of failure to successfully interrogate Number Six.
Number Six, distrustful of everyone in the Village, refuses to co-operate or provide the answers they seek. He struggles, usually alone, with various goals, such as determining for which side of the Iron Curtain the Village works, if indeed it works for any at all; remaining defiant to its imposed authority; concocting his own plans for escape; learning all he can about the Village; and subverting its operation. His schemes lead to the dismissals of the incumbent Number Two on two occasions, although he never escapes. By the end of the series, the administration, becoming desperate for Number Six's knowledge as well as fearful of his growing influence in the Village, takes drastic measures that threaten the lives of Number Six, Number Two, and the rest of the Village.
A major theme of the series is individualism, as represented by Number Six, versus collectivism, as represented by Number Two and the others in the Village. McGoohan stated that the series aimed to demonstrate a balance between the two points.
The Prisoner consists of seventeen episodes, which were first broadcast from 29 September 1967 to 1 February 1968 in the United Kingdom. While the show was presented as a serialised work, with a clear beginning and end, the ordering of the intermediate episodes is unclear, as the production and original broadcast order were different. Several attempts have been made to create an episode ordering based on script and production notes, and interpretations of the larger narrative of Number Six's time in the Village.
Opening and closing sequences
The opening and closing sequences of The Prisoner have become iconic and cited as "one of the great set-ups of genre drama", by establishing the Orwellian and postmodern themes of the series. The high production values of the opening sequence have been described as more like a feature film than a television programme.
Number Six awakes in the mysterious coastal location known to 'residents' as the Village. Most of the 'residents' are prisoners with others acting as guards. Escape from the Village is extremely difficult with mountains to three sides and the sea on the other. Escapees are tracked by CCTV and intercepted by Rover, a white balloon guardian that will attack and asphyxiate people if required. Everyone uses numbers for identification although names are infrequently used. Most of the villagers wear a standard outfit made up of coloured blazers with piping, multicoloured capes, striped sweaters, plimsolls and a variety of head wear with straw boaters prominent.
There are several facilities listed on 'The Village Map', including a labour exchange, hospital, place of fun, old people's home and the Green Dome, where Number Two resides. A taxi service operates around the village's buildings. The village of Portmeirion in north Wales was used extensively for the setting of the Village.
When necessary the administrators of the Village can call upon a security guardian known as 'Rover' to prevent prisoners leaving the confines of the Village. An initial robotic device was created for the series but was replaced by meteorological balloons when filming commenced.
- Angelo Muscat as The Butler
- Peter Swanwick as Supervisor
- Denis Shaw as The Shop Keeper
- Fenella Fielding as The Announcer/Telephone Operator
Number Two actors
- Annette Andre
- Sheila Allen
- Nike Arrighi
- Michael Balfour
- Kenneth Benda
- Christopher Benjamin
- Michael Billington
- Michael Bilton
- Peter Bowles
- Angela Browne
- James Bree
- Michael Brennan
- Earl Cameron
- Annette Carrell
- John Castle
- Dennis Chinnery
- Michael Chow
- George Coulouris
- Rosalie Crutchley
- Hilary Dwyer
- Paul Eddington
- Mark Eden
- Max Faulkner
- Ian Fleming
- Valerie French
- Nadia Gray
- Lucy Griffiths
- John Hamblin
- Rachel Herbert
- Basil Hoskins
- Peter Howell
- Alf Joint
- Alexis Kanner
- Katherine Kath
- Gertan Klauber
- Lloyd Lamble
- Jon Laurimore
- George Leech
- Charles Lloyd-Pack
- Justine Lord
- Duncan Macrae
- Victor Maddern
- Frank Maher
- Virginia Maskell
- John Maxim
- Betty McDowall
- Jane Merrow
- Martin Miller
- Norman Mitchell
- Aubrey Morris
- Bartlett Mullins
- David Nettheim
- Michael Nightingale
- Frederick Piper
- George Pravda
- Keith Pyott
- Ronald Radd
- Hugo Schuster
- Donald Sinden
- Patsy Smart
- Nigel Stock
- Kevin Stoney
- Larry Taylor
- Wanda Ventham
- Zena Walker
- Norma West
- Alan White
McGoohan was the only actor credited during the opening sequence, with Angelo Muscat the only actor considered a 'co-star' of the series. Several actors—among them Alexis Kanner, Christopher Benjamin, and Georgina Cookson—appeared in more than one episode, playing different characters. Kenneth Griffith appeared in "The Girl Who Was Death" and "Fall Out"; while he did play Number Two in "The Girl Who Was Death", his character in "Fall Out" may be the same character after the assignment of Number Two was passed to someone else (or, given events, abandoned). There is also a theory that Patrick Cargill played the same character in the two episodes in which he appeared; the Number Two that he plays in "Hammer into Anvil" may or may not be the same character as Thorpe, the aide to Number Six's superior, from "Many Happy Returns". Maher, McGoohan's stunt double, can be seen at the start of almost every episode, running across the beach; he also appears extensively in "The Schizoid Man" and in "Living in Harmony" as Third Gunman.
The show was created while Patrick McGoohan and George Markstein were working on Danger Man (known as Secret Agent in the US), an espionage show produced by Incorporated Television Company (also called ITC Entertainment). The exact details of who created which aspects of the show are disputed; majority opinion credits McGoohan as the sole creator of the series. However, a disputed co-creator status was later ascribed to Markstein after a series of fan interviews were published in the 1980s. The show itself bears no "created by" credit.
Some sources indicate McGoohan was the sole or primary creator of the show. McGoohan stated in a 1977 interview (broadcast as part of a Canadian documentary about The Prisoner called The Prisoner Puzzle) that during the filming of the third season of Danger Man he told Lew Grade, managing director of ITC Entertainment, that he wanted to quit working on Danger Man after the filming of the proposed fourth series. Grade was unhappy with the decision, but when McGoohan insisted upon quitting, Grade asked if McGoohan had any other possible projects; McGoohan later pitched The Prisoner. However, in a 1988 article from British Telefantasy magazine Time Screen, McGoohan indicated that he had planned to pitch The Prisoner prior to speaking to Grade. In both accounts, McGoohan pitched the idea orally, rather than having Grade read the proposal in detail; and the two made an oral agreement for the show to be produced by Everyman Films, the production company formed by McGoohan and David Tomblin. In the 1977 account, McGoohan said that Grade approved of the show despite not understanding it, while in the 1988 account Grade expressed clear support for the concept.
Other sources, however, credit Markstein, then a script editor for Danger Man, with a significant or even primary portion of the development of the show. For example, Dave Rogers, in the book The Prisoner and Danger Man, said that Markstein claimed to have created the concept first and McGoohan later attempted to take credit for it, though Rogers himself doubted that McGoohan would have wanted or needed to do that. A four-page document, generally agreed to have been written by Markstein, setting out an overview of the themes of the series, was published as part of an ITC/ATV press book in 1967. It has usually been accepted that this text originated earlier as a guide for the series writers. Further doubt has been cast on Markstein's version of events by author Rupert Booth in his biography of McGoohan, entitled Not A Number. Booth points out that McGoohan had outlined the themes of The Prisoner in a 1965 interview, long before Markstein's tenure as script editor on the brief fourth season of Danger Man.Booth, Rupert (21 June 2011). Not a Number: Patrick McGoohan – a Life. Aurora Metro Press. ISBN 9780956632920.
At any rate, part of Markstein's inspiration came from his research into the Second World War, where he found that some people had been incarcerated in a resort-like prison called Inverlair Lodge. Markstein suggested that Danger Man's main character John Drake (played by McGoohan) could suddenly resign and be kidnapped and sent to such a location. McGoohan added Markstein's suggestion to material he had been working on, which later became The Prisoner. Furthermore, a 1960 episode of Danger Man entitled "View from the Villa" had exteriors filmed in Portmeirion, a Welsh resort village that struck McGoohan as a good location for future projects.
According to "Fantasy or Reality", a chapter of The Prisoner of Portmeirion, The Village is based, in part, on "a strange place in Scotland" operated by the Inter Services Research Bureau (ISRB), wherein "people" with "valuable knowledge of one sort or another" were held prisoners on extended "holidays" in a "luxury prison camp". The Prisoner's story editor, George Markstein, this source contends, knows of "the existence of this 'secure establishment." However, this "Scottish prison camp, in reality was not, of course, a holiday-type village full of people wearing colourful" clothing.
Further inspiration came from a Danger Man episode called "Colony Three", in which Drake infiltrates a spy school in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. The school, in the middle of nowhere, is set up to look like a normal English town in which pupils and instructors mix as in any other normal city, but the instructors are virtual prisoners with little hope of ever leaving. McGoohan also stated that he was influenced by his experience from theatre, including his work in the Orson Welles play Moby Dick—Rehearsed (1955) and a BBC television play, The Prisoner by Bridget Boland. McGoohan wrote a forty-page show Bible, which included a: "history of the Village, the sort of telephones they used, the sewerage system, what they ate, the transport, the boundaries, a description of the Village, every aspect of it." McGoohan wrote and directed several episodes, often using pseudonyms. Specifically, McGoohan wrote "Free for All" under the pen name 'Paddy Fitz' (Paddy being the Irish diminutive for Patrick and Fitzpatrick being his mother's maiden name) and directed the episodes "Many Happy Returns" and "A Change of Mind" using the stage name 'Joseph Serf', the surname being ironically a word meaning a peasant who is under the control of a feudal master. Using his own name, McGoohan wrote and directed the last two episodes—"Once Upon a Time" and "Fall Out"—and directed "Free for All".
In a 1966 interview for the Los Angeles Times by reporter Robert Musel, McGoohan stated: "John Drake of Secret Agent is gone." Furthermore, McGoohan stated in a 1985 interview that Number Six is not the same character as John Drake, adding that he had originally wanted another actor to portray the character. However, other sources indicate that several of the crew members who continued on from Danger Man to work on The Prisoner considered it to be a continuation, and that McGoohan was continuing to play the character of John Drake. Furthermore, Dave Rogers states that Markstein had wanted the character to be a continuation of Drake, but by doing so would have meant paying royalties to Ralph Smart, the creator of Danger Man. Nevertheless, the second officially licensed novel based on The Prisoner, published in 1969, refers to Number Six as "Drake" from its very first sentence: "Drake woke."
The issue has been debated by fans and TV critics, with some stating the two characters are the same, based on similarities in the shows, the characters, a few repeating actors beyond McGoohan, and certain specific connections in various episodes.
McGoohan had originally wanted to produce only seven episodes of The Prisoner, but Grade argued more shows were necessary in order for him to successfully sell the series to CBS. The exact number which was agreed to, along with how the series ended, is disputed by different sources.
In an August 1967 article, Dorothy Manners reported that CBS had asked McGoohan to produce 36 segments, but he would agree to produce only 17. According to a 1977 interview, Lew Grade requested 26 episodes; McGoohan thought this would spread the show too thin, but was able to come up with 17 episodes. However, according to The Prisoner: The Official Companion to the Classic TV Series, the series was originally supposed to run longer but was cancelled, forcing McGoohan to write the final episode in only a few days.
The Prisoner had its British premiere on 29 September 1967 on ATV Midlands, and the last episode first aired on 1 February 1968 on Scottish Television. The world broadcast premiere was on the CTV Television Network in Canada on 5 September 1967.
Filming began with the shooting of the series' opening sequence in London on 28 August 1966, with location work beginning on 5 September 1966, primarily in Portmeirion village near Porthmadog, north Wales. This location partially inspired the show. At the request of Portmeirion's architect Clough Williams-Ellis, the main location for the series was not disclosed until the opening credits of the final episode, where it was described as "The Hotel Portmeirion, Penrhyndeudraeth, North Wales". Many local residents were recruited as extras. The Village setting was further augmented by the use of the backlot facilities at MGM-British Studios in Borehamwood.
Additionally, filming of a key sequence of the opening credits—and of exterior location filming for three episodes—took place at 1 Buckingham Place in London, which at the time was a private residence; it doubled as Number Six's home. The building is now a highlight of Prisoner location tours, and currently houses the headquarters of the Royal Warrant Holders Association. The episodes "Many Happy Returns", "The Girl Who Was Death" (the cricket match for which was filmed at four different locations, with the main sequences filmed at Eltisley in Cambridgeshire) and "Fall Out" also made use of extensive location shooting in London and other locations.
At the time, most British television was broadcast in black and white, but to reach the critical American audience the show was filmed in colour.
- George Markstein – Script editor
- Don Chaffey – Director
- David Tomblin – Director
- Peter Graham Scott – Director
- Brendan J. Stafford – Cinematographer
- Bernard Williams – Production manager
- Eric Mival – Music editor
- Albert Elms – Musical director and composer
- Frank Maher – Fight/stunt coordinator
- Rose Tobias Shaw – Casting director
According to author James Follett, a protégé of The Prisoner co-creator George Markstein, Markstein had mapped out an explanation for the Village. In George Markstein's mind, a young John Drake, the lead character in the television series Danger Man, had once submitted a proposal for how to deal with retired secret agents who posed a security risk. Drake's idea was to create a comfortable retirement home where former agents could live out their final years, enduring firm but unobtrusive surveillance.
Years later, Drake discovered that his idea had been put into practice, and not as a benign means of retirement, but instead as an interrogation centre and a prison camp. Outraged, Drake staged his own resignation, knowing he would be brought to the Village. He hoped to learn everything he could of how his idea had been implemented and find a way to destroy it. However, due to the range of nationalities and agents present in the Village, Drake realised he was not sure whose Village he was in – one established by his own people, or by the other side. Drake's conception of the Village would have been the basis for declaring him to be "Number One".
According to Markstein: "'Who is Number Six?' is no mystery – he was a secret agent called Drake who quit."
The prisoner was going to leave the Village and he was going to have adventures in many parts of the world, but ultimately he would always be a prisoner. By that I don't mean he would always go back to the Village. He would always be a prisoner of his circumstances, his situation, his secret, his background ... and 'they' would always be there to ensure that his captivity continues.
In the late 1960s the TV series quickly spawned three novels tied into the series. In the 1970s and into the 1980s as the series grew into cult status a large amount of fan produced material appeared, with the official appreciation society forming in 1977. In 1988 the first officially sanctioned guide – The Prisoner Companion – was released. It was not well received by fans or Patrick McGoohan. In 1989 Oswald and Carraze released The Prisoner in France with a translated version appearing shortly after. From the 1990s numerous other books about the TV series and Patrick McGoohan have been produced. Robert Fairclough's books - including two volumes of original scripts - are considered some of the best researched books available. With the 40th anniversary Andrew Pixley wrote a well-received and in depth account of the series' production. There are guides to shooting locations in Portmeirion and also a biography of co-creator George Markstein. Some members of the production crew have released books about their time working on the series including Eric Mival and Ian Rakoff.
In 1988, DC Comics released Shattered Visage the first part of a four-part series of comics based on the characters in the TV series. In 2018 Titan Comics re-issued Shattered Visage as well as releasing The Prisoner: The Uncertainty Machine, another four-part series of comics about another spy returning to the Village.
Numerous editions of The Prisoner were released in the UK/Region 2 by companies such as Carlton, the copyright holder of the TV series. The first VHS and Betamax releases were through Precision Video in 1982 from 16mm original prints. They released four tapes, each with two episodes edited together; these were "The Arrival"/"The Schizoid Man", "Many Happy Returns"/"A. B. and C.", "Checkmate"/"Free For All" and "The General"/"The Chimes of Big Ben". In 1986 Channel 5 Video (a now a defunct home video brand owned by Universal Pictures) released a series of all 17 episodes on VHS and LaserDisc. In 1993 PolyGram Video released the entire series plus a special feature called The Best of The Prisoner on five VHS cassette tapes.
In North America, MPI Home Video released a total of 20 VHS videotapes in 1984 encompassing the entire series: one tape for each of the 17 episodes plus three more containing "The Alternate Version of 'The Chimes of Big Ben'", a documentary, and a "best of" retrospective. MPI also released editions of nine LaserDiscs in 1988 and 1998, the last disc of which comprised the final Episode 17, "Fall Out", plus "The Prisoner Video Companion" on side two.
In 2000, the first DVD release in the UK was issued by Carlton International Entertainment, with A&E Home Video releasing the same DVDs in North America/Region 1 (in four-episode sets as well as a comprehensive 10-disc "mega-box" edition). A&E subsequently reissued the mega-box in a 40th anniversary edition in 2007. The A&E issue included an alternative version of "The Chimes of Big Ben" and the MPI-produced documentary (but not the redundant "best of" retrospective) among its limited special features. In Australia, Umbrella Entertainment released a DVD set in 2003. In 2005 DeAgostini in the UK released all 17 episodes in a fortnightly partwork series.
40th anniversary DVDs
The Prisoner: 40th Anniversary Special Edition DVD box-set released in 2007 featured standard-definition versions from high-definition masters created by Network Distribution. It also included a production guide to the series by Andrew Pixley.
Remastered Blu-ray Disc Box-set
The Prisoner: The Complete Series was released on Blu-ray Disc in the United Kingdom on 28 September 2009, following in North America on 27 October 2009. The episodes were restored by Network Distributing to create new high-definition masters. The box-set features all 17 remastered episodes plus extensive special features, including the feature-length documentary Don't Knock Yourself Out, a restored original edit of "Arrival" and extensive archive photos and production stills.
The Prisoner: 50th Anniversary Set featured a six-disc Blu-ray collection with none of the extra material found on the DVD box-set released for the 40th anniversary included. The first half of Andrew Pixley's production book was now illustrated and presented in hardback, and text commentaries for every episode detailing the production story of the series were included for the first time. A six-CD set of remastered music was also included. Some additional extras were included such as an interview with McGoohan's daughter, Catherine. Missing from the set was the Don't Knock Yourself Out documentary, the script PDFs and some episode commentaries.
In other media
Six into One: The Prisoner File (1984, 45 minutes) docudrama presented by Channel 4 after a repeat of the series in the UK. With its central premise to establish a reason why Number 6 resigned, the presentation revolved around a new Number 2 communicating with staff (and Number 1). It reviewed scenes from Danger Man and The Prisoner, incorporated interviews with cast members (including McGoohan) and fans, and addressed the political environment giving rise to the series and McGoohan's heavy workload.
The Prisoner Video Companion (1990, 48 minutes) American production with clips, including a few from Danger Man, and voice-over narration discussing origins, interpretations, meaning, symbolism, etc., in a format modeled on the 1988 Warner book, The Official Prisoner Companion by Matthew White and Jaffer Ali. It was released to DVD in the early 2000s as a bonus feature with A&E's release of The Prisoner series. MPI also issued The Best of The Prisoner, a video of series excerpts.
Don't Knock Yourself Out (2007, 95 minutes) documentary issued as part of Network's DVD set for the series' 40th anniversary. It features interviews with around 25 cast and crew members. The documentary received a separate DVD release, featuring an extended cut, in November 2007 accompanied by a featurette titled "Make Sure It Fits", regarding Eric Mival's music editing for the series.
In My Mind (2017, 78 mins) documentary film by Chris Rodley about his experiences interviewing Patrick McGoohan in 1983 for the Six into One: The Prisoner File documentary. Includes previously unseen interview material and insights from McGoohan's daughter, Catherine.
The Prisoner (2009)
In 2009, the series was remade as a miniseries, also titled The Prisoner, which aired in the U.S. on AMC. The miniseries starred Jim Caviezel as number 6, and Ian McKellen as number 2, and was shot on location in Namibia and South Africa. The series received mixed reviews, mainly unfavourable, with a 45/100 rating by 21 critics and 3.6/10 by 82 users as of July 2018.
The Simpsons (2000)
The series is parodied in the 2000 The Simpsons episode "The Computer Wore Menace Shoes". McGoohan reprised his role as Number Six in that episode. The 1998 The Simpsons episode "The Joy of Sect" also includes a gag involving Rover.
Christopher Nolan was reported to be considering a film version in 2009, but later dropped out of the project. The producer Barry Mendel said a decision to continue with the project depended on the success of the television mini-series. In 2016, Ridley Scott was in talks to direct the screen version.
The finale of The Prisoner left open-ended questions, generating controversy and letters of outrage. Following this controversial ending, McGoohan "claimed he had to go into hiding for a while".
Awards and honours
- The final episode, "Fall Out", received a Hugo Award nomination for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1969.
- In 2002, the series won the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award.
- In 2004 and 2007, it was ranked No. 7 on TV Guide's Top Cult Shows Ever.
- In 1997 and 2001, TV Guide listed "Fall Out" as the 55th Greatest TV Episode of All Time.
- In 2005, readers of SFX magazine awarded the series fifth place in a poll of British fantasy and science fiction television programmes.
- A 2005 survey of leading rock and film stars by Uncut magazine ranking films, books, music or TV shows that changed the world, placed The Prisoner at No. 10, the highest for a TV show.
- In 2013, TV Guide ranked it as the #9 sci-fi show.
- The Prisoner in popular culture
- In My Mind, documentary about Patrick McGoohan and the making of The Prisoner TV series
- Nowhere Man US TV series with similar premise
- The Prisoner, Original Soundtrack – 3 disc set – Network
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to The Prisoner.|
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- The Prisoner Puzzle 1976 companion book of a television show discussing theories about the series
- In pictures: The Prisoner at 50 – BBC article
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- The Prisoner on IMDb
- The Prisoner at TV.com
- The Prisoner article at British Film Institute Screen Online
- "Why The Prisoner Endures" by John Fund, Wall Street Journal, 2009-01-20