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Review of The Prisoner tv series (1967)

A few weeks ago, during a big sulk at being stuck on a chapter of Extracted book three, I flopped down on my sofa and perused the telly channels. This was in the way of aiming the remote in the general direction of the TV and allowing a small percentage of my brain to absorb the tripe being shown while grappling with plot issues.

The usual stuff was on. I’m not a huge fan of the telly and tend to use the catch up services to watch the things I like and make use of Sky plus and Amazon Prime for that.

Something caught my eye. It was an episode of The Prisoner from 1967 and for a few seconds I scoffed and rolled my eyes at the saturated colour and weird music. I tutted at the old-fashioned style and appearance. It reminded me of the original Batman series, all colour and weird camera angles and crap acting. So I flicked on past and ended up watching something of which I have no memory.

The reason I have no memory of what I ended putting on was because my brain laid its own bread-crumb trail for me to follow. I thought about The Prisoner. Then I thought about the re-make they did in 2009 with Ian McKellen. Then I thought about the Jean Claude Van Damme movie Double Impact which (in my mind) had an homage to The Prisoner and those few things got me thinking that maybe, that series was worth watching properly.

Cue an Amazon search which showed the entire series (17 episodes) for about £7 ($9). Ooh now this was rather cool I thought. 17 roughly hour long episodes meant 17 (ish) hours of fun for less than a tenner. Bargain! I clicked. Bought. Booted my Xbox up, loaded Amazon on the telly and got me a big on mission to watch all 17 episodes over the course of a few weeks…which I have now done and OH MY GOLLY GOSH.

The Prisoner is an outstanding example of art. It is layered in ways that are far beyond anything I ever imagined. It is timeless in the sense that the portrayal of humanity within society is as relevant now as it was then and the twee, saturated colour aspects that made me scoff only add to the resonance of this incredible series.

The basic plot is Patrick McGoohan plays a spy that quits his job at spy HQ in good old blighty. We don’t know why but only that he is angry. He then flounces out of spy HQ to go home and pack a bag ready for a trip somewhere. He gets gassed, knocked out and wakes up in The Village and therein the fun begins cos, you see, The Village is a messed up weirdo infested town of freaky people. All of whom, as it turns out, may or may not have been involved in naughty spy business and may or may not be a guard or a prisoner like our lead actor man Mr McGoohan.

Wow, that was a mouthful even to write but WHAT A CONCEPT. Our hero doesn’t know who is a baddie or goodie because asking personal questions is banned and everyone is assigned a number instead of a name. McGoohan becomes number 6 and the bulk of the series follows him and the chief honcho number 2 at loggerheads of thwarting plans and counter thwarting plans. But in each episode number 2 is played by a different person, each of whom adds a unique flavour.

It is fantastic and over the next 15 episodes (I’ll come onto the last 2 episodes in a mo), we see such topics as mind control, interrogation, deprivation, threat applied directly and indirectly, espionage and counter measures, the application of mental stress, identity theft, dream manipulation by way of sneaky stuff and all sorts of craziness and all done by the various number 2’s to make number 6 tell them why he quit being a spy.

This is ground-breaking stuff. Without this there wouldn’t be The Matrix or Inception. We wouldn’t have Lost or some of the big sprawling gorgeous telly series that are defining our era of screen time.

It’s about the concept of individualism versus the mass. About society and the demands it places upon our need to be unique. We’re all the heroes of our stories right? We’re the special ones that rules don’t apply to. We yearn to be different and not shackled by the constraints that we see society places upon on, while all the time we eat the food and drive the cars we are provided with by SOCIETY. We go to the jobs, earn the money and work for The Man while dreaming of something different, of being different, of standing out, breaking free and refusing to comply while we enjoy the safety that very society gives us.

Number 6 is all of us. He is the rebel with a cause. He is faster, smarter, quicker and angrier yet he uses that anger to direct his inner resources to refuse to submit to what society demands him to be and what McGoohan does is shows us the loss and gains of such an action… yeah it’s cool to be the lone wolf but it’s also very bloody lonely and that in itself can drive you potty.

For his part, Patrick McGoohan wrote, produced, directed and starred in this series. (He didn’t write and direct all of them). He is the star and this is his vehicle. He is the rage within and has a message to ram down our throats and by god this man has screen presence. His ability to convey a raft of meanings with ever so subtle facial expressions is sublime. His voice can be soft, yearning, needy, friendly, so British and polite then a second later it’s rasping and booming to such a degree you can’t help but be fixated on what he is saying. He portrays inner angst and barely concealed psychotic rage perfectly. You get the feeling, as the series progresses, that number 6 is only ever a few steps away from slaughtering everyone in sight but holds that urge in check.

He smiles sweetly at female co-stars then screams at them so loud you have to ask if the flinch they gave was acting or a genuine reaction. He shows raw vulnerability too, loss and confusion with turmoil and dashings of humour.

Some parts of this series has aged. The gaudy colours. The music, the big rubber ball thing that bounces about – little things like that but on the whole this is allegorical story-telling at it’s very best.

The last two episodes (16 and 17) were just a bit too far out psychedelic trippy for me. (Actually, there is a wild-west themed episode that was also a bit shit but gets good at the end.)

Episode 16 is, in a way, both awful and truly gifted. It’s either one of the best things I have ever watched or the worst. I’m not sure yet. Number 2, for this episode, is played by Leo McKern (the only actor to play number 2 in more than one episode). He suffered a real genuine break-down while filming this episode and it kinda shows. Episode 16 is about making number 6 regress to a childhood state to be taken through the stages of development by number 2 in order to gain control and discover his secrets. It’s full on stuff. The dialogue is bloody amazing and the seamless way they push through those stages are brutal to watch. McGoohan and McKern are sooo charismatic too, both draw the eye, both have such presence it’s impossible to turn away and if you watch and listen you can sort of understand that whoever wrote this episode has a general dislike for psychology and psychiatry. That’s what I took from it anyway.

Episode 17-  the last one – is just weird and bit too HOLY COW BATMAN for my liking. It’s in an underground cave and has some dudes singing the bone song (the foot bone is connected to the face bone or whatever) and lots of other freaky shit.

On the whole though, The Prisoner 1967 is one of the finest works of televised art I have ever seen. I recommend anyone to watch it. It’s mostly child-friendly too (no swearing or nipples anywhere).

Be seeing you…..


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