Rewind: ‘The Prisoner’ revisited

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Exactly fifty years since the series began filming, we take a look back at the bonkers masterpiece that was The Prisoner.

No. 1: What is it about?

A British secret agent resigns from his job for unknown reasons. Shortly afterwards, he is kidnapped and taken to the Village, a small township from which there is no escape. All residents have been stripped of their identities and are kept under surveillance.

Our hero is Number Six and the ever-changing face of the Village is Number Two. Two wants to know why Number Six resigned but Six is determined to find out the truth of the mysterious Village himself…

This stylish, surreal and oh-so-sixties series ran for only one season of 17 episodes back in 1967 but, appropriately for a show about a man who fights for his individuality, was so unique that it has never been forgotten.

No. 2: Who is in it?

Patrick McGoohan is Number Six, AKA the Prisoner of the title. The ultimate rebel, Six is forever revolting against the insidious microcosm of society that he is trapped in.

His nemesis, Number Two, is played by several actors across the series, further demonstrating the elusiveness of the Village. Particularly memorable Twos include Peter Wyngarde, Patrick Cargill and Leo McKern.

The third most important recurring figure in the Village is Rover – the giant weather balloon which acts as gaoler, suffocating anyone foolish enough to attempt to escape. Only a show as imaginative as The Prisoner would think of something so bizarre…

No. 3: Best quotes

The Prisoner produced a number of memorable lines – particularly those that featured in the terrific opening sequence. Here a few of them…

‘I am not a number, I am a free man!’

‘Who is Number One?’
‘You are Number Six.’

‘We want information. Information. Information.’

‘You won’t get it.’

‘By hook or by crook, we will.’

‘Be seeing you.’

No. 4: Best moments

As the series is so short and tight, there is nary a bad moment to be found in The Prisoner, but there are still some standout episodes.

There’s double trouble in ‘The Schizoid Man’, in which Number Six wakes up as apparently his own evil twin. Plus the exhilarating moment when Six appears to escape the Village in ‘Many Happy Returns’. And who can forget the strangeness of the storybook and Wild West themed episodes ‘The Girl Who Was Death’ and ‘Living in Harmony’?

And that’s not even mentioning the controversial finale…

No. 5: How did it end?

Infamously, The Prisoner’s finale – which audiences expected to answer all the overhanging questions of the show – wrapped up nothing. Instead it delivers perhaps the most surreal 45 minutes of television ever.

Is Number One a gorilla (don’t ask) or Number Six himself – or both? Does the Prisoner really escape so easily? And how did they resurrect Number Two by just giving him a shave?

Naturally, audiences hated it – apparently, Patrick MacGoohan even had to go into hiding after the episode aired. Nowadays the finale still divides fans but, whatever you think of it, it is surely a fitting end for a show that refused to conform.

No. 6: What is its legacy?

You could write a whole article on the legacy of The Prisoner, as its influence on future showmakers is immeasurable; inspiring such hit series as Life on Mars and, of course, Lost (the ending that explained nothing particularly comes to mind here).

Though fans try to forget it, The Prisoner was given an American remake in 2009, with Jim Caviezel in the role of Six and Ian McKellen as Two. Even if that show was something of a misstep (missing a lot of the original’s wit and imagination), the fact that it was updated all these years later just shows how much The Prisoner knocked the world for Six.

Buy the complete series on Blu-ray on Amazon.

What are your memories of The Prisoner? Let us know below…

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Read more of Christian’s musings on TV, films and books over on his blog.