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The Prisoner Returns:
Speaking of spying, John Fund reports:
No TV series -- not even "Star Trek" -- has quite achieved the quirky cult status of "The Prisoner," which first ran on British and U.S. networks almost 40 years ago. It now looks as if the show, which still airs in re-runs in some 60 countries, will be making a comeback next year.

In the original 1967 version, Patrick McGoohan played Prisoner No. 6, a former secret agent who is kidnapped to a strange seaside village where everyone is known only by a number and where he is told that "by hook or by crook" the reasons for his resignation as an agent will be extracted from him. For 17 surreal episodes, the series explored profound issues of privacy, individualism and mind control. I view it as Mr. McGoohan's take on George Orwell's novel "1984," but with a sense of humor. The final episode was a kaleidoscope of bizarre images and obscure allegories that still leave Prisoner fans in heated arguments.

The British magazine Broadcast reports that the Sky One channel has commissioned eight new episodes of the series. Executive producer Damien Timmer says they will deal "with themes such as paranoia, conspiracy and identity crisis." The episodes will be partly written by Bill Gallagher, a creator of the BBC series "Conviction," an edgy police drama about vigilante behavior in society.

Sadly, the new "Prisoner" will not be set in the Welsh village of Portmeirion, a strange, planned community with eclectic Mediterranean architecture. Known simply as "The Village" in the original series, Portmeirion attracts thousands of "Prisoner" fans a year who tour the grounds with the help of a new guidebook.

The final page of the guidebook contains the trademark farewell of a show that anticipated today's rampant use of security cameras: "Be Seeing You." You can bet that the new show will attract the eyeballs of a lot of old Prisoner fans, as well as those of new generations who are curious about why the show has attained such cult status.
I remember watching The Prisoner first run with my brother. As I recall, it was a summer replacement series that had been canceled because McGoohan abandoned the project before being aired, so it was always a set number of episodes with a bizarre and, to my mind, hardly satisfying ending. I loved the series, but would now rather watch episodes of Secret Agent, the British-made series in which Patrick McGoohan established the secret agent persona of John Drake, for which he was later taken prisoner (though his character in The Prisoner was never identified as Drake). For a low-budget series shot largely in the studio, it was an intelligent spy show, something rare in the days when spy shows and films quickly became spoofs. The only spy series I preferred in those days was I Spy (and here) with Robert Culp and Bill Cosby, which I also admit to having watched in first run. Produced by Sheldon Leonard (and here) (the bartender in It's A Wonderful Life) it was shot almost entirely on location around the world in such locales as Tokyo, Hong, Kong, Rome, Acapulco, Greece and Las Vegas. Even the soundtrack by Earl Hagen was excellent.

I did get into MI-5 ("Spooks" in the UK). It was the first spy show I enjoyed since I Spy, not counting the superb 1988 mini-series Game, Set, and Match.
Evelyn Blaine:
Come on, Randy: Game, Set, and Match was good, but as television spies go, there is still surely nothing that even comes close to the magnificent BBC versions of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People.
12.21.2005 7:10pm
topcover (mail):
I am not a number, but a Free Man.

Also, don't forget about the Avengers. Mrs Peel rocked.
12.21.2005 7:15pm
Michaelg (mail):
I second the previous commenter's praise for the Smiley adaptations. I'd also strongly recommend the BBC series Sandbaggers. Good, tough stuff, well worth the espionage fan's time.
12.21.2005 7:18pm
Nick Carter (mail) (www):
I'm making my way through all the episodes of "Secret Agent"/"Danger Man" on DVD through Netflix. In my opinion you can't understand McGoohan's performance in "The Prisoner" without having watched "Secret Agent", in "Secret Agent" you can see his cynicicsm and disillusionment grow as the series progresses.
12.21.2005 7:30pm
PersonFromPorlock:
Here's another vote for Sandbaggers: brilliant, and the bureaucratic infighting is wonderfully poisonous.
12.21.2005 7:51pm
mariner (mail):
I hadn't heard that McGoohan abandoned The Prisoner.

The way I heard it, he was asked why the series was only one season. He replied that he had told the story he wanted to tell, and had nothing further to say.
12.21.2005 8:08pm
nk (mail) (www):
This dates you as well as me. I was an avid fan of both "The Prisoner" and "Secret Agent". (Not so much "I Spy" -- too tongue in cheek.) When the song "Secret Agent Man" comes up on the radio I turn it up high. But now, thirty plus years later ... ? I will not have the same suspension of disbelief that I had as a teenager.
12.21.2005 9:15pm
chattr:
In addition to 'Be seeing you' (with the odd salute), there were the shopkeeper's words to No. 6 (he ran a map shop, I believe): 'Feel free.'
12.21.2005 9:23pm
Visitor Again:
Slinking into name-dropping mode, I would hardly say I was a friend, but I shared a few drinks on a couple of occasions with Patrick McGoohan at the Cheshire Fox Inn in Santa Monica in the late Seventies. The bartender/owner, who regularly hosted many U.K. and Irish actors and was a film buff, introduced me to him and I soon asked what he did for a living. Bartender/owner was horrified that I didn't know who McGoohan was and worried that I'd offended him by my ignorance--I didn't own a television set then and never went to films--but McGoohan himself seemed fine with it. He had been on location in Northern Ireland and we talked of "the troubles" as well as Congressional investigations of the U.S. intelligence agencies and a murder trial I was doing. Had our conversations not taken place at a bar, I might even remember some details about them. Alas, so many of those long-ago evenings were lost in a haze of gin and tonic. Afterwards, I watched an episode of The Prisoner. I couldn't make heads or tails of it, and it wasn't because of gin and tonic.
12.21.2005 9:30pm
Kim Scarborough (mail) (www):
Actually, I believe McGoohan and the show's co-creator, George Markstein, originally only wanted to do seven episodes, but the BBC insisted on 17.

Incidentally, about the unsatisfying ending: Markstein had been a journalist and was largely responsible for the more down-to-earth, spy-vs.-spy Cold War stuff whereas McGoohan's influence was seen in the wacky stuff, like the growling weather balloons and the scene where he wanders into a room filled with straw and five silent men with wraparound sunglasses and top hats beat the crap out of him for no apparent reason. The great thing about the show, to my mind, was the weird mix--as if Maya Deren directed a James Bond movie. Markstein quit before the final episode was produced, and the show lost its grounding; McGoohan was given free rein and finished the series with an episode that was an incomprehensible, pretentious mess.
12.21.2005 9:36pm
Eric Anondson (mail):
There was an episode that never aired during its original in the U.S. because censors thought it was too anti-war in its message. While the episode is included on the full season DVD boxed set, does anyone know if that episode has ever aired in the U.S.?
12.21.2005 11:16pm
Stuart Levine (www):
No--Not "Prisoner No. 6." Just "Number 6."

I always thought that the last episode revealed McGoohan to be Number 1, but even after watching it a number of times I was not certain.
12.21.2005 11:35pm
Mike G. in San Diego (mail):
"There was an episode that never aired during its original in the U.S. because censors thought it was too anti-war in its message. While the episode is included on the full season DVD boxed set, does anyone know if that episode has ever aired in the U.S.?"

This is something of a myth. The episode "Living in Harmony" wasn't aired in the U.S. when the series was first run, but it has often been shown in reruns and is on the DVD set. It wasn't shown in 1968 because it was pre-empted for coverage of Bobby Kennedy's funeral. There's nothing particularly subversive about it. Interesting note: It features Alexis Kanner, the actor who played the Young Man in the final episode.
12.21.2005 11:51pm
Crane (mail):
The end of "Living in Harmony" was always a bit of a mystery to me. I can understand that they gave Number 6 hallucinogens to make him think he was in an Old West setting, but there was no reason given for why one of the expert captors should go crazy and start believing in the story they had created for him.

But then, the whole series is mysterious. I don't even try anymore to figure out what's going on in the last episode. All I know is that whenever I think about it, I get that song stuck in my head for the rest of the day.
12.22.2005 12:04am
PersonFromPorlock:
But then, the whole series is mysterious.

It was a popular ploy in the late 60s/early 70s, to pass off incoherence as Mystery.
12.22.2005 10:14am
Craig Oren (mail):
Mike G., you make me feel better. When I saw The Prisoner in re-runs, I was quite struck that I could not remember seeing the "western" in the summer of 1968, when (as I recall) the series first ran.

I thought it was a nice twist that one of the participants in the plot got to believe in it. It showed the great power of the propaganda to which No. 6 was being subjected.

BTW, in 1968 I saw the last episode the night before I traveled by jet cross-country to start at Berkeley.
12.22.2005 12:42pm
Joe O'Donnell (mail):
I watched The Prisoner faithfully, though it got too weird for me occasionally. The Sandbaggers was my favorite. They would have taken out Saddam the first time around.
12.22.2005 5:52pm
Bob Van Burkleo (mail):
The University of Toronto even taught a class about The Prisoner (have the class materials somewhere in a box). Another is an viewing the series as a progression through the tarot.

of note is that the series ends in the same way it begins, with No. 6 driving his car and the bars slamming shut on him. The only difference is in the end version he is smiling. No longer merely the fool, he is now the enlighten fool with nothing really changed but his point of view.
12.22.2005 7:25pm
odograph (mail) (www):
And the intro had the Lotus Super 7. Coolest car ever.
12.22.2005 9:36pm
Christopher Fotos (mail) (www):
Beat me to it! I loved that car.

Delighted to see this post. I have a <i>The Prisoner</i>-themed calendar hanging in my home office right now (it's a few years old). That last episode was one of the great WTF? moments in television history as far as I'm concerned.

And those weird weather ballon sentries? Terrified the hell out of me. I was ten or eleven, but to tell you the truth, they still make me a little uneasy now that I think of it.
12.23.2005 12:35am
Mike G. in San Diego (mail):
"And the intro had the Lotus Super 7. Coolest car ever."

If I recall correctly, it was McGoohan's own car. The Prisoner says in "Many Happy Returns" that he built it himself. That may be true -- I believe the Lotus 7 was only available as a kit.

Jeeze, I wanted one of those cars ...

Also in Many Happy Returns, there's an incident that I haven't seen anyone take particular notice of: The Prisoner says his own name! And it's likely that he was telling the truth (within the context of the series) because it was the name* that was on the deed to the row house and the car, which Mrs. Butterworth purchsed from his estate.


* "Peter Smith"
12.23.2005 3:01am
Harpoon (mail):
"I always thought that the last episode revealed McGoohan to be Number 1, but even after watching it a number of times I was not certain."

Someone pointed out to me years ago that the identity of Number 1 was given in the voiceover introduction to every episode.

6: Who are you?
2: The new Number 2.
6: Who is Number 1?
2: You are, Number 6.

It was pretty easy to miss the comma in that last line. :-)
12.23.2005 9:38am
Cold Warrior:

It was a popular ploy in the late 60s/early 70s, to pass off incoherence as Mystery.

The Prisoner is fascinating today on many levels. I remembered watching it on TV as a kid of about eight. The Blob made the biggest impression.

I rewatched it about 10 years ago on VHS. I understand the new DVD release is much more satisfying.

I disagree with Randy Barnett about the importance of Secret Agent/Danger Man as "backstory" to The Prisoner. Certainly in the U.K. -- where McGoohan was known as Secret Agent/Danger Man -- the casting created its own backstory. But Secret Agent/Danger Man was pretty traditional early-mid '60s spy stuff; The Prisoner was another thing altogether.

Watching it now I'm astounded by two things: (1) the explosion of creativity of the 1967-68 period. Really, the first 7 or so episodes of The Prisoner are marvelously inventive, seamlessly bridging the the espionage and science fiction genres more in a completely unexpected way. But: (2) the explosion of what I can only see as the acid-induced silliness of the same period. In fact, you can see the sea change in the 1967-68 period just by viewing the entire series. Later episodes don't present the viewer with the same kind of classy works-on-many-levels (suspense/allegory) writing of the original 7 (or so) episodes. Rather, they degenerate into a drug-induced kind of slapstick absurdity. The final episode is the perfect example of late '60s low art. And it just doesn't work today. It reminds me of another jaw-droppingly silly film of the very late '60s: The Ruling Class.

You could see the same decline in other examples of pop culture: from, say, Revolver-period Beatles inventiveness to Magical Mystery Tour silliness. Or film (compare Blow Up with The Ruling Class.)

So get the DVDs and watch. I promise: you'll find it fascinating on many levels ...
12.23.2005 10:54am
D T Nelson (mail) (www):
Another vote for The Sandbaggers.
12.23.2005 1:09pm
Wonderduck (mail) (www):
I had a post up about this on my blog about a month ago; the Official Overseas Reader of The Pond, Flotsky, tells me that SKYTV, the network doing the remake, is about as bad as can be when it comes to doing their own programming.

That thought scares me and makes me cry.

"I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered."
12.24.2005 10:56am
Leo Comerford (mail) (www):
These, to the best of my knowledge, are the facts about the number of episodes:

McGoohan had originally wanted The Prisoner to have one season and 7 episodes, but by the time shooting began the plan was to make a first season of 26 episodes. The decision to stop at 17 was made during production. While 26 episodes is apparently a standard season length for a television series (as is 7), 17 episodes isn't. The unusual length makes the show hard to schedule and so hurts its fortunes in syndication. The late change of plans also forced McGoohan to write up the last episode ("Fall Out") in a hurry.

The BBC had no involvement in the making of the series AFAIK. In any case it seems unlikely that any broadcaster would have asked for the awkward 17-episode run.
12.24.2005 8:09pm