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The Prisoner is a 17-episode British television series broadcast in the UK from 29 September 1967 to 1 February 1968. Starring and co-created by Patrick McGoohan, it combined spy fiction with elements of science fiction, allegory, and psychological drama.

The series follows a British former secret agent who is held prisoner in a mysterious seaside village where his captors try to find out why he abruptly resigned from his job. Although sold as a thriller in the mould of McGoohan's previous series, Danger Man (called Secret Agent in its U.S. release), the show's combination of 1960s countercultural themes and surreal setting had a far-reaching effect on science fiction/fantasy programming, and on popular culture in general.

A TV miniseries remake began airing on the U.S. cable channel AMC on November 15, 2009. Additionally, Christopher Nolan has been widely reported to be considering a film version.

Origins and production

Panoramic view of the central piazza, Hotel Portmeirion
The show was co-created by Patrick McGoohan and George Markstein. Markstein, script editor of Danger Man, remembered that during World War II some people were incarcerated in a resort-like prison. A documented situation with some similarities was Operation Epsilon: German atomic scientists were detained post-war in relatively comfortable isolation in a mansion in England, while their conversations were recorded. Markstein suggested that the Danger Man lead, John Drake, could suddenly resign, and be kidnapped and sent to such a location. Markstein subsequently wrote a novel, The Cooler, in 1974 about such a prison for spies who had suffered mental breakdowns.

This idea was mirrored in an episode of Danger Man 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 grafted this on to the material he had developed in the intervening years. Shortly after filming the fourth series of Danger Man in colour had begun, McGoohan told Lew Grade of ITC Entertainment that he intended to quit. Grade asked McGoohan if he would work on anything else for him, so McGoohan pitched the series, which Grade agreed to in a handshake deal.

Grade bought the show and it was produced for broadcast on ITV and overseas. McGoohan wrote a forty-page show Bible, and wrote and directed several episodes, often under pseudonyms. The exteriors for the series were filmed primarily on location "in the grounds of the Hotel Portmeirionmarker, Penrhyndeudraeth, North Walesmarker", according to the location credit in "Fall Out", the 17th and final episode.

There is debate as to whether the series ended by mutual agreement or cancellation.

Opening and closing sequences

The opening and closing sequences of The Prisoner have become significantly iconic. Cited as "one of the great set-ups of genre drama", the opening sequence establishes the Orwellian and postmodern themes of the series; its high production values have led the opening sequence to be described as more like film than television.

Plot

The series follows an unnamed British agent who abruptly resigns his job, and then finds himself held captive in a mysterious seaside "village" that is isolated from the mainland by mountains and sea. The Village is further secured by numerous monitoring systems and security forces, including a mysterious device called Rover that captures those who attempt escape. The agent encounters the Village's population, hundreds of people from all walks of life and cultures, all seeming to be tranquilly living out their lives. As they do not use names, they have each been assigned a number. The agent is told by the Village authority he is "Number Six", and they are seeking "information" as to why he resigned; the task of doing this is carried by the ever-changing "Number Two", acting as the Village's chief administrator and proxy to the unseen "Number One". Number Six, distrusting of anyone involved with the Village, refuses to give such answers while at the same time trying to learn for which side the Village works, remaining defiant to authority while concocting his own plans to escape or learn more about the Village. Some of his schemes, while not resulting in an escape, do lead to the dismissal of an incumbent Number Two on two occasions. At the end of the series, the administration becomes desperate for Number Six's information, and more drastic measures follow that threaten the lives of Number Six, Number Two, and the rest of the Village.

The series features striking and often surreal storylines, and themes include hypnosis, hallucinogenic drug experiences, identity theft, mind control, dream manipulation, and various forms of social indoctrination. A major theme is individualism versus collectivism.

Cast and crew

Actors who played the same role in more than one episode are:

Crew


In other media

There have been a number of spin-offs of The Prisoner in other media, including novels, comicbooks, games and several attempts to make a movie.

Documentaries

  • Six into One: The Prisoner File, 1984, a 45-minute docudrama presented by Channel 4 after the series rerun. With its central premise to establish a reason why Number 6 resigned, the presentation anchored 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: a 48-minute American production with clips, including a few from Danger Man, and voice-over narration discussing origins, interpretations, meaning, symbolism, etc., in a format modelled 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.
  • American public television station KTEH (San Jose, Californiamarker), re-ran the series in the early 1990s accompanied by commentary from critic Scott Apel before and after each episode. Clips of some of Apel's commentaries may be found on YouTube.
  • Don't Knock Yourself Out, 2007: a feature-length documentary issued as part of Network's official 40th Anniversary DVD set, featuring 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, "Make Sure It Fits", regarding Eric Mival's music editing for the series.


Remake

A remake, in the works since 2005, premiered on November 15, 2009 as a miniseries on AMC, in cooperation with British broadcaster ITV. On 25 April 2008, ITV announced that a new series of The Prisoner would go into production, and in June 2008, that American actor James Caviezel will star in the role of Number 6, with Ian McKellen taking on the role of Number 2 in all six episodes. As of May 2009 the shooting for the new series was completed. The new Village is located in a desert tropical area instead of Wales.

Video

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. The episodes have been restored by Network DVD to create new high-definition masters, of which standard-definition versions were used for The Prisoner: 40th Anniversary Special Edition DVD boxset released in 2007.

Awards and honours

  • The final episode, "Fall Out", received a Hugo Award nomination for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1969, but lost out to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
  • In 2002, the series won the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award.
  • In the 30 May – 5 June 2004 issue of TV Guide magazine, The Prisoner was voted #7 of the 25 top cult shows ever.
  • In 2005, readers of SFX magazine awarded the series fifth place in a poll of British fantasy and science fiction television programs.
  • A 2006 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 #10, the highest for a TV show.


In popular culture

The Prisoner is frequently referenced, parodied, and paid homage to in comics, movies and television shows.

See also



References

Notes

  1. As noted in Andrew Pixley's 2007 The Prisoner - A Complete Production Guide book, the first UK premiere was 29 September 1967 on ATV Midlands and the last episode first aired aired on 1 February 1968 on Scottish Television.
  2. The world broadcast premiere was on the CTV Television Network in Canada on 5 September 1967.Toronto Star, 5 September 1967, p. 22
  3. AMC Originals - The Prisoner
  4. First aired in 1964: Cult TV by Jon E. Lewis and Penny Stempel, published by Pavilion Books Limited
  5. TV.com overview of Danger Man episode Colony Three
  6. Cult TV (UK): "An Interview with Patrick McGoohan", conducted by Warner Troyer, March 1977: "I'd made 54 of those [sic; there were thirty-nine half-hour episodes and forty-seven hour long segments of Danger Man] and I thought that was an adequate amount. So I went to the gentleman, Lew Grade, who was the financier, and said that I'd like to cease making Secret Agent and do something else. So he didn't like that idea. He'd prefer that I'd gone on forever doing it. But anyway, I said I was going to quit." "So I prepared it and went in to see Lew Grade. I had photographs of the Village… So I talked for ten minutes and he stopped me and said, 'I don't understand one word you're talking about, but how much is it going to be?'… I told him how much and he says, 'When can you start?' I said 'Monday, on scripts.' And he says, 'The money'll be in your company's account on Monday morning.'"
  7. Cult TV (UK): "An Interview with Patrick McGoohan", conducted by Warner Troyer, March 1977: It 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…"
  8. Specifically, McGoohan wrote "Free for All" as Paddy Fitz (Paddy being the Irish diminutive for Patrick and Fitzpatrick being his mother's maiden name) and directed "Many Happy Returns" and "A Change of Mind" as Joseph Serf. He wrote and directed the last two episodes — "Once Upon a Time" and "Fall Out" — and directed the aforementioned "Free for All" under his own name, though he had considered putting "Archibald Schwartz" on the script of "Once Upon a Time".
  9. In a 1977 interview McGoohan said: "I thought the concept of the thing would sustain for only seven, but then Lew Grade wanted to make his sale to CBS, I believe, and he said he couldn't make a deal unless he had more, and he wanted 26, and I couldn't conceive of 26 stories, because it would be spreading it very thin, but we did manage, over a weekend, with my writers, to cook up ten more outlines, and eventually we did 17, but it should be seven…" According to The Prisoner: The Official Companion to the Classic TV Series by Robert Fairclough, the series was indeed cancelled, forcing McGoohan to write the concluding episode, "Fall Out", in only a few days. In the 1977 interview McGoohan contradicts this: "…it got very close to the last episode and I hadn't written it yet. And I had to sit down this terrible day and write the last episode…"
  10. It was released in 1990 by MPI Home Video, then the licensed label for both/all three series in the USA. The copyright notice (the only credit) is ascribed to Maljack Productions, apparently the real company behind the name MPI. Law.cornell.edu: Jackson v. MPI Home Video
  11. It was announced in late 2005 that Granada would revive the series for Sky1 in 2007. BBC News: Remake for cult show The Prisoner Christopher Eccleston was initially rumoured to be considered for the title role, and it was reported that the series would be titled Number Six instead of The Prisoner.
  12. In December 2006, The Hollywood Reporter reported that the American cable TV channel AMC was co-producing The Prisoner with Sky1, and that it would run at least six to eight episodes, beginning in January 2008 (both in the UK and USA). ICv2 News — AMC Remaking 'The Prisoner'
  13. In May 2007 it was reported that Sky One had pulled out of the re-make due to a disagreement with their AMC. In August 2007, Richard Woolfe, head of Sky One, stated: The Prisoner is not happening. It's a very quintessentially British drama and there were too many creative differences trying to share it with an American partner. I didn't want to be responsible for taking something that is quintessentially British and adapting it in a way that I didn't feel was reflective of the way people would remember it and the way people would want it to be. So we called time on that. Digital Spy: Q & A with Sky One head Richard Woolfe
  14. In October 2007, British broadcaster ITV stepped in to replace Sky One as co-producer with AMC. ITV to step in and save Prisoner remake.
  15. DVD Times: The Prisoner: The Complete Series
  16. High-Def Digest: The Prisoner: The Complete Series
  17. Network DVD: The Prisoner restoration screenshot comparisons
  18. DVD Times: The Prisoner: 40th Anniversary Special Edition


Bibliography

  • Wesley Alan Britton, Spy television. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004, Chapter 6,"The Cold War and Existential Fables: Danger Man, Secret Agent, and The Prisoner". ISBN 0275981630


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