From the years 1966-1967, an action series was aired on Thames Television in the UK.
The series, called “The Prisoner,” was devised by actor Patrick MacGoohan (then known for his role in the spy series “Danger Man”). The program concerned a secret agent that decided to resign. However, he was captured before he could leave his home and taken to an island known only as “the Village.” All of those who lived in the Village, including its operators, were known only as numbers.
MacGoohan‘s character was known as “Number Six” and the entire operation was run by the invisible “Number One,” whose sole purpose was to drive out why Number Six resigned. This was to be accomplished by a series of plots delivered by “Number Two” (played by various actors and actresses throughout the series).
In his scripts, MacGoohan explored psychotherapy, mind control, alternate realities and cloning on The Prisoner. All of these were related to the techniques that the presiding ruler of the Village used to ‘break’ Number Six. These techniques grew more and more insidious and brutal with each episode. He was beaten, betrayed, tortured and lied to in an effort to wear down his resolve, which appeared to be limitless.
At first, Number Six was concerned with discovering the location of the Village in order to find a more suitable means of escape. He was also initially concerned determined to discover who ran the Village.
Within the first six episodes, these details became unimportant as Number Six realized that the Village operated unlike any other organization. It was virtually impossible to discover who was working for the elusive Number One. Number Six would escape to London, for instance, only to discover that MI-6 was involved. Even his old school teacher, Father Engay, was in on it.
MacGoohan‘s co-conspirator in the show, George Markstein, was an ex-government man himself, and helped in the conception of the program. He saw the show’s setting as similar to a Nazi camp built to break enemy agents. He investigated such installations to give him a clear model for the Village. The show was filmed, despite the aims of the Village, in beautiful Port Meiron, a secluded setting which had rolling waves, grassy hills, and bright sunshine. The Village was populated by characters in summer dress; colorful striped shirts, rainbow umbrellas, and straw hats. MacGoohan chose the appealing landscape to create a uniquely unsettling aura that functioned as a kind of wonderland/nightmare. The Village functioned as a virtual meat grinder of humanity, producing spineless, hopeless robots.
Episode after episode showed Number Six fighting every attempt to win his secrets, gaining no ground in the battle with his warders, and interacting with others who meekly followed orders or wished not to be seen or heard at all. The other prisoners all had one thing in common; at one time they had a secret that was required by those who ran the Village. Once that information was given over, they lived happily as residents. The residents had everything they needed to live happily, except for freedom to leave.
The program had many gimmicks, such as the previously mentioned colorful dress, the recurring “Sign of the Fish” and the phrase “Be Seeing You” as the local greeting, Angelo Muscat as the silent dwarf butler, the bizarre soundtrack by Ron Grainer, and the bobbing white balloon that chased Number Six from time to time.
For security, a nightmarish white blob (known as “Rover”) would materialize from seemingly anywhere to enforce suffering on any that went against the Village’s laws. It would appear initially as a blob growing inside a lava lamp before expanding to the size of a weather balloon (since it was indeed a weather balloon). Lava lamps were in every room, reminding the residents that they were being watched by security at all times.
The series proved to be very successful and was marketed globally. In time, MacGoohan revealed the hidden agenda of the show, which would cost him George Markstein‘s collaboration. With the final episodes, MacGoohan revealed that it was a larger story that he wished to tell. The meaning of the show was so dense and full of genius that MacGoohan refused to give interviews for fear of imprinting on the viewers his personal view. In short, the story was this: the series was not the struggle of a secret agent against a mysterious figure known only as Number One, rather it was a series about an everyman who lived in a dangerous world, set on destroying those elements in his personality that made him unique and free. Markstein did not agree with MacGoohan‘s turn of the series and left the show. Alone, MacGoohan wrote and directed the series finale that made the papers and caused him to leave the country.
“Once Upon A Time” involved Number Two and Six undergoing a processing called Degree Absolute, a kind of battle of minds and personae. The process involved reliving Six‘s entire life, looking for those elements of rebellion in his behavior and squashing them outright.
The last episode, “Fallout” was full of brilliant moments such as; the jury of black-and-white masked representatives in barrister’s uniforms, the resounding “Dem Bones” as Number Forty Eight danced ringing a bell around his neck, and a machine gun battle to the Beatles‘ “All You Need Is Love.” The series ended with an aerial shot of London and the word “prisoner” over it.
The Prisoner‘s influence can be seen in various forms; from a tribute episode of “Reboot,” to Iron Maiden‘s “Back in the Village,” to Grant Morrison‘s “The Invisibles.”
Though misunderstood in his time by many, Patrick MacGoohan‘s vision obviously caught on with modern society, where spoken in certain circles, the phrase “Be Seeing You” carries a lot of weight.
The video series is currently hard to find as a new run of DVD’s have replaced them, but you may find the series being run on Public TV or at your library (which is free). There is a rumored film and/or TV series revamp that has been in ‘developmental Hell’ for ages. Patrick MacGoohan himself is involved with whatever form the final project takes, but it is difficult to ascertain if it will bear any resemblance to the series or MacGoohan‘s vision.
In the world of media, you can never be sure who are the prisoners and who are the warders.
The Prisoner – Complete Series Megaset (40th Anniversary Edition)
Secret Agent (aka Danger Man) – The Complete Collection Megaset 2007
The Prisoner Handbook: An Unauthorized Companion