In 2005 as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations ITV made a programme counting down its 50 greatest shows. One of the shows featured was The Prisoner. It caught my attention because it looked exciting and the phrase “I am not a number. I am a free man” was imprinted upon my young mind forevermore. DVD box sets were a bit more expensive then, especially if you were 12. I never forgot about that series though and a few years ago I eventually got round to watching every episode. I was gripped throughout but at the end of each episode and indeed at the end of the series I was left feeling confused. It felt as though each episode left me with more questions than it had answered.
I have decided to re-watch The Prisoner in the hope that a second viewing might help to piece things together. Some may see this as foolish. Maybe the whole point of The Prisoner is to leave the viewer confused, to leave them still thinking about what it all means? But it has been nearly ten years since a few clips made this show intrigue me and I think it deserves my attention.
Episode 1: Arrival
The opening titles of The Prisoner are outstanding and arguably the greatest of any television programme. Lightning is heard but we see a cloudy sky before we move to an airstrip. The music starts very quiet, gradually getting louder and we wait whilst a small object comes towards us. I already care what it is and I want to see it. It zooms past. Even if you know nothing about cars, that is a cool car. Our driver (Patrick McGoohan) looks calm and confident as he races through London. He enters a car park before walking in through a set of double doors that say ‘WAY OUT’ and striding down a darkened corridor. He’s not happy; in fact it’s clear he’s quite angry as we see him shout some words at a man, slam a letter on the desk, then bang his fist down before storming out. He drives off in the sunshine, seemingly unaware that he is being followed by a black hearse. Somewhere, big ‘X’s are being typed across a photograph of his face and it is filed in a cabinet drawer marked ‘RESIGNED’. The man pulls up outside his house and heads inside just as the black hearse pulls up outside. He grabs a suitcase and passport. An undertaker walks towards his front door. The man puts a picture of a beach complete with palm tree inside his suitcase. We see gas coming in through a keyhole just as the suitcase is slammed shut. The man becomes disorientated and falls onto the bed, unconscious. Fade to black and the music stops. When he awakes the music is gentler and the man goes to pull up the blind. It isn’t London. A village green greets him instead.
One thing I really like about these opening titles is that you could watch almost any episode and the titles set up the story. After the first episode they are changed slightly but remain broadly similar. There’s no dialogue, just this exciting music, but still these titles tell us everything we need to know; a man has resigned from his job, is kidnapped and has awoken somewhere else.
As the man leaves his house the place is eerily quiet and empty. The first people our central character encounters are a waitress (Patsy Smart) and a taxi driver (Barbara Yu Ling), both of whom avoid answering questions about where they are. No one ever answers with “I can’t tell you” or “I don’t know”. They either answer with simply “the Village” or move on to something else, completely ignoring the question. When the taxi driver drops the man off he has no ‘credit units’ to pay her and she replies “oh well pay me next time”. It’s telling that she knows there will be a next time and she knows she will see him again because the Village is such a small place.
The man visits the village shop and looks at a map entitled ‘your village’. When he returns to his house there is a note that reads ‘welcome to your home from home’. It serves to reinforce that he lives there now and it is his new home.
We know very little about our main character, who we will come to know as Number Six, and it really is a struggle to try and piece anything together. We discover that he resigned on a matter of principle and that he was born at 4:31am on 19th March 1928. He volunteers the latter information to Number Two (Guy Doleman), probably because he knows it is useless. Number Six is very suspicious and also quite angry. His anger is perfectly understandable; he has been taken somewhere against his will and is not allowed to leave. He has been made a prisoner despite not having done anything wrong. At the Labour Exchange he is asked several questions and after ‘politics’ is mentioned, Number Six knocks over a wooden contraption and leaves. When he returns to his house, he looks around every room. He opens every cupboard and drawer. He shakes the tins in the kitchen cupboard – is he checking they are full? Is he trying to work out how real this whole set-up is? Is it all an illusion? He finishes off by smashing the radio. A maid (Stephanie Randall) arrives and this shows an aspect of Number Six’s character that I really like. As Number Six shouts she begins to cry and confesses she has been sent to try and get information out of him. She is in floods of tears and he stands there completely unmoved. That is what I like about Number Six; he is a professional. He does not give in or offer sympathy just because a pretty woman has turned on the waterworks. He isn’t going to fall for a daft trick like that. Number Six is better than that.
I really like the oddities in the Village. It is clear that someone somewhere has thought about them and they really do fit in. They make the Village seem very realistic. I have seen many ‘Keep off the grass’ signs but the Village has a ‘walk on the grass’ sign instead. The signs inside the Labour Exchange are undoubtedly Orwellian-inspired: ‘a still tongue makes a happy life’; ‘questions are a burden to others, answers a prison for oneself’; ‘humour is the very essence of a democratic society’. The last one particularly intrigues me. The Village is a very happy place considering everyone there is a prisoner. There are the bright colours, the upbeat music, the parades, and lots of smiling, laughing faces. The village is happy but it is an enforced happiness; you cannot turn off the radio in each house and when it is broken, someone immediately comes to fix it, lest you be too long without the incessant trumpets. When you leave the house the music and announcements blast from outdoor speakers too. After awaking in the hospital Number Six asks for his clothes only to be told “They’ve been burnt.” “Why?” “I’ll take you back to your ward.” Once again awkward questions simply are not answered. When he comes to leave the hospital Number Six has been given new clothes and in future these will be all he finds in his wardrobe. He immediately takes off the straw boater and removes his number badge. But nonetheless, his new clothes make him part of the village now. The humour in the enforced jollity is anything but democratic. A darker humour comes into play when the new Number Two (George Baker) ensures a joke is played on Number Six.
Cobb (Paul Eddington) is the only person in the episode with an actual name and we don’t even find out what his number was in the Village. Number Six recognises Cobb when he wakes up in the hospital. Cobb says he was in Germany when he was taken. He says he has been in the village 3-4 weeks but then says it might be months. He says they want to know all about him. We think we are finding out more about the purpose of the Village but actually none of it matters because we later find out that Cobb has been working with Number Two. Anything he tells Number Six could have been made up. Number Six meets a woman, Number Nine (Virginia Maskell), who knew Cobb in the Village and the escape plan meant for Cobb is now for Number Six. He manages to get on a helicopter but Number Two is watching all the time, grinning. Number Six is allowed to get so far before the controls are electronically taken over and the helicopter returns to the Village. Number Nine watches, having been playing chess with the ex-Admiral (Frederick Piper), who tells her “We’re all pawns, m’dear.” When we cut back to Number Two we see Cobb, who is still alive and now smartly dressed in a suit. It was all a big set up. Cobb got close to someone and used her to provide Number Six with a way out that Cobb knew would never work. It begs the question; what was the point of it all? I see it as giving Number Six false hope. It shows Number Six that he is always being watched, that Number Two knows everything, and that there is no possibility of escape. The purpose was to demoralise him and to push him a step further towards breaking point so that he might eventually tell them everything they want to know.
Cobb turns to leave, telling Number Two “Musn’t keep my new masters waiting.” This one line throws up many questions, the first of which is: who are Cobb’s new masters?
Cobb and Number Six know each other and we presume that this is through their work, else Number Six would have called Cobb by his forename. So if they both work for the government and it is the government who run the Village, why would Cobb say he is going to ‘new’ masters? Surely they would not allow him to leave if he was going to work for someone else? So maybe the Village is not run by the government. It is run by some other organisation and Cobb has decided to switch sides in order to get his freedom. They are interested in Number Six because now he is no longer a government agent they wish to recruit him themselves. Or it is the other way round; Cobb and Number Six do not work for the government. They government has brought Number Six to the Village because whilst they were willing to leave him alone before, they are not happy with the idea of him going abroad and possibly taking his knowledge to a foreign power. Number Two tells Number Six “We have to find out where your sympathies lie.”
This leads me to ponder on another aspect of the Village: do they ever intend to let Number Six leave? The Village has a retirement home, implying that some people will never get to leave. When Number Six first meets Number Two he is told that if he tells them what they want to know, he could be given a position of authority and Number Two says “This can be a very nice place.” For me this implies that Number Six will not be allowed to leave. Even if he does give up any information, the best that can come of it will be having some power in the Village. From this we now know that not everyone in the Village is the same as Number Six as there are some with more power and control than others. It is impossible to know who these people are so Number Six cannot trust anyone.
We find out in this episode that there are no safe places in the Village because you are always being watched. When the radio repairman (Oliver MacGreevy) arrives Number Six remarks that he fancies a walk and the front door automatically opens. As he walk through woodland there are statues and busts and we see that their eyes follow him. If the prisoners still have not caught on then there is Rover, a large white balloon. Personally I find Rover quite a frightening aspect of the Village. Upon Rover’s first appearance on the village green the music stops and everyone freezes. Everything is still and there is complete silence Number Six looks round to see what is happening. A man panics and screams. He begins to run but Rover quickly catches up with him. It presses down on him and we see his distorted screaming features through the white rubber. The balloon envelopes him and he disappears, presumably inside it, before Rover bounds away. The music picks up where it left off and everyone continues as before, completely normally, as though nothing had happened. Rover cannot be defeated. It cannot be outrun. This, coupled with the face pushed against the rubber, looking as though the person is being suffocated, is what makes Rover rather disturbing for me. When it comes for Number Six later, he tries to shove it away, punch it even, but to no avail. It gets the better of him and he is dragged away.
There are a few other little things…
Number Two changes mid-way through the episode. Number Two is played by a different person every episode. Why? Sometimes due to failing in a task related to Number Six, yet other times, if memory serves me right, there is no explanation at all. Maybe it is general practice in the Village to change the Number Two on a regular basis, maybe it is only supposed to be a temporary role. A more important question is…
Who is Number One? It is a question that Number Six asks throughout the series. In ‘Arrival’ he tells Number Two “Get me Number One” and the reply is “As far as you’re concerned, I’m in charge.” Is he really though? If he is, what exactly is he in charge of? Just the Village or something more? Further episodes will give us more to ponder on.
After he leaves the hospital and is given new clothes, Number Six wears the same clothes as Number Two. Does this mean anything? Or was the wardrobe department being lazy? “Yeah just get two of each of them. I’m sure no one will mind.”
Finally, both the maid and the ex-Admiral wear the Number Sixty-Six badge. Is this significant? Or just a continuity cock-up?
There’s a lot to say about The Prisoner. Am I taking it all far too seriously? Am I looking at it completely wrong and missing something even deeper? Can you tell me what episode order the series should be watched in? Well I’m looking forward to the rest of the series and blogging it along the way.
One last note: I have never seen Danger Man, the series Patrick McGoohan starred in prior to The Prisoner. I am aware of the John Drake/Number Six theory. I plan to watch Danger Man after completing The Prisoner and will consider blogging about it.
Be seeing you.
Just found this. I'll be returning to read your comments on each episode. It's always interesting to see someone else's thoughts on a TV series I like.
Be seeing you.