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The Prisoner

If you know me you will know that I am not TV’s greatest fan. I lived without a TV set for several years and now I watch very little. I only watch crime dramas made in West London in the late 1970s, and the odd sporting event or film.

This is because TV is, for the main part, totally bollocks. And watching a programme which is touched by some sort of merit will still very rarely be more productive than reading, listening to music, or sleeping.

BUT 

The Prisoner was a great discovery for me (not that you need a tv to watch it, mind). It was made in the 1960s when the formulae of modern tv had not been boiled-down into the refined opiate of today. Also, the production team saw themselves as being a little bit on the intellectual side, for better or for worse. As such they set out to make a programme which would pick up where Aldous Huxley, Franz Kafka, and George Orwell left off. 

The Prisoner, for those of you who have never seen the show, is set in a bizarre psychological prison, which looks and functions like an isolated sea-side village whence there is no escape. The eponymous character, also known as Number 6 is our hero. We learn (during the preposterously long introduction to every episode) that he ‘resigned’ from some abstracted powerful company/agency, and was abducted to the village in order to find out his motive. 

Number 6 represents the free-spirited, heroic individual. The village represents society which is under the thrall of the system: the conspiratorial powers that be. Number 6’s resistance to interrogation, and protection of the secret of his motives represents the individual resisting the tyrannies and oppressions which arise in the modern world as a result of power, politics, economics, and the darker sides of human nature. 

Patrick McGoohan (below) stars as the Number 6. He also co-created the programme, and had a large part in the production of the series. What’s more, is unspeakably cool, and a snappy dresser to boot (I have adopted the blazer and black polo neck to my putative wardrobe for when I have grown up). 

Now the series has real flaws. Firstly, and most obviously, the deadly sentries which keep everyone in line are big, bouncing, soggy, white beach balls. I imagine the creators thought this would be symbolic, futuristic, and terrifying. In reality, it is an embarrassingly laughable device, and undermines the dark power looming over the village. They needed some evil bastard meting out punishment, not a silly twat. 

Secondly, because of the programme’s lofty theme, you feel that the writers expect a lot of their subject matter. Sometimes they struggle to make a convincing point about oppression and resistance in society. You feel that there are occasions when they duck behind the weirdly symbolic characters and situations so they don’t have to pin down their social critique. 

There are many other things you can point to in The Prisoner which are not quite right. For example, the bizarre trampoline-based duelling sport that Number 6 engages in from time to time. It simply must be up there as one of the most ridiculous sci-fi sports ever dreamt up. I am sure there are one or two in Star Trek too. 

But, despite all its shortcomings, The Prisoner is absolutely brilliant. 

Number 6 is the sort of chap that would beat James Bond at cards, impregnate his girlfriend, then fight for the rights of the lowliest underdog. He would deftly sort out a baggage mix up in a Croatian airport in Croatian, beat up a car-jacker, then make a forthright speech about Liberty from the top of a big cake. He is an activist and a gentleman. And an Olympic-level boxer. 

The programme does provide some genuinely interesting and intelligent insights into society, free-will, and individuality. I thought the episode about political elections was particularly good, for example: Number 6 Stands for election and cannot help but be subsumed by the political system. Individuals are subject to the systems they exist in, and struggle to break free from them because of the natural human desire for liberty of thought and action. 

Now I heard the other day that there is going to be a remake of The Prisoner, starring Ian Mckellan. The issues raised back in the sixties have not gone away, but I cannot help but think that ITV (hmmm…) will trivialise the issues in the production. It will be flasher, snappier, more modern and tempered to modern, hypnotic television-watching habits. It will cooly carve away anything too naff, and make it all quite accessible. But what it will almost certainly miss is the maverick boldness of the original’s production. It was possible in the 1960’s to make a genuine attempt at high-brow television. Nowadays it would be seen as pompous. 

The main system of social conformity nowadays rooted in the television. Perhaps the best thing would be to avoid watching it in the first place.  

How To Make Good Pork Crackling

Roast pork without good crackling is like a garden without any trees, a car without hub-caps, a jester without any bells, a farm without any dung, or a young vagabond without a twinkle in his rapscallious eye. It is missing its joy. There is something about the crisp, salty, melt-in-your mouth goodness of crackling that brings joy to the iciest of hearts.

People always seem to want to know how to get a good crackle, and there are a few common advices* offered by various chefs and food writers. They variously suggest rubbing with oil, rubbing with salt, with herbs, scalding with boiling water, scoring and so on. But I have never seen any writer offer an explanation of why pigskin crackles, and how any of the standard methods actually help. 

This post is my explanation of the processes involved in making crackling. As with the vast majority of culinary methods of which I know, if you just follow instructions and recipes without really thinking about what is actually happening to the ingredients then you will have little success. 

It is perfectly possible to employ all the methods mentioned above and not get a good crackling. If you have found yourself frequently frustrated, left with a tough leathery bit of football I would suggest that you try the following: run a blow torch over it. Voila! It will sizzle and puff up into light crisp balloons of crackling. It is not the best, mind you: it will be patchy and uneven. But the blowtorch just illustrates that there is no magic involved. It is heat that is the critical factor. 

Think of bacon turning crispy. When you fry or grill it for long enough, it will go as crunchy as a poppadum. Water is driven out, and fat soaks in, cooking the pork cells brittle. Blowtorching the skin is essentially doing the same thing as frying bacon. There is fat underneath which melts and cooks the skin, replacing the water which is driven out. 

When moisture is trapped in or under the skin, fat can not usurp its place. Scoring the rind allows the moisture to escape and the fat to melt out and all over the skin, just like bacon in a frying pan. As sharp a blade as possible, even a scalpel is good. But don’t cut all the way down through the fat to the flesh, because this can allow juices to bubble out, ruining the meat and the crackling. 

I have seen one well-known chef recommend pouring boiling water over the skin before oiling, salting, and cooking. This will not help. I imagine that the chef borrowed the step from traditional Peking duck preparation, where the skin is scalded first to tighten it and to remove any fat on the surface of the skin. This is important because the ducks are left to hang in a draughty window or doorway (Chinatown stylee) for a day to completely desiccate the skin, and residual oil would prevent the water leaving it. Chinese chefs take care not to pierce the skin so no fat can get through and spoil it. When Peking duck is done in authentic Beijing style, the skin is served first with pancakes – it is a fine delicacy. The rest of the duck meat is dished up in a subsequent course. 

Anyway, the scalding is pretty much useless in the above chef’s recipe because the pork joint is not left to dry for any length of time, and oil is poured straight back on to the skin! 

Salting- it seems like a good idea. Salting things dries them out, of course. Well, salting dries out food without having to cook it, more specifically. If the water is free to escape, then the heat from the cooking will be far more effective at drying the skin than salting. However, the mixture of excessive fat and salt is a combination you are genetically predisposed to adore. Great for your heart, too. 

Heat is everything. If you keep the oven low you will not get crackling. If you turn it up very hot then you run the risk of drying your perfectly juicy pork (and there is no greater sin than dried-out pork, not even usury). Pork does not like to be cooked roughly. It makes sense to remove the rind, fat and skin, when the joint has finished cooking and put it back in a very hot oven You can even use the grill. Incidentally, I always wrap roasted meat in foil to rest. If you merely cover it, it will lose a lot more juice and juiciness. If grilling the crackling, take care not to let it burn, all can be lost in a matter of seconds (this nearly happened to me the other day). 

Last but not least we come to the cut of meat itself. A good layer of fat really helps get the crackling sizzling, and also show that the pig has been fed well. You should only use good quality, free-range pork. Factory-farmed pork always has a terrible, unwholesome reek to it, and sweats all sorts of weird muck. I found out from a farmer that this curdled grey crap is actually milk: there are government regulations governing how much water may be pumped into standard non free-range meat, so the factory technicians use milk as well, which has not been regulated yet. 

So, if you want a vague recipe, score the skin shallowly (experiment with using a lot of scores) rub in some salt for flavouring. Use a high heat (above 220C) to crackle the pork, preferably off the joint after cooking. Oil may help to keep salt on, and make up for a lack of fat, but if there is enough blubber underneath the skin then that should do. 

But the only way to get reliably good crackling is to experiment, trying to get a feel for the cooking process. Every oven and every piece of pork is different, and your method will have to adapt accordingly. 

*Schwarzenegger says ‘advices’ so it must be right