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.


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.