I am not a number, I am a free man!
There are still plenty of people who haven’t managed to sit through all 17 episodes of 1960s British cult TV series The Prisoner. I can understand their frustration as the show doesn’t follow the ‘normal’ hero-beats-the-baddy formula with everything neatly tied up with a bow at the end of each episode.
Neither the episodes, nor the series, follow a straight line. It’s illogical, confusing, intriguing, unique, challenging, experimental, weird even. Which is why it is still such compelling viewing decades after it was made. During its first broadcast in 1967, and subsequent repeats, it drove some viewers to distraction.
Okay, so what is The Prisoner all about?
On the surface; a man resigns from a top government job during a table-thumping tiff with a stiff Civil Servant, then drives home in a spiffing Lotus Seven S II, goes indoors (1 Buckingham Place, London) to pack for a holiday. He is put to sleep with gas pumped into his home and wakes up in The Village, apparently located on a remote island somewhere in Europe.
Waking up in a home with an interior identical to his London pad, our hero, Number 6 (Patrick McGoohan), is pressured by Number 2 (played by various actors during the series) to reveal why he resigned. But despite the psychological games and mind-altering drugs, Number 6 refuses to tell (he just wanted a break and a holiday).
Bottom line, he can’t decide if he is being held prisoner by his own people or a foreign power. If he reveals anything about his secret work then he’d never be allowed to leave (deemed untrustworthy to keep his mouth shut). One person will have to be broken, Number 6 or Number 2.
The Village is like a retirement home for people who know too much, they live a life of anonymity (numbers only please) and total control.
(The Prisoner may have been based on a place operated by the UK government’s Inter Services Research Bureau in Scotland).
Apart from the goodie-baddie push-pull story line, the show goes deeper as Number 6 kicks back against the system and the establishment. When he shouted “I am not a number, I am a free man!” it was McGoohan’s warning about the incoming world where everyone from birth really is filed, stamped, indexed, briefed (educated), and numbered.
In the show we see a total surveillance society with cameras dotted across The Village and in the homes people live in. The only entertainment is piped music and the Tally Ho ‘newspaper’ owned by those running The Village (no dissenting voices in this publication).
Neither Number 6, nor his village cohorts, are free to live their lives as they wish. They have the appearance of being free – as they can walk around The Village, go to restaurants, play games, some take a job to earn credits in this cashless society, and villagers even vote in an election that changes nothing but the name of the person in the high tower.
But they are not free to leave the locked-down village or enjoy any privacy.
Who is Number 1?
But what I wanted to know, what we all wanted to know, is who is Number 1?
Each week we sat through an episode hoping for a clue. There were no clues. Some episodes were simply mind-boggling; probably due to the fact McGoohan had originally pitched a series of seven episodes to TV producer Lew Grade. Grade asked for 26 and got 17. So the plot was stretched way beyond McGoohan’s original vision (he didn’t even appear in one episode at all).
Ultimately Number 1 is revealed. He is wearing a white hooded cloak, has a crystal ball, and as he lifts his head we see a black and white mask that’s removed by Number 6 to reveal a monkey mask. Then, with the monkey mask pulled away, the mysterious monk-like figure is revealed to be Number 6. Confusingly, Number 6 is seen to pull the mask off Number 6 (not a typo). He is his own prison guard.
Our hero escapes back to London only for the front door of his home to open automatically – just like it did in The Village. He’s no more free here than he was in The Village (a prisoner of the system).
The ending caused the British viewing public to go bananas – jamming phone lines at the TV station. McGoohan – who created the show – said in later interviews that he had to go into hiding for a while; in Wales, well away from telephones; something that could be done in 1967 (imagine what would happen today with trial by social media).
Explaining the show McGoohan said Number 6 is Number 1, and Number 1 is you – the viewer.
So what’s the main take-away from this science fiction, drama, psychological thriller that is The Prisoner?
To paraphrase McGoohan, I guess it’s that you (dear reader) are number 1, you decide what to do, you don’t need permission, you are free to engage as much or as little as you like in society. Your life is your own; even if you have been filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, and numbered.
The Village is real
‘The Village’ is a tiny resort called Portmeirion in Gwynedd, North Wales in the UK. When the show was first broadcast few people had any idea Portmeirion existed (although it was revealed in the end credits of the final episode).
During the 1980s I visited Portmeirion and it looked much the same as it did 20 years earlier in the TV show (quite a surreal experience). It still hadn’t changed much on a second visit in the early 90s.
A look at Portmeirion’s website reveals the location is still thriving and no doubt all visitors are given a number upon entry.
A Prisoner convention, organised by the TV show’s official appreciation society Six of One, is held there every year (not to be confused with an annual pop concert that has nothing to do with the TV show at all).
Debs McDougall, a member of Six of One, kindly sent me details of a plaque commemorating the TV series that sits above the door of the Prisoner Shop (which was Number 6’s home in the TV series (the exterior). The plaque was officially unveiled by Fenella Fielding (the voice of The Village) on 13 May 2005.
There is a second plaque dedicated to Patrick McGoohan on the wall of the White Horse cottage (where the actor and his family stayed while filming on location). And there is a bust of Patrick near the entrance of the village which was unveiled by Patrick’s daughter Catherine on 29 September 2017 – the year of the show’s 50th anniversary.
Also in 2017 a permanent chess board was installed on the village lawn. Members of Six of One were the first people to play a game on it. Hopefully it ended with a Checkmate.
So it is great to know the owner’s of The Village – a charitable trust – hasn’t forgotten how this slice of Wales (a great destination for a family holiday) was put on the world map.
The Prisoner remade
Patrick McGoohan was offered a small role in the reinterpretation of The Prisoner – the old man seen escaping at the start of the first episode. However, he declined the offer while asking to play Number 2 (which would have been fantastic).
It’s a shame the American producers didn’t accommodate the creator and driving force of the series… Shooting took place in 2007, it was first broadcast in 2009, and reviews were less than favourable (so maybe Patrick McGoohan was best out of it…).
Some of the sound effects used in The Prisoner (1967) were first heard in the movie The Ipcress File (1965).
Patrick McGoohan: 19 March 1928 to 13 January 2009.
For more about The Prisoner see the show’s official appreciation society website Six of One
Read about The Truman Show and its link to The Prisoner.
Be seeing you…
Patrick talks about The Prisoner.