❉ You want information? On 29 September 2017, Network Distributing made sure you got it.
Over the last half century, Portmeirion, the colourful, serene but outlandish architectural folly on the North Wales coast designed by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, has become synonymous with Patrick McGoohan’s existential thriller series The Prisoner, in which Portmeirion starred as the psychedelic prison complex, the Village. Perhaps that’s appropriate because, as guest of honour Catherine McGoohan noted on stage at Fall In, the 50th anniversary celebration of her father’s mid-1960s tour de force, you can’t now imagine one without the other. There was only one possible venue to host and celebrate Patrick’s vision, and the festivities commenced in Portmeirion’s Hercules Hall around 9am on Friday 29 September 2017, 50 years to the day that The Prisoner was first shown in England.
The event was the vision of Tim Beddows, managing director of Network Distributing, the company responsible for The Prisoner’s first Blu-ray release in 2009 and the new, delightfully lavish 50th anniversary box set, which every attendee received as part of the event’s registration fee. If Hercules Hall had been available on the Saturday, it might have been better to spread the celebration over two days, allowing more time to savour and reflect on what was on offer, as well as allowing time for socialising with the guests and attendees. There were so many familiar faces there from Prisoner fandom, it was very much a case of “Be seeing you… maybe!”
However, the fact there was so little time for a pause between events is testament to the quality and quantity of the program Tim and his team had put together. As well as one of the original Mini Mokes and a Lotus 7, they’d also gone to the trouble of inviting Fenella Fielding, the breathily-voiced actress who provided the cheery Village tannoy announcements. Now an astonishing 90, she’d been invited to the site to punctuate the day with broadcasts about what was happening. Her first pronouncement took place below Number 2’s house “the Green Dome” (which now isn’t green and is really called the Pantheon) in front of an expectant audience – the Voice of the Village, in the Village, for goodness sake! – and earned a well-deserved round of applause.
On stage, the program commenced with the screening from a 35mm print of Dance of the Dead, another indication of the extra mile Network had gone for the event; the film reels were so large they could have been one wheel of a penny-farthing, while the enormous (and heavy) projector itself looked like an example of Village technology. Dance was slightly grainy and dark at the beginning, but later on matched the clarity of the other two episodes shown today, Checkmate and Arrival. Dance had been sourced from America, so it was interesting to see where the ‘Sponsors Message’ inserts were placed (even if they did interrupt the flow of the story).
Following Dance of the Dead, the always reliable Dick Fiddy, the British Film Institute’s TV consultant, conducted the first on-stage interviews of the day. Actress Norma West played the Observer in the story the audience had just seen, and remembered the special atmosphere of filming in Portmeirion, going swimming with co-star Mary Morris at 6am before work started, and chatting amiably with the Number 2 actress and McGoohan on the balcony in front of the Bandstand (the Bristol Colonnade). Norma also reflected on Morris’s formidable nature, which wasn’t exactly modest: “‘When I step on that stage, I go out to win!’”
Seamus added some interesting insights into his filming with the second unit at Portmeirion, which mainly involved working with McGoohan’s double Frank Maher for rear shots, as well as his last-minute casting as the first victim of the murderous Rover balloon in Arrival. Unfortunately, this interview panel had to be cut short due to a slightly late start but, like all the guests, Norma and Seamus were happy to chat with attendees and pose for photos.
It was over to the Pantheon for a part of the day I wasn’t entirely sure about. This was the setting for Time is Free, a specially written sketch by Nicholas Briggs, the author of Big Finish’s range of audio plays based on The Prisoner. I hadn’t been totally convinced by the first series’ reworkings of TV stories – disappointingly, there was only one completely original play – but the quality of Nick’s writing here, as well as the performances of Mark Elstob (Number 6) and Nickolas Grace (Number 2), completely won me over.
The conceit of Time is Free was an appropriate one: The Prisoner has been in the Village for 50 years, his secrets are all out of date and he’s free to go. I got a real kick out of seeing the deceptively jovial Grace (great casting) try and undo the Prisoner with this anniversary-themed deception, and it was equally gratifying to see Elstob – impressively commanding, and better in the flesh than in the audios I’d heard – defeat his latest interrogator in the actual, real location (!) in which Number 6 used to spar with many a Number 2. There was some enjoyable audience participation too, with attendees recruited to play the Butler – the original was “on holiday in North Wales,” apparently – and Village Guardians.
Back in Hercules Hall, the central interview panel played host to actors Annette Andre and Derren Nesbitt (from the episode It’s Your Funeral) and Jane Merrow (The Schizoid Man). Going by Annette and Derren’s recollections, some of the cast found The Prisoner as confusing as the television audience did.
Andre “didn’t understand a darn thing about it”, while Nesbitt remembered his episode’s director Robert Asher asking him, “Do you know what the fuck this is all about?” When filming began and McGoohan criticised Derren for playing Number 2 as if he didn’t know what was going on, his response to The Prisoner’s main man – “YOU don’t know what the fuck’s going on!” – brought forth the loudest audience laughter of the day. After this fun exchange, Jane Merrow added some welcome insight into McGoohan’s calibre as an actor. Although she’d heard he had a difficult reputation, she found him “thrilling” to work with: “He was absolutely extraordinary… Working with him, you could sense [his contained] power.”
It was gratifying to see that Fall In didn’t just focus on the series. Dave Barrie and Roger Goodman, the founders of Six of One, The Prisoner Appreciation Society, were invited to the microphone to put the spotlight on the “people power” of fandom, which began with Barrie’s address being given out after repeat screenings in the 1970s. Without Prisoner fandom, it’s debateable whether we’d have been sitting in Hercules Hall in 2017, as over the years it’s helped promote screenings, repeats and video/DVD/Blu-ray releases, all of which have furthered the series’ longevity.
Touchingly, Barrie and Goodman invited the attendees to Portmeirion’s piazza, where they said a few words in tribute to Judy Adamson, who Roger worked closely with to establish Six of One and who died, far too young, in 1978. There was also a satisfying sense of fandom coming full circle, as Barrie, Goodman, Beddows and the Unmutual website’s Rick Davy (standing in for Ray Binns) recreated the photograph of the Six of One founders taken outside Number 6’s dwelling (the Round House) in April 1977.
The audience in Hercules Hall were rather shocked when the next guest appeared. Peter Wyngarde, who been so suave and dangerous as Number 2 in Checkmate, entered the hall in a wheelchair, courtesy of the hospital where he’d been taken when he became severely ill. Not wanting to disappoint people, he had insisted on returning to Portmeirion (via ambulance), the very embodiment of the actors’ motto ‘the show must go on.’ His interview was necessarily short – 5 minutes – but Peter still found time to profess his admiration for McGoohan, who with The Prisoner “gave you the feeling that you were doing something original.”
Next up was Chris Rodley’s new documentary In My Mind (named after one of the lines of dialogue in Once Upon a Time, his favourite episode), a remarkable piece of work. In 1983, a young Rodley pitched the idea for a documentary, Six into One: The Prisoner File, to the nascent Channel 4, who were due to repeat the series over 1983-4. Reticent to be talking about The Prisoner in any case, McGoohan agreed to be interviewed but was incandescently angry about the end result the inexperienced Rodley and his team came up with. He recalled that, following a screening, an incensed McGoohan “screamed at us in every restaurant on the Champs-Élysées.”
Happily, Network’s 50th anniversary box set offered Rodley the opportunity for some closure. Now a much more accomplished film maker, he’s cleverly used the stress and intrigue around Six of One… as an insight into McGoohan’s character, and by extension the making of The Prisoner. He felt that the McGoohan interviews that appeared in Six into One… now have a proper context and, exclusively, the first interview that Rodley shot – that the actor was so unhappy with he offered to buy the rights to – can also be seen in full. It offers a fascinating insight into the troubled side of McGoohan, the one that was suspicious, nervous, tense and demanding.
In My Mind’s contemporary perspective on this complex man is provided by his daughter, Catherine. After a screening of the anniversary set’s ‘then and now’ features – Portmeirion has changed amazingly little – as guest of honour she was welcomed to the stage to introduce the event’s 2017 screening of Arrival. Watching the series’ first episode in the primary location where it was filmed, starting from the very minute it was shown 50 years ago… that’s television history.
Making this screening even more special, it was introduced by a clip of ATV announcer Peter Tomlinson, a Prisoner enthusiast who had introduced the station’s repeat screenings of the series in the 1970s and, endearingly, he was more than happy to perform the same role here. An added bonus was that Network had sourced some original adverts – Radiant, Cracker Barrel cheese and Mr. Kipling’s exceedingly good cakes – to insert into the commercial breaks. As Dick Fiddy pointed out, they were so manically upbeat they could have been devised by the Village mindbenders.
It’s a long time since I’ve been in an interview where you could literally hear a pin drop, but that was the case with Dick’s concluding chat with Catherine. It was fascinating to see the obvious regard, love and respect she had for her father Patrick and his work (earlier in the day, she’d unveiled a new commemorative sculpture of him by the French artist Tiziano, and was clearly very proud). It was a fitting end to end the day when Catherine said that “my father would [have been] delighted, and touched and moved” by the commitment and good will of Fall In, even if, typically and amusingly, “he wouldn’t be here.”
It was appropriate that, after Catherine’s interview, all the guests were welcomed back to the stage for an impromptu closing ceremony. Norma West amused the audience by saying “I hope in ten years’ time, even if I’m on a zimmer frame, we’ll still be able to celebrate Patrick’s work” while, movingly, Jane Merrow remarked that “I can’t think of anyone better to express his feeling and his words about [The Prisoner] than Catherine.” Big Finish’s Nick Briggs spoke for everyone present when he said, “I’ve been to many gatherings like this, and [Catherine’s] is the most inspiring interview I’ve ever heard.”
After that, it was out into the dark of Portmeirion, walking past images from The Prisoner projected on to one of the cottages, saying goodbyes and/or heading down to the Hotel by the sea for a goodbye drink. Fall In had been intense – over 10 hours – emotional, inspiring, enlightening and fun.
In short, Network had created a 50th anniversary festival that accurately reflected The Prisoner. There’s no higher accolade.
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of The Prisoner: The Official Companion to the Classic TV Series.