The Prisoner: drugs, Vietnam, The Bomb and The Beatles

❉ Fifty years ago this month, The Prisoner began filming in Portmeirion, the village that became one of the series’ visual icons. Rob Fairclough, author of The Prisoner: The Official Companion, looks at how the classic cult series became an integral part of the countercultural zeitgeist…

‘1966-67, the Summer of Love, acid, The Beatles, the fashion scene changing on the King’s Road. Patrick McGoohan… knew there was going to be a change. He wanted very much to be part of that. He wanted to make this stand that would last forever be would be rooted in this 1966-67 time… Those of us who were young enough and responding to what was happening well understood what Patrick McGoohan was all about.’ – Tony Sloman, film librarian on The Prisoner, 1993

The Prisoner was the TV melting pot of the various seismic social, political and cultural changes taking place in the centre of the most memorable decade of the 20th century.

It’s not surprising that the politically volatile climate of the 1960s would produce serious satire on television. Following the lead of the BBC sketch series That Was The Week That Was (1962-63) The Prisoner was equally iconoclastic, inverting the fictional secret agent’s command of new technology. From being a master of it as John Drake – McGoohan’s starring role in the film series Danger Man – and James Bond were, it was turned on the agent figure, neutering him, reflecting unease about unchecked technological advance.

The series was very definitely ‘pop’, too. The artist Peter Blake, who in 1967 designed the definitive Beatles LP cover Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, ten years earlier had defined Pop Art as ‘popular (designed for a mass audience); expendable (easily forgotten); low cost, mass produced; young (aimed at youth); witty, gimmicky, glamorous and big business.’

The synthetic, colourful costumes and smoothly stylised look of The Prisoner, together with the programme’s marketing as a filmed, action adventure series for a wide audience, not to mention the gimmicks of Rover balloons, numbers for the characters instead of names and a vintage penny-farthing insignia, meant that it was as Pop as British TV was possible to get. An abandoned version of the end titles, where the camera zooms into an animated graphic of the Earth as the word ‘POP’ fills the screen, made the connection with the zeitgeist explicit.

The Prisoner was both Pop and political. Script editor George Markstein revealed that, apart from being based on a Second World War holding facility for unreliable Special Operations Executive agents, the Prisoner’s Village primarily evolved from his jaundiced view of Harold Wilson’s Labour government. Markstein admitted to ‘a deep suspicion of the welfare state. Everything is provided for in the Village. Piped music, games to play, free transport, and the Prisoner’s crime is that he wants to escape from the ultimate welfare state.’

The bright, artificial consumerism of the place was nothing but a diverting exterior: behind the fiction of the consumer’s freedom of choice lurked the reality of the consumer as slave. Anthony Burgess observed in The Listener: ‘It is Owellianism transferred to the world of the [TV] commercial, in which machines work beautifully, everybody is on a kind of holiday and wears a blazer with a redcoat number… and the interrogators are as jolly as the commercial priests of the washing machine or wrapped cheddar.’

The classification of the Village inmates as people with numbers instead of names is The Prisoner’s most obvious political statement. Kenneth Griffith, who played Schnipps in ‘The Girl Who Was Death’ and the court President in the last episode ‘Fall Out’, believed that as Markstein, a Jew, ‘carried in him the dark visions of Jews and Nazis. I have always been convinced, since the day I first saw The Prisoner, that this is where “I am not a number!” was born.’

The Prisoner began screening when Patrick McGoohan was 39. In addition to using the series to express his own concerns about mid-1960s society, as well as his personal individualistic leanings, he was able to take a mature look at contemporary young people, a key factor in the social and political upheavals of the time. ‘I am extremely interested in modern youth,’ he said in 1967. ‘I think people today are concerned at an earlier age about their fellow human beings and the state of the world than at any time in history. Much of their current extremism in clothes and general behaviour is a rebellion against the disastrous state of the world around them.’

There was mutual admiration between McGoohan and the 1960s’ most iconic band. Impressed and inspired by The Prisoner, The Beatles asked him to direct their mooted fourth live action movie, a version of J.R.R. Tolkiein’s Lord of the Rings (Victor Spinetti was lined up to play Gandalf). McGoohan politely turned them down, wryly commenting that there would have been ‘five directors’. Nevertheless, for a token fee The Beatles allowed him to use – in perpetuity – ‘All You Need Is Love’, the Summer of Love anthem that went to Number 1, in the final episode ‘Fall Out’. ‘They knew what I was on about,’ McGoohan told an interviewer approvingly afterwards. ‘Right on the button.’

The Prisoner ending in confusion and apocalypse is consistent with other 1960s popular culture. The climax of British director Lindsay Anderson’s If…. (1968) has remarkable similarities with ‘Fall Out’: in both, the principal characters turn machine guns on the anonymous establishment they’ve fought against.

Questioned about The Prisoner’s abstruse finale, McGoohan confessed, ‘I can’t explain it any more than pictures from Vietnam which appear in the paper every day.’ There was no definitive explanation for the chaotic conclusion to The Prisoner because that last, anarchic instalment was symptomatic of the unresolved contradictions in the culture that produced and defined the series. The Prisoner was perfectly timed, built on the fault lines that underscored the decade just before the ‘Swinging’ sixties became cynical.


Abridged by the original author from The Prisoner: The Official Companion to the Classic TV Series by Robert Fairclough, 2002

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