I have never hesitated over the years to assert that television is, in the main, a failed medium. Its elder brother, cinema, has made great strides toward being a true art form.
Granted, the movies haven’t reached the pinnacle that painting, sculpture, literature and architecture have. No one can dispute, though, that along with a great deal of shallow trash, fine cinema has been produced.
TV has a tougher job. The nature of the medium is limited by the element of time. How can a television screenwriter develop a decent storyline in an hour or even less? Yes, light entertainment and modestly amusing fare can be made, but little that is truly edifying. Television may be at its best in the genre called the “miniseries” or a serial format. Individual episodes can be divided up in something approaching a coherent fashion, and a compelling narrative can result. Probably my favorite miniseries of all time was Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1978), based on a novel by the late John Le Carré, an intelligence officer who worked for both MI5 and MI6. Tinker, Tailor starred the elderly but still formidable Alec Guinness. Right along with Tinker, Tailor, I feel that the 1967-1968 British miniseries The Prisoner was a thoughtful, well-made and compelling seventeen-part miniseries. Its cult following deservedly exists to this day.
The series follows the circumstances of an agent of British intelligence, portrayed by Patrick McGoohan, who quits his job due to a matter of conscience that the viewer is never directly informed of. While preparing to travel to an unknown tropical spot, our hero is kidnapped by means of knockout gas and transported to a place very much like a small but very pleasant-looking seaside resort complex. He quickly learns that this salubrious vacation spot is not what it seems. The Village, as its inhabitants call it, is a beautiful and picturesque prison where the new arrivals are pumped for various kinds of information. Some of the inhabitants are people who have cooperated and live out their lives as vacationers, and some are in the process of being interrogated, often by various forms of psychological torture, intimidation, the use of drugs and advanced scientific methods. Still others work secretly for the people who run the place and spy on other inmates. All residents, whoever they work for, are given a number and not addressed by their names. The McGoohan character is given the name “Number 6.” His adversary, the person who manages this strange facility, is called “Number 2.” Throughout the series, different people occupy the role of “Number 2.” The identity of “Number 1” is never directly revealed. During the series, the various “Number 2s” match wits with Six in an effort to find out why he resigned from the intelligence community. It being the middle of the Cold War, Number 6 is curious about just who is running The Village – the West, the Reds or something even more sinister. During the course of the series, Six continuously makes attempts to escape and fails.
One of the things that makes The Prisoner intriguing is that the viewer is almost as much in the dark as the character of Six himself. There are tantalizing hints about who is running The Village, but the audience is never really given a complete answer. Probably the closest literary work that may have inspired The Prisoner was Kafka’s brilliant but unsettling 1925 novel The Trial, where the main character, known as K., is arrested and tried by some kind of murky extra-governmental organization. Many articles praising the series have described it as Kafkaesque, but I haven’t read any connecting it to The Trial.
Many reviewers have referred to The Prisoner as a work of science fiction. Those that inhabit The Village are controlled, not by fences and iron bars, but by high-tech methods, using recording devices, cameras and other means. In 1967, this must have seemed fantastical, but the surveillance state we live in in 2023 uses such methods routinely, and indeed they have exceeded the methods of the warders of The Village. The most feared mechanism of The Village for controlling its inhabitants is known as Rover. Rover is some kind of beast/machine that looks like a weather balloon. Rover attacks and subdues those that attempt escape by means of suffocation, sometimes killing the inmates and sometimes injuring them. It roars like a lion. While I admit there is an element of science fiction to the show, I think some critics overemphasize this point.
Those who consider The Prisoner to be a spy drama are on firmer ground. There are some similarities between the character of Drake in McGoohan’s previous television show, the hit series Secret Agent (known in Britain as Danger Man), and Number 6. While Secret Agent was more of an action-adventure show, it had a greater level of sophistication than, say, the James Bond silliness. Coincidentally, McGoohan turned down the role of James Bond. His insistence on keeping gunfire and canoodling with actresses away from Prisoner scripts, due to his strict Catholicism, was also the reason he turned down the Bond franchise. McGoohan plays a spy in both Secret Agent and The Prisoner.
The Prisoner is, to many, a dystopian vision. Some intimate that The Village is a model for the future of humanity. For many decades, the neo-liberal globalists promoted their plans for humanity as the promotion of a kind of utopia. This utopia, run by faceless technocrats, would usher in a kind of outwardly perfect society; but you had better not cause any fuss about the nature of this society, or you will be crushed. Since the time The Prisoner aired, the vision of the globalists has become darker and darker. No socialist utopia for you! You will follow the lead of the World Economic Forum, eat bugs and live in a pod. Seven-eighths of the world’s population will somehow disappear; God knows how.
The quality of the acting in The Prisoner is superb. In a similar manner to Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy, the producers of the series seem to have rounded up the best middle-aged character actors in Britain for those playing Number 2. Two actors really stand out. One is the magnificent Leo McKern, who was famous for his performances in the long-running comedy television series Rumpole of the Bailey. McKern plays Number 2 three times, which includes the emotionally wrought and surrealist last two episodes. It was said that in working on the last two installments, McKern got so much “in character” that he had a nervous breakdown on set. Another excellent performance in the last two episodes was done by Kenneth Griffith, who played a kind of judge. Of course, McGoohan, as the tough, hard and determined hero in The Prisoner, was masterful. The Prisoner can be found on various streaming services on the web. Some episodes can even be viewed for free.
If I recall correctly (?) McGoohan, after one of his many attempted escapes, is told that the Cold War is a farce and that the superpowers converge at a higher level to exercise world control.
I think it may have been more implied than stated. BTW Dr. Bolton I really liked your “Perversion of Normality”.
Indeed a wonderful series. And a prophetic one for the grim society we are living in. I didn’t knwo about the nervous breakdown of McKern. Reminds me of the late great Jeremy Brett, who experienced something similar during the making of Sherlock Holmes tv-series. Some say it even killed him…