First broadcast by a possibly slightly unwary ITV late in 1967, The Prisoner ran for seventeen confusing yet simultaneously illuminating weeks before the powers that be – with no small irony – decided that enough was enough. Created by, starring and in large amounts written and directed by Patrick McGoohan – so basically ‘authored television’ half a century before The Guardian decided that they had invented it – The Prisoner followed the lack of fortunes of an unnamed secret service agent who had resigned on a point of principle and as the opening titles chillingly related files about him were being redacted, shredded and dumped into a filing cabinet marked ‘RESIGNED’ before he had even left the building. Followed home by a mysterious black car, he wakes up to find himself in a mysterious and unashamedly sinister holiday camp-like retirement community known as ‘The Village’ – essentially a detention centre with a nice hat on – where the inhabitants will only refer to him as ‘Number Six’. Set against a backdrop of inspiration drawn from Pop Art, psychedelia and Cold War paranoia, his attempts to regain his ‘freedom’ in various metaphysical and literal forms intentionally pose questions without ever pretending to have any of the answers, leaving the entire exercise so open to interpretation that seemingly anyone, no matter how deluded and washed-up to the extent of having to resort to babbling nonsense on minor television channels, can apparently claim that it is on ‘their’ side, usually inviting a fairly hefty suggestion that they might not actually have watched it. McGoohan was one of the most bankable television and movie stars of the time – tellingly, he had just finished working on the long-running and equally Cold War-inspired blockbusting action series Danger Man – and The Prisoner traded on his popularity with ordinary viewers who, contrary to popular myth, seem from contemporary accounts to have found it as compelling as they did baffling. The very fact that The Prisoner was cancelled in a flurry of secretive paperwork that nobody seems to be able to get to the bottom of even now only really adds to its enduring air of enigmatic fascination.
Free For All, in which an ‘election’ is held in The Village, is one of the most striking episodes of The Prisoner from a present day perspective and you can hear me talking about it on The Zeitgeist Tapes, a podcast hosted by Emma Burnell and Steve Fielding taking a look at the point where politics and pop culture collide. Free For All may take a look at electioneering, personal liberty and the role of the press in public life from what would appear to be a more innocent time and perspective – well, relatively – but as we find out during the course of the chat, it still has plenty of relevance for the modern world – and indeed especially right now. There’s also some discussion about what aspects of The Prisoner do and don’t make sense – and you might well be surprised by which ones I think do and don’t – why in many regards it was really just another television series and not the sacred text that some try to demand that it is, whether The Prisoner actually has any kind of a definable political slant at all, and just how truly chilling those opening titles really are. I mean I’ve mentioned that twice now. They really are chilling.
You can download The Zeitgeist Tapes: The Prisoner from here or listen to it below.
About The Zeitgeist Tapes
The Zeitgeist Tapes is a podcast looking at where politics and pop culture collide hosted by Emma Burnell and Steve Fielding. You can subscribe to The Zeitgeist Tapes here or follow the show on Twitter at @ZTPodcast.
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You can find plenty more of my thoughts on sixties television and many of the sometimes almost equally weird contemporaries of The Prisoner in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. With an extra shot of Brandy, Whiskey, Vodka, Drambuie, Tia Maria, Cointreau and Grand Marnier, obviously.
You can hear me joining Emma and Steve on The Zeitgeist Tapes for a chat about politics and Doctor Who here and the Clangers Election Special here. There’s further The Prisoner-themed discussion in Looks Unfamiliar with Mitch Benn on The Laughing Prisoner here and Mic Wright on I Helped Patrick McGoohan Escape by The Times here.
Emma has been on Looks Unfamiliar talking about Whose Side Are You On?, Sweet Valley High, Scoubidou, The Patchwork Monkey, Split Second and the Ever Ready ‘Power To The People’ advert here, The Royal Potwasher, Melody Radio, Channel 4’s Accidental Death Of An Anarchist, A Woman In Your Own Right, The Lords Of Midnight and Herman’s Head here, the stage version of When Harry Met Sally here and the Christmas Specials of The West Wing here. Emma has also appeared on my Marvel Cinematic Universe podcast It’s Good, Except It Sucks talking about Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 here and Deadpool here.
You can find my thoughts on Fall Out, the famously abstract concluding episode of The Prisoner in Hang On A Minute Lads, I’ve Got A Great Idea…, a look at some of my favourite endings of all time, here.
© Tim Worthington.
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