Great political TV series (No9) The Prisoner

What can I say about The Prisoner that hasn’t been said a million times before? Groundbreaking? Visionary? Surreal? Utterly bonkers? Actually Patrick  McGoohan’s masterpiece is all of these things and more. It’s hard to imagine what a big career risk this must have been when it aired. Normally when actors decide to create, write, direct and star in their own vehicle, it’s usually a vacuous vanity project. Patrick McGoohan though had something to say and forty years on it’s probably more relevant than ever.

Up until 1968 he’d primarily been known for starring in a few Disney movies and the TV series Danger Man as dashing secret agent John Drake. Frustrated by his lack of creative control, he pitched his idea for a new show to Lew Grade of ITC. I’d love to know how that meeting went. The fact that Lew Grade went along with it is testament either to his willingness to take risks or McGoohan’s powers of persuasion:

  • Lew Grade: Thanks for coming in Patrick, I hear you’ve come up with an idea for a new TV series to follow-up your success in Danger Man?
  • Patrick McGoohan: Yes, and I think you’re going to like it. I play a spy…
  • LG (interrupts): So you’re playing the same character as in Danger Man?
  • PM: No, this is a different sort of spy.
  • LG: Fair enough, what are you thinking of calling him?
  • PM: That’s the main point, he doesn’t have a name.
  • LG (slightly surprised): The character you’re playing doesn’t have a name?
  • PM: That’s right
  • LG: What do the other characters call him then?
  • PM: No6.  He’s always referred to as No6 all the way through the series. The audience never find out his real name.
  • LG (beginning to sound concerned): And what’s the plot then. I presume your character travels the world having spy related adventures a bit like in Danger Man?
  • PM (irritated): No, this is nothing like Danger Man. I play a spy who holds certain secrets. He wants to resign from British secret intelligence for undeclared reasons. While packing to go on holiday he’s drugged and taken to a secret location called The Village where he’s held prisoner. The powers that be want to know what his secrets are and why he resigned.
  • LG (comprehension dawning): Ah, so it’s a bit like a prison movie with No6 trying to escape every week?
  • PM: Sort of. Really it’s a vehicle for me to examine a range of issues pertinent to modern society. The nature of the state, the importance of freedom, the role of the individual, the right to know, justice, democracy, education. So on and so forth…
  • LG (back to sounding uneasy): And the people who are holding him prisoner? Is there an antagonist of some sort?
  • PM: Oh yes.
  • LG: And does he or she have a name?
  • PM: They’re called No2.
  • LG : They?
  • PM: Yes, No2 will be played by a different actor each week to represent the faceless nature of the state. They’re also going to have a giant floating white bubble called Rover they use to track down and capture people who try to escape.
  • LG: Right…ok.
  • PM: I also want to push the boundaries of TV further than they’ve ever been pushed before. I want to do one episode as a western, one where no one speaks for the first twenty minutes, one where my character is played by someone else etc.
  • LG: And how long do you see this series running for?
  • PM: I’m only going to do one series. It’s all going to end in a dramatic two parter with extremely long political speeches, a pitched gun battle choreographed to the Beatles ‘All you need in love’, the village being destroyed and a nuclear missile being fired.
  • LG: (Clearly taken aback): Ok…wow…(gathers thoughts). I’ve just got one teeny tiny question. If the antagonist is called No2, is there a No1?
  • PM (excitedly): Now that’s where it gets really clever….
(Before anyone complains, I know that most of these plot points weren’t worked out till much later).

In retrospect it’s amazing that The Prisoner was ever produced. If he pitched something like it now he’d probably be thrown out of the office. Today it still stands as an example of what TV can do if it tries, and people with vision are allowed creative control.

Ok, some of the stories don’t always work, and at 17 episodes it stretched the concept a bit thin; but that really doesn’t matter. The Prisoner is easily one of the best political TV shows ever made, and Patrick McGoohan is the epitome of cool for having the sheer nerve to go through with it. I highly recommend that you watch it (but avoid the remake like the plague).

Here is No6 and No2 discussing the true purpose of the village and touch on the end of the Cold War and globalisation:

Here is the original trailer for The Prisoner:

For a full list of great political TV series please click here

About matthewashton

I'm a Politics Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. I specialise in the fields of American, British and media politics.
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6 Responses to Great political TV series (No9) The Prisoner

  1. It is perhaps worth emphasising that The Prisoner was screened on ITV, the commercial channel, undermining the view that only the BBC could even attempt ‘serious’ drama. It remains an example of what television might achieve..

    • It was one of ITV’s best attempts to do something seriously grown-up. It’s a shame that TV is so rarely that brave these days. Even when they do try to do something new, if it initially fails in the ratings its almost instantly cancelled. Very few shows are given the luxury of a second series to develop and grow.

  2. The Prisoner fascinated and scared me when I was 12-13. My dad got me into it and I ended up watching all of them and then buying the box set on VHS and watching them all again, trying to figure it out. Some great cameo appearances all the way through too…

  3. Moor larkin says:

    I’m not sure ITV were doing anything brave. McGoohan was an enormously bankable star for Lew Grade back then. CBS bought into the series prior to much of the filming, so financially it all made sense. Mike Dann deserves credit too, for his faith in McGoohan, and for putting up US cash. Grade did not realise at that point that McGoohan was making this series his UK swansong, so probably thought that by indulging his star performer, he would get something back later. McGoohan played hardball with Grade reallly, but the guy had put in the hours for the previous ten years in Britain, and deserves all the kudos for what became his Opus in terms of overall creativity.

  4. themindbogls says:

    “In retrospect it’s amazing that The Prisoner was ever produced. If he pitched something like it now he’d probably be thrown out of the office”. Au contraire, it was certainly the forerunner of numerous incomprehensibly plotted US TV series whose names I mostly forget, ‘The X-Files’, ‘Lost’ and so forth.

    • I think it was the forerunner of those type of shows but I still don’t think it would get made today. For instance the almost complete lack of romance. Both Lost and the X-Files were largely driven by either ‘love-triangle’ or ‘will they, won’t they’ drama. I’m not sure you’d be able to make a TV series today without any sort of romantic ‘tension’ in it. Also the Prisoner is relatively lacking in action scenes, cliff-hangers and good looking young people.

      Also there was that episode where no one said anything for the first 25 minutes. With the exception of that Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode I don’t think you’d be able to make an episode of TV these days where no one spoke for so long.

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