Amid the growth of the peace movement, the birth of the Big Mac, and the first 60 Minutes, American television viewers had their minds blown in 1968 when the British spy thriller The Prisoner made its debut.
The 17-episode show was conceived, directed, and mostly written by its star, Patrick McGoohan, who had just completed the final season of the British espionage series Danger Man. The Prisoner's opening sequence (shown below) is like watching a 3-minute movie; an unnamed British secret agent speeds through London in his roadster to his boss's office, where he angrily hands in his resignation. He is followed home by an enormous hearse, gassed, and abducted by a man in a top hat and later wakes up in a prison disguised as an idyllic village, which is inhabited by hundreds of seemingly placid people clad in striped shirts, boat shoes and sailor hats.
The Village is run like a high-end holiday resort (the location shooting was done at an actual quirky vacation spot in Wales), and has its own currency, taxi service and newspaper (The Tally-Ho). Every villager also has a number instead of a name, and everyone is encouraged to participate in community life. McGoohan's character is Number 6, but he resists conforming and insists "I am not a number - I am a free man!" The Village is run by Number 2 (fronting for the mysterious Number 1), who proclaims his mission to be obtaining information -- particularly why Number 6 resigned -- "by hook or by crook." Yet the ultimate goal seems to be stripping The Prisoner of his autonomy and individualism. Any attempt at escape is thwarted by "Rover," a giant white balloon that chases down and nudges back any non-conformist.
Even after four decades, The Prisoner's influence continues in popular culture; The Guardian wrote, "Without The Prisoner, we'd never have had cryptic, mindbending TV series like Twin Peaks or Lost. It's the Citizen Kane of British TV – a programme that changed the landscape."
Although sometimes prickly, Patrick McGoohan was a good enough sport to voice Number 6 one last time during the 12th season of The Simpsons in an episode entitled The Computer Wore Menace Shoes.
In order to fully appreciate the colors and technical perfection of the series, be sure to get on the waiting list for the newly restored Blu-ray version, which includes a full-length documentary about the show and commentary from the production crew:
Many of the episodes on standard dvd format are also available at DPL:
Wow. I had never heard of the quirky, sci-fi spy series The Prisoner until reading your entertaining blog post! Good fun! Thanks for the great tip about this show.
Great post, Lisa! I love the Prisoner--who knew a balloon could be so menacing?
A great feature, on a great show from the 1960s. James Bond has nothing on Number 6. AMC tried to recreate 'The Prisoner' about 2 years ago, but it just was not as good.
Thank you for an excellent article!
Thanks, DG. Be a Catholic, Patrick McGoohan just didn't like all the womanizing that Bond (and all the Bond imitators) did.
I was there. We watched the show religiously every week, in an altered state, just like we did Star Trek and the Smothers Brothers.
To The Denver Library Staff:
Please try to acquire Volume 2.
He also objected to Bond as a stone-cold killer, and in Secret Agent made sure that human life wasn't seen as a toss-off. "Would you like your son to grow up to be like James Bond."