Friday, June 1, 2018

The 50th Anniversary of The Prisoner's Debut in the United States

It was fifty years ago today, on July 1 1968, that British cult classic TV show The Prisoner debuted on CBS in the United States. The Prisoner first aired anywhere on CTV in Canada on September 5 1967. It premiered in the United Kingdom on September 29 1967 on ATV Midlands. On both sides of the Pond The Prisoner would become something of a phenomenon, developing a cult following that it maintains to this day.

For those unfamiliar with The Prisoner, it centres on a British secret agent (played by Patrick McGoohan) who, after handing in his resignation, is captured and taken to a mysterious place called the Village. There his captors use various means in an attempt to find out what he knows. The secret agent's name is never given. He is known in the Village simply as "Number Six". In fact, nearly everyone in the Village is identified only by a number. While the show has been called a spy drama, in fact The Prisoner is much more. Through the course of its 17 episodes it utilised allegory and satire to comment on such themes as the individual versus the collective. The Prisoner could be surreal and psychedelic at times, making it often difficult to tell what was real on the series.

The Prisoner originated in the final days of Patrick McGoohan's previous series, Danger Man (the hour long version of which aired on CBS in the United States under the title Secret Agent).  CBS had decided to order no more episodes of Secret Agent (as the show was called in U.S.), while the show's producer and creator Ralph Smart had decided that he would be involved with no further series of Danger Man. As to Patrick McGoohan, he felt that the show had run its course. As it was, it seems likely that Mr. McGoohan was developing the themes of The Prisoner for some time. In an article in October 9-15 1965 issue of The TV Times, he commented, "You know, I fear by A.D. 2000 we'll all have numbers, no names." He also mentioned his idea for a film of life in A.D. 2000, "...of a day when workmen 'will be able to operate their lathes by push-button from their beds..."  Patrick McGoohan may have received some inspiration from the 1964 episode of Danger Man, "Colony Three". It dealt with a recreation of an English village in the Eastern Bloc being used to train Communist spies to appear totally British. It was on April 16 1966 that Patrick McGoohan pitched his idea for The Prisoner to Lew Grade, managing director of ATV. It was at that same meeting that Lew Grade greenlit what would be The Prisoner.

Despite this, there have been claims that it was story editor George Markstein, who had been story editor on Danger Man very late in that show's run, who actually originated the idea for The Prisoner. It was claimed that Mr. Markstein's inspiration came from Inverlair Lodge, an estate near Inverness where individuals who knew too much classified information during World War II , but were not quite suited to being spies, were detained. Aside from the fact that Patrick McGoohan had mentioned ideas that would form the basis of The Prisoner in the aforementioned interview from 1965, well before Geroge Markstein was story editor on Danger Man, there are some other good reasons to doubt that George Markstein played a role in the creation of The Prisoner. First, it is doubtful that very many in the general public in 1965 or 1966 even knew about Inverlair Lodge. Inverlair Lodge was mentioned very briefly in the 1966 book SOE in France. An Account of the Work of the British Special Operations Executive by M.R.D. Foot, but it was not published until April 28 1966, twelve days after the meeting at which Patrick McGoohan pitched The Prisoner to Lew Grade. Second, in interviews individuals who worked on the show, including Bernie Williams (production manager on the show) and David Tomblin (producer on the show), make it fairly clear that The Prisoner was largely a product of Patrick McGoohan's mind. Third, claims that George Markstein was the mind behind The Prisoner did not emerge until the Seventies. Newspapers and magazine articles in the late Sixties treat Patrick McGoohan as the man responsible for The Prisoner.

Regardless, it is quite clear from various sources that it was Patrick McGoohan who pitched The Prisoner to Lew Grade. According to Mr. McGoohan himself, he had initially wanted to make only seven episodes  of The Prisoner as a serial. Lew Grade wanted there to be 26 episodes, as it would make The Prisoner easier to sell to CBS (in the Sixties, 26 or so episodes was the standard run of most American shows). They eventually compromised at 17 episodes. Interestingly enough, according to an August 1967 article by Dorothy Manners published in The Washington Post, CBS requested 36 episodes of The Prisoner.

Of the characters on The Prisoner, only Number Six appears in every single episode. The Butler (played by played by Angelo Muscat) appears in most episodes and served the Number Two of the moment (more on that in a bit). Another recurring character on the show as the Supervisor (also called the Controller), played by Peter Swanwick. The Supervisor is in charge of the Village's control room. Supervisors played by other actors occasionally appear, but given the Village's control room would be run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it makes sense that there would be different supervisors for different shifts.  Announcements would regularly be made over the loud speaker in the Village, and the voice of the loud speaker announcer was provided by Fenella Fielding, best known for her work in the "Carry On..." films. She also provided the voice of the telephone operator in the Village. The loud speaker announcer never appeared on screen.

Of course, every week Number Six would face off with a new Number Two (from the show it was obviously not a permanent position). Number Two was essentially the chief administrator of the Village. Most Number Twos attempted to get information out of Number Six. Others would try to convince Number Six to accept his life in the Village or to get Number Six to take an active role in the Village. The Number Twos varied widely in temperament, from those who were friendly and well mannered to those who were hostile towards Number Six to those who were downright sadistic. In the course of The Prisoner only two actors played Number Two more than once. Colin Gordon played Number Two in "A. B. and C." and "The General", but it seems possible these two Number Twos were different people despite being played by the same actor. Quite simply, Number Two in "A. B. and C." has a noticeable inferiority complex, while Number Two in "The General" has a much more forceful personality. Leo McKern played Number Two in "The Chimes of Big Ben", "Once Upon a Time", and "Fall Out" (the latter two being the final episodes of the show). In the case of Leo McKern, it is made quite clear that his Number Two is the same character every time. While the fates of the various Number Twos may have varied (we are not informed what happened to most of them), it seems clear from Leo McKern's character that one could hold the office more than once.

Regardless of any other characters, in some respects the Village itself was very much a character on the show. As to the unusual setting for The Prisoner, it seems likely that Patrick McGoohan had Portmeirion, a tourist village in Gwynedd, North Wales, in mind from the very beginning. The 1960 episode of Danger Man, "View from the Villa", had been shot there. With its unusual architecture and set on the coast, Portmeirion was ideal to serve as the Village in The Prisoner. Of course, while the Village was beautiful, it was also essentially a prison. There would naturally have to be a means to keep its inmates from escaping. This took shape in the form of Rover, which resembled a large balloon (little wonder, as its appearance was inspired by weather balloons). Originally Rover was to be a more robotic , mechanical device. Unfortunately the original Rover did not behave as it should and ultimately sank in the waters outside Portmeirion very early in the filming of the first episode.

As to the character of Number Six, a popular theory among fans is that he is none other than John Drake, Patrick McGoohan's character from Danger Man. To a degree this would seem reasonable given that both characters are played by the same actor and both were secret agents. That having been said, it does not appear to be the case. In a 1966 interview with The Los Angeles Times, Patrick McGoohan stated, "John Drake ... is gone, but we're not foolish enough to change the image we've established with TV audiences." A 1967 ITC press release also makes it clear that the protagonists of Danger Man and The Prisoner are two different characters, with Patrick McGoohan saying of Number Six, ".. the character is not John Drake."  In interviews since the series Mr. McGoohan consistently denied that Number Six and John Drake were one and the same. Here it must be pointed out that while the two look a good deal alike, John Drake and Number Six have notably different personalities. John Drake was always cool, calm, collected, and generally congenial towards people (even his opponents). Number Six is often emotional, often temperamental, and can be downright hostile when he is provoked.

As mentioned earlier, The Prisoner made its worldwide debut on CTV in Canada on September 5 1967. It debuted on ATV Midlands in the United Kingdom on September 29 1967.  In the United Kingdom, its final episode, "Fall Out", aired on February 1 1968. When it first aired in Britain, "Fall Out" would leave many viewers unhappy. The episode answered no questions about the Village or why Number Six was there. In fact, it seemed to open more questions than it answered. Worse yet, some viewers, apparently expecting a Bondian showdown with Number One (the never seen head of the Village), found "Fall Out" incomprehensible. Legend has it that viewers jammed ITC's switchboards with calls complaining about the episode. Whether true or not, "Fall Out" has mystified viewers of The Prisoner for the past five decades.

The Prisoner would finally reach the United States on June 1 1968 on CBS on Saturday at 7:30 PM Eastern/6:30 PM Central. It would be pre-empted on June 8 1968 due to coverage of the funeral of Robert F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated on June 6 1968. Of the 17 episodes of The Prisoner CBS would ultimately only air 16 in the summer of 1968, leaving out the episode "Living in Harmony". It has been claimed that CBS chose not to air the episode because it involved the use of hallucinogenic drugs (even though several other episodes of the series involve their use as well). Others have claimed that it was not because of the use of hallucinogenic drugs, but instead because CBS saw in the tale of Number Six as a Sheriff in the Old West who refuses to carry a gun a veiled statement against the Vietnam War. In truth, neither of these are likely to be the reasons that CBS did not air "Living in Harmony". As mentioned earlier, on June 8 1968 The Prisoner was pre-empted by coverage of Robert F. Kennedy's funeral. To stay on schedule, this meant that CBS could only air 16 of the 17 episodes of The Prisoner. As to why CBS chose "Living in Harmony" as the episode not to air, it is probably because it is quite unlike any other episode of the series. It opens with an entirely different opening sequence and largely plays out as a Western. It is not until towards the end of the episode that the Village appears at all. Had CBS not planned to air "Living in Harmony" at all, the press at the time would have reported that CBS was airing only 16 of the 17 episodes of the show, and the exclusion of "Living in Harmony" would likely have been publicised. Here it must be pointed out that when ABC aired the fourth series of The Avengers (the first aired in the U.S.), it was announced that they would only be airing 21 episodes while acknowledging that 26 episodes had been produced.

As an intellectual British import airing on Saturday night, The Prisoner was not necessarily a ratings smash, but it earned largely positive reviews when it first aired in the United States. It also developed a cult following even as it initially aired on CBS. The network would show The Prisoner again in the summer of 1969. It would later go into syndication and would even air on PBS stations throughout the country. The Prisoner would even return to CBS, airing on CBS Late Night beginning in 1990. If anything, it is possible that it is more popular now than when it first aired.

Indeed, it would have a huge impact on popular culture. It provided some of the inspiration for several other TV shows over the years, from The X-Files to Nowhere Man to Lost. Several television shows have paid tribute to The Prisoner, including its contemporary The Avengers (in the 1969 episode "Wish You Were Here"), The Simpsons (in multiple episodes, one guest starring Patrick McGoohan as a caricature of Number Six), Coupling, Person of Interest, and several others. Even movies as diverse as The Matrix (1999) and  Shrek (2001) have referenced The Prisoner. The Prisoner has even been paid tribute in song, the most obvious example being the song "The Prisoner" by Iron Maiden. In 2009 a remake of the series aired as a mini-series on ITV in the United Kingdom and AMC in the United States. Unlike the original series, it was poorly received by critics and audiences alike.

While it ran for only 17 episodes, The Prisoner proved to be one of the most popular and influential shows of all time. It developed a cult following even as it first aired and maintains a cult following to this day. Several reams have been written on the show, from articles to entire books to, well, blog posts. I think it is safe to say that 50 years from now people will still be watching, talking about, and writing about The Prisoner.

(Credit Where Credit is Due Department: This post was made with the help of the excellent blog Number Six Was Innocent and sources from the era. By all means check out Number Six is Innocent, a must read for fans of The Prisoner)

2 comments:

Gill Jacob said...

Fantastic post! Thanks for sharing this with me -I loved reading this. My husband showed me the fantastic opening credits to this show and now with seeing these and reading your post I want to watch this! Thanks again!

Terence Towles Canote said...

Thanks, Gill! I think you would really enjoy The Prisoner. Of the many spy shows that came out in Britain in the Sixties, it is one of the best (although it is much more than a spy show).