Synopsis of TV Show
“I am not a number, I am a free man!”
Everyone has wanted to quit a job at one time or another, to storm into the boss’ office and pound your fist and rant out a riot act of disgruntled complaints, and then walk out into the fresh air, hop into the car and roar down the two-lane blacktop to freedom.
Most of us don’t do it. But if we did, the only consequence would be the need for a new job. What if the consequences to quitting were that you became your employer’s prisoner—for life? Well, then you might just begin to empathize with poor Number Six.
In the mid-1960’s, British actor Patrick McGoohan was the star of a very popular British spy series called Secret Agent Man. According to McGoohan, he quickly developed a distaste for acting in a series he felt was trite and thinly constructed. The star met with that show’s producer, Lew Grade, to let him know that he wanted to quit but that he had a new series in mind.
McGoohan had filmed an episode of Secret Agent (a.k.a. Danger Man) in a small seaside town called Portmeirion on the coast of Wales. He fell in love with the town, and immediately set it aside in his mind as a location for a television series. McGoohan met with Grade on a weekend to discuss his new series, and although Grade didn’t seem to understand what the series was about, when McGoohan assured him that the budget was in line, he replied with “When can you start?”
The Prisoner was born the Monday following that weekend. McGoohan began working on scripts immediately and conceiving what he saw as a seven-episode series about a secret agent that quit his job and was subsequently kidnapped and sent to a remote village from which there was no escape. After comprimising with Grade who wanted a 26 episode series to make The Prisoner more profitable, McGoohan agreed to make 17 separate hour long shows.
In the opening of every episode of The Prisoner, McGoohan resigned as a Secret Agent (man) and stormed out of a British government office. As the ex-Agent packed up his clothes at home, a tall man in a top hat surreptitiously shot a sleeping gas through the keyhole, knocking our hero unconscious.
McGoohan’s character woke up in an apartment in The Village—a community of people from all over the world, who, like him, had a head full of knowledge about the government for whom they used to work. It wasn’t clear who operated The Village—the British? An enemy of Britain? All the world’s governments working together in a mutual protection of their secrets? All questions were left tantalizingly unanswered, both for McGoohan’s character and for the audience.
Everyone in The Village was assigned a number, all part of the plan to break the residents by dehumanizing them. McGoohan was Number Six—and also the biggest troublemaker in The Village, a lone holdout against the brainwashing techniques employed by The Village leader, Number Two. A new Number Two showed up in nearly every episode, but all had the same daunting goal: cracking the resolve of the seemingly indomitable Number Six. Any tactic was acceptable, including brainwashing, threats, drugs, torture, etc.
While he wasn’t defending himself against Number Two, Number Six spent the majority of his time trying to escape The Village. The remote town was guarded by armed forces, by optic surveillance that watched Number Six’s every move, and by Rover, The Village’s most mysterious inhabitant. When released, the howling white sphere called Rover would relentlessly track down any attempted escapee across land and sea. Once Rover was on your trail, there was really no escape.
Rover quickly became a signature visual of The Prisoner, a mindless, terrifying force that could not be fooled or reasoned with. McGoohan had originally intended Rover to be a mechanical device with tire treads and amphibious abilities, but the craft sank to the bottom of the sea on its first shot. Luckily, production manager Bernard Williams noticed a meteorological balloon hovering over Portmeirion and pointed it out to McGoohan as a possible substitute. Rover quickly transformed from a robotic vehicle into a bizarrely biological weather balloon, giving the automated Village sentry a binary personality. The accident was a happy one—except, of course, for the highly-fragile balloons, over six thousand of which were used during filming.
After the series debut, every episode began with a new Number Two telling Number Six that they wanted information, and that by hook or by crook they would get it. Virtually every episode was surprising and memorable, chock-filled with nearly intestinal twists in plot and a healthy helping of arguably the coolest man on Earth at the time, Patrick McGoohan.
The surreal series progressed as a complicated battle of wills between Number Six and The Village that always ended in a stalemate. Heavy elements of symbolism were employed in an attempt to reflect McGoohan’s fears that society had progressed beyond its power to control itself, making all of us prisoners in some way or another.
The show originally premiered in Britain, causing an immediate sensation. Number Six’s obsession to discover the identity of Number One became a national obsession as well. Finally, when McGoohan got to the final two episodes—“Once Upon a Time” and “Fall Out”—he had to decide for himself who Number One was. The star wrote the episodes in secret—even from the other writers—and anticipation ran high. In “Once Upon a Time,” the original Number Two (Leo McKern) returned to attempt a very dangerous and intimate brainwashing technique on Number Six. McKern was so disturbed by acting in the episode that he suffered his own mental breakdown during filming and would not speak with McGoohan for three days.
In the final episode, “Fall Out,” which continued on the heels of the plot of “Once Upon a Time” McGoohan ended The Prisoner with one of the most bizarre and surreal hours of television ever filmed. McGoohan escaped The Village (or did he?) and discovered the identity of Number One in a chaotic fight scene. As a mark of how taken fans were with the series, the finale’s surprises so upset viewers that they were moved to violence and riots, forcing McGoohan to go into hiding.
Broadcast in the United States on CBS in 1968 originally and then again in the mid 1970’s on PBS, The Prisoner developed an immediate and loyal following hypnotized by what many people call the finest dramatic television series ever filmed. The aggressive use of symbolic images throughout the show (Rover, the mute butler, the constantly self-assembling penny farthing bicycle, and so on) has ever since been the subject of constant debate and speculation. Academic papers and books have even been written on the subject, interpreting every detail of the show from the dialogue to the set design.
McGoohan, noticing some of the far-reaching interpretations of the show he conceived and produced, downplayed the meaning of his show, claiming that people have made it sound more profound than he had ever intended and urging anyone who did understand the series to please explain it to him. And still, the obsession goes on. With a re-release of the series on video and DVD and long-bandied-about plans for a new feature film, The Prisoner continues to capture the imagination of audiences and heartily survives the harsh test of time.
Release History of Prime Time Show10/67 - 2/68 ITV
6/68 - 9/68 CBS
5/69 - 9/69 CBS
TV Sub Categoriesdrama
Television NetworkITV, CBS
TV CastNumber Six Patrick McGoohan
The Butler Angelo Muscat
The Supervisor Peter Swanwick
Loudspeaker Announcer (voice) Fenella Fielding