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Post A Television Classic for Lockdown Viewing: "The Prisoner"
Created by John Eipper on 05/15/20 4:33 AM

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A Television Classic for Lockdown Viewing: "The Prisoner" (David Duggan, USA, 05/15/20 4:33 am)

Some time ago John Eipper had asked what we were binge-watching during these days of coronavirus lockdown, and while it may not be a binge, I have been re-watching the mid-1960s cult-classic series The Prisoner, created by and starring the underrated Patrick McGoohan.

The 17 episodes, which you can catch on YouTube, are disturbingly like the dystopia we (at least in Illinois) feel under the subjugation of our elected lords and masters, virtually all of them millionaires or billionaires. Living in an alternative (though ever-present) reality of psychological conditioning to accept our imprisoned fate as automatons who once dared question the ruling class, we numbered prisoners in the not-quite fictional Village have only to fear this great ball emerging from the sea ready to chase us down, suffocate us and return us to our appointed cells.

But first a word of background. After starring in the early ‘60s equally cult-classic Danger Man (broadcast in the States as Secret Agent), McGoohan, a lock for the title "Sexiest Man Ever," decided he'd had enough of playing an ersatz James Bond and came up with the idea of what happens to a spy after he submits his resignation. (This was just after one of the Cambridge Five, Kim Philby, defected to Russia, not everyone's idea of a retirement plan). Secret Agent by the way featured probably the best introductory title song in the known universe, "Secret Agent Man," sung by New Orleans' hometown hero Johnny Rivers. Cubby Broccoli later ripped off Johnny Rivers' guitar chords for the five-bar opening strains in the James Bond movies. McGoohan meanwhile approached British independent television producer Lew Grade (born Winogradsky) with the idea. Grade, who had backed The Saint, The Avengers and Danger Man, liked it and asked McGoohan to give him half-a-dozen script treatments. McGoohan actually wrote about five of the finished scripts (several under a pseudonym), and envisioned about 13 episodes. But Grade said he needed 17 to sell the program to the Yanks (where he'd been successful selling other productions as summer replacements).

Each episode (save for a couple) starts out with McGoohan racing his to-die-for open-wheel, open-cockpit Lotus Seven S II down a highway to an underground meeting with his boss, where he angrily throws down his resignation letter. Returning home to pack for where?, a black-clad shadowman drives up in one of those ‘30s Rolls Royces and shoots knockout gas through the key-hole to McGoohan's swinging-60s London flat. He wakes up in a room suspiciously like that he once occupied and asks: "Where am I?" "In The Village," comes the response. "What do you want?" "Information" the voice replies. "Whose side are you on?" McGoohan asks. "That would be telling. We want information." "You won't get it." "By hook or by crook we will." "Who are you?" "The new No. 2." "Who is No. 1?" "You are No. 6." "I am not a number. I am a free man." Deep laughter ends the track.

I watched The Prisoner in the summer of 1969, between high school and my first year at Dartmouth and was hooked. It came on at 6 pm Saturday nights, and since I had no social life, I put everything else aside to watch it in front of my family's new color TV. I do not recall how many of the 17 episodes I saw, but the series made an indelible impression on me. No longer was it 007 or Man from U.N.C.L.E. derring-do, saving the world from destruction by some Smersh or Spectre-led scheme, but real-world questions about what is on the other side of our life's work. Filmed in the idyllic Wales seaside resort of Portmeirion (designed after Italy's Portofino?), the series presents a Psych 101 progression of tricks to control the mind of someone who cannot escape. Gaslighting, body doubles, femme fatales, mind-replacement and other nefarious methods are used each week by a revolving cast of No. 2s to extract from No. 6 why he resigned from his Majesty's Secret Service.

I don't think it possible to underestimate the effect that The Prisoner had on television generally. In the 1960s TV was a sit-com dominated, variety show schedule mash-up pitting The Beverly Hillbillies against Laugh-In. The Prisoner showed that TV could raise and deal intelligently with the issues of our age: a Cold War that could have erupted; government mind-control through psychology, pharmaceuticals or physical force; whether we are truly free if our environment is controlled. As a series, where each episode built upon, but was not dependent on, its predecessor, The Prisoner foreshadowed the 1980s' nighttime soap operas: LA Law, Hill Street Blues, and Miami Vice, all character driven examinations of current social issues.

I don't want to give the show away, but the ongoing plot line is whether No. 6 will ever find out where he is, and who is No. 1. Toward the end, The Prisoner veered into the surreal and if for no other reason, binge-watching is not counseled. As a retired lawman, No. 6 goes to Tombstone to confront a bad sheriff ("Living in Harmony"- No. 14 in the sequence), and in "The Girl Who Was Death" (No. 15) he encounters a Napoleonic mad scientist, dressed in Grande Armee uniform, trying to escape in a space capsule. Watching them in close succession, you'll get so depressed in light of our own lockdown prisoner status you'll be looking for a padded cell. Still, the series stands the test of time. Production values are top notch, plot lines, though bizarre, are real-world relevant these days, and some of the scenes have become models for others. Breaking Bad's ultimate scene, the remote-controlled machine gun slaughter from the trunk of Walter White's Cadillac, was an homage to a similar scene in "The Girl Who Was Death."

Life is imitating art. We fail to recognize at our peril our leaders' totalitarian impulses represented so starkly in The Prisoner. I am not a number. I am a free man.

JE comments:  An excellent recommendation, David.  I just learned from Wikipedia that McGoohan (died 2009) later appeared in, as well as directed, several episodes of the detective classic Columbo

From lockdown amusement to lockdown fitness:  stay tuned for Ric Mauricio on how to stay fit in these slothful times.

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