THE UNMUTUAL PRISONER ARTICLE ARCHIVE
"THE PRISONER: TELEVISION ON TELEVISION", By Tony Woodrow.
1. Introduction: ‘The Prisoner’ on Television
I was terribly saddened to hear of the death of Patrick McGoohan. We have lost an actor, director and writer of outstanding talent. I give my condolences to his family and friends.
I had started writing this before I knew what had happened, but I would like to offer it as a humble tribute to his life and work.
One of the most articulate aspects of ‘The Prisoner’ is what it has to say about television. The content of the series acknowledges the power and the limitations of its form. There is a humorous reminder of this in ‘A Change Of Mind’, when Number 86 says to the Prisoner:
‘The hearings are televised. That is why your behaviour is so important.’
In particular, I am interested in these questions:
? What does ‘The
Prisoner’ have to say about television as a medium, in general?
? What does ‘The Prisoner’ have to say about television drama, in particular?
? What was television like when the series was made?
? How is it different today?
2. Context: British Television in the 1960s
When watching the series, we need to take into account the context in which the series appeared. What was British Television when ‘The Prisoner’ was made?
British Television was not new in the late 1960s. What was relatively new was the extent of television ownership. In the 1940s and 1950s, the television was priced at a level that most people couldn’t afford. I knew someone who bought a three-bedroom, mock-Tudor, semi-detached house in the suburbs of London in 1950: she paid £300 for it. That was approximately the price of a television set at the time.
Due to economic, scientific and technological changes over the years, the television was within reach of most people in Britain by 1967. Mass-production had brought the price of the equipment down and wages and salaries had risen. Television had become an essential part of the British way of life: most British homes had a monochrome set.
The BBC was affectionately known as ‘Auntie Beeb’. It churned out a bland diet of plain, predictable, worthy programmes. It is generally agreed that it was greatly improved when ITV came on the scene. In the face of competition, the BBC was forced to produce more interesting, challenging, thought-provoking television.
The Independent Television Companies were at first local organizations. There was local television the same way there was local radio. It is said, the people who set up Granada TV chose to locate in Manchester because of the rainy climate. They were hoping people would stay at home and watch television, to avoid going out in the rain. These new Companies also discovered a demand for innovative television and in this context ‘The Prisoner’ appeared.
The technology of television in 1967 was of course different from its equivalent today: there were no remote controls or home videos. The opening and closing sequence were part of the experience. The credits were shown at a sensible speed at which they could be read. The opening sequence which introduces most episodes of ‘The Prisoner’ forms part of the narrative. The main character appears, at first alone in a desolate landscape, in a car on a deserted runway. As in David Lean’s ‘Lawrence Of Arabia’ on the big screen, the character seems to come out of nowhere. He moves from the unknown into the familiar world of London and drives past the seats of political power: the Houses of Parliament and later Buckingham Palace. He descends into a sort of underworld. He takes up a pose reminiscent of the crucifixion as he passes through a gateway on his way to resign. He packs a case, preparing to go somewhere else. He peers through his window at the London skyline. He is followed by an undertaker who gasses him through the keyhole and he collapses. On a symbolic level, this suggests he is going through a kind of death and rebirth or passing through a gateway to another world. There are echoes of the gateway to the underworld in Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ and Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy.’ The hero passes through a gateway and descends into another world, inhabited by the souls of the dead. He wakes up in a strange place (or is the whole story just a dream?). Again he peers through his window, but this time finds he is in the Village. He protests his individuality and insists he is not a number.
Are these window pains, through which the Prisoner perceives his environment, metaphorical television screens?
Nowadays, viewers wouldn’t be patient enough to watch a credit or pre-credit sequence that long. Armed with the remote control and with other channels available, they would just channel-hop to something else.
Other series from the 1950s to the 1970s also used the opening and closing sequences to tell stories. ‘The Phil Silvers Show’, ‘Bewitched’ and ‘I Dream Of Jeannie’ all used cartoon stories to introduce their narrative. ‘Dad’s Army’ used movements across a map and a song to set the historical context of the programme, at the beginning. At the end, there was a sequence of the main characters all marching along one by one, each of them performing a little cameo act without dialogue, to remind the audience who they were.
Home videos were absent from the television world when ‘The Prisoner’ was made. TV episodes were basically made to be watched once only. The series often uses a repetitive and predictable plot: for example, the Prisoner tries to escape, trusts a supposed ally who turns out to be untrustworthy and is recaptured. There were also the famous bloopers of which we all seem so fond. These were not problematical in the context of television made to be seen when it was broadcast or not at all.
3. ‘The Prisoner’ and Screen Conventions
‘Convention’ is defined in the dictionary as:
or consent; accepted usage, especially as a standard of procedure.
A rule, method, or practice established by usage; custom: the convention of showing north at the top of a map’.
By the time the series appeared, some television conventions and genres were firmly established. There were spy and adventure stories: e.g. ‘Danger Man’ and ‘The Avengers’. There were science fiction series e.g. ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Dr. Who’. There were science and education programmes: e.g. ‘Tomorrow’s World’. There were detective drama and situation comedy series etc. Unlike the viewers of earlier television, the audience partly knew what to expect when watching these series.
‘The Prisoner’ communicates by using these conventions. But the series mocks these conventions at the same time as using them. It shows them as absurd and arbitrary. It is simultaneously both a television drama and a parody of a television drama.
So, what do these conventions consist of? There are many of them in the series. One of the conventions used and mocked consists of the cliff-hangers before commercial breaks. On commercial television, it was necessary to keep the audience’s interest, even before the advent of the remote control. The cliff-hangers left the viewers waiting to see something or have some mystery explained or some paradox resolved.
Another one of these conventions appears in the music and fighting in ‘A, B and C’. The fight to the accompaniment of music, where the punches seem to make a musical sound, is a stock technique. It is used in ‘James Bond’ films and elsewhere.
Another convention, a technique borrowed from science fiction, is the mind transfer in ‘Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling’. The cordless phones in ‘Arrival’ and the video phones in ‘Free For All’ were of course also the stuff of science fiction when the series was made.
The original ‘Star Trek’ was roughly contemporary with ‘The Prisoner’. In some cases, real life has overtaken fiction since then: the communicators in ‘Star Trek’ – which was set in the 23rd century – are far less sophisticated than the mobile phones of today. They didn’t have text, photo, video, radio, internet or any of the other facilities familiar today. The prequel, ‘Enterprise’, which was set before the first series, had to ignore mobile phones altogether.
Gregory says in ‘Be Seeing You’, the series ‘evolves from genre to parody.’ It offers the ambiguity of narrative or fantasy. ‘The Prisoner’ constantly creates artistic illusions and then deflates them. Jack Shampan’s sets give the impression of watching real people moving over an unreal landscape. Number 6’s house, like the Tardis in ‘Dr. Who’, is bigger on the inside than on the outside. The café in ‘A, B and C’ consists partly of a realistic set (with café tables and chairs etc.) and partly of a theatrical set (with a painted background).
Number 2’s movements in ‘Free For All’ and ‘A Change Of Mind’ are clearly impossible. He moves a considerable distance from one place in the Village to another, in a matter of seconds.
There are also specific parodies in the series: Sonia in ‘The Girl Who Was Death’ parodies Emma Peel in ‘The Avengers’; the introduction to the operation in ‘A Change Of Mind’ parodies ‘Tomorrow’s World’.
The series very often plays games with the audience. Godard played the same sort of games with ‘Breathless’ on the big screen: he forces his audience to wonder, are they watching a cops and robbers story or a parody of a cops and robbers story?
4. Television about Television in ‘The Prisoner’
Britton and Barker say in ‘Reading Between Designs’:
‘In the 1960s, television was still a relatively new form of mass entertainment...The medium had not yet become self-reflexive, i.e., few, if any, programs addressed the nature and effects of television itself. In many ways The Prisoner…was the first television series to be about television. Not only did it explore the technical and expressive possibilities of the medium, but it also probed the viewer’s status as watcher.’
The series often raises questions about what is actually going on when we watch a television drama. It does so playfully, but with a serious purpose. The characters watch themselves on a screen in ‘A, B and C’. Number 2 watches the series on a screen in ‘Once Upon A Time’. We, as viewers, are put in the same position as Number 2.
The white sphere in ‘Free For All’ is a great joke. It appears to be a television screen, showing nothing. Some people are stupid enough, bored enough or conditioned enough to watch it, despite its lack of meaning. The series sets up a tension between form and content; it asks if television is meaningless while it reminds the viewer they are watching television.
There are echoes in the introductory sequences in ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘The Royle Family’. The same joke appears in 3 different contexts: these families have nothing better to do than watch television, but unfortunately neither do we, as viewers. Television is poking fun at itself.
There are many other half-joking references to television in the series. Significantly, the Prisoner’s safe in ‘Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling’ is located behind his television set. Television is hiding some valuable, secret thing that the public are not meant to see. In ‘Dance of the Dead’, he puts a cushion onto the television screen, as if to gag it.
A similar conundrum is the distorting mirror at Madame Engadine’s party in ‘A, B and C’. Like the window pains in the opening sequence, could it be a metaphor for a television screen, reflecting back our lives, but in a distorted way?
At all these points, the series is asking questions about television: when you watch a television drama, are you being…
‘The Prisoner’ shares some common ground with the cinema of the late 1960s and 1970s. There were the so-called ‘Spaghetti Westerns’: ‘A Fistful Of Dollars’, ‘For A Few Dollars More’ and ‘The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly’. Sergio Leone cast Clint Eastwood as the major character: ‘The Man With No Name’. They were a step forward in the Western Genre. The Westerns that had appeared previously (starring Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, and others) had clearly delineated heroes and villains and there was never any doubt as to which characters were in which category. The heroes behaved heroically and the villains behaved villainously, always and invariably. The colour of the actor’s hat was a signifier: the villains wore black hats and the heroes white hats.
The Man With No Name behaves heroically half the time and villainously half the time. He drifts aimlessly from one settlement in the Wild West to another. His hat is a sort of brown colour, between white and black. But he never seems to be a schizoid man: he remains convincing as a character. Like the Prisoner, we are never told his name. Like the Prisoner, he is surrounded by a society into which he is not integrated and whose value system he does not share.
Clint Eastwood again played a ‘Man With No Name’ in his own ‘High Plains Drifter’ in 1972.
These films challenge the viewer the same way ‘Living In Harmony’ does: are you watching a western or a parody of a western?
Science Fiction was also an established genre. Nicolas Roeg cast David Bowie in the title role in the 1976 film ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth.’ It is based on a novel of the same name by Walter Tevis. The film tells the story of an alien who comes down to this planet because of a terrible drought in his world. It makes the familiar seem unfamiliar. In the end, he makes a record for his wife to hear on the radio.
Like the Prisoner, the Visitor is an outsider in an unfamiliar and hostile environment. Again, he is an individual surrounded by a strange society with a strange set of values he cannot adopt. The actor shares an occupation with the character he portrays. McGoohan’s date of birth is also the Prisoner’s. There is some commonality between the actor and the role he plays. This is a playful challenge to our ideas about acting and life.
For me, one of the most resonant moments in the series comes at the end of ‘A Change Of Mind.’ The Prisoner addresses the Villagers and exhorts them to: ‘Reject this false world of Number 2’s’.
At this point, the audience is subtly reminded that everything that has come before is an artistic creation and an act – in a sense a false world. I have heard the comment, that the studio sets in which much of the episode is filmed don’t always look real. The form and the content of the episode complement and reinforce each other.
Are we being challenged to reject our own false worlds: the world of television, or a political false world created by those in positions of authority?
5. Conclusion: How the Medium Has Changed
‘The Prisoner’ could never be made now. Television today is a different beast from television when ‘The Prisoner’ was made. Its economic, cultural and technological structures have changed beyond recognition.
At a talk I gave, someone said the people in charge of television drama now see it purely as a business and not as a medium. They won’t take risks any more; they won’t go into uncharted territory.
I recently attended a talk given by the actor, Timothy West. He mourned the demise of the one-off 30 minute drama (e.g. ‘The Wednesday Play’ or ‘Play For Today’). Instead, contemporary television planners want to present familiar characters and situations in series such as ‘The Bill’, ‘Eastenders’ or ‘Hustle’.
There is a plethora of channels now. I do think this is an example of ‘more is worse’. Ironically, whereas the advent of ITV was an excellent development in the history of British television, the new digital and satellite channels are the opposite. They recycle old material: they offer endless repeats of old series, to save the cost of making new ones.
The advertising budget isn’t there any more. When there was only one commercial channel – and no direct sponsorship of programmes – the budget from advertising was enough to finance expensive series such as ‘The Prisoner’. Now the advertising revenue has shrunk. The channels face far more competition now – from one another and from the internet, too. We get cheaper, not better television now: cookery shows, house and garden programmes, game shows, and so-called reality television.
One of the phenomena that bound British society together from the 1960s to the 1980s was television, right down to the adverts. Commercials were a significant part of British culture. Comedians such as Benny Hill and Ben Elton parodied them. Contemporary comedians couldn’t do the same thing: there are too many different adverts now, vying for the audiences’ attention.
Even the BBC was financed at a higher level in the 1970s. The expansion of revenue from Television Licences enabled the BBC to give us programmes such as ‘Civilisation’ with Clark and ‘The Ascent Of Man’ with Bronowski: educational, challenging series. These ‘personal view’ series have disappeared, too.
For me, one of the most regrettable developments in the history of television is the strange decline of Channel 4. I had high hopes of that channel when it started broadcasting in the early 1980s. I still remember ‘The Comic Strip Presents’ as a bold and innovative comedy. Their news and views programmes were superb, too.
Channel 4 has taken such a dive since then. ‘Big Brother’ gets my vote for the worst programme ever broadcast, or at least would be a contender. It just offers a peculiar mix of sadism, voyeurism and unrelieved tedium.
Are we witnessing the death of television? I don’t think so. But it is declining in its impact and changing into something else. I can remember when the subject of conversation at school, at work, in the café, in the pub and at the bus-stop was often last night’s television programme. That type of conversation has gone now. With so many channels and with recording available on video cassette and DVD, you’re unlikely to have watched the same programme as the person next to you. I’ve met two youngsters who don’t watch television at all: they say they just surf the web instead. From the internet, they get their movies, their news and everything they could want from television.
I looked on the web myself and I found some interviews with Patrick McGoohan and some other individuals involved with the series (Kenneth Griffiths, Lew Grade, Vincent Tilsley etc.). Patrick McGoohan often seemed bored and fed up with talking about the series 10 or 20 years after he had made it. He didn’t always seem to be taking it seriously. At one point, he asked the fans if they could explain the series to him. One interviewer said the series was studied at Canadian universities. He replied with a look that seemed to imply: ‘That doesn’t say much for Canadian universities’. (Would he have approved of me doing this, I wonder?)
But there is more to it than that. Not only has television been through a metamorphosis: the surrounding society has changed beyond recognition, too. The politics, the economics, the dramatic art and so much else in British society that influenced ‘The Prisoner’ have undergone a sea-change. The cold war setting that informed most of the series is gone. One day, another article could be devoted to how the West has become cynical, disillusioned, and nihilistic in the last 40 years. ‘The Prisoner’ would be impossible nowadays not only because of the medium, but because of the cultural context, too.
A charming postscript to the series - and perhaps also the concluding summary of its comment on television – is ‘The Simpsons’ episode ‘The Computer Wore Menace Shoes’. In 2000, Patrick McGoohan parodied ‘The Prisoner’ on the cartoon programme. It is funny and touching and it is greatly to his credit that so much later he could come back to the medium to laugh at himself. Reprising his role as the Prisoner, he claims to have spent 33 years trying to escape from ‘The Island,’ the same amount of time between the end of series and the premiere of this ‘Simpsons’ episode.
Perhaps this is a witty but sad comment on how the series affected him and his career. He once said, Mel Gibson would always be seen as Mad Max and he would always be seen as Number 6.
Patrick McGoohan’s widow said, he was still writing up until the end. His career continued for 40 years after the series and it is natural to assume he preferred some of his later work. Ironically, ‘The Prisoner’ became McGoohan’s prison.
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