THE UNMUTUAL PRISONER ARTICLE ARCHIVE
REFLECTIONS FROM AN ORIGINAL FAN
by Ira Heffler
As we are in the midst of celebrating a half century of The Prisoner, allow me to re-post my "Reflections from an Original Fan" ...
An older, “original” fan who watched the show during its initial broadcast…
I’ve been a member of the Facebook ‘The Prisoner’ page for a number of years, however – posting only an occasionally “like” and an even more rare comment or two – mostly as an observer. But not anymore…
I’m probably one of the very few on this page who – at the age of 20 – watched The Prisoner when it first aired in the United States as a summer replacement for the Jackie Gleason Show in early June of 1968. It affected me profoundly. And I needed to see it again. But this was well before DVDs and Blu-rays, let alone VCRs. Finally – a few years later in the early 1970s – our local PBS (Public Broadcasting System) re-aired the episodes. I remember a psychologist sitting in a comfy armchair and – with his dog beside him wearing a red scarf – discussing each episode and offering his insights and interpretations.
One of the best things about the show being repeated was that I was prepared; I had my camera ready (on a tripod) and took photos (slides) off the TV. Snapping away, I got many shots of the iconic opening. In the 1970s, I joined the original Six of One Appreciation Society. In the mail I received a packet including many one-sheets, a badge, a record album (45 rpm), and a penny farthing sticker. They also included a half-dozen glossy, black and white photographs which I mounted in a handsome frame. And they included a map of London showing where much of the opening sequence was filmed.
I projected my slides of The Prisoner opening sequence on my Kodak Carousel Slide Projector and coordinated it with the opening sequence music from the record I received from the fan club. Not bad!
In the early 1980s I went on a vacation to England, Scotland, and Wales. The tour included Betwsy-y-Coed. The guide knew of The Prisoner. I was told I was quite close to Portmeiron! But no one wanted to go with me. The guide, the bus driver, and some people on the tour bus, knowing of my passion for the series, urged me to go on my solo pilgrimage. I didn’t go. To this day, it haunts me I didn’t listen them... or to myself.
But my trip across the pond was not a total loss. When in London I set out to #1 Buckingham Place. My camera in one hand, my Six of
One map in another, I headed out to find the home of Number 6.
I still remember rounding a corner… and suddenly there it was! I stood and stared at the building. I took a photo of the building, doing my best to mirror it from a snap shot I took off the TV, using the red mailbox to line it up. I still have the two photographs side-by-side in one frame.
I then walked up and opened the door. It was an office with women at typewriters. I stared at them; they stared at me. When I started to explain why I was there, one woman smiled and said she knew. I had the feeling they got this a lot.
I went back outside and took more pictures. A chauffeur was watching me. He came up to me and was pleased to see me there. He told me when the show first aired in London, there was little traffic in the streets because people were home watching. And he told me how frustrated people were with the ending, calling the TV station and even tossing things at Patrick’s home.
So why the visceral appeal of the show?
First, the unique look of the show. The sets, the Penny farthing, the chess game on the lawn,the mini-moots, the “Tally Ho!” newspaper, the stripped shirts, the flowing capes, the colorful umbrellas, the Village maps, the distinctive type face, the lava lights, the spherical chairs, the Village food in the refrigerator, the surveillance cameras, the phones, the badges with numbers, the blazers with the piping, the Lotus 7 with its KAR120C license plate, Rover (I’m so glad the first, mechanical version was replaced), and of course Portmeirion itself.
Truly a costume designer’s, art director’s, and set decorator’s dream. A different world was created… with an extremely impressive attention to detail.
But the look of the show is dependent on solid, effective cinematography.
The opening sequence is beautifully filmed and particularly impressive: the clap of thunder; the Lotus darting through traffic, then veering off; POV shots behind the steering wheel; and, as he purposefully walks down the corridor, ceiling beams casting shadows on his face. The sequence was shot with the production values of a major feature film. The opening set-up of this series is arguably the best TV opening ever done. It is truly iconic.
One more comment about the show’s cinematography: with truly beautiful shots too numerous to mention here, I won’t go into a review of each episode; however, that is a stunning shot of Mary Morris as the new Number 6/Peter Pan standing along the estuary.
And, of course, the strong, stirring music in the opening sequence. (I’m so glad Patrick nixed the first two themes.)
Plus the brilliant selection of other miscellaneous music: the ragtime march and the anthem. Yes, they’re my ringtones!
But none of this really matters without the ambitious content and theme of the show.
I’ve always been fascinated with the question of what we do with people in our own government who know too much when they resign or retire. Either we kill them or we change their identity and put them in a relocation center, maybe a farm in the middle of the country. With the parting of George Markstein, I now understand the conflict of vision and the different direction the show took. McGoohan wanted a metaphor, an allegory. The show was not about the village; it was about us. How cerebral and ambitious! And ambiguous.
But on this we can all agree: the show is more relevant now than when it originated, 50 years ago. Especially given our digital age.
It’s been a half a century, yet I vividly remember watching the final episode when it first aired in the States in September of 1968. At the ripe old age of 21, I remember feeling frustrated. But I was in conflict because it was so damn compelling. And I was at a huge disadvantage: no Internet to allow for discussion.
Was the last episode flawed? Perhaps. But given the circumstances and time pressure to get it done, it turned out amazingly daring, raw, and bold.
I still get a chill watching The Kid as he sticks out his thumb hoping to get a ride. And hearing the beautiful, stirring music. And that quick shot of Patrick’s profile in London as we see his breath exhaled in the chilly air. Watching Number 6 doing a jig in front of the bobby. Watching Number 6 and the butler, holding hands, running along Whitehall. Honestly, is there a more exhilarating shot in the history of television? I think not. Watching Leo McKern walking into London’s Parliament building. He and The Kid… a metaphor for the Establishment and Youth, rebellious and questioning authority. Spoiler alert: Watching Number 6’s apartment door opening on its own… and hearing the same motorized sound. It still gives me chills. Brilliant. Was there a numeral “1” on his front door? Was that actually planned? Brilliant. The end credits listing Patrick McGoohan as “Prisoner” (with no “The”) is a smart implication that we all are prisoners. Brilliant. And that final tight shot of Patrick’s face as he speeds in his Lotus. The circle is complete. Snap to black. Brilliant.
And now we have digital media with its DVDs and Blu-rays. The BluRay is in such brilliant, pristine condition. Whoever is responsible for it obviously was in love with the series and must be applauded. And we have the Internet, with its sharing of “information”… your ideas, theories, and photos. Your comments are smart and articulate (i.e., one comment mentioned that the scenes shot on a soundstage with an obvious backdrop painting actually enhance the feel of the show, giving it a more surreal look. Agree or disagree, it’s a compelling argument.)
And other comments are more witty and playful. I particularly love the creative shot-for-shot parodies of the iconic opening. (I hope you all saw the young girl driving a lawnmower?) Imitation, of course, is the sincerest form of flattery.
And now it has been 50 years. I have little doubt that in another 50 years the show will continue to be revered by a new generation of intelligent, passionate fans same as yourselves. Thank you… and Be seeing you…
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