The Prisoner - A Child's Perspective

© Richard Rix

I first viewed this classic and timeless series when I was at the tender and impressionable age of 10, and have been fascinated by all things related to the show ever since. If like me, you settled down to watch each episode with your parents, in that cosy domestic environment that you can never seem to recreate in later years, you may share some of the emotions that I experienced during the show’s first run.

So what was our family’s first impression on seeing the first episode, “Arrival”? Well, my father had enjoyed “Danger Man” (though I was somewhat indifferent, being into the Batman TV series and the antics of the Monkees at the time), and I think he was expecting the Prisoner to be much the same as McGoohan’s earlier show – but imagine our surprise when we first encountered the Village, with its jaunty little Mini Mokes, the boldly striped costumes, canopies and umbrellas, the penny-farthings, and the futuristic central Control Room with that apparently pointless observation “see-saw”. It was clear that this was no ordinary TV spy series – it looked fantastic, even on our ageing black-and-white rented TV set - and we were hooked from the very beginning….

The things that set this series apart from run-of-the-mill TV shows are its sheer attention to detail, its startling sci-fi props, and its total rejection of restricting television conventions. The kids at my school loved the telephones that “beeped” instead of ringing; chairs that zoomed up from the floor on command (and who could forget Number 2’s famous half-ball chair); the slit-lens shades; the intriguing lava lamps that echoed the fearsome Rover’s birthplace under the sea (we just had to buy one after seeing that – who said product placement is a new idea).

In some episodes, the props seem to be as important as the actors themselves. The director sees an object, recognises its artistic merit or visual style, and incorporates it into a scene for dramatic effect. Take for example the security system in “The General“. To gain access to a restricted area, Number Six has to place a coin-like token onto a small platform on a scanning machine. Seconds later, a tiny plastic model of a human arm jumps out, grabs the token, and snatches it back into the machine’s innards! Anyone who was into clockwork novelties at the time will see the similarity of this totally pointless piece of machinery to a child’s savings box, known as “The Coffin Bank”, which was available in the shops for a couple of pounds (and is now a sought-after collectible, by the way). Needless to say, I had to have one after seeing this. The point is, the little mechanism looked fantastic visually, despite being of dubious technical relevance – and this wonderful sense of the bizarre manifests itself again and again in this magnificent series.

This technique of “baffling the audience with inanimate objects” was very fashionable in sixties TV and cinema, where directors loved to play with the perceptions of the viewer - for example, take a look at the Avengers episode “The House That Jack Built”. Here Emma Peel is trapped in a strange house that has been constructed by an industrial automation expert who has a grudge against her. No matter which way she runs in a effort to escape, she ends up back in the same weird room, confronted by a scary piece of nondescript machinery, which has no apparent function but to emit strange electronic sounds, while black-and-white fins rotate under a glass dome (a metaphor for being unable to escape that which you fear most? You decide). The image of that machine and its other-wordly sounds became lodged in my childish mind like a sticky toffee stuck to a molar, in much the same way as some of the strange props in “The Prisoner” did. Remember the statues with camera lens eyes? Spooky….

Even the innocent clown rag doll seen at the end of “The Girl Who Was Death” becomes somewhat scary, when coupled with that strange stock electronic music, playing up until the end titles. I think it plays on the ambiguity of a clown’s appearance – the exaggerated face makeup, the in-your-face manner, and his sheer alien nature - which can be either frightening or amusing to a child, depending on the child’s interpretation of what it sees. And a bad interpretation, mistaken or not, can stay with a person throughout adulthood, resulting in an uneasy feeling whenever we subsequently encounter a clown.

This deep-rooted fear seems to apply to all manner of other objects too, such as masks, puppets, strange machines, dolls, etc. Who did not feel an icy chill run down their spine when Barbarella (q.v.) was confronted by that army of menacing toy dolls with sharp metal teeth?

Incidentally, Eric Mival’s excellent music selections played a crucial part in defining the show’s ultimate feel and style, particularly in T.G.W.W.D, which was very light in dialogue for the first half. The music is very memorable, and features that rip-roaring “hunting” tune, heard during the car chase when Number Six pursues would-be assassin Sonia Schnipps (Justine Lord) through the countryside in her gleaming white Jaguar. The music is varied throughout, featuring light orchestral numbers, eerie Theremin-like pieces and semi-comic tunes. There is even a pseudo-religious sounding piece played during the “noxious exploding candles” scene.

That particular story is very different from the previous tales, and is packed with psychedelic imagery and “bafflement by inanimate objects”. By this time, the series had started to lose its way a little, and new ideas were becoming harder to dream up. However, T.G.W.W.D sets the tone for the finale of the series beautifully, and this episode is one of the most imaginative and enthralling of the entire series. It flouts conventions in all directions, while showing a healthy disregard for the rules of mainstream TV (where else could you see a beautiful girl in a tight white outfit and German helmet, toting a machine gun?). There is also much more comedy here than in previous stories, with Kenneth Griffith giving a marvellous performance as the power-crazed villain with an army of comical goons at his command in his lighthouse/rocket (shades of Monkees-style antics!). Throughout, the mood switches between comedy and menace with the ease of finger-snap, yet somehow it works. In fact, the entire episode plays like some lurid drug-induced dream, in reality a not uncommon experience for some people, as late-sixties liberalism took hold, and the flower-powered hippy dream began to blossom.

Being a child, I had no concept of “tripping” of course, but I appreciated the programme on an entirely different level. We kids saw the show as some fantastic vision of the future, and were quite content watching electronic doors opening automatically, and people talking on wire-less telephones, while the adults pondered questions of individuality and privacy in a society where total surveillance was not yet a reality, but was threatening to become one.

But it was “Rover” that locked “The Prisoner” permanently into my juvenile brain-cells - watching him hunt down a prisoner attempting to escape was a scary spectacle even for an adult, so you can imagine how terrified we kids were when he eventually caught his prey, and suffocated him or her with his enormous bulk! I think it was the fact that this huge ball had an apparent mind of its own that made him so terrifying (note that Rover is referred to as “he” throughout this article and in other written pieces – he has gained some sort of respect and even affection over the years!). I had a few nightmares after seeing that “smothering” scene for the first time (apparently the same actor’s face was seen under the balloon fabric each time somebody was smothered), but it did not deter me from watching the rest of the series, which by now had completely captured my imagination.

The sound that accompanied Rover was an essential element of his character, and in retrospect could not have been bettered in my opinion (created, I believe, by slowing down the sound of a man screaming, and mixing it with a reversed monk’s chorus, and some kind of hosepipe contraption whirled around to get the “whistling” sound). Imagine how uninteresting he would have been if he merely made the dull thudding sound of a bouncing beach ball.

The original prototype Rover was a black-and-white striped, dome-shaped affair with a flashing blue police light perched on top of it. This idea could well have been a disaster, both visually and operationally (it was powered by a modified go-kart which of course emitted dangerous exhaust fumes, and these tended to build up under the one-piece body). But an enormous white ball that bubbles up from beneath the ocean, howling and snarling as it races across the surface, then chasing you, cornering you, and finally asphyxiating you until you are dead: that’s originality….

It is amazing to think that on a lot nearby, Stanley Kubrick was working on another seminal sci-fi production, “2001 – A Space Odyssey”, a classic whose ending left me just as baffled as the ending of “The Prisoner” did. In fact, both finales gave me a similar feeling of dissatisfaction, and a huge desire to find out the meaning of the breathtaking scenes I had just witnessed. If ever there was a defining moment in science fiction/fantasy, this short period in the late 1960’s had to be it. I wonder how Kubrick would have directed episodes of the show, had he been available to do so?

Now I am a 53 year old adult, a look back at the series via a boxed set of DVD’s or an occasional viewing on cable TV is a wonderfully rewarding experience, as old misunderstandings are clarified, technical details are explained, and childhood fears regarding big white weather balloons are at least partially dispelled! I have to say that the series set the standard for TV fantasy drama for me, and I have not yet seen a series that has captured my imagination so completely.

Furthermore, “The Prisoner” far outstrips anything that is on offer today in my opinion (with rare exceptions). It is the vision, determination and dedication to quality of the directors, writers and technicians who created this seminal piece of entertainment that make it the classic it is today. I fear we will not see quality of this kind again, at least not in the foreseeable future, as restricted budgets preclude directorial flights of fantasy, and the demands of advertisers place barriers on subject matter (and consume more and more of a programme’s running time). Sir Lew Grade is to be congratulated on his confidence in Patrick MacGoohan’s ability to deliver on his promises – not many TV moguls would have given him the opportunity to create something so magnificently off-the-wall.

Taking a random glance at today’s TV schedules (August 2011), I cannot see a single programme that I have the slightest interest in watching, which is a sorry state of affairs when one has over 40 channels to choose from. The early critics of satellite and cable were right: multi-channel TV is a haven for mediocrity – and more is definitely less (unless The Prisoner happens to be showing!). Let us pray that another rare visionary emerges from the shadows, to save us from the horrors of consumer-driven TV….

Copyright (c) Richard Rix, 2011

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