THE PROJECTION ROOM (The Prisoner Compared...)

Andrew K. Shenton

For decades, debates have raged as to the degree to which The Prisoner may be considered science fiction. Patrick McGoohan was emphatic on the matter, asserting in 1967 that he was dealing with “a contemporary subject... not science fiction. I hope that will be recognized by the audience.”1 Some twelve years later, in the Goodman interview, McGoohan unequivocally restated his position, commenting, “I don’t think it’s got anything to do with science fiction whatsoever.”2 Yet, many science fiction encyclopedias/guides to SF television include coverage of The Prisoner. Perhaps the situation is best summed up by The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Science Fiction which declares that even if the SF devices “may appear to be marginal... they are vital to the construction of the imaginary edifice”.3 This standpoint can also be taken in relation to Philip Mackie’s 1978 television production, An Englishman’s Castle – a work that owes its premise to the popular SF theme of “alternate worlds”. More obviously an instance of speculative fiction than science fiction, An Englishman’s Castle postulates how Britain might have looked had Germany won the Second World War. Whilst rarely mentioned in the standard SF reference books, the serial is featured in the aforementioned Ultimate Encyclopedia, which provides a highly complimentary assessment. The volume describes An Englishman’s Castle as a “very fine piece of work, sensitively and suspensefully developed, with first-rate performances by the three leading actors”, i.e. Kenneth More, Isla Blair and Anthony Bate.3 Not long after the making of An Englishman’s Castle, Philip Mackie would write a script for another BBC cult classic – The Omega Factor – but on this occasion his submission was deemed unsuitable and was rejected.4

Billed at the time as consisting of three plays and broadcast in BBC2’s Play of the Week slot,5 An Englishman’s Castle would be considered in today’s parlance a three-part “mini-series”. It is, in fact, described in these terms in the packaging for the 2015 Simply Media DVD release. The title offers no clue as to the nature of the Britain forming the subject of the programme and only gradually do we discover the full extent to which censorship, stifling legislation and oppression are prevalent. Initially, the society depicted appears no different from that of the late 1970s which would have been familiar to contemporary viewers, and, in the early moments, an unsuspecting audience could easily have mistaken An Englishman’s Castle for a conventional real-world drama. The revelation, some seven minutes into part one, that in this parallel world the British lost the Second World War comes as a shock to those watching and prepares us for the harsh realities that lurk below the seemingly ordinary façade, in much the same way as the first appearance of Rover in Arrival dispels any expectation we may have had that The Prisoner will be no more than a quirky spy show. The British defeat is just one of several disconcerting revelations that emerge in the first half of the opening instalment. We also find out that Churchill was killed on a day now referred to as “Black Friday”, Britain was invaded by Germany during the War and, by the 1970s, our country is being ruled by a puppet government acting under German direction.

Whilst The Prisoner concentrates on the adventures of Number Six, An Englishman’s Castle follows the life of Peter Ingram, the writer and producer of the titular television series that deals with the trials and tribulations of the Worth family during the Second World War. We learn from Ingram himself that the two Worth sons, Frank and Bert, effectively represent contrasting sides of the author’s own nature, thereby echoing the duality of man theme so integral to Fall Out. Ingram’s series is the most popular show on television and its plots and depiction of British life have a pacifying effect on the country’s citizens. Both Number Six and Ingram finally attempt to overthrow the status quo but they have very different personalities. Number Six bristles with anger and antagonism towards the authorities from his earliest days in The Village, whereas the mild-mannered Ingram is at first an unlikely rebel. When we are introduced to him he is certainly not the precipitator of a people’s revolution that he ultimately becomes. At the outset, he is an establishment figure, passively if not actively supporting the régime. To Madeleine Kingsley, Ingram “seems a lot less interested in patriotic ideals than in the personal success and material comforts his top-rating soap opera has brought him”.6

However, his opposition to the government gradually builds. His first act of defiance comes when he refuses to change the Jewish name of a brave character whom he is adding to his television series, although under pressure he later relents. He becomes drawn to Jill, an actress within his drama who is herself Jewish. This at once puts Ingram in a dangerous position, as it is against the law either to be non-Aryan or to associate with such a person. Worse is to follow. It eventually transpires that Jill is a committed subversive intent on bringing about the downfall of the government and she has been assigned the task of recruiting Ingram to join the conspirators. In the last scene of the final instalment, Ingram interrupts one of the episodes of An Englishman’s Castle to issue directly to the British people the code phrase, “Britons strike home!” This sets in motion a mass rebellion that will involve a general strike, workers seizing key services and people taking up arms against the authorities. A more likeable and less abrasive character than Number Six, Ingram is nonetheless significantly flawed. In the early stages of the drama, he is politically blinkered and, while married with two sons, he conducts with few obvious scruples an affair with the Jewish actress. His behaviour is far removed from the puritanical disposition for which McGoohan and his character of Number Six are so well known.

Like those who run The Village, the authorities administering this “other” Britain of the 1970s are ostensibly benevolent but oppression lurks below the surface. As the Wikipedia article on An Englishman’s Castle reports, “When dissidents are detained it is done by polite, soft-spoken English police, but they are then delivered to horrible torture chambers, kept discreetly out of sight.”7 There is certainly little on-screen violence carried out by the government. A less action-oriented production than The Prisoner, An Englishman’s Castle for the most part presents the authorities as shadowy rather than spectacularly brutal. Still, the battered state of Ingram’s younger, revolutionary, son, Mark, after he has been left at the mercy of the “special police” for only a few minutes, gives ample indication of the drastic measures that are employed. Much like Number One in The Prisoner until his dramatic unmasking in Fall Out, the German masters who exercise the real power in this dystopia are never seen. In the words of Barry Didcock, their presence is “merely suggested”.8

The alternate 1970s world that we learn about in An Englishman’s Castle is reminiscent of The Village in that it is a place where the hero struggles to know who he can trust. According to Jill, government spies “are everywhere”. Jill herself is an ambiguous character who, it becomes clear, has an ulterior motive in befriending Ingram. When Mark is arrested for his role in a terrorist plot, it first appears that either the explosives and fuses found in Mark’s room were planted by the police or the régime’s informant was the Programme Controller for whom Ingram works and who is responsible for television censorship at the highest level. It later emerges, however, that the individual was the boy’s own brother, Henry. As in The Prisoner, it is easy to identify links with real-world events. There are obvious parallels that may be drawn between Henry’s treachery and the situation in Cold War-era East Germany, where neighbour informed on neighbour,9 and the bomb blasts organised by those who want to free the country of German influence can be equated with the IRA attacks conducted by those wanting to rid Ireland of British involvement.8

Returning to fiction, we can make comparisons, too, between the way in which the authorities encourage the watchmaker’s assassination plot in the Prisoner episode It’s Your Funeral because it suits their purposes and how, in An Englishman’s Castle, the government turns a blind eye to certain acts of terrorism for its own ends, here in order that the perpetrators discredit themselves in the eyes of the public.

Evidence in the Prisoner instalments Arrival and The Chimes of Big Ben indicates clearly that there is little in the personal background of Number Six which is not known to the authorities and in An Englishman’s Castle similarly detailed records on citizens are maintained by the ruling régime in the alternate Britain. Ingram’s file is accessible to the Programme Controller and the special police. When a police inspector recites to Ingram the particulars of his academic degree classification, subject specialisms, place of study and year of graduation, Ingram responds by asking, “You know my life story, don’t you?” The inspector replies by saying immediately that he has learnt the information “by heart”. Each society is a world of its own, with language that may well be unfamiliar to the viewer. In The Prisoner, non-conformists are branded “disharmonious” and “unmutual”, whilst in An Englishman’s Castle collaborators who spy for the authorities are known as “delators”. If those labelled “unmutual” are effectively The Village’s outcasts, then Jews are similarly disadvantaged in this parallel Britain. We may well wonder what is done by those responsible for The Village to the various Number Twos when they cease to be useful. In An Englishman’s Castle, there is no mystery as to the fate of the Programme Controller who is succeeded by Ingram. The third episode leaves no doubt that he has hanged himself in his prison cell after being arrested and detained once the authorities deemed him to be a “secret revolutionary”.

In both productions, for a brief period of the final instalment, the hero’s fortunes would seem to improve considerably when he is offered a privileged position but even before this invitation Number Six is treated with a dignity and respect in Fall Out which distinctly lacking for much of The Prisoner. In An Englishman’s Castle, meanwhile, the government recruits Ingram as Programme Controller, initially in a temporary capacity until he has proved his loyalty. In neither case, however, does the hero use his new found status in a way intended by the authorities. Indeed, in An Englishman’s Castle Ingram exploits it in order to issue the code phrase to all the watching viewers and initiate a rebellion far greater in scale than that led by The Prisoner in Fall Out. Ultimately, television, which has for virtually the whole serial been the tool of the establishment, would seem to provide the means of its downfall. Ingram’s use of television to make his rallying cry could scarcely be more different from how, as Andrew Martin recognises, the Germans have previously been shown via this medium to be a benign presence and peaceful submission has been promoted through Ingram’s soap opera.10

Both The Prisoner and An Englishman’s Castle would appear to end on a bleak note, although each is subject to differing interpretations. The fact that the last scene of the former repeats what the viewer has already witnessed implies that the themes of the programme will recur in the life of the hero; some viewers might go so far as to believe that even the events themselves will repeat. An Englishman’s Castle concludes when Ingram, having broadcast the code phrase necessary to signal the start of the revolution, sees gunfire break the lock of his office. The obvious implication is that the perpetrators are the special policemen whom we know have been stationed outside his door. Most likely, they are going to apprehend him. It is possible, though, that the police are too occupied with the start of the uprising and the intruders are actually co-conspirators intent on liberating him. Viewers are allowed to determine Ingram’s fate for themselves, in much the same manner that the dénouement of The Prisoner invites speculation on the audience’s part. Other questions spring to mind at the end of An Englishman’s Castle. Does the people’s rebellion stand any chance of success? And, on a more personal note, did Jill ever truly love Ingram or did she merely play on his feelings for her in order to recruit him to her cause?

Despite the many thematic parallels that can be drawn between The Prisoner and An Englishman’s Castle, notably the demands made by society to ensure conformity, government use of oppression and what may be done by the individual to resist authority, Philip Mackie’s mini-series is even more similar to 1990 – another programme featured within The Projection Room section of The Unmutual, specifically in an insightful essay by Andrew Hobson.11 They share the essential characteristics of a classic dystopia and they are strikingly alike in their “what if…?” scenarios, even though one portrays a future Britain and the other an alternate version that may have come about had history been different. They were made by the same television company (i.e. the BBC) at a very similar time. The first season of 1990 was broadcast between September and October 1977, and the second from February to April 1978,12 whilst An Englishman’s Castle was screened only slightly later – in June 1978.5 It is probably best left to individual viewers to determine how far the two productions can be considered to complement each other and how far they merely repeat the same dystopian ideas. 2018 sees the fortieth anniversary of the first transmission of An Englishman’s Castle on British television and it may be argued that its foremost themes, in terms of the power of the media, the nature of terrorism and the state’s response to it, are as relevant today as they were in the 1970s.

1. Quoted in: Javna, J. The Best of Science Fiction TV: The Critics’ Choice From Captain Video to Star Trek, From The Jetsons to Robotech. Titan: London, 1988.
2. McGoohan, P. On the Trail of The Prisoner: Roger Goodman Talks to Patrick McGoohan. CD. PrizBiz, 2007. Audio recording of 1979 interview.
3. Pringle, D. (ed.) The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Science Fiction: The Definitive Illustrated Guide. Carlton: London, 1996.
4. Pixley, A. The Omega Factor: The Undiscovered Country. TV Zone, 193, 2005, pp. 34-40.
5. BBC2 Monday, 5 June 1978: Listings. Genome: Radio Times, 1923-2009, 2017. URL:
6. Kingsley, M. An Englishman’s Castle, BBC, 1978. Action TV. URL: Reproduction of a 1978 Radio Times article.
7. An Englishman’s Castle. Wikipedia, 2 January 2018. URL:
8. Didcock, B. DVD Reviews: An Englishman’s Castle With Kenneth More and Isla Blair; Dark Matter; Good People. The Herald, 8 October 2015. URL:
9. Wensierski, P. East German Snitching Went Far Beyond the Stasi. Spiegel Online, 10 July 2015. URL:
10. Martin, A. The Sunday Post: Alternative Histories. BBC Genome Blog, 19 March 2017. URL:
11. Hobson, A. Nineteen Eighty-four Plus Six. The Unmutual, 2008. URL:
12. Fulton, R. The Encyclopedia of TV Science Fiction. Boxtree: London, 1990.

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