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The Prisoner

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The Prisoner

The Prisoner
The Prisoner intertitle
Created by Patrick McGoohan
George Markstein
Written by
Directed by
Starring Patrick McGoohan
Theme music composer Ron Grainer
Country of origin United Kingdom
Original language(s) English
No. of series 1
No. of episodes 17 (list of episodes)
Executive producer(s) Patrick McGoohan
Producer(s) David Tomblin
Location(s) Portmeirion, North Wales
Running time 50 minutes
Original channel ITV
Picture format Film 35 mm 4:3 Colour
Audio format Mono
Original release 29 September 1967 (1967-09-29) – 1 February 1968 (1968-02-01)

The Prisoner is a 17-episode British television series[2] first broadcast in the United Kingdom from 29 September 1967 to 1 February 1968.[3] Starring and co-created by Patrick McGoohan, it combined spy fiction with elements of science fiction, allegory, and psychological drama.[2]

The series follows a British former secret agent who is abducted and held prisoner in a mysterious coastal village resort where his captors try to find out why he abruptly resigned from his job. Although sold as a thriller in the mould of the previous series starring McGoohan, Danger Man (1960–68) [retitled as "Secret Agent" in the US], the show's combination of 1960s countercultural themes and surreal setting had a far-reaching effect on science fiction/fantasy programming, and on popular culture in general.[4]

A TV miniseries remake aired on the U.S. cable channel AMC 15–17 November 2009.[5]

Plot summary

The series follows an unnamed British agent (played by Patrick McGoohan) who after abruptly and angrily resigning his job, apparently prepares to make a hurried departure from the country. While packing his luggage, he is rendered unconscious by knockout gas in his flat. When he wakes, he finds himself held captive in a mysterious seaside "village" that is isolated from the mainland by mountains and sea. The Village is further secured by numerous monitoring systems and security forces, including a sinister balloon-like device called Rover that recaptures – or kills – those who attempt escape. The agent encounters the Village's population: hundreds of people from all walks of life and cultures, all seeming to be tranquilly living out their lives. They do not use names but instead are assigned numbers, which give no clue as to any person's status (prisoner or warder). Potential escapees therefore have no idea whom they can and cannot trust. The protagonist is assigned Number Six, but he repeatedly refuses the pretense of his new identity.

Number Six is monitored heavily by Number Two, the Village administrator acting as an agent for an unseen "Number One." A variety of techniques are used by Number Two to try to extract information from Number Six, including hallucinogenic drug experiences, identity theft, mind control, dream manipulation, and various forms of social indoctrination. All of these are employed not only to find out why Number Six resigned as an agent, but also to extract other dangerous information he gained as a spy. The position of Number Two is filled in on a rotating basis; in some cases, part of a larger plan to confuse Number Six, while other times as a result of failure in interrogating Number Six.

Number Six, distrusting of anyone involved with the Village, refuses to co-operate or provide answers. Alone, he struggles with various goals: determining for which side of the iron curtain the Village works if, indeed, it works for any at all, remaining defiant to its imposed authority, concocting his own plans for escape, learning all he can about the Village, and subverting its operation. His schemes lead to the dismissals of the incumbent Number Two on two occasions, despite their failure to facilitate his escape. By the end of the series the administration, becoming desperate for Number Six's knowledge and fearful of his growing influence in the Village, takes drastic measures that threaten the lives of Number Six, Number Two, and the rest of the Village.

A major theme of the series is individualism, as represented by Number Six, versus collectivism as represented by Number Two and the others in the Village. McGoohan stated that the series aimed to demonstrate a balance between the two points.[6]



The show was created while Danger Man (known as Secret Agent in the U.S.), an espionage show produced by Incorporated Television Company (also called ITC Entertainment). The exact details of who created which aspects of the show are disputed; majority opinion credits McGoohan as the sole creator of the series. However, a disputed co-creator status later was ascribed to Markstein after a series of fan interviews published in the 1980s. The show itself bears no "created by" credit.

Some sources indicate McGoohan was the sole or primary creator of the show.[7][8][9] McGoohan stated in a 1977 interview (broadcast as part of a Canadian documentary about The Prisoner called The Prisoner Puzzle) that during the filming of the third season of Danger Man he told Lew Grade, managing director of ITC Entertainment, he wanted to quit working on Danger Man after the filming of the proposed fourth series.[10] Grade was unhappy with the decision, but when McGoohan insisted upon quitting, Grade asked if McGoohan had any other possible projects; McGoohan later pitched The Prisoner. However, in a 1988 article from British Telefantasy magazine Time Screen, McGoohan indicated that he had planned to pitch The Prisoner prior to speaking to Grade.[11] In both accounts, McGoohan pitched the idea orally, rather than having Grade read the proposal in detail, and the two made an oral agreement for the show to be produced by Everyman Films, the production company formed by McGoohan and David Tomblin. In the 1977 account, McGoohan said that Grade approved of the show despite not understanding it, while in the 1988 account Grade expressed clear support for the concept.

Other sources, however, credit Markstein, then a script editor for Danger Man, with a significant or even primary portion of the development of the show. For example, Dave Rogers, in the book The Prisoner and Danger Man, said that Markstein claimed to have created the concept first and McGoohan later attempted to take credit for it, though Rogers himself doubted that McGoohan would have wanted or needed to do that.[4] A four-page document, generally agreed to have been written by Markstein, setting out an overview of the series' themes, was published as part of an ITC/ATV press book in 1967. It has usually been accepted that this text originated earlier as a guide for the series' writers.[12] Further doubt has been cast on Markstein's version of events by author Rupert Booth in his biography of McGoohan, titled Not A Number. Booth points out that McGoohan had outlined the themes of The Prisoner in a 1965 interview, long before Markstein's tenure as script editor on the brief fourth season of Danger Man.

Part of Markstein's inspiration came from his research into World War II, where he found that some people had been incarcerated in a resort-like prison called Inverlair Lodge.[13] Markstein suggested that Danger Man lead, John Drake (played by McGoohan), could suddenly resign, and be kidnapped and sent to such a location.[13] McGoohan added Markstein's suggestion to material he had been working on, which later became The Prisoner. Furthermore, a 1960 episode of Danger Man, titled "View from the Villa," had exteriors filmed in Portmeirion, a Welsh resort village that struck McGoohan as a good location for future projects.

Further inspiration came from a Danger Man episode called "Colony Three," in which Drake infiltrates a spy school in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. The school, in the middle of nowhere, is set up to look like a normal English town in which pupils and instructors mix as in any other normal city, but the instructors are virtual prisoners with little hope of ever leaving. McGoohan also stated that he was influenced by his experience from theatre, including his work in Orson Welles' 1955 play Moby Dick—Rehearsed and a BBC television play The Prisoner by Bridget Boland.[13] McGoohan wrote a forty-page show Bible, which included a "history of the Village, the sort of telephones they used, the sewerage system, what they ate, the transport, the boundaries, a description of the Village, every aspect of it...".[10] McGoohan wrote and directed several episodes, often under pseudonyms.[14]

In a 1966 interview for the Los Angeles Times by reporter Robert Musel, McGoohan stated that "John Drake of Secret Agent is gone." Further, McGoohan stated in a 1985 interview that No. 6 is not the same character as John Drake, further adding that he had originally wanted another actor to portray the character.[15] However, other sources indicate that several of the crew members who continued on from Danger Man to work on The Prisoner considered it to be a continuation, and McGoohan was continuing to play the character of John Drake.[11] Furthermore, Rogers states Markstein had wanted the character to be a continuation of Drake, but by doing so would have meant paying royalties to Ralph Smart, creator of Danger Man.[4]

The issue has been debated by fans and TV critics, with some stating the two characters are the same, based on similarities in the shows, the characters, a few repeating actors beyond McGoohan, and certain specific connections in various episodes.[16][17][18]

McGoohan had originally wanted to produce only seven episodes of The Prisoner, but Grade argued more shows were necessary in order for him to successfully sell the series to CBS.[10] The exact number which was agreed to, along with how the series ended, is disputed by different sources.

In an August 1967 article, Dorothy Manners reported CBS had asked McGoohan to produce 36 segments but he would agree to produce only 17.[19] According to a 1977 interview, Grade requested 26 episodes, which McGoohan thought would spread the show too thin, but was able to come up with 17 episodes.[10] According to The Prisoner: The Official Companion to the Classic TV Series, however, the series was originally supposed to run longer, but was cancelled, forcing McGoohan to write the final episode in only a few days.[13]

The Prisoner premiered on 29 September 1967 on ATV Midlands and the last episode first aired on 1 February 1968 on Scottish Television.[3] The world broadcast premiere was on the CTV Television Network in Canada on 5 September 1967.[20]

Filming locations

Panoramic view of the central piazza, Portmeirion Village

The exteriors for the series were primarily filmed in Portmeirion village near Porthmadog, North Wales, the location that partially inspired the show,[21] At the request of Portmeirion's architect Clough Williams-Ellis, the main location for the series was not disclosed until the opening credits of the last episode. The Village setting was further augmented by the use of the backlot facilities at MGM-British Studios in Borehamwood.

Additionally, filming of a key sequence of the opening credits, and exterior location filming for three episodes, took place at 1 Buckingham Place in London, which at the time was a private residence and doubled as No. 6's home.[22] The building still exists today as a highlight of Prisoner location tours and currently houses the headquarters of the Royal Warrant Holders Association.[23] The episodes "Many Happy Returns", "The Girl Who Was Death" (the cricket match for which was filmed at Meopham Green in Kent) and "Fall Out" also made use of extensive location shooting in London and other locations.


Alternative ending

According to author James Follett, a protégé of Prisoner co-creator George Markstein, Markstein had mapped out an explanation for the Village.[24] In George Markstein's mind, a young John Drake, the lead character in the television series Danger Man, had once submitted a proposal for how to deal with retired secret agents who posed a security risk. Drake's idea was to create a comfortable retirement centre where former agents could live out their final years, enduring firm but unintrusive surveillance.

Years later, Drake discovered that his idea had been put into practice, and not as a benign means of retirement, but instead as an interrogation centre and a prison camp. Outraged, Drake staged his own resignation, knowing he would be brought to the Village. He hoped to learn everything he could of how his idea had been implemented, and find a way to destroy it. However, due to the range of nationalities and agents present in the Village, Drake realised he was not sure whose Village he was in – the one brought about by his own people, or by the other side. Drake's conception of the Village would have been the foundation of declaring him to be "Number One." However, Markstein's falling out with McGoohan resulted in Markstein's departure, and his story arc was discarded.

According to Markstein: "Well, 'Who is No.6?" is no mystery – he was a secret agent called Drake who quit." The "matter of conscience" which motivated his resignation could then easily be interpreted as Drake having had enough top-secret information in his mind – and at his disposal – to start a war, and that, coupled with his long-standing desire to keep the peace, would have meant that he could not even trust his own government with it any longer.

Markstein added: "The Prisoner was going to leave the Village and he was going to have adventures in many parts of the world, but ultimately he would always be a prisoner. By that I don't mean he would always go back to the Village. He would always be a prisoner of his circumstances, his situation, his secret, his background ... and 'they' would always be there to ensure that his captivity continues."[25]

Opening and closing sequences

The opening and closing sequences of The Prisoner have become iconic. Cited as "one of the great set-ups of genre drama",[26] the opening sequence establishes the Orwellian and postmodern themes of the series;[27] its high production values have led the opening sequence to be described as more like film than television.[28]


Actors who played the same role in more than one episode are:

Home video

The first home video editions of The Prisoner appeared in the 1980s. In North America, MPI Home Video released a series of 20 VHS tapes covering the series: one for each of the 17 episodes and three more containing "The Alternate Version of 'The Chimes of Big Ben'", a documentary, and a "best of" retrospective. In the 1990s the first DVD release of the series occurred in North America/Region 1, with A&E Home Video releasing the series in four-episode sets and a full 10-disc "megabox" edition in the early 2000s; A&E subsequently reissued the megabox in a 40th anniversary edition in 2007. The A&E issue included "The Alternate Version of 'The Chimes of Big Ben'" and the MPI-produced documentary (but not the redundant "best of" retrospective) among its limited special features.

Numerous editions of The Prisoner were, meanwhile, released in the UK/Region 2 by companies such as Carlton. These editions differed from the Region 1 release in their special features, including one release that included a recently discovered alternative version of "Arrival".

The Prisoner: The Complete Series was released on Blu-ray Disc in the United Kingdom on 28 September 2009,[29] following in North America on 27 October.[30] The episodes were restored by Network DVD to create new high-definition masters,[31] of which standard-definition versions were used for The Prisoner: 40th Anniversary Special Edition DVD boxset released in 2007.[32] The US edition, once again by A&E Home Video, includes the first North American release of an alternative edit of "Arrival" (in high definition), as well as "The Alternate Version of 'The Chimes of Big Ben'" from the earlier DVD/VHS releases (in standard definition due to the degraded source material) and assorted documentaries and behind-the-scenes footage.

In other media

In 2009, Christopher Nolan was widely reported to be considering a film version,[33] but later dropped out of the project. At the time, the produce of the planned film, Barry Mendel, stated they were waiting to see on the success of the television mini-series before moving forward with the film.[34]

Theatrical Production: Magic Number Six

In October 2012 Magic Number Six, a one-act play portraying the behind-the-scenes relationship between Patrick McGoohan and Lew Grade before and during the production of The Prisoner debuted in Leicester as part of The Little Theatre's One-Act Festival, running for four performances.[35] Written by playwright Paul Gosling, a graduate of De Montfort University's Cinema and Television History Centre (C.A.T.H.) and directed by Carolos Dandolo, the play was set in Grade's office in 1966-67 and starred Rob Leeson as McGoohan, Colin Woods as Grade and Karen Gordon as Grade's fictional P.A., Miss Cartwright.[36] Following positive fan reaction,[37] the production was performed a further eight times in 2013, in Leicester, Portmeirion and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. At Edfringe the part of Miss Cartwright was shared between Karen Gordon and actress, Tracey Gee. A film screenplay of Magic Number Six is currently in development.

Audio dramas

On 5 January 2015, Big Finish Productions, best known for its long-running series of BBC-licensed audio dramas based upon Doctor Who, announced it will be producing licensed audio dramas based upon The Prisoner, with the first scheduled for release in 2016.[38]


  • Six into One: The Prisoner File (1984, 45 minutes) docudrama presented by Channel 4 after a repeat of the series in the UK. With its central premise to establish a reason why Number 6 resigned, the presentation revolved around a new Number 2 communicating with staff (and Number 1). It reviewed scenes from Danger Man and The Prisoner, incorporated interviews with cast members (including McGoohan) and fans, and addressed the political environment giving rise to the series and McGoohan's heavy workload.
  • The Prisoner Video Companion (1990, 48 minutes) American production with clips, including a few from Danger Man, and voice-over narration discussing origins, interpretations, meaning, symbolism, etc., in a format modelled on the 1988 Warner book, The Official Prisoner Companion by Matthew White and Jaffer Ali.[39] It was released to DVD in the early 2000s as a bonus feature with A&E's release of The Prisoner series. MPI also issued The Best of The Prisoner, a video of series excerpts.
  • Don't Knock Yourself Out (2007, 95 minutes) documentary issued as part of Network's 40th Anniversary DVD set, featuring interviews with around 25 cast and crew members. The documentary received a separate DVD release, featuring an extended cut, in November 2007 accompanied by a featurette, "Make Sure It Fits", regarding Eric Mival's music editing for the series.



A remake miniseries, in the works since 2005,[40] premiered on 15 November 2009 on American cable TV channel AMC, made in cooperation with British broadcaster ITV after AMCs original production partner Sky1 had pulled out.[41][42][43] On 25 April 2008, ITV announced that the new series would go into production, and in June 2008, that American actor Jim Caviezel would star in the role of Number 6, with Ian McKellen taking on the role of Number 2 in all six episodes.[44][45][46] In May 2009 the shooting for the new series was completed with significant plot changes from the original television storyline. The new Village is located in a desert tropical area instead of Wales, with location filming taking place in Namibia and South Africa. The six part series premiered in the UK on 17 April 2010.

Awards and honours

  • The final episode, "Fall Out", received a Hugo Award nomination for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1969, but lost out to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
  • In 2002, the series won the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award.
  • In 2004 and 2007, it was ranked No. 7 on TV Guide's Top Cult Shows Ever.[47]
  • In 2001, TV Guide listed "Fall Out" as the 55th Greatest TV Episode of All Time.[48]
  • In 2005, readers of SFX magazine awarded the series fifth place in a poll of British fantasy and science fiction television programs.
  • A 2006 survey of leading rock and film stars by Uncut magazine ranking films, books, music or TV shows that changed the world, placed The Prisoner at No. 10, the highest for a TV show.

See also


  1. ^ The Prisoner, Original Soundtrack - 3 disc set - Network
  2. ^ a b
  3. ^ a b
  4. ^ a b c
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ "The Baron To Replace Danger Man" by Nan Musgrove The Australian Women's Weekly Wednesday 3 August 1966 Page 19
  8. ^ Rick DuBrow Television Today "The Prisoner" The Cedar Rapids Gazette: Tue 4 June 1968 pg. 10
  9. ^ (subscription required)
  10. ^ a b c d
  11. ^ a b
  12. ^ Fairclough Robert, The Prisoner: Original Scripts Vol.1 pp. 9–10
  13. ^ a b c d
  14. ^ Specifically, McGoohan wrote "Free for All" using the pen name "Paddy Fitz" (Paddy being the Irish diminutive for Patrick and Fitzpatrick being his mother's maiden name) and directed "Many Happy Returns" and "A Change of Mind" using the stage name "Joseph Serf." He wrote and directed the last two episodes — "Once Upon a Time" and "Fall Out" — and directed "Free for All" under his own name.
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^ Toronto Star, 5 September 1967, p.22
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^
  28. ^
  29. ^
  30. ^
  31. ^ Archived 31 October 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  32. ^
  33. ^
  34. ^
  35. ^
  36. ^
  37. ^
  38. ^
  39. ^ It was released in 1990 by MPI Home Video, then the licensed label for both/all three series in the USA. The copyright notice (the only credit) is ascribed to Maljack Productions, apparently the real company behind the name MPI. Jackson v. MPI Home Video
  40. ^ It was announced in late 2005 that Granada would revive the series for Sky1 in 2007. The PrisonerBBC News: Remake for cult show Christopher Eccleston was initially rumoured to be considered for the title role, and it was reported that the series would be titled Number Six instead of The Prisoner.
  41. ^ In December 2006, The Hollywood Reporter reported that AMC was co-producing The Prisoner with Sky1, and that it would run at least six to eight episodes, beginning in January 2008 (both in the UK and USA).The PrisonerICv2 News—AMC Remaking
  42. ^ In May 2007 it was reported that Sky One had pulled out of the re-make due to a disagreement with their AMC. In August 2007, Richard Woolfe, head of Sky One, stated: The Prisoner is not happening. It's a very quintessentially British drama and there were too many creative differences trying to share it with an American partner. I didn't want to be responsible for taking something that is quintessentially British and adapting it in a way that I didn't feel was reflective of the way people would remember it and the way people would want it to be. So we called time on that.Digital Spy: Q & A with Sky One head Richard Woolfe
  43. ^ In October 2007, British broadcaster ITV stepped in to replace Sky One as co-producer with AMC. remakePrisonerITV to step in and save .
  44. ^
  45. ^
  46. ^
  47. ^
  48. ^


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