50 years on, secrets of The Prisoner are finally revealed
New documentary In My Mind features never-before-seen interviews with the series' famously guarded star and showrunner Patrick McGoohan
In the autumn of 1967, Patrick McGoohan unleashed his magnum opus on an unsuspecting world. Over 17 episodes, The Prisoner teased, enchanted, challenged and even angered its audience, leading to a switchboard meltdown after its controversial conclusion.
It told the story of Number Six (McGoohan), held captive in an Italianate setting known only as The Village, and the attempts by unnamed interrogators to “break” Six by making him explain why he’d resigned from his covert job.
Though The Village may look idyllic there can be no escape: anyone who attempts it is squashed by giant, white, balloon-like “Rovers”.
But who is in charge of the operation? Who, in other words, is Number One? (For those who’ve yet to see the show, it’s worth preserving that particular surprise – and it’s a good one.)
The Prisoner’s iconography of blazers and deck shoes, ball chairs and penny farthings is familiar the world over, while its themes of liberty and individuality are more relevant than ever in today’s world of digital footprints and CCTV.
With elements of spy fiction and action adventure, the heavily allegorical series touched on science, politics, psychology and even the Wild West, and also made a star of its colourful and eccentric location: Portmeirion in north Wales.
For 50 years the series has been celebrated, discussed and pored over, and answers have been continually sought to some of its more perplexing puzzles set by the American-born Anglo-Irish McGoohan. And now, In My Mind, a compelling documentary containing interviews with its famously guarded star and showrunner, aims to do just that.
In My Mind’s writer and director Chris Rodley tells Radio Times, “The Prisoner was a game changer in television, even at a time when the game seemed to be changing across all of culture – particularly in Britain – every day! Whatever you think about it, much of what we’ve seen and apparently loved on television ever since has been influenced by it. Just ask the creators of shows such as Lost.
“But for me, it’s important because it shows how you can talk about important issues but in a way that isn’t hectoring or worthy.”
Rodley’s feature-length documentary contains glorious behind-the-scenes footage from 1966, insights from Catherine McGoohan, daughter of Patrick, and never-before-seen intervews with the man himself, who died in 2009.
A huge fan of the show, Rodley managed to persuade its driving force to be interviewed in 1983 for a Channel 4 documentary. Visiting McGoohan in California, Rodley found him tetchy and apparently anxious but those first Q&A sessions are highly revealing, and are screened for the very first time on In My Mind.
Recalling those first encounters, Rodley says, “He thought that the British public was still angry and unforgiving about the way he had ended the series. I think he thought there was a lot at stake, so he couldn’t relax. I think he also sensed that we weren’t at the top of our game as a crew/interviewer/director, which made him even more nervous. But mostly I think he didn’t really want to do it but had, in a moment of weakness maybe, agreed. And he was a man of his word.”
Flying to Paris to show Patrick a cut of that original Channel 4 doc, Rodley says: “He hated it so much that he yelled at us the entire day in various cafés across the city.”
LA-based actress Catherine McGoohan tells Radio Times, “My father always believed, ‘The work speaks for itself. Don’t give everything away. Leave the audience wanting more.’ He hated giving interviews.” In any case, she adds, “The success and longevity of the series is partly to do with it’s mystique and many unanswered questions.”
The Prisoner evolved from Danger Man, a successful if conventional spy caper that starred McGoohan from 1962–8. Bored of the increasingly Bond-like nature of that series, he concocted something distinctly different in collaboration with script editor George Markstein and director/producer David Tomblin.
Would The Prisoner get made today? Rodley is unequivocal. “No. Just look at the mediocrities commissioning and running television these days. Name me one who is a truly charismatic, instinctual, risk-taking personality. In fact, just a 'personality' would suffice. Let me know if you come up with anyone.”
He adds, “The BBC show W1A isn’t a kind of postmodern sitcom. It’s an observational documentary.”
Catherine agrees that her father’s project “would never happen today. He had a vision and an opportunity to share it. He was given total creative freedom to do so.”
One thing In My Mind makes clear is the huge contribution of TV impresario Lew Grade. Rodley confirms: “Lew Grade is the main reason The Prisoner happened. His total admiration of McGoohan as an artist and personality was enough to green-light what must have sounded – at least on some levels – a risky project.
“If ever there was an individual in the entertainment business at that time that put his money where his mouth was and had a sense of life beyond that business, it was Lew.”
Another factor that was vital to the show was Portmeirion itself. “They are inextricably linked in a way no other TV series or even film is,” says Rodley.
“God knows what would have happened if McGoohan hadn’t stumbled on it. My guess is that maybe the series would never have gotten off the drawing board.”
Catherine McGoohan was 14 when she first visited the Welsh resort with her father. “I remember Portmeirion exactly how it is today. Time has stood still in ‘The Village’. We did not stay on for the filming; it was life as usual. I knew there was great anticipation, but nobody could have predicted the impact the series has had.”
So what kind of father was Patrick to Catherine and her two younger sisters? “He definitely elevated our lives,” says Catherine, 65. “He saw the world differently than most people and we grew up with those ideas. As I've gotten older I realise how much he's influenced who I am. He was an awesome father.”
In My Mind is full of astounding moments: the very personal nature of some of the plot minutiae; a bizarre world planned down to the last detail; McGoohan’s anger in one other interview for Canadian TV in 1977; and the intense, claustrophobic shoot with guest star Leo McKern for the episode Once upon a Time – Patrick (and Catherine) McGoohan’s favourite.
But just hearing Patrick give any explanation at all for The Prisoner is remarkable. And in the documentary he says, “The general theme has been with me for years, since I was a little boy, brought up in a very strict religious household, going to school with strict schoolmasters.
“The individual little boy – any little boy – up against this sort of pressure and the slight isolation in it... That’s what the theme of The Prisoner is, the individual in revolt against bureaucracy. That sort of rebellion is in everyone, isn’t it, in one way or another?”
So why does this classic piece of television still intrigue, 50 years after it first aired on ITV? “It touches a chord, a piece of our humanity, and causes us to question,” says Patrick’s proud daughter. “He gave us this timeless and unique gift to enlighten the spirit within us.”
Chris Rodley thinks McGoohan would be pleased with The Prisoner looking better than ever in restored versions for Blu-ray and DVD – the show clips and specially shot drone footage of Portmeirion on In My Mind look stunning. Rodley adds, “If they have any HD televisions in Heaven, McGoohan can see it and probably get angry with me all over again. That is, if he hasn’t managed to escape. Bless him.”
In My Mind is being screened at the BFI on 25 November and is available on DVD and Blu-ray, and as part of a new 50th anniversary edition box set, all available from Network on 30 October