Patrick McGoohan was the highest paid television actor in the world when,
in 1966, he walked away from his wildly popular series "Danger Man" ("Secret
Agent" in the U.S.) to pursue a new project. Called “The Prisoner,” he envisioned
it as a seven-episode story arc about a former spy held captive in a mysterious
prison complex called the Village. Sir Lew Grade, legendary head of ITC
Television, OK’d the idea, with the stipulation that a full series be made (to facilitate
worldwide distribution deals). McGoohan got to work, and eventually 17 episodes
of “The Prisoner” aired in 1967 (1968 in the U.S.).
From the beginning it was like nothing television had ever seen before. The
opening credits lay out the incredible premise: McGoohan, looking tense and
angry, drives a custom-built Lotus 7 to the underground headquarters of his
employers (presumably British Intelligence). He turns in a handwritten letter of
resignation, setting off a chain of events in which his official ID is eradicated and
dropped in a bank of file cabinets. Meanwhile, he returns to his flat; we see him
packing for an unknown destination. Outside, a mysterious black car pulls up to
the curb; moments later, gas fills his living room; he collapses, unconscious.
Upon awakening, still in his living room, McGoohan’s character is disoriented.
He creeps to the window and opens the blinds. The familiar London skyline has
disappeared; in its place is an incongruously cheery resort town, an architectural
playground on the coast of an unknown ocean. McGoohan – whose character we
never know by any name other than Number 6 – has been transported to this place
and installed in a tidy cottage meticulously copied from his own flat.
Who are his captors? The question is left tantalizingly ambiguous throughout
the series. What do they want? Their standard answer: “We want information.”
Specifically, they want to know why he resigned – information the Prisoner stubbornly
refuses to give out. “I want to mind my own business,” he snarls, but the business of
the Village, as his prison is known, is information: protecting it and extracting it, by
any means necessary. The Village masters wage a systematic campaign to get
at the knowledge in our hero’s head. Do they want to break him or convert him?
They use various methods of physical, psychological and pharmaceutical torture,
but are constrained by a directive from a never-seen superior: “Musn’t damage the
There are no names in the Village. “For administrative purposes, everyone
has a number. Yours is Number 6.” That includes the ever-changing string of
Chief Bureaucrats, known collectively as Number 2. Number 6 resists this and
other assaults on his individuality. In some episodes he achieves limited success
– limited, of course, by his failure to escape the sunny confines of the Village itself.
In other episodes, he is defeated, sometimes brutally, by his captors. Almost
unheard-of for a television series at the time, in "The Prisoner," the hero does not
always win in the end.
"The Prisoner" was a visually striking production, even for the psychedelic
Sixties. From the brightly colored uniforms of the Village “citizens” to innovative
quick-cut editing techniques, the look of the show was dynamic, edgy, and
arresting. McGoohan was involved in every aspect of the show – he was known
to be nearly obsessive in his attention to detail – and the result is a highly cohesive
vision of a nightmare society in which technology and mysticism work hand in hand
to erode the ideals of freedom, individuality, and the right to be left alone.