TV Cream

TV: P is for...

Prisoner, The

"Lew? I need another ten dozen lava lamps - and quick about it"McGoohan gets brainwashed for the fifty-ninth time before the first commercial breakMan drives very fast into an underground car park, hands his notice in to a bloke in a cupboard, packs his bags for Hawaii, gets gassed, wakes up stuck in a Italianate tourist attraction, gains the appellation Number Six, dons a monochrome Joe Maplin’s jacket and spends 17 episodes doing an allegory of civilisation replete with discomfited weather balloons and a “row of cabbages”, aka lots of extras in stripey tops. Cooked up by PATRICK MCGOOHAN with producer DAVID TOMBLIN and script editor GEORGE MARKSTEIN. Sold to Lew Grade on the back of a cigar packet between 6.30 and 6.40am one Friday morning in spring 1966. A month of location work at Portmerion in North Wales in the autumn (largely McGoohan bawling at the cabbages or looking narrow-eyed into the middle distance or bawling at the cabbages while looking narrow-eyed and having spasms) was followed by a whopping 15 months of studio stuff at MGM. Original seven episode concept got hiked by Lord Lew to 13 then to 26 then down to 17. Fantastic “I am not a number” title sequence came replete with who’s-the-Number-Two-this-week? revelation, giving the likes of ANTON RODGERS, PATRICK CARGILL, CLIFFORD EVANS, KENNETH GRIFFITH, LEO MCKERN, MARY MORRIS, PETER WYNGARDE and ERIC PORTMAN a turn in the giant bubble chair. McGoohan: “I need a penny-farthing, mini-mokes, giant computers with wheels rotating one way then the other, Fenella Fielding to be Gladys Pugh, a mammoth chessboard you can walk on and the Albertus font without any dots on the i or j.” Lew: “Great!” One year later: McGoohan “I don’t have an ending”. Lew: “Great!” Best episodes: The Schizoid Man (two Patrick McGoohans!), Many Happy Returns (they let the Prisoner escape just to spite him), Hammer Into Anvil (the Prisoner wins), The Girl Who Was Death (McGoohan does the Avengers, only better), Free For All (the cabbages fight back) and A, B and C (the Prisoner dreams of Peter Bowles). Worst episodes: It’s Your Funeral (the Prisoner saves a wimpish Number Two), The General (education is bad!), Living In Harmony (look – it’s a Western!), A Change of Mind (the Prisoner gets a pretend lobotomy), Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling (McGoohan skives off) and Once Upon A Time (McGoohan kills Leo McKern with long words). Finale contained some great bits but a hell of a lot of crappy, let-it-all-hang-out, make-you-own-mind-up laziness, including the unmasking of Number One as a gorilla/McGoohan, a space rocket taking off, Dem Bones, All You Need Is Love and McGoohan, McKern, the titchy butler and Alexis Kanner jiving on the back of a lorry. Dazzling, maddening, inspiring, depressing, iconic, moronic and unique, everyone who cares about good and bad telly should watch the Prisoner all the way through at least once. Be seeing you.

Allegory alert! Patrick courts the cabbage vote "Six!" "Five!" "Six!" "Five!" "Six!" "Five!" "Six!" "Five!" etc. for ten fucking minutes


  1. Moor Larkin

    September 4, 2009 at 12:17 am

    Actually Grade was reading a cigar packet whilst McGoohan laboriously explicated his detailed ideas. Grade didn’t need to read or know anything much because so long as McGoohan was in it, Grade knew he would more than recoup his investments………….. In 1966 McGoohan was TV Cream. People would have tuned in just to watch him smoke a cigar.

  2. lump516

    September 5, 2009 at 6:52 am

    I spent the entire summer of 1968 sitting on the end of my parents’ bed watching this thing (or at least MOST of it, I actually went on vacation for a few weeks) and trying to figure out what the HELL was going on. I figured at the time it was a matter of being six years old. But my dad was 38 at the time and HE didn’t know what the hell was going on either. And when we watched the whole thing over again in the early 80’s, it STILL didn’t make much sense. A lot of fun, though. I suspect that either McGoohan or Lord Grade were smoking something other than a cigar when this show was approved. At least I hope so . . .

  3. Paul

    October 28, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    How to kill off John Drake once and for all.

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