Cloistered with The Prisoner

“The Prisoner” [a 2009 remake of the classic British cult-show] “will retain a retro 60s charm, while presenting us with technology far beyond what we have today.”

    – recent reporting on, a site “dedicated to genre films and all things post-apocalyptic.”

Analysis: I spent the long weekend after Christmas a bit bifurcated — alternately singing in my church choir and then feeling as if I’d wandered into an LSD-fueled Fellini film about the psychological hall-of-mirrors world of counter-espionage.

The choir action at our historic little country church, where George Washington’s mother used to attend regularly, was intense because of the holidays of course, with two services on Christmas Eve, another on Christmas Day, and then again Sunday.  I’m no great singer, but in a little country church you don’t have to be.

The rest of the fun was my personal immersion in a marathon viewing of all the original episodes of that quirky and iconic 1960s  cult–spy-classic TV series “The Prisoner.”  Major freak-out!

Photo from

Patrick McGoohan as Number Six (photo:

 It was all due to one of my Christmas gifts, from noted San Francisco artist David Normal, who gave me the 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition boxed set of the original Prisoner episodes. If you’re interested in the deep-dive yourself, you can find the set here on Amazon

If you’re not familiar with the show, it might be hard to understand its essence. The entertainment site laconically summarizes it this way: “After resigning, a secret agent is abducted and taken to what looks like an idyllic village, but is really a bizarre prison. His warders demand information. He gives them nothing, but only tries to escape.”

That covers it, but doesn’t do justice to what the British Film Institute has called “TV’s most cultish series… a symbolic battle against faceless state power.” And there’s this:

The series has attained cult status because it is so complex, so filled with symbolism, with dialogue and action working at several levels of meaning, that the entire story remains open to multiple interpretations.”  – The Museum of Broadcast Communications

For me a big part of the appeal when I first watched the series was the espionage context, or counter-espionage really. It went beyond any of the spy genre entertainment I was enjoying as a kid in the 1960s – Ian Fleming’s Bond novels (handed down by my brother, more of a fan than I was), or the schlocky TV stuff like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Get Smart. 

I loved Patrick McGoohan in the show he did before The Prisoner, “Danger Man” — that was the U.K. name of the series, but in the U.S. it was “Secret Agent” with the all-time-greatest theme song “Secret Agent Man” by Johnny Rivers.

I grew into reading John LeCarre novels, and at 15 had my eyes opened even more by reading the true (or true enough) stories in Victor Marchetti’s The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence  and Miles Copeland’s excellent Without Cloak or Dagger : The Truth about the New Espionage, both nonfiction histories, the latter much more charitable toward the Agency’s record.

Growing up that way fostered a long-dormant desire to spend some time in that business, which I eventually did after 9/11. But nothing I worked on was as demented or convoluted as The Prisoner. 

This weekend’s marathon stint of viewing all 17 episodes, several of which I had never seen, brought home just how odd and perverted the spy game can seem, though the series isn’t really about espionage, no more than Animal Farm is about agriculture.  It’s about the abuse of state power, about authoritarianism, and warning of the same political dystopia portrayed in Orwell’s 1984: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face – forever.”

The timing of David’s gift to me was perfect, because of the remake on its way in 2009. Most remakes of great films or TV series are horrible, we all know that.  Yet there’s reason to hope the new Prisoner will be different: it stars Ian McKellen and Jim Cazaviel, and the preliminary things I’ve read about its writing and filming sound intriguing (see sci-fi fan site for example).

The producers are working hard to engender new cultish appeal, I think smartly. If you enjoy puzzles, you’ll enjoy checking out the “engineered-to-be-viral” website targeting the same type of crowd that was interested in the original series.  It’s at (screenshot above). Be aware that the Flash takes a while to load, but it’s worth it, I like the style of the site.

And there’s the “official” production blog, which has been posting videos from the sets in South Africa and England. In one, the stars speak:

Sir Ian McKellen [the new Number Two]: A message to supporters and admirers of the original would be, watch the finished product. I think it’s going to be the most talked-about TV for a long time.

Jim Caviezel [who plays Number Six in the new series]: My message would be, to those who are watching this [interview], is that it’s very allegorical, as the old Prisoner was to the Cold War, this is to our time.  


As I watched the old episodes, I couldn’t help making contemporaneous observations, things relevant to today. For example, I couldn’t help thinking about the extraordinary 2008 presidential campaign while watching the episode “Free for All,” which finds an election campaign going on in The Village. The episode also skewers political journalism and pseudo-democracies, very smartly.

No. 2: “Are you going to run?”

No. 6: “Like blazes, the first chance I get.”

No. 2: “I meant for office.”

No. 6: “Whose?”

No. 2:  “Mine for instance.”

[Later the two appear together as opponents, before a choreographed election crowd being prompted with cue-card signs saying “Ra Ra Ra” and “Progress Progress Progress”]

No. 2 addresses the crowd:  “You and I are fortunate to have with us a recent recruit, whose outlook is particularly militant, and individualistic…. My good people, it is my pleasure to introduce to you, the one and only Number 6.”

No. 6 responds angrily, roaring through a loudspeaker: “I am not a number. I am a person!” 

[The crowd bursts into uproarious laughter.]

No. 6: “Unlike me, many of you have accepted the situation of your imprisonment, and will die here like rotten cabbages!”

[The crowd stands in stony silence.]

No. 2 leans over and whispers to No. 6: “Keep going, they love it.”


I hope the new series is just as clever.

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5 Responses

  1. I was sorely tempted to get that for myself for Christmas. This may sound odd, but ultimately what I found most disturbing was the font they used on signs, tins of vegetables, and the like.

    I have said for years now that Disney is the modern version of The Village. Complete surveillance and controlled environment designed to elicit a controlled reaction.


  2. Heather – I know what you mean about that font, which was a derivative of “Albertus.” Well, guess what – turns out that you can actually download and install the Village font yourself, at one of the sites I mentioned in the post! Now you can really creep yourself out!

    Also, I agree with you on the Disney comment. I very much get that feeling everytime I go to a conference at Orlando’s Walt Disney Swan or Dolphin hotels… that very same overly-engineered, pseudo-Village environment. I’ll get a slice of pizza from a generic vendor, sit on the generic boardwalk, and watch people ride by in the small cars which are very reminiscent of the Prisoner… Very odd 🙂


  3. I gave Prisoner DVD box set as a gift a couple of years ago. Great show, indeed strange. “I am number one. You are number six!”


  4. Jesus as the new No.6? Interesting casting choice in picking Jim Caviezel. Can’t say I’m a fan.

    Now Gandolf as No. 2? Rockin’ good pick!!


  5. I was killing myself laughing at your Twitter posts re playing Scrabble; then found this blog entry. Sounds like a wonderful way to spend a long weekend. I once spent a three-day Thanksgiving weekend listening to all nine of the Stax/Volt singles (Volume 1).

    I’m not usually a big fan of remakes (why did we need John Goodman playing Fred Flintstone or Glenn Close in 101 Dalmations Part XVIX?) because I know there are brilliant, original writers and works out there being ignored while Hollywood goes for the tried and true moneymaker yet again.

    But I like the sounds of this one. And am trying not to giggle too hard at Sir Ian’s wild and crazy bedhead. 🙂


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