The Prisoner


Rating 2¾

Directed by Nick Hurran

Written by Bill Gallagher

Episodes: (1) Arrival; (2) Harmony; (3) Anvil; (4) Darling; (5) Schizoid; (6) Checkmate

Starring James Caviezel (6), Ian McKellen (2), Ruth Wilson (313), Hayley Atwell (4-15), Lennie James (147), Jamie Campbell Bower (11-12) and Rachael Blake (M2)

A man wakes up in the desert, not knowing how he got there. He is caught in the middle of a chase, as an old man is pursued. The old man dies and the stranger buries the body before wandering into a strange isolated village where all the inhabitants are known by numbers. He is 6 and the outwardly benign leader is 2. The other inhabitants act as though nothing exists outside the village, although some dream of other places. 6 is now trapped in a surreal nightmare, intent on escaping the village, showing that there is a world outside and proving that he is a free man.


The original television series ‘The Prisoner’ was co-created and produced by Patrick McGoohan, an American-born actor who had become a star in Britain during the 1960s in ‘Danger Man’ (renamed ‘Secret Agent’ in the US). McGoohan, who starred in ‘The Prisoner’ as Number 6, also wrote and directed some of the seventeen episodes, which were broadcast by ITV between 29 September 1967 and 1 February 1968. Although the series mystified many when it was first shown, it quickly established a cult following that remains as strong as ever some forty-plus years later and it ultimately had a sizeable impact on other television series and popular culture in general.

Fans of the series continue to make the pilgrimage to Portmeirion, the small resort village in Wales where the location filming took place. They continue to discuss and debate the meaning behind the seventeen episodes and even debate the correct order in which those seventeen episodes should be watched.

The 2009 remake, co-produced by ITV with the American cable network AMC, was always destined to be contentious and face angry criticism. Writing about it in The Guardian newspaper, James Donaghy suggested that, “It struggles from the outset to get past its own futility and never gets close to making it. Too timid to take risks with the story and with nothing substantial to add to the Prisoner canon it feels like a cheap knockoff.” He goes on to write, “Still, in a turbulent world it’s comforting to know that some things remain constant. ITV retains its uncanny knack of doing the dumb thing whenever it counts.”

I was vaguely aware that a remake of ‘The Prisoner’ was on the cards. What I didn’t know was it had actually been made and already broadcast some several months earlier on the AMC network in America. When a friend mentioned to me that it was about to be shown on ITV my initial reaction was negative. I very much doubted that a remake would compare at all favourably to the original, a peculiar and unique aberration that at one time I might have called my favourite television series ever. I had no plans to watch it, but curiosity got the better of me.

The opening episode, entitled ‘Arrival’, as was the opening episode of the original series, did not bode well. I wasn’t convinced by the change from a rocky coastal setting to the desert. I didn’t like the look of the village. I thought the use of old vehicles, all of which I remembered from my childhood, was too much a quaint artifice, although I was rather taken by the Renault Dauphine used as a taxi by the character 147 – and the presence of Lennie James, the actor who plays 147, bucked me up a little because I liked him in ‘Jericho’. I was a little worried that Ian McKellen was going to give a rather hammy performance, one that seemed to be pitched somewhere between ‘Brideshead Revisited’, ‘Gods and Monsters’ (a film in which McKellen starred) and a Merchant-Ivory production. My main gripe, though, was James Caviezel in the lead role. I didn’t like his performance at all. However, this opening episode did enough to persuade me to carry on watching.

There are six episodes in total (a clue in itself, I guess) and I think this is just about right. It allows the story to be told, but it doesn’t outstay its welcome. I got used to Caviezel in subsequent episodes and Ian McKellen proved to be fabulous. I also got used to the setting, even if it is no match for the original.

Although I did find some episodes slightly tedious in places, I was always quite intrigued to find out where the story was leading and what the conclusion would be. The fact I knew I would only have to wait for six episodes helped enormously. In the end, the explanation of the strange events that had unfolded was surprisingly satisfactory and retained the flavour of the original – the idea that we are all prisoners of our own minds. I ended up liking it, even if to all intents and purposes this remake has been rather made redundant by the recently concluded ‘Lost’.

The iconic theme music from the original, composed by Ron Grainger of ‘Doctor Who’ fame, is gone. The penny-farthing crops up a couple of times. The catchphrase “Be seeing you!” is changed here to “I’ll be seeing you,” which doesn’t particularly work for me. Noticeably missing is “I am not a number, I am a free man!” and the question “Who is Number 1?” with it ambiguous answer, “You are Number 6,” (or “You are, Number 6.”). Instead, we get the altogether less intriguing mantra, “Number 6 is the one.”

The new series does not slavishly follow the storyline of the original, but instead takes the basic theme and creates something that is very similar, but not quite the same. It perhaps suffers because it comes at a time when we seem to be apathetic bystanders, disinterestedly watching as our civil liberties are gradually eroded, whereas the original was the product of a time when more and more people were standing up their rights and demanding more freedom. The difference, of course, is that for many of us those freedoms were granted, to some degree or other, and we don’t have much to fight against any longer, the very thing that has allowed the erosion of human rights to take place. I live in a country that shouts loudly about its adherence to and defence of democracy, but whose security services have routinely participated in torture, with, it surely appears, the knowledge and hidden authority of the government of the day. I feel tremendous anger about it, but I still sit back, my own freedom not obviously affected, but still insidiously chipped away by the appalling times I live in.

‘The Prisoner’ received a mixed reaction from television critics. Metacritic gives it a rating of 46/100, based on 21 collected reviews.

Review posted 24 May 2010


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