Appraising television’s ultimate masterpiece – The Prisoner

While the medium of television has produced the full range of shows along the quality spectrum in the many years it has been with us, from the outstanding to the truly appalling, there is one piece of work which, to therockandrollguy.com, exists in a hallowed place all of its own.

The Prisoner is the show I’m talking about.

Can one really have a favourite among the plethora of great entertainment on offer from TV land?

Perhaps it would be better to be objective about these things and when I start considering the general TV series (or serial) as a medium, it is true that it becomes difficult to separate shows out into an ‘order’ of preference or greatness… but The Prisoner, as ever, remains the exception.

Why is this?

There are many reasons.

Too many, probably, to explain in one blog entry.

The most remarkable thing about The Prisoner has to be the fact that it is largely the creative vision of one person.

I say ‘largely’ because opinion varies as to exactly how much of the ‘serial’ (as he liked to describe it) was all Patrick McGoohan’s.

The input of George Markstein cannot be ignored, but I in turn cannot possibly say with any certainty how much of the show’s premise or content is attributable to either of these characters.

I think it is pretty safe to say that as production of the show went on, McGoohan’s influence and input certainly increased.

McGoohan’s preoccupation with some of the show’s major themes can be detected throughout his earlier work.

He thrived at portraying outsiders, rebels and non-conformists.

His performance in Brand is often cited as one his best and this I will not deny.

I would simply point out that pretty much everything I’ve ever seen him in, whether good, not so good or indifferent, has always benefitted from his presence.

He’s an actor who never compromised in his performance and as such brought an unmistakable touch of class to everything he was in.

Few leading men were capable of successfully conveying such intensity on the small screen.

The only other from a similar era I can think of off-hand was Edward Woodward.

Both men could play controlled anger and both were galvanizing when that anger boiled over into rage, but they never went overboard.

That was the secret of their ‘edge’.

McGoohan was a class-act and a man of strict principle to boot, which is why we never saw him portray Bond, though he would certainly have been able to do it.

It goes without saying that he would have had no problem handling the action scenes and would easily have been able to add brooding depth to the character, but he just wasn’t interested in the promiscuity demanded by the role.

There is no sex, swearing, nudity or seediness of any kind in The Prisoner, implied or explicit.

True, there is some violence, though the depiction is tame by today’s standards and there are some drug references, but not in a ‘recreational’ sense.

What starts out as a seemingly straightforward espionage yarn apparently carrying on the thread from Danger Man (McGoohan’s previous show, also outstanding), soon becomes much, much more.

You’re not watching what you think you’re watching, with the drama on one level slowly giving way to a far more complicated, allegorical journey into the mind, the nature of society, freedom, reality, conformity, progress, thought and individualism.

And these are just a few themes.

I’ve been watching The Prisoner for decades and every time there’s a new meaning, like all great art.

For that is what this show is.

McGoohan understood the medium of television and he understood that you can make art with it.

This stands painfully in contrast to the other extreme of TV – the trashy, meaningless, mind-numbing garbage that makes up a huge part of the medium.

Rubbish television is relatively cheap to make and consumed on a grand scale, so there is undeniably a legitimate place for it, I do not wish to sound snobbish.

Without it, we wouldn’t be able to appreciate the great stuff.

I’ve always loved the fact that the only reason The Prisoner was able to be made in the first place is because of Lew Grade’s complete trust in McGoohan.

He was a major draw in terms of ratings already with Danger Man and Grade, well aware of this, was not prepared to let him go when he told him during an early-morning meeting that he’d tired of the role of John Drake and had an alternative in mind.

Imagine a TV executive being prepared to sign-off on something like that these days, without a committee or even a pilot!

Thus, The Prisoner was born from a handshake and a money transfer to McGoohan’s production company.

Then the real fun began.

What followed was 17 episodes of television quite unlike anything before or since.

I’m not going to deconstruct the plotlines here, that is for another post(s), but aside from McGoohan’s own quirky, masterful performance throughout, the show also benefits from a number of other distinct elements.

The use of Portmeirion as the setting for The Village is legendary.

The challenges overcome by the inventive crew working on the show produce some of the most memorable images in TV history… Rover anyone?

The theme music and incidental cues throughout are as near perfection as you could possibly imagine.

All great shows have a good music element and The Prisoner is a blueprint for this.

Some of it was stock music, but the selection is immaculate.

I’ll certainly be writing about this in future posts – and yes, even McGoohan was involved in this part of the show, as if starring, writing, directing and producing were not enough.

Finally, for now, I just want to mention the ‘infamous’ final episode, which has confounded viewers for decades.

Not content with sending us on a wild journey of psychological twists and turns during the show’s run, the final instalment is an all-out explosion of creative energy – a combination of the artistic and the cerebral, a true highlight in the history of television.

Such was the power of the audience reaction to the enigmatic final episode that it was the last straw in compelling McGoohan and his family to leave the shores of the UK, never to return.

He later said that he wanted discussion, righteous indignation… an emotional response.

He certainly got that.

Many of the technological advances hinted at in The Prisoner have or are coming to fruition… and the themes or concerns presented in the show are as relevant now as they were in 1967 – perhaps arguably even more so.

therockandrollguy.com thoroughly recommends The Prisoner to anyone who hasn’t seen it.

It’s television that makes you think for yourself.

Surely one of the greatest uses for the medium.

If you want to learn more about the greatest TV show of all time then a good place to go might be https://www.theunmutual.co.uk/ which is a terrific resource for in-formation.

https://networkonair.com/ is also a good place to go to find The Prisoner discs and music as well as other titles featuring the awesome Patrick McGoohan.

therockandrollguy.com has no control over or responsibility for the content of either of these sites and just knows them as good resources for Prisoner/McGoohan related material.

Also – check back here as I will undoubtedly be writing more on this subject!

4 thoughts on “Appraising television’s ultimate masterpiece – The Prisoner

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