The Prisoner cult TV series withPatrick McGoohan as Number Six

The Prisoner starring Patrick McGoohan

The Prisoner was a British television series that soon achieved cult status for its star Patrick McGoohan. It was broadcast from 29 September 1967 to 1 February 1968 and was set in a mysterious village that none of the people living there could escape from, as you will discover in this retrospective review.

Every villager had a number, even those in charge and McGoohan was Number Six, although in the opening sequence he protests to his captors, led by Number Two, that he is a "free man." Number Two cackles with laughter at him. Number Six asks "What do you want?" and the reply is "Information, we want information." Number Six, in a defiantly angry voice, says "You won't get it."

Who was Number One?

The Prisoner TV show is a combination of a spy drama that includes elements of science fiction and a thriller whilst making biting social commentary on the state of the world and how it is run. The numbered prisoners are held in a constantly monitored police state masquerading as a happy place and a democracy of sorts, and the controllers have advanced scientific technology such as super computers, surveillance and electronic brainwashing at their disposal. It appears that these controllers are prisoners too with an unseen and unidentified Number One at the top of the pyramid of control. Number Six says that he wants to find out who the warders are and who are the prisoners.

The series starts in London with McGoohan handing in his resignation for some top job as a government secret agent of some sort but as he is getting ready to leave where he has been living he is rendered unconscious with gas and transported to The Village where he regains consciousness.

This opening sequence is very dramatic and with its soundtrack and narrative has achieved cult status as a definitive moment in British television history that was very influential but could never be repeated. Its production values are so high that it has been compared with those of a film and not just a television show.

The Prisoner logo

The Prisoner logo used for illustration and believed to constitute fair use.
The Prisoner logo used for illustration and believed to constitute fair use. | Source


Portmeirion view of central plaza by Michael Maggs.
Portmeirion view of central plaza by Michael Maggs. | Source

Where was the Village? Where is Portmeirion?

The Village, which was actually filmed in Portmeirion in Gwynedd, North Wales, has everything its residents could seemingly want to enjoy a happy life apart from the freedom to leave. It has a café, sporting facilities, regular public events and celebrations, shops, a bell-tower, a square, and even its own newspaper called the Tallyho! People play games like chess, stroll around the streets and ornamental gardens, meet each other for coffee and other normal social interactions.

Residents all have their own homes and are provided with credits to buy what they need in the Village. They also have access to the Intercomm system to communicate with others. Number 6, of course, gets many unwanted visits. Throughout the series we see how he is always defiant and hostile to any proposals put to him. It is clear he trusts no one and is always right in being this way. This is a theme of the series that no one in the Village is trustworthy and Number Six is justified in his views.

Regular announcements are made over an intercomm system. And in one episode it shows an election for the candidate with most votes. But everything is rigged just like in the world today.

The residents are always dressed in bright colourful clothes and people carry flamboyant parasols. Many wear smart blazers and all wear badges showing their number and a penny-farthing cycle. There are taxis provided for residents of the Village too.

It has a large sandy beach, the sun is usually shining and it appears a wonderful place to live apart from it is all being rather blatantly policed and controlled. Malcontents and rebels are taken to the hospital for treatment or "social conversion." One episode this is tried on Number 6 where he is given faked brain surgery and drugged after a committee has decided he is "unmutual" and "disharmonius".. Many 'patients' bear the scars of actual lobotomies. The Prisoner is making very obvious reference to psychiatric control and forced medication of those deemed mentally unfit in our own society.

The Village is under daily electronic surveillance, which in many ways was prophetic when you consider how there are security cameras everywhere today. If there is any trouble or anyone, such as Number 6, tries to escape an Orange Alert is sounded and teams sent to prevent the runaway from succeeding. When all else fails a gigantic balloon known as "Rover" is dispatched to catch anyone who is making an escape bid. Rover comes up out of the sea and finds anyone escaping and engulfs them. Rover also patrols the streets of the Village.

Leo McKern

Actor Leo McKern
Actor Leo McKern

Who is Number Two?

Number Two is in charge of operations for the Village and it is made obvious that his main job is to 'crack' Number Six and get the information they want. This information is the answer to why the former agent resigned. In many episodes he is asked this question: "Why did you resign?" Number Two is also seeking to find out more about Number Six and what makes him tick, and so of course are the viewers!

Angelo Murcat the Butler

Number Two has a special seat in a large circular room that is accessed via electronic doors. The whole place is fitted with hi-tech electronic gadgetry. He is served by a diminutive mute butler, played by Angelo Murcat, who is in most episodes of the series. However, whilst this butler appears to be in the service of Number Two, all is not as it seems and in the final episode he escapes with Number Six after helping him in his efforts to get free. He is a mystery character that there has been a lot of debate about. Was he the real Number One some have asked?

Other numbered residents of the Village must also report to Number Two. In each episode we see how Number Two is in charge of some plan to 'break' Number Six and variety of methods are used including attempted mind control, dream manipulation, and an elaborate identity switch even when Number Six's mind is moved into the body of another man. If Number Two fails to get results, and he always does, he is replaced by a new Number Two. Famous actors, including Patrick Cargill and Leo McKern, played the part of Number Two throughout the series, with most of them only appearing once.

McKern appeared in three episodes including the final two which were entitled, Chimes of Big Ben, Once Upon a Time and Fall Out. It is said that filming for the second of these was such an intense experience for him that the actor suffered a real nervous breakdown, and this was confirmed by McGoohan in an interview (see video included at the end).

Secret Agent or Dangerman

McGoohan used to star in a spy series known as Secret Agent and in the UK as Dangerman but after many episodes he wanted to quit and this was part of where the idea for The Prisoner came from. He approached Lew Grade who was in charge of the series and put the new idea he had to him and it was accepted. McGoohan wanted only seven episodes but he was talked into extending this to 17.

Most of the episodes show the Village, although two do not follow this pattern. There is an episode with the title Living in Harmony that is like a Western in which our hero is a lawman who quits his job. McGoohan once explained that doing a Western was something he had always wanted to act in and this was his opportunity to do so.

Another episode entitled The Girl Who Was Death, we discover towards the end, was actually a story being read by Number Six to some of the Village children. Set in what appears to be Britain, he plays the part of a man who survives the numerous assassination attempts of a beautiful woman.

Who is Number One?

Screen capture of Number One from Wikipedia. Believed to constitute Fair Use.
Screen capture of Number One from Wikipedia. Believed to constitute Fair Use.

Final episode: Fall Out

The most unusual episode of all, an episode that caused a storm of anger and controversy, was the final episode entitled Fall Out. In the penultimate episode, entitled Once Upon a Time, Number Six is the victim of a week-long psychological battle known as "Degree Absolute," waged against him by Number Two, in a final effort to break him. One of the two men must die and we see that it is Number Two that finally does so.

Leo McKern was playing Number Two in this episode and this was when he suffered a breakdown from the intense pressure of filming this. As the winner of this, Number Six is congratulated by a character known as the Supervisor and told that he now can have whatever he wants. Number Six asks be taken to meet Number One.

The final episode shows how our hero gets taken into a bizarre and surreal courtroom in a huge cavern with a large assembly of jurors all in white hooded robes like the cowls of monks. The music of The Beatles is playing from an old-fashioned jukebox. The assembly members all have their faces in masks painted black on one side and white on the other. Signs in front of them state that they are "Nationalists","Activists," "Anarchists" and various other designations.

The judge in the centre of the room wears a red gown and traditional wig. In the room there is also an imposing metallic cylindrical object with a mechanical eye of some sort and just the figure 1 on the object. Is this a reference to the Masonic All-seeing eye so popular with modern conspiracy theorists? It seems that this is the Judge's contact with Number One.

McGoohan's character, who is no longer given a number, gets praised very highly by the Judge, saying he has past the ultimate test and won the right to be an individual. He is told he is free to leave The Village or to lead them. But before he makes his decision some other matters are to be dealt with. Another prisoner identified as Number 48, addressed by the former Number Six as "Young Man" is brought in. He calls the Judge his "Dad."

Number 48 is wearing a fancy ruffled shirt, a top hat with a flower in it and a bell around his neck. We can identify him as a hippie and this is emphasised by the soundtrack we had already heard playing All You Need is Love by The Beatles. The Young Man clearly has a liking for the song Dry Bones aka Dem Bones that makes reference to the Biblical scripture in Ezekiel. He breaks into song and dances around causing a major disturbance because all the assembly join in with him. His crime is the rebelliousness of youth. He is finally led away.

The body of the former Number Two is brought into the room in the caged room from the last episode and with scientific devices he is miraculously brought back from death. His crime was failing to break Number Six but also in turning against "the hand that feeds" the Judge tells us when summing up. The former Number Two has made a dramatic speech to the assembly and to the former Number Six. He tells of how he was chosen and abducted himself to join the community but how he should have made an effort to break away from it. The former Number Two turns his attentions on the Number One cylinder and stares at the eye which blows up. He is taken away to be dealt with later too after the former Number Six's inauguration.

The former Number Six, who is seated on a throne with a blue carpet leading up to it, is shown by the Judge that his old home is being got ready for his return, he is given travellers' cheques to the value of 1,000, 000 pounds, a passport, petty cash, and his keys to his car and home. He is told to address the court. He tries to but as he says "I feel," the jurors make so much noise you cannot hear what he is saying. They are all clapping, chanting "I, I, I," and banging on their desks. But at last he is taken to meet Number One and goes via a transporter tube to a stairway that leads to Number One.

Number One is looking at images of Number Six in past episodes, and is dressed like a monk too and holds a crystal ball. He has the face of a monkey but this is a mask that when ripped away reveals very briefly that of Number Six. Number One breaks away from the former Number Six and leads him on a chase.

The former Number Six has already seen that Number 48 and the former Number Two are prisoners in cylindrical cages marked "Orbit 48" and "Orbit Two". There is another empty holding area marked simply "Orbit."

The former Number Six realises that a main metallic cylinder is actually a rocket. He launches it. The complex is now in a state of panic and evacuation orders are given as chaos erupts.

The former Number Six releases the captives and with their help and the assistance of the Butler leads a take over and escape from the Village. They use a fire extinguisher turned on and guns to overpower and kill guards and workers.

The escapees finally make their escape in the caged room, revealed to be on the back of a low loader lorry. As they get away from the Village, the rocket is being launched overhead.

Helicopters are leaving and villagers are running for their lives. We are shown The Village is completely evacuated, except for Rover which gets destroyed upon activation of the flames of the rocket.

As the former Number Six and fellow escapees drive along the main road to London, Number 48 decides to get off and starts hitching a lift. The others stop outside of the Palace of Westminster. The former Number Two thanks the former Number Six and enters the building, while the former Number Six and the Butler go back to the former Number Six's former home where we see his car. As the former Number Six drives away, the door opens for the Butler in the same electronic way as the doors to buildings in the Village did. The number on the door is significantly Number 1.

Patrick McGoohan explains

There was a public outcry after Fall Out was shown and it got so bad that McGoohan had to go into hiding and ended up never working in Britain again. Many viewers failed to understand the conclusion of the series and felt cheated. They expected a more conventional James Bond-type ending.

Because of the bizarre narrative and imagery in this episode and others the debate has continued about what it all really meant. McGoohan is thought by many people to be a creative genius and The Prisoner series well-worthy of its cult status.

In a television documentary interview broadcast in 1977, McGoohan explained a lot about his inspiration for The Prisoner and what he was trying to say. He reveals that it was very difficult to get the production team to understand his vision but produced a 40-page document to explain it all. He was the scriptwriter for five episodes.

McGoohan was seeking to make a statement of protest about the police state conditions of the world where there are security checks everywhere. He felt that technology has been progressing too fast and that we are all becoming prisoners. McGoohan actually states in the interview that he feels that "progress is the biggest enemy on Earth." He also claimed that "freedom is a myth."

With that in mind, it explains how we get taken back to where the series began. It is as if it has all gone round in a circle and there is no escape. We are all perhaps prisoners of our own making trapped in our own crazy microcosmic worlds within the macrocosm of the whole world? We all being watched over by the Big Brother modern Nanny State with surveillance security cameras everywhere. We are encouraged to watch out for what others are doing and to spy on our neighbours in organisations like Neighbourhood Watch. This creates the distrust so many feel and the paranoid feelings so many have. Who is watching who? Who can see us? Seeing others is a theme of the Prisoner where the residents of the Village so often say "Be seeing you!"

The Prisoner Puzzle ( with Patrick McGoohan )

© 2012 Steve Andrews

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Comments 22 comments

snakeslane profile image

snakeslane 4 years ago from Canada

Wow Bard, I had never heard of this television series until today, this is a great indepth synopsis of the show. Some of what you've told reminds me of 'The Truman Show' with Jim Carrey. Looks like you have included, two whole episodes, amazing. Visiting your hub today is like going to a movie theatre, I could be here all evening. Thanks for sharing, voted up and awesome and interesting. Regards, snakeslane

Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 4 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

I am glad you like it and I am pretty sure the The Truman Show as inspired by this. You will find all the episodes on YouTube but start at the beginning is best with Arrival. It is an amazing journey all the way through the series.

snakeslane profile image

snakeslane 4 years ago from Canada

Hi Bard, I watched The Arrival, it is pretty good. Considering the time it was made, it really does forshadow a lot of the realities of our present day society, I can see why it was (is) so popular. I was surprised the actress who connects with No 6 to arrange his escape looks exactly like Demi Moore! Thanks again. I probably will watch more on You Tube now that you've got me hooked :)

Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 4 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

I think you will be impressed. The stories are often very different but have basics that are much the same like mostly being in the Village and having a Number Two with some new plan for breaking Number Six. And you will get used to his character and how he handles his dealings with people and whatever problem he is given. Yes, it is a pretty accurate depiction of the high surveillance and security-mad world of today.

snakeslane profile image

snakeslane 4 years ago from Canada

Hey Bard, I watched seven episodes today! It is addicting. Poor guy is trapped. It's like Hotel California, "You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave". I see there is a 2009 remake, bet it's not as good as the original.

Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 4 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

I was right then because I thought you would like it! I can't really comment on the remake having not seen it and knowing nothing about it but I agree with you that it is unlikely to be anywhere near as good as the original!

Steel Engineer profile image

Steel Engineer 4 years ago from Kiev, Ukraine

You should check out "Logan's Run", an American series from 1976. Everything is controlled. And, one a person reaches 30 years old, they are terminated. There is no cash. Everyone has a chip implant. Anyone who refuses to bow to government authority has their chip "turned off" so they cannot buy anything, not even lunch. They can't sell, either because there is no currency except the chips.

Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 4 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

I didn't know it was a series, I saw Logan's Run as a film, in fact, I have seen it many times and think it is brilliant!

William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 4 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

Great job, Bard. The series always fascinated me, and the extensive detail you've attained here is incredible. It's almost like watching one of the episodes. Patrick McGoohan was perfect for the role. I hadn't realized the extend to which he was involved in its making and production.

Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

Pamela Kinnaird W 4 years ago from Maui and Arizona

I'd never heard of this show. It sure does sound like it was ahead of its time -- very interesting. I enjoyed your in-depth description of this series.

Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 4 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

Thank you, William and Pamela! I am thinking of doing a series about the series with an in depth look at each episode.

snakeslane profile image

snakeslane 4 years ago from Canada

Hi Bard, I watched the entire series and the interview with McGoohan. Thanks for turning me on to this, it really was quite entertaining, and pretty weird at times. I loved the western episode. The last few episodes were pretty intense, and felt kind of disconnected with the earlier ones. The producers of the show clearly gave McGoohan free range to explore his creativity. Quite a time warp to go back to the sixties exploring futuristic themes.

Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 4 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

He enjoyed doing the Western because he had never acted in one and he wrote the last episode I believe. Filming the penultimate episode was so intense it resulted in Leo McKern having a breakdown the story goes!

Hawkesdream profile image

Hawkesdream 4 years ago from Cornwall

'I am not a number, I am a free man' That is the phrase that sticks in my mind. I went to Port Merion once, just to see the place. Whilst there I bought a postcard with the aforementioned phrase on it. It is pinned to my fridge, just to remind me.

This is a brilliant article on the series, I think I have seen it two or three times and this article has shown me some things that I had not taken on board before.

Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 4 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

Thank you! I put a lot of work into this hub so am glad to read your complimentary comments!

Mr Archer profile image

Mr Archer 4 years ago from Missouri

For years, I thought this was some kind of dream I once had as a child. Nobody I ever spoke with about had heard of it, and I relegated it to some kind of nightmare. Then, I finally saw it was a real show, and I had not dreamed it. The giant balloon, Rover, was especially at the forefront of my rememberances, and to see it was a tv series after some 40 years or so made me breathe a sigh of relief. Well done hub here, capturing all the nuances of this ahead of its time show. Today, it is not beyond the realm of reality, but in the 60's, it was beyond comprehension.

Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 4 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

Thank you for your appreciative comments, and I am glad this brought back some real memories!

janeljohnson 7 months ago

Great well-researched article - I remember the series and its impact from the 1960's, it left a deep impression on me and others of my generation. The Orwellian scenario together with futuristic effects, gave a xcary insight into subliminal mind control methods, mass control and psychological manipulation 0f the ruling class. It was one of the most subversive dramas of its time; so much so that initially my mother refused to allow me to watch it, fearing the effect it might have on me. I pointed out that life itself was likely to have at least as powerful an impact, and I was already aware of some of these methods from reading Michael Frain, Vance Packard, and the great Orwell himself, not to mention Asimov, Bradbury, John Wyndham, and other top scifi writers from 1061 onwards. This made-for-television series had all those elements plus the powerful medium of the small screen, to influence a wider and more innocent audience. It became compulsive viewing, along with Dr Who, Star Trek and other more dressed-up series. The Prisoner spoke to those whose imagination was vivid, but who based their ideas on actual facts

janeljohnson 7 months ago

Having edited and altered some of the glaring typos in the above - and added more comment - I was disappointed to see it reappear in its original version! Please excuse errors, and thanks for bringing Patrick MacGoohan's co-authorship to the limelight, Steve - this was a very important series whose influence far exceeded its original small-screen impact, being one of those insightful works that has since shaped society. Great writing!

Of course I ment scary for xcary, and 1961 for 1061, among other mistakes. in 1966/7 Vance Packard's 'The hidden Persuaders' (psychological manipulation in advertising), and Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984, were part of the then GCE O Level syllabus. Contemporary writers such as Michael Frayn and others since have also treated the subject of mind control by the media and its use by government agencies or other agenda driven elements. But The Prisoner was one of the first small screen treatments of this concept, and had far reaching effects.

Great writing, Steve, good to find you on these, 'hub' pages!

Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 7 months ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

Thank you for your comments and thoughts about The Prisoner! I agree with you as you have probably gathered from my article. We are now in an even more managed police state that this series depicted.

janeljohnson 7 months ago

So much so it's scary, Steve - the very idea of turning the decision-making for Brexit, for example, over 'to the public' having first created a consensus mindset that would respond, as required, to 'European manipulation'!

In fact the manipulation by the British camp has evidently (since listening to and watching vox pop) been spinning and shaping public opinion to have the desired effect of leaving ~Europe. England's Government is becoming like a crazy patient talking to himself, 'Shall we? Let's not!' addressing his 'subjects' - other aspects of his own identity. I say England advisedly as Scotland and Northern Ireland are not so much of the same mind set. All those of us who have voted have stood up and declared ourselves British, even those across the seas. The master stroke is for the Tory Government then to come out and pretend to be backing the remain camp as Cameron is doing, while his old chum Boris heads the leave camp.

As for Jo Cox, may she Rest In Peace and condolences to her family - she was not to be allowed to spread truthful campaigning as to the real purpose of the European Union, which has already achieved so much in protecting people's rights, the environment, curbing sharp business practices and bailing out the inequitable farming industry, plus supervising fishing rights, human rights,etc etc.

For the Government it's a win-win situation whether England stays or leaves; this exercise is in manipulation (People are baying hatred against X or whomsoever the Govt- Big Brother- chooses), and however the vote turns out, the agenda for the English Tory Establishment Ruling class is therefore 'win either way'.

it's the most sinister alliance since Blair/Mandelssohn (who's still lurking in the wings) even after Blair has copped it and spends his days travelling the world on speaking tours to avoid facing the courts for war crimes in the UK, or so he thinks.).

There are so many instances of would-be figureheads being themselves caught up in the web of deceit and lies - one wonders where it all originates, as did Number 6!

One thing I know, is that No. 6 was also the brand name of a cigarette, low market cheap affair, that I used to smoke in my youth. I wonder if there was any correlation to the series? Allegories!

Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 7 months ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

Thank you again, Jane! Yes, it certainly looks that way! As for Number 6 I used to smoke them too, a Player's cigarette I remember. Game Players perhaps?

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