There’s a fair amount of paranoia drifting about right now, but for real blood-chilling paranoia you can’t beat the Cold War years, and this was often explored in cinema and television. Hence all the B movies about monsters, aliens, mysterious glowing clouds, all that stuff. They were all metaphors for the big bad Bogeyman in the USSR.
In the UK things took a more subtle approach, and 1967 saw the series The Prisoner come onto our television screens. It starred Patrick McGoohan, late of Danger Man. That programme itself could make you check under your bed, but The Prisoner was a masterclass in chest-tightening worry. They’ve been re-running it recently, and it still works.
When I wrote about The Avengers, I opined that it must have been made under the influence of drugs. The production team may have smoked a bit of weed, but for The Prisoner the entire cast and crew must have been chain-dropping very very good acid.
McGoohan is Number 6, a prisoner being held for no apparent reason in the mysterious Village. There was some inspired location work here, and the outdoor action was shot in Portmeirion. The mastermind behind this place, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis (crazy name, crazy guy), took his inspiration from Italian villages, but then went a bit mad with the paintpots. It’s both beautiful and threateningly dreamlike.
The population consists of identically-clad conformers, driving round in the obligatory Mini Mokes (candy striped, of course), while the rebellious Number 6 keeps trying to escape. He’s not helped in this endeavour by the surreal Rovers that patrol the boundaries. These are large balloons that make a threatening roaring noise, and engulf people trying to make an exit.
The Rovers are controlled from a bunker full of flashing lights, armed guards, a rotating surveillance system, and the enigmatic and disturbing Number 2. No Number 1 seems to exist, but you’re never entirely sure it’s not Number 6 himself.
Besides the marvellously understated McGoohan, there’s a cast of thousands. As with The Avengers, the great and good of the acting world were queuing up to join in the fun. Leo McKern did a stint as Number 2, as did Peter Wyngarde. Patrick Cargill is there too, and Philip Madoc runs up to bowl as a weird Druid-like figure who oversees the rebels. Donald Sinden, Eric Portman, Ronald Radd… You could go mad trying to play ‘Spot the Face.’ Even Lee J Cobb gets his holsters on.
The worst thing is that he can’t trust anybody, because the conformers will shop him up as soon as look at him. He does seem to find an ally in a dwarf butler (Angelo Muscat) but even then you’re never sure. On Thursday he appeared to be released, but you never know how long that will last, or even if he really was released at all.
Sweaty armpit programming at its best. I don’t think it would get off the storyboard these days, but then it was hellishly good, and still is.
By the way, you can rent Number 6’s apartment for your holidays. It’s not cheap. And you might not be allowed to go home afterwards.