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A television hymn to individualism, made almost half a century ago

A few weeks ago, when the weather was crap – as it still is – and I knew I’d be spending some evenings at home, I opened a box-set of DVDs to watch that classic Sixties TV series, The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan. Many things have been written about this series, which in my view represents one of the best such shows ever made. Chris R Tame ,  the late UK libertarian activist, mentor and friend of mine, wrote a fine essay about this show in the early 1970s and I agree with every word of it. The show is intelligent, profound, thought-provoking, and now thanks to the wonders of digital remastering, looks as fresh today as when it was first produced. (So much so that it seems almost better than if it were made now.) I was born in 1966, roughly time the show was conceived, written and shot. Some Sixties series can look very dated today, however much fun they are (like the old Avengers with Diana Rigg, etc) but The Prisoner doesn’t.  And boy, is it on-target now. In the age of surveillance cameras, nanny statist health campaigns, the Leveson recommendations on state regulation of the UK press, unaccountable quangos, the NSA, and the like, much of what is lampooned in The Prisoner is all too believable.

Some time after he made The Prisoner, and had gone back to live in the US, the country of his birth (he spent a large amount of his adult life in the UK), McGoohan had these thoughts about the show and why he made it. I wonder what actors are as emphatic in stating such a viewpoint today:

“I tried first of all to create a first-class piece of entertainment. I hope it rings true because here, too, I was concerned with the preservation of individual history….If I have any kind of drum to beat in my life it is the drum of the individual. I believe that to be truly an individual, mentally clear and free, requires the greatest possible effort. And I seek this individuality in everything I do – in my work and in my private life. It is not easy.”

It isn’t. The other day, I had a bash at UK journalist and controvertialist Peter Oborne for his claim that a game such as cricket should not be primarily about people having a fun time, of doing something that makes them happy as individuals, but because it helps obliterate the self, that is about a “duty” to a nation, or some Other. I don’t know much about McGoohan’s explicit political views, but something tells me he would have regarded Oborne’s bullying anti-individualism about something like a ball game with bemusement, if not contempt.

35 comments to A television hymn to individualism, made almost half a century ago

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    Meh, the first 12 or so episodes of The Prisoner were truly world class TV. After that they gave Mcgoohan too much creative control and it went way too trippy sixties on us.

    That said, I find myself mentally quoting the line “I am not a number, I am a free man” on at least a weekly basis. Definitely one of my favorite shows, but it would have been better had it not gone so surreal toward the end. My favorite episode is the one where they convince number 6 that they have lobotomized him. Mcgoohan pulls out some stellar acting in that one.

  • Paul Marks

    It would be nice to visit the place “The Prisoner” was filmed.

    Sadly I do not see it happening, but one can never tell….

  • Mike Giles

    He should be glad they took him to that nice village – as opposed to a cell, in some secret prison somewhere!

  • Mr Ecks

    The Prisoner was filmed in Port Meirion, North Wales. Get in your car and go. It might take the whole day.

  • Tedd

    In the naivety of my youth it seemed that the individualism promoted by The Prisoner was the very essence of the cultural shift taking place in the 60s. And yet now the 60s is remembered as the birth-time of the left-collectivist ideas that have since come to dominate the western world. I honestly don’t know if I just completely mis-experienced the decade at the time, or if our current view of it is yet another revised history.

  • Laird

    I have that same boxed set and re-watch it with pleasure upon occasion. (The same is true for some other old TV series I consider worth re-watching, such as Babylon 5.) But I agree with JV: the last few episodes got way too “trippy” for my taste. And you really do have to laugh at the clothes.

    Tedd, I think I mis-experienced that decade, too (I was in high school in the late 60’s, so perhaps was a little too young to completely grok them). But upon reflection I don’t think the 60’s were about individualism at all. They were about anti-militarism (Viet Nam) and a certain amount of youthful anti-authoritarianism, but the spirit of collectivism was very much at the core of it. After all, that was the age of communes, and a lot of the hippies were avowed communists. There are still echoes of that today: those now-retired hippies (gray pony tails on men are so attractive!) in Vermont and Oregon, where they pollute local politics (viz Sen. Bernie Sanders; need I say more?). So I don’t think the current cultural recollection of that era is all that incorrect.

  • RAB

    our current view of it is yet another revised history.

    That is probably very true. The original Hippies were trying anything new without knowing what would be benificial or detrimental, just expanding minds and experiences.

    And the Prisoner was very much of that experimental time. Britain was a very hip place in the 60’s. The Beatles, the Stones, a myriad of groups that were instantly copied by Americans because their own rock n roll experience had petered out. The Blues was dead and so was Jazz, but Britain kept it alive via folks like John Mayall and his many Bluesbreakers like Clapton, and Page and Beck, and we sold their heritage back to them via the Stones and Yardbirds and Animals etc. But slightly altered, updated and tripped out. Without whom there would never have been a Bruce Springsteen etc etc.

    In the beginning, talking strictly about the Prisoner, there was Bond. The ultra cool secret agent with a licence to kill. That spawned many others, the Saint (a crossover there in players later)as a tv series,and America’s desperate comedy imitation, the Man From Uncle, and then there was Danger Man. Played by Patrick McGoohan as a sort of invincible Bond type character who worked for a vaguely international justice organisation.

    My parents loved it, I loved it, so when the Prisoner aired for the first time in 1968 (expected to be and extension of said same) everybody was looking forward to it with eager antisipation. But my parents didn’t get it, in fact they loathed it and didn’t understand one word of it. We fifteen year olds got it and loved it immediately though. We were now a burgeoning part of the “Alternative Society” whatever that was to become. We had no idea yet, we had hardly got our hands on it. We would make it up as we went along we thought, just as long as it wasn’t the same old shit our parents and grandparents had had to put up with. We may have Tuned in, Turned on and dropped out, but we didn’t envisage adding “Signing on” to the list as well. Whatever we were going to do, we were going to do it for ourselves and not have anyone else to pay for it. We were going to be FREE! not freeloaders. Libertarians even.

    And so it was with the Prisoner. Brilliant, fantastic, core value true, but essentially made up as it went along. If it got too “hippy trippy” for some folks here towards the end then that was just old nasty reality intruding. It had to be resolved somehow, and the ratings were not huge, so a dem bones dem bones dem dry bones ending had to be come up with.

    Port Meirion, where it was filmed, is actually like a film set. Yes it’s a real place, yet it isn’t. It is one mans fantasy that he financed practically out of skips and hand me downs. It is as phoney as a nine bob note, yet it is pure gold! Yes I have been there and love the place. Whoever chose it as the location for the Prisoner was a genius.

    PS Do not touch the remakes with a bargepole!

  • Laird

    I agree with RAB 100% about the “remake” (sneer quotes because it wasn’t so much as remake as a re-imagining). Ghastly. Completely changed the meaning of the show.

  • bloke in spain

    Slightly off topic, but I’ve recently worked through seasons 3 & 4 of Callan. The colour episodes. Can’t find the first two seasons. A little dated around the edges & suffers from the “each episode a stand-alone” format TV tends to favour, rather than a running plot. But could hold its head up with current output. And not a special effect in it.

  • Port Meirion is truly worth a visit. It is bizarre. I have been there. It’s a bugger to get to without a car mind. I stayed in Porthmadog which is a funny town. Excellent fish & chips mind. And they were all speaking like on Pobol y Cwm.

    My wife bought a hoody in Port Meirion. Guess what is printed on the back?

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    I’m guessing a penny farthing Nick.

  • John

    The Monochrome Years of Callan is (or was) available from Entertainment Masters. I got the set for my father about two years ago. I’d be surprised if it can’t be found in the UK somewhere, unless the true originals wre lost and EM got their master source from the ABC’s derivative archives perhaps, though I would have thought the ABC would back-share them with the original publisher first if that were the case… but anyhew, good luck with EM.

    JJM

  • bloke in spain

    Thanx John
    In some ways the B&W’s may be even better. Even more feel of the times. Out of Aus, regionablity may be a prob with DVDs? Oh, well. Where there’s a will there’s a hack

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    Bloke, you can be DVD players with their region specificity disabled. My DVD player is one such machine, it will play DVDs from any region quite happily.

    My understanding is that the region lock on DVD players is only a small setting in the firmware, or perhaps a hardware jumper switch. There are a number of sellers on eBay and Amazon who resell mainstream DVD players with the region lock removed.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    For example, see the following search on Amazon

  • RAB

    A bloke who lived literally around the corner from me had the car (Lotus was it?) same make same colour the lot. It was a statement in itself, but do you know what the sad twat had done? he’d had painted on the back ” I am not a number I’m a free man” Which kinda proved that he wasn’t.

  • bloke in spain

    Two mentions you left out, RAB.
    Alexis Korner (I’m hoping his son Damian is still alive. Very ill last time I saw him. But still trying to prize the recording company free from the rights to the stuff they won’t re-release)
    And, of course, The Avengers.
    How did that upstart Bond ever compete? Diana Rigg was …… But Honor Blackman to an innocent 12 y.o. Grrrrr… And Steed had real style & needed no gadgets.

  • bloke in spain

    @RAB
    It was indeed a 7
    The small workshop they were made in still stands next to Hornsey Station, in North London. Colin Chapman’s father kept the pub. Builders’ merchants use it for storage now, but the 7 Owners Club have put a blue plaque up in honour.
    Can’t imagine him turning up at one of their piss-ups with that. Something humorous would occur.

  • RAB

    Yep Alexis Korner was absolutely vital, not a great singer or player in his own right, but by god did he know how to nurture others talent.

    Callan has already been mentioned, a series that was very dark and sinister and brilliantly acted by Edward Woodward (compare and contrast with the American made Equaliser). Callan was basically an amoral Govt hitman with a sniveling little weasel of a sidekick called Lonely. So called because he stank so bad no-one would come near him. What did America produce in the sixties? 77 Sunset Strip? Hawaii 5 O? cartoons by comparison.

    Then there was the Men in Room 17. Two academics who solved crimes but never left their room in whatever Department they worked for. They just sat there playing Go, which was the first time I’d ever heard of it, and was determined to get a set. I finally found one in an Oriental gee gaw shop.

    And yes the Avengers! What can you say about such a quintessential British TV series? As soon as us Brits heard that Hollywood was going to make a movie of it, we knew they would completely miss the point and screw it up entirely. And so it proved.

    60’s British television was incredibly innovative, done on a nod and a handshake, verbally pitched ideas that were allowed to develop and find their feet. Now, despite the plethora of channels, all is safe and bland. Repeat known and profitable formulas or don’t get commissioned. Sad.

  • Mr Ed

    I expect that at the time, collectivists would have spun the Prisoner as a counter-culture series, with the Prisoner being a prisoner of the relatively limited state and social norms, and would have argued that it captured what they were ‘fighting’ against, the ‘stifling social pressure’ to earn a living and live an economic life, which is what collectivists moan about, and hate, as it denies them a client group and incomes. That what they were against was not an almighty State but any vestige of freedom is obvious to a critical observer, but they were few or quiet.

  • bloke in spain

    Mr Ed
    In the sixties, The Prisoner was counter culture. It’s the culture that’s moved, not The Prisoner. Same Village, different guards. You wouldn’t see anyone near a penny-farthing without a helmet & seatbelt, for a start. And a Prius wouldn’t really hack it for the opening credits, would it?

    Now here’s something. The Prisoner, The Saint, The Avengers, Callan They’re all ITV But can anyone remember BBC equivalents? I can’t.

  • RAB

    This movie Alisa, and believe me it took some googling to find any reference to it. It was apparently SO bad it not only went down the memory hole but has been double flushed. ;-)

    http://theavengers.tv/forever/movie.htm

  • Thanks RAB – I take it even Connery couldn’t save it:-/

  • RAB,

    If you had asked, I could have given you a copy of my copy…

  • RAB

    Dammit you’re right BiS, the whole cultural heritage thing about the BBC has been a myth of their own making. Look here…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BBC_television_drama

    Costume dramas and kitchen sink dramas were all they managed, basically re-writing history for the then present day audience and with a hefty Left wing slant.

  • RAB

    The fact that you actually have a copy is deeply worrying to me Cats. :-)

  • Mr Ed

    …the whole cultural heritage thing about the BBC has been a myth of their own making…

    Of all the calamities that could befall a television viewer in the 1970s, there was no worse fate than to be watching Play for Today.

    If by some freak of radio transmission, a broadcast signal intrusion had brought instead a Soviet documentary on a Kazakstan Collective Farm, it would not have been more dire.

  • Laird

    As a huge fan of the original Avengers (I have the boxed set) I naturally saw that awful movie. The fact the Uma Thurman was cast in the Diana Rigg role should have been a huge clue about just how bad it was going to be. (Although with decent direction Ralph Fiennes could have been OK as Steed.) I’m surprised you missed it, Alisa. But don’t go out of your way to see it now. Forewarned is forearmed.

    Callan is new to me; I’ll have to seek it out. But if you’re talking about 60’s British TV how can you omit Dr Who? Pretty original stuff there, too.

  • Laird, I haven’t seen the series either, so that may have been the reason I paid no attention to the movie…

  • Laird

    Alisa, I saw that comment yesterday and I’m still incredulous. How is possible that anyone hasn’t seen The Avengers, let alone an habitue` of this blog where we talk about it regularly?

  • bloke in spain

    “if you’re talking about 60′s British TV how can you omit Dr Who?”

    With a great deal of ease.

  • Laird, as you well know, I’m still young…:-O

  • Sceptical Antagonist

    I know RAB and the Laird said not to mention the remake, but is it not interesting that at the end The Prisoner gets assimilated into the system?

    Are they trying to tell us that in the modern age they will break us all eventually?

  • Slartibartfarst

    @Sceptical Antagonist:

    “Are they trying to tell us that in the modern age they will break us all eventually?”

    Some people (not me, you understand) might say that, if it were up to the BBC, then presumably their dream would be of a Borg-like conformance to their collectivist mindset, and that the original version of the Avengers was a child of its time and could never have been permitted to be aired AS-IS for the first time by the BBC in this day and age.