It’s a place with no history and no identity of its own. It has no nationality. It could be anywhere. Its citizens repeat cheery slogans to each other instead of having conversations. They’re forever staging oddly joyless ‘celebrations’, parading in circles through the streets waving rainbow-striped flags, cheering and clapping. They live in fear of saying the wrong thing, not joining in, and being declared ‘unmutual’ by a mysterious, unaccountable committee.
But this isn’t Britain in 2020. It’s the Village, the very unusual prison that a secret agent played by Patrick McGoohan is banged up in (and forever trying to bust out of) in the 1967 ITV adventure series The Prisoner. The Village is portrayed on screen by Portmeirion, the quite beautiful and grand architectural folly in North Wales created by eccentric millionaire Clough Williams-Ellis, and still doing very nicely as a tourist attraction and hotel. It’s an amazing place, on screen and off.
In the decades following its original transmission, The Prisoner seemed a gaudy curiosity, and very, very much of its time. It’s got the clashing brightness of much early colour TV; a jarring half-jazz, half-guitar pop score; and a jumpy, psychedelic mise-en-scene. It clearly belonged to a very particular paranoid Cold War moment; a colossally expensive remake in 2009 starring Ian McKellen seemed totally irrelevant to the modern world, and died a death. The original lived on only as a cult series, remembered more for the nostalgia value of its vivid iconography than anything else.
McGoohan’s character (known as ‘Number Six’) is permanently angry, or at least tensed up — there’s nobody he can relax or speak normally with. This gives the show an intense, unrelenting atmosphere that makes it heavy going for some viewers. There are many things The Prisoner shares with The Good Place, but chirpy, flirty banter isn’t one of them. The thing most people know about the show is ‘Rover’, the giant white balloon which patrols the Village, roaring and heavy-breathing, and which often smothers McGoohan back into line to the accompaniment of frantic bongos and detuned electric guitars.
You’re never quite sure whether Rover is meant to be funny, frightening, a bit of both or neither. It’s a quality that sums The Prisoner up. To most people it seems, or seemed, a typically naff bit of meandering, a product of the time that also served up the Beatles’ rambling, almost unwatchable, TV film Magical Mystery Tour.
But over the last few years, as the public sphere of Western society has taken a very odd and unexpected turn, I couldn’t help thinking more and more of The Prisoner, and specifically the Village. While The Prisoner shares many concerns with Nineteen Eight-Four, it now seems that McGoohan (who co-created it, and wrote and directed many of the episodes) got it more right than Orwell — and did so in a Sunday night mainstream TV show with ad breaks, punch-ups and dolly birds.
The Village is just the backdrop to thriller stories that are inventive and unusual, though they’re recognisably of the same genre as Ian Fleming or Len Deighton. There’s a whole futuristic underground base beneath the Village of the kind Sean Connery is always blowing up. And on its surface level The Prisoner works as a spy story with a unique twist, Bond transplanted into a totally oppositional setting. But that backdrop now seems by far the most striking and relevant thing about it.
Unlike the shoddy goods and deprivation of Airstrip One in Nineteen Eight-Four, the Village is an affluent society, an apparently quite attractive place to be. It’s certainly not a communist hellhole; no cage was ever more gilded. Consumer goods are plentiful, all branded with the Village’s meaningless penny farthing logo. People are punctiliously polite and convivial until the very moment somebody (and it’s almost always McGoohan) starts asking questions or strikes a sour note. Then they either evade, pretend not to hear, get nervous, or run away. “A still tongue makes a happy life” and “Questions are a burden to others” are two of the Village’s often-parroted slogans at these moments. Inquiries about the location or history of the Village are particularly unwelcome — it’s just ‘very cosmopolitan’ and ‘international’.
There are regular applause sessions for “valued members of the community” — “they do a marvellous job!” Art is there merely to reproduce Village symbols, and has no value as beautiful or diverting in and of itself. Even sport and play are ideological: there’s ‘kosho’, a bizarre hybrid involving baseball gloves, helmets and trampolines, or human chess, which is monitored in case anybody makes a suspiciously individualistic move.
The parades and festivities are never-ending. It’s always Pride Month of a kind in the Village. A particularly good example is ‘Appreciation Day’, the climax of which is the unveiling — to much hooraying — of a stone monument that says simply ‘Achievement’.
And the Village is nothing if not progressive — at one point, during the election campaign, Chief Administrator Number 2 ends a stump speech by calling, “We know what we must do! What must we do?” A lackey holds up a board reading “PROGRESS” and the crowd dutifully chants it back. The recent ‘Progress Pride’ flag — updated to be even more inclusive, and displayed on the Twitter profile of the House Of Commons, for heaven’s sake — features a large red umbrella that’s so Village it’s hard to believe it wasn’t intentional.
Definitely the most eyebrow-raising episode in our current times is ‘A Change Of Mind’, in which McGoohan’s character is cancelled by a mob of ‘public-minded citizens’. A particularly heinous anti-social misdemeanour sparks this cancellation: he builds his own gym equipment and refuses to use the Village sports facilities. But this offence is merely a pretext. He’s taken before a ‘committee of social affairs’ and makes the very unwise move of mocking it.
Other miscreants who comply with the committee are made to give tearful public apologies (written for them) to the mob, including lines like “They’re right, of course, I’m inadequate!” The next stage is to attend a young people’s denouncing session, a kind of HR sensitivity course, which McGoohan sends up — at which point he is officially posted as ‘unmutual’, has his social credit removed, is officially shunned and marched up to the hospital to be ‘cured’ by a lobotomy.
The recent sight of Peter Hitchens being pursued down the street by placard-waving, slogan-chanting students was uncannily similar to the pursuit of McGoohan the unmutual by the marching mob. All it needed was the balloon to set the whole thing off.
Peter Hitchens strolling along so nonchalantly while a student mob harangues him makes for marvellous viewing. pic.twitter.com/x2O5Uamt0L
— Paul Embery (@PaulEmbery) June 17, 2020
I get the feeling the Village is very much where the elite institutions of our society want us to end up — a progressive, international community with no past and no sense of place, where we celebrate continually, avoid debate and difficult facts with mantras, reward non-conformity with ‘re-training’, and punish ‘Unmutuals’ with mobs. There is a large, and growing, blob of pure Village throughout our public life, and it’s seeping into our private lives too. Can you trust everybody in your DMs?
As Number 2 says of the Village in the episode ‘The Chimes Of Big Ben’: “What, in fact, has been created? An international community! A perfect blueprint for world order … this is the pattern for the future.” I remember when that line sounded a bit on-the-nose and quaint.
Can The Prisoner go back to being dated and irrelevant? Please?