There aren’t too many classic television series as prescient as the 1960s legend “The Prisoner.”
An often surreal mix of spy thriller and sci-fi drama, it starred the late Patrick McGoohan (the show’s creator and head writer) as a high-ranking British agent who grows weary of his ugly job and tries to resign. Before he can steal away to a tropical escape, he’s abducted and secretly transported to The Village.
Bordered by impassible mountains on one side and sea on the other, The Village played host to people with access to top secret information – people governments decided were too valuable to run free. But, the government behind The Village was never revealed. The place was an oppressively banal community lost in time – filled with a fix of strange technology and anachronistic fashion and architecture.
Residents of The Village were stripped of their names, assigned numbers and kept under constant surveillance. The Village was ruled by a mysterious Number One, thought directly overseen by Number Two – a rotating set of villains, men and women seeking constantly to break Number Six and add him to their team. Residents were subjected to torture and mind control until they gave up their vital information. McGoohan’s Number Six refused to explain why he resigned, resisted all attempts to control him and sought endlessly to escape.
Beyond the fictional drama of the series, “The Prisoner” elevated the medium of television into new heights of allegory, metaphor and existential philosophy — examining themes of free will, threats to individual freedom and the repression of technology. It celebrated the individual and cast disdain and suspicion on all manners of authority and government.
These days, with a federal government spying on private citizens, hacking allies and punishing political enemies with endless investigations and red tape, “The Prisoner” seems to have predicted the slow death of freedom correctly all those decades ago. If there’s anything McGoohan didn’t predict it was how thoroughly big business is united with government to leave no segment of your life private. These days, Number Two might work for Google.
To digress for a moment, you can disregard the 21st Century remake. It’s a disaster that completely misses the point of McGoohan’s creation. If anything, that modern version urges subservience to a collective and the total surrender of the individual. If anything, that show proved how even the modern entertainment industry is in on the game — eager to be in on the game and encourage obedience rather than fight the power.
The true fictional location of The Village was never revealed, but fans of the show know “The Prisoner” exteriors were shot in the Welsh seaside resort of Portmeirion. Legend has it McGoohan and fellow producers chose the location because its mix of period architecture and natural surroundings forged a surreal, otherworldly atmosphere.
Fortunately, Portmeirion still stands today and is fully functional as a holiday destination. Built over several decades starting in the 1920s, thousands visit the vacation spot whether they’re fans of Number Six or not. During a recent press tour of Wales, I took a detour to Gwynedd, North Wales to see if I could escape The Village.
After a short drive through narrow country roads, I was pleased to find Portmeirion standing much as it did during the production on “The Prisoner.” Famous show locations like Number Six’s House (now a Prisoner gift shop) and The Green Dome (Number Two’s seat of power).
Portmeirion’s grounds feel a little smaller than The Village as cinematography’s trickery made everything seem more labyrinthian — like an M.C. Escher sketch rendered in 3D. But, it’s one of the rare occasions in which you can step into an environment and feel as if you’ve entered the world of a TV show.
There are no mountains on any side, and the tidal coast would let any Village resident wade to freedom during an afternoon, but Portmeirion otherwise retains that Village atmosphere from the TV show.
While folks enjoy their holiday in their Portmeirion villas, head out on nature walks or splash around down on the beach, Prisoner fans are checking out little museum exhibits on the show, shopping for souvenirs and taking photos of themselves walking in Number Six’s shoes.
While any fan of “The Prisoner” should make a Welsh excursion to The Village a must, it might be a tall order for some fans. Fortunately, there’s a gallery below to show how TV’s most bizarre prison is holding up and holding in its residents.
Enjoy…and “Be seeing you.”