The Prisoner Remake: Who is the Real Number Sixby Logical Lizard on Nov. 14, 2009, under Cinema & TV, Science Fiction, Technology
I know, silly question. Patrick McGoohan’s masterful, provocative, and visionary series from 1967 will hopefully always be one of the benchmarks against which great television (and social commentary) is measured. Phrases like “Who is Number One?” and “I am not a number, I am a free man,” have percolated into the collective consciousness, and almost everyone who had a TV in the ’60s or ’70s remembers “that show with the howling white balloon chasing the guy on the beach.”
With AMC’s Prisoner “interpretation” making it’s debut tomorrow, and being billed (by AMC) as “the television event of the year,” the real question should probably be: “Why bother remaking one of the finest programs of all time?” While you’re at it, why not remake Casablanca as a hip-hop musical? Actor James Caviezel, perhaps best known for his leading role in The Passion of the Christ, has the biggest of shoes to fill, but roles as contradictory as Jesus Christ and Number Six do, I suppose, make for an impressive resume.
To say I am a Prisoner fan is a bit like saying War and Peace is a large tome. At the risk of coming off as some sort of crazed fandom nerd, I will admit that I have many times journeyed to Portmeirion. The mystifying primary location for the 1967 Prisoner, Portmeirion was the life’s work of brilliant Welsh architect, town planner and conservationist Clough Williams-Ellis. Clough had a penchant for saving, as he called them, “fallen buildings” (he meant “fallen from grace,” not necessarily “fallen down,” though he did purchase the occasional pile of rubble and resurrect the original structure in all its glory). During the first half of the Twentieth Century, Clough rescued interesting or architecturally beautiful structures from various parts of Europe and relocated them to an isolated and strikingly lovely peninsula in north Wales. He was a man who really loved his work.
Portmeirion is, today, a rather chic and exclusive hotel complex. It is “listed” as a protected site of architectural and historic importance and is preserved pretty much exactly as it appeared in the original show. When you drive down that long, winding, tree-lined road, and pass under a pair of arched and pastel-colored Georgian residences, you cannot help but feel that you are entering the actual Village. It is thrilling and more than a little freaky. Six of One, the official Prisoner appreciation society, used to book the entire “town” of Portmeirion for one week each year and stage a dazzling Prisoner convention, complete with scene reenactments, most notably the human chess game. I attended several times and it was an extraordinary experience, almost as if the Prisoner was real.
The black-and-white action series Danger Man (Secret Agent in the USA) was McGoohan’s precursor to the Prisoner, and Portmeirion was used several times as an “exotic location” in that series; one time even standing in for a Mediterranean seaside town. The idea for the Prisoner must have been brewing in McGoohan’s questing mind during those days, as there are a number thematic similarities between the earlier series and his 1967 masterpiece—notably the chilling Danger Man episode “Colony Three.” British TV impresario Lord Grade of ITC Entertainment believed in McGoohan and trusted him enough to take huge a gamble: Grade funded 17 expensive, complicated, feature film-quality episodes of the sometimes incomprehensible but always engrossing Prisoner. McGoohan chose Portmeirion as the main shooting location for his finest work and it’s rather wonderful that you can visit the place today and experience its beauty, magic, and strangeness just as the cast and crew did back in 1967.
So, back to the important question: Why remake one of the most unique and memorable works ever to grace a television set? To give a modern take on a classic show (not likely, the Prisoner is timeless)? Because they can? To make it more accessible (read: easier to understand) for contemporary short-attention-span audiences? For the money? Can’t think of a good new story idea? It doesn’t really matter. I’ll be honest and say I am genuinely looking forward to seeing what they’ve done with my all-time favorite TV series, and I’ll be tuning in on Sunday evening with an open mind, albeit prepared, as best I can be, for a barrage of commercials during the broadcast.
I find Caviezel an odd choice to play the indefatigable, confident, autonomous and almost rabidly independent Number Six, but maybe we’ll be surprised and like him, just like one day maybe we’ll actually understand what happened in “Fall Out,” the final episode of the original. In the plus column, the great Ian McKellan is playing Number Two and that alone has to be worth watching. And, as journalist Scott White noted in the Canadian Press: “The new six-part miniseries is a chance for a whole new generation of viewers to discover the original show.” That has to be a good thing any way you cut it.
All 17 episodes of the 1967 Prisoner are available online at amctv.com but they should really be seen in their full and almost cinematic grandeur, so if you’ve never experienced the original, do yourself a favor and get it on DVD.
Be seeing you.
Photographs © by Geoffrey Notkin. All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.