The Prisoner Episode by Episode
Transmission: 29 September 1967
Written by George Markstein and David Tomblin
Directed by Don Chaffey
Story: A spy resigns his role, only to be kidnapped and deposited in The Village, where he is referred to only as Number Six. After exploring his new environment, Number Six resolves to escape his captors…
Who is Number Two? Guy Doleman, George Baker
Guest Cast: Virginia Maskell, Paul Eddington, Christopher Benjamin
Information: The first episode of The Prisoner is a tour-de-force, clearly laying out the scope and ambition of the series, effectively setting the scene of The Village (Portmeirion in North Wales), and establishing the motivations of both Patrick McGoohan’s Number Six and his mysterious captors.
The episode opens with an extended version of what will become the title sequence on most future episodes, as McGoohan’s unnamed spy (although most likely seen by contemporary audiences as a version of his Danger Man character John Drake) is seen to storm into an underground office and furiously resign. He is then followed home by a hearse, gassed and awakens in The Village. In Arrival, this scene-setting sequence runs for a couple of minutes and includes several distinctive shots omitted by the more tightly edited regular title sequence.
Ron Grainer’s distinctive theme (he was also the man behind the Doctor Who theme) was not the first used for The Prisoner. Robert Farnon (who’d later compose the themes for Colditz, 1975, and Secret Army, 1977) was the first to attempt a suitable opening theme. He was replaced by Wilfred Josephs, whose finished theme can be heard on the alternative version of Arrival [see: Alternate Versions]. However, his work was not deemed suitable for the finished article either. Finally Grainer was brought in, and he produced a surprisingly up-tempo tune which nonetheless perfectly matched the visuals McGoohan had in mind for the titles. Albert Elms was eventually hired to provide the episodic incidental music for the series.
The man behind the desk in the titles is George Markstein, co-writer of Arrival and script editor of The Prisoner. Markstein was born in Germany and emigrated to Britain via the US with the rise of the Nazis in his home country. Working as a journalist for an American military newspaper, Markstein possibly doubled as a spy. In the 1960s he began working on British television, including a stint as a story consultant on Danger Man, the series that starred McGoohan prior to The Prisoner. Along with producer David Tomblin, Markstein was primarily responsible for shaping McGoohan’s ideas for The Prisoner into a form that would attract support from Lew Grade’s ITC. He quit The Prisoner after the first production block of 13 episodes was complete.
There is little revealed about who exactly Number Six was in his previous life in this opening episode. The time and date of birth he gives (4:31am, 19 March 1928) is Patrick McGoohan’s own. All that viewers find out about him is delivered by the script: he has resigned a sensitive post where he had access to secret information. His captors—who may or may not be associated with his former employers—are keen to discover what he knows and whether he has shared this information with anyone else. That establishes the bare bones of the series premise, but as it evolved The Prisoner would morph into something quite different.
McGoohan regarded the script for Arrival as ‘the best pilot script I had ever read’. After extensive sessions with McGoohan working out the basics of the proposed series, Markstein and Tomblin developed the script. Only once they’d finished writing the screenplay for the opening instalment, McGoohan took it upon himself to revise it adding elements that strengthened the political outlook of the character of Number Six, especially in areas of privacy and individuality.
The first elements shot for the series were those that made up the title sequence, filmed on Sunday 3 September 1966, just over a year before the series made its debut on Britain’s ITV. The following week saw much of the location filming take place at Portmeirion, a picturesque environment McGoohan had first encountered while making an episode of his previous show Danger Man. During this filming the intended mechanical and more robotic ‘Rover’ guard was found to be unworkable, and the now-iconic balloon Rover [pictured above] replaced it (not named as such until E05 The Schizoid Man).
For three days from 13 September 1966 a helicopter (the same featured in the episode) was used to capture the aerial footage of Portmeirion that is so effective in giving the viewer (and Number Six, in his flight with Number Two) a quick and easy feel for the terrain and extent of The Village. The geography of the place (although altered somewhat in filming beyond the actual layout of Portmeirion) is made fairly clear in this episode, so each subsequent instalment took the location as read.
At the start of October 1966 The Prisoner production team and cast were working at MGM Borehamwood Studios where the interior sets were built and shot. A single giant circular set was redressed to be used as the Control Room, Number Two’s HQ within the Green Dome (a building that set would clearly not fit within), and the Labour Exchange. Number Six’s new ‘home’, his cottage in The Village, and the interior of the hospital were also built at Borehamwood.
What’s it All Mean? Arrival works as an introduction to the world of The Prisoner as it does not initially present anything dramatically different from the conception of any other action-adventure spy show from the mid-1960s. McGoohan’s heroic figure, trapped against his will, spars with his captors both verbally and physically (in the first of many fist fights, with each episode seemingly mandated to have one or two). The tropes of a traditional spy thriller, perhaps with a dash of John Le Carre complexity, are all present and correct: a mysterious controlling figure, a traitor in the ranks (Paul Eddington’s Cobb), and a McGuffin sought by everyone (the reason for Number Six’s resignation). Perhaps the Rover balloon guard is a bit weird, but there is nothing in Arrival that would serve to confuse or alienate the audience. That wouldn’t be the case by the end of the series.
The first episode clearly lays out McGoohan’s views of the individual versus the state or authority. His character of Number Six embodies such distinct individualism. One of his main additions to the opening script was very important in this respect: ‘We just went a little further in certain areas,’ said McGoohan of his alterations to the work of Markstein and Tomblin. ‘The political area, for instance. That great banner I was always waving around: “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered!” I wouldn’t have done it if I couldn’t have written that in.’
Slowly, however, almost imperceptible, The Prisoner changes from being simply an episode of another spy-fi show like Department S or The Avengers. Strange things begin to happen. The Rover security balloon is an imaginative oddity, and the command given by Number Two to the citizens of The Village is obeyed immediately, almost as if they have no choice (except for one unfortunate, who provides a handy example of Rover’s effectiveness). The Control Room depicts a host of high tech equipment, the purpose of which the audience can only guess at, although it is clear that it plays a part in the total surveillance environment of The Village.
All these elements begin to develop an atmosphere of paranoia and dread, ably captured by McGoohan’s frantic turn as Number Six: he is clearly furious about his predicament, but is doing all he can to hold in any violent or emotional outbursts until he is absolutely pushed to his limit. By the end of the episode, he is almost content to take his new life in The Village at face value, all the while planning to test the extent of his captivity and the effectiveness of his captors’ security methods.
Fist Fight: The first fight of the series for Number Six takes place on the beach.
Alternative Versions: A longer version of Arrival (running 74 minutes) featuring different theme music and several alternative or extended scenes saw a DVD release (in a low resolution copy) in 2003. The later blu-ray release of the series features a much better quality version of this episode, a curious variation on the well-known first episode that Patrick McGoohan hoped no one would ever see…
Trivia: The distinctive Rover sound effect was developed by sound editor Wilf Thompson, drawing on such diverse sources as a choir of monks, a recording of a screaming man, and the sound of a tyre inner tube filled with shotgun pellets.
Verdict: A near-perfect introduction to the series, Arrival sets out the stall of The Prisoner effectively but barely hints at the madness yet to come…
Score (Out of Six): Five
Brian J. Robb