Weird old title sequences: The Prisoner (1967-1968)

An iconic title sequence for an iconic show

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Number 6: Where am I?
Number 2: In the Village.
Number 6: What do you want?
Number 2: Information.
Number 6: Whose side are you on?
Number 2: That would be telling. We want information… information… information
Number 6 : You won’t get it!
Number 2: By hook or by crook we will.
Number 6: Who are you?
Number 2: The new Number 2.
Number 6: Who is Number 1?
Number 2: You are Number 6.
Number 6: I AM NOT A NUMBER, I AM A FREE MAN!
Number 2: (LAUGHS)

A title sequence can serve many functions. Generally, it’s there to give the viewer a flavour of the show: is it action-packed, a comedy, a romance, a drama? It might also be there to introduce the cast.

In olden days – far less than nowadays – it also used tell the story of the show so that viewers could know the format of the show and the backstory, so they could drop in at any point, even if they had missed the first episode.

The Prisoner, one of the most famous and influential TV shows of the 60s and possibly ever, actually used its equally iconic title sequence in place of a first episode. Which you have to admit is weird.

In The Prisoner, a secret agent with no name but who looks and acts suspiciously like John Drake of the earlier international blockbuster TV show Danger Man (Secret Agent in the US) resigns his job. We don’t know why – although we do see him do it in the title sequence – and he heads off home. While he’s packing his bag for what looks like a holiday, he’s gassed through his front door’s keyhole by a mysterious man in a hearse.

He falls unconscious and when he wakes up, he’s in The Village, an Italianate paradise filled with people who only have numbers. They’re all spies and government employees who quit their jobs but whose knowledge was too important to have running around free on the outside, so were brought to The Village to keep their secrets secret.

Bizarre idea concocted by writers? No, it actually happened during World War 2.

Number 6 – as our hero is called in The Village – wants to escape. The people who run The Village – presumably Number 1 but also his deputy, Number 2, who’s played each episode by a different, usually very awesome actor such as Peter Wyngarde, Mary Morris or Leo McKern – want to know why Number 6 resigned and they’re going to stop him leaving, sometimes using a giant white ball called Rover that emerges from the sea, until he tells them.

For 17 episodes it’s a never-ending chess match between the two sides, with 6 using his brains and brawn to fight for his freedom, while the state tries to stop him.

See what happened there? I made the sub-text text. The Prisoner, you see, as well as being marvellous entertainment, is one of the most profound looks at the relationship between the individual and society that British TV has ever produced. Should we be happy to be just numbers and subvert our individuality for the common good, or should the state allow the individual to do as he or she wishes – even if it’s to the detriment of others?

It’s all good, but The Prisoner has many standout episodes:

  • Free For All: in which Number 6 decides to stand for election as Number 2 and is subverted by the process in a metaphor for politics and the media
  • Schizoid Man: in which a double of Number 6 turns up, claiming to be the real thing. Trouble is everyone thinks the real Number 6 is Number 12 and that he’s been hired to make Number 6 doubt himself – which since “Number 6” is a better version of himself than he is, gives 6 a few identity problems of his own
  • The General: a new technology is invented that can imprint knowledge into people’s minds through television – a whole degree in just a few minutes. But does it turn out educated people or just drones who can regurgitate facts?
  • Checkmate: Number 6 concocts his most impressive escape plan yet, using the natural arrogance of the guards against them. But an ironic twist spoils everything.
  • Hammer Into Anvil: When another prisoner kills herself thanks to the cruelty of Number 2, Number 6 organises a campaign to make him think he’s being undermined by his own staff
  • A Change of Mind: Number 6 is ostracised by the Village
  • The Girl Who Was Death: A left over Danger Man script
  • Fall Out: Number 6 escapes, but finds that society is the real prison, and the Village is everywhere.

That final episode proved to be so complex – and mental – that writer/producer/director/star Patrick McGoohan actually faced death threats and had to leave the country (beat that Lost). But the show has remained engrained on the collective TV mind ever since, with remakes threatened every five minutes (AMC and ITV made one last year and it was pants) and homages in everything from The Simpsons to The Tube. It’s certainly left a legacy of catchphrases, some of them oppressive in their Orwellian simplicity:

  • “Be seeing you”
  • “Beautiful day”
  • “Questions are a burden for others, answers are a prisoner for oneself”
  • “Unmutual!”
  • “A still tongue makes for a happy life”
  • “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered! My life is my own.”

And, of course: “I am not a number. I am a free man” – which was always greeted with laughter and only ever appeared in that weird old title sequence:

After the jump, a couple of clips from the remastered Blu-Ray version of the series, including a great scene from my favourite episode, the metaphor-rich, extremely clever, Checkmate. But they all look gorgeous, I have to say.

Checkmate

Free For All

Dance of the Dead