BOOKS
...from the 'pen' of CHRIS GREGORY  

 

 
 

THE PRISONER - A TV CLASSIC
by Chris Gregory

prisoner tvTelevision is the modern world's most powerful and omnipresent medium. Its personalities, its programming schedules and its 'unforgettable moments' are linked to the very rhythms of our lives. TV culture is now getting on for a half-century old, and devotees of long-running shows like Coronation Street have watched characters grow up, have children and grow old in parallel to their own lives. As well as bringing us a huge and ever-expanding variety of drama, entertainment and information, TV has evolved a number of distinctive forms of its own, forms which can only exist in a 'televisual' context and which are intimately linked to the daily rituals of our lives. These are undeniably important cultural phenomena. Such forms, such as the soap opera, the series, the serial, the chat show and the quiz show, are generally TV's most popular products, dominating the all-important ratings charts. Yet it is these shows (rather than single dramas, documentaries or 'classic serials') which still tend to be assigned a low cultural value. Most of what passes for TV 'criticism' still follows the pattern set by Clive James in the 1970's - whereby such shows are trivialised by the lofty dismissal of the 'smartarse' critic who will search for 'clever, witty' one-liners to amuse readers. There is clearly something amiss here...

Take a stroll through any large modern bookshop and you'll find plenty of 'serious' critical works on Film and even on Popular Music. Analyses of the films of Hitchcock, Bergman or Fellini or the songs of Dylan, Reed or Lennon and McCartney are two-a-penny. Yet where are the 'serious' books on TV? There are certainly plenty of 'guides' and reference books available, usually between large-format glossy covers, particularly for 'cult' series like Star Trek or Dr. Who, which will take the reader through laborious 'credits' listings and flat, virtually unreadable precis of each episode. But despite the obviously vast interest in TV (and despite the fact that a large section of its audience is well-educated and already thinks critically about TV), the notion of 'television studies' as such barely exists. The crucial aesthetics of TV remain to be defined. Perhaps this is because, as Robert C. Allen argues, TV appears to be too close to us for any kind of critical distance to be formed:

"For many people... television has the same status in their lives as the food they eat for breakfast or the way their faces look in the mirror in the morning; it is something so close, so much a part of day-to-day existence, that it remains invisible as something to be analysed or consciously considered..." (*1)
In order, therefore, to come to an appropriate estimation of the aesthetics of TV, it is necessary to take this daily/weekly ritual functioning of TV into account. Just as an aesthetics of film has emerged which takes into account the context of the cinema as the prime site for audience consumption, so the aesthetics of TV must take into account its repetitive, weekly nature. Just as film studies takes into account the institutional factors which determine the singular or (more often) shared authorship of a film, so 'television studies' must take into account the very different conditions of production that apply to TV shows. And just as the quintessentially cinematic codes have been seen as being identifiable within the 'visual language' first developed by silent filmmakers and later refined by 'auteurs' like Hitchcock and Scorcese, so their equivalents in TV must consider a programme's inherently 'televisual' qualities. Thus it is through the study of TV's most distinctly 'televisual' forms - the series and the serial - that any formulation of TV aesthetics must begin.

Both the series and the serial emerged in the 1950's, when TV companies quickly recognised the need to 'hook' viewers into regular viewing habits. Such programmes are structured in distinctly televisual ways. Their length is determined by standard programme timeslots, which (for all but BBC programmes) are given internal structure by being broken up by several advertising breaks. A TV serial is thus characteristically structured around a series of minor 'cliffhangers', culminating in a major cliffhanging situation at the end - the purpose of the cliffhangers being, of course, to keep viewers 'tuned in'. The TV series generally consists if the adventures of a number of heroic figures who face some adversity in each episode, over which they inevitably triumph. Both forms must appeal to a very wide audience so as to achieve respectable ratings-chart positions, which are necessary for a show to continue. Thus, even those shows with a decidely 'intellectual' content (such as Twin Peaks, Inspector Morse or Hill Street Blues) also contain frequent action-oriented elements such as murders, fight scenes and chase scenes. In the past many TV critics have worked under the superficial assumption that such apparent limitations mean that the series and the serial are forms which can never be considered as seriously as programmes such as the single play or the documentary, forms which have their origin outside the TV context. Yet the use of cliffhangers and the need for 'action-scenes' are merely the dramatic conventions of the particular form. In essence they are no more restrictive than the conventions of the Elizabethan theatre were for Shakespeare, the Italian opera for Verdi, the Victorian novel for Hardy or the thriller for Hitchcock. Indeed, such works, conceived within popular dramatic forms, have the advantage of being multi-layered, accessible to readers or viewers on a number of different levels, and containing elements which will appeal to both intellectuals and mere 'thrill-seekers' in the audience. Often the conventional structures within which such artists have worked give particular resonance to their works and help to make them timeless 'classics'.

once upon a timeWith the coming of the 'video revolution' in the 1980's and the growing plethora of satellite and cable channels in the 90's, TV shows are no longer merely disposable. They can be collected and categorised (and therefore, evaluated at leisure), just like books. Whilst an earlier generation of TV viewers' main complaint about programming was that there were 'too many repeats', the modern viewer will accept and watch many programmes that are not current, just as the devotee of literature will read many books that are not necessarily contemporary. A number of TV series and serials have emerged as 'classics' of the medium. A visit to a high-street video shop is likely to give some indication of which shows have become 'classics'. Finding a copy of a video of Blackadder or Monty Python or Star Trek or Twin Peaks will be relatively easy, due to their established 'classic' status; whereas many other programmes (which may have achieved much higher original viewing figures) will be harder to find. Quality, it seems, will out. Within the (considerable) dramatic limitations of TV series and serials, certain writers, directors and producers have created TV shows with lasting interest, which will appeal to successive generations of viewers, and which thus acquire 'classic' status and continue to accumulate cultural importance.

Perhaps the chief problem in forming a notion of TV aesthetics is that of authorship. The question of authorship has been a major concern of film studies since Truffaut, Godard and the Cahiers Du Cinema critics of the 1950's first attempted to identify patterns of authorship (and key 'auteurs') in the cinema. Of course, the 'auteur theory' has always been complicated by the existence of film as a collaborative medium. The director of a film is often, but not always, its 'author'. In order to determine the degree of authorship a director (or screenwriter) has with regard to a particular film, film critics and students need to examine the conditions of production of that film. It will often turn out that a film is partly 'authored' by the corporate structure (such as a film studio) it was made by. Thus the 'MGM musical' or the 'Hammer horror' are generic forms in which individual directors strive towards a 'corporate style'. In TV, the 'author' of a series or a serial - particularly should they be long-running ones - is difficult or even impossible to identify. A long-running 'TV text' such as Dr. Who or M.A.S.H. or EastEnders is characterised by its multiple authorship. Yet individual shows often have an overall 'creator' (usually an Executive Producer) who has the original conception of the series which successive authors will attempt to 'write around'. Such figures, such as Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek), Phil Redmond (Grange Hill, Brookside, Hollyoaks) or Tony Warren (Coronation Street) are the nearest the TV series or serial usually gets to genuine 'authors'. Just as in the cinema, where only a few writer-directors such as Woody Allen, Terry Gilliam or David Lynch appear to have complete 'authorial' control over their films, in the TV context such authorship is even more difficult to realise.

One TV series, however, was the first to break the mould of corporate authorship. Its extraordinary conditions of production led to a situation where it became the vehicle for the individual vision of one man. The series was The Prisoner, made for Lew Grade's ITC for ITV between 1966-68, and the 'author' was its star, Patrick McGoohan. McGoohan did not, of course, write and direct every episode. Such an undertaking would clearly have been impossible given the time McGoohan was given to make the series. Yet as the series' 'Executive Producer' McGoohan exercised an unprecedented amount of control over every aspect of the series, including scripting, direction, editing, costume and set design. He personally wrote five of the seventeen episodes and directed four. Even more remarkably, The Prisoner was a series in which McGoohan himself played the only recurring major character. Such an achievement was only possible by McGoohan assuming a dictatorial role over the production team and being prepared to push his team to work 'impossibly' long hours (12 hour days, 7 days a week, according to many accounts). McGoohan was also lucky to have been given what he described as ...carte blanche... by Lou Grade to make the series. At the time McGoohan, who had been playing the role of spy John Drake in Danger Man since 1960, was British TV's highest-paid actor and thus had won himself considerable corporate power. The company he set up, Everyman Films, received virtually no interference from its ITC bosses.

Such a situation, which was unique in TV terms at the time, meant that The Prisoner became a vehicle for one clear authorial vision, and that the whole series (apart, perhaps from one or two dodgy episodes) holds together as a unit, a twelve-hour 'epic' (spread over 17 episodes) in which McGoohan was able to articulate his view of the dangers inherent in certain trends in contemporary society. These dangers - of increasing surveillance, of the misuse of technology, medicine and drugs, and of the continued loss of individuality of people within a computerised mass society, have become increasingly contemporary ones as the years have gone by. The Prisoner can be seen as a work of prophecy. Certainly, the concerns it espouses are probably more relevant today than when it was first broadcast. Although it is in some ways a very characteristic product of the 1960's, it avoids the easy moralising and utopianism of that period and instead creates a picture of compromised humanity within which the voice of the individual has to shout louder and louder to be heard.

"I AM NOT A NUMBER..." McGoohan cries in the series' unforgettable and stylish opening sequence "...I AM A FREE MAN!"
At this, his captors laugh long and hard.

Although The Prisoner is concerned with very primal political, psychological and philosophical themes, it works out these themes within the context - and the dramatic structures- of a typically action-oriented TV series of the time. It contains frequent fight and chase scenes and the tension characteristically rises before advertising breaks. McGoohan himself plays a 'superhero' character, endlessly resourceful and imaginative, a dab hand with his fists as well as his brain. On the surface, The Prisoner is a 'secret agent' series. The secret agent genre was particularly popular in the 1960's, especially in the figure of James Bond, though McGoohan's character in Danger Man had always been defined as the polar opposite of Bond - the 'spy with no guns and no girls'- a spy, in fact, with moral principles. McGoohan's character in The Prisoner, who remains unnamed throughout, is a development of his Danger Man persona. At the beginning of the series, the Prisoner is captured by unknown forces (after resigning his job as an agent) and is taken to the mysterious 'Village' (a superficially pleasant place full of apparently happy, smiling 'citizens') where, through the course of the series he and other ex-agents and 'important people' are brainwashed, tortured and kept under constant surveillance. They are known only by numbers, and all traces of their individuality are submerged. Only the Prisoner himself is able to resist this. McGoohan uses the generic setting to turn this apparent 'spy story' into an allegory of the contemporary human condition. An episode such as Free For All satirises the political process, as a drugged and brainwashed Prisoner is coerced into taking part in a Village 'election' which is really a predetermined sham. In The General the Village employs a supercomputer to brainwash its citizens with 'facts' in a clear reference to the education system. Throughout the series, mood-altering drugs are used on the central character, making it hard for the viewer to seperate 'reality' from his hallucinations, all of which reflects on the position of hallucinogenic drugs in 1960's 'alternative culture'. In A Change Of Mind the techniques of the then-fashionable behavioural psychology are used in a brutalised form throughout. And every movement of every 'citizen' of the Village is watched and monitored by the Village controllers equipped with 'futuristic' surveillance technology. In The Schizoid Man, with its 'doppelganger' theme, Dance Of The Dead, with its 'war of the sexes' and in the war of intellects in Checkmate, psychological themes are developed and explored.

The Prisoner has a number of clear antecedents in the realm of the distopian fantasy. The Village corresponds to the worlds of Kafka's The Castle, Huxley's Brave New World or - perhaps most obviously - Orwell's 1984. Yet in many ways its overall vision is more universal, and certainly more contemporary, than any of those works. Whilst the worlds of Kafka, Huxley and Orwell are obviously brutalised in psychological, biological and political ways, The Prisoner - while containing all of these elements itself - sets its brutality behind a cheerful Village facade of pleasantry and superficiality which resembles closely the tone of modern advertising and TV culture. The Prisoner, although it apparently focus on the East-West conflict of the Cold War, is more fundamentally concerned with spiritual imprisonment in a contemporary world in which such superficiality diminishes real spirituality. In a 1984 interview McGoohan commented on the series' origins:

mcgoohan...it was in my mind from seven years old, the Individual against the bureaucracy... the Individual against so many things that were so confining... the church, for instance...

...it was almost impossible to do anything that wasn't some kind of sin... (*2)

The Prisoner - despite its status as a TV series - stands as an authentic 'classic text' in its medium. The conditions of its authorship and production may make it in many ways atypical of TV, yet it demonstrates most emphatically that TV need not be a medium that deals in the merely trivial and the disposable. It is hard to imagine, viewing the series on video today, that McGoohan was not in some way attempting to create a work of art which would stand for posterity, despite the fact that 1966-68 was well before the VCR became a household object. By working within the constraints of his medium, McGoohan also created a series which appeals to viewers on many levels - as well as being a political satire, philosophical enquiry and psychological treatise, it contains elements of comedy, tragedy, action-adventure, science-fiction and spy thriller. In the final episodes, Once Upon A Time and Fall Out, McGoohan (knowing that the series is about to be curtailed anyway) abandons the dramatic conventions of the TV series almost entirely and produces two episodes - one intensely theatrical and reminiscent of the work of Beckett and the other surreally cinematic and evocative of the work of European art directors like Bunuel - which stretched the boundaries and possibilities of the TV medium in a completely unprecedented way, just as Beckett and Bunuel did in their chosen mediums.

The Prisoner gives no pat answers to the many dramatic and moral questions it raises. The Prisoner's real name is never revealed - he remains an 'Everyman' figure symbolising the eternal struggle of the Individual against Society. The location of the mysterious Village is never really made clear - it could be anywhere (or everywhere...). The revelation of the mysterious, all-controlling Number 1 in the final episode occurs in a few brief seconds - and is so quick that even sharp-eyed viewers may miss its significance. In this way McGoohan deliberately and quite consciously invites the viewer to watch again, and The Prisoner is a series which repays the viewer with more and more 'meaning' on repeated viewings. It is thus a text created for posterity in an apparently disposable medium, and crucially one which extends and develops and tests the limitations and possibilities of that medium itself. Thus it is an authentic 'classic work' of TV, and a model of what the TV medium can achieve.

It has been rumoured that a feature film of The Prisoner (plans for which have existed in half-realised form for some years) is finally about to be made. The makers of the film will undoubtedly find it tremendously difficult to create a movie which will live up to the expectations of the series' (often fanatical) fans. If the film is a 'summary' of the plot of the original series it risks the possibility of trivialising its themes. Perhaps, like the Star Trek films, it will attempt to add an additional level of narrative to the one the series provides. In any case, the film's makers (and McGoohan is rumoured to be involved) face a unique challenge and whatever the results are, The Prisoner's translation into the cinematic medium may provide a fascinating insight into the qualities of, and the differences between, the aesthetics of Film and TV.

(*1) Robert C. Allen, from the Introduction to Channels of Discourse
Reassembled : TV and Contemporary Criticism, p. 3.

(*2) Patrick McGoohan quoted in The Prisoner File, Channel 4 documentary (1984).

 

COPYRIGHT CHRIS GREGORY (C) 1999-2002 - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Digital Generation