THE return of an old friend tonight, re-invented for the 21st century.
ITV1’s new version of 1960s’ cult classic The Prisoner may not attract a massive audience, despite its primetime slot.
But having seen the first episode three times, as well as later episodes, I’d recommend that if it seems like something for you – watch, and try and stick with it.
I was lucky enought to discuss The Prisoner 2010 over afternoon tea with Sir Ian McKellen, who plays Two.
You can read the feature interview here.
I was also invited along to the premiere of the first two episodes in London’s West End last November.
Just as the six episodes in this ITV / AMC co-production were being broadcast in America.
Last Wednesday night I went along to the BFI Southbank to see another “exclusive screening” of episode one in a cinema packed with fans.
Followed by a Q&A involving American actor Jim Caviezel, who plays The Prisoner – Six / Michael.
Also on stage was actress Hayley Atwell, who co-stars as Lucy / 4-15.
Plus director Nick Hurran, executive producer Michele Buck, designer Michael Pickwoad and discussion chairman Matthew Sweet.
Below is my full transcription of the BFI event.
If you’ve come to this page ahead of seeing the first episode, you may want to bookmark to read afterwards. Unless you can’t wait.
Otherwise it’s a bit of a long read but, hopefully, some of The Prisoner fans past, present and future might appreciate it.
My own suspicion is that many critics will miss the point of this new series and not have the patience to persevere.
But that, like the original, it will become a cult of its own, with its own history.
The Q&A covered quite a bit of ground, including discussion of Rover, Hayley’s very spooky mail delivery that same day and the extraordinary location of Swakopmund on the Namibian coast.
And just how many clues you will probably miss on first viewing of episode one.
Matthew asked the first set of questions immediately after the screening, before opening it up to the audience:
Q: “What’s the relevance of this story now?”
Nick Hurran: “Why visit it now? It (the original) was very much a product of the time…very much a political commentary and now still inspired by the idea of conflict with individuals and the State or our society, the desire to resist and rebel against that authority. I think post-9/11, post financial crash, it’s as relevant to be re-asking those questions about our personal liberty.”
Q: “What are you trying to provoke in us because there are some pretty provocative images that you offer us here? We just saw one at the end of this episode, those grey glass twin towers?”
Nick Hurran: “There’s many images. There’s many images that harp back to pay sort of a quick doffing of the hat to where it’s come from. Images of nightmare and control. It’s how much we want to go for that freedom or allow ourselves to be controlled. Somewhere, The Village offers a sanctuary. Everybody’s happy. As long as you don’t ask too many questions, everything will be lovely. A man enters who wants to ask some questions.”
Q: “What’s so alarming about The Village, Jim Caviezel, is that it’s a world in which quite a lot of people would like to live. There’s something sort of reassuring about it and something seductive about it. When people talk about the kind of world that they want, it might have something in common with that rather frightening world that we see on screen? Is there a sense in which this is a series about something that’s out there in the real world? Is this a sort of picture of America that’s being offered here?”
Jim Caviezel: “I think there’s a little bit in it for everybody, you know. And still I find it very entertaining. I had no preconceived notions of it. I didn’t even know what The Prisoner was. I just thought (writer) Bill Gallagher wrote a brilliant piece of material and I read it and it jumped off the page at me. I think that it’s something that is worth a view and something more than that. It’s something I think that’s going to last.”
Q: “Did you decide to investigate the original version or remain unpolluted by knowledge of it?”
Jim Caviezel: “No, no. I didn’t check out any of the Jesus roles, either. Or the Monte Cristos. I wanted it to be my own take. In much the same way that the original dealt with….the Cold War…now one man could exchange his life for millions, for an ideal. It has all that but still there’s a lot of great energy to it. There’s a lot of eye candy involved in that. Nick shot something really beautiful, Hayley’s wonderful in it, I’m pretty good (smiling).”
Q: “Are you going to look at it?”
Jim Caviezel: “At the original? Absolutely. When this is all said and done. It’s sitting on my TV at home. When I’m done with this, I’ve been waiting for this whole thing to be over with and I’m going to watch all of it. I notice this guy over here (in the front row), he’s got the jacket on.”
Q: “Michele Buck, when this series ran originally it was a programme that ITV were sort of slightly freaked out and scared of, wasn’t it? It was put in a very strange slot, it wasn’t something that was entirely popular with the people who commissioned it. How can we be sure that history won’t repeat itself?”
Michele Buck: “Well, it was like that on the first airing and then it became a cult and then people loved it. When we looked at it, it is relevant to today with security cameras and we can track everyone by their credit cards. So we are living in that state where we’re totally controlled. So it felt relevant. It is a bold piece of television. It was bold in its day and our version – although we take the same conceits of the original, we’ve invented it in a more filmic modern way. But it’s funadmentally at its core, it has the same values. So for ITV it is a bold commission and, actually, hurrah, because it shows that ITV have the breadth and the confidence to want to put out different pieces. And it’s got a terrific slot. It’s on Saturday night. You’re going to get most generations at 9.30, so it’s good.”
Q: “Is this still the same programme, The Prisoner, in the same way that, say, the new Doctor Who is clearly still the old Doctor Who?”
Michele Buck: “Well, I think we’ve taken more liberties than that. And I think we wanted to. Doctor Who is Doctor Who. What we’ve done is taken what was at the core. The core of this was, ‘Why was this man captured? What were they after? Who was in charge? Where was the real world?’ We’ve taken those same conceits. We did nod to the original. The fans out there will know the episode titles and, of course, we’ve kept Rover. There’s a Penny Farthing somewhere. And originally we had an idea that the old man at the front might have been played by Patrick (McGoohan) and we did talk about it and he was quite ill and LA-bound. And actually died while we were making it. So we never quite got there.”
Q: “What kind of conversations did you have with him about it?”
Michele Buck: “Will you play the old man?” (laughter)
Nick Hurran: “He said, ‘There’s only one part I want to play.’ I think Ian McKellen was playing it.”
Michele Buck: “So we are tipping our hat to the original and for people that know the original there’s lots of fun in it for them to see and there’s lines of dialogue. Bill the writer was reverential to it, but we did re-invent it.”
Q: “A lot of the nodding has been done by you, in effect, hasn’t it, Michael? There are allusions to the aesthetics of the Englishman in there?”
Michael Pickwoad: “Yes, there are certain things. The nature of the place being a very out of place place, like Portmeirion was a strange town built in Wales. Swakopmund is a strange town built by Germans in Africa and it’s like Darmstadt-on-Sea with palm trees. It’s strange and peculiar and has a very simplified childlike quality with goes with the safeness, making it a very desirable place to be in. And certainly there’s a chessboard in 93’s flat…a sixties flat with the big round arch and things. Not slavishly but just so it jogs the memory.”
A clip was then shown on the big screen of Patrick McGoohan’s original arrival in The Village – with Jim Caviezel turning around in his chair on stage to come face-to-face with his 1960s’ counterpart.
Q: “Michele, we talked about ITV’s attitude to this series historically. What do you think it is that’s in the atmosphere right now that, in a way, allows a series as elliptical, as opaque as this to be going out at 9.30 on a Saturday night? Is there something in the air? Are audiences more accepting of that kind of strangeness?”
Michele Buck: “If you look at ITV’s commissioning, they have Collision, was a bold piece of drama, Lost In Austen. And if we look at the Americans with Lost and even going back to Twin Peaks, every so often we’ll all do something like that. Most of those shows, of course, the Losts and The Truman Show, all those, they all owe their roots back to this show. It was the first one.”
Nick Hurran: “Just watching that (the original), you go, I’d love to have been there in the office with ITV when they sat down and go, ‘Now I’ve got this idea…there’s this big ball that comes up…’ And also now moving forward, re-making it, what a fantastically brave decision to take that, to move forward. It’s not an easy sell. But a brave piece of drama and where the central core remains. You said, ‘It almost looks like you want to be there.’ Well lots of people when we were out filming were going, ‘Well wait a minute, this really feels like we’d actually want to be here. You’d actually want to be part of this, where everything is provided, where everything’s smiling and lovely all day long.’ And that is what attracts a big audience, I hope. It’s a central theme of – are we better to be controlled or do we want that freedom at the sacrifice of some of the joy that that can bring?”
Q: “But to tell that story in such a non-linear kind of way, to have this narrative which is very fractured..?”
Nick Hurran: “It’s fantastic to encourage more inventive ways of storytelling. Television has gone such a long way to push the boundaries of dramatic storytelling now. I think in some respects, as much, if not more than film in many British and American series. There’s a place for everything, for linear storytelling, for non-linear storytelling. But I think audiences now really like to be on the edge of their seats. What’s happening? Where are we going?”
Michele Buck: “And at the heart of this series, every episode has a story and it is a story of love, betrayal, rivalry. In each episode, without ruining any of it, there is a self-contained adventure that happens and it’s just good storytelling. It just happens to be in The Village and it happens to be in a modern way of doing it. But it’s actually storytelling. And that’s what people want to watch. This is just a modern way of re-inventing an old friend.”
Nick Hurran: “I was amazed watching – I haven’t seen that first episode for quite some time – how many clues are in that first episode as to where it goes and what happens. It expands. There are many things that I hope you go back and see afterwards and go, ‘Oh God, that’s what that was.’”
Q: “What exactly are these clues to? Is this as open as the original?”
Jim Caviezel: “Early on, I’d only read the first four and then five and six came and Bill sat with me in New York and he told what was going to happen in five and six. I’ve never agreed to do anything unless I’ve read it. But from what he told me, I said, ‘Bill, if that’s what you’re going to do, then I agree to do this piece.’ And I just wanted to say one thing about this guy (Nick), this is not just a director, this is a film-maker. Extraordinary.”
Q: “Was it important for you to be, in a way, given the key to the mystery?”
Jim Caviezel: “Look, even when we were shooting it, I was barely getting the scenes that I had. At the time they were being, ‘OK, here this is re-written,’ and walk out and go on out to do it. It’s probably the only time that I’ve ever had to look down at cheat sheets a few times, when I was with Hayley there. She’s a great actress and she went with it. And also our set designer here was extraordinary. The sets we had – Swakopmund…when someone doesn’t get in the way themselves…he could easily have gone in there and started nailing things up. But he took what was there and used what was there. Many Americans are blown away when they find out that that place really exists. Those little teepee houses realy exist.”
Q: “How did you find the location?”
Michael Pickwoad: “It’s been a place that’s been stayed in many times by film makers who use the desert, which, of course, we do as well. But I think we were the first film to actually use Swakopmund as the town. And it became more and more perfect as we went along. You realised that it was the African Portmeirion. It was this place that shouldn’t exist at all but does. And it was like everything you know and it was like Germany. But it wasn’t. Everything’s rather simplified. The original was in the sixties, when that was modern and brave. Of course, we used the sixties as the ‘safe’. It’s a time that’s near enough but long enough ago, it would have been when people’s mothers and grandmothers lived. It’s then. And so by harking back to a style which is quite well known now, it became a rather sweet and rather cosy existence. All the interiors were based on that. Everything had something that somebody would know.”
Q: “Hayley, how was it for you working in this strange location? What sort of atmosphere does this town have?”
Hayley Atwell: “It was very odd. It was extraordinary. We were there for about three or four months (including studios in Cape Town) and it felt like we were, in a way, kind of imprisoned as actors. As JIm said, we didn’t have the final scripts, so we were all very much working day to day, scene by scene. In a way, ironically, it actually meant that there was a real freedom within that, because it meant that as actors, it felt that we all had to be quite present with it. We all had loads of conversations and arguments about what we thought was going on and points of view from everyone’s character. I hadn’t actually seen the original. I was ‘minus one’ when it came out, so I didn’t feel like I had the pressure of any of that going on. But what was great about it, this particular feel of what we were doing, is that every character – and you’ll see later on – they’re long and three-dimensional. Everyone has a journey and a reason as to what’s going on and why they’re there. Particularly the women are a lot more rounded. And that was wonderful to play.
“A very odd thing that happened today was…a year and a half ago I had a break of about two weeks, where I wasn’t working on set. So I flew back to London. The rest of the cast were gagging for some Sunday papers and some PG Tips and some Dairy Milk. So I sent a massive box. Two weeks later I fly back and it turns out the box didn’t arrive. We said, ‘That’s so weird, that’s so Prisoner, that’s amazing.
“The weirdest thing is that at about two ‘o clock this afternoon, the doorbell goes and it’s the package. It was completely battered and bruised. I don’t know what happened to it or where it went. But for it to arrive today of all days when this is happening tonight. It’s so weird. The whole experience was quite bizarre. You have to kind of let go and go with it and I’m really pleased I did because it was a very special experience.”
Q: “Is that how it was for you, Jim? All sorts of doubt about what’s going on. All the normal things that an actor has to hold on to are just not there?”
Jim Caviezel: “It could have been in a studio but you wouldn’t have seen the kind of performances. I generally like hard and tough conditions. They do something to you physically and you see it up there. I remember lugging that guy up and down that hill (the old man in the first episode). Man, I had a back problem for the rest of the picture. When I was walking into the village there, I was limping in, and I really was limping.”
Q: “But is it important for you, when you play a scene in this series, to have a very firm idea of what’s going on in it? What everything means, what the nuances are?”
Jim Caviezel: “Sure. It had a structure but there was a bit of a rough draft about it. Obviously we had a direction where we wanted to go. But beneath everything, from some great directors that I’ve worked with, and I know a great one when I see one, as Nick is. But to listen to him – you have a captain and you really know that we’re heading in the right direction. I felt that, even though some of the stuff had to be changed and re-done. And, of course, Swakopmund was dictating a certain element to it too and you’ve got to be able to go with that.”
Nick Hurran: “I think the first episode really gives a taster of where it goes because it does become more surreal, more psychological, for where these guys (the actors) have to go in their heads. It does become much more akin to where the original goes as a psychological thriller. They had to go to some fairly dark places. Where Six goes and where his character is taken to, the first one is really quite conventional in comparision to where it goes.”
Q: “How dark did it get for you then, Jim? What dark places were you taken to?”
Jim Caviezel: “There’s a therapy place I (Six) went to. I found as it went along and I got to, obviously, see the whole thing, it just gets better and better and you get more involved in, and you really invest in these characters. And anything can happen. Anybody can die. Even me. I could come back from the dead. Of all the pieces of work I’ve done, it’s right up there. Ian McKellen is just a genius, like a teacher. I’ve worked with a few actors that think a lot of themselves. He could and I’d still respect him. But he’s just a humble guy that really made me better.”
Q: “Michael, can I ask you a bit more about creating the look for this series? Because if there’s one thing that has survived in the cultural memory of this, it’s the visuals, isn’t it? It’s that font, it’s the architecture of Portmeirion. Did you go about looking for analogues of those things?”
Michael Pickwoad: “Yes, there was always that sense of this created place about Portmeirion. Swakopmund is a bit more stretched out than that – it’s a bigger place. The feel of it, it was walking through the street with these sand surfaces, it was like walking through a Hopper painting. It was more a detatched one step from a reality. But it was real. And I must say, after you’d been there for a week or two you became quite Village yourself. You were trapped in this little place which, like on the map we made, it is in the middle of nowhere. You see it from the aeroplane if you fly over it and go to Cape Town and there’s nothing else. It’s just there in the middle of absolutely nowhere. So that helped as well. You used the sense that it gave you. And then we had to build the cafe and we had to build the interiors of various things but you based it on that and twisted it around a bit to make it work for you.”
Q: “Hopper’s in there, Goya is in there too, I think, with your tree?”
Michael Pickwoad: “The tree, yes. Strange subliminal images come in. Certainly one of the sets we haven’t seen – the dark interrogation room, this was this place where people go. And you thought, ‘Well, go for it. This is The Prisoner.’ So you can go back to the sort of sixties sci-fi but also you look at American aeroplanes now, it’s very modern. In fact, the sixties is very relevant in visual terms now. Everyone knows the sixties. It’s a sort of iconic time. It doesn’t go away. So you can play on that and somehow bring what was then up to date.”
Q: “Allusions to the old series – a lava lamp and..?”
Michael Pickwoad: “Certainly those are the things that you think, ‘What did it say, what was it showing?’ And you just bring them in. You just throw these elements in.”
Matthew Sweet then threw open questions to the audience:
Man No 1: “First of all congratulations to all concerned for having pulled off Hamlet without the ghost, so to speak. There’s a ghostly theme about the whole project. As is well known, this project was fraught with tremendous difficulties. Looking back on it, what were the worst of these difficulties, the most challenging?”
Michele Buck: “Anything of this scale, even to have the concept of this scale is hard. So the original thing of doing a big co-production in itself is an immense task. As it happened, AMC and ITV, once they were pitched, they were always very committed to it. It was easy once we said we were doing a big co-production with definite partners and we started. I suppose, honestly, starting a production where Bill knew where he was going with it, but we started production before he’d finished writing it. That’s always tricky. Although I would argue it probably allowed us to see what was really working and refine it. There were script changes. But when you saw something that was really working or something that, maybe, you weren’t working enough, rather than be pigeon-holed into what we thought we were going to do, we would then experiment and say, ‘Could we change the set? Could we do this?’ We were always trying to make it better and react to the original. Because the original was quite crazy. And that was hard. And it’s sometimes hard doing a drama without a traditional beginning, middle and end. We’ve got to put our own framework in it in terms of pace and energy and still do good storytelling. So the project was hard but it’s not a conventional drama.”
Man No 2: “First of all to add my congratulations as well. I think for most people, one of the most iconic images associated with The Prisoner is the big white ball. Now my question for Nick is – was there ever at any point any consideration or discussion about updating that or even trying the show without it?”
Nick Hurran: “I don’t think discussion is the word that could possibly get anywhere near how much talk went in to Rover. It’s the first thing anybody says to you. When you say ‘The Prisoner,’ they go, ‘Is Rover in it? Is it the white ball?’ There was endless discussions about Rover. I took heart in researching that. The Prisoner fans will know that Rover was a big mistake. They’d spent a lot of money on the original series on a big mechanical thing that would float and be all sorts of different menaces. And it sank on the first day of filming and they couldn’t get it back. So they improvised with these weather balloons and created one of our big icons of British television. So we try transparent Rover and we tried chrome Rover and we tried all sorts of menace. And everybody unanimously sat and went, ‘Well where’s Rover?’ So, yes, endless discussions and we’re really happy that our friend returned. Again, discussions about – should he be in the first film, should he wait until the second film to be revealed? It’s tricky. But right at the very end we were doing some extra bits of stills photography down by Eastbourne somewhere. Just some stills. And I said, ‘Let’s take along a real weather balloon, because it’s the first time we’ve taken out a real weather balloon, and just see if we can do some stills with it.’ And all the people on the beach went, ‘Ooh, are you filming The Prisoner?’ Because they knew this white balloon. They’re very friendly, apart from ours.”
Man No 3: “There was uproar when the last episode (of the original) went out. I have to be careful how I frame this question because I have cheated, in a way, and seen the whole story on the Region 1 DVD. I’m not going to give anything away but – what will constitute success at the end of this? Are you looking for that cult effect, are you looking for big audience figures, are you looking for controversy?”
Michele Buck: “I don’t think The Prisoner…it was never mainstream drama, ever. So I think we’d be delusional if we thought it was going to be mainstream drama with those viewing figures. On the other hand, ITV have given it a very good slot on a Saturday night which will attract a certain audience. And I think the old Prisoner fans will come to it and maybe some new people will be curious. But it’s not conventional storytelling. So I suppose if a segment of the ITV audience love it and the critics quite like it and we haven’t totally offended the original Prisoner fans, I think that will be a success.”
Man No 3: “Would one success be future conventions in Swakopmund?” (Laughter)
Michele Buck: “That would be lovely. We would all love to go back there because it is a fantastically whacky place and we were very happy in Swakopmund.”
Nick Hurran: “I think everybody was aiming to make brave, thought-provoking spectacular entertainment. I don’t think you can emulate what Patrick McGoohan did. I don’t think you could ever. And everybody was very conscious – we were aware someone was trying to be too…everyone rein back in because you can’t do that again. I don’t think you can possible repeat that. So it is for a wider audience. I’m at an advantage as well, I’ve seen all six. There are more answers. It is epic entertainment.”
Michele Buck: “What we didn’t want to do is, I think, to have just gone on some mad extravaganza and not give any answers at the end, I think everyone would have been really cross with us, because that just feels cheating. We have tried to put in answers to all the very difficult questions we set ourselves. And only when you get to episode six will we know whether or not the audience are satisfied by that. But we have attempted that and we tried to…there was something strange in the original but actually the world wasn’t such a scary place. Now with videos on every corner – do we have privacy, don’t we have privacy, do we trust our government, are they lying to us? Are the banks telling the truth? Our level of personal paranoia is much higher now than it ever was in those days. We’ve tried to feed a bit of that in so it has a contemporary relevance, so it feels like it has some touchstones with today and it has answers. So we’ve tried to get the balance and you’ll all tell me afterwards whether or not we got it right.”
Man No 3: “I think it’s very successful. A tightrope walked very well – as an old fan of the old series.”
Man No 4: “I find it fascinating that 40 years later, the issues still say the same, Everywhere now there’s conspiracy. Everyone’s talking about hoaxes and all sorts of things.”
Man No 5: “Patrick McGoohan played the part sardonic and surly and quite aggressive and intense all the way through and he didn’t have a love interest. I just wondered…could you have that kind of performance now? Do you think that would work for a modern audience? Because Jim’s portrayal seemed really a lot more subtle and nuanced and almost metrosexual.” (laughter)
Hayley Atwell: “It reminded me of when I saw Daniel Craig doing Bond and he got all emotional and thinking that it was a modern man compared to the earlier Bonds. And from watching Jim I felt that as well, that there was a lot more nuances and subtleties which are far more up to date. Jim does it brilliantly because it’s very believable and in doing that he doesn’t lose any of his manliness at all. That’s my answer.” (laughter)
Q: ‘Isn’t this odd because this Number Six is a more normal kind of guy than Patrick McGoohan’s character. What was he (Patrick) – we assumed that he was an agent, some kind of spy? Whereas we know that this Number Six is…well…he seems to be a man who watches people..?”
Michele Buck (smiling): “I’m sure we can’t answer that question.”
Man No 6: “Was any thought ever given at any stage to use one of the other iconic aspects of the original series, which was the theme music?”
Michele Buck: “Yes. It was discussed and dismissed. Because we weren’t trying to replicate the original series, We were trying to just take the themes and update it and present a Prisoner relevant to today. And the music belonged in that era. It didn’t translate. It didn’t work for us.”
Nick Hurran: “It’s a very different time now, 40-odd years on, to create something as uncomfortable – undoubtedly the brilliant original series was really uncomfortable. The aim, obviously, is to try and build the pressure of the uncomfort through the six episodes. And the music of the sixties era is almost now a pastiche and almost a cliche. It would become like a sketch show. We tried to hint at ‘you’re here’ in taxis and cars and cafes and things. There is, again, a nod at that sound of the era. But for the score itself, which I think Rupert Gregson-Williams has done the most magnificent score for this – it’s really uncomfortable but very contemporary.”
Man No 7: “In the original series there was obviously suspense, there was intrigue, there was surrealism. But there was also a sort of wry, dry humour going on. This episode obviously has lots of intrigue, there’s lots of unanswered question, it really makes me want to go and wait for the second episode to come out. There was some hints at humour, obviously with the fold-out map scene. But I wondered whether you were intending on, perhaps, putting more humour into this to sort of balance the intrigue within the series?”
Michele Buck: “You’re only seeing a little bit of Ian in this one and his character has that tone to his performance. So there’s more from Ian when he’s there.”
Nick Hurran: “I think, again, the irony, the wit of the original series, it’s a slightly different tone to where this series has gone. There are some great, priceless witty scenes to come. It’s in a slightly different tone as in the performance. It’s not an angry man. It’s not of that era. The tone, the wit, is perhaps more contemporary now as well.”
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading.
Be seeing you…
The Prisoner begins on ITV1 at 9.30pm tonight.
The Prisoner: Sir Ian McKellen