April 11, 2010
The Prisoner: remake of a 1960s TV classic
It has taken five years, two directors and a desert shoot to film the revival of The Prisoner and it was as weird as the plot
Controversial: Jim Caviezel as Six
Benji WilsonOn Saturday, you will finally get to see ITV’s six-hour remake of The Prisoner, the trippy 1960s cult classic. Enjoy it: you are witnessing the culmination of five years’ toil. That would be a protracted gestation for a feature film. For a television series, it is an eternity. But then The Prisoner is not a normal television series. Even those who have no recollection of Patrick McGoohan’s 1967 original will be aware of it: a surrealist knockabout featuring giant killer bouncy balls, a strange “Village” that was both a paradise you would never want to leave and a hell you couldn’t escape, glassy-eyed villagers intoning “Be seeing you”, and a protagonist in a black turtleneck known only as Number Six.
This was a drama so weird that it seared itself into popular culture — everything from Twin Peaks to The Matrix to The Truman Show owes it a debt. And in broader terms, its studied ambiguity enabled it to mean almost anything viewers wanted it to mean, which, in 1967, was a lot: the individual against the state, East against West, free will against fate, the culture wars. Analyse at will.
It was so weird, and so long (17 hours in all), that it could never be made in the creative corset of today’s ratings-driven, advertiser-led television industry. So when the first murmurs of a remake emerged in 2005, there was much gnashing of teeth. To some, this was sacrilege. Why remake a classic? To others, the timing was post-9/11 perfect. When, since the late 1960s, had there been a moment of greater cultural turbulence than now, with our surveillance society, identity theft, illusory weapons of mass destruction and extraordinary rendition? In television terms, the success of serial mind warps such as Lost and Alias surely proved the time was ripe. Yet in the five years since it was first mooted, the retooled Prisoner has been batted from pillar to post, in the process taking on yet another layer of significance — for how television is made in the new century.
The new Prisoner needed a distinct location, an unmistakable aesthetic — costumes, sets, props — and a big-name cast to attract new viewers. That meant big money, which meant a co-production. AMC, the American cable channel best known for the brilliant 1960s advertising drama Mad Men, initially signed up for the remake with Sky 1, the UK satellite broadcaster whose drama output at the time was primarily Dream Team. It was a partnership that should have had “Creative Differences” splashed across the very first memo. It didn’t help that The Prisoner required more creative decisions to be made than most series. What would the Village look like? How outré could the plot lines be? To what extent should the new version cleave to the original? Still, Richard Woolfe, Sky 1’s then head of programming, announced in 2006 that six episodes, at £1m a pop, would appear in January 2008. The AMC camp was equally gushing. “This is truly an iconic piece of television and will fit well side-by-side with the classic cinematic works of all time,” said Charlie Collier, executive vice-president.
Predictably, by August 2007, Sky and AMC had fallen out. Woolfe said: “It’s a quintessentially British drama, and there were too many creative differences trying to share it with an American partner.” ITV, whose drama reputation was at rock bottom, took over the reins. By April 2008, it was being reported that Christopher Eccleston would play Number Six; filming would take place in Portmeirion, the odd-looking Welsh village where the original was shot; and that Patrick McGoohan, the star, creator, producer, writer and director of the 1960s series, would have a cameo.
Most of this was wrong. The mini-series would consist of six one-hour episodes written by Britain’s Bill Gallagher (Clocking Off), with the American Jim Caviezel as Number Six, and Ian McKellen as Number Two, the sinister overseer of the Village. Trevor Hopkins (Dracula, Poirot) would produce, and Jon Jones, who made his name with Cold Feet, would direct. The Village would be situated in Swakopmund, Namibia. There were still plans for a McGoohan cameo.
And so cast, crew, a squad of die-hard fans — and me — headed out to Swakopmund for principal photography in September 2008. But as we got on our planes, the director was already flying home. Two weeks into filming, Jones was replaced by Nick Hurran. As McKellen put it at the time: “The director of The Prisoner, the estimable and universally liked Jon Jones — who had cast me and visited me at home to express his excitement about the project he had worked on for 18 months; who had introduced me to the AMC producers over dinner in London; who had led me through my scenes during rehearsals — is off the job.”
Jones’s vision for how the Village should look differed from that of AMC. He wanted more primary colours and hard-candy zing. They wanted a more washed-out, 1950s look. They won. AMC could at least claim to know a thing or two about aesthetics, as Mad Men, the best-looking programme on television, was by that point the darling of the awards shows. But this success meant AMC had HBO in its sights. Now its aim was to make television so refined that it could compare with movies. ITV just wanted to get the thing made.
“AMC is a very young company with a pure vision, and that vision is film,” says Hopkins, The Prisoner’s producer. “They are driven by things being like film, containing actors who work in film, and are not driven by television.” Back in Swakopmund, Hopkins was fielding conference calls from AMC every evening, arguing the toss on every last buttonhole and boom shot.
It didn’t help that, to enhance the “movieness” of its Prisoner, AMC had insisted on Caviezel, the actor best known for playing Jesus in Mel Gibson’s controversial The Passion of the Christ, for the McGoohan role. He was cast, presumably, for his US pull — he had never done a television series before, and told me he had never heard of The Prisoner, nor McGoohan’s part in it (to him, he was “the guy who played the king in Braveheart”). Those who worked with Caviezel on Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line and The Passion of the Christ told of how he was obsessively “method”, and intensely religious. On The Prisoner, he would listen to Gregorian chant and was constantly accompanied by at least one acting coach. All of which would have been forgiven if Caviezel were the new Olivier. But watching takes, palpably he was not.
The location itself was also driving the actors to distraction — Swakopmund, a sternly surreal German holiday town half an hour from the desert, is a visually cloying time warp where German colonial meets Toy Town, a holiday camp that would have made Albert Speer proud. It is the perfect location for the new Village. But the actors and crew had to live there for nearly three months, and most were going slightly potty two weeks in. As McKellen put it: “Swakopmund has the feel of a prison. The mighty Atlantic on one side, and on the other the massive desert, with buildings that look familiar but are strange because they’re a colonial German relic in Africa.” Ruth Wilson, who plays Six’s love interest, says: “We all felt we were slightly in The Prisoner and had no escape. We didn’t really know what the hell was going on.”
The shoot went on and on. The actors took themselves on safari, went quad-biking and sand-sailing to kill time. In January last year, mid-shoot, McGoohan died. There would be no cameo. There were considerable rewrites as the final episode was filmed, and Wilson’s part was greatly expanded. After extensive post-production, The Prisoner eventually appeared on AMC in America in November 2009. ITV has waited until now, perhaps to avoid clashing with the BBC’s big spring dramas, perhaps in the hope that some mixed reviews from the US launch would be forgotten. Still, great films have come from troubled shoots. The only real question, therefore, is whether The Prisoner is a dud.
Having gone back and watched all 17 hours of the original, I can truthfully say the 1967 Prisoner resides better in the memory. The remake’s script may at times feel self-absorbed, but compared to McGoohan’s flights of fantasy, it is a model of pacing and ease. There are a lot of gnomic one-liners that, depending on your mood, might feel ponderous or might feel profound. But this is The Prisoner — it’s not supposed to be easy.
And, yes, it looks beautiful, like a film. AMC’s agonising over its look has paid off. Whether that is enough to leaven some of the esoteric head tennis is debatable. But unlike Lost, and certainly unlike the original, The Prisoner does at least reward you with answers to the overwhelming questions: who is Number One? Why is Six here? What in the sweet name of the Lord is going on?
“In the last episode, everything about the Village you have been dying to know is explained,” says McKellen. “There is something going on — it’s something very disturbing, very disturbing, relevant to our lives today. It actually makes sense. And, with great respect to the original, you couldn’t say that about it.”
The Prisoner, ITV1, from April 17
Be seeing you