The Prisoner (in paradise): The Sixties TV sensation is back - and stranger than ever - with an acting legend and a stunning new location
By Tim Oglethorpe
Last updated at on
16th April 2010
The Prisoner: Jim Caviezel and Ian McKellen star in the new reinvention of the 1960s classic cult thriller
The view from Sir Ian McKellen's seafront apartment is of an azure-blue
Atlantic fringed by gentle white foam as the waters lap silently onto golden sand. At least, that is how it was a moment ago. Barely has he sipped his tea and the scenery has changed, with a thick white fog descending on the coastline and the waves pounding the beach with a dull roar.
'This is the most amazing, unpredictable place I have ever been to,' he murmurs. 'Idyllic one minute, terrifying the next.' We are in Swakopmund, a holiday resort in
, on the edge of a hostile desert criss-crossed with dry river beds and overlooked by brooding grey mountains. Namibia
McKellen is here to film ITV1's new version of the Sixties cult drama The Prisoner. He plays the urbane and sinister No 2 in a place known only as The Village, where nobody has a name, they only have a number. In the original, watched by ten million viewers, his role was taken by 12 actors, of whom the late Leo McKern is the best remembered.
The part of the hapless and confused No 6 - who wakes up unable to remember anything of his past life - which was originally played by the late Patrick McGoohan, is portrayed by
actor Jim Caviezel. U.S.
Swakopmund was chosen for its extraordinary German colonial architecture and its pastel-coloured A-frame houses. It is a far cry from the original location of The Village, the welsh holiday showpiece town of Portmeirion, but just as striking. McKellen says it is so quirky he's fallen in love with it.
'Yes, there have been times when I've pined for
, for my home, and for simple things like my normal daily routine - and plums, my favourite fruit. England
'I can't tell you the joy I got from finding a shop here which sold plums. I bought a bag full, came back to the apartment and made a plum crumble for myself and other members of the cast. it was comfort food, and it reminded me of home.
'You couldn't get more isolated than we are here. Apart from being cut off by the sea in one direction and the desert in the other, the nearest big city,
, is two hours away by air. But I'm not lonely. Cape Town
The first attempt to build the sinister blob, Rover, ended in disaster. The remote-controlled balloon sank without a trace on day one of filming
'If I had a wife and children I would have missed them, but i am single, live alone, so this kind of solo living is nothing new for me.
'And it gives me a chance to explore Swakopmund, although the tourist brochure lists the main attractions only as the prison, the war memorial and a steam engine museum named after Martin Luther.
'But the most fascinating thing about this place is you never know what's around the corner. You can walk down absolutely deserted streets, and believe there is no one else here. Then you pitch up at a restaurant and find it jammed to the rafters with people. Where did they all come from? What exactly is happening? It is like nowhere else on earth.'
Then something happens which illustrates his point perfectly. Seemingly out of nowhere, a group of dog owners assemble outside Sir Ian's apartment. The dogs are put through a series of trials before, after a few minutes and without fanfare, they all vanish into the rolling mist, as if instructed to do so by some unseen force. When it lifts, it is as if they had never been there.
'Typically Swakopmund,' says McKellen. ' Strange sights everywhere.'
But in the context of The Prisoner, it's par for the course. Surreal to the point of being, at times, sinister.
His mind goes back to the time he received a letter threatening to kill him - with a picture of a gun enclosed, to show that the writer meant business. It happened in the eighties, soon after he became a gay rights activist, and he took it seriously enough to take the letter to the police.
'They showed me similar letters sent to people in the public eye, to show me that I wasn't alone.
'But of course I was worried and of course it had me glancing over my shoulder. When somebody writes: "We know where you live, we are going to get you and this is the weapon we are going to use to get you", who wouldn't be concerned?'
For McKellen, working in Swakopmund, the threat from a hidden, unseen assailant seemed appropriate. For the series is all about what lurks in the shadows, the certain knowledge that you are being watched; that you can run, but you can't hide.
The Village: The series is set around a strange place where nobody has a name, only a number
This is a darker, more sinister piece of drama than the original Prisoner, a series memorable for its bright, pastel colours, occasional lurches into comedy and that picture - postcard setting of Portmeirion, which Sir Ian refers to as: 'a joke location, a piece of art, a kind of upmarket Butlins'.
This new version, with its dark, autumnal colours and even darker storylines, is a tight, tense drama for the 21st-century, with an emphasis on the threat posed by anonymous villains using state- of-the-art technology. Even the Rovers - those terrifying white balls which appeared out of nowhere to trap Patrick McGoohan's No 6 as he tried to escape from The Village - carry a more sinister, deadly threat, this time around.
'The series is, in part at least, about the intrusiveness of surveillance cameras and CCTV, phone taps, bugging devices, the threat to the liberty of the main character, No 6, played by Jim Caviezel,' explains Sir Ian.
'No 6 was an employee of a major multi-national company and was threatening to blow the whistle on some of their less agreeable activities, before finding himself trapped in The Village. He doesn't know who to trust, how to get out of The Village and he's not even sure why he was put there in the first place. That kind of disorientation, uncertainty, and feeling of constant danger is a lot of people's ultimate nightmare - myself included.'
The original series’ catchphrase ‘Be seeing you’, with its sinister implications of constant surveillance, is revived in the update as is No.6’s famous cri de coeur ‘I am not a number. I am a free man’.
The original was so full of baffling twists and turns and left so many unanswered questions that even now, more than 40 years later, the stories are still puzzled over, with societies, conventions and dozens of websites devoted to the programme.
So are we going to be left looking for answers in the new series? 'I don't think so,' says Sir Ian. 'We provide clues to what is going on from scene one, episode one - it's not a drama where you can sit back and just let things wash over you - and those clues build up over the six episodes. 'As a committed player of Suduko, and filler-in of crossword puzzles myself, I think you are cheating the viewers a little bit if you give people lots of clues and then don't provide them with answers.
'And, besides, it's not a definitive answer that you get in the last episode. The story is on-going, it doesn't wrap anything up. There is scope for another series.
'There were a couple of moments, reading the scripts, when I gasped - the scriptwriter Bill Gallagher's words are that clever.
'And, just because we are giving people clues, that doesn't mean we can't surprise them along the way.'
The Prisoner – then and now
The story in both series is exactly the same. Only one or two peripheral details differ.
In the original series, the hero, No.6, was a British secret agent, who resigns without giving a reason.
In the update, he is an intelligence analyst for a
information-gathering corporation, Summakor, who also quits one day without saying why. New York
In both versions, he arrives in The Village with no memory of his former life, no idea of his true identity, other than that he is now known only as Number 6.
His captor – No.2, answering only to the all-powerful, but invisible, No.1 – is determined to discover the real reason for his resignation.
Six knows he must escape if he is to find out who he really is, why he is there and who put him there. But he also wants to find out who is No.1.
However, the ending of the update is a lot clearer than in the original. ‘There is no mystery at the end’, promises Jim Caviezel, who plays No.6. ‘By then, you will know all there is to know about The Village and everything about everyone who is in it’.
No 6: Patrick McGoohan in the 1967 series of The Prisoner
The Prisoner was Patrick McGoohan’s own idea, born, he later recalled, ‘out of my impatience with the numerology of society and the way we are being made into ciphers.’
The Cold War which began in the 1960s, with
and the West squaring up to each other, had created an atmosphere of paranoia, he said. Russia
‘We felt that we were being watched all the time. If it wasn’t the Russians, it was our own government. If it wasn’t them, it was
‘There was a ubiquitous “They”, who seemed to be in control of our lives, yet who were They? Nobody elected them, nobody saw them, yet They were increasingly closing in on our lives.’
Bill Gallagher, writer of the new series, says he agreed with McGoohan that there is an enemy within, and wanted to bring the idea right up to date.
‘It’s not the Russians any more. We are all under constant surveillance, whether by CCTV, satellites monitoring our every move, government computers gathering information about us, our lives being controlled and our identities being stolen.’
Rover, the menacing bouncy balloon that kept everyone within the parameters of The Village, pursuing McGoohan’s No.6 relentlessly, is back with a vengeance.
For the first series, after a disastrous attempt to build a remotely controlled balloon – it sank without trace on the first day of filming – McGoohan filled weather balloons with chalk dust to give them their sinister opaque look and weighed them down with water for stability.
The update relies on a few sturdier specially-made balloons for close-ups, but for special effects computer graphics are used – something unknown to McGoohan in 1967.
In the first series, the sinister No.2 in charge of the day to day running of The Village, was played by twelve different actors.
The most memorable was Leo McKern, who appeared in three episodes. Colin Gordon appeared in two, and only once was No.2 played by a woman – Mary Morris.
The others were Anton Rodgers, Derren Nesbitt, Guy Doleman, Eric Portman, Peter Wyngarde, John Sharp, Patrick Cargill, Clifford Evans and Andre Van Gysegham.
The only thing they had in common was the umbrella shooting stick they carried.
The update has only one No.2, the ever-smiling Sir Ian McKellen in his cream suit, crisp white shirt and a neatly knotted tie, in spite of the desert heat.
The original No.2s lived in solitary splendour, waited on by a dwarf butler, in a splendid Mediterranean-style house with a green dome.
It was crammed with what were – forty years ago – the latest techno-gadgets: cordless phones the size of breeze blocks, tables and chairs that whirred up from the floor, and CCTV screens everywhere.
In the new series he has a sumptuous colonial-style home (in reality Swakopmund’s former railway station, now a hotel), but no obvious trappings of futuristic thinking.
Another twist – the early No.2s had no family life, no feelings beyond fear for their own job if they failed to bring No.6 to heel.
But in McKellen’s update the urbane patriarch is given an almost comatose wife and a troubled teenage son, whose actions will eventually unhinge his adoring father.
The major difference between the two series is in the way the character is played.
Patrick McGoohan created No.6 as an enigmatic, defiant, stiff upper lipped hero; a determined man who spoke in terse, clipped tones and would die rather than betray the slightest emotion.
Jim Caviezel plays him as perpetually confused, bemused, schizophrenic and at times downright scared. He is seen to be wavering and unsure of his true self – the very antithesis of McGoohan’s No.6.
Cavaziel says: ‘McGoohan did it his way and that sort of set the character in stone.
‘People who have seen the first series will recognise only his portrayal. But I watched it only after I’d finished filming mine, and I believe he would have approved of what we did’.
* The Prisoner starts on itITV1 tomorrow at . The original series is out on DVD.
Be seeing you