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Libertarians' Favorite TV Series, 'The Prisoner' Turns 50

Libertarians' Favorite TV Series, 'The Prisoner' Turns 50

 A poster of Patrick McGoohan as Number Six from an earlier 40th anniversary celebration for 'The Prisoner.' ( Bruno Vincent/Getty Images)

John Gizzi By Sunday, 11 September 2016 09:45 AM EDT Current | Bio | Archive

It's rare that the publicly-financed British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and U.S. libertarians find themselves in agreement.

Last week, they did. On September 5, both hailed the 50th anniversary of the cameras rolling for the first episode of "The Prisoner"— easily one of the most unusually, eerie, thought-provoking, and widely discussed series to come out of the United Kingdom or anywhere else.

Fans everywhere recall its star Patrick McGoohan (who co-created "The Prisoner", as well as wrote and directed several episodes) portraying a British intelligence agent who resigned in anger, was gassed at his home, and woke up on a bucolic island village known as, well, "The Village."

Everyone in "The Village" is a former intelligence agent — some British, some Russian, some from other countries — and all have accepted a life of drinking coffee at outdoor cafes, playing chess, and other leisure activities. None are going anywhere because there is no escape. (Village residents hail one another with the signature greeting: "Be seeing you!" — presumably a sign that since one is not leaving, they will surely "be seeing you").

"Number Six," as McGoohan is called (numbers are used instead of names for "Village" residents), has a different idea. Declaring that "I am not a number, I am a free man!" he outwits his captors on a weekly basis and defiantly refuses to answer their first question: "Why did you resign?"

"It was a call for individualism at a time when revolution was in the air," observed BBC Radio last week, "Number Six will not reveal why he resigned, despite repeated attempts to break him."

Libertarians, both "small-l" and "Large L" (members of the Libertarian Party), universally recall the series. To a person, they love it.

"I watched all seventeen episodes," recalled Tom Lizardo, onetime top aide to former Rep. and presidential hopeful Ron Paul, R.-Texas, a libertarian hero, "It had a lot of libertarian themes. After fifty years, it is amazing to find people not only watching it on reruns, but discussing it very intently."

"Fifty years ago," Carla Howell, Political Director of the National Libertarian Party, told me, "TV viewers thought 'The Prisoner' was great fiction. Today, many viewers find it all too similar to a reality show — if not the latest government program."

More than a generation before Edward Snowden revealed the extent of eavesdropping orchestrated by the intelligence services, "The Village" watched all of its residents. Before "Youtube" was part of the lexicon, the Village masters could play back films of their subjects saying just about anything they uttered since their arrival. "Number Six" is frequently seen shouting his vow to escape, return, "and blow this place up — and you with it!"

"As George Orwell's '1984' did in literature, 'The Prisoner' series brought to British TV screens and set in the minds of a generation the terror that rests with an all seeing, all-powerful state," said Ben Harris-Quinney, president of the Bow Group, the UK's oldest conservative think-tank, "It certainly raised in the minds of a great many of the viewing public the dangers of unquestioned state power and the eternal importance of liberty and freedom to the human spirit."

Harris-Quinney believes the series "had an effect on the political movements in Britain in the 70's and '80's, culminating in Thatcherism."

We never quite found out who was running "The Village." Number Six's combative salvos were usually flung at Number Two, its governing figure, who changed in just about every episode. Presumably this was because he or she could not break Number Six.

The late Leo McKern, famed as "Rumpole of the Bailey," was the only actor to portray Number Two in three different episodes. In one, he hints strongly that management of the Village transcends the combatants in the Cold War. In the process, he pressed a particular "hot button" for libertarians: "world government."

"It doesn't matter who Number One is," he tells Number Six, "It doesn't matter whose side runs 'The Village.' Both sides are becoming identical. One in fact has created an international community, a perfect blueprint for world order [emphasis added]. When the sides looking at each other suddenly realize they are looking into a mirror, they will see that this is a pattern for the future."

When it was first broadcast in the UK (in black-and-white), it drew an audience of ten million. Then it was sold (in color) to the CBS-TV in the U.S.

"In 1967, I was a stringer for CBS and was in the screening room when the CBS execs first screened Episode One," Adam Clayton Powell, III, president of the Public Diplomacy Council, told me, "They said it was garbage and one asked whether they were contractually committed to broadcast it.

"Of course they did. It was shown Saturdays at 7:30 as the summer replacement for Jackie Gleason, and it was in the top ten all summer. No doubt it drew a very different audience."

McGoohan, who died in 2009, insisted that the series have a limited run (seventeen episodes) and a conclusion. Today fans still heatedly debate "Prisoner"-related topics ranging from its subtle political themes to whether Number Six was actually, as Quartz Correspondent-at-large Craig Copetas insists, "John Drake — the part McGoohan played on 'Danger Man' and, as it was called in the U.S. 'Secret Agent.' " (Since another producer held the rights to the character "John Drake," McGoohan could not legally use the name in his series).

And fans still argue over the controversial final episode, which raised more questions than it answered. "The Prisoner's" message lives on. As Ben Harris-Quinney put it, "Being trapped by a surveillance state is a more present a threat today than in the '60s and '70s, so I am sure 'The Prisoner' will continue to resonate in life and art."


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It's rare that the publicly-financed British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and U.S. libertarians find themselves in agreement. Last week, they did.On September 5, both hailed the 50th anniversary of the cameras rolling for the first episode of The Prisoner - easily one...
gizzi, the prisoner, libertarian, international government
Sunday, 11 September 2016 09:45 AM
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