Individualism and The Prisoner

Patrick McGoohan was born on March 19th, 1928. Although he starred in many films and TV series, he will forever be remembered for his 1967-1968 iconic TV series, “The Prisoner.”  His character, named only “Number Six,” spends each episode of the series attempting to escape from a mysterious island village in which he is detained after being kidnapped.

The series became a hallmark for individualism, in that his interrogators try to find out why he resigned from his previous job as a spy, but are resisted and rebuffed at every turn. He tells them, “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered! My life is my own!” And at the start of every episode, when he asks “Who is Number One?” (the mysterious head of the Village), he is told, “You are Number Six.” His reply, “I am not a number! I am a free man!” is always met with mocking laughter.

The series was surreal, featuring pastel colours and overlaid with sixties countercultural themes. It was actually filmed in Portmeirion, a miniature Italianate village in North Wales, and managed to combine spy fiction with science fiction in a toy-town setting. Its libertarian theme, of someone standing up to and outsmarting powerful authority, gave it a cult status among those who favour a high measure of personal liberty.

In one episode when he is asked, “Oh, Number Six, have you no values?” he replies curtly, “Different values,” emphasizing a determination to live by his own choices. McGoohan not only took the lead role, but was co-creator and co-producer of the series, and made it a parable for the individual versus the collective and conformity. In the utterly surreal final episode, when he finally breaks out of the Village, bringing about its destruction in the process, he emerges from a cave to find a signpost that indicates he is not far from London. The allegory of the Village standing in for psychological imprisonment is plain.

The Prisoner became a libertarian classic, and the logo of the Village, a penny-farthing bicycle that appeared in the closing credits, was used as a symbol when the ASI founded its group, The Next Generation. In honour of the cult status of “The Prisoner,” I occasionally wear a black blazer edged with white ribbon, like the one McGoohan wore in every episode of the series. And I have stayed in Portmeirion, and walked among the buildings that were the backdrop to its events.