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18 June 2014
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By Jonathan Morris

Debate rages over the correct order in which to watch the episodes of The Prisoner. However, I am confident that Arrival is the first one, involving, as it does, our hero's arrival. Anything else would be dippy.

This is more-or-less the first episode of The Prisoner I've sat through. It begins with our nameless hero powering his yellow convertible around London's deserted streets. Is this some sort of post-apocalyptic vision of the future? No, there was just no traffic in the 60's. What did they bother having roads for? He swerves into an underground car park, somewhere in London's Westminster, and stalks moodily down a corridor. There's loomy shadows, then we get out first close-up of our lead, Patrick McGoohan.

Unusual actor, McGoohan. Very intense. Very one-note. He scowls, he broods, he pouts, he clenches, he paces up and down and narrows his eyes. In some shots he's quite handsome, in others he's a giant orange forehead on legs.

Anyway, he slams open a door with a smash of thunder, bangs a desk, hands in his notice and then drives around another load of empty streets. But what's this - a hearse? And a photograph with lots of 'x's being typed across it! McGoohan's obviously planning some sort of holiday, because along with his passport he's packing some photographs of a beach, which is what you do when you go on holiday…

He does end up on a beach, beside the delightful seaside folly of Portmerion. Now, I daresay this was a terribly freaky thing in the 60's. I'm sure viewers were boggled agog. Unfortunately that's all lost on me, as I think of Portmerion firstly as somewhere drizzly I went on holiday where they didn't have proper toilets, secondly as the place where they scattered Rachel's ashes in the last episode of Cold Feet, thirdly as the setting for that renaissance Tom Baker Doctor Who story where every episode is exactly the same and fourthly the locale of the video for Alright by the boys from Supergrass.

However, McGoohan wakes up to discover that he is not young, he is not free, and although his teeth are nice and clean he can't see his friends, or the sights, due to the fact that he is being held captive by a vast wheezy, wobbly weather balloon.

The Village is a strange place. Everyone talks in non-sequitors, speaking a great deal but not actually saying very much, because the writer hasn't worked out what the show is about yet. And it has that sort of gaudy, half-arsed wackiness that you also find in Magical Mystery Tour and Head - vanity projects like The Prisoner - where oddball things are included not because they're particularly funny or meaningful, but just because they can.

It's odd, watching it for the first time now as it's filtered through all the things that came afterwards - The Truman Show, for instance, or Zardoz. Which can make The Prisoner seem somewhat corny. It also has a some desperately naïve 60's paranoia in it - the government controls our lives! Maybe the village is like, an allegory for life! We are not free, they just want us to think that! Aaaah.

Yeah, whatever. Get over it. You're not going to beat the system by wearing black and reading Alan Moore comic strips (which are for children) in your mum's attic surrounded by joss sticks and talking about "the system" as though it comes with quotation marks.

I digress. Number 6 wanders around The Village for a bit. He encounters Number 2 (no sniggering - don't pooh-pooh the number 2) who lives in a Bond villain lair and who is played by George Baker. George Baker, of course, being famous for providing the voice for Bond-casting-calamity George Lazenby. The Bond lair is a tremendously funky set but those spherical chairs don't look at all comfortable. They're just saving up orthopaedic troubles for later.

Not sure why two blokes are sitting on a seesaw looking through periscopes, though. They must get giddy, whirling around all day, up and down, up and down. What are they supposed to be looking at?

He gets put in a hospital, where he meets another ex-secret agent who is being held prisoner, played by future Yes, Minister Paul Eddington. Who jumps out of a window and dies. Or does he? Because right at the end of the episode we see number 2 (it's a floater all right) and Paul Eddington - who Did Not Die - is with him! Gosh! What a twist! Didn't see that coming… largely because it makes bollocks all sense.

Then it's clang! Iron bars and the end titles. Which must mean the episode has finished. Normally you realise you're at the end because the story has ended. But The Prisoner doesn't have stories. Or endings.

Hang on, I've missed a couple of bits. Backtrack. Number 6 also meets Rover - not sure if he's called Rover in this episode - who is a big white, grumpy wobbly killer tit. There's a really good bit where a bell rings and everyone in the village stands absolutely still. Except one man, who decides to run.

The best things about Rover are its strange, alien, alien movement, as though pulled along by an invisible piece of fishing twine, and its horrible spissing, grabble-bobble noise. It's kind of like that bit in Cold Feet where James Nesbitt is pursued by a giant pink testicle which, in retrospect, I now realise was a Prisoner reference.

This is what comes from not watching television in the right order.

Repeated on BBC Four on 11th June 2004 at 11pm.

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