As Sky's plans for a remake of the cult Sixties television series fall by the wayside, Gerard Gilbert wonders if anyone can really fill Patrick McGoohan's shoes
"I am not a number, I am a free man": Patrick McGoohan's famous cri de coeur from the Sixties television drama The Prisoner possibly affords the 79-year-old actor a bitter chuckle these days. I have no idea how McGoohan, living in retirement in Los Angeles, privately views his career since he last uttered the line, but I hope it's with a sense of irony, because for millions of TV viewers across the globe McGoohan will forever be a number. Number Six, of course. The American-born Irish actor has been imprisoned by the role as subtly and as surely as his renegade government agent was held captive in The Village.
In the late Sixties, an exhausted, fame-hating McGoohan fled to California, by way of Switzerland, but there has been no escaping the cultural aftermath of his Kafkaesque Sixties fantasy, a drama widely considered one of the most boldly imaginative and formula-defying in television history. A Prisoner Appreciation society grew up in its wake, Prisoner conventions were organised, and a sort of cult emerged, with McGoohan as its reclusive godhead. And whenever two or three Prisoner fans are gathered together, the topic of conversation will eventually turn to the matter of a remake.
The Prisoner remake is a phantom that for 40 years has fuelled rumours, speculation, false dawns and then, in 2006, the sudden, almost shockingly concrete announcement that Sky One was to produce a six-part "thrilling reinvention" with Christopher Eccleston as a potential Number Six. A writer, Bill Gallagher, was hired, with an "exotic setting" replacing Clough Williams-Ellis's Italianate Portmeirion on the coast of Snowdonia. This, then, was surely it.
But no it wasn't. Just as each episode of The Prisoner used to end with Number Six tantalisingly close to freedom, only to find himself back in the Village, so projects to remake the series have a habit of ending up back at square one. Now, Sky One has announced the stillbirth of its "thrilling reinvention", creative differences with the American co-production company being cited. Or, as Sky One's director of programmes, Richard Woolfe, tells me: "I didn't want to be responsible for taking something that is quintessentially British and adapting it in a way that I didn't feel was reflective of the way people would remember it and the way people would want it to be."
Is The Prisoner quintessentially British? In its original form, without a doubt, just as it is quintessentially Sixties. First screened in late September 1967, and running for 17 episodes, the show told of a government agent who had suddenly resigned. Gassed by sinister characters in undertakers' garb, McGoohan's character awoke as Number Six in The Village, outwardly a sort of upmarket holiday camp, in reality a closely observed prison run by Number Two and policed by a large white suffocating balloon called Rover. The eternal question for Number Six was: "Who is Number One?"
The look of the series was highly distinctive, with canopied buggies, brightly coloured umbrellas (somewhat wasted on the black-and-white TVs of the time), the blazers and straw boaters worn by the inmates, and of course the ubiquitous penny-farthing bicycle logo. Just as distinctly British was the show's attitude, with its Avengers-style deadpan and the Alice Through the Looking Glass logic so characteristic of Sixties spy movies.
Whether a remake needs to be quintessentially British or not, not all the series' fans will be disappointed that another proposal has hit the buffers, according to Roger Langley, principal organiser of Six of One, "the official Prisoner Appreciation Society". "They tend to fall into two camps," he says. "The ones who want to see a remake are the ones who feel cheated that McGoohan never got to make a second series, as was originally intended, in which Number Six would escape and go out into the world while being pursued by his ex-captors.
"And then there are the fans who feel the original series should be left alone – that no one should desecrate this work of art, and that McGoohan was and is the only possible Number Six."
The index of Langley's new biography, Patrick McGoohan: Danger Man or Prisoner?, provides a useful summary of the various projected Prisoner remakes, starting back in the mid-1980s when CBS mooted an American version of the series. Next along was Leland Rogers, brother of singer Kenny, with the idea of a feature-length TV movie. By 1988, he was reportedly in talks with ITC, New York, while a screenplay originally written for CBS, entitled The Edge of Within, was rejected as "too avant-garde" for TV audiences. In it, The Village was transformed into The City, with the son of Number Six undergoing various ordeals. There was talk of McGoohan playing the father.
Rogers' plans reached a dead end, and in the early Nineties, following the success of 1993's The Fugitive movie, a full-scale Hollywood production of Prisoner, with (heaven forbid) Kevin Costner in the lead, was being linked to Steven Spielberg's company Amblin. However, by 1996 this was said to be on indefinite hold, and in the meantime it was reported that, while working together on Braveheart, Patrick McGoohan had been asked to write a script by Mel Gibson, with Gibson in the starring role.
Inevitably (you're getting the picture now) this came to nought, and then there's a jump to 2003, when Con Air director Simon West actually went into development with a big-screen Prisoner movie, with a script by Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects). The production went no further, however, which is plenty further than yet another new alleged Prisoner movie, this one directed by Christopher Nolan, director of Batman Returns.
Of course, the world is full of movie projects "in development", most of which never see the light of a projector. That's what made Sky One's recent statement of intent so exciting, and you can see why Sky and its production partners felt that 2007 was the right time for a Prisoner remake. The alleged casting of Eccleston is the clue here. Eccleston, of course, was the first Doctor Who in Russell T Davies' triumphant resurrection of the Tardis franchise – living proof that in bold and sympathetic hands remakes of cherished 1960s British TV classics needn't be the anodyne travesties like the movies of The Avengers and The Saint.
Eccleston's involvement was probably no more than the wishful thinking of Sky One executives. He wouldn't have been a bad choice, although having quit Doctor Who for fear of typecasting, he's unlikely to jump straight into The Prisoner. Daniel Craig would be my Number Six, although of course Craig is now Bonded for the foreseeable future. The link between Bond and Number Six has a good pedigree, by the way. McGoohan, who played a similar sort of secret agent character in ITV's Danger Man, twice turned down the role of 007, Bond's bed-hopping ways being anathema to the sexual morals of the fiercely monogamous star.
Oddly, Craig's name doesn't appear on a poll conducted by the Portmeirion Society – a group with close links to The Prisoner fan-base – to suggest a suitable actor to play Number Six. The poll first appeared on the society's website when Sky One made their announcement of a remake, and, with comments attached, it threw up some predictable names, like Clive Owen ("he looks so cute when he's worried"), Ralph Fiennes, who's surely disqualified by his association with the abominable Avengers movie, and such downright bizarre suggestions as Hugh Grant (well, you'd pay to see him smothered by a large balloon, I suppose), or Robbie Williams (ditto).
My problem with all this is that I think that McGoohan is in practice irreplaceable. The actor and the role are inseparable. The mercurial, enigmatic, puritanical and uber-intense McGoohan was a one-off, and as much as fans talk about the series' conundrums, dense political allegory and general mind-bending ways, I think many of them are half in love with McGoohan as Number Six. He made the series, both literally (having written, directed and co-produced much of it) and figuratively.
And anyway there is something fetishistic and necrophiliac about remaking cult classics like The Prisoner. Perhaps it's better just to let its legacy be to bleed into films like The Truman Show and TV shows like Lost (whose creators have admitted to being influenced by The Prisoner), 24 and Channel 4's recent Cape Wrath. People are passionate about the show, and rightly so. Forty years ago this month, Patrick McGoohan presented to the viewing public a series that was radically different, demanding, abstract, intellectually playful and (to many viewers at the time) baffling and intensely annoying. Rather than copying McGoohan's ideas, isn't it better that TV companies and movie-makers should copy his example?
Source: The Independent