I Am (Not) a Number: Decoding The Prisoner

I Am (Not) a Number: Decoding The Prisoner

by Alex Cox


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The enormously puzzling TV series The Prisoner has developed a rapt cult following, and has often been described as “surreal” or “Kafkaesque.” In I Am (Not) a Number, Cox takes an opposing view. While the series has surreal elements, he believes it provides the answers to all the questions which have confounded viewers: who is Number 6? Who runs The Village? Who—or what—is Number 1? According to Cox, the key is to view the series in the order in which the episodes were made, not in the order of the UK or US television screenings. In this book he does exactly that, and provides an entirely original and controversial “explanation” for what is perhaps the best, and certainly the most perplexing, TV series of all time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780857301758
Publisher: Oldcastle Books
Publication date: 05/01/2018
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 505,340
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.75(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Alex Cox is responsible for directing a host of acclaimed films from Repo Man, Sid & Nancy, Straight to Hell, Walker, and Highway Patrolman to Death and the Compass, Revenger’s Tragedy and Searchers 2.0. He’s also the author of X Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker, and has written on the subject of film for publications including Sight and Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, and Film Comment.

Read an Excerpt


Episode One


The first episode of The Prisoner was scripted by George Markstein and David Tomblin. It was directed by Don Chaffey, who had several features and much TV work to his credit, including some episodes of Danger Man. Chaffey was most notable for directing the live action on Ray Harryhausen's films Jason and the Argonauts and One Million Years B.C. His work is solid, but not interesting or inspired. That is presumably what McGoohan wanted. McGoohan had worked with Orson Welles, and various other talented directors. He and his colleagues chose Chaffey for a reason. Perhaps his selection also pleased Lew Grade.

A pre-title sequence was shot on 28 August 1966, on the Bank Holiday weekend. It shows McGoohan's character speeding down a racetrack in a sports car. Then he's in London, driving past the Houses of Parliament and entering an underground garage. He walks purposefully down a featureless corridor, confronts a bureaucrat seated behind a desk, slams down his letter of resignation, and is gone.

As he drives home, his photograph is xxxxxed over and automatically deposited in a 'resigned' drawer. While he's packing his bags, a pair of men in funeral garb exit a hearse which has been following him. Gas is pumped through the keyhole and he collapses. When he awakes, his room looks the same as ever – but its location has changed. Gone are the London high-rises. It is now situated in The Village.

(There are two versions of Arrival. The earlier one – of which a 35mm print was made, and screened for CBS, for journalists and for potential directors – featured main theme music by Wilfred Josephs; the later one, which was broadcast, has the familiar main theme by Ron Grainer. In the first cut, McGoohan's reaction to the sleeping gas and then to his first sight of The Village is quite broad in acting terms. In the second version, his performance has been edited in a subtler manner: his acting is more minimal, and thus more effective. The two versions are substantially the same, but for a Prisoner enthusiast it's an essential duty to compare and contrast them.)

The Prisoner quickly learns that there is no meaningful information about, and no apparent exit from, The Village. Its inhabitants seem complacent and untrustworthy. They all wear badges with Penny-Farthing bicycles and numbers on them. The phones – cordless phones – are only for calls within The Village: a miniature world with piped muzak on the streets, inane public service announcements and stern weather warnings. Returning to his cottage, The Prisoner finds he has a phone – a black landline bearing the number 6. It rings. 'Is your number Six?' The Prisoner answers yes, it is. He receives an invitation from Number 2, in the Green Dome, to come to breakfast.

Number 2 (Guy Doleman) is a smooth-faced individual whose look – slightly raffish haircut, blazer, striped white, black and yellow scarf – bespeaks an English public school or 'good' university. In later years, this fellow could be at home in Tony Blair's cabinet, or in Theresa May's. He gives The Prisoner his first clue as to why he has been kidnapped:

NUMBER 2: 'The information in your head is priceless. I don't think you realise what a valuable property you have become. A man like you is in great demand on the open market ... 'A lot of people are curious about what lies behind your resignation. You've had a brilliant career. Your record is impeccable. They want to know why you suddenly left.'

NUMBER 6: 'What people?'

NUMBER 2: 'Personally, I believe your story. I think it really was a matter of principle. But what I think doesn't really count. One has to be sure about these things.'

There, in a nutshell, is the conflict of the series. Number 2 is assigned to 'break' The Prisoner – by hook or by crook, to extract vital information from him. As Number 2 readily admits, he doesn't necessarily think this needs to be done. But he is just a cog in a very large wheel, whose opinions don't matter, as we shall see. And The Prisoner, as we shall also see, is apt to resist.

What was The Prisoner's brilliant career?

Projected on Number 2's giant screen are pictures – from The Prisoner's childhood, and photos which seem to be surveillance images. Number 2 mentions a time when he waited for an individual named Chambers. This doesn't appear in the episode's scripts, and seems to be an improvisation of the actors, on-set. What does it mean? Was Chambers a spy, to be turned by our side, or one of our fellows who had to be prevented from defecting? Was he something other than a spy? It isn't clear. The information isn't there. Chambers is mentioned, then he's gone. How did Chambers concern The Prisoner? We are not told. The Prisoner might have been a secret agent. Or he might have been engaged in top-secret, government work. 'The information in your head is priceless ...'

To whom is it priceless? As The Prisoner observes, he doesn't know which side Number 2 is working for – the Russians or the British – and he doesn't care. As a matter of principle, he will reveal the time and date of his birth, and no more. He will not even speak his own name.

Number 2 takes The Prisoner for a helicopter ride and displays all the condescension and superciliousness of the English civil servant. He recommends the Citizens Advice Bureau: 'They do a marvellous job. Everybody's very nice.' There is even a Social Club: 'Members only – but I'll see what I can do for you.' The signage encourages the idea of an idyllic retirement community: 'Walk on the grass'. But the illusion is swiftly shattered when Number 2 barks at the strollers in the park, through his megaphone, 'Wait! Be still!' and everyone except The Prisoner freezes in mid-step.

Now the dark side of The Village is revealed, in the form of the floating, hovering weather balloon/beach ball which we will later know as Rover. In the first cut of Arrival, Rover appears atop a fountain, then atop a building, then bounces and squirms its way across the plaza, accompanied by menacing and disturbing sounds. The moment is sinister enough. But in the second, broadcast, version, Rover's appearance causes one of the Villagers – a young man with sunglasses – to freak out and attempt to flee. In this cut (using additional footage from the second Portmeirion shoot) Rover pursues and suffocates the youth. We don't know whether the lad has been rendered unconscious or killed, but Rover's physical capacity to crush dissent is very clear.

At the Labour Exchange (the Labour Exchange and Citizens Advice Bureau were real English institutions of the sixties: part of our socialist welfare state, which also provided free health care and, for the lucky ones like me, free university education. In 1966 these things weren't yet science fiction or fantasy) The Prisoner is introduced to a psychologist (or market researcher) who toys with a wooden cogs-and-wheels apparatus and asks him to fill out a questionnaire. Our protagonist smashes the stick-toy and returns to his cottage, only to encounter a fantastically sexy girl in a Luis Buñuel/Jeanne Moreau servant-girl outfit (Stephanie Randall). 'I'm your personal maid,' she says. 'The Labour Exchange sent me.'

Now, McGoohan had a take on his character – indeed, on all the characters he played: that the individual in question didn't get involved, either sexually or romantically, with women. This had been the case with John Drake, in Danger Man, and it had served to differentiate his character from James Bond (a role which McGoohan had turned down). But when The Prisoner is confronted by a woman as allout sexy gorgeous as his faux French maid, it's easy to regret the choice the actor made. As he suspects, she is another prisoner, offered her freedom in return for spying on him. And so, she is ejected. Markstein, interviewed after he left the series, said that he had strongly opposed the asexuality of McGoohan's character, which he put down to 'prudishness'. Vincent Tilsley, one of the series' writers, agreed with Markstein. But such was to be the character of The Prisoner, who showed neither love nor affection in any episodes. One can also make a strong case for McGoohan's decision. If The Prisoner were to develop a romantic interest in the Maid, it would be an easier matter for The Village authorities to debrief him (as it were), and future episodes of The Prisoner might all be layered with an obligatory 'love interest' sub-plot. In general, the women characters in the series are stronger and more interesting precisely because they weren't expected to fulfil conventional TV roles, and because women actors were frequently cast in roles written for men.

During his remonstration with the failed maid, The Prisoner is distracted by one of the walls – which slides up to reveal a new addition to the cottage, containing bed, kitchen, and lava lamps. In the kitchen cupboards, he finds 'Village Food' in cans bearing the Penny Farthing logo. He destroys his radio – which plays muzak and cannot be turned off – only for The Village to unnerve him further. For the electrician who comes to fix his radio is the exact double of a gardener who he meets moments later. (The actor in question was Oliver MacGreevy.)

Our Prisoner is planning a break for freedom. Yet in the course of less than a day he has also adopted two Village-ish attitudes. Asked 'Is your number Six?' by the operator, he answers 'Yes'. And after reacting with suspicion to the first couple of people who salute him 'Be seeing you!', he volunteers the same salute to the electrician. His first escape attempt gets nowhere beyond fisticuffs with a couple of security men, on the Portmeirion beach, for possession of a Mini-Moke. Mini-Mokes were not invented for The Prisoner, though they certainly fit right into its celebration of the miniature, the semi-practical, and the twee. They were 'open air' cars made by the company which manufactured the Mini, and were popular for almost twenty years. I rented them when I lived in Almería, Spain, and they were not great on desert roads, being very low to the ground and apt to shed their exhaust pipes. But a not-very-practical vehicle with a limited range and little off-road capability was an ideal transport for The Village!

Captured by Rover (the second cut of Arrival makes his suffocation/incapacitation clearer), The Prisoner is drugged and taken to The Village Hospital. There he wakes to discover a friend from his former life, one Cobb (Paul Eddington), lying in an adjacent bed. Cobb, like The Prisoner, does not know where he is or how he got there. He says he was drugged while on a trip to Germany, woke up here, and has been pumped for information ever since. A doctor takes The Prisoner away for tests, and en route he witnesses, in adjoining corridors, instances of strange, threatening psychological procedures. Tapes and an IBM-type punch card confirm his health is excellent. But in his absence from the ward, Cobb has apparently committed suicide, by throwing himself out of a window.

Given Markstein and McGoohan's interest in matters of spying, parapolitics, and mind control, it's worth mentioning at this point the case of Frank Olson – a CIA operative involved in Agency drug experiments who supposedly threw himself out of a window in 1953. According to the Rockefeller Commission Report, 'Beginning in the late 1940s, the CIA began to study the properties of certain behaviour-influencing drugs (such as LSD) and how such drugs might be put to use in intelligence activities'. The programme was variously known as BLUEBIRD, ARTICHOKE, and MKULTRA. A series of 'in the wild' drug experiments took place, in one of which Olson was slipped a dose of LSD without his knowledge. When he suffered 'serious after-effects' he was sent, with a CIA minder, to see a New York psychiatrist. After five days of observation, Olson killed himself, or was murdered and thrown from a window, in the manner of The Prisoner's Cobb.

The story of Frank Olson didn't become widely known until Freedom of Information requests by the authors John D. Marks and Walter Bowart, in the early 1970s. The Rockefeller Commission Report – officially the President's Commission on CIA Activities Within the United States – was released in 1975, almost a decade after The Prisoner was made. Could George Markstein, with his contacts in the world of secret agentry, have heard the story from another source? Someone in the know had told him of the ISRB 'holiday camp' in Scotland. Fascinated by such matters, Markstein may have been privy to other interesting information. If the reference to Olson's fate isn't intentional, it's remarkably synchronicitous.

In 1966 psychedelics were, for most people, unknown. Within a year, they would be famous as recreational drugs and instruments of 'mind expansion'. But the idea that intelligence agencies were experimenting with drugs as mind-control agents, and killing their own people in the process, was beyond astonishing. It was also fantastic material for an innovative TV drama.

After they parted company, McGoohan spoke of The Prisoner more as a story of militant individualism, of the right to privacy and to personal integrity; Markstein continued to insist on the espionage angle. And Arrival is clearly espionage-tinged. Even if The Prisoner himself is not a spy, he is outrageously the victim of a black operation: kidnapped, and 'rendered', seemingly permanently, into a Potemkin Village inhabited solely by prisoners – broken and unbroken – and by their jailer/interrogators, all acting cheerful, wearing silly hats and capes.

Released from The Hospital, The Prisoner is given four ID cards, a badge saying Number 6, which he discards, and a blazer which he wears until the penultimate episode. He heads for the Green Dome, only to discover a New Number 2 (George Baker) – very similar to the previous version, with same smooth, New Labour/Coalition looks and blazer. This one is a little more brutally frank, less patient with The Prisoner, who he advises will henceforth be known as Number 6.

Here Arrival lurches in a new, unnecessary direction. Instead of developing the character of the Maid, which it obviously should, the script has The Prisoner/Number 6 witness what he thinks is the funeral of Cobb, and pursues a woman (Virginia Maskell) who claims to have been his co-conspirator in an escape bid. In the script, she is known as WOMAN, and the Maid as GIRL, which is disappointing when one essays to view the series as a whole: characters should have numbers, damn it! But The Prisoner was an organic work of art, its scripts were being written one by one, its concepts developed, its episodes shot, fragmentarily, over many months. The complete world of The Prisoner would develop over time ... eighteen months of time, and was not, as yet, to be known.

WOMAN claims to have loved Cobb, and to have arranged for his escape by helicopter. She offers the same way out to our protagonist. 'Can you fly a helicopter?' 'I might.' With her aid – even though he knows she is reporting to Number 2 – The Prisoner manages to board the chopper and take off. But after flying a short distance he discovers that he is aboard a drone, operated from Number 2's all-seeing Control Room. Forced to land, The Prisoner is escorted back to The Village by Rover.

In the Control Room, Cobb – who is not dead at all – takes leave of Number 2. His presence in The Village has been a ruse, an early attempt to disorient and extract information from The Prisoner. Now he is returning to the outside world, he remarks, 'Mustn't keep my new masters waiting'. What does he mean? Has Cobb, formerly a British agent, been 'turned' by the Russians and gone to work for them? Or is he simply starting a new job: seconded from GCHQ to NSA, or from MI6 to NATO? In this first script, Markstein and Tomblin keep both options open.


Excerpted from "I Am Not A Number"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Alex Cox.
Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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