Can you believe that it’s over 50 years since Number 6 first appeared on our screens in the cult TV series The Prisoner? Filmed at picturesque Portmeirion, the location soon became as iconic as the programme itself as Cai Ross discovers.
The first clue appeared in an episode called ‘Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling!’ There, on an envelope handed to our hero, read the address: 20 Portmeirion Road. It was a nod to a question that had been baffling television viewers for over a year – where on earth did they film The Prisoner?
Patrick McGoohan’s classic science-fiction adventure series had the nation in its thrall from the first episode, broadcast over 50 years ago, in September 1967. It was a seemingly endless barrage of questions, and questions about questions. Who was Number 6? Why is he being held against his will, and who is doing the holding? What does the penny farthing logo mean? Why the umbrellas, the mini-mokes? How do the phones work with no cords? Why is there a big white balloon chasing everyone around the place, and where, oh where is this extraordinary place they call The Village?
The answer was finally provided at the start of the final episode, ‘Fall Out.’ ‘In the grounds of The Hotel Portmeirion, Penrhyndeudraeth, North Wales. By courtesy of Mr. Clough Williams-Ellis.’ North Waleans had known all along, but to the rest of the world it might have been a Hollywood movie set built by a production designer with a taste for the outlandish. Quite simply, it looked like nowhere else on earth. It still does.
Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis (https://portmeirion.wales/about/clough-williams-ellis) had made enough money as an architect, designing buildings for others – his work is scattered around the UK from Oxfordshire to Tattenhall over to Northern Ireland – to begin creating his own dream project. A poet and artist of immense ingenuity, Williams-Ellis had a loathing of the drab and the tediously ordinary. He also detested the scenery-blighting effect of boring buildings dropped, without sympathy into areas of natural beauty, putting his wrath into words in his book England and The Octopus.
Fortunately, he had inherited a large estate in North Wales upon which he could play, and so in 1922, he began his quest to prove that, as he said,
“one could develop even a very beautiful site without defiling it and indeed…even enhance what nature has provided for your background.”
Williams-Ellis poured into his Portmeirion project, years of architectural study and the memories of decades galavanting around the world. The finished result is often described as Italianate, but it is a really a blend of several disjointed styles, all designed to contradict each other and form something utterly unique. The bell tower, for example, is based on similar designs found in Italian towns like Portofino, yet stroll around the corner and you’ll find yourself in the Jacobean-English Hercules Hall. Williams-Ellis even imported entire buildings and features like the Colonnade down by the Hotel, which he shipped up from Bristol pillar by pillar.
Portmeirion (https://portmeirion.wales) was soon open for a paying public to gaze upon Clough’s magnificent folly and to subsidise its continued evolution – he continued tinkering with the site until his death at the ripe old age of 95 (by which time he had become Sir Clough). One such guest was a location scout, who was looking for somewhere to shoot scenes for 1960s TV show Danger Man, starring Patrick McGoohan.
Danger Man was a huge international success and was one of many popular action shows around at the time, like The Avengers, Man in A Suitcase, Department S with Jason King and The Saint. Most of them were produced by legendary cigar-chomping mogul Lew Grade. It was to Grade that McGoohan came with an idea he’d developed with ex-British spy George Markstein, about a village where retired spies are housed so that they can live out their days without being kidnapped or interrogated by enemies.
What if such a place existed – Markstein believed they did – but someone was held there against his will and wasn’t allowed to escape? The idea became McGoohan’s passion project and given the fact that he was one of the biggest TV stars in the world, Lew Grade agreed to bankroll this new adventure. McGoohan had only one possible location in mind. Thus in September 1966, Clough Williams-Ellis’s magnum opus was teeming with film crews, actors, helicopters, balloon-wranglers and dozens of locals from Penrhyndeudraeth dressed in multicoloured Breton-stripes and capes, swinging umbrellas.
The juxtaposing styles of Clough’s designs lent a discomforting edge to proceedings, but the most effective contrast of all was the otherworldly beauty of the place against the horrible reality of Number 6’s predicament. This was a prison, no less confined and inescapable than Alcatraz, yet to its many prisoners (save one) it is an endlessly delightful package holiday, where tea on the lawn and brass band concerts are daily highlights and where every whim is catered for.
Then again, they have all been brainwashed, either directly or via the pressures of conformity. This is a microcosm: a society under constant surveillance, where individualism is crushed, opinion dictated and the citizens reduced, literally, to numbers. Number 6 is the ultimate rebel. He refuses to conform, to fit in or even explain why he retired from the secret service. Despite the repeated efforts of assorted Number 2s, he steadfastly refuses to crack. He is not a number, he is a free man.
The Prisoner is extraordinarily ‘1960s,’ from the stylised way that it is shot, to the ever-present lava lamps. Thematically, it tackles timeless issues that were especially potent in postwar discussions: individuality, the role of the state and what constitutes acceptable levels of interference in our lives from our lords and masters, even the role television has in keeping us under control.
However, a mind-bending Orwellian Pop Art treatise about resisting the oppression of vertical collectivism (discuss) was not exactly what the audience were expecting. The final episode went out of its way to avoid giving answers to all the many questions that had been posed and the reaction was so overwhelmingly negative that McGoohan upped sticks and moved his family to America.
Over the next few decades, The Prisoner needled its way into the cultural conscience and it gradually became seen as a major work of art and a hugely influential TV landmark.
I first discovered it as a callow youth, when the series was rebroadcast in 1992 for its 25th anniversary. I was thrilled beyond words to discover that ‘The Village’ was actually only an hour’s drive away, and so began a lifelong love affair with Portmeirion (I even married my wife there three years after I took her there for a deal-breaking first date). For a Prisoner fan, walking around Portmeirion is the ultimate virtual reality experience. It’s all there, immaculately preserved: Number 6’s house (now The Prisoner gift shop), the Green Dome (well, more a dark grey these days), the sinister hospital (actually Castell Deudraeth, a rather fine hotel and restaurant set within the grounds).
Down by what Number 6 knew to be the old people’s home (The main hotel) is the stone boat where he met to plot his escape with other village rebels in ‘Checkmate.’ This is perhaps the most striking example of Williams-Ellis’s cheeky playfulness – a disused ship, cemented forever into the quay for no earthly reason other than ‘Why not?’
It seems that the spirit of The Prisoner, half a century on, is now woven inescapably into the Portmeirion story. I should say ‘Be seeing you,’ at this point, but in the Williams-Ellis/McGoohan tradition of non-conformity, I won’t.