Sunday, 21 February 2010


The Prisoner 2009 arrived in France this week on Pay TV Canal Plus.

Co-created and produced in 1967 by Patrick McGoohan, who also starred in it, The Prisoner was about a secret agent who awakes in a strange place named The Village after resigning. Every resident of The Village is called by a number, the leader is Number Two and our man becomes Number Six against his will. Number Two wants to know why Number Six resigned and Number Six wants to escape.

The 17 episodes of McGoohan's work, though not equally perfect, have acquired a cult status through the years and the idea of a remake was certainly inevitable. In november 2005, Granada announced that the company was planning a new version of The Prisoner with Sky One plus European and US networks as possible partners ( Christopher Eccleston was initially rumoured to star in it.

In 2006, The Hollywood Reporter revealed that American cable network AMC was attached to the project but in 2007 Sky One decided to pull out due to creative differences with the US partner (1). ITV, owner of The Prisoner, held on as only British producer with AMC as co-producer.

Written by Bill Gallagher (Conviction), directed by Nick Hurran (Bonekickers) and shot in South Africa and Namibia, the new six-part miniseries of The Prisoner aired first on AMC in November 2009 as a three-day event. In the UK ITV1 should show it this spring but it was announced in the ITV1 Winter/Spring 2008-2009 season brochure.

An American citizen (Jim Caviezel) wakes up in the desert where he sees an old man being chased. The old man comes from a strange place called The Village where everyone is a number. The leader is Two (Ian McKellen) and our American becomes Six. Remakes allow new generations to discover concepts, stories and characters and without them the only Batman would still be Lewis Wilson in the 1943 serial. Call them "reinventions", "reinterpretations", "reboots" or whatever, the idea is still to do again something already done but with new elements. In the case of our concern, "remake" will do.

Bernie Lomax (see Weekend at Bernie's) is patron saint of the modern Entertainment industry, where originality is a hazard and where every company or media conglomerate is digging deep into its back catalogue to find an old show, classic or not, to transform an old "brand" into a bonanza. The BBC has the Doctor Who franchise, ITV has a myriad of cult shows inherited from the ITC Entertainment era.

But the original Prisoner was and should have remained unique: The Village, part Portmeirion - an architectural smorgasbord in Wales - and part studios, the sets, the costumes, the original and stock tracks of the score, the ambiance, the actors, etc. McGoohan's brainchild is a televisual, philosophical and esthetical work of art. Its influence is palpable in a a lot of movies or television series: Nowhere Man, The Truman Show, Meadowlands... In many respects they have already "reinvented" The Prisoner, and sometimes better than the new miniseries.

The first of the many weaknesses of this Prisoner is definitely its star. Jim Caviezel's Six is so tern that he's overshadowed by Ian McKellen's Two. McKellen is great... Of course, he is! It's Ian McKellen, he could mesmerize an audience by reading his shopping list. In the original version, the Number Two function had an exponential turnover rate but not here (of course, remember it's Ian McKellen) as the new Two has a son, a seemingly sick wife, and a curious taste for pineapples. Hand grenades, I mean.

In the 1967 series The Village was so distinctive that it was almost a character in its own right. The new Village, the Namibian resort of Swakopmund, is visually a mix between Meadowlands and Disneyland. A dream (?) of colonial architecture crossed by these anonymous cars and buses you see in so many adverts because a lot of adverts are shot in South Africa. Whereas the Mini Moke of the original show was so emblematic of the Swinging sixties.

Superb views of the Namibian desert compensate the bland anonymity of the location and of the vehicles but cannot compensate a certain lack of strong personalities among the cast, besides Ian McKellen (of course, it's...) Another weakness is the americanization of the story, Six is from New York, he asks Two for an American consul, a drawing of the Statue of Liberty is one of the clues of the reality of the world he comes from, the two glass towers standing in the desert evoke the World Trade Center. And the soundtrack is the generic score you can hear in every Hollywood blockbuster, since it's from Brit composer Rupert Gregson-Williams, ex-Media Ventures alumnus (Hans Zimmer and his pals).

The themes of the 1967 Prisoner, such as the individual vs society, can be considered as universal but, even if its co-creator and lead was American, the show itself was intrinsincly British. Like Richard Woolfe, then boss of Sky One, said in his interview for Digital Spy in 2007: « It's a very quintessentially British drama and there were too many creative differences trying to share it with an American partner. 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 » (2).

There are many good ideas in The Prisoner 2009: the old man in the pre-credit sequence of the premiere looks like an aged McGoohan as Number Six with the original costume (there's no "uniform" in the new Village), the Wonkers soap opera, 70 - the twin psychiatrists. And the hilarious nod to the map scene of the 1967 version of Arrival. But there are also too many terrible ideas, like the inelegant intro credit sequence and all the Summakor thing, or the subplot with Two's son.

Unfortunately, this forgettable remake of The Prisoner will rejoin the unnecessary US remake of Life on Mars and its likes. Six is not a free man, he's not even really a "number" - curiously the French dubbing brings back the old "Number Six".

Sorry, wrong number...

(1) (2)

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