There are cult TV series, and then there are cult TV series. Standing rather far ahead of the rest of the pack by just about every critics’ estimation, however, is “The Prisoner,” starring Patrick McGoohan as a former secret agent who is held captive in a small seaside village by the sea by an unidentified power that wants to know why he’s resigned from service. Hell, I’ve never even watched the series, and yet I’d still rate it as one of the top cult shows of all time, based solely on its reputation.
Once again, I think you have to give AMC kudos for their boldness as a network, because not only have they decided to re-imagine “The Prisoner,” thereby putting themselves in line to take no end of flak from the highly obsessive fans of the original series, but they’re even offering up the original show on AMCtv.com for those who haven’t seen it yet. (They also gave all of the critics in attendance a copy of the DVD box set of the series, since we’re clearly far too busy to watch television online.)
Well, you probably would be, too, if you could lay claim to having secured Jim Caviezel as your new Number Six and Sir Ian McKellen as the devious Number Two, then filled out the cast with Lennie James (“Jericho”), Ruth Wilson (“Jane Eyre”), and Jamie Campbell Bower (“Sweeney Todd,” “RocknRolla”).
It’s still going to take some convincing to get the old-school “Prisoner” fans to accept that the seaside of Portmeirion has been thrown out in favor of a new Village located in the midst of a desert setting, of course, but director Nick Hurran is clearly pleased with this new interpretation of the concept, which still focuses on a man trapped somewhere from which he cannot escape.
“The themes have the issue of family, of love, of control and of freedom in the same way,” said Hurran. “Freedom of choice, how much should we be allowed to have in our society of freedom. So, in that way, there are parallels of someone leaving a world and waking up in this extraordinary place for a reason that wants to be discovered. As in the original, there’s The Village. It’s an ideal world where everything will be provided for you. For us, you’ll be endlessly happy. Everything will be fulfilled for you, as long as you don’t ask questions. You won’t have the freedom to ask why, to say, ‘I’d like to leave now.’ And Six is the only one who questions that and says, ‘No, I’m not going to just take a number and join your marvelous world. I’m going to ask why and why is everybody else like this.’ We follow his challenge to question it and try and find out.”
McKellen, who conceded that he didn’t watch the original “Prisoner” when it first aired and only caught it in reruns years later, seems happy with the fact that AMC’s re-interpretation will be far less open-ended than its predecessor.
“One of the characteristics of the original was that in 17 episodes, the questions that you were invited to ask as to why and who is in charge and what are their motives, was never really answered, hence the enduring fascination,” said McKellen. “The viewers are still guessing as to what was the meaning of it all. Well, this is different. By episode six, you know everything about The Village: Where it came from, where it’s going to, who created it, why they did it and what it’s like to actually live there.”
McKellen also agrees with the decision to abandon the unabashedly British nature of the original. “Even though the location was in Wales, it didn’t feel like that,” he said. “It felt like a little English Disney place. Frankly, I’m more attracted to (screenwriter) Bill Gallagher’s notion of ‘The Prisoner’ and The Village and it’s on a world scale. The implications are for us all. To have an American character at the center of it seems appropriate in a way it would not have been to that curious English feeling that saturated the original series.”
For his part, Caviezel had never seen, let alone heard of, the original series. “I was actually set to shoot another film, and without going into that, there was a little glitch in the financing. And that day, I get a phone call from my agent saying, ‘You need to read these things that Ian McKellen is doing.” And all I heard was ‘Ian McKellen.’ The first two episodes that I read were phenomenal, and he says, ‘Well, wait until you get the next two.’ I had talked to AMC before on another project, and this one, to me, was a film for television and no different. To me, it was like shooting a regular film with a brilliant filmmaker.”
As for Lennie James, someone asked him when he was planning to lighten up with his choice of roles, given that’s he coming off “Jericho” and going right into a miniseries where paranoia remains a constant element.
“It just seemed like it was the next thing to do, having played a man that no one had any idea who he was or what he was doing, to go on to play a man who has no idea and doesn’t know what he’s doing,” said James, with a grin. “It’s a natural step, really. I don’t know what I’m going to do next, but he’s not going to know what he’s doing.”
To close, we’ll play a little of the ol’ good news / bad news…and we might as well start with the bad news, just to get it out of the way: Patrick McGoohan will not be in it. Not even a little bit.
“We asked (McGoohan) to play a cameo in the piece, because it’s the perfect thing for him,” said executive producer Trevor Hopkins. “Although he loved it, loved the casting that we got in it, he wasn’t able to travel and take part in it.”
It’s sad, of course, though at least this will give the new version of “The Prisoner” the opportunity to fully stand…or fall…on its own.
And the good news…?
Rover will be in it. Sort of.
At first, Hurran was evasive, saying, “Well, that’s very tricky. Who knows?” Eventually, however, he committed enough to make it pretty certain that some equivalent of Rover will show up.
“Everybody, the first thing they do is go, ‘Is the the white ball or Rover there?'” he said, with a laugh. “In the original, there’s some marvelous stories of how they had spent an awful lot of money making some fabulous contraption that would hover like a hovercraft and then sink down below the water like a submarine and then climb the walls of a building when required. And on the first day of filming, I think they say it came out, went into the water, sank, and never came up again.”
Hurran paused for a moment, then continued, “We might have had a similar sort of thing happening. But I couldn’t possibly say at the moment. But a rover may make an appearance. He’s a big part of what is ‘The Prisoner,’ I think.”
“The Prisoner” will air on AMC later in 2009, with the precise premiere date still very much TBD.