UNMUTUALLY SPEAKING – OCTOBER 2014
THE WHOLE WORLD AS THE VILLAGE
Ask anyone who has seen “The Prisoner” for a list of some of the more memorable aspects of the programme and undoubtedly you would get the replies “Patrick McGoohan”, “big white balloon”, “Penny farthing” and “Portmeirion”, amongst others. Sir Clough’s North Wales village seems forever linked to the series, and vice versa, but would “The Prisoner” have equally stood the test of time were it filmed elsewhere?
To begin our quest for answers we need to analyse what it is that makes The Village in the series what it is. It’s colourful, it’s idyllic, it’s sinister, it’s mysterious, and it’s beautiful. All of those components are required in “a village”. Or are they?
But first, the background. Why was Portmeirion chosen? Despite the protestations of George Markstein, who claims that he decided on the location after seeing photographs of it in a newspaper colour supplement, it seems clear that “Danger Man” location manager Douglas Twiddy should take the credit. When searching for North Wales locations for the early half-hour episodes of the then-forthcoming secret agent series starring Patrick McGoohan as John Drake, Twiddy came across Portmeirion and thought it suitable for doubling as locations such as Italy and China, and it was in the first episode “View from the Villa”, in which it doubled for a Portofino-like location, directed by future “Prisoner” director Peter Graham Scott, which first brought McGoohan’s attentions to the place.
Years later, McGoohan would claim he’d had “man in isolation” ideas for many years before, and Twiddy’s choosing of the coastal location (along with others in the area) was a perfect fit for that location, long before Markstein became involved in any projects. But what if McGoohan had not learnt of Portmeirion at this time, were there other candidates?
It seems not. Although a recce, which was filmed and photographed, was done by then-producer Leslie Gilliat and production manager Bernie Williams to Portmeirion to check on the suitability of the location for filming, it doesn’t seem as though one was done elsewhere, which creates an impression that no other location was considered at that time. Series editor John S Smith, best known for his “saving” of the episode “Dance of the Dead”, when interviewed by Dave Jones at PM2005 in Portmeirion’s Hercules Hall, believed that the village of Stourhead in Wiltshire had the necessary beauty to carry off any continuation of the series away from Portmeirion. Such a location certainly has all the ingredients listed above as to what The Village needed to be the setting for Number Six and his difficulties. Does Portmeirion alone have those ingredients? Let’s examine each in turn.
My first thought is that in 1967 when the first episode was screened to the world, hardly anyone knew that it was Portmeirion they were watching on the screen, and the vivid colours and architecture we see on screen now thanks to super sharp DVD and colour televisions was not how it was originally screened (it being on grainy black and white sets for the vast majority of folk watching). Would any alternative village therefore have needed such colour?
IDYLLIC YET SINISTER
Other shows and films used villages closer to the MGM or Elstree studios in Hertfordshire (such as Letchmore Heath in “Village of the Damned”) which looked equally idyllic and at the same time sinister, providing a great atmosphere to the scenes. But did they work and become scary because the locations looked familiar and the viewer could better imagine the scenario and a setting real to them (as former “Doctor Who” actor Jon Pertwee always maintained; “I didn’t like to go to other planets, it’s much more frightening to have a Yeti in Tooting Bec”)? Would “The Prisoner” have had those atmospheric qualities were it filmed at such a location that folk were more recognizing of, or does the series work better in a fantastical looking location?
One of the beauties of Portmeirion is that it looks like it can be located anywhere in the World, and one of the key themes running throughout the series is that Number Six does not know where he is, and who is keeping him incarcerated. Places like Stourhead and Letchmore Heath, as mentioned earlier, are quintissentially English, whereas Portmeiron isn’t.
The argument of course came to the fore when the 2009 remake of the series was first being mooted several years before. Early on it was made clear by ITV, SKY, and later AMC who produced the series, that it was unlikely that Portmeirion would be utilized as the setting for the new series. Instead, the Namibian town of Swakopmund was used. Whatever criticisms have been leveled at the remake of the series, the location is truly stunning.
So, could anywhere have been The Village? Could the original series, actors, writing have been implanted into any suitable location were it available at the time without any detriment to the quality of the production? Let me know what you think via The Unmutual Website.