I first watched the British television import “The Prisoner” in the late 1960’s. The show was strange and confusing. It was unlike anything that I had seen. To a pre-teen, the show’s combination of strange visuals and cryptic plot was unforgettable. I was not alone. The Prisoner developed a cult following; the series had a broad influence in popular culture.
The Prisoner is the strange story of an unnamed high-level secret agent who unexpectedly retires from the service. He returns to his London Apartment to pack for a trip. Inside he gassed and abducted. Waking later in what appears to be his home, the agent looks out the window and finds that he is now in “The Village”. The Village, supposedly located somewhere on the Baltic coast, looks like a resort but is in reality a high-tech prison.
The setting for the story, The Village, is peculiar. The Village has a collection of buildings that seem neither new nor historic. In “The Prisoner”, The Village’s residents, who have no names just numbers, stroll about wearing brightly colored clothes that look a bit like Pontificial Swiss Guard uniforms. With unexplained penny-farthing bicycles and frequent large colorful spinning umbrellas, The Village is surreal.
In the plot of “The Prisoner” there is no escaping from The Village. Any attempts to flee are tracked down by Rover. Though Rover looks suspiciously like an innocuous weather balloon on a string, the device tracks down and terrifyingly engulfs any villagers who attempt to flee. (The show’s special effects are pretty cheesy by today’s standards.) At eight, the plot of The Prisoner was beyond me. The story just seemed bizarre and confusing. And Rover was flat scary, the stuff of nightmares. It’s this combination of peculiar and creepy that fixed The Prisoner into my memory.
Years later I’ve had several opportunities to watch the television series again. It is not as scary as I recall from when I was eight. After all, just how scary can a weather balloon pulled along by a string be? Still, I have little idea of what the whole story is about. In this I suspect I’m not alone, as I’ve seen The Prisoner broadcasted with a literary explanation tagged onto the end. Perhaps that’s the series’ appeal; in the modern era where you can expect to predict the outcome of a TV show well before its conclusion, a show that always remains confusing years after your see it stands out.
In real life, The Village was not on the Baltic Coast. Disclosed just on the opening credits of the final show, the external scenes for The Prisoner were shot in the quirky tourist village of Portmeirion in North Wales. This choice of location contributes greatly to the feel of the show; Portmeirion on TV looks illusory. In fact, the creator and star of the series, Patrick McGoohan, envisaged Portmeirion as “The Village” from the beginning of the show’s conception. It is said that Portmerion partially inspired “The Prisoner”.
Usually I’m not much on visiting locations for movies or television shows, but Portmeirion is different. The Village is such an unusual place and is so distinctive in the series that many fans of The Prisoner feel the need to make a pilgrimage.
Sir Clough Williams-Ellis created Portmeirion’s central village as a destination resort on a roughly eight-acre plot along the tidal estuary of the vowel-challenged River Dwyryd. Between 1925 and 1975 Williams-Ellis over saw the building of Portmeirion’s campus. The village was designed and constructed in the style of an Italian town.
Williams-Ellis had a penchant for acquiring pieces of demolished older structures. These bits were repurposed and incorporated into Portmeirion’s new buildings. Intentional aging of the construction materials and the inclusion of the salvaged parts give the village an historic feel. The combination of its location, a little too perfect layout, and the use repurposed materials impart on Portmeirion a Disneyland-esque aura. In many ways Portmeirion is most certainly “The Village.”
Now owned by a charitable trust, Portmeirion is open to visitors during the day. Overnight stays are also possible. Upscale rooms can be hired in The Castle, The Hotel, and in The Village. Michelin star quality food is served in hotel’s restaurant and “The Prisoner” is near continuously broadcasted on a TV channel in the rooms. When I learned that we’d be just a couple of hours away during our visit to the Manchester area we arranged our schedule so we could spend a night. Of course we chose a room in The Village.
Before we arrived I figured that Portmeirion would be jammed with Prisoner fans; the TV show still has a cult-like following. But this really isn’t the case. Though there is a Prisoner tour offered, most visitors appear interested in just seeing Sir Clough Williams-Ellis’s Portmeirion. Indeed, “The Village” seems most popular as a day trip for the elderly.
In Portmeirion memorable locations from The Prisoner series are everywhere. The Village was filmed from every angle. It had to be; Portmeirion is not large. Our room was located next to the “Green Dome”, Number Two’s residence, and overlooked Number Six’s apartment. Six’s apartment now functions as a gift shop. (Through the magic of TV, the inside of the apartment, filmed elsewhere in a studio, is much larger than the exterior of Six’s apartment building.) Now when we watch episodes of “The Prisoner”, we know where each exterior scene was filmed.
From Portmeirion’s grounds the nearby expansive sandy estuary, the site of numerous Rover-foiled escape attempts, can be viewed. In this region, the tidal variations are large. The estuary is constantly filling and draining as tides move in and out. Looking out from above at high tide it’s hard to believe that several hours earlier we were walking in places now deep in seawater.
There’s one thing we didn’t see, thankfully. We never saw Rover. I must admit that as we left on Portmeirion’s narrow winding lane I kept glancing back in our rental car’s rearview mirror on the look out for a rampaging weather balloon. After all by reputation The Village is a place where “you can check out any time you like but you can never leave.” But I guess that only happens in the TV show and in an Eagles song.