The Prisoner: Interview: Nicholas Briggs (Part 1)

BA9A8669PRIS01_cover_1715x2575“Any chance to speak about The Prisoner is fine by me!” Nicholas Briggs says enthusiastically as we’re setting up for this interview about his reinvention of the classic 1967 TV series, the first box set for which has been released to high acclaim. Briggs writes and directs the set, adapting three scripts from the original series – Arrival (which becomes Departure and Arrival), The Schizoid Man, and The Chimes of Big Ben – and penning one of his own, Your Beautiful Village. In part 1 of this interview, he discusses the allure of the series with Paul Simpson…




What is the great attraction for The Prisoner for you – can you sum it up in one sentence?

I love it.

That’s not very informative though, is it?

It’s something from my teenage times that meant so much to me that I wanted to bring it back to life. That’s one sentence.

Here’s another one. I love what it’s about – the struggle of the individual against the state, against secrecy, against a lack of openness. I identify with all the aims of the series, and also the whole business of the struggle against technology being used for the wrong purpose, to supress people rather than to help them.

The Village, back in the 1967 original, is full of amazing technology that was way ahead of state-of-the-art stuff at the time. What a wonderful world the Village could have been for the Prisoner… but it was terrible, it was achingly awful for him.

Yarmouth Mooring BuoysThe story I tell – and I’m well aware that I’m well over the sentence now! – that people may not have heard is that my father told me about it in the Sixties when we used to go on sailing holidays in the Solent. Every time we saw a big orange marker buoy, he’d say, “The Prisoner”, because he thought Orange Alert meant the big ball was orange – he was watching in black and white.

When it was shown in 1977, a friend of mine had seen the first episode late night on ITV and had told me about it, and I thought, ‘This sounds like that thing my dad told me about nearly 10 years ago’. The first episode was broadcast on ITV on my sixth birthday – I was too young to watch that sort of television programme at that point. It was very special to me to find out what it had been about.

I had heard an audio recording of it already because my friend had recorded the audio of it – that’s what we used to do in those days because we didn’t have video recorders; domestic video recorders didn’t exist. I remember hearing this amazing theme tune, and crashes of thunder. I thought, ‘What’s going on?’ He said, “It tells you the whole story in this starting sequence.” I was truly amazed when I saw The Chimes of Big Ben, which is usually the second episode to be aired, and certainly was in 1977. It just blew me away.

There are so many theories about The Prisoner, and you’re in a unique position to implement your own; but what are the constraints of the format? You can push it a long way – such as in Living in Harmony, or Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling – but what constraints were there for you as a writer?

It’s interesting you mention Living in Harmony. The last few they did, apparently they asked for ideas from the crew basically; they had to cook up some extra episodes to make the series up from 13 to 17 so that it could be a summertime between-seasons filler in the States, because they didn’t want to take it on as a 26 part thing in the States. They did go a bit crazy, and that’s what we all remember about The Prisoner.

In the same way that I think there’s nothing you can’t do on audio I think there’s nothing you can’t do in The Prisoner as long as you find the right way of doing it. I don’t think you can ever have that the Prisoner seriously escapes before the end of the series; that was one of the American networks’ objection to The Prisoner, apparently – this guy loses every week – so I’m told by those who know, and that is what happens. He has his tiny little victory where he drives his captors up the wall by doing something crazy, particularly something like Hammer into Anvil where he drives Patrick Cargill’s character completely bonkers.

If you’ve heard the box set, Your Beautiful Village, the new one I did, that was a crazy crazy thing to do, but I’m not about constraints…

schizoid ManBut sometimes as a writer, battling against the constraints is what produces ideas. It’s The Prisoner idea – you are bouncing against a wall: how do I make that bounce into something that works better?

Definitely. But that’s my approach to audio. The Schizoid Man is about the Prisoner and his double – what a mad idea to do that on audio. So I thought, ‘I am going to drive a bus right at that, and analyse what the restrictions are and use them to the series’ advantage.’ I think it works out as very entertaining when you don’t know which one is which, whereas in the TV series, you always knew which one was which in The Schizoid Man because they wore different jackets. That was the craziest thing to do but I’m sure that was playing it safe a bit – I bet Patrick McGoohan wanted them to wear the same clothes.

You have to wonder how much McGoohan influenced that early series. It’s clear that Markstein’s influence dropped down and McGoohan’s went up…

That’s certainly what I’ve understood from people who know more about it than me. It does go more and more off the wall… Markstein’s approach was definitely that it was a government place for retired spies, and the question was which government, or was it both governments or a set of governments? They were much more realistic concerns. Patrick McGoohan was going further than that, wasn’t he – he was falling into the world of allegory.

I’ve always thought that Markstein’s idea was that what Nadia says about the Village in The Chimes of Big Ben was probably accurate…

Probably at that stage, that may well have been what they were thinking.

Prisoner PortM 2They had the benefit of the very unique backdrop of Portmeirion, which you don’t for the audio, but you also have the benefit of not having that – when you were reimagining the scripts and creating your own, were you imagining it in Portmeirion?

Yes. But with the liberty of being able to say just slightly different things about it. I’m going to Portmeirion for Easter, which will be the first time I’ve ever been there. I was speaking to a couple of people from Six of One [the Prisoner Appreciation Society] at Big Finish Day 8, and they were surprised I hadn’t been there. They told me that it’s much smaller than it appears to be on the show. Almost everything location-wise and set-wise is always much smaller than it looks on television; that’s just the way of things, that’s what lenses do. I don’t the Village is geographically exactly like Portmeirion and I took some liberties, but certainly that is the image and the flavour in my head when I’m writing it, absolutely. Why wouldn’t it be?

I’ve added in little descriptions that are slightly at odds with what was on television, things about plastic windmills and Number 2’s chamber looking like the inside of a huge washing machine, which isn’t how it looks on television, but you can imagine those…

But it’s an alternate take. You’re not, I assume, trying to say “This is the television version on audio”…

Of course not. That’s why I’ve got a different theme tune for a start.

Does that work the way I thought it did – could you play the two together and they fit?

Prisoner PortM 1Not at all. No, they’re really different tunes but it’s like they’re played by the same band, They’re similar pieces of music but I deliberately did that. In many ways I would have loved to just had the original theme, because that is The Prisoner, but then that would be liking saying, “This episode happens after The Schizoid Man” and fitting it in and that’s crazy, because it’s not Patrick McGoohan playing the part. I wanted it to be an alternative vision that had many similarities with the original and it doesn’t negate the original.

To be honest, it’s very difficult for me to justify why I’ve done it. I’ve done it out of love and I knew I desperately wanted to do it. When we first announced it there were a lot of people saying, “What’s the point of this?” And I thought, ‘Well I agree with you. If I were you I’d be looking at this and going, what are you doing this for?’ The Prisoner is a finite beautiful thing and I just knew I wanted to do it and I was lucky enough to get the opportunity, firstly by bludgeoning my co-exec and owner of the company, Jason Haigh-Ellery, into agreeing with that look on my face of “Please let me do this otherwise I’ll cry,” and then getting ITV to agree as well in the aftermath of them telling me that we couldn’t do Thunderbirds and them seeing how upset I was. They took pity on me and said, “Is there anything else?” I said, “How about The Prisoner I’ve been mentioning that for the last five or six years,” and they went, “Ooh, yeah, why not?” And they quickly moved to an agreement.

I was just lucky that it happened. Without sounding overly grovelling to my audience, what I’m really pleased about is that once people have heard it, they’ve kind of got it, and gone “Oh that’s why you’ve done it, and this is okay. You’re not trying to usurp the original, you just love the original and celebrating it, having fun, doing it again but not quite the same.” It’s a shame – I would never get this past anyone for broadcast on television, because I can’t encapsulate it. It was just a gut feeling about it and I’m really pleased that people who love The Prisoner as much as me, and probably know more about it than me, seem to love it as much. The people from Six of One were telling me a lot of reasons why it was good – do they realise they’re just pouring paraffin on the fire telling me things like that?! It was really lovely of them and I’m at a slight loss to explain why or what, but I’m relieved that it worked.

PrisonerI knew it had worked the moment we were in the studio doing it, and then fighting through the post-production stage as well. I do pity Iain Meadows and Jamie Robertson who did the sound design and music respectively; Jamie did a bit of the sound design but mostly just the music. Poor Iain, when he was first doing the trailer for me, he’d never done trailers the way I like them and eventually I just took it off him and said I’d re-edit it, and I’d say, like this… That’s the trouble when you’re a sound designer and you’re working with a director who’s also a sound designer!

I was much more precise than I am about a Doctor Who thing – we’ve already got the Doctor Who feel and they know how to do that but I was really… I might have made their lives a bit miserable but they tell me that they were inspired by my enthusiasm, but I suppose they would say that! I hope to get them back for the next series!

Click here for part 2 of this interview, in which Nick discusses the characterisation of the Prisoner in the new series.

and here for part 3 in which Nick discusses casting Mark Elstob

The Prisoner is available now from Big Finish

Click here to read our review


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