The Prisoner is not a language I speak fluently. I know the basics, ‘Be seeing you!’, ‘I’m not a number. I’m a free man!’, Rover, the Stone ship, Portmeirion all that. But the series like a lot of the ‘60s spy fi is something I’ve always managed to miss.
As a result, with regards to this boxed set, I find myself in the slightly odd position of knowing enough to understand but not coming in with a mental checklist of things that have to be done. So I’ll be talking about this not as an adaptation, but as a piece of audio drama in its own right.
Season 1 of The Prisoner is clearly a labour of love for Nicholas Briggs, who writes and directs all four episodes. In less capable hands that would mean an entire boxed set of gleeful fan service with nothing for newcomers but Briggs is very aware he’s writing for two audiences here. Each episode is crammed full of stuff from the original series, and there’s at least one direct adaptation that I spotted, but there’s also a constant eye on the new.
This manifests in the fictional reality of the Village itself, which is presented as being run with something very close to high tech modern equipment. There are tablets, holograms and a slight hint of Silicon Valley to it. It’s clean and hygienic and clearly a huge petri dish designed to drive one man mad.
This technology, and that man, are the crux of the first episode’s only problem. Briggs sensibly grounds these plays in the same time period as the show and Mark Elstob’s Number Six is every inch the brittle, belligerent and arch game player that Patrick McGoohan’s was. However, he spends rather too much of ‘Departure and Arrival’ being amazed, and then annoyed, by what’s going on around him. It’s a necessary narrative turn not just to show Six is on the ropes but to introduce us to the world. It’s also presented with the typical flair and wit of any Big Finish release but nonetheless it’s hard work in places. This is a boxed set with a steep learning curve for character and listener alike and it’s all in that first episode.
Which is what makes the following three episodes such a pleasure. ‘The Schizoid Man’, a near direct lift from the TV show, is a wonderfully nasty shell game between Six, that episode’s Number Two played with scorpionic poise by Celia Imrie and… well… Number Six. One of them is not real, neither of them are telling and as the story accelerates only Six himself really knows what’s going on. It’s a remarkable piece of audio, keeping you guessing but never leaving you behind and crucially showing Six acting, not reacting. It’s also the start of an excellent run in the spotlight for Sara Powell as Number Nine. The slightly ambiguous, pragmatic Watson to Elstob’s spikily perceptive Holmes she’s a welcome addition to the story, giving it the humanity that the often cold Six rejects.
But Six isn’t the only one wrong footed by the Village. Just as you have him pegged as an embittered chess master of an agent, Briggs turns the lights off. ‘Your Beautiful Village’, which folds in the excellent Ramon Tikaram as that story’s Number Two, sees Six trapped in perpetual darkness. Something awful has happened to the Village’s systems, Two needs his help and the only way out may be to accept everything Six has rebelled against. It’s a terse, intimate horror story that peels the layers of Six’s persona back and shows you just how damaged he’s already been by the Village even if he refuses to accept it. On a uniformly strong set this is the standout.
‘The Chimes of Big Ben’ closes volume 1 with a snarling, wounded Six being strong armed into welcoming a new prisoner. Nadia is a Russian Olympian, spy and the exact partner Six needs. Resourceful, determined, unwilling to stand still. He distrusts her instantly. But that doesn’t mean they won’t work together.
Again the show changes its parameters. Elstob, who’s on top form throughout, really hits another level here and you get a sense not of Six the prisoner but Six the spy. The damage he’s sustained wasn’t all in the Village and there are tantalizing hints of just what drove him to resign scattered throughout both ‘Departure and Arrival’ and this story. Faced with a partner who is everything he needs, we appreciate just what a horrific situation Six is in. He couldn’t trust anyone out in the world, can’t trust anyone in The Village and is facing an enemy who is technologically near omnipotent. The bitter, spiky approach isn’t just justified, it’s mandatory and the ending here is as close to tragedy, or perhaps more accurately horror, as the series has got so far. Psychologically complex, immaculately designed and a perfect demonstration of just why this series works so well as audio drama. We can’t see what Six can, we have to go on trust in the exact way he can’t and that means we’re more in the dark than he is. It’s a difficult approach to pull off but from about halfway through the first episode, the series hits its stride and never slows down until the end.
Verdict: This is hard work, at least at first, but it was always going to be. The Prisoner is a legendary piece of television and Briggs and co. have done an excellent job of capturing its essence in an entirely different medium. It feels different to usual Big Finish productions too, focused at three different narrative levels. Each story stands alone, each story moves the overall plot of the box along and the box sets up its sequel while standing on its own. In other words, it looks like Six is going to be in the Village for a while yet. Which is bad news for him but based on this, great news for us. 9/10