Number Six At 50: The 50th Anniversary Of 'The Prisoner' The series, about an ex-spy chafing against his imprisonment in a sunny, seaside village, was one of the first shows to end with a finale that sharply divided viewers.
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Number Six At 50: The 50th Anniversary Of 'The Prisoner'

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Number Six At 50: The 50th Anniversary Of 'The Prisoner'

Number Six At 50: The 50th Anniversary Of 'The Prisoner'

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The stylish and surreal television series "The Prisoner" premiered on British television 50 years ago today. That show depicted a culture of constant surveillance. And as NPR's Glen Weldon reports, it also helped pave the way for shows today that take creative risks fans might not always appreciate.

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: It was a little bit James Bond, a little bit George Orwell and, eventually, a whole lot of Franz Kafka.

(SOUNDBITE OF RON GRAINER'S "'THE PRISONER' THEME")

WELDON: Viewers who tuned into "The Prisoner" 50 years ago probably recognize lead actor Patrick McGoohan. He'd spent four seasons on a popular show known here in the States as "Secret Agent." As the opening credits roll, we see McGoohan marching into an office and forcefully resigning. He does everything forcefully.

(SOUNDBITE OF RON GRAINER'S "'THE PRISONER' THEME")

WELDON: Almost as soon as he does, he's abducted. He awakens in a picturesque seaside village known only as the Village. Everyone there is a former spy, like he is, and is assigned a number. His is number six. Every episode begins with Six demanding answers from Number Two, who runs the Village.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE PRISONER")

PATRICK MCGOOHAN: (As Number Six) Where am I?

LEO MCKERN: (As Number Two) In the Village.

MCGOOHAN: (As Number Six) What do you want?

MCKERN: (As Number Two) Information.

MCGOOHAN: (As Number Six) Whose side are you on?

MCKERN: (As Number Two) That would be telling.

WELDON: The information Number Two wants is why Six resigned. And he isn't saying, both because he's not sure who runs the Village and because he just wants to be left alone.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE PRISONER")

MCGOOHAN: (As Number Six) I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered.

WELDON: What he will be, over the course of just 17 episodes, is constantly monitored and cruelly interrogated. As the show went on, it became an increasingly surreal allegory about privacy versus surveillance and the battle of the individual against society. In the finale, that allegory bubbles over. We need characters who symbolize youth and the state. They deliver monologues about freedom and rebellion. In the end, Number Six escapes the prison of the Village but not the prison of himself. Get it? Yeah, lots of people didn't. They wanted clear answers. Where was the Village? Which side ran it?

Since then, the finales of shows like "Lost," "Dexter," "True Blood" and, most recently, "Twin Peaks: The Return" have also sharply divided viewers. But 50 years ago, that was a brand-new phenomenon. A show that had begun with groovy spy shenanigans had ended in symbols and speeches.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE PRISONER")

KENNETH GRIFFITH: (As President) He has gloriously vindicated the right of the individual to be individual.

WELDON: For fans, it was more than enough. But for casual viewers, it was infuriating. They wrote outraged letters. McGoohan claimed he had to go into hiding for a while. "The Prisoner" may have been the first television show to generate enough passionate devotion for its finale to split its audience into fans and haters.

Glen Weldon, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF RON GRAINER'S "'THE PRISONER' THEME")

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