As usual on this blog I’ll be talking about books, films and TV and what started me off on this theme of prisons and prisoners was watching my box set of the 60’s TV series the Prisoner. Anyway, I’ll get to that shortly but first let me start with a book. It’s one I reviewed earlier in the year
Papillon by Henri Charrière
Papillon is a book by Frenchman Henri Charrière. It is an autobiographical novel about Charrière’s imprisonment in the French penal colony of French Guiana and covers a period of about fifteen years. The original novel was written on a series of exercise books and is presented in just that way. Charrière describes his experience of imprisonment as a terrible one. He escaped and was recaptured many times and ended up in solitary imprisonment twice. The first time was for two years and he was kept in solitary for 24 hours a day. In his second bout of solitary a new officer takes over the running of the area and prisoners are let out for exercise every day. At one point in his escape Charrière encounters a tribe of Indians and joins them for many months, even marrying one of the Indian girls but despite finding this apparent paradise, he leaves and is imprisoned again. He eventually escapes from Devil’s Island by jumping into the sea aboard a sack filled with coconuts. The book is an incredible read and I found it one I just couldn’t put down. It is filled with action and adventure but also with thoughtful observations about the human condition and there are many moments when simple acts of kindness stand out to the author against a background of cruelty and inhumanity.
The book was an instant hit when it was published in France in 1969 and the author, Henri Charrière, nicknamed Papillon because of a tattoo of a butterfly on his chest, became a French celebrity. He died in 1973 but always maintained the book was true and based on his own recollections despite claims to the contrary. Whatever its origins the book is a true classic adventure story.
Papillon was made into a film in 1973 and on paper this should have been a brilliant film; Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman star, there was a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo and the author acted as an advisor. Actually it’s pretty poor, I’m not sure why but McQueen was not suited for the role and the writers tried to cram in all the events of a pretty hefty book into a film when there really wasn’t room. Forget the film, read the book.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
It’s a long time since I read this book and I couldn’t seem to dig my copy out so I don’t think I can be too critical. According to Wikipedia it was first published in a Soviet magazine and was only later published in book form. It’s the story of a single day in the life of a prisoner in a Soviet labour camp seen through the eyes of a man called Ivan. It’s a pretty bleak book as I remember and unlike the book by Henri Charrière, it’s not a hopeful book and there is no feeling that Ivan will ever escape or would even try to escape. It is a book about survival rather than escape. The book was first published during the Khrushchev years when the new Premier Nikita Khrushchev attempted a degree of openness after the repressive years of Stalin’s rule. Author Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel prize for Literature in 1970.
The Prisoner TV Series.
Actor Patrick McGoohan was the man behind this exceptional TV series made at the end of the 1960’s. McGoohan had become a TV star with a series called Danger Man about a secret agent called John Drake and the actor had become fascinated with what would happen to a spy or agent when they decided to retire. Would their spymasters be happy to let someone with highly classified secret information emigrate for instance? On Danger Man, McGoohan met writer George Markstein and the two discussed McGoohan’s ideas. Markstein hinted that he might have had connections to the secret service in the past and told McGoohan about a top secret establishment called Inverlair Lodge in Inverness, Scotland where during the Second World War ‘recalcitrant agents were housed.’ McGoohan and producer David Tomblin, also from the Danger Man series, started their own production company, later called Everyman Films to produce a new TV series based on these ideas. McGoohan asked Tomblin and Markstein to write the script for the first episode into which he later incorporated some of his own ideas.
The basic idea was that a secret agent resigns and he is kidnapped and taken to an unknown place known only as the village. The agent was possibly John Drake from the Danger Man series but this could never be said publicly because of copyright reasons. In the village there are no names, only numbers. McGoohan plays Number Six and the chairman of the village is Number Two, played by a different actor every week. Will Number Six reveal why he has resigned? Who is running the village? Is it our side or the enemy?
McGoohan, then a hugely popular TV star went to Lew Grade, the head of the ITV network and told him he wasn’t keen on a new Danger Man series but had an idea called the Prisoner. Grade apparently said ‘you know it’s so crazy, it just might work’, and production went ahead.
In the first episode we see McGoohan driving into London in his Lotus 7 and slapping down his resignation letter on the desk of some unknown person. The man at the desk was in fact George Markstein who became the story editor of the series. McGoohan returns home to pack but then his house fills with gas rendering him unconscious. When he awakes, he is not at home but in the village.
Confused and disorientated he attempts to find out where he is and soon meets Number Two. Number Two explains that he wants to know why McGoohan resigned and that there is no escape from the village. The exteriors of the village were filmed in the Welsh village of Portmerion but the interiors, especially Number Two’s office, had a very futuristic, hi-tech feel.
Lew Grade had expected various seasons of The Prisoner but Patrick realised early on that the format was not something that could be sustained for multiple seasons so eventually he and Lew Grade agreed on making 17 episodes in order to realise a product that could be marketed to other countries, particularly the USA.
The 17 episodes all had either a mystery, sci-fi, espionage appeal or leaned towards McGoogan’s vision of an avant-garde allegory about the individual and freedom. In the first episode, Arrival, the prisoner who we come to know only as Number Six wakes up in the mysterious village. What is it all about? Why is here?
Number Two comes straight to the point, ‘why did you resign?’ he asks.
Number Six looks down at his file and observes the time of his birth is missing.
‘Let’s bring it up to date’ replies Number Two.
‘4:30 am, 19th March, 1928’ answers Six. ‘I’ve nothing more to say’ he adds slapping the file shut.
4:30am, 19th March 1928 just happens to be Patrick McGoohan’s date and time of birth so we can see just how personal The Prisoner was to him. The file photo of number Six used throughout the series was McGoohan’s own actual publicity picture.
The final episode where viewers expected everything to be explained and for Number Six to escape and find out who was Number One was a controversial episode and many viewers jammed the network in the UK complaining about the crazy ending in which a mock trial descends into a psychedelic montage of 1960’s music and imagery.
McGoohan defended himself by describing The Prisoner as an allegory when the viewers were still expecting something similar to The Saint or Man in a Suitcase, the action/ adventure and espionage series that were being filmed at the time. Today over 50 years later the Prisoner is a TV show with cult status.
The Truman Show
The Truman show is a film starring Jim Carrey. Carrey plays Truman who lives in a small town but does not realise that he is in fact the star of a reality TV show. Secret cameras film everything he does and all those around him, including his mother, his wife and best friend who are all actors in on the secret. The TV show is the brainchild of Christof, a producer/director played by Ed Harris. As the film unfolds we gradually realise that Truman is becoming aware of things that are not right; a spotlight that falls from the sky, people who approach him and want to talk but are hustled away by strange people, an office building where no one is working and his wife who seems to announce the benefits of various products as if she is in a TV advert.
The film is based on an episode of the Twilight Zone. A man getting ready for work finds a camera in his bathroom and realises he is being secretly filmed. It turns out that unknown to him, he is the star of a reality TV show. The producers take him aside and explain what a hit the show is and how much money he could be making. Why not carry on as if he never found out the truth they ask. Keep the show running. No one would ever know.
The man decides to just carry on with his life and allow the filming and the money to continue. In some ways I think that might even be a better storyline than the Truman show. Either way, this film is a really interesting look at the current reality TV genre and flips the whole concept on its head. Carrey is great in what is really his first dramatic role too. The most telling moment comes at the end when the whole world has been glued to the last episode. When it has finished one of the enthralled TV viewers asks ‘what’s on now?’
So, are we all prisoners then, prisoners trying to break free from either the bars of our cell or from the restrictions imposed on us by modern living, the media or society itself?
As they say in The Prisoner, ‘be seeing you!’