Prisons and Prisoners in TV, Books and Film

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!’


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Birthdays, Highlands and Hamish Macbeth

Last week was my birthday week and Liz suggested a trip up to the Scottish Highlands. The Scottish Highlands I thought, is it hot there? Can you sunbathe and swim in the sea? Well, you can although I wouldn’t advise it in October. The thing is with the current lockdowns in place all over the country and indeed the world, jetting off to somewhere warm isn’t much of an option. Anyway, our much under used motorhome was sitting on the drive just waiting for an opportunity for a run out so off we went.

Traffic was quiet on the M6 north so we made good time, arriving at our designated stopping place in the early evening. Park4Night is a great app to use for motorhomers telling us about handy stopping places nearby. We stopped in Lanark for the night just by the Loch and used a local chip shop to get our tea. Fish, chips and mushy peas seemed to take a hell of a long time and a great deal of commotion seemed to be aroused in the back office of the chip ship. However, finally our food arrived and we nipped off smartly back to our stopping place by the loch. Communicating in a Lanark chippy wasn’t easy, especially for the Italian guy who took my order. He had to go from Scottish/English to Mancunian/English which must be hard for any foreigner, especially so for an Italian living in Scotland. That is probably why I ended up with baked beans with my chips instead of peas. Beans with fish and chips is an insult to any northerners palate so the beans were stowed away for breakfast. The fish and chips were good though.

The next day, despite the rain, we made our way steadily to Loch Lomond where we stopped for the night. The Balloch House inn apparently welcomes motor home stop overs as long as they use the pub so we booked in for our evening meal. My meal, actually my birthday meal was nice but Liz’s wasn’t so good. New social distancing rules meant we could only stay for 90 mins in the Balloch House but round the corner we found a nice socially distanced pub serving some great beers.

Mallaig

Day 3 found us arriving at Mallaig, the quiet fishing village where we could board the small ferry to the Isle of Skye. Skye was a spectacular place, starkly beautiful and it reminded me so much of Lanzarote with deep valleys and great hills and mountains reaching into the sky. We found an excellent parking spot, again recommended by Park4Night which was conveniently just across from a fantastic chip shop. Fish, chips and peas was our evening meal again, although this particular chip shop served haddock rather than cod. The food was excellent and though it was a little pricey, the portions were huge. The view from the car park across the bay at Broadford was one we could only really appreciate the next morning.

The view across the bay.

The rain finally eased off the next day and we explored Skye bathed in warm autumn sunshine. We made a quick stop to pick up some Isle of Skye black pudding and after some more exploring we left the island over the bridge to the mainland and went in search of Plockton.

The splendour of Skye

Plockton is a small highland village where the TV series Hamish Macbeth was filmed. Macbeth is played by Robert Carlyle and he is the village bobby in the small fictional village of Lochdubh. Macbeth is a laid-back relaxed character. He is not averse to poaching the odd salmon and he likes to apply the rule of law in his own way. He avoids promotion as all he wants is to remain in his beloved village. The TV series is actually completely different to the books on which the series was based which was a little of a surprise to me and most of the characters in the series are the invention of the TV writers and not M.C. Beaton who wrote the books. I’m not sure how happy I would be if someone made a TV show out my book and then proceeded to change all the characters, still I did enjoy Hamish Macbeth as a TV show. It was an oddball quirky little drama which ran for only three seasons. I’m sure I once picked up a copy of one of the Hamish Macbeth books. Pity I can’t remember what I did with it otherwise I’d add a review.

I’m always surprised when I come across a location that I have seen before on TV because film seems to make things look bigger. Plockton was small and narrow in real life although on television it looks considerably more spacious. Years ago I visited Portmerion, the Welsh location for the TV show The Prisoner. The Prisoner was a hit TV show in the late sixties starring Patrick McGoohan as number 6, a former spy who resigns and who is whisked to a secret village where number 2 constantly asks the question ‘why did you resign?’.

It was a great series featuring elements of sci-fi and espionage and although outwardly a thriller there is much more to The Prisoner, and its counterculture and fantasy themes gave it a cult following which has continued to the present day. All the exteriors were shot in Portmerion and when I visited in 1986 or 87, number 6’s cottage was used as a shop by the Prisoner Appreciation Society. Like Plockton everything seemed smaller but I did recognise a lot of places used in the TV show.

Hamish Macbeth is completely different. I love the oddball characters like TV John, so named as he was the first in the village to get a TV set. The other villagers who meet regularly in the village pub are just as oddball as John but Hamish himself, torn between two women, Isobel the local journalist and Alexandra the author, is probably my favourite. He expertly solves various minor crimes and issues in the village, making sure visiting officers get all the credit so he can escape promotion and remain quietly in the village he so loves.

Plockton itself is a tiny village with a small harbour. We parked up at the car park while I went for a wander about. I found the row of cottages where Isobel, the town reporter lived but the village pub, a white building in the TV show eluded my searches. There was a pub, a grey building with an outside seating area looking over the bay, but it wasn’t the one I knew from the television. As we drove off, we passed another couple of pubs, neither of which was the TV village pub but I could imagine having a pleasant evening in Plockton with a nice pub crawl thrown in too.

Travelling south on the A82 (I think) we came across a monument to the commandos of World War 2. The commandos trained in the Scottish Highlands and the memorial is not far from Achnacary Castle where the commandos were based. The memorial is a sculpture by Scott Sutherland and as usual in these sort of places, I was humbled by the courage of these courageous men who fought and died to preserve freedom. In comparison, I’ve been rather lucky. I’ve not been called to fight in any wars, I’ve not suffered prejudice or been sent to a prison camp, in fact I’ve enjoyed a pretty easy life really. It’s not been that exciting and a lottery win would have been very welcome but at least I’ve been safe.

Coming further south towards Loch Lomond once again we found another lovely stopping place. A few other people stopped also for a photo opportunity at the Loch Tulla viewpoint. We took photos as well but we were lucky enough to be able to put the kettle on and have a steaming hot cup of tea and a corned beef sandwich.

Ah, the joys of having a motor home.


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Questions, Answers, and the Wild One

quotescover-JPG-88I don’t know if you ever used to watch that classic TV show The Prisoner. Number 6 played by Patrick McGoohan was trapped in a mysterious village and those who ran the place wanted to know the answer to one question: why did number 6 resign?
Prisoner_smThey had a saying in the village-‘Questions are a burden to others, answers a prison to one’s self’. The village was a surreal place and number 6 became increasingly paranoid in that sinister, almost sci-fi world and although he came close to answering the resignation question a few times, ultimately, he never did.
The thing is, as we go innocently about our business, there are plenty of people wanting to upset us by asking questions.

There was a time, just after I left school when I thought great; exams over, won’t be answering any more questions like that again. The thing is though, exams of one form or another are sent to try us throughout our life. Trying for a new job is a form of examination, there’s the application form to fill in which is always pretty hard work and if you get through that then there’s the interview to contend with.

Just recently I applied for a job as a team manager and while I wasn’t totally successful I did end up with a temporary promotion, filling in as team manager for two months. Sounded great at first but then there was a whole lot of people management and paperwork that I didn’t realise would be so hard, or so time consuming. No more quiet moments in which to churn out my blogs!

Still, this recent promotion got me thinking about interviews in the past and where I’d gone wrong. One was an Inspector’s job when I worked for GM Buses. The job I wanted was a post at Hyde road depot which was only ten minutes away from my home. I didn’t have a car but there was a great bus service so it would have been perfect. There were two Inspector posts available, one at Hyde road and another at our Tameside depot in Rochdale.
During the interview in which I thought I’d done pretty well, the three interviewers asked me to step outside. I returned a few minutes later and they asked me, “Steve, what would you say if we offered you the Rochdale Inspectors job?”
Well, that was the job I didn’t want. I wanted the other one, the one that was only ten minutes away and another thing, at the time I didn’t have a car so how could I get to Rochdale? So what did I do? Well, I’m sure you can guess. As usual I took the worst possible option: I turned them down!
Even as I walked away I knew I’d done the wrong thing and every time I have an interview I think of that moment. Still, in a way that’s a good thing. Remember the mistakes you’ve made and move on. Do the right thing next time. Be positive.

Another time I applied for a job at Manchester Airport. It wasn’t a great job but it looked interesting and I hoped I might have passed the interview but it floundered when the interview veered off into an odd direction.
“How will you get to work?” asked the interviewer.
“By car.”
“But what if your car breaks down?”
“Well, I could always use the wife’s car.”
“But what if she needs it for work?”
“Well, I could get the bus.”
“But you might have to start work at 5 in the morning.”
“Well the first bus from Stockport is 04:15 in the morning.”
“The buses don’t run that early.”
“Yes they do, I know as I currently work in bus timetable enquiries.”
“Well suppose they are on strike?”
“Well I’d have to go on my bicycle.”
“What would happen if you had a flat tyre?”
I paused for a moment then asked: “Are you joking?”
Needless to say, I didn’t get that job either. I didn’t understand the interviewer’s line of questioning at all and a little frustration had crept in to my answers.

Now, in the 21st century questions are a part of life. They come at you when you are least expecting them. This morning, I was trying to get ready for work and the phone started ringing so I ran through to the lounge to pick it up. The caller said, “Good morning? Is that Mr Higgins?”
“Yes, speaking.”
“Mr Higgins, do you own your own home?”
“Excuse me?” I ask.
“Do you own your own home?”
“None of your business” I answered as I put the phone down, rather offended at this intrusion into my private life and not only that, I’d put my toast back in the toaster as it wasn’t quite done enough and when I legged it back to the kitchen it popped up black and burnt! Not happy!

When I was younger and working in city centre Manchester I used to spend my lunchtimes either in a pub somewhere down Oxford road or sometimes I’d sit in St Peter’s Square if it was nice and sunny and eat my sandwiches there. The annoying thing was I’d usually have to run a gauntlet of canvassers asking me questions.
“Excuse me, if I told you of a new bank account that would save you money would you change accounts?”
“No, I wouldn’t.”
“You wouldn’t? Why not?”
Nowadays I’d just say ‘none of your business’ but back then when I was young and polite I’d tend to try and justify myself and say why I was happy with my bank and why I didn’t want to change and so on. If I had been number 6 I’d have probably said ‘I will not be pushed, filed, briefed, debriefed or numbered!’
As it was, by the time I’d got rid of the interviewer that would be half of my dinner break gone!

marlon-brando-392902_640Perhaps my old school friend Clive Hornchurch (once again, names have been changed to protect the innocent!) felt a certain amount of frustration too. He was by far the brainiest lad in the school and was constantly upheld as an example to other pupils. I remember once Miss Tyass, our history teacher telling me how hard I would have to work to pass the History O-level and perhaps I should use Clive’s notebook to revise from because he himself wouldn’t need it!
Yes Clive was the man; every teacher knew he would pass with flying colours and perhaps be off to university, if such a thing was possible from our urban jungle roughhouse comprehensive school.
On the day of our O -level examinations Clive added his name to the top of his paper, and then put down his pen. His blank test paper was passed in and naturally he failed. I often wonder what became of him and why he did what he did. Perhaps he was frustrated; perhaps he was tired of being held up as a shining example of all that is brilliant in a school boy. I sometimes wonder if I had asked him what he was rebelling against would he have answered, like Marlon Brando in The Wild One; “What have you got?”


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