It’s often argued that the 1960s were the golden age of television in the UK. I’m not convinced by that. A quick glimpse at any TV schedule from the decade shows that there was as much dross as there was treasure – for every Kenneth Clark there was a Hughie Green (or worse). But I do think that, in one area at least, modern television struggles to compete – the field of popular drama. I don’t just mean much-lauded single plays – the Dennis Potters and the Ken Loaches – but also the basic prime-time fillers. Watching old episodes of, say, The Avengers, I’m often staggered by the wit and imagination evident in what was a mainstream Saturday night show (which appealed to me as a young child as much as it does now as an adult). Even the second-rate stuff, the Adam Adamant Lives or Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), seem to me to surpass most of the formulaic material that’s foisted on us today.
These thoughts were brought to mind by the launch of ITV’s remake of perhaps the most remarkable of those 1960s series, The Prisoner. I was a little too young to appreciate the series on its first showing, but I remember being transfixed by a re-run sometime in my teens. It was an insane series, the brainchild of its star, the late Patrick McGoohan, which, despite its often manic experimentalism, somehow managed to tap into the spirit of the time. In part, it reflected the growing sense of individualism and rebellion that characterised the late 1960s – the lone hero battling against the overwheening power of the state, striving to retain his identity in a world that wanted to reduce him to a mere number. Seen a few years later, though, as I first saw it, it also seemed a prescient series, not just capturing the spirit of the 1960s but also prefiguring its demise. Particularly in its last chaotic episode, the series seemed as pertinent in the 1970s of Watergate paranoia as it had a few years earlier.
Like a number of a best creations of the time (I’ve written before about my enthusiasm for The Wicker Man), the series has in part the feel of a happy accident. That’s not to underestimate McGoohan’s vision or his persistence in realising it – but simply to recognise that some of the series impact stems from a confluence of factors that simply might not have been available at any other point.
For that reason, I’ve never really understood the desire to remake it, and I had few expectations of the new version, particularly since, as the current edition of Private Eye points out, it’s sat unshown by ITV for a year. Sadly, even what little hope I had was disappointed. Like so many remakes, it seems, incomprehensibly, to have been made by someone with no feel for or understanding of what made the original remarkable. For me, it failed even at the most basic narrative levels. The original may at times have been baffling, but its basic premise was clear even from the first few seconds, leaving the drama free to explore the implications of the hero’s position. Here, even by the end of the first interminable episode, it was difficult to know what was going on. And, frankly, even harder to care.
The remarkable dreamscapes of Portmeirion have been replaced by what looks like a particularly uninviting holiday camp. McGoohan’s enigmatic cool has been replaced by a forgettable performance from James Caviezel (who, in fairness, seems to have little to work with). The episodic nature of the original, which allowed the series to play with genres and expectations, has been replaced by a narrative arc which, so far, has remained resolutely ungripping. The only bright spot is Ian McKellan’s Number 2, but even he struggles to make much of the dull dialogue.
I’m probably being unfair. If the series had tried to replicate the qualities of the original, it would have been even more pointless and would inevitably have fallen short (at least in the minds of those who loved it the first time). Instead, the makers have tried to reinvent the concept for the 21st century, but the effort feels mechanistic rather than visionary. Maybe it’ll improve – there are five episodes to go – although reports from the US, where it was aired last year, suggest perhaps not. I’ll stick with it for a while longer, but I suspect I’ll end up digging out the DVDs of the original before long.