Drama by numbers

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.

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3 thoughts on “Drama by numbers

  1. My mother refused to have a TV when we were children because she thought it was a bad infulence that destroyed creativity and induced indolence, or something like that. I don’t watch TV now I am grown up (!) either because I’m too busy and like to read when I am not. So I missed both the old and the new series!
    However, I do think that one factor when you look back to the old days of TV is that people had no choice. They had to watch what the broadcaster wanted, at a time they decided. People could not even find out what was scheduled without buying a dedicated publication, as the RT/TVT held a monopoly on listings apart from on-the-day. Good on Time Out for sticking to its guns on that one.
    Hard to imagine, these days, how people could have their lives dictated to in this way.

  2. I don’t think you’re being unfair Michael. The first episode was a mess and having watched it again on itv4, I feel sure that is because this whole show ahs been *re-imagined* in post-production. The running plot of the first episode purported to be a battle of wits over whether 93 had escaped, or was dead; but Six seemed to have no reason to want to pretend 93 had escaped. In fact it would have made far more sense for Six to have brought the body into the village, laid it out in the street and told everyone what had happened. Two would have been defeated in the first act…….

    This first episode is the direct opposite to McGoohan’s Arrival. The 1967 opener remains a stunning introduction to a place and a situation, demanding that the viewer must watch to see what on earth will happen next. This 2010 one left me thinking that I must watch Episode 2 because surely it’s going to get better than this……….. :-))

  3. Thanks for the comments. I agree with you, Maxine, about the lack of choice in the 1960s – my own children struggle to imagine a world in which television closed down, during the day and overnight, simply because there was nothing to broadcast. I don’t necessarily subscribe to the 1960s as a televisual golden age, but I do think that, on the whole, the quality of UK television has declined. In part, it’s been the inexorable rise of ‘reality’ shows in all their various forms, but I tend we’ve lost the creative imagination and wit that underpinned the best TV drama and comedy. I’m struggling to think of any recent UK show that displayed any sense of personal vision – possibly ‘Life on Mars’ but that quickly degenerated into the formulaic, I thought.

    Thanks for your input, Moor – you’re obviously far more steeped in ‘Prisoner’ lore than I am. I’ve been looking at your blog – some really interesting stuff on there which I’m looking forward to perusing at leisure. Your comment about the new series having been ‘re-imagined’ in post-production is interesting – certainly, the new series feels like something produced by a committee (possibly one which has never actually met in the same room). Your comment on the plot is quite right – I spent much of the first episode wondering what No 6 was up to, as I suspect did Caviezel. I have a strong sense that the new series is over-engineered – too much plot, too many extraneous characters, too much self-conscious enigma. It’s as if, in the absence of a compelling narrative vision, the producers have tried to pile in as much material as possible in the hope that something might stick. Still, I haven’t yet seen the second episode as I was tied up on Saturday night, so perhaps there’s still time for me to change my mind.

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