On 5 January 2015, it was announced that Big Finish Productions, a company best known for their audio adventures based on Doctor Who, would be adapting 1960s cult television classic The Prisoner. A year and a day later, the first series was released. So, how does it fare? To my mind, very well. Mark Elstob is a fantastic Number Six, exhibiting shades of Patrick McGoohan’s original interpretation whilst making the part wholly his own, and writer/director/producer Nicholas Briggs’ reimagining is an extremely successful one.
For those that don’t know, the series follows a secret agent who resigns suddenly and unexpectedly. He is kidnapped and finds himself in a nightmarish settlement known as The Village where everyone is known by a number, not a name. Over the course of The Prisoner, Number Six was tested in a number of mental and physical ways to reveal the reason why he resigned by The Village’s governor, Number Two.
Three of the four episodes in this first volume are adapted from TV episodes, including the first – Departure and Arrival. As those familiar with the series may be able to guess, this expands on the source material by including a revelatory new introductory sequence culminating in Number Six’s resignation. After this, however, the episode sticks pretty closely to the original Arrival, which is no bad thing. I must say, I found Briggs’ take on the eponymous inmate acquainting himself with his new environment much more vibrant and engaging than the original. There’s also some smart reimagining with regard to the world The Prisoner is set in and how Briggs can get around the necessity of a minimal cast. The Village uses a lot of technologies recognisable to modern listeners, despite being set in the late sixties, which baffle Elstob’s slightly technophobic Six no end.
It’s no spoiler to say that Number Six isn’t keen on The Village and immediately attempts to find ways to escape. Departure and Arrival is something of an abnormal episode – but it needs to be to set up this new series. We also get a literal tour of elements that will recur throughout the series’ lifetime: Rover; the Green Dome; Operations; and other locations around The Village. Also introduced here is Number Nine, played wonderfully by Sara Powell. Nine also has a hazy past but she and Six soon form an uneasy alliance, which leads to the latter escaping at the close of this first story.
Unfortunately, things don’t go his way, and come the start of the next instalment – The Schizoid Man – he is soon back on terra firma. This story is adapted from the episode of the same name, but Briggs’ alterations are more pronounced here, despite the shape of the narrative being approximately the same. Mark Elstob really steps up to the (rather demanding) plate here, delivering a splendid dual performance as Numbers Six and Twelve – or is that Six and Six? Onscreen, there were more clues as to which was the real Number Six, but on audio it is literally impossible to tell them apart. The explanation of Six’s doppelganger is much more satisfying here than on television, and marries very neatly with Briggs’ overall vision of The Village.
The third episode is the only wholly original instalment. Your Beautiful Village is not what I was expecting at all. The premise is that Six is undergoing sensory deprivation in another attempt to force him into a confession as his senses are picked off one-by-one at the command of Number Two. For the majority of this episode, Number Six is blind, putting us in exactly the same position as him. This is a very shrewd move on Briggs’ part, if perhaps an obvious idea for the first audio-original episode. That said, this is much cleverer and more satisfying than even I was expecting and without a shadow of a doubt the highlight of this set. The sound design and music are unfaltering exemplary throughout the series but perhaps the pinnacle of Iain Meadows and Jamie Robertson’s efforts is in Your Beautiful Village. Powell and Elstob are forces to be reckoned with here, and congratulations all round for creating such an effective, engaging and unsettling hour of drama.
The set concludes with The Chimes of Big Ben, which aired as the second episode on television and saw Six’s first (apparently) successful attempt to leave The Village. This was actually one of my least favourite stories from the original run but again Nicholas Briggs has done a marvellous job of reimagining this one. It works well as a season finale – Number Six escapes! – and I really like the way the series is now structured with an ongoing narrative. Each episode feeds into the next and events at the close of Your Beautiful Village certainly have repercussions here. As on television, the audio series introduces a new Number Two (roughly) every episode and Six’s introduction to Michael Cochrane’s Two is perhaps my favourite of the four.
As with the other adapted episodes, the storyline of The Chimes of Big Ben is broadly the same but it has greater vibrancy and stands up better to an audience coming to the stories with twenty-first century expectations. Some of the superficial details – such as the true purpose of Number Six’s sculpture – are harder to discern on audio but there isn’t a lot to be done about that. As with The Schizoid Man, the way this experiment ties into what we know about Briggs’ Village is much more satisfying than in the original and actually makes a lot more sense to me. This is a great end to the first boxset, and the final scene gives us what we’ve been waiting for all series.
Some readers may be undecided about taking the plunge on this release. This take on The Prisoner is markedly different to the original, and Number Six has several key differences in his personality whilst retaining the essence of the character McGoohan originated. Mark Elstob is perfectly cast and brings a fresh energy to a part nigh-on fifty years old, not dropping the ball once. All of the supporting cast – but notably the wonderful Number Twos, with John Standing, Celia Imrie and Ramon Tikaram joining the aforementioned Cochrane, and Sara Powell as Number Nine – are delightful and all buy into Briggs’ vision completely. Praise must also go to Helen Goldwyn, who does a superb job as the voice of the Village, and Jim Barclay and Barnaby Edwards, who are superb in all their roles. The series is completed by Iain Meadows and Jamie Robertson’s peerless post-production work but I feel the biggest hand must go to Nicholas Briggs for managing to successfully reboot a much-loved franchise and, crucially, make it better than the original. He picks and chooses what he changes and creates, all with sound reasoning, ensuring the future of this range looks very promising indeed.
Speaking of the future, it’s interesting to ponder what might be contained in future sets. Thanks to a few choice inclusions through the first series, I don’t doubt Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling will be coming our way at some point, but I’d also be keen to see adaptations of Living in Harmony (where Number Six finds himself in a Western), It’s Your Funeral and Hammer Into Anvil. Most of all though, I would like to see more original episodes. Briggs sets a high watermark with Your Beautiful Village and it would be good to see a couple more of his own stories in next January’s Series Two.
The set also comes with an interesting behind the scenes documentary, By Hook or By Crook, detailing the series’ production which, while non-essential, is recommended listening. Customers purchasing directly from Big Finish will also gain access to further content including Jamie Robertson discussing and playing some of his early theme tunes for the series.
Big Finish’s The Prisoner comes highly recommended not just by me, but by swarms of listeners. It’s the latest thing, you know. Be seeing you.
You can purchase Volume One here.