Tuesday, 24 November 2009

"The Prisoner – The Complete Series In High Definition”. A Review of the BLU RAY Box Set Released 28 September 2009 by NETWORK in the UK.

"…We Have A Citizen’s Advice Bureau Up There…They’re Very Good Apparently…"


When the 1st episode of "The Prisoner" was aired by ITV in September 1967 in the UK (June 1968 in the USA by CBS), "Sgt. Peppers" was still at number one and the Summer of Love was in full swing. All things seemed possible - and at the same time - with the Vietnam War, Race Riots and the escalation of Government control over personal lives - many things seemed slightly sinister too...

Enter into this volatile soup the cocky and charismatic actor Patrick McGoohan fresh from his global TV success as John Drake in "Danger Man". The distinctly voiced actor (born in New York, but raised in Ireland and Britain) had a mind-bending idea for a new "spy" TV series limited to only 7 episodes. "The Village" would be a self-contained world where no one had a name but a number - and would act as a sort of containment home for retired secret agents that big-brother Government wanted to control and keep an eye on. Each week would see a new Number 2 trying to crack Number 6 (McGoohan) through ever more elaborate means. Escape was curtailed by a blob that chased you called "rover" which suffocated its victims - conformity was reinforced by the repetition of phrases that meant no one could escape - stuff like "be seeing you". It was a brilliant pitch and Lew Grade (head of Independent Television) thought it was "...crazy enough that it might just work...". But come February 1968 when the 17th truly-out-there "Fall Out" episode was finally aired (some saying it made little sense), McGoohan was on the defensive and practically being run out of his own country by angry and confused fans... How utterly cool!

First to the details - UK-released on BLU RAY in September 2009 (Oct 2009 in the USA with different packaging) - this UK-only packaging is a box-of-chocolates shaped set with two compartments - the first contains a near-300 page paperback book entitled "The Prisoner - A Complete Production Guide" by ANDREW PIXLEY. It was originally produced exclusively for NETWORK and their 2007 remastered DVD box and is reprinted here; the second inset has a 6-disc BLU RAY clip box (each disc features a different picture). Discs 1 to 4 contains all 17 episodes - the complete series and each episode with its own special features. Discs 5 and 6 have staggering amounts of further extras including input from those involved, previously unseen behind-the-scenes footage, a different version of "Arrival" and several commentaries by the production crew. It's exhaustive stuff.

While the paperback is fan-obsessed with details and a truly informative account, it is completely devoid of any photographs, which I feel is not just disappointing, but does this otherwise fantastic presentation a major disservice. While there are loads of pictures on Disc 6 (in High Def) and fabulous complimentary features too - it would have been nice to trawl over a really good book featuring photos of those superb production values. No disrespect to the author whose work here is incredible and must have taken years of research, it's just that all words and no visual make it a very dry read (probably too cost-prohibitive).

But that minor niggle quickly pales into insignificance once your eyes see the frame-by-frame fully restored 35mm print. Presented in 1:33:1 aspect and filling the full screen - it is ABSOLUTELY GLORIOUS TO LOOK AT - and puts many a modern production to shame. I noticed maybe only one or two occasions where the image had lines or some other stock fault - for 98% of the time, the digitally restored high definition print is faultless and a constant joy and revelation to look at.

Filmed in a real-life folly called Portmeirion in Gwynedd in Wales (fans still visit the town in Prisoner regalia), the entire seaside town was the dream of architect Clough Williams-Ellis who purchased the peninsula in 1923 and began building his own Mediterranean village there complete with an English twist. Portmeirion had in fact featured in previous "Danger Man" episodes and McGoohan and his family had often holidayed there. With a budget of £50,000-per-episode, a large uniquely clothed cast of extras and an entire town bathed in summer sunshine to play with, the extraordinary location and production values collided to produce a vision that stuns to this day.

The clarity is AWESOME... There's a scene in Episode 1 "Arrival" where McGoohan is offered a chair in Number Two's lair - a hole in the floor slides across and up pops a stool - but this time you can clearly see that the hole is cardboard - and not steel. In Episode 2 "The Chimes Of Big Ben" when Nadia Gray wakes up as Number 8, you can see her hair is immaculate and her eyelids are heavily pasted in blue makeup... (the episode also features Finlay Currie as the General who was Magwitch the Convict in David Lean's masterpiece "Great Expectations") - and on it goes!

Although made in the late Sixties and featuring those kind of dated hair-dos and fashions, "The Prisoner" rose above that by virtue of its premise - and in fact viewing it some 42 years later - because of this, its still staggeringly relevant - especially on the core subjects of individual freedom and Governmental control...

I've reviewed quite a few superlative restorations before this - "North By Northwest", "The Italian Job", "Cool Hand Luke", "Saturday Night, Sunday Morning" and "The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner" (see reviews for all), but this takes the gong.

"The Prisoner" on BLU RAY is bound to make many fans go weak at the knees and will hopefully draw in a new generation of lovers for one of the most extraordinary television programs ever made.

Like William Shatner and Star Trek, McGoohan had a notoriously spiky relationship with the character and TV series that defined and pigeonholed him for decades...but you can't help but feel that Patrick is up there right now beaming down at this wonderful box set.

Is "Number 1" that part of you that capitulates - as McGoohan seemed to suggest when the mask was finally unveiled in "Fall Out"? I don't know. But that's what "The Prisoner" is like - it's thought provoking, contemporary and still stunningly brilliant. And now it has the box set on the definitive format that it has always deserved.

For me - this is Reissue of the Year - in any format.

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