January 27, 2016

THE PRISONER AUDIO REVIEW

Big Finish recently released their first set of audio dramas based on Patrick McGoohan's original Prisoner series. The company has produced outstanding audio stories for fans of The Avengers and Doctor Who in the past, so I remained cautiously optimistic when I first heard the trailer for their new adaptation. Could anyone but McGoohan really tell this story? I've been totally swamped with teaching, planning a school trip to the UK, and co-leading a large writers festival, so I haven't had time to listen to these new recordings yet. But fellow agent, Alan Hayes, has checked out the new set and he has written an in-depth review for The Unmutual, which he kindly agreed to share with Spy Vibers. As you may know, Alan runs The Avengers Declassified and Randall and Hopkirk Declassified sites. He has also co-authored books about The Avengers, including an upcoming anthology for which I contributed the afterword (stay tuned!). You can read our past Avengers interview here. Alan, welcome back to Spy Vibe!


Having picked up the first volume of Big Finish’s “The Prisoner” at their event in Slough on 16th January 2016, my wife and I have now taken our first steps into the world of Number Six on audio… To begin with, long before we got home from the event, I had completely fallen in love with the set on an aesthetic level. The package is presented beautifully in a lavish book-style affair complete with an outer thick card slip – so much thought has clearly gone into the design of this ‘book’. It really is a thing of beauty. But appearances can be terribly deceptive… can’t they?

When I’d first heard of the idea to adapt “The Prisoner” for audio, I had – as a fan of the series of some 34 years standing – been perhaps understandably a little sceptical about the idea. I was familiar with the work of Big Finish and Nicholas Briggs, who was announced as being the writer of the audio version, but I wondered whether anyone could take this classic, nigh on perfect series and reinvent it successfully for a new medium. How could it be done without Patrick McGoohan, the maverick genius behind the 1966-67 original? I doubted whether it was actually possible. I was reassured though that if anyone could make it work and be faithful and respectful to McGoohan’s groundbreaking original, it was Big Finish. 



Despite this, when I heard the teaser trailer that was released towards the end of September 2015, the skepticism bit me somewhat more deeply. Parts of it felt rather overplayed, and I was on the point of thinking “this is not for me. I have the television series, and that’s all I really need”. A second trailer did little to change my mind. However, what began to shift my perception was the half-hour extract of “Departure and Arrival” issued as a free download on Christmas Eve. Hearing a lengthy section of the first episode made me realise that the trailers were not really representative of the finished product, and it drew me in very quickly. A series of promotional video featurettes were then released over six days, counting down to the day that the first volume was to be published – appropriately the sixth day of the first month (six of one!) 2016. The featurettes gave me an insight into the thinking behind the release, with interviews with the likes of Nicholas Briggs, the new Number Six – Mark Elstob – and other people involved in the production. These gents said the right things, hit the right notes… Maybe, just maybe, this could be rather special…

By the time that Big Finish Day 8 came, I was practically champing at the bit to get hold of “The Prisoner” on audio, so while one must question the choice of clips used in the trailers, Big Finish’s marketing of this release eventually drew me in and had me on tenterhooks, desperate to hear the finished product. Upon returning home from the event, we sat down to listen to the first CD, “Departure and Arrival” (based on the opening episode of the television series, “Arrival”). We slotted the CD into the player, fired up our vintage 1977 analogue amplifier (you really have to do these things in the right way, you know!), hit ‘play’ and, 78 minutes later, we both professed to being rather blown away by what we had heard!

On the evidence of “Departure and Arrival” alone it was clear that Nicholas Briggs and the team had truly delivered. It's a bold reimagining, with some novel tweaks. There's enough of the original for it to feel familiar and authentic, but enough of the new to keep the listener guessing, intrigued. The innovations even extended to wrong-footing us both – we ‘knew’ the ending, or at least we thought we did, as Briggs has very cleverly turned this first episode and its successor in this set into a two-part story, introducing characters from the second (and third) episode into the first, giving it a serial form. Perhaps one of the few weaknesses of the original series is that you rarely got the feeling of there being a narrative progression, something very much “of its time” in terms of film series production in the Sixties. The original series could be shown in more or less any order, as long as “Arrival” was placed first and “Once Upon a Time” and “Fall Out” at the end; the audio series is designed to be listened to in a definite order (after nearly 50 years of debate about the most appropriate running order of the television series, it is perhaps a relief that the audio version will generate a lot less confusion in this area!).




The second CD, a new adaptation of Terence Feely’s “The Schizoid Man”, continues on directly from “Departure and Arrival”, harking back to the last time these two episodes were sandwiched together – in 1982 for the Precision Video VHS release of these episodes, which Nicholas Briggs credits as part of his inspiration for including the episode so early in the series. “The Schizoid Man” ordinarily appears fifth in the running order, but Briggs clearly likes to keep us on our toes and plays with the sequence of episodes to good effect.

As this second episode unfolds, we soon realise that there has been some clever thinking going on regarding Number Nine (Sara Powell), who is first heard in “Departure and Arrival” (originally “The Woman” played by Virginia Maskell on television). This character continues into “The Schizoid Man”, assuming the function of Alison (Jane Merrow) from the original version, therefore becoming an integral part of the doppelganger story. Once again, Briggs successfully revisits and remixes this classic episode, and – somehow – pulls off what might seem impossible, to successfully translate a very visual concept, that of a man set against his duplicate, to the audio medium. It’s bonkers, but it works. In many ways it actually adds an additional layer of disorientation for the listener, who comes to question which ‘Number Six’ is which (something which does not happen in the television version, as the duplicate wears a piped blazer that is the negative image of that worn by the real Number Six).

The third episode, arguably the most tantalising since it is the only completely original story included in the set, is titled “Your Beautiful Village” and uses the audio medium to its full potential. This is a story that would scarcely be possible to mount on television, since for the greater majority of the narrative Number Six is plunged into complete darkness. As the story progresses, we realise that all of his senses are being suppressed – and at times the listener is as much in the dark as Number Six, to paraphrase “Hammer into Anvil”. The tone of the piece is as sombre as the lighting, and the script – which presents a torture as disturbing as any explored in the television series – pushes Number Six to the extremes of emotion. It is a strong episode that stands up well against the adapted classics that precede and follow it. Nicholas Briggs is to be congratulated for devising an imaginative scenario which fits seamlessly into the series thematically and exploits the audio medium brilliantly.

If the episode has a weakness, then it is that the means of Number Six’s sensory deprivation is never adequately explained. Indeed, it is not entirely clear where hallucination ends and reality begins, and this brings one to question whether or not the whole episode takes place in Number Six’s mind.


I considered that perhaps the extra running time afforded to the final episode, “The Chimes of Big Ben” (which clocks in at 78 minutes), might shed some light on the questions arising from “Your Beautiful Village”, but despite some episode-to-episode continuity (a welcome facet of the release as a whole) they were not addressed. I suspect that a further listen and a read of the script – included in the downloadable bonus content available to those who purchase through the Big Finish website – might bear fruit.

Despite my (minimal) disappointment on this front, “The Chimes of Big Ben” proved to be a fine conclusion to this first volume. The adaptation, for the most part, adheres to Vincent Tilsley’s original script a little more closely than “Departure and Arrival” and “The Schizoid Man” do to their own source materials; it is only the conclusion of the episode that deviates markedly from the familiar television version, with other changes being mainly for reasons related to the transition to audio. Far be it from me to spoil the ending for anyone, but suffice it to say that it is imaginative and effective.


The sound design of “The Prisoner – Volume 1” is rich, definitely on a larger, more cinematic scale than your average BBC Radio 4 drama. The soundscape plants you firmly in the Village, complete with authentic sound effects and atmospheres and a to-die-for theme and incidental music score by Jamie Robertson. The composer riffs on familiar “Prisoner” themes, to the point where not only does he succeed in creating a recognisable, if subtly tweaked, soundscape complete with little audio triggers that delight the ear of at least this die-hard fan, but he also makes it fundamentally clear that he has done his homework. It is a fine work in its own right – and it is worth noting that purchasers who order “The Prisoner – Volume 1” direct from www.bigfinish.com receive an exclusive digital download of Jamie’s original soundtrack, running to more than 150 minutes, as well as other downloadable goodies including the aforementioned scripts. (And this is in addition to the documentary, “By Hook or By Crook”, which is included on the fifth CD in the set; also very well put together.)

One particular innovation that is arguably very much in keeping with McGoohan’s vision is the incorporation of modern-day technology in the audio series (which remains set in 1967). While this might initially seem a radical thing to do, the original series clearly employed imagined technology of the future in the hands of the Village controllers, and the inclusion of tablets, Wi-Fi and the like is merely an extension of that, implying that Number Six’s captors had access to cutting edge, developmental technology that wouldn’t be released to the wider world until much later. It is of course something that could only have been included with the benefit of hindsight, but it’s an interesting idea regardless.

I had a few very minor reservations about these productions – I felt that Number Six as depicted is too quick to resort to or threaten violence, often against those weaker than him; the “Village Voice” (Helen Goldwyn) is directed to be rather too manic and irritating and therefore doesn’t really capture the honey-dripping, gaily delivered public addresses heard in the original series (voiced there by Fenella Fielding); and perhaps too many voices are provided by a single actors, meaning that some characters are a little stereotypical (Cobb becoming a gruff Cockney, for instance) – but none of these is sufficient to spoil the listening experience. Overall, “The Prisoner – Volume 1” was a joy to listen to – something evidenced by the fact that we devoured the whole set within a week (ordinarily with this sort of thing, we can go for weeks between episodes). With Volume 2 a year away – No! Say it isn’t so! – we really should have paced ourselves, but it was all so entrancing that patience, virtuous though it may be, quickly became a stranger.


Briggs’ reinterpretation of the series has plenty about it that is of itself rather than of the original, sufficient to make it work on its own terms, independent of the original. The audio version doesn't replace or slavishly copy the classic, iconic original – it breathes new life into what we as fans of “The Prisoner” have become perhaps overly familiar with over the course of dozens of repeat viewings, and offers a fresh take that promises to be successful and entertaining in its own right.

It is to Mark Elstob’s credit that he completely convinces the listener despite being presented with the sort of challenging material which could stretch any actor, particularly in “Your Beautiful Village”. He does a fine job playing Number Six across the four plays on this set. In many ways, one might have thought that he was on a hiding to nothing – the comparisons to McGoohan were inevitable, and McGoohan, as creator of the role and to a great extent the series itself, will always be regarded as the definitive Number Six; what room in the series is there for a young pretender? Despite the magnitude of his task, Mark Elstob has imprinted his mark on the role very, very quickly, and with great assurance. At times it's uncanny - while it's certainly not a vocal impression of McGoohan that Elstob delivers, there are moments when you really can hear Patrick's spirit coming through in Mark's performance which captures the great man’s clipped delivery and rhythm of speech. It is quite remarkable – and, I must be honest, thrilling to hear – but the actor and Nicholas Briggs have been clever enough to bring some facets to the character and performance that are entirely Elstob-Six rather than McGoohan-Six (not least of which are the character’s more natural disposition to female characters!).

There is also a superb line-up of star name actors taking turns to assume the mantle of Number Two. Celia Imrie turns in a fine performance slightly reminiscent of Mary Morris (“Dance of the Dead”) and presents a definite change of tone after John Standing’s rather jovial and almost chummy turn in “Departure and Arrival”. Ramon Tikaram makes his mark also in “Your Beautiful Village”, his interpretation adding considerably to a very disconcerting episode. My favourite of the four though is definitely Michael Cochrane, saved up until the set’s final episode. With Leo McKern’s interpretation so familiar and impressive, I didn’t expect to “settle in” with this Number Two quite as quickly as I did. I am so unfaithful. Punish me now… for Cochrane pushed my memory of McKern to one side almost instantly, grabbing the part with gusto and a vocal performance that is a true highlight of the set; fruity and gloriously lascivious. I hope, like McKern did in the original series, Cochrane returns to contest another battle of wills with Number Six – and I would also welcome return engagements by Celia Imrie and John Standing (this is not a slight on Ramon Tikaram as listeners will ultimately realise) though obviously some new “new Number Twos” would be very welcome in the next boxset too!

Beyond the “headline acts” taking turns to wear the Number Two badge, there are also two performances of particular note from first Sara Powell as Number Nine, complete with her delicious Caribbean accent, and then Kristina Buikaite, apparently the only Lithuanian actress working in the UK, supplies an authentic voice for Nadia Racowsky in “The Chimes of Big Ben”. Both greatly enhance their respective episodes, and one wonders whether they will feature again. The clues are there to suggest that they may well do so.

Finally, there’s a ‘documentary’ disc in the set – called “By Hook or By Crook” – but this isn’t so much a documentary as a behind-the-scenes production diary. Running to a whopping 74 minutes, this gives a fascinating glimpse into the making of the plays in this first volume. A worthwhile and welcome bonus to round off the set.

To sum up, I’m delighted that Nicholas Briggs and the Big Finish team have managed not only to do something I considered near to impossible – to live up to and be true to one of the greatest television series ever made – but they have done so in great style. It’s familiar and yet different; faithful and yet experimental; authentic and yet remarkably imaginative.
It is everything I hoped it might be – and then some. It is quite possibly the best thing that Big Finish has ever produced. It won’t win over every fan of “The Prisoner”, but it has certainly won over this one. Bring on the next volume… and more!" 

Thanks again to Alan Hayes for sharing his impressions of The Prisoner Volume 1. Below: The next Big Finish installment, The Prisoner Volume 2, is scheduled for a January, 2017 release.


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2 comments:

  1. I don't understand this hyperbole, Nicholas Briggs' is an absolutely horrible writer and lets down McGoohan's vision every step of the way. A pointless, selfish remake - he could've appointed decent writers to work on this but had to hog it for himself. Ugh.

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  2. That's the great thing about Art, Gerald. Everyone will have their own response. Many fans have a hard time warming up to new audio book adaptations of our old favorite shows. I've really enjoyed the first episode of the Prisoner set so far- more than the mini-series remake from a few years back, that's for sure.

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