July 25, 2017


Upcoming release: Big Finish is back with a new set of amazing audio dramas based on the 1960s cult classic, The Prisoner. Written by story maestro, renaissance man (and part-time Dalek) Nicholas Briggs, Volume 2 includes four stories based on original episodes. And like Volume 1, Briggs has mananged to both capture the tone of McGoohan's masterpiece and to bring listeners into interesting new territory. Alan Hayes of Hidden Tiger Books dropped by the Spy Vibe lair this week to review the new Prisoner set and to give us a taste of what to look forward to (spoiler free!). Welcome Alan!

In January 2016 I looked at the first volume of Big Finish’s “The Prisoner” for Spy Vibe and The Unmutual. In the review, I noted that I had been against the idea of anyone trying to revamp Patrick McGoohan’s television masterpiece, and was somewhat trepidatious when I heard that the series was going to be adapted for audio. I was however aware of the company behind the project, Big Finish – my shelves are weighted down by a good few of their CDs – and I’ve always had a great respect for Nicholas Briggs, who was announced as writing the adaptations.

I’m pleased to say that my concerns were pushed quickly aside as soon as I heard the first four audio episodes – “Arrival” (adapted as “Departure and Arrival”), “The Schizoid Man”, “Your Beautiful Village” (an absolutely cracking original story) and “The Chimes of Big Ben”. The treatment afforded to my favourite television series was both faithful and respectful, and yet constantly surprising and inventive. This wasn’t a slavish adaptation in which the writer would add dialogue simply to explain what the listener could not see (“Oh look! A giant weather balloon, bouncing this way! I wonder if it’ll be nice to me?”); this was a ground-up rethink which broadened the canvas of the series without compromising it and incorporated unexpected twists and turns to wrong-foot listeners over familiar with the source material. In short, I adored Volume One. In fact, I considered it the best thing that I’d ever heard from Big Finish – which is some accolade considering the quality of their many ranges, most of which I have experienced to some degree or other.

My one serious complaint was that I’d have to wait a whole year for Volume Two. As it happens, I didn’t know when I was lucky, for the new release was soon put back in order to tie in with the series’ 50th anniversary celebrations, debuting instead in August 2017. While I can understand the marketing reasons behind this move, it is a shame as I feel the series has lost impetus as a result – and, let’s face it, I was impatient to hear more of the audio “Prisoner”. Much more.

The good news about Volume Two is that once again Nicholas Briggs is on board as the writer of all episodes. A long-term fan who understands what makes the series tick, Briggs proved himself in Volume One to possess an extraordinary ability to take the work of McGoohan and other “Prisoner” writers and present it afresh for the 21st century without losing what made it so distinctive and absorbing in 1967. I fear that opening out the scriptwriting duties to other writers would dilute this series, so I hope that Briggs’ association with “The Prisoner” continues and that he remains the only scriptwriter of the audio series.

The big question, of course, is does Volume Two live up to the remarkably high standards of Volume One? For sure, it’s a big ask. It’s like going to the cinema to watch the sequel to your favourite movie; expectation is set so high that it’s almost impossible not to have it fall short. In the case of “The Prisoner”, listeners will now expect clever twists on the familiar stories, presume that bold choices will be made, and will approach the new set of episodes with a heightened expectancy. Fortunately, the standards already established are absolutely maintained, and those bold choices are far bolder this time than I ever expected. Each adapted episode feels not so much a copy of its source, more an inspiration based upon it, and the original story included in Volume Two is unexpected, audacious and exhilarating.

In Volume One, Briggs performed what I thought would be nigh on impossible, when he adapted “The Schizoid Man” for audio. Somehow, he managed to tackle a doppelganger story on audio! And, rather than put it to one side as a difficult episode that could be tackled further down the line, he dealt with it straight away – and added a whole new layer of intrigue to the plot in doing so. Volume Two kicks off with another episode that seems distinctly a bad idea for audio, “Many Happy Returns” (adapted as “I Met A Man Today”), which for a large part of its running time on television features no dialogue at all! Furthermore, it is not even the craziest thing about Volume Two!

By setting the audio adaptation after Number Six’s escape from a deserted Village, rather than beginning with it, “I Met A Man Today” riffs instead on his meeting and getting to know the woman who now lives in his London house, even though he fears that the whole scenario could be a trick on the part of the Village. We also meet Number Six’s bosses in Intelligence, as we do in the televised version. All told, it’s an enjoyable, intriguing mix of the old and the new, and despite its extended running time of 71 minutes, it simply whizzes by.

With no slight whatever meant to Mark Elstob, the absolute star of this episode from my perspective is Lucy Briggs-Owen, an actress with whom I am familiar from her performances as Carol Wilson in “The Avengers” audio series. Due to the restrictions imposed on that series – that only the original 1961 scripts can be used – I’ve long felt that Briggs-Owen deserved a better, more developed role, and as Kate Butterworth in “The Prisoner” she has got it. The character is greatly fleshed out compared to how it appeared in the television episode (in which Georgina Cookson took the part), and Briggs-Owen brings Kate to life beautifully, capturing every last nuance of the script.

Elstob, meanwhile, completely inhabits the role of Number Six across this set of four plays. He is so good that you find yourself forgetting that he is not Patrick McGoohan, or even that you used to think that no actor other than McGoohan could ever be Number Six. It’s not a mimic’s impression that he delivers, more a performance that has McGoohan’s rhythm, his acting heartbeat, and it is absolutely scintillating to listen to. Occasionally, I find myself picturing Elstob in my mind, and other times McGoohan, but neither association jars. They merge in my head as a gestalt Number Six!

If there’s anything negative to be said about “I Met A Man Today”, it concerns its positioning to the fore of the second set of plays. For starters, it is a non-Village episode, and therefore rather atypical in “Prisoner” terms, particularly early on in the run. Perhaps an episode in more recognisable “Prisoner” territory would have worked better in its place? More unfortunate is that the last episode on Volume One was “The Chimes of Big Ben”, the other episode of the series in which Number Six escapes the Village (or believes that he has) and heads for London. Perhaps “I Met A Man Today” would have worked more successfully if placed second or third on Volume Two for these reasons – though characters introduced here do carry on into subsequent episodes, so I assume the order was decided upon for this reason. However, when considered in isolation, “I Met A Man Today” is without a doubt a thoroughly good listen.

The second CD, “Project Six” – a new, radical adaptation of Terence Feely’s “A. B. and C” – segues directly from the previous episode. This innovation (for most “Prisoner” television episodes were standalone stories), making each volume a set of linked episodes, was one of the aspects of Volume One that really appealed to me, so I’m delighted to see this practice continue. The episode itself takes Feely’s concept as a basis and then runs free with it. In my opinion, it is all the better for it. “A. B. and C” has never been among my favourite “Prisoner” episodes, despite featuring arguably one of the most interesting Number Twos in the series (played by the marvellous Colin Gordon). His tendency to push too hard to extract the information the Village needs is explored further here in “Project Six”, with the episode’s female Number Two seemingly willing to risk Number Six’s life in order to succeed. The scenarios into which Number Six is projected do not match those seen on screen, though one certainly has distinct parallels. The looseness of the adaptation certainly keeps the listener on their toes, particularly ones like me who think they know what’s going to happen! This adaptation constantly surprises, being thrilling, daring and clever, without ever losing sight of its inspiration.

The third play in this set is adapted – without change of title – from Roger Woddis’ sublime episode “Hammer into Anvil”, which has always been among my favourite episodes of “The Prisoner”. This follows the television episode a little more closely than either of the other adapted episodes on this volume, but still there are plenty of twists and tweaks that prevent it from becoming predictable. As in the source material, Number Six is inventive in how he destabilises the new Number Two (John Heffernan), though his methods of doing so are slightly different to those which “Prisoner” fans will be familiar with.

John Heffernan does well as the tough Village overlord who becomes increasingly paranoid as a result of Number Six’s endeavours. I must be honest and say that I can’t ever see Patrick Cargill’s astounding performance in the original television episode being eclipsed – without a doubt, the single most impressive acting turn in the series, in my opinion – but bearing in mind my prejudices regarding this specific role, Heffernan does remarkably well.

As with the first volume, one episode here – the fourth – is a completely original creation from the mind of Nicholas Briggs – and it’s a real doozy that takes one helluva risk. It goes by the title of “Living in Harmony” but has nothing to do with its television equivalent (Briggs playing with our preconceptions once again) other than that it is certainly its equal in terms of genre-hopping. Briggs’ “Living in Harmony” is probably best described as a wildly ambitious mix of “The Prisoner” and “Out of the Unknown”, with dashes of “2001 - A Space Odyssey” and “Space: 1999” thrown in for good measure, but I’ll leave it at that for this non-spoiler review. Suffice it to say that it takes “The Prisoner” in new directions but still feels absolutely connected to the series as we know it. In common with “Your Beautiful Village” in Volume One, “Living in Harmony” is a fearless experiment, akin to the direction that McGoohan himself took in the second production block of the television series with episodes such as “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling”, “Living in Harmony” and “The Girl Who Was Death”. The difference here is that these stories are woven into the fabric of Big Finish’s “The Prisoner”, whereas back in 1967/8, those episodes seemed strangely out of kilter with what had gone before. My only reservation with the audio “Living in Harmony” is that it now seems unlikely that the television episode of the same name will be adapted, which is a shame.

In terms of its casting, it was a pleasure to welcome Sara Powell back, so memorable from Volume One, and the same can definitely be said of the marvellous, fruity-voiced Michael Cochrane in a cameo reappearance as Number Two. Always a joy.

Following on from the exemplary sound design and music on the first volume, these new plays are abuzz with rich soundscapes and superb incidentals, and even a jazzed up version of the theme when you least expect it. Iain Meadows (sound design) and Jamie Robertson (music) have, if anything, excelled themselves on Volume Two. It all feels recognisably “Prisoner” but with a twist, which of course parallels Brigg’s contributions as writer.

It’s well worth buying “The Prisoner” Volume Two direct from Big Finish as, repeating the offer they made with Volume One, ordering Volume Two from their website (www.bigfinish.com) will secure you incidental music downloads and script PDFs for each episode. Additionally, a bonus behind the scenes documentary is included on the fifth CD in the set, and this is also well worth a listen.

The biggest drawback with the set, as far as I am concerned, relates to its packaging, in that it does not follow the lavish design of the first volume, which was presented in a book-style box. The Volume One package was quite glorious, visually exciting and highly collectible. Clearly, I was alone in thinking this, or at least it didn’t capture the imagination of others in quite the way it captured mine. Consequently, Volume Two is contained in jewel cases surrounded by a card sleeve. Thickset and cumbersome, despite the attractiveness of the cover designs. I do wish Big Finish would spare a thought for how their releases are to be stored. If I collected all their ranges, I’d have to move out and live in the shed! Small is beautiful. Chunky is clunky.

Rant over… It’s what’s inside that really counts, and these plays are really something special. These “Prisoner” releases are to be applauded for how they have breathed new life into a fifty year old television series – a show that continues to be relevant and popular but which has become as familiar to me as an old armchair. As a fan since the very early 1980s I feel very sure of what “The Prisoner” is, what its stories are, and when I watch it, I know what is coming next; every line of dialogue, every camera movement, every sound. What Nicholas Briggs and Big Finish have done, with the help of many talented actors and production people, is give me a new “Prisoner” which is just as intelligent, immersive, ground breaking and risk taking as the original, but which is fresh and repeatedly takes me by surprise. Big Finish take the “Prisoner” stories back to basics and reinvent them in clever ways, paying homage to McGoohan’s creation while never betraying it.

The next volume of “The Prisoner” simply can’t arrive soon enough for me. I look forward to Nicholas Briggs’ inspired reinventions of another batch of episodes… But come on guys and girls, let’s not have an eighteen month wait for our next visit to The Village!

Thank you, Alan! Great to hear more about this new set. Spy Vibers can pre-order it directly from Big Finish (August release). Photos courtesy of Big Finish. Below: the beautifully designed first Prisoner box set. Related posts: Interview: The Prisoner Guide Portmeirion Photography 1Portmeirion PhotographyThe Prisoner London Flat, Alan Hayes Prisoner Audio ReviewInterview: Ian OlgivyInterview: Brian GormanPrisoner SupergrassPrisoner XTCPrisoner XTC 2Prisoner DC Fontana.

Selected Spy Vibe Posts: Roger Vivier FashionSpy Vibe Radio 41960s Pop ModelsBatman GallantsAdam West R.I.P.Village TriangleRoger Moore R.I.P.Spy Vibe Radio 3Sgt Pepper 50thSatanik Kriminal OST60s OverdriveMake Love in LondonSpy Vibe Radio 2Spy Vibe Radio 1James Bond StripsPropaganda MabuseFahrenheit 451 50thInterview: Police SurgeonXTC Avengers1966 Pep SpiesBatman Book InterviewExclusive Fleming InterviewAvengers Comic StripsRobert Vaughn RIPUNCLE FashionsThunderbirds Are Pop!, Interview:Spy Film GuideLost Avengers FoundThe Callan FileMission Impossible 50thGreen Hornet 50thStar Trek 50thPortmeirion Photography 1Filming the PrisonerGaiman McGinnins ProjectIan Fleming GraveRevolver at 50Karen Romanko InterviewMod Tales 2Umbrella Man: Patrick MacneeNew Beatles FilmThe Curious CameraEsterel Fashion 1966Exclusive Ian Ogilvy Interview007 Tribute CoversThe Phantom Avon novels returnIan Fleming FestivalArgoman DesignSylvia Anderson R.I.P.Ken Adam R.I.P.George Martin R.I.P.The New Avengers ComicsTrina Robbins InterviewThe Phantom at 80007 MangaAvengerworld BookDiana Rigg Auto ShowThe Prisoner Audio Drama ReviewDavid McCallum novelAndre Courreges R.I.P.Who's Talking on Spy VibeUFO Blu-rayAvengers Pop Art.

No comments:

Post a Comment