The Prisoner: Location, Location, Location


Six and Twelve – can you tell the difference?

Remember that originally The Prisoner was to run for 26 episodes, divided into two series of thirteen episodes. Everyman Films had a budget from Lew Grade of ATV with which to film the first series, which was to be based in the Village.
With the final episode of series one, Once Upon a Time, designed to be entirely studio bound, and to be a cliffhanger that would have the viewers desperate for series two, a filming schedule was set up for the initial set of twelve.
These were divided into three blocks of four, the first four of which were recorded on location at Portmeirion in the autumn of 1966, a second block of four the following year using a small number of additional Portmeirion sites but primarily relying on studio sets, and the remaining block of four shot almost entirely at Borehamwood, using only stock footage shot during earlier visits.
Such was the situation as I have understood it for many years, though I no longer have access to the source (which may have been one of the issues of Number Six, the official magazine of the long-standing Prisoner Appreciation Society, Six of One, http://www.sixofone.org.uk/)
According to the Production Schedule, the first four episodes filmed were, in order, Arrival, Free For All, (which we’ve already considered), Checkmate, and Dance of the Dead (which we’ll come to). Both the first of these, as we’ve already seen, make extensive use of Portmeirion locations as, in the one case, the newly-arrived Prisoner explores his prison and, in the other, as Number Six campaigns across the Village in the faux-election.
Similarly, the other two episodes make use of the extent of the Village, beginning with the outdoor chess match in Checkmate and Number Six’s subsequent recruitment of potential allies, whilst in Dance of the Dead, a caged and edgy Prisoner is still (?) testing bounds within the Village.
Of course, all the interior scenes in the series were shot at Elstree. Portmeirion’s buildings, such as the café and the hotel (which features in the series as the Old People’s Home), appear as what they are in real life, whilst in other cases, such as the Green Dome and Number Six’s cottage, the exteriors are completely unrelated to their functions in the series.
Number Six’s cottage is a perfect example of this. Inside, it’s substantial, and well-appointed, which is why, on a first visit to Portmeirion itself, it’s such an amusement to find that the actual building whose front and entrance was used is about ten foot deep at the maximum (and has been used as a souvenir shop selling The Prisoner-related memorabilia since the Seventies).
Thus far, and given that these episodes are indeed the four that rely most heavily upon location shooting, the 4/4/4 theory seems to hold water. However, the next four episodes to be produced were The Chimes of Big Ben, Once Upon a Time, The Schizoid Man and It’s Your Funeral. And, as we’ll see when we come to it, Once Upon a Time uses only a single outdoor location shot from Portmeirion.
Indeed, if you look at it carefully, the same applies to The Schizoid Man. Run through the episode again, bearing in mind that it is set entirely in the Village, and start to look at the actual locations. Number Six’s cottage, Number Two’s Office and the Control Room are stock sets, used many times over in the series. Number Twelve’s cottage, and Alison’s, are one-off locations, only seen as interiors. The same goes for the supposed Recreation Room, with its shooting gallery and its fencing room: again we only see these from the inside.
But there are exterior scenes, aren’t there? Number Six’s door, the steps upon which Six-as-Twelve and Twelve-as-Six start to fight, the balcony outside the Green Dome, the helicopter pad in the closing scenes. But you will surely have noticed that the building outside which the doubles fight is the Town Hall of The Chimes of Big Ben, to which Number Six and Nadia were delivered, whilst the building behind the helicopter is the hall where the Crafts Festival was held in the same episode. Studio sets both.
Even the exterior of Number Two’s home is a studio mock-up. So only the stock shot of Number Six’s door comes from Portmeirion itself. And neither of the two Guest Stars, Anton Rodgers and Jane Merrow, actually got to the Village itself!
Actually, very few of the guest stars actually went to Portmeirion. If there were outdoor scenes that needed them there, these would be recorded in close-up on a stage set (a number of Portmeirion locations were duplicated at Elstree) and a double would appear shot from the back in linking scenes (never more obviously than in A Change of Mind, where John Sharpe’s double is at least five stone lighter, ten years younger and has far more hair – of a different colour – than him!).
So two of this second ‘block’ use no genuine location footage, and the other two, The Chimes of Big Ben and It’s Your Funeral, whilst appearing to be in and about, instead use studio sets to counterfeit the actual exterior of the Village.
Nevertheless, the pattern does still hold. What of the next set of four?
This consists of the already-referenced A Change of Mind, The General, A, B and C and Hammer into Anvil. Of this ‘block’, we’ve already seen that A, B and C is studio-based (and was written with an eye to budget, to use pre-existing sets). The other three episodes are all based in the Village, and I’ve already said that A Change of Mind uses a double on location,but a closer look at these again demonstrates that filming is based on studio sets and interiors. The beach in The General is almost painfully obvious as a set.
And whilst the same episode goes on to use location footage in the approach to the climax, it is clearly repeated footage from Arrival – stock shots.
This leaves only one episode of the original thirteen, the last of the original order to go into production and the episode that script editor and co-creator George Markstein felt exemplified the path the programme would take in series two, Many Happy Returns. I won’t say too much about this episode, except that it makes full use of location filming at beginning and end. And indeed was the last episode to be shot at Portmeirion, as the four additional episodes had to be created under very different circumstances.
To return to The Schizoid Man, I’ve already mentioned that this was one of the more heavily re-written episodes, with two lengthy sequences removed from the script: one in which the duplicates try to outdo each other in respect of their driving skills, with a Mini-Moke race around the Village, and one where Number Six runs a gauntlet en route to his own cottage and a showdown with Number Twelve.
It should be painfully obvious that these sequences had to be cut when the script was not included amongst that set of four to be filmed extensively on location in Portmeirion.
The three block theory does have a certain validity, except that after the initial run of four, the remaining episodes were all primarily studio-bound, differing in that some of them duplicated – or in some cases extended: there is a Village-esque walkway between roses that never existed on the Lleyn Peninsula – the Village on set.
However, it falls down on the notion that Once Upon a Time fell outside these blocks, as the series-ender. Ironically, the last episode was the only one outside the first four to make actual use of Portmeirion shooting!
Given that this series was filmed using the equipment available forty-five years ago, take another look at it and realise just how easy it is to overlook the fact that so many episodes that were set in the fabled and iconic Village just didn’t go anywhere near the place.

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