In addition to the personalities without whom The Prisoner could not have been the programme we still remember, almost half a century later, we must not ignore one other essential element in making the programme so distinctive an experience.
Portmeirion – properly, the Hotel Portmeirion and its grounds – was designed, built and owned by the noted architect Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis, later Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. Situated on the south side of the Lleyn Peninsula, in North Wales, Portmeirion is an Italianate folly village, commonly regarded as being inspired by the village of Portafino in Italy. Williams-Ellis consistently denied this, stating that his aim was to capture the atmosphere of the Mediterranean region, though he admitted to living Portafino.
Portmeirion’s site was originally an 18th century foundry and boatyard which was developed into a private estate under the name of Aber La, or in English, Ice estuary. Willams-Ellis, who was entirely self-taught as an architect, interpreted the site name as ‘frozen mouth’, and changed it to Portmeirion when he began to develop the area in accordance with his belief in architecture that was in tune with its surroundings. The name simply connected Port and Meirion, a reference to the Welsh County of Merioneth (the county name, being an English designation, was swept away in the Local Government reorganisation of 1974, when Welsh county names were restored throughout North and Mid-Wales, based on the former Welsh princedoms).
Beginning with the fragments of part-demolished buildings, Willams-Ellis began construction and development of Portmeirion in the early 1920s, first opening it to the public in 1926. Development continued until 1939, when it was interrupted by the War. It resumed in 1954 and continued in stages until 1975, with a final addition being made the following year, two years before Willams-Ellis’s death.
Even afterwards, development continued, under the ownership and direction of the Charitable Trust that maintains the site. Castell Deudraeth (the exterior of which was filmed as the Village Hospital) was bought by Williams-Ellis in 1931, from his uncle. It lies just outside the grounds of the Hotel itself, and it was his dream to incorporate this into the site. The Castell, a mansion house developed from the ruins of a castle dating back to at least 1188, was finally opened as a Hotel in 2001.
Though it’s by far his best known work, Portmeirion was not Willams-Ellis’s only noteable achievement. For instance, he designed the original Snowden mountain-top Cafe, and was Chairman of the Development Committee that designed Britain’s first New Town, Stevenage.
Portmeirion has been operated as a Hotel since it was first opened to the public, but it also operates as a tourist attraction, drawing visitors to North Wales. It incorporates a restaurant ans a cafe, not to mention a long-standing Prisoner souvenir shop, based in the building whose exterior was filmed for Number Six’s cottage. With the exception of the private grounds reserved for Hotel guests, Portmeirion can be explored at leisure for an admission charge, though no vehicles are allowed and you must walk in and out.
Portmeirion’s exotic appearance made it a popular place for location filming, giving British TV series a cheap opportunity to film ‘European’ scenes. The most famous use is The Prisoner, but Portmeirion has turned up in a wide variety of series: it is used in the very first episode of McGoohan’s Danger Man, as well as Dr Who, Citizen Smith and the final episode of Cold Feet.
It’s a fascinating place to visit. I’ve been there twice, and look forward to my next trip, though it’s a bit inaccessible if you haven’t got a car. Beware of one particularly potent piece of culture shock: when you enter the Souvenir Shop, which is close to the entrance, the whole building is only about ten feet deep.
Patrick McGoohan was introduced to Portmeirion in 1960 and loved the place immediately. He spoke on a number of occasions of setting a programme inside it, and when the concept of The Prisoner came up, the selection of Portmeirion as a setting must have been utterly irresistible. If the incarnation of the Village on Earth did not exist, how could it possibly have been created?
The advantages of Portmeirion were not limited to its other-worldly, chocolate box appearance, its strangeness and charm, but also included its virtual isolation. On Earth, it is technically part of Penrhyndeudraeth, from which it may be reached via a narrow, woods-lined road, and is only two miles from the coastal resort of Portmadoc (Porthmadog), but in itself it is a small, confined area, surrounded by woods, built onto the side of a small ridge paralleling the coast.
It looks out upon the Dwyryd estuary and Cardigan Bay, with the rolling hills of Mid-Wales as a background. It is in sight of no other community, and its position enables exterior and aerial shots to emphasise the sense of being very far away from anywhere else, a sense that is compounded once you walk through the arched entrance.
Once inside Portmeirion, even on a summer’s day with tourists milling, you feel as if you have left the world behind. Quarter that number of tourists, deck them all in the eccentric, vivid Village ‘uniform’, and the sense of otherness increases exponentially.
It is the ideal backdrop to the external, holiday camp image of the Village, and in it’s decorative appearance, fussy, delicate, ornate, the equally-ideal contrast to the cold, utilitarian, brutal interiors of the Village hierarchy: a perfect visual metaphor for the organisation of the Village in its entirety.
What could have replaced it if Portmeirion did not exist? In all the years since the series was broadcast I have never myself, nor through the material produced by others, discovered any real setting that could, in any way match Portmeirion. Had it not existed, could it have been created as a studio ‘reality’? Given the technical capabilities of the era, no. It’s very obvious in the series where studio-based exteriors are being used: the cafe with the tables on the grassy bank, the rose walk. They stand out too much.
Nor, under any kind of Sixties TV budget could a remotely convincing ‘Village’ have been built. It’s totality, the sense of a real geography connecting the various familiar settings – as demonstrated so fully in Checkmate – couldn’t have been conveyed so well from a series of studio sets. And it is precisely the atmosphere that having a real-life ‘Village’ to hand, an anchor in reality and an exercise in implausibility at one and the same time, that was crucial to the series’ success.
Throughout the initial broadcast, audiences were eager to know where the programme was filmed, but in accordance with the shooting agreement required by Williams-Ellis, Portmeirion was not disclosed on screen until the final episode, in a special caption of thanks. Portmeirion owes a great deal of its world-wide popularity to its association with The Prisoner, but not as much as The Prisoner owes to the ambitions and obsessions of Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis.