Who Is No.1? was a question that occupied television watching audiences from the late 1960’s and, nearly 60 years later, The Prisoner series is a cult classic with people still obsessing over the question. This is the telling of how that show was created, from first ideas to the really bonkers ending and the fallout afterwards; told through the driven, perfectionist control freak lead in the whole series: Patrick McGoohan, played with stoic conviction by Murray Simon.
A fascinating joy to watch, funny, eccentric and thought provoking
There are an array of fascinating facts presented throughout the story in the play, from the tons of research the writers Brian Mitchell and Joseph Nixon have done in reading dozens of published and unpublished books and writings, and these facts are presented in an interesting way: such as the reason McGoohan gave for giving up playing John Drake in Danger Man and for turning down James Bond was because being a Roman Catholic, he was reluctant to kiss his love interests. Lew Grade, wonderfully played by Ross Gurney-Randall, was beyond supportive of McGoohan, instantly backing the project even though he didn’t understand it, and continued to endorse whatever McGoohan wanted.
McGoohan’s initial conception of the idea was seven episodes, or rather, seven films “to be shown sequentially”, as he balked against the label of series. The initial pitch seemed utterly bonkers: a nameless ex-secret service agent wakes up in a village in no specific location, is given a number not a name, and every time tries to escape but is brought back at the end of each episode by a freaky mysterious robot called Rover. He is number six, the boss is number two, and he continually try to discover who number one is. The original idea was that nobody would ever find out. The reason behind it is an allegory for life: we are restricted and confined in our lives in society and cannot get out. It is almost installation art captured on film. What is curious are the similarities between the series and its creation shown in this play: that the actor is beholden to the producer as number two, who is in turn beholden to an unseen number one; that no matter how free we think we are, we are always restricted by something.
All this could be very dry in other writing minds but Brian Mitchell and Joseph Nixon have made this laugh out loud hilarious in some places, as well as poignant in others. The piece has great pace, each scene flows into the next and the set becomes wherever they are. The old telephones and lime green 60’s chairs were a lovely touch, and there is so much gorgeous detail in every aspect of this production, from the way Murray (as McGoohan) clunked down a small bag with hidden bottles of booze he was taking on a plane journey, to his switching of accents between the Irish American off screen to the BBC English in the show.
This is a unique idea and a fantastic piece. It’s an interesting, entertaining and funny production, with only four actors on top form. Robert Cohen and Brian Mitchell play many other parts in the show and Murray Simon shines as the single minded McGoohan whose energy holds the whole piece and drives everything forward. Ross Gurney-Randall’s superb embodiment of all the different characters he plays perhaps steals it, changing his physicality to play vastly different people with absolute ease and flawless effect; plus his facial expressions are perfectly pitched. This show is a fascinating joy to watch, funny, eccentric and thought provoking.