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We'll Be Seeing You: The Prisoner’s Fading Six Appeal & Other TV Re-Boots
Terry Staunton , May 25th, 2010 12:11

With the forthcoming release of the remade version of The Prisoner on DVD, Terry Staunton opines on the updated version of the cult classic

When a woozy Patrick McGoohan woke up in the picture postcard Welsh village of Portmeirion 43 years ago, he kick-started an entire sub-culture based around what is still one of the most enigmatic and talked-about TV shows ever screened. Playing a former government agent, referred to by his captors as Number Six, he spent 17 episodes plotting escapes while indulging in mind games with the sinister – and interchangeable – Number Two, before an increasingly baffled ITV called a halt to proceedings.

The Prisoner, in its original form, was a fascinating pseudo-psychedelic product of Cold War paranoia, combining elements of pulp spy thrillers, Swinging 60s gaudiness and counter-culture metaphors. It was both of its time and ahead of its time, a series so stylised and individual that any effort to update or remake it would inevitably struggle to escape its long shadow. A Prisoner Version 2.0 has been mooted many times over the ensuing four decades – at one point cuddly country star Kenny Rogers was rumoured to be taking on the McGoohan mantle – and while the series that finally emerged strives to be its own beast, it is nonetheless peppered with motifs from the source material.

Although filmed on location in Namibia and South Africa, parts of the set replicate the ornate buildings of Portmeirion, the enduring penny farthing symbol crops up in one scene, a supporting character sports the iconic black blazer with white-trimmed lapel of McGoohan's Number Six, and the original's mysterious inflatable "rovers" patrol the perimeters of the new "village". The major difference between the two programmes, though, is arguably the producers' decision to provide answers to the riddles at the end of the show's six-week run, despite the fact that 21st century audiences are more than used to embracing cryptic detours when settling down to watch TV (Ashes To Ashes, Lost, FlashForward).

Dispensing (slightly) with the superpower spy elements of old, Jim Caviezel's Number Six works for a New York-based corporation with links to the surveillance industry (very modern, very Big Brother) who, after an attack of conscience and a melodramatic resignation, wakes up in a sand-covered wilderness. The "village" he ultimately stumbles into comprises what look like upmarket holiday chalets, as if Butlin's had expanded its empire to include Dubai, and is overseen by a Number Two (Ian McKellen) fond of the kind of bright linen suits more commonly associated with The Man From Del Monte.

The twinkly-eyed McKellen is, to all intents and purposes, the real central character here and, as opposed to the revolving and replaceable bureaucrat Number Twos of the 60s original (who included Leo McKern and Patrick Cargill), he rules the village like a perma-grinning kindly dictator, held in awe by its inhabitants. In his palatial mansion we meet both his comatose wife (M2) and Britpop pretty boy son (1112), whose places in the firmament of this curious utopia become clearer and more pronounced as the series unfolds.

This is where it becomes tricky to examine the plot without giving too much away, but it's the point in the narrative when the story steps up a gear and gathers dramatic momentum. The hot-button issues of identity and free will remain, arguably more pertinent today than back in 1967, although they're less integral to the overall premise of a well-made thriller that could have stood on its own two feet without the baggage or interference of what went before.

In truth, writer and producer Bill Gallagher has put together a thought-provoking piece which, had he given his characters names instead of numbers and side-stepped the other teasing links to the past, may well have found greater favour with both viewers and critics. The programme's biggest hurdle is its heritage, the indelible benchmark McGoohan carved into the monument of television all those years ago.

The Prisoner is out now on ITV Studios DVD and Blu-Ray

Re-Make/Re-Model: A Brief History Of Modern TV Updates

Fantasy Island (1998-99)

The dreams-come-true wonderland of the corny 70s melodrama gave way to a darkly comic hideaway with supernatural overtones in the re-booted series overseen by director Barry Sonnenfeld (The Addams Family, Get Shorty). Whereas Ricardo Montalban played island host Mr Roarke as an avuncular white-suited smoothie, Malcolm McDowell's revival of the character was a black-clad cynic who rarely sugar-coated the predictable moral of each episode: be careful what you wish for, you might just get it. Sonnenfeld chose not to find a new Tattoo, Montalban's original diminutive assistant whose iconic cries of "The plane! The plane!" echoed around playgrounds of yore, instead giving Roarke a sexy shape-shifting female sidekick. It may have been a change too far, and the remake was dropped after a single 13-episode run.

In Tribute To The Likely Lads (2002)

A canny move by the ubiquitous Ant & Dec, this one-off found the clown princes of ITV prime time re-enacting perhaps the most celebrated episode of the Tyneside comedy classic, in which Bob and Terry attempt to go a whole day without hearing the result of an England football match before highlights are shown that evening. Had their efforts been better received it might have been hard for them to resist committing to a whole series, but the "tribute" in the title provided a convenient get-out when they were (unsurprisingly) slated by critics. Lively light entertainment hosts they might be, but nuanced actors they are not, Ant McPartlin especially unconvincing when trying fill the world-weary barroom philosopher's shoes of Terry, played with near Pinteresque pathos by James Bolam in the original.

Battlestar Galactica (2003-09)

When the first series of this sci-fi yarn aired in 1978 it was greeted by lawsuit from 20th Century Fox alleging it had stolen a distinct 34 ideas from Fox's own Star Wars. The case was dismissed two years later, having been deemed "without merit", by which time the tales of vagabond space explorers looking for a new world to colonise had been cancelled. However, as kitsch and supposedly derivative as its first outing was, the re-imagined production became one of the most lauded programmes of recent years, regarded as either a far-reaching metaphor for human struggle through the ages, a complex philosophical study of morality, or an allegory of the US government's ongoing foreign policy.

Kojak (2005)

Who loves ya, baby? Not the great viewing public, if your name is Ving Rhames and you're taking on the mantle of one of the most iconic TV cops of all time. Few actors have inhabited a small screen role as completely as Telly Savalas, and Rhames (Pulp Fiction, Mission Impossible) struggled with the mountain he was given to climb. Fans of the first series were resistant to a black actor taking the part, seeing as Theo Kojak's Greek heritage was such an integral component of the original character, and the remake lasted just 10 weeks – during which time it was regularly beaten in the US ratings by cable reruns of Savalas episodes.

Bionic Woman (2007)

One of the boldest examples of a British actor severing links with their soap star past was also one of modern television's most high profile flops. Michelle Ryan (aka Zoe Slater in EastEnders) reprised the role of the robotically-enhanced superwoman but, 30 years after Lindsay Wagner had topped the ratings, made little mark with viewers who already had a plethora of sexily-clad female martial arts vigilantes to choose from. Reviewers were critical of the casting from the start, several suggesting supporting actor Katee Sackhoff should have been given the lead role, and the US writers' strike didn't help the show's chances, forcing production to shut down after just eight episodes were in the can. When the strike was over NBC announced the show would remain "on hold", and three years down the line it seems unlikely Ryan will be slowmo-ing across our screens again.

90210 (2008-)

The makers may have ditched the Bevery Hills prefix of the shows from the 80s, but the premise remained the same for the franchise's 21st century facelift: designer togs and daddy's gold card don't make spoilt brats immune to high school angst. Stars from the first series (Shannon Doherty, Tori Spelling) make fleeting appearances as supposedly older and wiser versions of their characters, perhaps a little shocked by the trashier and more sexually-geared plotlines they would never have got away with back in the day. The original inspired a rich seam of smart teen drama (My So-Called Life, Dawson's Creek, The OC), but its own offspring struggles to stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace.

Minder (2009)

Arthur Daley's shady antics were lapped up by as many as 20 million viewers in 114 episodes over a 15 year period, with George Cole's low-rent spiv wisdom entering the cultural argot of the times. Whoever thought Shane Ritchie (playing Arthur's nephew Archie) could also pull off a nice little earner really shouldn't be allowed to make TV shows at all. There was a poetry and knowing irony to Arthur's dubious Thatcherite entrepreneurial chutzpah, fleshed out by the eloquent writing of series creator Leon Griffiths, but Ritchie all too often fell back on madcap set-pieces and the clichéd dialogue of a lacklustre edition of EastEnders. In contrast to the must-see vibe of the parent show, the remake never attracted more than two-and-a-half million fans and the plug was pulled after just six episodes.

Reggie Perrin (2009-)

As played by Leonard Rossiter, the Reggie first created by writer David Nobbs was a genuinely disturbing figure whose mid-life crisis spilled into wild romantic fantasies, borderline psychosis and a faked suicide. Joyously blending farce, slapstick and absurdism with something altogether more unsettling, it was arguably more daring than any serious drama the BBC screened in the 70s. The update looks and plays like a bog-standard cosy family sitcom, with Martin Clunes essentially portraying an older, semi-tamed version of his Men Behaving Badly character (tellingly, Nobbs enlisted MBB creator Simon Nye as co-writer). Despite poor reviews and smaller-than-hoped-for viewing figures, a second series is due later this year.