WHAT on earth was it all about?
It’s the question still being asked by fans and stars of The Prisoner – half a century after the 1960s TV series was first aired.
Devotees of the cult classic, which starred the late Patrick McGoohan as the main character, returned to Portmeirion – the filming location for ‘The Village’ – 50 years to the day since that the first episode was broadcast, on September 29, 1967.
In the show, McGoohan, who also co-wrote and directed the series, played a secret agent who is captured, and given the identity number ‘No 6’.
He is forced to live in what appears to be an idyllic, seaside colony, but which is in fact a bizarre prison camp.
Prisoners are issued with a number, though no-one knows who is a prisoner and who is a guard.
If they attempt to escape, the Rover – a giant, white, floating ball with the potential to incapacitate and even suffocate – habitually appears and coerces them to flee back to The Village.
Veteran stars including Derren Nesbitt, one of the many who played The Village’s chief administrator, No 2; Fenella Fielding, the voice of The Village announcer; and fellow actors Annette Andre and Jane Merrow were quizzed by fans during a question-and-answer session.
The day also featured live-action episode re-enactments, and screenings as well as the world premiere of In My Mind, a documentary by director Chris Rodley, all about McGoohan and The Prisoner.
Nesbitt – whose CV includes a multitude of TV and big screen roles, including most famously the cold-blooded SS officer, Major von Hapen, in the classic war film, Where Eagles Dare – admitted that, like audiences at the time, he too was baffled by the unconventional, somewhat surreal creation.
“No one had a clue what it was all about, neither then or now – even me and I was in it!” said the 82-year-old actor.
“Even at the time, its location at Portmeirion was a great secret. Everyone wanted to know where it was filmed, which added to its mystery.
“You could keep secrets like that in those days.” He added: “McGoohan got very cross with me once, and said ‘you are playing it like you don’t know what it’s about’.
“I said ‘I don’t know what the heck it’s about’ – but in stronger terms! You could say we didn’t get on!”
“But it (The Prisoner) eventually caught on and it got millions of viewers and now has fans worldwide.”
Today, The Prisoner commands a global fan base, with conventions, books, films and social media presence – and people still debate its episodes and its themes of identity and freedom.
“I remember Patrick McGoohan very well, ” purred Fielding, who is preparing to publish her memorirs on the eve of her 90th birthday.
“He made me laugh. I liked him. I thought he was sweet,” the star of Carry on Screaming added.
“When I was in the recording booth. I remember he said to me ‘don’t make it tooo sexy darling!’.”
In My Mind director Chris Rodley remembered McGoohan differently.
“I’d previosuly made a documentary about him in 1980s,” he recalled.
“It didn’t go well. He didn’t like it! Patrick had originally discovered Portmeirion in the late 1950s ahead of filming of spy TV series Danger Man. He thought it was the ideal location.
“He wasn’t an easy person. He was very intense, 1,000 per cent, all the time. He had hated my documentary, but it was always in my mind to have another crack at it.
“It’s fantastic now to be here at Portmeirion for its world première.”
McGoohan’s daughter, Catherine McGoohan, said: “I’m sure my dad would have been delighted at this event.
“He loved Wales and I’m sure he’d have been very moved and quietly pleased with all the fuss.
“I think my dad would be happy it was still controversial and that still people liked it – and the fact it is still challenging people to think.”
Also present was super fan Ed Fordham, alias ‘No 43’ and author of a new book It Means What It Says , subtitled Trying to understand The Prisoner, who had travelled from the Isle of Wight.
He said the book, which is being sold on Amazon and is raising money for the Ty Gobaith hospice, had been based on fans’ interpretations in trying to unravel what The Prisoner was all about.
He said: “It was a great show and still means so much to so many people.”
And Bill ‘No 59’ Hodgson – a fan of the programme for 30 years, who had come up from London – said: “It’s just so original. There has been nothing to touch it since.”