Every regular reader of this blog knows of my obsession with VistaScreen. Those of you that are new, click the link to find out more about the format. In any case, I’m always excited when a new packet or ten arrive in the post. But I’ve never been as excited as I was two days ago – when I finally got Series H.221 “Portmeirion”. This “souvenir-shop-only” set is quite rare – and obtaining one in pristine condition took me years. But it was worth every second! For this strange little Italianate tourist village in North Wales – designed by mad visionary Sir Clough Williams-Ellis – was the backdrop for one of my favorite television programs of all time – ITV’s 1967 allegorical sci-fi cult epic The Prisoner.
Usually, when examining the photography of Stanley Long, I examine series in terms of their technical, historic, and documentary merit. Not so much today. With this post, we’re going to look at Portmeirion, at The Prisoner, at their interdependency, and at my own personal interest. I’m going to pair VistaScreen stereoviews with screengrabs from the show. Questions are a burden to others; answers a prison for oneself. But hopefully, by the end of this post, you’ll want to be a prisoner of Portmeirion yourself.
The Prisoner: A Timeless Classic of Allegorical Sci-Fi
Exit John Drake; Enter Number Six
Patrick McGoohan was one of the biggest stars in British television in the mid 1960s; his Danger Man series was consistently pulling high ratings after a false start. However, McGoohan was tired of playing “Drake… John Drake”, a somewhat archetypical James Bond clone with a bit of MacGyver thrown in. So he resigned from Danger Man in order to work on a show of his own devising: The Prisoner.
While there are various conflicting reports about how The Prisoner came about, a few things are set in stone. For one, McGoohan planned to resign from Danger Man in order to pitch his new series before the filming began on Season 4. This would allow the show to reach a natural conclusion. For another, McGoohan’s character in The Prisoner was not to be an extension of John Drake. Number Six – the hero of the new show – was a completely different entity, with no decided past. All we know about him from the start is that he was a member of the Security Services who tendered his resignation in anger – resulting in being Shanghaied to The Village.
And additional factors were hashed out by the time McGoohan made his verbal pitch for the show – without even a written pilot in hand. Chief among these was the fact that Number Six was trapped in a strange place called The Village, where people bore numbers instead of names. But what location could be used for The Village? The choice was simple for McGoohan.
Portmeirion – exactly the proper mix of surrealism and familiarity
The exterior landscape chosen for The Village had to be a place that seemed alien enough to capture the mood of the series, and yet familiar enough so as to be possibly… anywhere. Portmeirion was perfect, with its mix of colorful Italianate buildings, coastal proximity, weirdness, and obscurity. McGoohan struck a deal with Clough Williams-Ellis: the tourist village provided all exteriors for The Village*, but only in the final episode would the actual location name appear. This would benefit the show, as the mystery of The Village would be maintained. And it would benefit Williams-Ellis in driving tourism to Portmeirion.
The Prisoner: Counterculture and Conformity
The Prisoner began airing in 1967, during the so-called “Summer of Love”. The times, they were a-changin’, and McGoohan’s new concept for (very loosely) a spy drama was pretty radical. The primary theme of the series was that of individuality versus collectivism – and was very timely. McGoohan explicitly stated that he was trying to convey that a balance between the two is necessary. But like as not, this was doublespeak to appease the financial backers of the show. The protagonist, Number Six, is always the character we root for and cheer for; there is no antihero element whatsoever. The antagonists – the rotating cast of Number Twos, and The Village itself – are never without a subtext of menace.
Number Six: “I am not a number! I am a free man!”
McGoohan’s character on The Prisoner had no known name – rather, he is “Number Six”. In fact, every member of the village is unnamed, referred to only by the number on their name badges. (The one exception is “Alison” from Episode 5, “The Schizoid Man”.) This serves to depersonalize the characters (and in some fans’ interpretations, leave open the possibility that he is, indeed, John Drake). Knowing nothing of the man’s past, besides what little we are given, we have to judge the character on his actions only.
This notion – of making judgements without prejudice – has analogues in many of the countercultural movements of the day. From “seeing beyond color” in terms of the Civil Rights Movement, to intellectual movements like John Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance (certainly circulating in academic circles by the mid-1960s, but not published until 1971), the notion of prima facie judgement was very much in vogue.
And beyond this, there is perhaps a more pressing allegory in assigning people numbers as opposed to, say, letters or colors. The Vietnam War was underway, and in America, young men were being assigned lottery numbers for conscription. My father got one; thankfully, the war ended before he “won” that lottery. Whether this was in the forefront of McGoohan’s mind (and that of co-creator George Markstein) is unknown. But it’s certainly not unremarkable.
The Village: Menace and malice in conformity
Portmeirion is anything but threatening. The Village, on the other hand, embodies the concept of “place as malevolent entity”. The bright colors, clean environment, almost-eternally-pleasant weather, friendly facades of the numbered automatons – all of this combines to create a dissonance with the frightening undercurrent of almost Fascistic conformity underlying the entity. There are beautiful statues on the periphery of The Village. But even these inanimate objects are not benign – as they’re really CCTVs, showing Number Two what’s really going on.
The people of the village are subtly menacing as well. It’s hard not to think that The Prisoner had some influence on the 1972 novel The Stepford Wives. They all go about their business with a smile on their face. They greet each other cordially, and always give a famously ominous “be seeing you” – coupled with a salute that resembles the number 6, but waved outwardly like a Hitlergruß and which, when taken in context of the paranoia of constant observation, becomes Orwellian. Most of the residents act as automatons; if they too are prisoners, they are content with this. They do not question the orders of the day. They seem unsettled when Number Six does. And his interactions with those rare specimens that do not conform are the basis of a great many episodes.
Additional elements of The Village are unsettling as well. The mysterious Rovers. The red speakers everywhere that are ready to burst forth with news, proclamations, and dictates. The complete disorientation of the viewer – shots are very carefully taken from oblique angles to make the layout of the village inscrutable. Portmeirion may be navigable – The Village is not, to Number Six and to the viewers of The Prisoner.
My own history with The Prisoner
When I was a kid – maybe 10 or so – my local PBS station co-opted Doctor Who’s Saturday timeslot for a pledge drive, featuring a marathon of The Prisoner. At first I was angry – I was already angry that Jon Pertwee’s tenure had ended, and this weird new scarf Doctor had taken over. (It was my first regeneration.) And what was this spy stuff doing taking the place of my awesome Daleks? Then I tried it, and I was hooked. 10-year-old me loved the weird exteriors, the weirder interiors, the strange plots, and the sci-fi elements of the show. A friend had taped the marathon, and I cloned his VHS. Of course, I didn’t figure that The Village had a real counterpart in Portmeirion. I figured it was all an elaborate set, like the Westerns and BBC quarries I was used to.
During my “psychedelic years” in high school & early college, I returned to The Village – and binge-watched the series several times whilst, ahem, chemically enhanced**. And man, was it so timely! Because episodes like “Free for All” – they really told us the truth about elections, man! And “A Change of Mind”? Yeah, they’d make me an Unmutual, man! And man, that finale – what does it even mean, man???
As an adult, I’ve become convinced that The Prisoner is one of the greatest television series made in the 20th century. While certainly of its time, its messages are timeless. My wife and I have the famous “questions are a burden to others – answers are a prison for oneself” poster (framed now; we’re not kids anymore) in our living room. And as I mentioned, I was completely psyched to receive the VistaScreen Portmeirion series in the mail. This show stands the test of time.
The Real Village: Portmeirion
Framework for a Brief Timeline
We’ll be back with Number Six and the village soon enough; now let’s take a look at Portmeirion. Sir Clough Williams-Ellis began work on a hotel on the site in 1925. By 1931, he had purchased nearby Castell Deudraeth – and began working on building a tourist village to bridge the gap between the two. After being interrupted by the Second World War, he went back to work on Portmeirion intermittently, while working on numerous other projects. The VistaScreen stereoscopic 3D photos that are being presented today took place during that work – in the late 1950s. The Prisoner filmed on location in 1966 and 1967. You’ll note that there are elements present in The Prisoner that were not present when Stanley Long took his shots for VistaScreen.
Sir Clough Williams-Ellis: A visionary madman
Truly great people are usually a bit mad. And Clough Williams-Ellis certainly fit this bill. In the Great War, he fought first with the Royal Fusiliers, and then with the Welsh Guards. He was awarded with a Military Cross in 1918 for his efforts. And then he became a great architect – despite his almost complete lack of training. In fact, his only formal training was a few months at a London architectural academy – after he looked up “architecture” in a phone book.
From 1925 until his death at age 94 in 1978, Williams-Ellis worked to improve his bizarre and unlikely Portmeirion dream. This was his legacy. However, it was not his only project. Williams-Ellis actually worked on hundreds of projects – complete and incomplete – during his life. In the 1957 Honors, he was awarded with a CBE for “public service”. In 1972 he was given a Knight Bachelor “for services to the preservation of the environment and to architecture”. The oldest man given such an honor (there is no equivalent for women) at the time, Portmeirion almost certainly figured into the honor. He died six years later.
An Italianate village in North Wales
Located in Gwynedd, Wales, Portmeirion has always had but one function – tourism. Long before the British tourism boom following the Second World War, Williams-Ellis foresaw the demand for quirky getaway spots where one could truly go on holiday from the humdrum of daily life. From humble beginnings as a hotel for the region with work begun in 1925, the mad architect took the colors and styles of Italy and transposed them into Northern Wales.
Williams-Ellis repeatedly denied that he based the design of Portmeirion on Portofino – though one can hardly deny the resemblance. Indeed, in later years, the architect spoke fondly of his admiration for the fishing village’s architectural motifs. It’s impossible not to see them as at least an influence. In any case, the architecture is decidedly Mediterranean, the colors are bright, and the statuary is plentiful. Visitors coming from nearby locations such as mountainous Snowdonia or popping across the Mersey from Liverpool must feel as if they’re stepping into a foreign country.
Remarkably, even decades after Williams-Ellis passed away, Portmeirion looks more or less the same as it did in the late 50s and, again, the late 60s. Just this year, ITV Wales ran an excellent 6-episode series titled “The Village” on modern-day Portmeirion. They still mix 80 custom blends of paint – picked out by Williams-Ellis – just to make sure they can match every detail. Martin Couture, who has been painting details of the village for 42 years (since he was 16), will repaint a structure if the color is a little off-the-mark. He uses DVDs of The Prisoner when he can’t remember some detail or other. I highly recommend the series to anybody who’s interested.
Portmeirion: VistaScreen’s & The Prisoner’s views
We’re going to do a little something different today when presenting today’s stereoviews. Specifically, we’re going to show each Portmeirion view from two points of view. The first will be a late 1950s stereoview by Stanley Long of VistaScreen. The second… from the point of view of the cameraman on The Prisoner in 1966/67. You’ll note a few new additions to Portmeirion in between – like the iconic green dome in The Prisoner. But very little has changed – including VistaScreen’s ability to get their souvenir shop series captions right. You’ll have to forgive them “Portmeiron” – once they printed cards, it’s not like they were going to burn and reprint them!
1) The Campanile
Here, Stanley Long has taken a fairly standard touristy view of the Campanile. It’s similar to many such shots on Flickr and such – and quite nice, stereographically.
We’re beginning at the end here, with a helicopter flying away from the Campanile in a seemingly deserted version of The Village from the series finale. And that’s all I’ll say, because I hate spoilers.
2) The fish pond
This is actually quite a good stereoview from VistaScreen. The Portmeirion fish pond is not heavily represented on The Prisoner, and it’s unclear from photos what condition it exists in today; it’s certainly not this nice nor well-maintained. Here, it looks like part of an Italian villa. Well played, Mr. Long.
On Number Six’s first day in The Village, he gets a helicopter tour – which was likely as much for Patrick McGoohan’s satisfaction as for the viewers’. It must have been a blast to fly (several times) over Portmeirion! Since the fish pond doesn’t much feature into the show, here’s a clean view of it from above – in the top-right of the screengrab.
3) The Chantry
This is pretty standard Stanley Long stereography; it uses a single object (in this case, an ornamental shrub) as a stereo anchor. Still, by VistaScreen souvenir standards, it’s not bad. At least the Chantry itself is straight!
In The Prisoner we see a very similar scene with one glaring addition – a huge chessboard. “Checkmate” is one of the most referenced episodes of the series, and with good reason. But being memorable isn’t always a good thing – after the reveal that the village really existed, and was right over in Wales, many tourists poured in to see Portmeirion. And many were disappointed at the lack of the chessboard, which was a set piece from the show! Hence, Clough Williams-Ellis allowed a chessboard to be added to his pet village. You can see it in the second episode of The Village.
4) Swimming pool
This is another surprisingly good stereoview from VistaScreen! Long opted to use a bit of railing instead of something more substantial as a stereo anchor, and it worked. The water provides adequate means of assessing parallax here. Thus, this is a lovely view.
Once again, I went with a helicopter shot here. Although the swimming pool does show up in the series from time to time, it’s never instrumental to a plotline, and most of the time it’s unclear where Number Six is. Here, we get a better idea of its relative size and placement in Portmeirion. And if you’re wondering why you don’t see any Villagers nearby, you’ll just have to watch the episode!
5) Battery Square
Speaking from the point of view of someone who appreciates great stereography, this is probably the best view in the packet. There are multiple levels of depth here, and the woman with the bicycle adds much to the image. Thus, I give VistaScreen high commendations for this stereoview!
Number Six stands outside the Village Shop – which is today an actual shop – contemplating something. That something is how to take down Number Two in one of the earlier examples of a damn dark episode. Note that the mural above the shop window is exactly the same here, in the late 60s, as it was a decade earlier. Remarkably, it’s also the same today.
6) Telfords Tower
Okay, Stanley, enough with using trees and shrubs as stereo anchors! But really, this isn’t bad work from VistaScreen. It’s just remarkably average, boosted some by the awesome content. I’d rather have a decent stereoview from the Great War than an excellent stereoview from a Victorian dinner party! And I’d rather have a decent stereoview from any part of Portmeirion than any more damn stereoviews from the London Zoo. Not that there’s an excellent view in any of the four sets VistaScreen put out from that zoo…
“White Queen’s Rook, sir – moved without orders!” Another scene from “Checkmate”, which I couldn’t resist. In The Village, when you act out, there is often seemingly severe repercussion. However, more often than not, you’re returned to The Village shortly thereafter – if seemingly having undergone a sudden personality transplant… This scene also shows some of Williams-Ellis’s additions to Portmeirion in the intervening years. The columned portico in the building beside the Telfords Tower, and the statue on a column, were built in between the stereoview and the film crew’s visits.
7) The Town Hall
Another zinger for VistaScreen – this is quite an enjoyable stereoview. Not really much to say here – it’s a very familiar sight to fans of The Prisoner…
…where the Portmeirion Town Hall serves as the Town Hall of The Village! Not much of a leap there. And I just love this scene of Number Six making the “be seeing you” salute ironically after having been deemed an “Unmutual” in “A Change of Mind”.
Again, a decent stereoview with a lazy approach. While Long could have used the twin sculptures to anchor this, he just used the nearby (non-running) fountain. It’s still a nice shot, and I’d still rather have two more views of Portmeirion than 200 more views of Chi-Chi the Giant Panda.
There are many images of the Colonnade throughout The Prisoner. There’s only one scene, however, that features a Rover bounding towards the camera! This is our introduction to the weird, creepy, otherworldly security mechanism of The Village.
9) Ship Shop and Cafe
Okay, Stanley, we get it. You can make a passable – and most importantly, salable – souvenir shop stereoview with any given tree in the foreground. If I used emoticons on this blog (which I refuse to do), I’d be using the one of the smiley face rolling his eyes.
Free and fair elections in The Village? Do you buy it? Is Number Two’s job really at risk? “Free for All” isn’t perhaps one of the most popular episodes, but I love it. I really wish that all the “vote no. 6” signs hadn’t been thrown out immediately after filming (they were). Incidentally, the Ship Shop and Cafe, seen here on the left, barely has a presence in the show – but clearly, once again, little has changed in a decade.
10) The Hotel Lawn
Now we’re talking! The statue in the fore really pops here; the depth is smooth and creamy throughout. A final mark in the win column for VistaScreen H.221 “Portmeirion”!
And now it’s time for a big win for Number Six, right? I mean, there he is on the great lawn, he knows how to escape from The Village – just look at the confidence in his eyes! What could possibly go wrong (in the second episode of the series)?
…on The Prisoner
I would suspect that many of my readers have never seen The Prisoner. And I would urge all of you to do so – here in the United States, it’s available with Amazon Prime. I’m not sure how to get it in other countries – though there’s a DVD boxed set out that I got in college. I don’t know if they’re still making it. In any case, this show is really fascinating, especially given that, while some of the interior sets in particular look a bit silly today, it’s still incredibly relevant. Perhaps that’s because its subject matter is timeless. In any case, it has one of the coolest – and most controversial – finales in TV history, and I’d argue that it belongs in the top 10 series of the 20th century. So do yourself a favor. Check it out.
…on VistaScreen Series H.221 “Portmeirion”
On the other hand, if you came here by way of looking for information on The Prisoner, you might not be too familiar with stereography. And that’s totally fine! It’s easy to learn how to free-view the images – and you can look at them right on your screen. Alternately, you can obtain a pair of anaglyphic glasses and enjoy 3D that way. This blog contains a wide variety of stereography, VistaScreen and otherwise. While VistaScreen is a particular obsession of mine, I’ll be the first to admit it’s not tops in stereography. Check out some of the other posts – you might be the next stereography junkie just waiting to chase the 3D dragon!
Ever since I found The Prisoner forums in college (I somehow didn’t connect the dots, as a kid, that the advertisement in the finale was real), I’ve wanted to visit Portmeirion. However, I haven’t yet been able to get over there. Hopefully, that day will come soon. When my wife and I finally have enough stashed away to travel to Europe for an extended holiday, I want to visit places like the Imperial War Museum, the battlefields around Verdun, the various war memorials… and Portmeirion. I mean, don’t you at this point?
* By “all exteriors”, of course, I mean all actual exteriors. Some commonly used spaces – for example, the outside of Number Six’s house – were recreated at MGM British Studios, Borehamwood.
** Brooklyn Stereography in no way endorses the use of illegal drugs, no matter how harmless. Mushrooms containing psilocybin are schedule I controlled substances in the United States, and are illegal most places. And despite the boatloads of research coming from Europe as to their efficacy in controlling the symptoms of PTSD, OCD, drug-resistant clinical depression, and so on, and their positive effects on personality, and despite the fact that more people have died as a result of crocodiles in one year than of mushrooms in recorded history, they’re still illegal. And laws are laws for a reason. So if it’s not legal where you are, just say no.****
*** I was able to see an alternate version of The Chimes of Big Ben ages ago. While materially similar to the broadcast version, the early cut included a scene in which Number Six was able to pinpoint the location of The Village (it was on an island). It was certainly interesting, but I’m glad that it was cut – the ambiguity is part of the fun, and the finale wouldn’t work with that version.
**** Seriously – would Number Six break the rules here?