Jailhouse rockers

The Prisoner, set in Portmeirion, north Wales, was cult viewing. Now the village is the location for a big-name pop festival. Pierre Perrone looks at a show that inspired artists from The Beatles to Richard Hawley
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The Independent Online

In the 1960s, Britain not only ruled the world of pop but also produced some of the most enduring TV series of all time. The Avengers and The Saint have been referenced by The Rezillos and The Pretenders but no British programme has inspired as many musicians as The Prisoner.

The creation of maverick actor Patrick McGoohan, who made his name playing secret agent John Drake in Danger Man, and turned down the opportunity to play both James Bond and Simon Templar in The Saint, The Prisoner first aired in the UK in 1967. Its premise of a spy who resigns and is transported to a mysterious village he can never leave intrigued viewers the world over, turned "I am not a number, I am a free man!" into a catchphrase, and put Portmeirion in north Wales, where much of it was filmed, on the map. It also planted a subversive seed that flowered in the minds of successive generations of British musicians including members of Dr. Feelgood, Iron Maiden, Colourbox, The Lightning Seeds and Muse.

Next month, Festival No.6, a new boutique luxury festival from the team that brought you Snowbombing, The Warehouse Project, Lounge on the Farm and Parklife, will welcome Richard Hawley, Jessie Ware, New Order, Primal Scream and Spiritualized to Portmeirion. Six of One, the official Prisoner appreciation society, will be on hand to help festivalgoers re-enact classic scenes from the series – the human chess game, the processions – and help write a new chapter in the rich history of McGoohan's hold over British rock and pop.

Singer-songwriter Roy Harper was the first to recognise a kindred spirit in The Prisoner. In 1969, he included the epic "McGoohan's Blues", "inspired by the actor's depiction of the Establishment rebel", on his Folkjokeopus album. However, even if pub rockers Dr. Feelgood named their 1977 album Be Seeing You after the greeting used in The Village, and were photographed wearing piped blazers and scarves like the series' characters, it was the next generation who really embraced McGoohan's vision, starting with a nod by The Clash on the B-side of "(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais" simply called "The Prisoner", in 1978, and continuing with mod revivalists The Prisoners, whose formation in 1980 coincided with the release of the charming turntable hit and John Peel favourite "I Helped Patrick McGoohan Escape" by Teenage Filmstars, Ed Ball's second indie band.

Ball's work with Television Personalities and Teenage Filmstars – who morphed into The Times – his involvement with Alan McGee's Creation label in the Nineties, and the films he has made since, are steeped in references to Andy Warhol and Syd Barrett. Yet The Prisoner cast the longest shadow. "You grow out of most things you grew up with but I always come back to The Prisoner," says Ball, born in 1959, who has only "a vague recollection" of seeing it in 1967. "It made more of an impression when it was re-screened in the early Seventies. I felt something deep and dark was happening there.

"It was shown again after the first wave of punk, as the whole Sex Pistols saga was unravelling, with Johnny Rotten being attacked on the street. It seemed to echo the way McGoohan had been treated when The Prisoner ended in February 1968," he expands, recalling the furore that greeted the first broadcast of "Fall Out", the 17th and final episode of the series – which failed to wrap things up neatly – and resulted in the actor's self-exile from the UK. "McGoohan was a forerunner of punk. Like the very best works of art, The Prisoner has its own fatalism built into it. You can never escape. McGoohan seemed to have the compass right with his ideas about love, hate, good and evil. We wanted to deify him. 'I Helped Patrick McGoohan Escape' was the ballad of The Prisoner in a three-minute pop song. We knew how private he was but we heard whispers through Six of One. He seemed to benignly acknowledge the record's existence," recalls Ball.

Ball hasn't heard "The Prisoner" or "Back in the Village" by Iron Maiden but I assure him bassist Steve Harris and vocalist Bruce Dickinson are genuine fans of the series. "The Prisoner is a force of nature which touches people. Once you have watched the whole series, you are never the same again. If you are a spiritual person, it becomes part of your belief system," stresses Ball who is overseeing a 12in vinyl re-issue of the I Helped Patrick McGoohan Escape album – credited to The Times – "incorporating a Monopoly board based on Portmeirion".

With its Italianate architecture and trompe-l'oeil features modelled on Portofino, Portmeirion gave The Prisoner an eerie, ominous sense of place, a constant in a pressure-cooker miniature world where ever-changing Number Two figures try to break McGoohan's character.

Designed by Sir Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis, Portmeirion remains his crowning glory. "It's a folly on a grand scale, a fairytale place, where people like Beatles manager Brian Epstein used to go and relax. The cross-pollination between The Beatles and The Prisoner is fascinating," says Ball who, like many Sixties trainspotters, is well aware that the mad fanfare of "All You Need Is Love" was used to astounding effect during the cryptic "Fall Out" conclusion, the only time a Beatles song was licensed to a TV show. "George Harrison often namechecked The Prisoner."

Indeed, when he called his current band thenewno2, Dhani Harrison was undoubtedly thinking of his late father and the projected movie involving McGoohan that would have taken the place of Magical Mystery Tour in the Fab Four filmography.

Richard Hawley was just a few months old when The Prisoner first aired but caught up with it on Channel 4 in the Eighties. "I was totally fascinated. There is something universal about its themes, this concept of not knowing who exactly is controlling everything, and where you fit into the whole scheme of things.

"It's something that goes through the mind of every generation. In our school curriculum, we studied several existentialist writers and The Prisoner seemed to connect with that," says the singer who has also fallen under Portmeirion's spell. "I have visited many times with my wife, and with our kids too. I can't think of anywhere more amazing in Britain," he enthuses. Hawley is looking forward to performing at Festival No.6. "I said yes immediately. It's a fantastic idea to have a musical event in that magical location."

Festival No.6 with Richard Hawley, Jessie Ware, New Order, Primal Scream and Spiritualized is at Portmeirion, north Wales, 14 to 16 September (festivalnumber6.com)

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