Review by Ian McArdell
In 2016, Big Finish dared to do the unthinkable and produced audio stories based on The Prisoner – the clever, challenging and often downright bewildering late-60s thriller series which endures as a true cult classic. The original, which starred former ‘Danger Man’ Patrick McGoohan, followed the tale of a spy who resigns and finds himself transported to ‘The Village’; there to be subjected to a series of increasingly bizarre experiments in order to make him spill his secrets.
Bitten by the disappointing 2009 American television mini-series, which despite a stellar cast seemed to utterly miss the mark; it is fair to say I was trepidatious. However, under the auspices of writer/director/producer Nicholas Briggs and with the inspired casting of Mark Elstob as Number Six, the first volume was a triumph. Sticking close to the spirit of the original, Briggs offered a re-imagining of the 1960s show, adapting three television episodes and adding one of his own which cleverly exploited the new medium.
Some eighteen months later, tying in with the programme’s 50th anniversary, Mark Elstob’s volatile Number Six is back. Maintaining the same format, there are three adaptations of original television episodes and one entirely new creation which takes the show into fresh territory. As before, the four flow together to create one long story.
I Met a Man Today (adapted from the television episode Many Happy Returns)It is clear that Nicholas Briggs relishes a challenge. He must do, as barely a word is uttered for the first twenty minutes of the television story as Number Six wakes in The Village to find it deserted, builds a raft, endures weeks at sea and a tussle with gun runners, then dodges a police roadblock and stows away in a van bound for London. In this reimagined version we meet Six dishevelled and the worse for wear, and hear of his gruelling journey in retrospect while he makes the acquaintance of his former home’s new occupant, Kate Butterworth; who has also taken ownership of his treasured car. The changes needed to make this tale work on audio become a positive boon, as we are granted much more time to build up a relationship between Kate and Number Six. As a writer, she is curious and probes for his backstory while he discovers hers and the chemistry between Lucy Briggs-Owen and Mark Elstob is palpable. Of course, Lucy Briggs-Owen is no stranger to Big Finish, and it is great to hear her so well employed after being mostly in the background through seven volumes of The Avengers – The Lost Episodes adaptations, where she played Dr Keel’s receptionist Carol.
Project Six (adapted from the television episode A, B and C)Back in the village, and the new Number Two has a rather direct plan for Six, which sees him on a hunger strike believing that all the food and water is drugged. Prepared to push him to the point of death, this Two is supremely confident, hilarious and belittling of others; and the performance is one of the highlights of the set. This adaptation is the one which strays furthest from the original, but it still revolves around the concept of Number Six struggling to discern the difference between reality and fantasy. Matters are complicated further by the return of Sarah Mowat‘s Janet, who shares a romantic link to Six and was featured in Volume One’s opener Departure and Arrival. Of the four, it is episode I found hardest to get into at first listen, but I found the second airing much more rewarding, with layers to be unpeeled like an audio version of the film Inception.
Hammer into Anvil (adapted from the television episode of the same name)As a sadistic new Number Two (John Heffernan) takes charge, Number Six is driven to take down the violent bully and creates a conspiracy to send him headlong into raging paranoia. While the original saw Six employ a whole range of tricks to bedevil his foe, here he takes a more direct approach with Number Twenty-Six; the observation controller, becoming an unwitting pawn in his scheme. As the Village voice and countless others across the set, it was good to hear Big Finish stalwart Helen Goldwyn granted a larger role as Twenty-Six; whose story I invested in and almost felt sorry for. I also laughed out loud at her alternate, disinterested version of the controller in the following story.
In a move which seems appropriate for a show which often deals with altered perceptions, it seems fitting that there should be an episode which uses a familiar title for something entirely different. Taking its cues from the space race, this Living in Harmony blasts Number Six skyward and accompanying him on his surprising journey is the familiar Number Nine (Sara Powell) from the previous box set, although she denies she knows him and insists she is Number Ninety. As the pair get to grips with roles in their new environment, under the control of a Russian Number Two (played by an aloof and eternally amused Deirdre Mullins), the story builds to a weighty moral dilemma and also drops a clue as to what might be coming next in its final moments.
Far from any notions of a difficult second album, this second volume of audio adventures are strong and engaging. The adaptations take the original stories in new directions, but remain faithful to the spirit of the original, and this is aided by the immersive period sound design by Iain Meadows. Jamie Robertson’s score adds an additional layer too, with breezy jazzy interludes adding to the familiar sounding music cues, and he provides a wonderful, upbeat reworking of the theme – the ‘Out of this World’ version – for the fourth episode. Mark Elstob’s Number Two remains a dominant force throughout, as he should, but there is plenty to surprise and wrong foot him, with each of the new Number Twos providing a fresh challenge and the delightfully fruity Michael Cochrane making a welcome return as well.
Whilst keeping its 1960s sensibilities, it is pleasing to hear a good gender balance in the stories too; with complex, fascinating roles for female characters that do not automatically place them as ‘femme fatales’ or ‘damsels’ to be rescued.
There is a sense of momentum here; this audio version of the Village is beginning to find its own feet, with more direct talk of clones and hints of the conspiracy behind the operation. I wonder if subsequent volumes might equal the balance between adaptations and original stories, but at the same time hope that the temptation can be resisted to answer too many questions. As he is a die-hard fan, I am sure Nick Briggs will instinctively know where that line is.
I’m happy to heartily recommended The Prisoner and look forward to Volume 3. (It is worth mentioning too that purchasing through the Big Finish website unlocks downloads of the score, PDFs of the scripts and some additional interview content too.)
Buy this story now on CD or Download https://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/the-prisoner-volume-02-1461