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Thursday, September 3, 1998 Published at 16:51 GMT 17:51 UK

Number's not up for The Prisoner

Campaigning for election in Free for All (Photo Polygram TV International)

Controversy surrounds this year's convention of fans of the cult sixties television show The Prisoner, as Garry Lloyd discovered.

For 21 years fans of a controversial British-made television series have gathered from around the world in a fantasy village in Wales, to take part in a fantasy of their own.

They are members of the Prisoner Appreciation Society who spend a weekend in costume, enacting episodes from the programmes, filmed in the village in the 1960s.

[ image: Portmeirion: still attracts Prisoner fans]
Portmeirion: still attracts Prisoner fans
The series was called The Prisoner. It depicted the star, Patrick McGoohan, as a secret agent held among a brainwashed, captive population by a mysterious regime.

The prisoners were known only by numbers. There were no bars or barbed wire, but massive balloons would smother anyone attempting to escape.

The series, which has been shown in more than 60 countries, aroused both admiration and outrage, and was widely seen as an allegory of modern life.

The latest Prisoner convention attracted some 400 enthusiasts to the Italianate village of Portmeirion. But it took place amid controversy.

A piece of architectural poetry

The village of Portmeirion nestles on a wooded hillside overlooking a spectacular bay.

It's a piece of architectural poetry, partly inspired by Portofino in Italy, and created in the 1920s by a visionary Welsh architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis.

With its Ruritanian cupolas, villas, bell-tower and baroque colonnades he admitted it looked like something from a light opera. But it's a peaceful place of pilgrimage for visitors from around the world.

It owes much of its international fame to the fact that it was here that The Prisoner was filmed more than 30 years ago. Clough Ellis acknowledged that the series set Portmeirion off to its best advantage.

[ image: There's nothing like a holiday in Wales (Photo  Polygram TV International)]
There's nothing like a holiday in Wales (Photo Polygram TV International)
The Prisoner is also indebted to Portmeirion. Amidst its domes, reflecting pools and piazzas was played out the misfortunes of the captives in their stylish prison uniform of piped blazers, multi-coloured capes and straw boaters.

McGoohan, as Prisoner Number Six rages against his incarceration and his anonymous captors.

"I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, debriefed or numbered," he declaims in memorably clipped tones.

Six of One

It is these heroics of one individual against totalitarianism that appeal to many in The Prisoner Appreciation Society.

They call themselves Six of One, after his prisoner number. Dressed in blazers, capes and boaters they come from across the globe to attend the annual convention.

Their numbers include a new generation who weren't born when the series was made.

Some just enjoy the conviviality and the occasion. But many are drawn to deeper meanings they read into the series, some of which the producers never intended.

[ image: No-one warned me about the giant marshmallows (Photo  Polygram TV International)]
No-one warned me about the giant marshmallows (Photo Polygram TV International)
One programme, with an American western theme, portrayed McGoohan refusing to carry a gun. It was banned in the United States for fear of encouraging draft dodgers from going to Vietnam.

One newcomer to the convention, Dr Marilyn Barker, a physician from New York State said the series had a moral message for her. "In trying to help mentally handicapped children," she said. "I've encountered a monstrous hierarchy in my own profession."

Jurgen Sollner, a museum curator from Nuremburg in Germany said The Prisoner had a deeper message of life.

"There's surveillance of us everywhere now. We're not free we're just numbers."

Andre St-Amand, a Canadian from Montreal, said The Prisoner foretold cordless phones, credit cards and code numbers that weren't around in the sixties.

"We're now prisoners of ourselves," he said.

Village takeover

Six of One are the only television fan club with a permanent film set. They take over the village playing relentless, soothing music; excerpts from the series and broadcasting loudspeaker announcements all day.

Portmeirion now wants to reclaim its peace and quiet for summer visitors with no interest in The Prisoner and they decreed that the convention would be banished.

[ image: Stars Patrick McGoohan and Leo McKern (Photo  Polygram TV International)]
Stars Patrick McGoohan and Leo McKern (Photo Polygram TV International)
Such was the fans dismay that the village management relented, and then offered an alternative date - in winter, when outdoor performances would only be for the hardy.

Nonetheless in a democratic vote - at variance with the television plots - the fans readily agreed to brave the elements.

Fury over vandalism

But during their final night of this year's convention some of Portmeirion's valuable statuary was vandalised.

The culprits were unseen and the Society was furious. Though they've accepted moral responsibility, and promised to pay for the damage, their cordial negotiations with Portmeirion were inevitably jeopardised.

They live in hope that a cinema movie will be made of The Prisoner. Patrick McGoohan, now in his 70s, and a bit of a recluse in California, has written a script.

Mel Gibson is talked of in his starring role.

Polygram, who own the copyright, say several scripts are being considered and they must appeal to modern audiences and the topic is a matter of hot debate on the Internet.

McGoohan denies he's at odds with Polygram in trying to preserve the original ethos of the series, some of which he wrote and directed.

But if he has his way Portmeirion may feature again on the big screen for a new generation of addicts to its enigmatic message

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