Andrew K. Shenton’s new book is a delightfully written and well-researched study of how The Prisoner impacted on television fantasy.
There’s been an awful lot written about The Prisoner, actor/writer/producer/director Patrick McGoohan’s rage against modern society and one of my favourite TV shows. I still remember the road to Damascus moment when I first saw it, alone one night in 1983, as part of the Best of British ITV season shown during that year’s Olympics. It was as significant a moment for me as seeing the Sex Pistols’ video of ‘Pretty Vacant’ on Top of the Pops a few years before. To a large extent, that first viewing influenced my wish to become a writer.
For something that only ran for 17 episodes over a few months in the late 1960s, a glance at my bookshelf reveals 14 books on The Prisoner, not counting the 3 I’ve written, as well as the 17 issue magazine collection I co-edited and contributed to with Marcus Hearn. For a series that has been so exhaustively covered, Andrew K. Shenton’s book is a pleasant surprise. Unique But Similar: The Prisoner Compared suggests a simple comparison with other TV series, but it’s more than that. It looks at The Prisoner in relation to the development of the televised fantasy fiction genre as a whole, from the time the series was first transmitted in 1967 up until its network repeat by Channel 4 in the early 1980s.
After an overview of Prisoner related literature and a definition of the series’ main themes, Shenton carries out in an analytical and very readable way a study of other shows. As the book’s title says, he looks at similarities with McGoohan’s series in the overall context of how fantasy fiction was influenced by cultural developments from the 1960s onwards. This is something I’ve always been keen on in my own writing, and Shenton not only knows his source material inside out, but has an enviable knowledge of TV fantasy in general.
For instance, I had completely missed the common ground that The Prisoner shares with the Doctor Who story ‘The Faceless Ones’, shown in the same year. (To be fair, Shelton does notably miss the very obvious similarities with the same series’ story ‘The Macra Terror’, also shown in the 1967, in which the Doctor and friends expose the oppressive forces behind a holiday camp-type Earth colony, complete with parades, slogans, chirpy radio jingles and a corrective hospital).
I’d never heard of the Look and Read schools drama Cloud Burst and Shelton’s appraisal is so good that I really want to see it now. He also highlights intriguing parallels with Gerry Anderson’s paranoid alien invaders drama UFO. Apart from the latter psychedelic episodes produced by The Prisoner’s David Tomblin, he pinpoints the unsympathetic characteristics of both the series’ Commander Straker (Ed Bishop) and McGoohan’s character, as well as common issues of mind control, state secrecy and the influence of the Cold War. His look at Terry Nation’s space opera Blake’s 7 is also enlightening, with both series’ pessimistic view of humanity and apocalyptic final episodes put under the spotlight.
Personally, I’d like to have seen pieces on the films The Wicker Man and Welcome to Blood City, both of which owe an awful lot to The Prisoner, but that’s my only real criticism. Unique But Similar: The Prisoner Compared is an excellent book that breaks new ground in the study of one of the most remarkable TV series ever made.
And I very much look forward to whatever Mr Shenton comes up with next.
The book retails at a very reasonable £8.99 and can be purchased here: www.indepenpress.co.uk