Patrick McGoohan Explains The Meaning Of The Prisoner, A TV Cult Classic

A Rare Television Interview With Patrick McGoohan

McGoohan Answers Many Questions About One Of The Most Enigmatic and Brilliant Shows In The History Of Television – The Prisoner

(l-r) Angelo Muscat, Patrick McGoohan Leo McKern in The Prisoner

Yes, Patrick McGoohan has been dead for nine years. But this long format television interview with Warner Troyer originally broadcast in Canada circa 1977 has rarely been seen.

If you are a fan of the The Prisoner, this interview will be a revelation. McGoohan was the creator, writer and star, and details the making and the meaning of The Prisoner.

During the interview McGoohan admits The Prisoner was intended for a very small audience- intelligent people. It was meant to provoke and have people question its meaning. The show succeeded.

50 years later, The Prisoner has as much cultural relevance today as it did when it was first broadcast in 1967. It is still debated and analyzed and considered as being WAY ahead of its time. Many of McGoohan’s concerns about mankind are currently and unfortunately playing out.

WARNING -SPOILERS AHEAD –  DO NOT WATCH if you have never seen The Prisoner and intend on watching it. I’ve summarized the plot of the series below. If you have seen The Prisoner and have always wondered what is the meaning of it all, Patrick McGoohan answers many of those questions.

Breaking it down to its most simplistic level, The Prisoner’s basic plot involves a government intelligence agent (played by McGoohan) who has resigned his position for reasons unknown. In short order, when he returns to his home he is gassed unconscious . He is then taken by persons unknown to a strange place that he awakens in called The Village.

The former agent don’t know who has kidnapped him or where the Village is. Though there are no prison bars, he quickly learns there is  no leaving or escape from The Village. He is a prisoner. Surveillance is everywhere and constant.

The people who inhabit The Village are essentially his captors and enemies; but others are also prisoners. It turns out no one can be trusted. It is difficult to discern who is a fellow prisoner versus who is an informer or jailer keeping him in captivity.

In The Village no one has a name, everyone has a number. McGoohan is dubbed “number 6. The ex-agent rejects being addressed as a number, and defiantly reminds his incarcerators, “I am not a number. I am a free man.”

Throughout the 17 episode series number 6  is interrogated for “information.” The interrogation is usually conducted by number 2 (supposedly the second in command of the Village). The person who is Number 2 changes in most episodes. The interrogators do everything they can to gather information and to break number 6’s spirit. Besides trying to escape, Number 6 has his main question – Who is number 1? Who is behind all this?  I won’t go beyond this basic summary because the complex ideas presented within the series are open to interpretation on many different levels.

Below is the first episode of The Prisoner: Arrival. If you are intrigued, I strongly suggest you buy the series on DVD or watch it on one of the streaming services. If you question the collective versus the individual and how technology affects us, the series is well worth watching.

Be seeing you.

24 thoughts on “Patrick McGoohan Explains The Meaning Of The Prisoner, A TV Cult Classic

  1. Steve Flora

    I have just been watching the entire 35th Anniversary Edition set of “The Prisoner” (yes even though it is 2023 now). It is plain to me that “The Prisoner” is John Drake (though of course he remains nameless). If anything, the “Living in Harmony” episode is absolute proof with J.D. as the Sheriff refusing to have anything to do with guns until absolutely being pushed to it in the end and to top it off, though he obviously is drawn to the “dance hall girl”, he does not even get near to touching her in any way. It is “Drake, John Drake” through and through. I enjoyed the series when first seeing it back in the early 1970s, and have enjoyed going through it again, now. Good, innovative, thoughtful productions with top notch production values stand the test of time. Combine those aspects with a talent such as that possessed by Patrick McGoohan in his prime and it continues to be a series to relish.

  2. Peter Angelino

    I’m a bit surprised that no one seems to ever comment on what seems to be obvious Masonic allusions in the final episodes.

    Welcome to the Village, my brothers.

    1. Joe

      That’s something that caught my eye also! I’ve only rewatched a couple of the early episodes, and yet masonic symbolism is very much present. A pyramid with an eye of horus in the “Festival” episode, twin columns in numerous opening pans of scene shots, a clock or wall decoration that looks like a square and compass, etc. So, the question for us is: was McGoohan warning us or conditioning us? Aldous Huxley pretended to be warning about a coming drug dependent tyranny while secretly working with the CIA to make it happen. George Orwell was also not what he seemed to be ( The theme of “The Prisoner” seems to be that there is a higher governing entity that is above the (then Cold War) East vs West powers. Did McGoohan know this and was forced to be vague about it so as to avoid censorship, or was he working FOR them. I’m not trying to be funny or clever; this is a serious question.

  3. Jay

    Great interview, appreciate the insights and generous sharing. I also believe that McGoohan is kidding us, with his explanation of ‘Dem Bones’ and a lack of intentional religious imagery. Not a lie, but misdirecting some of us. He has a high regard for the people he is intending to understand the show.

    Some observations to share:
    1) The opening sequence, Number 6 is followed home after resigning by a man (Undertaker?) driving a hearse.
    2) The question of ‘free will’ is addressed in ‘The Arrival’ where Number 6 orders breakfast, and each custom item is prepared and ready just as he declares it. While the easy explanation is that Number 6 has a verificable history of great detail, including his breakfast, another approach is that he may not really have free will.
    3) Episode “Many Happy Returns” includes a visual image of Number 6 dressed a military pilot parachuting to the ground. This image appears to be the same as the dead pilot from “Lord of The Flies” (1963). The image is also repeated in the TV series ‘Lost.’ Those who’ve enjoyed ‘Lost’ know what the island represents.
    4) ‘Once Upon A Time’ the questioner in the interviewer asks an insightful question, #2 says ‘I’ll Kill You, #6 replies “I’ll die.”, #2 says “You’re dead!” McGoohan again deflects, but I also see that the Agent is ‘dead’. He wakes up still dressed, and his residence on Portmerion is identical to his London flat. He never needs clean clothes, always has a clean shave. “Which side are you on?” “That would be telling!” Some see this as communism/west in conflict, but I think it is heaven/hell. I think he is dead, and in purgatory. He has to reveal his reason for resigning, and declare himself which side he is on, i.e. good/evil.

  4. David R

    Was Number 6 supposed to be John Drake from Secret Agent / Danger Man? I think it’s pretty clear that he was. The parallels are too numerous. George Markstein said he was. The only person that said he wasn’t, was McGoohan himself. Why would he do that? Simple. McGoohan didn’t own the John Drake character, that character was created for Secret Agent by series creator Ralph Smart. In the TV business, ownership of ideas and characters is huge! The creator of a show receives much more share of royalties, licensing, etc, than anyone else connected with the show — cast members, writers, directors. Apparently McGoohan didn’t want to share the rights. Maybe his relationship with Smart wasn’t very good after Secret Agent. Who knows the reason.

    I think this situation was responsible for the extreme lengths they went through in the writing to NOT reveal Number 6’s real name. Which certainly contributed to making the show more mysterious and intriguing. Probably the most cumbersome episode is when he’s having drug-induced flashbacks to scenes with his fiance back home. She only calls him “you.” A little awkward. But it worked!

    1. Jay

      McGoohan only paid himself £5,000 per episode, about $6,000 in 1967. A lot of money then, but the entire budget was £75,000 per episode from ITC. So I’m agreeing with your very sound reasoning, thank you for the background.

      My favourite quote from the series, and McGoohan is, “a still tongue makes a happy life.”

  5. Richard

    I saw the show as a rerun in New Zealand in my early teens in the mid-80s. It had a large impact on my intellectually and emotionally. I was impressed by the cryptic, airy, and subtle over/undertones.
    Im keen to watch it again and to check out this interview!

  6. Robin Murdock

    What an amazing interview. So grateful Mr. McGoohan was actually so willing and forthright in sharing all the insight that he did.

    Interesting about Leo McKern having a breakdown after filming “Once Upon A Time”

    Wonder what Mr. McGoohan would have to say about the global state of affairs here in our global “village” here in 2021. I suspect I already know— what a true visionary he was. And what a gift he gave us through the creation of this unique series!

    1. David

      I recently discovered the pleasure of The Prisoner, and this web site about it. Intrigued by the series, I’ve researched all I can about it, including interviews and articles. In the interview of McGoohan by Troyer linked above, McGoohan isn’t very specific about Leo McKern’s problem, but he implies it was nervous/mental. However in an interview with Production Manager Bernard Williams that’s included on the DVD set, Williams makes several comments about McKern, suggesting his illness was more physical, a heart problem or heart “episode” of some type, if not an actual heart attack. Less surprising. Heart problems are frequently triggered by stressful situations, especially in someone not in the best physical shape to begin with.

  7. Steve B

    I watched that series in the 60s when it first aired. It remains one of my favorite TV series of all time. I have the entire series on BluRay disc.

  8. Paul

    The Series is over-rated. It is just awful and the ending is Looney Tunes. Skip it and you will not be disappointed.

  9. Benj

    Based on what McGoohan, said about having to sign in to the building where this video was filmed, imagine what he would say about life now…

  10. Sonny0953

    I was 14 years old when I first saw the show and it has remained in my mind ever since having watched it at least again when i was about 30 maybe. And again now on Amazon Prime. Patrick McGoohan became one of my favorite actors after first seeing the show and remained so. I tried to watch everything he played in and as you know he appeared in Colomboa a few times. As stated before, the show was way ahead of it’s time and remains so today kinda like the show “Profit” with Adrian Pasdar which aired in 1996 and was pulled only after a few episodes because of the highly controversial subject matter at the time.

  11. William b Grice

    I watched the Series when it first hit TV screens, for the 60s that was a great step forward in a weekly series
    couldn’t wait for Sunday Night. Then the show went off the air, unlike today we could find little if any information as to why. I found it again during the lock down and remembered just how good that series was.

  12. Stephen Wolenuk

    In the intro each week, the new number 2 replies when asked “Who is Number 1 ?” either answers it with “You are, Number6” or ignores the question and says “You are Number 6.”
    With the unveiling of Number 1 in the finale and the overall importance of the individual expressed in the show, I feel “You are, Number6.” is correct …

  13. James Murray Walters

    I always liked the series Secret Agent. And the Prisoner. The Ending was shocking yet satisfying. A truely complicated plot. Loved Leo Mckern as number 2. The only number 2 to survive. And Dem Bones. Plus the Buttler Angelo Muskat. And great performance by Patrick Mc. Goohan.

  14. Ruth Morrisson

    Fascinating interview. I’ve been re-watching (part) of the series because ChargeTV ran a marathon in June — but NOT all 17 episodes, unfortunately :-(. I was in a collectibles shop last week outside Akron, OH (I’ve never seen so many different Funko Pops in my life!) and the guy behind the counter agreed with me that not making space in their schedule for the entire thing was just dumb….
    Love the part about “Rover” in particular. And the suggestion at the end of the interview that in fact #6 was NOT free… that it wasn’t the end, but “a beginning….”

    1. Marilyn Small

      I’m going to get the series to view again. I’m happy that my recollections of the show resound with his interpretations. I’ve always stayed away from deep analysis, as the majority of artistic creators disavow such intricate intent. “I just wanted to make it fun” , regarding the finale of the series. I have argued the meaning of #1’s identity (which I thought was rather obvious at the time) for many years now and feel quietly vindicated, but I would like to see the whys and wherefores again.

      1. Number 6

        Very interesting hearing everyone’s impressions of the series. I grew up around it, but never watched it directly myself. My parents were fans, so I picked up some of the general atmosphere of it and became more intrigued in later life. My favourite medium for programs is audio (radio/podcast/etc), and I discovered a BBC Radio dramatisation of it which is superb. For anyone wishing to revisit the prisoner, I might suggest checking this radio version out too. It’s available on BBC sounds at the minute as the episodes are aired, and can probably be found in it’s entirety (without having to wait for the BBC to broadcast the next episode) on the likes of, or on your favourite podcast application (which I believe typically links to various databases, including things like

        It’s very interesting to me experiencing the various forms and expressions of artworks like the The Prisoner through different media. I first read the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and then found and fell in love with the BBC radio dramatisation of it. It’s not a replacement, but an exploration of the piece in a different form, each with their own unique merits.

        With all that said, only one question remains.

        Why did you resign?

        1. David Beattie

          Thanks for mentioning the BBC Radio dramatisation of The Prisoner – I hope to find it and listen.

          Regarding the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it was the BBC radio series (the original 6 episodes) that was the original version. The book came later, an adaptation of part of that radio series. I still listen often to the radio series, all these decades later!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.