Filmmaker Alex Cox has long been off the mainstream radar. His cult reputation secured by Repo Man (1984), Sid and Nancy (1986) and many others, he now teaches film and works with his students on offbeat DIY projects such as Bill the Galactic Hero (2014). Over the past decade or so, he has also emerged as a writer. As well as publishing an autobiography (X Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker, Soft Skull, 2008), he has tackled such diverse topics as spaghetti westerns and John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald. Cox’s latest book is I am (Not) a Number: The Prisoner Decoded (Kamera, 2017), in which he promises to explain the various mysteries created by this most revered of cult TV shows.
While it’s common to ascribe the start of “quality TV” to American programs such as Twin Peaks, arguably the UK-produced The Prisoner (1967) is where it all started. In the programme, an unnamed man (played by series creator Patrick McGoohan, who developed the idea from his previous hit show Danger Man) is kidnapped and taken to a quaint village — part holiday camp, part prison — on a secluded island where residents are given numbers instead of names and where attempts to leave are thwarted by Rover, a sinister beach ball-like entity. Here, he is repeatedly interrogated for information about his work and life using a barrage of unusual, often psychedelic techniques, which he continually tries to resist with the mantra “I am not a number; I am a free man.”
The teenage Cox was understandably “stunned and inspired” by this heady concoction of existentialism, psychedelia, espionage, and British eccentricity when it first aired in 1967, and his enthusiasm obviously hasn’t waned in the intervening decades. But Cox isn’t a mere fanboy, and so he situates the show within its context: the counterculture and the cold war, suggesting that The Prisoner was the only show to point out similarities between both sides of the iron curtain.
The Prisoner is more labyrinthine than linear, and this is compounded by the fact that TV schedulers on both sides of the Atlantic have tinkered with the running order of the episodes over the years. Cox’s guiding principle is to plough through the episodes in the order that they were made, not the order they were originally shown on British television. As a filmmaker with decades of experience under his belt, he’s adept at interpreting bits of information gleaned from call sheets in order to justify his way of working.
The body of the book consists of 17 short chapters that each deal with a single episode. They parse the episode’s production history, recount the plot and offer some interpretive comments. The conclusion takes a question and answer format in which he answers questions such as “who runs the village?” and “what is the significance of the Penny Farthing bicycle, logo of the village?”
At the start of the book, Cox boldly states “the meaning of the piece is contained within the text, and only there.” With a 17-episode run that still inspires fans 51 years later, perhaps the meaning of the piece lies in how fans treat it, interpret it, and how it’s repeatedly invoked in popular culture (Iron Maiden have sung about it, The Simpsons has parodied it, to name but two examples). In addition, it’s debatable whether the prisoner “should” be decoded, it might be better to sit back and merely experience it. However, these are less criticisms than they are differences in outlook between writer and reviewer.
Eventually, Cox shifts gears in the book’s epilogue (the strongest section) from decoding to reflecting upon social changes. The makers of The Prisoner showed up outside the Houses of Parliament with no permission to film a sequence for the show’s final episode, while more recently Cox was cautioned by the police for attempting to film in the same area. Cox is understandably concerned with growing authoritarianism and surveillance culture. Consequently, the “feeling of desperate sadness” he sees in the show’s final episode has only grown with time’s passing.
Perhaps the text was written earlier and only published recently, or perhaps Cox has gone native after decades in the USA, but The Prisoner‘s island mentality and palpable “cupcake fascism” seem the perfect opportunity to invoke Brexit. This is but one further way in which the show can be endlessly interpreted and applied: it has outlived its original context.
Cox writes clearly and with passion, and with a playful, digressive side that takes in Project MKUltra, Orson Welles, and snarky quips at Theresa May’s government, along with many other detours. In this respect it is a quintessentially an Alex Cox product. The book will be of interest to both die-hard fans of The Prisoner and to curious first-time viewers keen to start exploring this perennially fascinating piece of cult TV.