While fans argue that it was cancelled for being too far ahead of its time, it’s always been pretty clear to me that The Prisoner only ran for 17 episodes in 1967 and ’68 because it tended to make viewers’ brains hurt. The show combined far-out psychedelic visuals–usually associated with stupid hippie crap–with a profound, cold and deep paranoia, as well as a bitter sense of humor. Episodes were often open-ended and frustrating, and the show’s creators never went to any great lengths to explain things to the audience.
So there’s the great Patrick McGoohan resigning his position as a high-level intelligence operative for some reason, then waking up in a strange place known only as The Village. There, he is referred to only as Number 6, and local officials (like the ever-changing Number 2) repeatedly ask him to divulge what he knows. Every inhabitant of The Village lives under constant surveillance. And every time our Number 6 tries to escape, a big, white balloon tracks him down and brings him back.
Week after week after week this goes on!
Even if the show made my brain hurt at first, too, I recognized that the soundtrack was an extraordinary one. It was also one of the most important elements at work in the whole Prisoner mix. The music in The Prisoner was a remarkably eclectic blend of styles and moods, from the jazzy, psychedelic opening theme (with all its horns and bongos and Vin Flick playing guitar) to traditional marching band tunes (The Village had an awful lot of marching bands).
Composer Ron Grainer was able to keep things lively and fun, while simultaneously expressing the atmosphere of menace and oppression that ran throughout the show. In so doing, he captured the sense of both what the show was trying to achieve as well as the era in which it was made.
To mark the show’s 35th anniversary, Silva has remastered and re-released a three-disc set of Prisoner soundtracks. The set had been released once before, but this time, along with being remastered and cleaned up, all the tracks have been rearranged to run in original episodic order, from "Arrival" to "Fall Out." Also added here are dozens of dialogue clips that range from the obvious ("I am not a number!") to the surprising. (Myself, I’m not a real big fan of dialogue clips on my soundtrack albums–they tend to get in the way).
What I found most attractive about the set is that, along with Grainer’s main theme and incidental music (including his fractured versions of various nursery songs), there’s also a ton of library music here–the marching bands and the banal, happy music that permeated The Village.
The liner notes, albeit spread over three discs, offer a wealth of information regarding the show–more, even, than you’ll find in the 10-disc DVD set. Together with plot synopses, cast and crew profiles and essays about everything from the show’s initial reception to various interpretations, they even include the studio’s official "explanation" of the show, which was whipped up in response to the thousands of befuddled and frustrated viewers who flooded the tv station with calls after the final episode ran.
There’s no doubt, of course, that Prisoner fanatics will snatch this up. Question is, will anybody else? Is there any reason for them to?
I think so, at least for those interested in cultural anthropology. Like Sgt. Pepper (which came out the same year, and which fans often compare with the series), The Prisoner–both the show itself and the music on these discs–preserves the specific mood of an era. The music (except maybe for the marching bands) is unmistakably late 60s. But it’s a wide range of late-60s styles–from trippy guitar pooterings to the blandest of elevator music to assorted "secret agent" motifs. In a way, you could say it captures three faces of that generation: the new and blossoming acid crowd, the post-Kennedy, mid-war, space-age conspiracists and the status quo. As well as, I guess, those who were in marching bands.
The late 60s was perhaps the last point at which a soundtrack could achieve something like that. Once you hit the 70s, composers and music directors alike seemed to give up. Soundtracks became either bloated John Williams-type orchestrations or pop tune collections. The Prisoner set–much to my surprise, I must admit–succeeds like few other things I’ve heard. In that very specific way, I guess you could call it the Sgt. Pepper of soundtracks.