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The Prisoner – Sir Ian McKellen, Number Two

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The Prisoner (2009) - Ian McKellen and Jim Caviezel
The Prisoner (2009) - Number Two (Ian McKellen) and Number Six (Jim Caviezel) © Granada/AMC
The Prisoner (2009) - Jim Caviezel and Ian McKellen
Number 6 (Jim Caviezel) and Number Two (Ian McKellen) © Granada/AMC

In 1967’s cult classic The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan wrote, produced and starred as Number 6, a man locked away in The Village with no memory of how he got there or why.

In his search for answers, Number 6 confronted the leader of The Village, Number 2, who kept being replaced. Some of the stellar actors to play the role were Leo McKern, Patrick Cargill and Kenneth Griffith.

In the new miniseries, written by Bill Gallagher, with Number 6 played by Jim Caviezel, there is only one Number 2, and he’s played by Sir Ian McKellen.

I spoke with him about taking on the legacy of a series that is so beloved by genre fans.

Did you get caught up in a whole ‘Prisoner’ frenzy when it was first on, and if you did do you think you would be doing a remake of it?

No, there is nothing about this version of The Prisoner which is challenging the first or commenting on it. It’s simply taking that nightmare of being in a place you don’t want to be, and not being able to do anything about it.

It’s just taking that idea and putting it into what we know about our modern world in the 21st century. It’s about psychiatry, about surveillance.

It’s about the individual and how much control we have over our minds, emotions, and daily lives. It makes you think. It’s not often that you do a script where the writer is more intelligent, and has thought more about it than you will ever do.

It’s a difficult part to play. It made me nervous.

You go into character so easily to talk about how The Village is such a wonderful place.

Well yes, to my character. It’s a place he’s created to make people happy.

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Number Two (Ian McKellen) in contemplative mood © Granada/AMC

Do you play him as an authority figure, or do you try to subvert that?

No, absolutely he appears to be the king of The Village, but he’s Number 2. There’s trouble talking about this series because if we start going into it, then we start giving it away.

Half the thrill of watching this is going to be working it out.

How is this miniseries different than the original?

One of the characteristics of the original was that in 17 episodes, the questions that you were invited to ask as to why and who is in charge and what are their motives, was never really answered. Hence, the enduring fascination, I think.

The viewers are still guessing as to what was the meaning of it all. This is different. By episode six, you know everything about The Village: Where it came from, where it’s going, who created it, why they did it and what it’s like to actually live there.

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The Prisoner (2009) – Number 2 (Ian McKellen) © Granada/AMC

In the original several actors played Number 2, were you surprised to be the only one in this?

I think Bill Gallagher needed a 2 who was central to this story of the meaning of The Village, because he seems to be running it and to have it played by a number of characters would just be cute, but not to the point.

I’m very grateful because it gives me an absolutely wonderful part.

We are seeing a lot of movies and miniseries coming from Britain on these themes. The impression you get is that as much as we’ve succumbed to surveillance the British have gone even further. Do you think it’s a bigger issue?

You cannot walk around in central London, where I live, without being photographed every step you take. How long will it be before they say ‘Well, you can see who goes into your house, and now we’d like to see what they do when they get inside?’

There has been no law passed to have all this surveillance. We weren’t asked what we thought about it. It’s all for our own good, we are told.

I’m resisting strongly, trying to get it out of my suburban street. But a lot of the locals want that, I don’t want it. I don’t want people to know who comes knocking at my door or who walks into my house.

The Prisoner (2009) - Ian McKellen
Number Two (Ian McKellen) with more thoughts © Granada/AMC

Is the average Briton, like the average American, just sort of going along? Is it artists and other people that are speaking up?

I think you are right. The War on Terror as a concept is catch-all, isn’t it? If you object to television in the streets, you are supposed to be on the wrong side of the War on Terror. Well, then, I’m on the wrong side.

There is actually no need for these cameras. They don’t, on the whole, prevent crime. Nor do they, on the whole, solve the crimes. They just put the people in a state of being nervous. I don’t like that.

You said there would be answers at the end of The Prisoner. Are they definitive and obvious answers, or things you have to sort of look through and interpret?

I didn’t catch on until we got to about the fifth episode. But in the very first shot, there is a clue to the answer. You didn’t know that with the first Prisoner.

You can solve it, what it is, what they are all talking about, and where they all are. They are in a place. Where it is and why it is, that’s all explained. You’ll either approve of it or you won’t approve of it, but it will make sense.

Any update on The Hobbit? Have you seen a script yet? Are you involved?

I sincerely hope so. I’ve been promised I am, yes.

Are you eager to play Gandalf again?

Well, yes absolutely. And Guillermo del Toro is directing. I should be so lucky. And I’ll be in New Zealand, which is a place that I love. It’s almost an ideal job for me.

What is it about Gandalf that you love so much?

He’s got the best lines, hasn’t he?