Patrick McGoohan’s iconic TV series The Prisoner has been re-imagined for the 21st Century in the form of a mini-series. It stars Jim Caviezel as Number Six, a man who finds himself trapped in a compound known as the Village, overseen by a mysterious leader named 2 (Ian McKellen), with no memory of how he arrived there.
One of the first people Number Six meets at The Village is Number 147 (Lennie James) a taxi drive who is perfectly happy and content to live in the confines of the compound. In the original series, James’ character only made it through one episode, which shows how ‘re-imagined’ this version actually is.
I spoke with Lennie James about his expanded character and the miniseries he’s so proud of.
How close is this to the original series?
It’s completely different. We say it’s not a remake it’s a re-invention. We took the basic premise of the story and we’ve changed it.
It’s not like in the original English town, this is a village on the edge of a precipice, it’s got a desert on one side, it’s got mountains on the other, it’s got a valley on the third side and the sea on the fourth side.
The moment Jim’s character arrives in The Village he’s instantly aware that there’s no escape from this place.
Tell us about #147.
I’m a character that appeared in the original. If you know the original, there are very few characters who were there for more than one episode. Virtually the only character who was there for more than one episode was Patrick McGoohan.
Bill Gallagher’s (screenwriter) description of my character is he is utterly at ease in The Village. He’s happy. He got everything he needs. He drives a taxicab. He has a wife he loves and a daughter that he adores.
And it isn’t until Six arrives and starts waking people up to what their lives may actually be that he suddenly realizes that, actually, he might not be living the life he thought he was.
How expanded is your character in this?
I call it the Morgan Freeman role. I play the heart and the soul of Number Six. When Jim’s character first arrives in The Village, almost his first stop is my taxi.
And from then on in both of our lives are linked together throughout the six episodes.
I think that one of the things that Bill wanted to explore was 147 is ‘The Village.’ My character is the ideal villager.
There are a lot of rules in the village, there are a lot of places you’re not allowed to go, there are a lot of things you’re not allowed to see, there are a lot of things you’re not allowed to say, and my character is absolutely comfortable with that.
His life revolves around his wife and his child, and he is totally and utterly happy in that world. In fact, he believes that his family is safe and he has no reason to rebel or question until Jim gets into my taxi.
So why does Number Six need heart?
I think because of the sense that he’s a rebel and he’s fighting the system, and he’s a man involved in a battle and every now and then he needs to be reminded that it’s possible to care about people and you don’t have to fight everybody.
And sometimes you need a friend, and that’s what my role provides for him.
Lots of people who watched the original series had no idea what was going on, even when it ended. Did you do a back story for your character so you understood why he accepted The Village so readily?
(He laughs) I’m going to give you a very Village answer, which is that I didn’t necessarily need to do a back story because during the course of the six episodes you will find out why my character accepts his position or why he didn’t.
In this version there is only one Number 2.
Every week on the original series there was a different Number Two. One of the things that make us very different to the original is that Bill really wanted to explore the nature of being Number Two.
On one level he could be seen as the baddie, the dictator, but he’s not, and you explore it and you see the different shades of a man who’s trying to hold this village together. So you get to explore that in a way that there wasn’t room to explore in the original.
Is there more action in this version of The Prisoner?
Yes, because it’s six episodes and we had to cram a lot of stuff in, and so there’s a lot of action. Jim does most of the running, I’m a taxi driver, I know where to put my backside. But there’s a lot of action. Again, it’s big, proper action, it’s not small, it’s large and to try and do credit to the idea as we possibly could
Patrick McGoohan recently died. Did you ever get to meet him?
I never met Patrick McGoohan.
What did you think of him in the role of Number Six?
I think that one of the brilliances of this script and the role that Bill has managed to create for Jim is that Jim is free to give a new interpretation, because I thought Patrick McGoohan was about as good as it could possibly get.
They did seventeen episodes, but he managed to sustain a sense of truth and justifiable anger all the way through it where you never really questioned it. When he was at his best he had the rage that Richard Burton could bring to the screen.
But he also had a twinkle [in is eye] and he was able, without ever losing his composure, to exude a sense of humor that you wouldn’t have thought possible.
Considering it was his idea, he wrote the scripts and he was in control of his particular journey, I don’t know that there’s another actor before him or really after him, certainly in television, who’s been given that amount of control and has handled it as well as he did.