STARBURST: We understand you’ve always been a great fan of The Prisoner. Can you tell us when your interest all started?
Nick Briggs: My interest started even before I’d seen it. My father had told me about it when I was young. He told me there had been this great series about a man ‘trapped on an island’ and chased by a ‘big orange ball’. His hushed tones and enthusiastic telling made an impression on me, and when it finally popped up again in the late Saturday night schedules of ITV, in 1977, while I was still bathing in the warm glow of having watched Doctor Who earlier in the evening, I pounced on it the way an archaeologist pounces upon a long lost relic. And, of course, the ball was not ‘orange’, only the ‘alert’ was! From the moment I watched the opening sequence, I was hooked!
And were you ever in a fan club? Have you been to Portmeirion?
I’ve never been to Portmeirion, but that will change. I am a member of Six of One . My recent membership of Six of One went wrong. I sent them money, but got nothing back. Eventually, I spoke to them via Facebook, and they’ve very kindly extended my membership to account for the missing time. Decent folks, I thought. And Rick of The Unmutual has been very supportive of the whole audio reimagining right from the start.
How long have you wanted the chance to produce The Prisoner on audio with Big Finish, and how did it finally come about?
I had been mentioning it for years. Then, five or six years ago, when I started talking to ITV about possibly doing productions based on Gerry Anderson’s shows — after I’d spoken to Gerry and he’d told me he’d love me to do this, but that I’d have to speak to ITV — I also mentioned The Prisoner. At that time, they indicated they would like me to do something based on the most recent iteration, featuring that chap from Mel Gibson’s crucifixion movie. I wasn’t keen on that, so I left the subject alone. Then, when, recently, I started talking about Thunderbirds again with ITV, and was, very reasonably, told that we couldn’t do anything while there was a brand new series on the way, the people at ITV kindly said, ‘But we’d love to work with you. Is there anything else you’re interested in?’ I said, ‘Well, err… The Prisoner!’ and we very quickly sorted out a licence. That was at the end of 2014, and I projected at January 2016 release and have worked on it throughout this year. Post-production and packaging design is now in its final stages.
And the Big Finish stories, are they a re-telling of the TV series, or a set of new stories shuffled in the gaps of the original? What period of the original do they cover, if any?
This is a reimagining of the original that is very close in tone and style to the original. There are new twists and even a brand new, totally original episode. There are four episodes in the first box set. Three of them are adaptations of old episodes. Arrival becomes Departure and Arrival, then there are The Schizoid Man and The Chimes of Big Ben. The last two feature the central themes of the originals, but they unfold slightly differently. There are moments that come direct from the originals, then there are even lines you will recognise. This entire project is made out of unfettered love for McGoohan’s superb original.
The Prisoner was, to overuse the word, an iconic ‘60s TV show. How do you get that ambience into an audio?
With the style of dialogue, with the performances and the soundscape. It feels right. And the music! I’m so excited about the music that Jamie Robertson has done for us. It is very much in the style of the original series. A real ‘big band’ sound crossed with a 1960s pop vibe with the occasional dash of ‘Bone’. The tunes are different. This isn’t the original series, of course. It isn’t episodes fitting into gaps, the way we do it with Doctor Who, so it felt wrong to me to have the same theme tune. It’s a theme tune that sits right with this reimagining. It is evocative of the original and, to me, feels like it could have been the original. I’ve had a number of people mistake it for the original, even though it’s a completely different set of notes. It just has that Prisoner edge and style.
Part of the imagery of the TV show was the setting of The Village, the gardens and the wonderful Italian style buildings of Portmeirion. How do you approach recapturing the setting?
That imagery is in the box set packaging. And characters refer to it in the script. Their references are slightly more extravagant. Naturally, they had to cheat with the location, to make it seem bigger than it actually was. We don’t have to worry about that on audio. We don’t have to use stock footage for the mountains and cheat the geography. I think I’ve populated it with a bit more 1960s stuff. There’s a reference to some plastic flowers and toy windmills, but we have the Green Dome and the Stone Boat, for example. The idea is for you to imagine it being in that classic setting.
And will Rover be coming back?
You bet Rover will be back! Rover is a ‘she’ this time. Why not? It’s only a term of ‘affection’ from the powers at be, naturally. And there’s something a tiny bit different about her. She makes the same noises, plus something even more unnerving. I won’t spoil the surprise, though. See what you think.
You’ve announced the cast including (righty) a whole host of actors playing Number Two and Mark Elstob as Number Six; can you explain something of what you were looking for with each of these roles?
I’m very big on gut instinct. And all my Number Two actors are people who I had a gut instinct for. Could I imagine them sitting in that chair? Could I imagine them facing-off with Number Six? If I could, then I cast them. They’re all brilliant, actually, but I can reveal that the man I was thinking of right from the word go was Michael Cochrane. And he is amazing. He loved the original show, they all did. And John Standing actually worked with Patrick McGoohan on Danger Man, and on another project after The Prisoner.
And how did Mark Elstob get the lead part of Number Six?
I was considering all sorts of options and had a number of meetings. I was thinking of famous people… But then I realised that I didn’t want a well-known actor’s ‘persona’ to get in the way of McGoohan’s incredible creation. What I needed was someone who would give an entirely original performance that would be rooted in the role as created by McGoohan. I wrote it for Patrick McGoohan, so I wanted a strong leading man in the old-fashioned mould, for whom The Prisoner really meant something. I’d worked with Mark 20 years ago, thought he was superb and knew he was a Doctor Who fan. I chanced my arm that he would know The Prisoner too. I was right. And you know, his voice is not entirely unlike Patrick McGoohan’s. He says he’s channelling McGoohan, but actually, if you listen to his natural, speaking voice, it’s more or less there without even trying.
Mark tells a story that, at the last minute, I asked him to get closer to McGoohan than I’d originally asked him. What I actually meant was that I’d written the scripts with Patrick McGoohan in mind, so I wanted to be sure that he didn’t decide to do something completely unlike Patrick McGoohan. Anyway, it’s really great what Mark is doing. He is a great leading man. Really enthusiastic, brilliant actor and very welcoming and inclusive with everyone in the cast. Very rewarding to work with. I hope I can work with him for years to come.
Among the many, many other ranges Big Finish produces is Jago & Litefoot, starring Christopher Benjamin as Henry Gordon Jago. He, as you know, played the character of Potter in The Prisoner on TV (and also a character called Potter in Danger Man). Is there any chance of Potter appearing in the Big Finish version of The Prisoner?
It’s not beyond the realm of the possible, although I’m not sure Chris has much affection for or memory of his work on The Prisoner. Also, there’s one episode of The Prisoner in which he’s dubbed by another actor!
And do you think Patrick McGoohan was right to only produce one series, and what did you think of the ending? Will you be getting that surreal on audio?!
I don’t think McGoohan had any choice, did he? I think he couldn’t produce as many as Lew Grade wanted. Is that right? But the ending so enraged the viewing public, allegedly, that I imagine a further series wouldn’t have been possible anyway. Well, not unless he’d promised to ‘explain everything’. Yes, Number Six wakes up in the shower, to find that he dreamt Once Upon A Time and Fall Out. That would, of course, have been awful! Even though, of course, those two episodes have dream-like qualities, don’t they? It’s at that point that the narrative style of series trips over the divide between adventure stories into the realm of allegory.
It’s an interesting dilemma and perhaps a dichotomy that will be interesting to tackle. I’ve a few guiding ideas running through the episodes already, things that will be integral to the ideas currently coalescing about the possible ending to the audio series… These give me a guiding light to follow, but nothing is set in stone, and, of course, whether or not we continue depends on the reaction to this first volume. I’m optimistic and really keen to do more.
Back to the original show. Do you have a favourite episode and has that changed now you’ve written your own stories?
My favourite episode has always been The Chimes of Big Ben, largely because it’s the first one I actually saw. First time round, in 1977, I missed Arrival. But I really do love them all. I’ve just recently got very fond of Many Happy Returns, which I watched again last night. Now, that’ll be a big challenge on audio! Even bigger than The Schizoid Man!
The first set of four stories of Big Finish’s THE PRISONER will be released in January 2016.