THE PROJECTION ROOM (The Prisoner Compared...)

"Nineteen Eighty-Four Plus Six"

By Andrew Hobson

"1990 posited a Britain in which the rights of the individual had been replaced by the concept of the common good - or, as I put it more brutally, a consensus tyranny." [1]

Ten years after the filming of the Prisoner, the BBC broadcast two short series of a now largely forgotten TV show entitled 1990. Portraying Britain under the dominance of the Public Control Department, it was billed as "nineteen eighty-four plus six" [2]. It is the purpose of this article to suggest that the six in this equation could be taken to represent a certain prisoner.

1990 starred Edward Woodward, who said in an interview at the time that it was "either going to create a furore or pass without comment." [3]. The latter proven to be the case, perhaps largely because everyone was watching Secret Army over on BBC1, which was broadcast at the same time. Both Secret Army and 1990 were devised by Wilfred Greatorex, who served as a script editor on Danger Man and wrote the episodes The Professionals and Fair Exchange in that series.

The opening titles of 1990 are a metaphor for the rise of a bureaucratic totalitarian state. Two figures, seen from above, stand in the centre of a blank expanse. Walls appear one by one around them, and the figures start to look in vain for a way around them. By the end of the sequence the figures are in exactly the same position in which they started, but are now tightly confined on all sides.

In 1990, the whole of Britain is the Village. Our hero is Kyle, played by Woodward, the last remaining independently-minded journalist on one of the last remaining independent newspapers. As well as writing articles that the government would rather people didn't read, Kyle also runs the London cell of an underground network that helps people escape the prison that Britain has become.

Number Two to Kyle's Number Six is Herbert Skardon, Controller of the Public Control Department (the dreaded PCD), who can occasionally be seen talking nervously via the red telephone on his office desk to his Number One, the Home Secretary. The analogy of characters isn't exact. The Home Secretary is an elected politician and therefore more likely to be replaced than an unelected bureaucrat like Skardon. In that respect, Skardon is more akin to the Butler. Skardon is played by Robert Lang, as cold and ruthless as Kyle is impassioned and idealistic. Kyle is regularly ushered through the sliding security doors into Skardon's office, either summoned or by his own volition, to trade insults and information.

Other than Skardon's office, the only areas of the PCDs inner workings that we are shown are the Location Room and its apparent replacement for the second series, the "Centre". The latter is reminiscent of the Village's Control Room: a circular room with sliding metal doors, a central pillar equipped with several monitoring screens and periphery cubicles occupied by white-coated technicians equipped with headphones and microphones.

Exterior urban scenes are filmed outside dreary concrete tower blocks or in industrial hinterlands. The countryside is dotted with Adult Rehabilitation Centres, the equivalent of the Village Hospital, where unreliable citizens are administered misery pills and electroshock treatment.

Kyle's relationship with the PCD is ambiguous. At the start of the series he is regarded as too important and too useful to be eliminated by brute force. As time goes by the relationship becomes more antagonistic but the PCD never seem to quite nail him down.

The ambiguity of Kyle's attitude to the PCD is most obvious in his relationship with two of its employees. At the start of series one Kyle gently pursues Deputy Director Lomas (Barbara Kellerman), but by the end of the series his ardor has cooled as her true colours have been revealed. The situation is reversed in series two, as her replacement (Lynn Blake, played by Lisa Harrow) turns out to be an old girlfriend of Kyle's who still carries a torch for him, prompting Woodward to display some McGoohan-like detachment, at least at first. These relationships help the series in that they cause split loyalties on both sides, and create a channel for passing information between the PCD and those that resist it. However the rather unconvincing coincidence (presumably required by casting restrictions) of Kyle having two girlfriends within the department raises questions over the PCD's recruiting policy, unless it was choosing its deputy directors purely to ensnare dissidents. McGoohan's uncanny on-screen ability to have every leading lady fall for him springs to mind.

In the Episode Whatever Happened to Cardinal Wolsey? John Castle plays a bureaucrat who having risen to a position of trust is now attempting to fight the system from within. The role bears comparison to his portrayal of Number 12 in the Prisoner episode The General.

The episode You'll Never Walk Alone features a chess tournament (using conventional pieces) and puts Kyle in the position of protecting at least one PCD official from ill-conceived terrorism. There are parallels here with the chess theme in the Prisoner episode Checkmate and the misguided bomb plot in It's Your Funeral. The same episode includes Joyce Carey, (who played Lady Ammanford in the Danger Man episode Whatever Happened to George Foster?) as Skardon's dominating mother, and we discover that, unsurprisingly, Skardon has a portrait of Napoleon on his dining room wall.

The final episode, What Pleases the Prince, can only be described as 1990s answer to Fall Out.

From the perspective of thirty years after it was broadcast, 1990 has the status of a rather curious alternate universe, one of many possible might-have-beens in which Margaret Thatcher never figured. Some of the politics and the technology of 1990 has dated. There are several references to the power of the unions, an understandable preoccupation given the year of filming. The PCD use bugs to track its targets, but these are bulky, easily spotted and can be subverted by passing them on to a willing ally. Skardon is heard to bemoan the lack of visual coverage. The concept of widespread CCTV cameras was apparently too far-fetched for 1977. PCD goons on their way to an abduction or intimidation travel, somewhat incongruously, in small white vans. The telephone in Kyle's car is to modern eyes grossly oversized and reminiscent of a public telephone in the Village. However the portrayals of other aspects of society are still highly relevant. In the episode Non-Citizen Kyle's identity cards are revoked, effectively making him "unmutual"; homeless, unemployable and destitute.

The PCD is oppressive and relentless and it has all the cards stacked in its favour but, like the Village, it is often shown as less than all-powerful. Its operatives indulge in in-fighting and have an eye on possible escape routes for themselves for when the going gets too rough. The PCD practices a very British kind of totalitarianism. It still has to obey the rule of law and keep an eye on public opinion. It makes mistakes, is inconsistent and occasionally incompetent. Far from detracting from its menace, this bungling bureaucratic tyranny is all the more believable for its shortcomings. These are not the all-powerful Secret Masters beloved by conspiracy theorists who would like to believe that someone somewhere really does have all the answers.

One last thing that 1990 and the Prisoner have in common; decades after they were made, they are probably more relevant now then when they were first aired. There aren't many TV shows which have that distinction. 1990s prediction that Britain (the supposed bastion of individual freedom) would become one of the foremost exponents of surveillance technology and profit from trading in that industry abroad has come true, albeit a few years later that predicted. It was less successful in predicting how enthusiastic the general public would be about that technology.

Although they are many possible parallels to be drawn between 1990 and the Prisoner, it is not the intention here to denigrate the former as a mere copy. Quite the opposite; 1990 is a serious attempt to portray a possible future. It has none of the surreal or allegorical elements of the Prisoner. Its politics are direct, at times polemical, whereas the Prisoner is often content to let the audience draw its own conclusions.

1990 ran for two series of eight 50-minute long episodes each in 1977 and 1978; almost as much footage as the Prisoner. I recommend this program as being of worthy of notice to anyone interested in the political themes raised in the Prisoner. At the time of writing, 1990 has never been given a DVD release by the BBC. Rumour has it that complete copies of both series exist in the BBC archives [4]. It is possible to find copies out there in circulation, but I encourage anyone whose curiosity has been piqued to petition the BBC to produce an official release.


1. Phillip Purser, Wilfred Greatorex's Obituary, The Guardian, Thursday October 17, 2002
2. Action TV episode guide,
3. Victoria Hainworth, Radio Times, September 17, 1977

Copyright Andrew Hobson 2008

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