Alex was only thirteen when he first saw The Prisoner on ITV in 1967. It was a series about an unnamed spy known as Number Six, who had been abducted and imprisoned in a mysterious village surrounded by mountains and sea. A son of a Welsh-speaking mother, Alex had spent many childhood holidays in Llandudno, but this series made him make his own pilgrimage by train across North Wales.
Portmeirion just looked extraordinary on television,” he says today, from his home in Oregon in the U.S.A. “It was like nowhere I’d seen before. I had to see it myself.”
Alex found out later that Portmeirion had been on TV before, in the 1964 pilot episode of spy series Danger Man. This also starred Prisoner creator and lead actor Patrick McGoohan; the team behind it had wanted to film in Italy, but North Wales was nearer and cheaper. “And Portmeirion obviously stuck in McGoohan’s mind from then on,” Cox says. “There’s something very unique about its fantastical nature. It feels slightly adrift and not right about it in spite of prettiness. And that’s not to show disrespect to Clough Williams-Ellis [Portmeirion’s architect and founder] either. It’s an amazing place. But it strangeness lingers on the screen as it does in the mind.”
Portmeirion is known simply as “The Village” on The Prisoner. The other people who live there are assigned numbers too, and anyone who tries to escape is caught quickly. When Cox went on his trip, the locations that made the biggest impressions on him were Clough Williams Ellis’ stone ship on the dock by the Hotel Portmeirion, the central piazza, and the Green Dome where Number Two lives who watches closely over Number Six’s activities. “Remember most people saw Portmeirion in black and white on The Prisoner,” he adds (this was 1967, when colour TVs were very rare after all). “But it was filmed in bright colour because the producers had their eye on the American market. It works in both ways, but seeing the buildings in real life…I’m so glad that I did.”
The Prisoner is not the only time Portmeirion has been on-screen. A four-part Doctor Who serial, The Masque of Mandragora, was filmed here in 1976 with Tom Baker playing the titular time-traveller. In it, the village stands in for a fictional duchy in mainland Europe. The final episode of the first run of ITV series Cold Feet in 2002 was also, very movingly, filmed here. It featured Adam (James Nesbitt) scattering the ashes of his wife Rachel (Helen Baxendale) in the sea, as a reminder of a holiday they had there where their son was conceived. It’s also been in the 1980 Citizen Smith Christmas special, Buon Natale, standing in for Rimini, and more recently as a psychedelic backdrop to BBC children’s show Gigglebiz. Its peculiar charms are still providing inspiration for new generations, both old and young.
It’ll always be a puzzling, enchanting place,” Cox agrees. “A resort town that’s completely of itself, and endlessly fascinating.”