In a tribute to the cult 1960s series The Prisoner, film and TV expert Andrew Roberts returns to Portmeirion with a famous Moke
On the seemingly tranquil beach at Black Rock Sands, near Porthmadog, the sudden appearance of the dreaded Rover and an elaborately decorated Mini Moke are clear demonstrations that there really can be no escape.
The quest for freedom, and to finally discover the identity of ‘Number One’, will have to wait for another time, while this week’s second-in-command ‘Number Two’ engages in a bout of maniacal laughter…
Any British television viewer who tuned into the first edition of The Prisoner on 29 September 1967 expecting the standard ITC tropes – such as ‘border crossings’ in the middle of Black Park, fez-wearing fiends, a scowling Burt Kwouk and the Elstree studios car park doubling up as Rome or Paris – was in for a shock.
The narrative concerned a British government agent taken against his will to ‘The Village’, a community that resembles a colour-supplement advertisement for an upmarket resort somewhere in Tuscany.
The protagonist’s name is replaced by a number (six), and in this happy-looking realm only ‘local’ telephone calls are permitted. The taxi proves equally sinister because, as its driver explains, only a “local” service is on offer.
That cab was the very car you see today, on that same beach, and it set the tone for 17 episodes of The Prisoner as it sped past the famous architecture of Clough William-Ellis.
Of course, trivia spotters like to point out the automotive inconsistencies in the series: Number Six uses three different examples of the Lotus Seven; the hearse in the opening credits was not the same Princess that featured in the last story; and, despite there being an impression that Village authorities had an unlimited number of Mokes at their command, a mere four were employed in the production.
But when you are in Portmeirion, with the only surviving UK-based Prisoner Moke, such minor details are forgotten.
That said, a storyline based on the inmates fanatically debating which is the true vehicle in their midst could have proved entertaining, albeit faintly disturbing.
By the time The Prisoner commenced production on 28 August 1966, the Moke’s image had already been radically transformed from its original conception as military transport.
Six years earlier, BMC had started work on a lightweight, Mini-based vehicle that could be dropped by helicopter, but the ground clearance was too limited and its off-road abilities too restricted.
The ‘rugged runabout with a thousand uses’ launched in August 1964 was aimed at farmers, estate managers and vets as well as for use as a ‘hotel beach wagon’, ‘holiday camp taxi’ or ‘golf course caddy truck’.
A few months later, production got under way on Catch Us If You Can, that underrated road movie thinly disguised as a pop film. Director John Boorman selected the Moke as on-screen transport for the Dave Clark Five because he regarded it as a “toy Jeep”.
At the end of the decade, the car that was ‘as surefooted as a cat wherever you take it’ had guest-starred in productions as varied as You Only Live Twice, The Avengers, Crossplot and Carry On Camping.
But it was The Prisoner that represented the Moke’s finest screen moment, and this particular member of The Village motor fleet was an Austin-badged model manufactured on 15 May 1965 and registered a month later in Greater London.
Co-owner Phil Caunt believes that its conversion by Wood & Pickett took place before the end of the year, the Moke gaining mock-wood decorations to the bodywork, four individual seats upholstered in striped PVC (with the spare wheel covered in the same material), a Moto-Lita steering wheel plus a rubber floor covering in red and black.
Caunt also notes that a striped roof was part of the package, although the canopies of the TV cars do look slightly different.
The coachbuilder hoped to offer the customised Moke as one of its regular packages, and indeed HLT 709C featured in an über-naff mid-’60s PR picture of a studio-bound ‘beach’.
Here was a car poised to provide an alternative to Ghia’s Fiat 500 Jolly, a vehicle to convey millionaires from the seafront at Monte-Carlo to the Casino, and the motoring press reported that it was intended to be ‘sold on a worldwide basis through BMC dealers’.
In the UK, the Moke would be marketed by Weircrest Ltd of Curzon Street and British models were to retail at £664 9s 2d, which was considerably more than the basic price of £405 but still within reach of many denizens of Carnaby Street.
Then, so the story goes, while the Moke was being photographed at the Hilton Hotel it was seen by a member of the crew of Everyman, the production firm co-founded by Patrick McGoohan.
HLT became the automotive star of the first story, Arrival, as well as making other appearances throughout the series.
“There were three other Mokes built for the filming, but they all have subtle differences,” says Caunt. His car is also believed to have appeared with the actor at the official press launch of The Prisoner, with the rather baffled reaction from the assembled journalists anticipating the programme’s impact.
After filming concluded in 1967, the Moke fleet was dissipated and the history of HLT up until 2011 is largely encapsulated by the famous line: ‘Questions are a burden to others; answers are a prison for oneself.’
What is known, however, is that it spent some time in the Sheffield area in the early 1970s, and that later in the decade it was privately exported to The Netherlands – Caunt recently discovered an Amsterdam parking ticket dating from 1976 in the car: “I wonder if it was paid?”
The vehicle resurfaced seven years ago, and in 2015 it was acquired by Caunt, together with his friend and fellow Moke aficionado Jeremy Guy. At that time, its condition could be best described as very challenging.
The engine was not functioning, and the bodywork was in a dire state, but at least the roof and – crucially – the Penny Farthing motif on the bonnet were in situ. The latter was created by McGoohan as “an ironic symbol of progress”.
Over the following two years Caunt, along with the invaluable assistance of various specialists, laboured to restore the Moke to a state that even the most exacting of Number Twos would have approved of.
“The mechanical side was relatively easy,” he says, “but I wanted to keep as much of the original body as possible. Given the state of the car, it would have been easier to buy a new shell, but that would have undermined the authenticity of this Moke.”
The entire structure was acid-dipped, resulting in the once Spruce Green engine bay now being coloured white.
In terms of the interior, the car did come with some vestiges of the Wood & Pickett ‘wood’ trim remaining – “It resembled lino!” says Caunt – but the seat covers and the roof had to be remade.
HLT is unique among the Prisoner Mokes in having a Cooper engine, and Caunt believes that the original 848cc powerplant was replaced by this 998cc unit early in its life.
The reasons why are lost in time, although one plausible explanation is that one of its Village duties was towing a trailer, so the extra power of the larger motor would have been useful.
Caunt observes that the enhanced performance makes the car “very exciting” to drive today.
Just two of the original Mokes used for filming are known to survive, and during the 1990s Caunt helped with the restoration of the second car – CFC 916C – which now resides in the USA.
It is wholly appropriate that the first post-restoration outing for HLT is to Portmeirion, because the Moke is the vehicle that dominates so many memories of The Prisoner.
According to Catherine McGoohan, daughter of the show’s star and guiding light, her father was immediately taken with the settlement when he was shooting the adventure series Danger Man in 1960.
The pilot, View from the Villa, was set in Italy, with agent John Drake driving his 1958 Aston Martin DB MkIII through a Portmeirion populated by extras on motor-scooters.
The character brought McGoohan worldwide fame, and by the mid-1960s he was the highest-paid actor in the UK, but he became increasingly frustrated by the formulaic nature of ITC’s ‘international chaps of mystery’ concept.
All television dramas are, by their very nature, the product of illusion and shadow play, and it is well known that many aspects of The Prisoner such as the control room were created at the MGM-British studios in Borehamwood and that ‘Rover’ was a weather balloon.
Indeed, our own low-budget tribute to this fearsome device burst shortly after entering The Village… the excitement was clearly too much.
As for the Moke’s prowess as a taxi, it offered little in the way of comfort – presumably a heater would have been considered irrelevant.
The main location of The Prisoner was not revealed until the end of the series, and thereafter visitor numbers to Portmeirion are said to have doubled.
We should say we’re here for the series’ 50th-anniversary celebrations [this feature was originally published in the March 2018 issue of Classic & Sports Car], and today, the impression of suddenly finding oneself in a lost 18th episode of the show is reinforced by the many visitors in costume and the sight of Derren Nesbitt – who starred as ‘Number Two’ in episode 11, It’s Your Funeral – walking past a café.
Network Distributing, which has restored and reissued The Prisoner, has invited a selection of former cast members back to north Wales for the celebrations and, throughout the day, the wonderful Fenella Fielding recreates her role as the radio announcer, issuing warnings that ‘Number Six’ has escaped.
It quickly becomes difficult to resist the urge to run on to the sands, shouting: “I am not a number – I am a free man!”
Being with HLT for the day is also a vivid reminder of how the car echoed the theme, described by McGoohan as: “Trying to destroy the individual by every means possible; trying to break his spirit, so that he accepts that he is Number Six and will live there happily as Number Six forever after.”
In a conventional 1960s spy series, the authorities would have used the likes of a black Jaguar MkX but in The Prisoner, the Moke’s association with leisure and freedom is subverted.
Catherine McGoohan remarks that her father wanted people “to think” when they saw the programme, and this remains the case after five decades. It was witty – “my father had a whimsical sense of humour” – enigmatic, challenging and terrifying.
For Caunt, the entire experience of being at Portmeirion was exhilarating.
“I now feel that the task is complete,” he enthuses. “When I took the car back to The Village and drove it past those famous buildings, I really got the sense that it had come home.”
The final appearance of the Mokes was in the infamous 17th episode Fall Out, which for me represents 50 minutes of the most sublime television.
In it, three men manage to apparently escape with ‘Number Six’ – a beatnik, who is last seen trying to thumb lifts from passing Humber Imperials; a former ‘Number Two’, now dressed as a reluctant establishment figure; and the butler, the perfect servant, who presents ‘Number Six’ with a freshly polished Lotus, KAR 120C.
And so we take our leave with the final shot of The Prisoner, a replay of the Super Seven at Podington Raceway. As Ms McGoohan observes: “Every ending is a beginning.”
Meanwhile, the jovially decorated taxis patrol The Village, ever on the alert for anyone who may display any signs of dissent. This might not have been an image that Wood & Pickett or BMC had ever envisaged – but it is one that continues to abide.
As the reluctant residents of The Village would say: be seeing you…
Images: James Mann
Austin Mini Moke W&P
- Produced/number built 1966/4
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-iron, ohv 998cc ‘four’, fed by a single SU carburettor
- Max power 55bhp @ 5800rpm
- Max torque 57lb ft @ 3000rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, FWD
- Suspension independent, with dry rubber cones f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes drums Length 10ft (3048mm)
- Width 4ft 3½in (1308mm)
- Height 4ft 8in (1422mm)
- Wheelbase 6ft 7½in (2029mm)
- Weight 1176lb (534kg)
- 0-60mph 17 secs
- Top speed 90mph
- Price new £664 9s 2d
- Price now £70,000 (est)