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The Prisoner was ‘No 6’, played by Patrick McGoohan, held captive in a plainly weird village from which he tried to, unsuccessfully, escape in every episode. Filming began at Portmeirion on 5th September 1966 and the series kept people guessing right through to the end. The BBC ran a good piece to mark the 50th anniversary of The Prisoner. McGoohan had previously achieved fame as the secret agent John Drake in TV’s Danger Man and, among other film credits, went on to play the nasty warden in Escape From Alcatraz (1979) and an equally nasty King Edward I in Braveheart (1995).
That aside, Portmeirion is a fascinating creation, snuggled (or should that be ‘smuggled’?) into the North Wales coast. It is a fairy-tale model village but on a life-size scale – rather like a kind of early Disneyland without the cartoon characters and the rides (though there is a road train that takes you on a bumpy, but worthwhile, trip through part of a 70 acre forest). Instead of Donald Duck, imagine Patrick McGoohan, mean and moody and numbered in his striped jacket – which you can buy a replica of for an exorbitant price.
There’s no real purpose to Portmeirion, except as something to wonder at and enjoy. The brainchild of architect Sir Clough William-Ellis (1883-1978), it was constructed entirely from scratch – except for a couple buildings – between 1925 and 1975 on what was previously ‘a neglected wilderness’ on the North Wales coast. It is meant to be based on an Italian village and, apart from the singularly North Welsh weather, it certainly has a Mediterranean feel to it. The buildings do look a little tired in parts – paintwork peeling in places, that kind of thing – though it must be an enormous task to maintain. But, overall, Portmeirion is stunning – and it’s an astonishing memorial to one man’s dream. Because that dream was realised, it is also curiously uplifting; how many people get to build their dreams? Clough William-Ellis proved that you can.
The structures are not all original; some have been creditably salvaged from other places. The result is an odd mixture of peasant-neo-classical-baroque plus some. There’s not a lot to do, except wander round; but take your time, because there are little surprises all over the place. A statue of Buddha, for example, was a film prop for the 1958 movie Inn of the Sixth Happiness, starring Ingrid Bergman. Some features are genuine antiques, quietly residing in this unique bit of ersatz Italy in Wales.
We were welcomed at the gate by smartly-suited greeters, who charmingly relieved us of our entrance fees before sending us on our way with a little map. The policy of sartorial elegance evidently applies to other male helpers, though it would be a nicer touch if they all knew how to carry a suit, or had been kitted out with the right size. As it was, some of them looked rather uncomfortable, like refugees from a dodgy wedding party. Perhaps they are; you can hold a wedding celebration there if you want. I also felt that several of the staff could do with an infusion of smile tonic; whilst sincerity should be welcomed, getting served by grumpy people doesn’t do much for my ‘visitor journey’. It is also worth mentioning Café Glas, where we repaired for a tea, coffee and the ubiquitous buns, and where we experienced an unusual approach to customer service. Not only did we think we’d been forgotten, but when our order eventually arrived it did so in stages, one item at a time. It was terribly exciting…what would come next, we wondered? The waitress was very sweet and seemed quite relaxed about making 47 trips to our table – perhaps she was in training for something. Then, it was a little disconcerting to see on the bill that we had been served by someone called Gareth.
I digress. Visit Portmeirion; it is lovely, really. You can dine there, visit for the day, or stay in a hotel or in self-catering accommodation in the village itself. It has been a favourite destination for the great and the good for some time – Noel Coward, Alan Turing and Brian Epstein, for example. Contemporary celebs love it as well; Jools Holland has apparently modelled a recording studio on it. It’s also been used to film various things, in addition to The Prisoner, including Dr Who and music videos. What more could you ask? I know – a music festival! They hold one every year in September called ‘Festival No6’. In 2016, headline acts included the Kaiser Chiefs, Echo & the Bunnymen and Noel Gallagher. Other events at Portmeirion are available…
Portmeirion is 1½ miles south of Porthmadog on the A487, down a very long drive.