Thursday, September 13, 2012

Buckingham Place, London


Number one, and Number Six

Pevsner classifies the houses of Buckingham Place, in the little enclave between Buckingham Palace and Victoria Station, as neo-Georgian. This isn't a style that normally catches my eye, but No 1 Buckingham Place, with its ornate door case, transcends the blandness of much neo-Georgian, harking back to the very beginning of the 18th century. The architect, L Stanley Crosbie, and his craftsmen really let rip with those scrolling brackets, little heads, acanthus leaves, and the rest.

That's the architectural bit. But there's more. What draws me to this building is the fact that as a boy in 1967, I sat in front of the television one September evening and watched an opening sequence that has haunted me ever since…

A storm is gathering. We hear thunder, a roar that turns into the sound of a jet engine. A Lotus 7 speeds along what looks like an airfield runway or a straight road in the middle of nowhere. The same car drives through Westminster, past the Houses of Parliament, around a corner, into an underground car park. The driver, the actor Patrick McGoohan, gets out, walks purposefully – angrily – through doors marked "WAY OUT", up a corridor, and enters an office where a man sits at a desk in front of a world map. McGoohan harangues the man (we can't hear what he says, as the theme music has now taken over the soundtrack), throws his resignation letter on to the desk, hammers the desk with his fist, and walks out. We are aware of a funereal black car following the Lotus as McGoohan drives home to No 1 Buckingham Place, where he packs his suitcase. Is he preparing to go away on holiday? The mysterious photographs he drops into the suitcase suggest something else. But we have no time to ponder this, because his pursuer from the black car pumps gas into the room, rendering him unconscious. McGoohan wakes, a prisoner, in a village by the sea.

British readers of a certain age will probably realise that the sequence I'm describing comes from the opening of The Prisoner, a TV drama series that sees its protagonist – McGoohan, the secret agent who has resigned – trapped in the mysterious Village where the inhabitants are assigned numbers instead of their names. Our hero (now known as Number Six, although he rejects this dehumanizing convention) tries to escape, while also attempting to find out whether the Village is being run by his own former employers or their enemies; the authorities of the Village, meanwhile, try to pump the prisoner for information. It is all very haunting and enigmatic (and, Kafkaesque as it is, has proved so for those who grew up on the eastern side of the iron curtain as well as those in the west).

For many people, the architectural interest of The Prisoner lies largely in the scenes set in the Village, which were mostly filmed in Portmeirion, the fantastic Italianate architectural ensemble on the coast of North Wales designed by Clough-Williams Ellis. But because I sometimes like to show my readers the buildings that aren't usually in the limelight, the ornate doorcase of No 1 Buckingham Place – in shot for a split-second – seemed to fit the bill.

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The Portmeirion village website is here. It also contains more information about The Prisoner.

7 comments:

Luke Honey said...

Love this post. Like you, I was a fan of The Prisoner and itched to drive that Lotus at insane speed down The Mall!

Actually, I've just had an argument with my darling wife about the exact address of Number Six's house in Buckingham Gate. Always thought that the supposed "mirror image" of his house as recreated by the sinister organisation at Portmerion (drawing room with green/grey walls, Staffordshire figurines, Louvred cupboards" didn't look anything like the original set up in SW1!

Seem to remember that there is a later episode in which the Prisoner returns to Buckingham Gate...

Philip Wilkinson said...

Luke: Thank you for your comment. Like you, I think the Portmeirion recreation was different from the original – but I'm not sure of the details. What this means is that I'm going to have to buy the whole series on DVD and watch it again! I've not actually seen most of it since 1967, except for a couple of episodes when it was repeated (on early Channel 4? In the 1980s?), plus several reviewings of the opening sequence on YouTube, while writing this post.

Vinogirl said...

Good stuff!

Thud said...

A well paid spy apparently.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thud: Yes. Even though it seems he has an apartment in this house, not the whole house, this is seriously expensive real estate. Back in 1967, there were pockets of central London that could be rented surprisingly cheaply, but this building was almost certainly not one of those.

By the way, as I wandered around this area taking photographs of interesting buildings, a bloke in a black Maserati seemed to be driving around very slowly, following me. If I'd not been thinking about The Prisoner I would not have bothered about this, but in the context of spies I was slightly spooked.

Rick Davy said...

Really enjoyed this, thanks for it!
Twice per year a tour takes place of the London Prisoner locations, including of course Buckingham Place, by experts on the series. More information can be found at The Unmutual Website at http://www.theunmutual.co.uk

Philip Wilkinson said...

Rick: Thank you for your comment. I'd not heard of the tours.