When The Prisoner premiered on September 29, 1967, the psychedelic spy drama was unlike anything television had ever seen. The series, which followed a nameless spy (addressed only as “Number 6”) who was imprisoned in a bizarre remote village after abruptly resigning from his post, enthralled and infuriated viewers with its iconic costumes and scenery, its strange plots, and its reflections on modern society. A half century later, its influence is apparent everywhere from Twin Peaks and The Simpsons to the music of Iron Maiden.
Much of the reason for this is that The Prisoner’s exploration of surveillance states, of the individual’s struggles against society, and the individual’s struggles with themselves all remain as relevant today as they were 50 years ago. But the odd details and flights of fancy that creator and star Patrick McGoohan brought to the show – from the bright capes and piped nautical blazers that many of the villagers wore to the terrifying white balloon that chased them down and suffocated them if they tried to escape – have also been part of the show’s enduring appeal. One of those wild-but-fascinating details that McGoohan dreamed up for the show was a fictional martial art called Kosho.
Kosho, which is first introduced in the episode “It’s Your Funeral” (with some of the same footage reappearing in “Hammer Into Anvil”) is a combat sport that villagers play in their spare time. The competition area consists of a tank of water placed between two trampolines, with a platform lining three of the outer edges.
Using these various surfaces, the two combatants– dressed in helmets, long red robes, one boxing glove, and one lightly padded glove – must try to engage with each other and push the other person into the water. The first person to submerge their opponent in the pool wins.
While many aspects of the series have been imitated and recreated by fans over the past 50 years – restaged versions of the show’s famous human chess match are particularly popular at Prisoner-themed events – there’s little evidence that Kosho has ever been attempted with much success in the real world. There was an American college that once posted rankings for an alleged Kosho league online, but there was never any further evidence of competitions, and even the ranking page has long since disappeared.
A group of enthusiasts pulled two large trampolines together at the counterculture gathering Burning Man in 2006 and tried to recreate the martial art without water or proper uniforms, but photographic evidence suggests that this explosion of dusty trampoline-based boxing was a loose interpretation at best.
Kosho’s lack of popularity in the real world appears to be an issue of safety and logistics. Although the art was clearly intended for pure amusement in the context of the show, the sport does have a clear outcome and a logical enough strategy to reach that point. It’s essentially mixed martial arts on trampolines that substitutes submissions and knockouts with a dunk tank. The risk of injury in such an unpredictable environment would be significant, though. Even the brave few who would be willing to attempt it would still have to source two full-size trampolines and a giant tub of water, and a venue in which to stage such a fantastical event.
Actual Kosho matches might remain elusive, but Six of One, The Prisoner Appreciation Society, has staged small-scale exhibition matches at their annual convention in Portmeirion (the Welsh resort town where The Prisoner was filmed) for the past two years. Roy Stambrow, a member of the society’s administration team as well as a lifelong Kung Fu film fan and a judo black belt, organized these events after discovering that Six of One’s Kosho-related history was sadly lacking
“I’ve always been fascinated by this fictitious scene in one of the episodes where this bizarre sport is carried out in The Village and I thought it might be a bit of fun. I looked back in the history of the society and no one had actually ever built one of the costumes or tried to do a reenactment of it.”
With a limited amount of space and a number of health and safety concerns, Stambrow decided to improvise with a “tongue in cheek” recreation. He assembled costumes, constructed a makeshift arena out of two mini-trampolines and a kiddie pool, and choreographed a martial arts-influenced routine with a fellow Six of One member who knew how to fake a punch and fall properly.
“We did a couple of shoulder and hip throws. We added a bit of boxing. Took a few punches, a couple of sacrifice throws, and he added a judo roll so that it looked like I actually threw him. It was a little bit like the WWE, where you know it’s all staged but it still looks quite good and fun.”
Stambrow had a blast performing a version of Kosho, but, at 46, he has no particular interest in attempting a proper competition himself. He would, however, be interested in watching trained professionals give it a go.
“I’d love to see someone start a league and do it for real. I’m sure there would have to be really tight guidelines and rules as to what you can and can’t do, otherwise you can see someone getting hurt pretty badly. It would be quite dangerous in real life. especially the boxing and the bouncing parts. And it is quite physically demanding. You use nearly every muscle in your body for it. You would have to train boxing, you would have to train wrestling, you would have to train judo, and you’d have to train trampolining and a bit of running, as well. There are four or five different arts that you’ve have to master in order to be the best. I would like to see a couple of stunt men really go for it.”