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Patrick McGoohan (1928 - 2009):
The Prisoner, 1967-8
A personal reminiscence by J.C. Hartley

By one of those spooky coincidences, my daughter and I had decided that we wanted to watch the two-episode finale to The Prisoner the very week that the death of Patrick McGoohan was announced. The obituaries for the actor have inevitably concentrated upon this his main contribution to popular culture, the TV series made by Lew Grade's ITC Entertainment for ITV, and originally broadcast, in those years of grace, between October of 1967 and February of 1968. A gift for the obituary writer, it was possible for them to say that McGoohan himself was forever fated to be a prisoner of his role as co-creator, writer, and performer in a show that confounded and infuriated viewers of the time and has grown into a consistently referenced cult ever since.

There are websites aplenty deconstructing The Prisoner and I am unlikely to be able to offer anything radically new in the way of analysis, instead I would like to make a few personal observations as from someone who was a young viewer at the time.

I loved Patrick McGoohan in Danger Man, not the original half-hour broadcasts but the full-blown one hour episodes. The theme tune by Ted Astley is superb and I have plans for it to accompany the journey my coffin makes through the curtains at the crematorium another 50 years or so hence. The character of John Drake, despite McGoohan's moral strictures about firearms and physical combat, comes across with a detached cruelty which is perhaps an effect of the way the actor looked. What I was looking for as a ten-year-old viewer were gun battles and fist fights, what I got were often little moral tales or curious parables. Despite being a regular viewer, apart from Colony Three one of the episodes cited as an inspiration for The Prisoner and which I only ever saw in a repeat, I only remember fragments of two other Danger Man stories. One, in a bleak winter setting in which Drake carries out a surveillance operation, featured a frozen lake which even to my young self seemed in some way to symbolise Drake's character. Another was a bonkers episode in which Drake escapes from a gunman in Rome in a go-kart. This latter episode is Paper Chase from 1966 and was actually directed by McGoohan himself, perhaps a signifier for what was to come.

I remember great anticipation for The Prisoner, and discussing the first episode at school the next day; 'Rover' the malevolent inflatable device used to coerce the prisoners was a particular favourite. At the time however there was a feeling that this was no run-of-the-mill spy drama. I can't remember whether I stuck with the whole series when first broadcast, I do remember watching a repeat of the finale Fall Out years later and enjoying it immensely, and watching the series again when it was repeated by Channel Four in the mid-1980s. Patrick McGoohan gave an interview in 1984 and described the outcry and uproar that followed the conclusion; despite falling viewing figures the audience seemed to have returned for some kind of resolution which was ultimately denied them. The press picked up the furore. McGoohan of course, intensely private in a way that must have continually been at odds with his chosen profession, fled to the west coast of the United States via a sojourn in Mexico. The actor's career rather meandered subsequently, although he made villainous appearances in Columbo and won some awards for his direction. He appeared as Edward I in Mel Gibson's Anglophobic and poorly-researched Braveheart. Of interest to SF fans were McGoohan's roles in the 1981 exploding-head shocker, David Cronenberg's Scanners, and as Billy Zane's ghostly dad, a previous incarnation of The Phantom in the pretty good 1996 adaptation of the comic-book.

Although it was a popular image that McGoohan shunned explaining The Prisoner, he did make several statements about his original intentions, and gave an extended interview to accompany Channel Four's broadcast of Fall Out in 1984, a sweet bit of scheduling given the themes of surveillance and paranoia. He voiced his character in The Simpsons' Prisoner spoof, The Computer Wore Menace Shoes, and he was certainly involved in some of the latter-day attempts to create a re-imagining of the original series. The new version of the story is due to be broadcast this year.

McGoohan has said that he originally envisaged the TV series as lasting for seven episodes but they had to make more to sell the show in America. This would suggest he had an ending in mind, at odds with the situation that apparently arose whereby Lew Grade lost faith in the show, and wished to pull the plug, forcing McGoohan to come up with a denouement at short notice. Sources close to co-creator George Markstein have suggested that it would be revealed that the Village was originally McGoohan's character's idea all along, and despite his eventual escape he would remain a prisoner of his masters wherever his adventures took him. This sounds very like the premise for Man In A Suitcase, the series commissioned to replace Danger Man. McGoohan consistently denied that his character in Number Six in The Prisoner was John Drake from Danger Man, but that may have had more to do with copyright ownership of the original character. The creative falling out with Markstein left the show as pretty much McGoohan's baby, an opportunity to satirise a world he saw as materialistic and tending to impose conformity at odds with the human spirit.

While all of the storylines are off-kilter in terms of the ambience created by the setting and the central premise, some are more 'out there' than others. Certainly Living In Harmony, the 'wild west' episode, The Girl Who Was Death, a script made-over from its Danger Man origins, and the final two episodes Once Upon A Time and Fall Out, in which Number Six engages in a final confrontation with Number Two and the system behind him, are way-out to say the least. Of the others a personal favourite of mine is A. B. & C. mainly because in the party scene in Number Six's drug-induced dream, in which McGoohan, feigning drunkenness, gets to say "It's a dreamy party!"

The final episode delighted me as a relative youngster, here was the violence one so loved in James Bond, even if what led up to the machine-gun battles was frankly baffling. The shootout in the underground lair, played out against The Beatles' All You Need Is Love, is so obviously a heavily ironic take on the classic 007 finale, even down to the white-helmeted and white-booted henchmen, that Mike Meyers was able to lift the whole idea for Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, in the final clash with Dr Evil, a debt underlined with the playing of Johnny Rivers' recording of the 'Secret Agent Man' theme from the American soundtrack of Danger Man (aka: Secret Agent). Several examples of McGoohan's direction from the Fall Out episode stick in my mind. The superb sequence where Number Six exits from the lift into the underground facility to find the coat hangers swinging on their racks, the anonymous Council have just dressed in their robes and are waiting for him. Number Six is confronted by a mannequin dressed in his own clothes; I have always taken the dark suit and three-button polo shirt to be John Drake's Danger Man 'uniform'. Having escaped from the Village, Number Six, Number Two and Number 48, dance in the back of an open-sided lorry to the tune of Dem Bones freaking out a city gent driving alongside them in his car, this scene is clearly achieved using back-projection but the first time I saw it I hoped that they had filmed the scene for real on the A20. The final scenes of the episode strongly suggest that the Prisoner is still exactly that; personally part of me wondered if he should have accepted the offer to lead made to him by the President of the Council, and taken his place on the rocket that launches from the Village to who knows where.

Accepting the story as a linear narrative is fraught with complications, even the correct running order is a cause for contention between fan-groups. And it seems that the penultimate episode Once Upon A Time was one of the earliest filmed when the series might have been going in a different direction. Arguably, Fall Out is McGoohan's rejection of a whole parcel of things including genre TV, his own celebrity, as well as the demands of a conformist society. There are some fascinating theories on the philosophy behind the series, and upon Fall Out as a standalone story, on various fan websites.

The series provided excellent parts for British TV and film actors in the role of Number Two. Kenneth Griffith, Guy Doleman, Count Lippe in the Bond flick Thunderball, Leo McKern, Patrick Cargill, sneeringly brilliant, Peter Wyngarde, TV's Jason King, and others, all played the part. There were cameos for the likes of Finlay Currie, Nigel Stock, Donald Sinden and Kevin Stoney. Many of these actors were a stock company for a golden age of British television and the spy-fi boom of often ironic tongue-in-cheek adventure dramas including The Avengers, and Department S, and the less jokey The Champions. I think this kind of fantasy represents something that TV does best, and something that British television has sadly turned its back on in favour of the easily budgeted not-quite-reality of 'reality TV'. The USA seems to have picked up a torch long since cast down by British TV and produced Twin Peaks, with its own frustrating ending, Alias, Lost, Dexter, Heroes, and the like. As regards the further history of frustrating endings, The Sopranos, with its final blackout also upset viewers expecting resolution; will the makers of Lost be able to resist? Even while creating originals like Life On Mars, and pitching the idea for a US remake, elsewhere British TV is ditching originality and presenting the well-intentioned but derivative Demons, a pale Buffy rip-off, and pigeon-holing a spate of quasi-historical family-friendly adventure series like Robin Hood and Merlin for the so-called 'Doctor Who slot'. Off-the-wall TV drama that makes you think and that doesn't always supply neat explanations in the final episode seems for the time being to be a thing of the past.

Port Carlisle

Finally, having discovered a photograph of the village in Cumbria where I grew up, taken from an unusual angle, I realised that with a huge leap of imagination it bore some tenuous topographical similarities to The Prisoner's Village. And growing up where I did, I often felt isolated, paranoid, at odds with society. The sentiments expressed by Number Six in The Prisoner aren't so alien to our own lives; you don't have to be a retired spy, a famous actor or a conspiracy theorist to experience empathy with his plight.


Patrick McGoohan

McGoohan was not 007

Danger Man on DVD

Number Six and Rover
Number 6 meets the Council

The Prisoner DVD boxset

Six in the Simpsons

McGoohan in the 1990s

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The Prisoner books

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