I think I must have fallen in love with Patrick McGoohan the first time I saw him. It’s not hard to see why a cat-loving kid with no father might have been smitten with a cynical widowed veterinarian with a small daughter whose lives are changed by a resurrected tabby cat. Following a viewing of The Three Lives of Thomasina, my family must have known I was a fan, as the eerie Scarecrow of Romney Marsh and episodes of Secret Agent Man were added to my TV diet.
It would have been no surprise, then, that in 1968 we tuned in for the debut episode of something starring McGoohan called The Prisoner, purported to be some kind of espionage follow-up to Secret Agent Man. Within about 3 minutes we knew it was something else entirely. To a small child, this experience can only be graded as having been a total mind-fuck. The appearance of “Rover” — the big white balloon watchdog of the sinister Village — and its subsequent engulfment of someone who unwisely broke the rules was so terrifying that I think I nearly puked. Despite my agitation, the whole family turned in for just about every episode, right up to and including the last two, baffling outings which took everything viewing audiences of the 60s took for granted about TV and exploded them into psychedelic confetti. (The outrage in the UK actually forced McGoohan to move to Los Angeles.)
Years went by, and The Prisoner became a family memento. “Remember that weird show about the guy trapped in the village? What did the dwarf know about it all?” Luckily, in the ’70s, PBS started showing the entire series again, and I watched it all the way through. For a sensitive adolescent, the themes of personal freedom, rebellion and identity were even more powerful stuff — it was even better the second time through. I was very lucky to share watching it with my grandfather, and we discussed each episode afterwards, memories I still treasure about him.
McGoohan radiated angry determination to escape, fierce intelligence, and sharp efficiency when physical action was required. He was sexy but remote — unlike some other super spies, Number Six didn’t jump into bed with every hot lady he met. Number Six was not a person for whom giving in or internal struggle was natural — no wonder he broke every Number Two who showed up. In the role, McGoohan was dead fucking cool. His acting was knife sharp. No matter what he did later — from ICE STATION ZEBRA to several turns as Det. Columbo’s most cunning foe — you could never stop watching McGoohan, because he wasn’t just so good he was scary; he WAS scary. He was as enigmatic as he was charismatic.
Whenever I’m asked to name my favorite TV show, The Prisoner is always the answer. Obviously, much of that is tied up in my personal history with the show, but it’s hard to overstate its place in the history of the medium. It was the inspiration for much of the weird, challenging and imaginative that was to follow, from Twin Peaks to The X-Files to Lost and so on. It also showed that a short, finite story can be better than years of shark-jumped mediocrity. That a seemingly mid-level TV leading man could be turned loose to create, star in, write and direct such a philosophically resonant statement — one that stands up to this day — is little short of a miracle. And it was the one thing that McGoohan had in him. He would go on to direct, take guest starring roles, and star in a short-lived medical drama (Rafferty) but he had no need to try to top himself or make another statement. He’d done it right once and moved on.
In the mid ’80s, I found myself working in Santa Monica, California, and local lore had it that you would find McGoohan every afternoon at the King’s Head Tavern, knocking back the pints. For a moment, the fangirl in me had thoughts of setting up a stalking operation, but there was really no need. What answers would he give? The genius of The Prisoner is that it left us ultimately free to find our own answers.
Just a scant few days ago I linked to AMC’s online presentation of The Prisoner, and thought to myself “McGoohan is alive, isn’t he? Wonder what he’s up to.” Now, sadly, eternal rest is the answer, and the tributes are flowing.
One of the things that made McGoohan so eternally cool is that he didn’t go around dining out on The Prisoner to every convention and website around, even as widespread internerdiness caught up with the mimeo and APA era of cult obssession. He would talk about The Prisoner, but not so much that you got sick of him. And some people did get sick of him, literally. Take this from a Patrick McGoohan Interview from 1977, talking about the penultimate episode:
Well, that was very interesting that one…(which was probably my favourite earlier on, Warner. That was probably it.) That was one that was written in the 36 hour period. And Leo McKern, who was a very good friend of mine and a very fine actor I think, came in on short notice to do it, and it was mainly a two hander. The brainwashing thing, he was trying to brainwash me and in the end No. 6 turns the tables. And the dialogue was very peculiar because all it consisted of was mainly “Six, Six, Six,” and five pages of that at one time. And Leo, one lunchtime, went up to his dressing room and I went to see the rushes and I knew he was tired. I went up to the dressing room to tell him how good I thought he’d been in the rushes. And he was curled up in the fetus position on his couch there, and he says, “Go away! Go away you bastard! I don’t want to see you again.” I said, “What are you talking about?” He says, “I’ve just ordered two doctors,” he says, “and they’re comin’ over as soon as they can.” He says, “Go away.” And he had. He’d ordered two doctors and they come over that afternoon and he didn’t work for 3 days. He’s gone! He’d cracked, which was very interesting. He’d truly cracked. And so I had to use a double, the back of a guy’s head for a lot and eventually Leo did come back and we completed them and also he was in the final episode, so he forgave me for everything, but he did crack, very interesting, I thought….
What’s clear from reading about McGoohan’s later statement on the show was that he really had thought about the subtexts that people are still debating. Take this from later in the same interview:
Seventh Boy: Is No. 1 the evil side of man’s nature?
McGoohan: The greatest enemy that we have…No. 1 was depicted as an evil, governing force in this Village. So, who is this No. 1? We just see the No. 2’s, the sidekicks. Now this overriding, evil force is at its most powerful within ourselves and we have constantly to fight it, I think, and that is why I made No. 1 an image of No. 6. His other half, his alter ego.
In the interview book Cronenberg on Cronenberg, the director recalls the disaster that was the first day of shooting on Scanners, and continues: “It kept on being that difficult. Patrick McGoohan was part of the reason. He’s a brilliant actor; the voice, the charisma, the presence, the face. Phenomenal. And he was aging so well; he looked so great in that beard. But he was so angry. His self-hatred came out as anger against everybody and everything. He said to me, ‘If I didn’t drink I’d be afraid I’d kill someone.’ He looks at you that way and you just say, ‘Keep drinking.’ It’s all self-destructive, because it’s all self-hating. That’s my theory. He was also terrified. The second before we went to shoot he said, ‘I’m scared.’ I wasn’t shocked; Olivier said that he was terrified each time he had to go on stage. With Patrick, though, it was just so raw and so scary—full of anger and potent. But he was sensing the disorganization; the script wasn’t there, so he was right to worry about it. He didn’t know me. He didn’t know whether I could bring it off or not. We parted from the film not on very good terms ultimately.”
The Prisoner resonated throughout pop culture, including comics, most famously in an aborted adaptation by Jack Kirby, remembered by Charles Hatfield.
There were also Secret Agent Man comics, as learned from the above image which I stole from Val. Dave Olbrich has a look at The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, along with some comics covers. Wired has links to YouTube interviews, and a lengthy account of the Prisoner remake in the works.
As I alluded to above, McGoohan has a unique place in pop culture history. It’s hard to think of many actors who created such a single, perfect thing. (Charles Laughton and Night of the Hunter, maybe?) The symbols of the Prisoner — from the antique penny-farthing logo to Robert Farnon’s theme, the strange, piping-edged jacket and sneaker uniforms, the sinister, deadening village. And of course, the unforgettable opening sequence, from the clap of thunder through the scene of Number 6 driving in his Lotus — the same scene that ends the show — and the endlessly parodied dialogue:
“Who are you?”
“The new Number Two.”
“Who is Number One?”
“You are Number Six.”
“I am not a number — I am a free man!”
As many times as I’ve watched it, it’s still perfect. And even though every obituary for Patrick McGoohan has ended the same way, I’ll say it too, because it’s the only way to end a tribute to what this singular man gave us.
“Be seeing you.”