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Patrick McGoohan Q & A

In 1988, the magazine Top Secret asked me if it could publish an edited transcript of my 1984 interview with Patrick McGoohan for its premiere issue. I agreed, and here's what it looked like:

McGoohan, In His Own Words

By Tom Soter

from TOP SECRET December 1988

You've called your series family shows. What does that mean? "One of the reasons I didn't want to use excessive violence in Secret Agent or in The Prisoner was because television at that time was certainly a guest in the house. I felt that just as one tries to behave properly as a guest in someone's house, it behooves one in playing on television to behave with a certain amount of - certainly we had fisticuffs and fights in Secret Agent, but we never had any sort of violence that would affect a child in any way or offend grandmother. We just tried to get the stories. I think there was a fairly good standard of story. We did the same kind of thing with The Prisoner. It's more obscure. It's an allegorical piece."

How did The Prisoner come about?

"I was doing Secret Agent, which in England was called Danger Man, for Lew Grade, now Lord Grade, and I thought we had done enough of the Secret Agents. I went to Lew Grade and said, 'I think we've done enough. We are starting to repeat ourselves a little bit and I'd rather not do anymore.' And he said, 'I'd like you to do another series. Something in the same line, action-adventure.' I said, 'I don't want to do anything quite like that. I want to do something a little different.' And so he said, 'What?' I said, 'This.' And I had my briefcase and I pulled out a script that I had prepared of The Prisoner's first episode. It wasn't entirely complete, only 70 pages, plus an exposition giving what the background, but it had the concept and all that sort of thing.

"He said, 'Well, you know I can't read,' one of his jokes, 'Tell me about it.' So I talked about it. This was at six o'clock on a Saturday morning at his office in London where I always used to see him. He used to go to his office at six and I had to get up early anyhow. So I talked for 15 minutes or so and he walked up and down in his office puffing on his Winston Churchill cigar, which he always smokes, and there was a pause. And I thought, 'What is he going to say?' He said, 'You know something, it's so crazy, it might work. When can· we start? How much will it cost? When will you deliver?' I had a budget and a schedule ready. We just shook hands and he said, 'Go.' And I went and did it.'

Just like that?

"Yes, and he never bothered me. He left me completely alone. I used the same crew that I had on Secret Agent. They were waiting for a phone call from me. So I said, 'Okay, fellas, you're still in business.' And that's what happened. I went out and called my best buddy, who worked all the way through the Secret Agent thing. We started with the same crew."

Who is your 'best buddy?'

"David Tomblin." He was the producer. "He was the first assistant all through the Danger Man/Secret Agent. We became very close friends, and I needed someone because I was so heavily involved in writing scripts, directing, acting, and of course it was my company that produced it. I needed someone I could utterly rely on, so I asked him if he could be something that would be called the "line producer" in the movie industry. So he was the line producer. "Then I had a marvelous production manager who was also a production manager for Secret Agent. Because I had two guys there I knew I didn't have to worry about minor details, they'd be taken care of. There was no committee to deal with. I don't now where you could get that now. Because if there are any decisions, there are committees, committees everywhere these days.

"If there was a decision to be made, either David or Bernard Williams, the production manager, would come on the set where I'd be working and in the break will say, 'Listen, with regards to the next show ... ' They might be talking about sets or they might be talking about costumes. And they say, 'We've got three options, A, B or C. Which one do you want?' And I'd say, 'B. You think that's the right one or not? If it wasn't, 'Well, how about A?' And we'd discuss A. Within five minutes, we'd reached a decision on A, B or C. And they went off and did it. That was the committee meeting. That's all we ever had. That's how everything was done."

Did you plan to do 17 episodes? "I had only wanted seven. Today it would be a mini-series, ideally. In those days they didn't have mini-series. Then Lew Grade sold it to CBS and he asked me to come in one of the Saturday mornings and he said, 'Listen, I've sold it, but they'd like more. And I-said, 'I don't think we can sustain more than seven because it is very, y'know, far out is not the word, but it was a bit tenuous, by its very nature. He said, 'We'd like to do 26,' which was sort of a round number in those days. You'd have 13, 26,39. I said, 'ldon't know. Call me Monday morning.'

"I went off and met with David [Tomblin] and we worked. We thought and talked the things over the weekend and cooked up another 10 story lines. Just ideas, two or three lines each. I called him and said, 'We can get another 10 for you, I reckon, by stretching it. Then I regard most of it as padding.' Then we had to try to not make them padding, try and make them true episodes. And so we got the writers working on them. And that's what we did."

Were you satisfied with the other episodes?

"Some of them weren't too bad."

There were some unusual ones, like "The Girl Who Was Death."

"That's correct, you caught on."

And "Living in Harmony."

"You got it, right on the button. Those were the difficulties we had. It is not everybody that noticed what you notice. You are right on the button. Congratulations."

The Village is in Wales, isn't it?

"Yes. A place called Portmerion in North Wales."

How did you find it?

"I went there when we were shooting some locations for the first series, Danger Man, and we actually spent three hours in this village because we needed something that looked Italian. I remember I did a lot of driving around in an Aston Martin and then walking around. I said, 'Has this ever been used in the movies?' The answer was no and I said to myself, 'I am going to stick it in the back of my mind, maybe one day .. .' "So then we had a vacation about a year later and I took my family there. While we were there I wandered around. [ got to know it like the back of my hand. I always had obsessions in the back of my mind for man in isolation, fight against bureaucracy, brainwashing, numbering, and all this sort of stuff. And I put the two together. That's how it evolved."

Many have said that the last Prisoner was outrageous.

"I intended it to be. The intention was to leave people hanging somewhat and to leave people to say, 'Well, maybe this was intended.' But as long as they looked at it, thought about it and argued about it, that was the whole concept. It was easy for me to tie that thing up and give it a James Bond ending. There was a riot in England when they saw the last episode. They expected when the Number One guy was to be revealed, he'd be one of those James Bond heavies with the shaven head and the gold or steel teeth. They were outraged."

Instead he had a gorilla mask.

"Yeah, all that nonsense. Because it's an allegory. And you-as much as anyone I've spoken to-understands what, by spotting those episodes and saying what you've said, you obviously have a pretty good idea of what it was intended to be."

You once said that Drake in Secret Agent should be a moral hero. Why?

"You see, this is the thing-when one says a 'moral hero' for some reason it has a rather prissy sound to it, which it isn't actually intended. You can have a hero with principle who is more of a man than a hero without principle. You see it was difficult for them because secret agents don't have much principle. They are not allowed to. James Bond has no principles whatsoever. So it was difficult when something came up in the storyI'd say, 'He wouldn't do that.' And they'd say, 'Secret agents do that all the time.' This secret agent won't do it. A Prisoner postcard."I never carried a gun, ever. You never saw me fire a gun. I outwitted them with this (Taps his head). I said, 'I won't do the series if we're going to have anything of that sort.' The very first script I read-which I didn't do-had a guy lying on a bed and it had a girl who was some sort of a Russian agent. He says, 'Now what we're going to do is find that safe and conquer the combination.' He reached up to the picture-this was all in the script though we didn't do it and lowers the picture. The safe's behind it. He rolls over on top of her and says, 'I can't quite reach the combination.'

"I saw this and had to make it very clear. This is the first episode of the first ever Danger Man. I sat down and I wrote a letter to them sort of saying, 'This ain't it.' They had to re-think it a bit and then we did it without any of that rubbish. "I mean, let James Bond do that. I don't want to. This was television, in film it would be different. My whole point is that if it were today it wouldn't matter. The infant, the seven, eight-year-old child knows how to work those things and they can switch them to see anything. You see X-rated stuff in your living room.

"That's how it happened. I don't think it made Drake a less interesting character because he didn't carry a gun or because he did not roll into bed with every girl he clapped eyes on. If that's being moral, that's the way it had to be." What scares you the most? You said in a recent interview that doing the play, Pack of Lies, scares you. "Well, you've only got to look at the movie My Favorite Year. That's what it's about. Because there are no retakes. You're out there and you're exposed, which I think is good. It's a good challenge and that's scary. Twenty-five years is a long time to be away from this particular medium and it's a different technique. One tries to feel one's way back into it." Is there some role that scares you?

"You mean a challenging role that I'd like to do or that scares me?" Yes. When you may say, 'I don't know if I can handle that.' Do you ever say that? "The only roles I say that to are bad ones. And what roles? King Lear? I may have a stab at King Lear in the near future. I don't know. It doesn't scare me too much. I only think Shakespeare's been done too much. I had my time in -Shakespeare. I've done all that for now. At a future time it may come up again."

People know you from Secret Agent and The Prisoner. In the Broadway play, Pack of Lies, you're once again playing a spy. Have you ever felt trapped by the roles you play?

"I never thought of it like that. I think it's totally disassociated from Secret Agent. The character in Pack of Lies is a civil servant, which is quite different. He doesn't go out on assignments to Tel Aviv or Istanbul. He's the guy at home there in London. He works a lot of the time, I imagine"out. It's not really related to the Secret Agent chap at all. He's probably a very conservative chap. He's based on an actual character, and I would guess that he's retired now, somewhere up in the country. And he probably reads the London Timesev.ery day and might have a few investments in the Financial Times. He probably putters around doing a bit of gardening. He is probably a very conservative chap, dressed in tweeds." McGoohan in 1984.McGoohan in 1984.

He is very different from Secret Agent's John Drake.

"That's my point. Where do secret agents go when they are finished? Not like that. They don't go that way. Most of them end psychotic messes. It's a very strange occupation. Most of them don't look like Sean Connery. Most of them look like someone you might be passing down the street. You won't look twice."

Sort of like Harry Palmer. Actually, most of the Secret Agents have the quality of the film The Ipcress File - that gritty realism.

"Yeah, that may be."

Did you know any spies?

"No, I stay well away from them. The only spies I know are in the movie industry. There are a lot in that...lots."