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The Prisoner


from STARLOG, October 1988


The Prisoner is 20 this year. More exactly, it was 20 years ago this past summer that American television audiences first viewed Patrick McGoohan' s controversial, 17-part fantasy series, The Prisoner. It was the show that took paranoia seriously, and in the process inspired fan clubs and debates as well as adulation from followers as diverse as Isaac Asimov and Mick Jagger. It is a spy story and an allegory, Franz Kafka blended into John Le Carre, with just a dash of H.G. Wells. The Prisoner has been called brilliant and inspired, simple-minded and old hat. No one has dared call it dull. Certainly not Patrick McGoohan, the actor who played the man-of-principle protagonist, Number Six, a secret agent who resigns his jo b and finds himself trapped in a remote, seaside hamlet known only as The Village. There, no one has names, only numbers, and the happy faces and carnival atmosphere mask a dark truth: everyone in The Village is a prisoner, kept there because they know too much or won't reveal enough.

And, explains the ruling Number Two to Number Six: "In here, you only have a certain amount of time to give us what we want before we take it."

Lies, treachery and torture are all part of life in The Village. "Nothing can be taken for granted," noted critic Hank Stine 1970. "Nothing can be trusted but the self, and paranoia is a stable adjustment." 

Unusual? Yes, but so is McGoohan, the star, executive producer and guiding force behind the series. New York-born of Irish parents, he is 60 now, but stilI looks like the man he was 20 years ago, shouting, "I am not a number! I am a free man!" in the series' prologue. The face is more lined, he wears horn-rimmed glasses, and at over six feet, seems taller than one would expect. But the eyes are still piercing blue, the large forehead is just as prominent, and the voice is as forceful as ever. His TV work is in the news once again as it has been almost continuously since its debut. Besides the endless reruns of The Prisoner on network, local and public broadcasting stations, MPI Home Video rele.ased the entire series on tape (as well as six episodes of McGoohan's earlier Secret Agent) and they broke records in their first months of sale. More than 3,000 people in 38 countries have joined Six of One, the Prisoner Appreciation Society, and Warner Books has just published The Official Prisoner Companion. And in 1987, CBS announced plans (subsequently aborted) for a new version of the show.

"It won't lay down and die," the late George Markstein, script editor for the series, noted in an interview in Dial. "It has haunted me here in the States. I switch on the television and there's the damned Prisoner."

"It's an allegory," adds McGoohan, as though that would explain its continuing popularity. "I am not sure that I can explain everything about it myself. But I was allowing instinct to carry me a certain amount of the way. I knew there were certain themes I wanted to go after." Themes like personal identity, trust, imagination, education and more keep cropping up in McGoohan's work, including his stage role in Henrik Ibsen's Brand (for which he was named "best actor" by British critics in 1959), his early film work in The Quare Fellow (1962), his later movies like Escape from Alcatraz (1980) and his Broadway debut in Pack of Lies (1985), a play dealing with betrayal.

"I don't want to make any statement," he remarks. "If I did, I would be a minister, a politician. Our first job is to entertain. Entertainment is therapy, but it can be inspiring. It can affect one's life." Passing Sentence Certainly that was part of the rationale behind his first TV series, Danger Man, which eventually became Secret Agent. The producers wanted a James Bond-type hero.

McGoohan had other ideas. "I didn't want to use excessive violence in Secret Agent," he explains, "because television at the time was certainly a guest in the house. I felt that just as one tries to behave properly as a guest, it behooves one playing on television to behave properly. Certainly we had fisticuffs, but we never had any sort of violence that would affect a child in any way or offend a grandmother." In fact, after seeing the first script for Danger Man, McGoohan wrote a long letter to the producers, Lew Grade's lTC, outlining what his character, John Drake, would and would not do. "We eventually did it without any of that rubbish in it."

Promotion for Secret Agent.

Promotion for Secret Agent.

His strong feelings led to the most unusual and fascinating secret agent to appear among the 1960s crop of Napoleon Solos, John Steeds and Simon Templars. "You never saw me fire a gun," McGoohan says proudly. And he never dallies with the. damsels. "I said to the producers, 'If I start going with a different girl in each episode, what are those kids going to think out there?' They would say, 'Secret agents do that all the time.' And I'd say, 'This secret agent won't do it.' "

McGoohan, married to former actress Joan Drummond for more than 30 years, with three daughters and grandchildren of his. own, feels Drake's morality was his strength. "When one says 'a moral hero,' for some reason, it has a sort of prissy sound to it. But yoµ can have a hero with principle who is more of a man than a hero without principle." For McGoohan, it was more important that Drake thought-rather than fought-his way out of tight spots. "I used this," he says, tapping his forehead. He had his way, through 39 half-hour episodes and 47 hour installments before taking another unusual step: cancelling his own show.

"I felt we had done enough of the Secret Agents," he notes, even though at the time the series was one of England's most successful exports and had made McGoohan the highest paid actor on English television. "I went to Lew Grade and said, 'I think we've done enough. We're starting to repeat ourselves a little bit, and I'd rather not do any more.' And he said, 'I'd like you to do another series, something in the same line, action-adventure.' I told him, 'I want to do something a little different.' 'What?' I said, 'This,' and gave him a script for the first episode of The Prisoner. " It was the combination of a number of different ideas by a number of different people. "I've always been interested in the fact that all people are prisoners," George Markstein reflected in Dial in 1978. "Some prisons are prettier than others-a movie star is the prisoner of his face, for example. I also wondered what happens to a secret agent who is in possession of sensitive knowledge and wants to retire. Everyone thinks there's an ulterior motive-you're writing a hot memoir or selling out to the other side. If he wants to quit, certain things may happen."

He may have been Number Six In The Village, but McGoohan was Number One on the set-and Just as mysterious. As both Paddy Fitz and Joseph Serf, he contributed extra episodes. Markstein, who had been a script editor on Secret Agent and a former intelligerice man himself, huddled with McGoohan, who had his own ideas about what he wanted to put forward in the new program. "I had always had these obsessions in the back of my mind for man in isolation, fighting against bureaucracy, brainwashing and numbers," McGoohan notes. The "Green Dome," No. 2's residence in The Village, aka Portmeirion, Wales.

The "Green Dome," No. 2's residence in The Village, aka Portmeirion, Wales.

For a setting, the actor had selected Portmeirion, a Welsh resort town four-and-ahalf hours from London that he visited in 1960 while shooting an episode of Danger Man. "We actually spent three hours in this vilIage . because we needed something that looked Italianate," McGoohan recalls. Built by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis in the 1930s, Portmeirion is a hodgepodge of architectural styles, with fairy tale-like buildings and grounds. It had been frequented by George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill, among others, and McGoohan and Markstein both felt it would be the perfect spot for their story.

"It was ideal for a disorientation operation like The Village," noted Markstein in Dial. "The architecture is completely crazy." Lew Grade gave the go-ahead. Besides Markstein, McGoohan' employed most of the production people from Secret Agent, including David Tomblin, who served as producer.

"He was a first assistant [director] all throughout the Danger Man/Secret Agent thing," says McGoohan. "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 [Everyman Films, founded in 1960, with Tomblin] that produced it. I needed someone I could utterly rely on." Serving Time To say he was involved is an understatement, however, since McGoohan had his finger in everything, from casting and (re)writing to editing, directing and even arranging the musical score. He directed three episodes under his own name, and did a couple under pseudonyms (Paddy Fitz and Joseph Serf), but all the shows bore his undeniable stamp and dealt with his favorite themes, from identity ("The Schizoid Man") and trust ("Checkmate") to elections ("Free for All") and education ("The General").

In "The General," the Prisoner opposes a brainwashing system known as "Speedlearn" that endows its users with a university-level degree in JO minutes. You might know the facts and figures, argues Number Six, but you really know nothing. You are one of many, a "row of educated cabbages."

"The right sort of education enables one to think original thoughts," McGoohan says. "There are people who know something about every subject under the sun, but they are just a reference library. Learning too much stuff, that is closing up your mind. You'll find that all the great inventors- Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell-I can't think of one who was highly educated. The explorations of their minds weren't surrounded by too much education. The mind is set free. The innate power of creation was there."

A Prisoner postcard.A Prisoner postcard from the 1990s.

During the creation of The Prisoner, the actor was stretched very thin. "He was in a state of exhaustion," Norma West, an actress in "Dance of the Dead," observed to Six of One, the Prisoner club. "He never went home-he slept in his dressing room and hardly ate. He was a driven man in the end." So were the cast members. Leo McKern, who played Number Two in three episodes, had a near breakdown during the intense, one-on-one scenes he did with McGoohan in "Once Upon a Time." Vincent Tilsey, a scriptwriter for the series, recalls bitter battles between Markstein and McGoohan over scripts. "[McGoohan is] an egocentric-he has a terrific amount of push. With someone as sensitive as Markstein around, it was inevitable they would argue. I can't think how they got together in the first place." (Markstein, incidentally, appears in the opening credits, as the man behind the desk to whom McGoohan angrily presents his resignation.) "There were personality clashes within the team," notes Larry Hall, a founding member of Six of One. "Markstein wanted a very straightforward action-adventure series. It was McGoohan who brought in things like the enormous balloons which chase people and smother them to death, and penny-farthing bicycles, and the general look of the series. I think he and Markstein were at each others' throats towards the end, and in fact, Markstein left the series."

Other problems arose. Rover, for instance, the surreal guardian of the VilIage, was originally a modified car that was meant to run on land and water. Although a great deal of money had been spent, it sank to the ocean bottom on its first time out. A quick improvisation produced one of the series' more memorable trademarks: the production manager hurried to a nearby air force base and purchased large weather balloons to play the guardians of The VilIage's gate. Thousands were ultimately used. Production had begun in September 1966 with Don Chaffey shot the first four episodes "Arrival," "Free for All," "Dance of the Dead" and "Checkmate," and part of the fifth, "Chimes of Big Ben," on location. "I was involved with all the early shooting," Chaffey reported in a 1984 British documentary on the series. "In fact, I was the only director at Portmeirion. I shot up there for five episodes, then came to the studios and shot the remainder of those episodes, and also shot a lot of material that could be used by other directors afterwards."

Dozens of local residents-farmers, schoolteachers, even a sea captain-were paid 50 shillings a day as extras, yet no' one outside of McGoohan and his closest associates seemed to know what it was all about. "I do remember that the atmosphere was quite extraordinary," actress Norma West told Six of One. "We didn't realize it was going to be so successful, but we did realize what a different feel it had to it. It was very mysterious, and you began to feel a little strange yourself." When the show premiered in Britain in 1967, it was like nothing ever screened before, and the pressure began mounting on McGoohan and company to bring the episodes in more quickly and more cheaply. The Prisoner was the most expensive program on British TV at the time and the crew was taking up to six weeks per episode. McGoohan claims "he had only wanted [to do] seven [episodes]. Today, it would be a mini-series, ideally. But in those days, they didn't have mini-series. Then, Lew Grade sold it to CBS and he said, 'Listen, I've sold it, but they would like more.' I told him, 'I don't think we can sustain more than seven because it is a bit tenuous. You spend too long with it and you can ruin it.' " Grade wanted 26, but McGoohan compromised at 17, "and that's stretching it," he notes. Roger Langley, in his The Making of The Prisoner, reports, however, that 30 episodes were planned all along, and that Grade'pulled the plug after the sixteenth, "Once Upon a Time," because the series was running way over budget and behind schedule. One episode, "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling," was even shot without McGoohan because he was in America filming lee Station Zebra (1968), while "The Girl Who Was Death" and "Living in Harmony" were plotted and scripted very quickly, hardly utilizing The Village at all.The Prisoner runs for office in "Free for All," an early episode.

The Prisoner runs for office in "Free for All," an early episode.

The last installment, "Fall Out," was written in 48 hours in 1968 and completed only two weeks before broadcast. McGoohan, who wrote and directed it, was so pressed that he let a major speech be written by the actor who delivered it, Kenneth Griffith. The show was widely attacked for its enigmatic conclusion, which did not clearly answer any of the mysteries the series had posed.

"It would have been easy for me to tie that thing up and give it a James Bond end," observes McGoohan. "There was a riot in England when they saw the last episode, because they expected when the Number One guy was to be revealed, he would be one of those James Bond heavies with the shaven head and the gold or steel teeth. They were outraged because it was an allegory."

Getting Parole

The response in America was equally heated, although everyone agreed on one point: McGoohan's hero was unique because he was a failure. Michael Dann, the programmer who bought the show for CBS, observed at the time: "From a production point-of-view, I thought The Prisoner was the most extraordinary film I had ever seen. It has style, taste, quality, and it's quite sophisticated. But I told [McGoohan] that no matter how brilliant the production, the public likes to identify with a winner. He listened to me-':"'he gave me a very understanding ear-but he was dedicated to his concept and I didn't win my point."

Others, however, found Number Six's failure to escape The VilIage a plus. "What is so noble about success?" asked Isaac Asimov in a humorous analysis in 1968. "How many people can be successful? .. We can't all succeed, but we can all fail." The series also drew heat because of its unusual messages.

In "Living in Harmony," for instance, the Prisoner finds himself a former sheriff in the American West and refuses to wear a gun, certainly a controversial stance in 1968 America with rioting in the streets over the Vietnam War. CBS did not broadcast the episode. Yet its predictions of an alienated, dehumanized society were eerily on-target as America headed into the Richard Nixon/ Watergate era.

Noted Markstein in Dial, "What is worrying is that we now accept things that once sent shivers up and down our spines on The Prisoner. Closed circuit surveilIance is accepted. So is having a number; every time you want to buy something, you have to ask a computer if it's OK." The Prisoner following has grown, as well. Stewart Niemeier, a college professor who taught a class analyzing the series, has called The Prisoner "television's first genuine work of art," although others do not agree. "I am not sure that the whole series has the discipline that is the basic necessity of a work of art," Anthony Skene, a Prisoner writer, reflected in the Six of One Magazine.

Added series writer Vincent Tilsey in the ' same forum: "In the few episodes I saw, Number Six was incorruptible. He was perfect-but that is just the sort of man who cracks up. . .. A television audience might well prefer a perfect man, but, for me, The Prisoner falls short of a work of art by having this lifeless figure." Still, Niemeier calls Number Six "a symbol of high values. He is capable of comprehending the mysteries that surround him. Each segment attacks Number Six's integrity and completeness and he is capable of defeating these attacks." McGoohan in 1984.

McGoohan in 1984.

And McGoohan? After The Prisoner, he went to America, starred in films, won an Emmy for a Columbo appearance, and starred in a short-lived medical show, Rafferty, In 1985, when he appeared in Pack of Lies, he admitted he was writing a sort-of sequel to The Prisoner "related to the theme of how one can become a prisoner of violent circumstances and bureaucracy. It's a very distant extension [of the series, set] 200 years in the future."

More recently, however, various TV producers have discussed ideas for a new Prisoner. CBS commissioned a pilot script from Roderick (Otherworld) Taylor, to be produced by Lelan Rogers of the Kenny Rogers Organization. "Rogers was given the OK to produce the pilot," notes Bruce Clark, the Pennsylvania-based American coordinator for Six of One. "But if a series resulted, that would be run by ITC [the copyright holder]. It was a one-way street. He took all the risks, stuck his neck out, and if it was popular, they would take it away from him. As far as McGoohan was concerned, I don't think there were any plans to include him."

The project subsequently fell through, although the script exists. An even stranger story surfaced in a British magazine, which reported that a group of European TV companies were being asked to back a pilot episode for a 12~part series based on The Prisoner. The proposed show would shift the locale from The Village to The City, and would follow the adventures of Number Six's son. Although ITC denied that report, it is typical of the kind of mystery and debate that has surrounded The Prisoner on screen and off since the moment of its birth.

All of which does not displease the man behind it. "There is a game you can play with friends," says Patrick McGoohan. "In it, you say something deliberately outrageous, like, 'Travel broadens the mind? What a lot of garbage.' Then, that lets him loose and he says, 'Now wait a minute, I'll tell you where I went and learned something that I couldn't have learned anywhere else on Earth.' This guy makes his point, and then, you have a premise for debate. With The Prisoner, each person would look at it and, I hope, have a different interpretation of what it is supposed to be about. That's the intention: to be left hanging somewhat. As long as they looked at it, and thought about it, and argued about it-well, that was the whole concept."