Monday, 1 June 2009

McGoohan in my Mind - The Plot Keeps getting Thicker

The Prisoner, made by Patrick McGoohan's Production Company, Everyman, in 1966-1967 was a self-contained enigma of 17 episodes. In 1977, Patrick McGoohan was asked during the course of his first public outing as the series auteur, on Canadian TV:

Audience member:
One analogy that comes up, from literature, is with epic poetry, or with an epic. And "The Prisoner" seems to have all the qualities that belong to an epic, including the kind of structure which you ended up with: the thing that began with seven parts and ended with seventeen. There have been a few peculiar epic works which have done that sort of thing or been on the way, Spencer's "Faerie Queene" for instance, or Tennyson's "Idylls of the Kings" ..."Idylls of the King" which became a twelve-part non-epic with all the properties and qualities of an epic. I have one question based on that perhaps peculiar observation, and that is:

Unfortunately McGoohan's face was not shown by the camera as this tortuous route somehow led to a simple question about Angelo Muscat that he was able to answer. McGoohan was fond of suggesting that people should see what they wanted to see and how that was at the basis of his programme, but in later years he was quoted as wearily commenting that

"they have analysed what should never have been analysed".

He seemed the first to want to leave the programme to speak for itself in 1967 and after this brief dalliance ten years later, seemed to want to leave it alone thereafter. The Canadian resurgence of interest in 1977 coincided with one in Britain and although McGoohan condoned the British fan club by agreeing to become it's honorary president he was never to attend any of their annual or bi-annual events celebrating the show in the ensuing forty years, not unlike William Shatner and Star Trek Conventions, until 1994. However unlike Bill, Pat ultimately preferred never to go where he had not gone before.

In 1978 the existence of the Six-of-One Appreciation Society was noted in an American news report as the only other TV series other than Star Trek to have such a society. The Chicago 'paper paid a visit to the 1978 Portmeirion Convention and noted the national co-ordinator's comment that, "The growth of the computer society is worrisome. Individual freedoms could be at risk." The reporter also attended discussion groups where questions were being asked,

How do we know who to trust?

What actually is 'trust'?

Should we believe in premonition?

Do we know our inner selves?

Answers were being sought in 1977 to questions posed in 1967. With the passage of time, attitudes had changed of course and it was perhaps inevitable that questions asked out of the time that they were posed in, began to give rise to answers that may not have been imagined in 1967. Indeed some of the very questions themselves had naturally been answered in 1968 by those in television press lauding the US debut of The Prisoner, Rick du Brow's article headlined:

"McGoohan 'Prisoner' Trumpets Individual'

and it's concluding sentence,

"Television has never seen anything quite like 'The Prisoner'.. Or Mr. McGoohan, for that matter."

seems to demonstrate unequivocally that the uniqueness of this TV project was recognised within it's own time and place. The fact that the show had a full repeat re-run in both England and America, at the time of it's initial release also makes self-evident the show's success and popularity right from the very start of it's public existence. The show was also sold in all the European markets and found a niche in Japan too, an emerging important market-place, not to mention South America. Modern statements of The Prisoner somehow 'failing' on it's first release are well wide of the mark and the programme easily made a profit for the key financier, Lew Grade and his ITC company. Disinformation is however endemic in the published world of The Prisoner business, as my blogging will show over and over again, in the coming chapters.

It was only natural however that a new generation, or a generation of children become adults by 1977, would want to rediscover an enigma for themselves. In Britain the show had indeed been difficult to see since it's second summer repeat run in 1968, although repeated it certainly was in 1971 by LWT. The regional ITV channels around the UK may have used the 17 episodes as filler entertainment on a number of occasions yet to be fully pinpointed prior to the 1976 showings that led to the forming of Six-of-One. Had the programme been made by the national Channel, the BBC, then no doubt the occasional repeating of this show on a national network would have kept it pre-eminent as as national piece of culture long before. In the 1980's the show was to truly be reborn as a national cultural icon by the national broadcasts of every episode by the then new, Channel 4; broadcasts in no way uninfluenced by the burgeoning Appreciation Society and it's more influential members who ensured Channel 4 did not make the monumental error of broadcasting episodes in the wrong order......... an irony given later developments in their fandom.
Less committed fans like myself were also thrilled to be able to see a show they had the fondest of memories of, for the first time in many years. The coincidence of this showing with the availability by then of the VHS recorder, led to my first personal video library, recorded. then illegally (by the letter of British law at that time), of 16 out of the 17 episodes. I missed 'Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling' due to machine malfunction but comforted myself that as McGoohan was barely in this episode, it was the one I would miss least!

There was certainly no scarcity of showings in the USA. Following its two Networkings by CBS in 1968 and again in 1969, the programme was picked up by regional broadcasters and was never to be off the screens in North America each year, albeit never networked again. It was no doubt the continual drip-feed of this unique and quirky show that led to the Canadian College phenomenon, when McGoohan's prisoner became a subject suitable for academic qualifications, a news-story in itself and which phenomenon led to the programme becoming increasingly re-invented by individual and therefore influential fans. The re-inventions began by juggling the order of episodes, with the erroneous notion that somehow, despite the lavish care that McGoohan and his company had self-evidentially applied to their product, they had neglected to ever figure out what order the episodes were intended to be in.

The contradictions in the evidence that began to be presented by the increasingly academic interest in the series is never more illustrated than by the fact the researchers suggest it was, episode for episode, the most expensive TV show ever produced in England, up to 1967, and yet the same researchers deemed that nobody had bothered to ensure the episodes were seen in any particular order!! The brain-freeze of this fan paradox never fails to chill me. The repeated watching of the show does of course allow that some of the episodes can be jumbled a little without seriously affecting the pleasure of the show overall, but as with every allegory, pursuing your own message leads to the same dead end as any Theory of Everything.

Fondly remembered as they seem to be by that generation of the late 1970's in Canada and North America, the intricate explanations of each episode before they saw it, no doubt led to new or implanted ideas about the show, in these more recent viewers. The desire to explain the show is of course its main reason for longevity and appeal, together with its high standards of presentation and general cinematography. In later years this practice of someone *explaining* the series was continued and a well-known PBS exponent is recorded here, from 1990. This wiseacre has evidently been fully briefed by the fan club and attempts to justify placing Episode 9 as Episode 3 as well as making a number of other dubious comments. Welcome to the wacky world of fan appreciation............

Naturally, as fans battled with one another's minds to ensure their interpretation was the definitive one, their failure to agree led to their seeking someone with the answers. Thus, in 1977, Patrick McGoohan was asked to explain his secrets. His audience was clearly baffled by McGoohan's modesty and sometimes halting explanations of how 'Rover' (for instance) had first been thought of and other key elements of the series. Watching the Troyer Interview today one is haunted by the disappointed faces of the audience as their supposed auteur seemed unable to supply all the answers they expected. If he didn't tell them, how were they supposed to know? By the time the British fan-club came to the fore, they were not going to take "What do you think?" or "It was just something we made up at the time" - for an answer.

Watching the show itself may have helped them understand McGoohan's reticence,

Questions are a burden to others.

Answers a prison for oneself.

But they wanted answers and answers they would have. If McGoohan wouldn't explain, then by crikey they would find someone who would! And so the next stage began, and a publishing bean-feast would be a comfortingly profitable side-effect for some of them. One book in particular seems to have got matters off to an excellent and mostly misleading start. Moor of that, next time.


  1. I've only just started reading this blog from the beginning but I'm intrigued so fa4r.

    Just one quibble. If the BBC had made the series then there would almost certainly not have been more repeats. Actors in BBC dramas usually had contracts which allowed only limited screenings - around 2 screenings in a couple of years. The BBC never envisioned that they would repeat dramas after that. Leaving aside wiped programmes, that is why surviving BBC dramas of the period are still relatively rarely repeated - to do so requires negotiating new contracts and paying new fees to every actor who appeared, or their heirs. This can be a nightmare - very costly and time consuming.
    We are in fact lucky that Lew Grade's ITC made the series under film-like "buy out" contracts as Grade was far more interested in foreign sales than the BBC, or to be fair most of the other ITV companies.
    The Avengers (post Honor Blackman) is the only non-ITC series of the period I can think of off-hand which also had buy out contracts. That is one reason why other ITV series like Callan and Van der Valk are also rarely seen on TV.

    1. Thanks for your comments on the various Posts where you have chosen to make one. They add some super.... Information... ;-)

  2. Why did patrick mcgoohan speak haltingly

    1. He said once he adopted that staccato style when he felt the dialogue was poor, and by doing it that way, he felt it gave the script an appearance at least, of being more meaningful.

      I hope I've understood your question correctly.