Friday, 17 July 2009

McGoohan in my Mind: Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, he walks into Aber Ia.

In my last Blog I touched on a couple of examples of how Patrick McGoohan's theatre experiences could have fed into his project direction of The Prisoner. Some influences are more obvious than others. However the vast bulk of his theatrical background lay much futher back in his career than 1959. Ten years before, in 1949, his professional acting career began and over the next three or four years he became the leading man in one of Britains' leading regional Repertory Companies. The Sheffield rep produced around 24 plays every single year and all the various plays can be seen in my hobbyist pages here:
( You will need to click on an image, then click on "all sizes" to make it readable )
After leaving Sheffield in 1952, Patrick McGoohan continued performing with other companies; by 1954 he was appearing on TV and in 1955 debuted in movies too. However most significant at that time was his debut on the London West End stage in a ground-breaking play about the British laws on homosexuality and their possible consequences within society. Browsing through the bewildering array of dramatic presentations that actors like McGoohan were exposed to in those days of commercial, rather than state-sponsored theatre gives a sense of why actors of his Golden Generation were so exceptional. The philosophies and ideas he must have absorbed in those times would equip him with the capacity to begin to create his own projects when he was ready.

In 1957 he achieved some financial security with a Film Contract with the British Hollywood of the Rank Organisation and then in 1959 after his theatrical triumph in 'Brand', he took on a challenge that would prove to be a huge influence upon the next decade of his professional lifetime. In theory at least he had the theatrical world at his feet that year, after Brand, but chose to step into the world of television. His reputation was very high however and the opening credit sequence of Danger Man that has the words, "Introducing Patrick McGoohan", was very much a sop to the hopes of Britains' ATV company that they might make a breakthrough into the American network television market. In Britain a columnist wrote of McGoohan in 1959:

"It could be that McGoohan will go down in television history as the man who combined intelligence with excitement and put an adventure series on to an adult level."

Intriguingly for the Prisonerophile, one of the key locations for the 1960 shooting schedules arranged by Ralph Smart and his production team was the quirky little resort of Portmeirion in North Wales. One of the key aspects of Danger Man was to be it's exciting international locations. Portmeirion provided Ralph Smart's kinematographers with locations that went from the obvious of Italy, to the less obvious, of China. The Italian location used in the episode 'View From the Villa' even led to a *painting* being produced as a key element of the plot of that episode.

In the episode 'The Journey Ends Halfway' John Drake is smuggled into an isolated Chinese town from underneath the canvas of a small boat. McGoohan was clearly on location as he is seen scrambling up some rocks with the estuary of Portmeirion behind him. What is especially remarkable from my blogging point of view is that I have read some accounts of the creation of The Prisoner claiming that George Markstein in fact *discovered* this location in a Sunday Supplement and suggested it to McGoohan! I have no idea how such legends have become believable enough to be written down, but such is the nature of cultism that faith is always stronger than fact and logic.

The epsiode, 'The Journey Ends Halfway' is especially notable however in the possible origins of McGoohan's village because it actually includes a couple of scenes that prefigure the sort of doublethink of the village McGoohan would later create. Like the influences of the plays I mentioned in my last blog, it is easy to imagine these experiences of making the many episodes of Danger Man sliding into the niches of a creative mind. The first interesting sequence occurs between Bert Kwuok's hotel receptionist and the undercover John Drake. The setting is a hotel in an isolated town in a totalitarian state where everyone refers to each other as Brother, rather than Comrade:

BK: Yes Brother?
JD: Good day Brother.
*man is dragged down stairs and out of the hotel by police/army behind Drake*
JD: What was that about?
BK: He had no proper documents
JD: How did they find out?
BK (looking pious): We all have our duties nowadays Brother!
JD: Yes of course, we must co-operate.

Shortly after this a young woman exits the hotel and Drake looks, and then speaks to the receptionist again:

JD: Pretty girl! Who is she?
BK: In this town it is wise not to ask too many questions.
JD: I understand. People are not always what they seem.

A later sequence of dialogue also prefigures much of this style of double-meaning that is so entrancing in The Prisoner, to be made by McGoohan ten years later. Drake has to explain himself at the medical centre to an officious medical receptionist:

MR: May I see your papers?
JD: You have to see papers to cure a shoulder?
MR: Yes.
JD: What do you do if you haven't got papers?
MR: Everyone has papers
JD: Then why do you bother looking at them?
MR: It is not good to talk about these things

Anyone looking for the sparkling and pithy origins of much of the dialogue style in 'The Prisoner' would do well to recall the lines Patrick McGoohan was delivering in this show ten years before, scripted by Ian Stuart Black. Portmeirion locations were used in several episodes of that 1960 Danger Man series. There was even a studio mock-up made of the lawns where ten years later Number Six would play chess against an old sailor. In the episode, 'Under the Lake' the Steinberger See in Switzerland has a hotel on it's banks, unambitiously named the 'See Hotel'. The villa at Portmerion became the 'See Hotel' and in this scene Drake is relaxing at a replica of a table and chair that do not look that out of place with the lawn adjacent to the old folks home in the prisoner village of a decade or so later!

Portmerion also features in the episode 'Find & Return' as a Moorish estate

whilst in 'Bury the Dead' it formed a scene in the more familiar Mediterranean setting of Sicily

At the end of the episode 'Under the Lake' there is actually a credit and a thankyou to Clough-Ellis, just as McGoohan inserted in his final Prisoner episode. The parallels of the past are quite evident and no doubt all these experiences and memories were part of the individual who later created an iconic show of his own. No man is an island, we are all the accumulation of our own village experiences.

There is much more to all this than just Portmeirion however. I have reminded you of the dialogue stylisation of ambiguity, and there is much other clear imagery within Danger Man that inevitably would have had influence the mind of the man who played John Drake with such elan, in 1960. He was already ambitious enough to ask Ralph Smart to allow him to direct an episode of Danger Man, as well as star in it. Moor of that vacation and other adventures next time.

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