Tuesday, 14 July 2009

McGoohan in my Mind: "The Prisoner is just one little speck of sand in the desert" - Patrick McGoohan- 1979

Patrick McGoohan produced The Prisoner between 1966 and 1967 but he had been on television and in British movies since 1954. He is seen nowadays as very much an icon of the British Swinging Sixties. The later fans of his iconic TV series seem to have often perceived him as some child of that decade but in fact, by 1968 he was forty years old, married, with three children. This seems to have left them with a strange befuddlement in the fan-consciousness as to why, having *burst* upon the scene with his *Televisionary Masterpiece*, he seemed to have *disappeared* again. Many and varied have been their explanations for this in the years since. One of the strange things to me is how little interest they seemed to have in his past. Many convoluted tales have been constructed around their fevered imaginings of John Drake metamorphosing into their Number Six, but little attention was paid to the actual past of Patrick McGoohan, the actor. When I first came to the internet I was amazed how many essays I could find explaining aspects of two mythical secret agents, but remarkably little about the real life of a very experienced British actor. The self-declared experts amongst his fans appeared remarkably ignorant about his past. As I began to conduct my own research I discovered much of what they said was incorrect and even false. It is still going on to this day. Truth is always hostage to the writers of history I guess...... Popular history anyhow.

One of the few intelligent websites I found was the one devoted to Danger Man ( http://www.danger-man.co.uk/ ) rather than The Prisoner, and it was that website that largely pointed me in the right direction to begin to know where to start researching the professional career of Patrick McGoohan, the actor. It inspired me to create my own website for a couple of years but that fell victim to some internet randomness. However I have placed facsimiles of the pages on flickr, under the care of an expert Canadian Attorney at Law. Anyone who wishes to immerse themselves in Patrick McGoohan between 1948 and 1968 is welcome to dive in. http://www.flickr.com/photos/29487363@N02/sets/72157606700675506/
( You will need to click on an image, then click on "all sizes" to make it readable ) As you will see from that, my hobbyist interest concentrated on the British theatre career of a man who was one of 'The Golden Generation' of post-war British acting.

Anyhow, I can sense the impatient google-browser thinking what has all this to do with The Prisoner ? . Quite a lot is my answer. In 1991, a brave, but seemingly largely ignored Prisoner interviewer, ( a quote from whose erudite interview prefaces my entire blog-cabin ) , questioned McGoohan himself about influences upon him. Franz Kafka? Carl Jung? John Fowles? Hermann Hesse? McGoohan had barely heard of any of them. He'd certainly never read any of them.

This interview was held in 1991. The questions echo those of the audience attending the 1977 Warner Troyer interview referenced in my earlier blogs.

The unspoken question of the prisoner fan: "If you don't know any of these *thinkers* Mr. McGoohan, where on earth did you get your ideas from?"

Many fans seem to have concluded over the years that because he was unfamiliar with their icons that somebody else must have devised and made their favourite show. The many fan committees at their conventions eventually seem to have come up with the notion that almost anyone but McGoohan was responsible for their favourite show! How could a man who knew so little have been so clever? Many published books especially diminish his role, parcelling out the credits to script editors, scenery designers, production supervisors, even stunt men, at times. These of course are all matters I have touched on in my previous blogs so I won't bore for Britain by repeating them all here. You can find them for yourself by scrolling down the Blogs, or just take my word for it and read on.

So.... If McGoohan had never read McLuhan.... or any of these other joes-what-knows where would he have got his ideas from? Where do we draw our inspirations from? ? Our past? McGoohan's past lay in five or six years of commercial repertory theatre, and a decade of movie-making and TV work. The evidence of these influences upon him are readily apparent in 'The Prisoner' One of the most cultish of all the episodes, 'Once Upon A Time' is an evident extension by McGoohan of a 1954 theatre play (and later a 1955 movie) - The Prisoner. In 1963 this play was staged for television and he co-starred in it.

In a 1955 preview magazine this play is introduced: "No physical torture is used directly, but the Prisoner is kept ruthlessly from sleeping and in the interrogation room a bright light pours down on him relentlessly." A quote from the play has the interrogator saying, "It's your mind we want". During the text of the review, the magazine comments: "As the play progresses one feels that Miss Boland [the author] became more and more absorbed in the actual characters of the two protagonists, the Prisoner and the Interrogator, who, with the cell warder representing the disinterested common man, have the only three speaking parts. There is a deep spiritual issue here which transcends the immediate political theme, and The Prisoner, humbling himself after his former arrogance is the true victor."

I believe that at one time, an over-enthusiastic Prisoner fan published a book ( another one! ) claiming that this play was in fact the inspiration behind the entirety of McGoohan's series - an idea that plainly way overstates matters. You will find no acknowledgement of this work in any bibliographies of 'Official' prisoner books. What is remarkable is that other than the afore-mentioned book, *organised* fandom pays so little attention to this play at all whilst dwelling to an inordinate length about the vague possibilities of how a Scottish cottage influenced their favourite show. They seem completely disinterested by the fact that McGoohan had such intimate knowledge of a play that not only shares the title of their favourite series, but clearly anticipates the plot format of one of their favourite episodes! The influence of Brigit Boland's play, The Prisoner, upon Once Upon A Time is plain as the nose upon the handsome face of Number Six. Just as McGoohan noted in my title to this blog, that his show was just one grain of sand, so it is that every artist stands upon the shoulders of their personal giants, in order to see that little bit further than did the giant. Our past becomes so much part of us that it is part of us and our thoughts. So it would be for any individual.

Another episode that bears witness to the effects of Patrick McGoohan's life-experience upon the show he created and managed in 1966/67 is another of the original screenplays, 'Dance of the Dead'. The climactic act of this episode includes the bizarre and disturbing court of judgment scene. During the French Revolution there were courts created as part of Robespierre's Terror, using the Law of Prairial. This legislation decreed that "only a summary of evidence need be heard, defence counsels were to be abolished, defence witnesses need not be heard, and sentences should be simplified - either death or acquittal." Fans and viewers of the show will recall that a frequent theme of the carnival villagers' fancy dress was French. Coincidence? Fans eager to know the influence of Kafka upon the mind of McGoohan, forgot to ask him instead about the influence of his portrayal of St. Just, Robespierres's right-hand man, in the play 'Danton's Death', which McGoohan took part in, in 1959, in the same theatrical season that would see his portrayal of Brand.

Trying to peer into the mind of a man is of course a dangerous thing to attempt but in order to understand anything, it helps to know some facts about the subject. What is baffling is that there has been so little interest in knowing about this particularly interesting man. You will find him described as 'rarely interviewed' but in fact he has given dozens of interviews when he was working. You will find him described as intensely private yet he happily had published his biography in a women's magazine, in 1965, at the height of his British *celebrity*, and later gave an updated version during interviews with Barabara Pruett and the magazine, Classic Images, in 1986. But perhaps I should leave the final word to McGoohan himself:

"I think that some people do have a fondness for enigmas .......... they like something of a mystery, you know?"

No comments:

Post a Comment