Sunday, 26 July 2009

McGoohan on My Mind: “Men die every second of the day but when a secret agent dies it becomes a matter for official speculation” – John Drake

Many prisoner fans these days seem to have as much interest in Portmeirion as they do the The Prisoner itself. Much of my last two blogs have featured comment on how the use of this location in The Prisoner was no mere chance or coincidence. Patrick McGoohan's experiences of both his location shooting there and his further experience of the location being recreated in the studio, for Danger Man was a crucial factor. ‘Official’ books have gone so far as to even accept that McGoohan took his family on a holiday to Portmeirion sometime on the mid-Sixties, however those same books seem to read no special significance into this later personal interest, notwithstanding that McGoohan mentioned this holiday in more than one of his accounts about why he chose to use Portmeirion.

However, as I have pointed out, with the dialogue quotes from one or two episodes already, there were other things within the episodes of Danger Man informing the mind of the eventual Executive Producer of The Prisoner. The heading for this particular blog comes from the opening narration of a 1960 Danger Man episode and illustrates that the whole notion of how a secret agent is a prisoner of his job was rearing it’s head even as the genre was being created by Ralph Smart. Patrick McGoohan used the question of how a secret agent ceases to be a secret agent (without being dead) as a vehicle for his own contemplation of the human condition, but even in the more adventure/entertainment-oriented ‘Danger Man’, there were contemplative moments within the scripting of secret agent derring-do. The balance of ensuring he was entertaining people seemed to have been of importance to Patrick McGoohan and he frequently talking of his acting being a job, not an art. In 1960 he had taken on a fresh challenge and the making of nineteen and a half hours of television entertainment was to occupy him for about nine months.

Other episodes of the 1960 series of Danger Man include touches that offer a mirror to elements within The Prisoner and it is almost wilful not to see their influence, however subtle, upon the mind of the shows prime-mover. Even if a viewer is unwilling to accept any direct causal connection it is certainly makes it easier to see how McGoohan could have coped with the demands he placed upon himself by taking such close control of the 1967 show. I have already mentioned the five appearances of Portmeirion, one of which episodes, ‘The Journey Ends Halfway’ also contains dialogue prefiguring the style of the Prisoner village. Another episode, 'The Relaxed Informer’ concerns secrets being extracted from a woman (Ruth Mitchell) under mind-control. She is hypnotised within the confines of an isolated commune located on an island somewhere. However this odd coincidence is by far surpassed by a conversation Drake has with the woman before he figures out how her mind is being emptied under hypnosis. In an effort to establish the truth of her story Drake requires her to recount her story over and over again, whilst he types her statements, intending to compare them afterwards to see if any contradictions emerge. (one can almost imagine McGoohan's real-life typing technique)

JD: You know I am not going to give up until I get the truth Miss Mitchell
RM: I have told you the truth and I am not going to answer any more of your questions
JD: You cannot get rid of me as easily as that you know. The only way you can escape is by telling me everything.

A slightly more tenuous connection comes from the episode ‘The Trap’. In this episode a woman in a confidential position goes on holiday suddenly and John Drake is despatched to locate her. Aside from the repetition of the idea of holidays and *authorities seeking explanations* there is a sequence near the end of the episode that is quite curious. Everyone remembers the fact that Number Six is initially removed from his house in Buckingham Place by fake undertakers. Well, we all assume that - although none of us ever saw it. In ‘The Trap’, the young woman is removed from a house, drugged within a coffin, before being sped off in the hearse across the iron Curtain.

It wouldn’t be the last time suspicious undertakers are seen in Danger Man but that will have to wait for later Blogs.

The illustrative premise of the plot of A, B & C where Six attends (in his mind-eye) a party to meet the three people Number Two thinks are important is a mirror of part of the plot of a Danger Man episode once again featuring Bert Kwouk! Unlike ‘The Journey Ends Halfway’ where Bert’s role was crucial to some expository dialogue; in the episode ‘The Actor’ Bert only survives long enough to be shot dead in the opening prologue! Later in the episode however Drake attends a party where one of three people must be the traitorous agent and just as in A, B & C, McGoohan’s character has to have a conversation with each of the three in an effort to establish the identity of the culprit.

I go to the party. I talk to them a lot. I concentrate on each of them, one at a time. I say things that should alarm the guilty party and then I wait for one of them to make a move.

Within this episode there is also a quite remarkable conversation between Drake and the traitor called Al. This guy turns out to be an amenably self-centred sort with a very trendy linguistic style, but in order to first establish contact Drake sets up a situation where the undercover agent appears to prevent Al’s wallet from being stolen. This leads to the following exchange between the two men:

Al: Thanks man
JD: Worth a drink?
Al: You haven’t been here very long have you
JD: Long enough to work up a thirst
Al: Then, here’s something you ought to know. It’s strictly Number Ones-ville. Never help anyone in this town.

I mentioned in my earlier Blogs about the fact that by the time Patrick McGoohan made The Prisoner he had been a Fifties British movie-star. One of his best-known films of 1957 was called ‘Hell Drivers’. I’m sure most McGoohan fans will be aware that the entire plot premise of the film is geared around a group of itinerant lorry drivers all seeking to be the top driver on the firm and drive Truck Number One.

It would be stretching the connections perhaps to view any of this as directing the consciousness of Patrick Joseph McGoohan in 1965/66 but all of these ideas would be swirling around the head of the creative driving-force behind The Prisoner and whilst he had never heard much about Kafka, Hesse, McCluhan and all those other influences that Prisoner fans loved to chat about – by the same token none of those prisoner fans seemed to know much about the actual pertinent past influences upon the mind of the man who facilitated the creation of their televisionary masterpiece. As McGoohan put it,

When it got very close to the last episode and I hadn't written it yet. And I had to sit down this terrible day and write the last episode and I knew it wasn't going to be something out of James Bond, and in the back of my mind there was some parallel with the character Six and the No. 1

The 1960 series of Danger Man was hugely influential in many ways. In a 2006 commentary Roger Moore once remarked that after Danger Man, nothing was ever the same again. In 1961 however Patrick McGoohan left it behind him. He’d done the 39 episodes and now he wanted to make some more movies. The first one would be about a man in an isolated village who falls foul of his community and becomes an outsider.

Moor prisoner resonance’s next time. The final word to Patrick McGoohan from a 1979 interview, where he tries to explain to an uncomprehending prisoner fan about how he came up with his concept:

“The idea had been germinating in my mind for years…………..”

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