Tuesday, 11 August 2009

McGoohan on My Mind: Misanthropy, Mind-Altering Substances, Panopticons, Magic and Masks,

Anthony Asquith was a distinguished British film director, dating right back to the days of Silent Movies. Asquith had worked with many of the biggest names, such as Olivier, and was known for his adaptations of original theatre drama to the big screen. The chance to work for such a director must have been an attractive idea for Patrick McGoohan and after 'Danger Man' was completed in late 1960, he embarked on a project for the famed film-man. The fact that the film was based on a story by a Swede and set in Scandinavia may have also appealed to the actor who has so recently enjoyed such acclaim in an Ibsen play. The movie was low budget but had a respectable cast, including Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers, who would soon achieve world-wide fame in 'Born Free'. At the core of the movie was a man who doubted himself, and much of the plot dealt with his unravelling because of this doubt. Set in a tight-knit fishing town, McGoohan's portrayal of the isolated and increasingly reviled Post-Office clerk in 'Two Living One Dead' is in complete contrast to his year of playing the confident and debonair John Drake. The ideas of isolation and how an individual relates to his community need little emphasising as yet another step in the psyche of the evolution of a future Number Six, albeit the number was not even a twinkle in his creator's minds-eye at that time.

Whilst Erik Berger was a shy and unambitious family man, the next part McGoohan played was an equally isolated, but entirely opposite characterisation. The loud, brash, bullying and conniving drummer that was Johnny Cousin in 'All Night Long' harked back almost as an alternate John Drake. However, where the debonair exterior of John Drake held a caring adventurer, the debonair exterior of Johnny Cousin masked a drug-pushing misanthrope; never more starkly exposed than in this final scene of the film: http://www.flickr.com/photos/11417707@N04/3790969587/

In a manner that can be seen as becoming characteristic by this time, Patrick McGoohan's next movie character was a complete contrast to both of the two preceeding roles. He played a straight-up-and-down medical doctor in Life For Ruth. As Doctor James Brown he exhibited no self-doubt or self-loathing; he was a simple man of science and compassion - and perhaps Soul..... The film was less than straightforward and was made on location in an isolated Durham village, by the then-pioneering production team of Michael Relph and Basil Dearden who had recently explored themes of Racism and Homosexuality in 'Sapphire' and 'Victim'. Around this time Patrick McGoohan also tackled an intricate and slightly bewildering character on TV. This man leads a small band of three into an isolated village. At the conclusion he threatens to slaughter the entire village in some unhinged revenge threat, against their advocacy of war. 'Serjeant Musgrave' was a less than famed theatre play by John Arden but later in the Sixties the play was seen as allegorical to the Vietnam War, but McGoohan played the eponymous serjeant for TV in 1961 before the post-Kennedy dissillusion of faraway war had set in.

In 1963 Patrick McGoohan took on the role of the Interrogator in 'The Prisoner', as discussed in one of my earlier Blogs, also for TV. Around the same time he played a more straightforward prison warden in the subtle anti-hanging movie version of the theatre play, 'The Quare Fellow'. The film was remarked upon for it's claustophobic atmosphere as the prisoners and wardens interacted against the backdrop of a never-seen condemned man - all the more striking for never being seen - a lesson in dramatic tension that McGoohan no doubt noted along with the study of men in long-term incarceration.

In 1963 the actor was spotted by Disney and employed for two adventure films the American company made in Britain. The increasing popularity of 'Danger Man' was likewise increasing the popularity of Patrick McGoohan. Many of the 39 half-hour shows were only being seen for the first time in 1962 and John Drake was becoming a huge hit with the TV public in both Britain and America, as the show was also being repeated in 1963. It would be easy to dismiss the Disney movies as kiddie-fodder, but McGoohan seemed always to have an eye for something a little more special. Thomasina had some very adult themes about the nature of death and the tussle between science and human intuition, not to mention being set in a very small isolated village in Scotland. It wouldn't be the last time Scotland and the origins of Number Six's village would be mentioned in the same sentences that are frequently referenced around the internet nowadays, in arcane fan discussions about "where The Prisoner came from"..... just as the words sublime and ridiculous often accompany each other.

Dr. Syn was very fondly remembered by Patrick McGoohan, so much so that in 2006 he was featured on the special Disney Treasure dvd release in what was to become his last issued filmed interview. In the interview he discussed a wide range of subjects although Disney only used a tiny portion of the interview, unfortunately. One key theme of Dr. Syn was the two sides of one man: A handsome vicar by day and a vicious Scarecrow Smuggler by night. Who exactly was the man behind the mask? An idea Patrick McGoohan no doubt absorbed into his busy mind, without too much self-consciousness.

So, here we have a potted history of the films and TV work Patrick McGoohan made between 1961 and 1964. Where did The Prisoner come from? was a question McGoohan was famously asked. He replied with a shrug, that it came from boredom. What it also came from of course was years of hard work allied to talent and a fertile mind that sought the obscure and the different constantly. There are many fans of the eventual TV show, who decry McGoohan's competence to have come up with as intriguing a conundrum as the show they love so much. McGoohan sometimes referred to himself as arrogant, but felt that so long as he subsumed this characteristic with a little humility, he was a tolerable man. The Prisoner cult, sustained by their mutual approval of one another abandoned all humility as they sought the *secrets* of their show. They were too arrogant to study the past of the man they claimed to admire and increasingly side-lined him in their fervour to make their show the ultimate issue of a Committee of Talents.

It is of course a truism that The Prisoner was made by a talented bunch of technicians and creative people, but there was only one man that mattered. McGoohan was their driving force and, as almost all of those interviewed by the cult conventions cheerfully recall, McGoohan was the only one who really seemed to understand what was going on half of the time. Patrick McGoohan took no *secrets* to his afterlife, in my view. His past is littered with his so-called *secrets*. All that is required is eyes to look and enough humility to pay him full respect. Why should any man explain his creation? The creator's job is to create. Let others explain and interrogate one another.

And so 1964 had come, James Bond was a huge movie success. The TV fan magazines were beginning to ask "Why do all the girls go for Danger Man?' Secret Agents were suddenly the new Cowboys - heroes for a new generation. Ralph Smart was asked by Lew Grade if he would like to bring Drake back. Smart was semi-retired but he wanted to do it. Patrick McGoohan had never once returned to something after he had finished with it.... But now he did.

He did what he had never done before and would never do again. He once remarked that he rather liked 'John Drake'. The world was about to fall in love with 'John Drake' and Patrick McGoohan was about to become what he had always decried being: a Superstar. It was 1965 and just as in 1961, the combination of Ralph Smart, Patrick McGoohan and hard work was to spawn TV Greatness. Sequels usually flop, remakes are rarely as startlingly good as the original. Danger Man/Secret Agent was to defy convention just as McGoohan defied his own acting conventions as he spent the next two years once again.... as...........

Drake, John Drake.

Moor *secrets* next time...............


  1. Danger Man's strange double incarnation is really a unique TV event. Despite the tonal changes and technical ones (Drake's accent, the move from half-hour to hourlong episodes, the influence of the TV and film spy genre) it's pretty amazing how fully formed Danger Man is in its first few episodes from that first season.

    I suppose it all comes down to the personality and acting chops of McGoohan that the 2 series are viwed as one.

    I know fans of The Prisoner who have never seen Danger Man/Secret Agent, nor Pat's film work, nor his many fantastic collaborations with Peter Falk on Columbo. I suppose the reputation of The Prisoner towers above the others.

    I came to The Prisoner first... and then expanded backwards, like discovering an album and then seeking out a band's back catalog.

  2. The Prisoner seems so *of it's time* that I guess it is natural that people think it sprang fully-formed into existence, like some kind of *Sixties Happening*. Number Six is so timeless as a taciturn hero that the viewer can easily neglect to note that the actor who played him was 40 years old with a whole 20-year career already behind him.

  3. On the subject of McGoohan's other work feeding elements, however fragmentary, into The Prisoner...

    In an Armchair Theatre play of 1961 he plays a Russian cosmonaut/doctor in a faulty spacecraft who is able to communicate with an isolated Canadian family who have a medical emergency. Especially resonant in the context of The Prisoner are the Russian control room scenes where, I don't think that it's too much of a stretch to suggest, the interactions foreshadow those between the various No. 2s and their subordinates.

    It's well worth seeing anyway as a very effective piece of one-off anthology television of a type we see sadly little of these days.