Saturday, 20 March 2010

McGoohan and the Rehearsed Mind from Moby Dick: It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me.

What is it that in the Albino man so peculiarly repels and often shocks the eye, as that sometimes he is loathed by his own kith and kin! It is that whiteness which invests him, a thing expressed by the name he bears. The Albino is as well made as other men- has no substantive deformity- and yet this mere aspect of all-pervading whiteness makes him more strangely hideous than the ugliest abortion. Why should this be so? - Herman Melvillle - Chapter 42 - Moby Dick

In my last Blog I mentioned the observations of the first academic *students* of The Prisoner and their bemusement about how so much of the series seemed to have occurred *by accident* or *by chance*. The story of the genesis of Rover seemed so absurd to the Cult Society that arose in Britain, that they declined to believe the story McGoohan told. However the coincidences of Rover are both mundane and elucidatory in equal measure. Perhaps most intriguing is the fact that the original plan was to have a domed wheeled machine (British fans for some years maintained this machine never existed and was just another tall tale by McGoohan). The drift from an egg-shaped machine to an amorphous egg that in turn lent itself to a mimickry of the bubbles from a then very fashionable lava-lamp is a progression that happened by chance, yet on the other hand it is easy to see the *train of thought* by imaginative minds. The allegorical ideas McGoohan was keen to employ are in some form perhaps first demonstrated by this happenstance. Was he also carrying the notions of Moby Dick's baffling chapter, "The Whiteness of the Whale", from which my prefacing quote stems ? These comments by a fellow of the Blogosphere might strike a coincidental chord in anyone who has read some analyses of the nature of Rover, from The Prisoner :
If you ever read Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick for a class and want to make your teacher very, very angry, try to steer every conversation around to the “meaning” of the white whale itself. Your teacher won’t appreciate it, but you’ll just be following the early trends of Melville critics, for whom the whale absolutely must have represented some huge secret to the meaning of life. Is it God? Evil? Purity? Humanity? Sin? Sexuality? You name it, and someone’s proffered it as the secret meaning of the novel.

Mere coincidence? The story-book from The Girl Who was Death has another....

Anyhow, the mechanical Rover was seemingly abandoned by the owner of Everyman without a second glance - the *new* Rover gave him far more allegorical scope and he grasped the chance. Many years later Patrick McGoohan would explain to an interviewer:
I don't know how to plan. For The Prisoner, for example.....When we discussed a design, I told him what I had in mind and he translated it onto paper.......... We understood each other marvellously. And that's the best way to work. If there's enthusiasm and the team feels it's being directed by someone who knows what he wants, then all that enthusiasm goes into good work.

At least one memoir from one of the colleagues of McGoohan's recalls McGoohan being enamoured of the book The Outsider, by Albert Camus. However, McGoohan himself, when questioned about books such as The Glass Bead Game responded that he didn't read "that sort of stuff". Is it mere coincidence that a book called The Outsider by Colin Wilson - classed as one of the original Angry Young Men of 1950's British Theatre - had been a best-selling book in England, and was something of a potted biographical study about the "men in isolation" throughout history? McGoohan did admit to liking biographies. Was the title on the spine of a book misunderstood by this coincidence of titles? If you have never heard of this other Outsider, one of my earlier blogs deals with it here:

The Glass Bead Game is the source of another cult myth. Prisoner writers have claimed that the *hero* of this book was named Joesph Serf, but in fact he wasn't. The character was actually named Josef Knecht. They often just make stuff up.

The name Joseph Serf is evidently a play on the self-mockery of McGoohan himself. Growing up as the eldest brother of several younger sisters one can imagine the adolescent sighing wearily to his mother (who he remarked liked to call him Patrick-Joseph), "It's okay Ma, Joe Serf will do it...", when yet another heavy chore needed to be done by one of the children.

Another coincidence has become muddled in the interpretations of John Drake transmogrifying into Number Six. In America, the title-song famously reads:
Secret Agent Man.
Secret Agent Man.
They've given you a number.
And taken away your name.

Some observers have since wondered if this ditty even was part of the inspiration for McGoohan's later use of the idea of a man with no name. It's quite possible this coincidence fed into his train of thought - he was certainly aware of the song, as recorded in the article about he and Peter Falk from 1965, in my previous Blog to this one.

So why did PF Sloan write such a line for Johnny Rivers to sing? Another coincidence might explain it. In 1965, when the hour-long adventures of John Drake were sold to CBS, the pilot episode was to be Battle of the Cameras. It would make sense that in order to help Sloan to figure out a theme-song, CBS would give him a preview of the show itself to watch, to get a sense of the style and characters. In the opening scene of this US debut episode an agent is introduced to his superior and identifies himself as Agent 1056. One can imagine this numeralisation adding to the resonances already of Agent 007 and sticking in the song-writers mind - the agents in Danger Man were normally spoken of by name, so this is a striking coincidence, and an interesting example of how effect and cause can sometimes be very difficult to unravel. Was the number 7 also deliberately made absent in The Prisoner by McGoohan as some small injoke about the most famous secret agent's number? It made it ironic that Number Six drove a Lotus 7 of course, too.

Was it mere coincidence that the first character Number Six speaks to in the village was Ralph Smart's sister, Patsy? I can imagine the blog reader is beginning to find all these questions are a burden, but perhaps by asking the questions I also supply an occasional answer that makes more sense than the cult stories about McGoohan, Royalties and the Smarts.

One of the principal cult leaders released a careerography of Patrick McGoohan a year or two ago. He touches here and there on some of the contested elements of the genesis of The Prisoner. Privy to the unpublished but widely whispered sayings of George Markstein, this writer [sic] quotes the Script Editor on page 110: "I decided to call him Number Six because it's high enough to make him important and low enough for him to get pushed around" A reasonable enough comment, and possibly one I could have made up myself, but from the man who claimed to have researched a mysterious Scottish location from WW2, it seems curiously bland and inconsequential in view of recently published WW2 history. "One answer was to be found at the eighteenth century Inverlair Lodge, nicknamed 'Number 6 Special Workshop School' in Scotland"

It seems curious that if Markstein had indeed secretly researched Inverlair, as he claimed many years later, that he had not noticed the curious coincidence of the number allocated to the prisoner himself and the name of the establishment. It is of course my contention that Markstein made these decade-later post-hoc claims merely to accumulate kudos amongst gullible prisoner fans, who applied very little, if any, study to the facts behind his stories. I had to grin at another passage on that same page where that writer writes: "[Markstein] insisted that he came up with the concept of The Prisoner at 6.21pm one evening, while travelling on a London train between Waterloo and Shepperton Studios." No researcher can claim to be able to read the mind of a man but like the fictional Sherlock Holmes, a mere browsing of Bradshaws would reveal that as George Markstein lived in Bayswater, why would he be travelling from Waterloo ? Perhaps simple ABC provides the answer: B=Shepperton, C=Bayswater and A=Waterloo. I daresay sooner or later we might need a D.

You may think I'm making a bit of a conspiracy here. Why should a man not have a reason to travel from Waterloo to Shepperton one day, instead of from his home in Bayswater? An earlier quote from the mid-1980's Prisoner article, 'Inside Out" however carries a curiously coincident resonance: "George Markstein first heard about the project's acceptance on the railway journey between Shepperton to Waterloo" so there is certainly a pattern in the story-telling, if not the route logic. My next Blog will be about Inverlair because this establishment is often quoted nowadays in references to the origins of The Prisoner, but it really does seem to have become something of a Scottish red Herring.

The mysteries of the origins of Number Six and the coincidences thereof could even go back to Patrick McGoohan's schooldays. The careerography quoted above mentions that the young McGoohan joined the wartime ATC at Ratcliffe Aerodrome, which was next-door to the school. Remarkably, however it failed to notice the curious coincidence that: ....Ratcliffe started a new career as No 6 Ferry Pool for the ATA........

Enough already !! I can feel my blog readers head spinning with the happenstance of numbers. I will return to the theme of how things cannot always be purely coincidental however, in my next Blog, but in the meanwhile it might be worth mulling over the notion that, "There are no coincidences Delia, only the illusion of coincidence.” and the coincidence that the line comes from a movie called, V for Vendetta.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Mcgoohan: It's all in the Mind: from what you've been saying so far, they all seem to have been accidents. And it's, you know, incredibly lucky.

Ten years after The Prisoner had been first shown, Patrick McGoohan was interviewed in Canada, where his old show had prompted an academic study to be made of it by TV Ontario, designed for courses in Broadcasting - perhaps Media Studies, as we would now call it. McGoohan was no doubt billed as the man with all the answers, but it was clear his audience found his answers infuriatingly vague. They were of course pursuing their academic study and as he was the named creative force they had read about, then they seemed to expect him to also be their teacher. Instead, at times he seemed to tease rather than teach, prompting this exchange:

Boy: What interested me was the style in which it was done and the whimsy and the hundreds of little touches, but from what you've been saying so far, they all seem to have been accidents. You know, the white balloon was a accident and you happened upon the Village...
McGoohan: Oh, yeah...
Boy: And it's, you know, incredibly lucky.
McGoohan: Yeah, but, no, no, no...There were these pages, don't forget, at the very beginning, which laid out the whole concept; these forty-odd pages laid out the whole concept. That was no accident.
Boy: No, but the little touches...
McGoohan: Those things come anyway.
Boy: But I haven't seen them come very often in any other series.
McGoohan: But they come because you're looking for them, you see. I was fortunate to have two or three creative people working with me, like my friend that I said saw the meteorological balloon. And wherever one could find these little touches, one put them in. But the design of the "Prisoner" thing, that was all clearly laid out from the outset.
Boy: And the style of the way...
McGoohan: And the style was also clearly laid out and the designs of the sets, those were all clearly laid out from the inception of it. There was no accident in that area, you know, the blazers, and the numbers and all that stuff, and the stupid little bicycles and all that.

He also did little to ingratiate himself with his putative fans with such comments as: "stupid little bicycles" !

The more one learns about The Prisoner the more one is drawn to realise that it was very much a flow of his own consciousness. A constant refrain from interviewed cast and crew over the decades since is the comment to the effect that "nobody knew what was going on!" and even some who added that they didn't think McGoohan knew what it was all about either. In my earlier blogs I have explained some of the possible backgrounds to how the show came to be made in the way that it was. However the role of coincidence and chance should not be under-estimated. I was reminded of this when I came across this newspaper-clipping from 1965.

Newspapers often get things wrong and in 1965 the journalist felt that Patrick McGoohan and Peter Falk would not make good bookends...... well, forty years later we know the truth about that particular conundrum:

This article, from a newspaper dating from December 1965 coincidentally also tells another truth, but a truth that has been largely dismissed by most *Official* Prisoner writers over the years of analysis since:

McGoohan's future plans include "four feature pictures in hand and another TV series. I won't be in it, but produce it instead"

To read most *Official* accounts of the planning and making of The Prisoner, the reader may conclude that Patrick McGoohan resigned *on a whim* from Danger Man one day and lurched desperately into another TV show that he hoped would continue for several seasons. McGoohan himself contradicted this view in its entirety in almost every interview he gave over the ensuing decades. However any self-respecting cultist must have a conspiracy to pursue and so his protestations largely fell on deafened ears within the cult of The Prisoner. Not that he could care less. As he remarked laughingly to his French Prisonographers in 1990,

"I had the chance to do something nutty so I did"

National pride is also invoked amongst many of the opinionated explanations of The Prisoner and its genesis, production and conclusion. British fans largely discount the influence of the American market and yet it is clear from this clipping that the American TV market was instrumental in the ending of Danger Man/Secret Agent:

The continuation of our series is really very dependent on the American market," said McGoohan, "We sold CBS 22 episodes and would like to sell the network 22 more."

But by 1966, the Secret Agent craze had led to home-grown American series' and the adventures of John Drake had in truth run their course anyhow - casual viewing of the final two episodes made (in colour) reveal an increasing paucity of ideas and ITC production values cruelly exposed by colour film. McGoohan used his commercial muscle to launch something new. He was deternmined that not only would his new show be full of fresh ideas but also that they would be made in a style and manner that colour film would enhance, rather than betray.

Danger Man suffered the Blow of Oblivion and a new hero was born from the mind of the old one. Boredom was how it started, Patrick McGoohan once said. Watching the death throes of John Drake, one can see what he meant. Watching the power and vehemence Number Six now possessed as he stalked angrily along his resignation corridor, one can see how Patrick McGoohan's next, and last, British TV show became his creative tour-de-force and why he was determined that his new show would not scrape the bottom of the barrel, but remain 17 dollops of TV Cream. He was a very practical professional too. Whilst he may have planned to only produce his new series, back in December 1965, by April of 1966 he recognised that only by adding his personal and considerable Box-Office appeal to the show could he even get Lew Grade to listen to him explain his new concept. Even the most principled men must compromise sometimes. Few of us can be wholly Number One.

I thought he concept of the thing would sustain for only 7, but then Lew Grade wanted to make his sale to CBS, I believe he said he couldn't make a deal unless he had more, and he wanted 26, and I couldn't conceive of 26 stories, because it would be spreading it very thin, but we did manage, over a week-end, with my writers, to cook up ten more outlines, and eventually we did 17.

As I have mentioned in earlier Blogs on this arcane matter - in February 1967, Mike Dann was reported in the American press as having agreed to accept at least 17 episodes of the new series being made by Patrick McGoohan on the strength of reading the first script:

Be seeing You with moor coincidences next time.