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.


  1. "...The careerography quoted above mentions that the young McGoohan joined the wartime ATC at Ratcliffe Aerodrome..."

    Dropping bombs in One Upon A Time, also? Schoolboy reminisces and not Forces experience?

  2. Well..... McGoohan did make one of his first movie debuts in 'The Dambusters' ... :-))

  3. I've often thought there were autobiographical details, ever since learning he used his real birth date.. in that context, what do you think Moor?

  4. Hello Moor

    Maybe "they" really did try to recruit McG. He did, in his youth, after all work in a bank ... just like No.6 was recruited in Fall Out.