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.


  1. It would certainly be most excellent if you found out moor information about the talks McG used to give to the screenwriters.. did you ever pursue that line of enquiry?

  2. Not so far Anon. There was a little moor within the body of that article. He was basically discussing the things actors needed from the writers - I guess how writers can perhaps write a behaviour that simply doesn't lend itself to being *acted* - the action doesn't ring true for the character or is impossible - that old theatrical thing about making sure that a stage direction doesn't lead the actor into colliding with a sofa.. :-))

  3. What academics and writers on film/TV in general don't realize is that it is an intensely practical business. It isn't painting in your own time in a garret it is closer to working in a factory. Worse, you are somehow trying to make something as speculative and original as a prototype on a production line with millions of pounds and the fate of companies at stake.
    Production costs thousands of pounds per minute. Production can't be held up for a second longer than necessary. However well something as complex as The Prisoner is planned the real world is going to conspire against those plans.
    The changing of, for example, the mechanical Rover to the weather balloon is the kind of improvisation to suit circumstances which has to go on in matters large and small every hour, on a film set. The skill of the film-maker is in having such a grasp of the nature of the project they are engaged upon that the compromises and changes they have to make are entirely in keeping. Someone with less confidence, imagination and a feel for their project might have rejected the weather balloon suggestion out of hand, McGoohan quickly saw how this radical change could be made to work and might end up being an improvement on what had been planned.
    Any working filmmaker would recognise the situation and not think it at all unusual or think worse of McGoohan, quite the contrary, but most writers about film have a naive belief in the god-like abilities of auteurs which blind them to the realities. They somehow think that every single exquisite detail of the finished project, however complex, was there in the film-maker's head before they started and that this vision was reproduced with pin-point precision in the end product. This is almost never the case.