Saturday, 19 June 2010

From the mind of McGoohan: "John Drake of 'Secret Agent' is gone, but we're not foolish enough to try to change the image we have established with TV"

The title of this Blog is a quote from within an interview given to American Robert Musel by Patrick McGoohan, in 1966, an interview quoted in another context here:

In McGoohan's British homeland, a year or so later this concept was expressed in another way,
"When he went into Danger Man, he did so because he wanted to prove that television thrillers could have integrity. This time, his aim is to demonstrate that they can contain food for thought as well."

As any reader of much of my Blog will be well aware, I have rebutted in differing ways, many of the myths and legends propagated by erroneous "fan theory" over the last thirty years. I have utilised documentary evidence from contemporary sources that demonstrate that much of the fan history is post-datal-rationalisations based on almost no verifiable evidence. Instead of good historical study they have often created some kind of strange melange between the nature of the fictional show and the real-life inspirations of the man behind that show, Patrick McGoohan. As McGoohan himself once ruminated in 'The Box' magazine, in 1990,
"... it's a step into cultism. In the end it's got nothing to do with the subject - it's become a sort of entity to itself."

This form of fan fantasy mixing with fact is to be explored artistically in Manchester soon:
but it is comforting to read that the author is neither kidding himself, nor attempting to confuse anyone else:
“In keeping with McGoohan’s surreal work on ‘The Prisoner’, I shall be playing around with time, as well as the character itself. ‘Patrick McGoohan’ will be a mix of the real man, and ‘No.6’ (from ‘The Prisoner’).”
As mentioned several times throughout my Blogs, one of the more pernicious mixings of fact and fiction in Prisoner fandom has resided in how the series itself became *imagined*. The speculation of origins range from the ridiculous - an obscure hunting lodge in Inverlair, Scotland to the very sublime connectivity of Danger Man.

Patrick McGoohan made it very clear, in 1966, to Robert Musel that he was using the familiar milieu of the Secret Agent in order to craft a thriller that contained much food for thought. In creating this segue from Danger Man to The Prisoner, I once described Patrick McGoohan's creativity as "standing on his own shoulders". However it is also clear from his objective references to his old character that Patrick McGoohan was consciously pursuing no *sequel* to the adventures of John Drake, but continuing to use the allegory of reel life to allow his audience to reimagine their own real life.

Several of my earlier blogs point out the concepts Patrick McGoohan had experienced in Danger Man, as well as his exposure to the location of his dreams: Portmeirion. However, it is evident that other elements of The Prisoner were influenced by other spy shows of that mid-1960's period. As the Danger Man, McGoohan was the first of the TV spy craze, back in 1961, and so he would naturally have been interested in the many concepts that had riffed upon the one he had created, with Ralph Smart, just as theirs had been a riff on that of Ian Fleming. This series of Blogs describes many of the Spy-TV craze shows quite eloquently:

I recently watched an absurd video-recording of an ex-cast member of the The Prisoner, spreaking at an event celebrating that programme's 35th Anniversary. The speaker waffled at some length about why the characters in The Prisoner were numbers. As with many such speakers and their long-winded speculations about the inspirations behind The Prisoner, they soon tipped into absurdity - with references to the tragedy of prisoners of war being numbered - this connection being grasped at to try and make further connections in the viewers mind with the embroidery of fan-fantasies about WW2 and Inverlair. These *connections* are all pursued in an increasingly tight spiral of imaginary causal effect that subverts the interested historian from the reality of the past of this television show.

It is an obvious fact that prisoners in jail have always been allocated a number, so the idea of numbers and prisoners hardly requires much thought. However, besides this everyday logic... there is an evidential *TV secret agent* connection with the wearing of numbered badges - now regarded as so typical of The Prisoner. It came from a show that, between 1964 and 1967, was so enormously popular all around the world that it spawned a mass market in toy merchandise.

In the video tagged below, you can see *secret agents* leaving the plain streets of Brooklyn and entering their modernistic underground base and being issued with numerical badges. Napoleon Solo was Number 11, Illya Kuryakin was Number 2 and of course UNCLE had an obvious Number 1. He was Mr. Waverley - from Section One.

Though executive producer Norman Felton and Ian Fleming had developed the character of Napoleon Solo, it was producer Sam Rolfe who created the organization of U.N.C.L.E. Unlike the nationalistic organizations of the CIA and James Bond's MI6, U.N.C.L.E. was a worldwide organization composed of agents from all corners of the globe. The character of Illya Kuryakin was created by Rolfe as a Russian U.N.C.L.E. agent............. Rolfe created a kind of Alice in Wonderland world, where mundane everyday life would intermittently intersect with the looking-glass fantasy of international espionage which lay just beyond............. The series also began to dabble in science fiction-based plots, beginning with "The Double Affair" in which a THRUSH agent, made to look like Solo through plastic surgery, infiltrates a secret U.N.C.L.E. facility
The cross-fertilisation between Danger Man, UNCLE and back to The Prisoner is apparent but has been little recognised due to the vast bulk of Prisoner *research* emanating from the UK by those too young to remember the ubiquitous popularity of The Man from Uncle at the time The Prisoner was made. Strangely, for such an enormously popular show UNCLE was not released into video in the years since, nor re-run on TV very often and so has remained unseen and mostly un-remembered since. The episode of The Prisoner called "The Girl Who Was Death" was not dissimilar to the tone of Uncle (a show which increasingly adopted a *tongue-in-cheek approach in it's later seasons).
How did the interlaced histories of James Bond, John Drake and Napoleon Solo become resolved by Patrick McGoohan into the figure of a Number Six imprisoned in a strange self-contained village? The solution perhaps lies in a comment McGoohan made in 1965:
"You know? I fear by AD2000 we'll all have numbers, no names."

Patrick McGoohan left John Drake, Napoleon Solo and all the rest behind, as he stood upon his own creative shoulders to see that little bit further, as he endeavoured to demonstrate that television thrillers could contain food for thought.

I hope my blog gives the reader pause for thought when reading/absorbing the *Official* stories about the origins and possible reasons why The Prisoner took some of the directions it did. Accept no substitutes. A little arrogance is sometimes a healthy thing to have.... so long as you temper it with a little humility.


  1. Hi Moor, glad to see another post from you. Finally, someone is mentioning UNCLE! Long overdue and you make good points.

    Another point, almost connected, was your phrase "post-datal-rationalisations based on almost no verifiable evidence." I liked that a lot, and the next time some nitwit clergy makes a stupid historical-critical conclusion about Scripture ("Let's unpack this rather complicated passage"), I'm gonna lay this line on him and maybe get a little peace.

    Oh, I'm in a mood today. Anyway, keep writing, please.

  2. Besides UNCLE, Get Smart also gave everyone numbers. Between these two tv shows, and James Bond, numeralization was a pretty familiar concept by the time The Prisoner came around. What was new and different (also brilliant, disturbing, and many other adjectives) was the way McGoohan used it to make larger, and more important, points.

  3. Moor Larkin,
    I was wondering if The Box Magazine interview with McGoohan is out there somewhere on the internet for reading? Or where might I find it? Pardon me if perhaps you have answered this question before, I haven't quite read all your blog entries and comments yet...I did enjoy the religion bit and added a quick comment there.

  4. The magazine does crop up for sale now and again in places like ebay.

    The interview has never been broadly published on the net for some unknown reason. Considering how many Prisonerish interviews have been. It's bizarre that a pretty definitive interview with McGoohan himself is largely unknown. This seems a feature of Prisoner fanship however... :-)))

    There was a mid-80's biography he did with Barabra Pruett in "Classic Images" magazine, over 3 issues but many prisoner fans write that McGoohan would never allow a biography at that time. Last I heard photocopies of Ms.Pruett's biography with him is still available from this website:

    McGOOHAN, Patrick, 140-C3i, 141-C3i; 142-C3i

  5. It doesn't seem completely illegitimate to me for a "fan" to derive meanings from a work of art beyond what the artist/creator anticipated. The work of art will take on a life of its own, if it was genuine. I recently bought all the Danger Man and Prisoner episodes, haven't watched many yet, but I did leap ahead to the last Prisoner. I think it addresses the ultimate human problem, how to retain individual identity yet remain a contributing/fellowshipping member of society. In fact, I think a person without his identity is really useless to society - the point I see McGoohan driving at.

  6. I agree wholeheartedly. It is said that every author writes one book and each fan reads his or her own story.

    The bizarre thing about The Prisoner cultists is that they have moved from interpreting the story and have interpreted the real biographical world of the author and his associates. In doing so, at some quite early stage, they began to concoct their own history, a concoction that stands up to almost no objective scrutiny whatsoever; worse was that they ended up so desperate to *possess* the *back-story* as their own that they have imposed their own version of how it was inspired, and indeed who wrote it, and thence they even impugn the very nature of the primary author himself, as a person.

    I say someplace in one of my earlier blogs that every cult invents its own Creation Myth, and this one was and is no different.

    The problem of the modern internet world is that a few keen cultists can, if unchallenged, actually make History what they would like it to be, rather than what it actually was.

    My Blog is just my small place to say STOP!

    I've given up asking WHY?.... ;o)))