Tuesday, 21 December 2010

McGoohan introduces himself to his Fans: "I suppose I did a fair amount of things. I was executive producer, I wrote a number of them, I directed a number of them, and thought it up."

This series of blogs is intended to celebrate the professional life and artistic achievements of Patrick McGoohan utilising particular reference to his show, The Prisoner, I also use it to regularly prod at my Bête Noire: the peculiarity of the cult following that developed a decade after the show was first made, and their reinvention of the history surrounding the production of that show. A key aspect of their revisionism is predicated upon their promotion of the sometime script editor, a relatively minor player in the creation and production of the series into some kind of seminal figure. The fans have made many wild claims about his background in order to bolster the dubious veracity of their claims of his importance to this production. Their accordingly systematic denigration of McGoohan's importance has followed like night to the setting of the sun. Several of my blogs have pointed up the facts in relation this strange construction of error and evident misdirections:

The short version of this constructed myth is that The Prisoner began its artistic life as a mere sequel to McGoohan’s previous show, Danger Man. Against all logic the notion assigned credence is that McGoohan peremptorily resigned from playing the part of John Drake because he was fed up with the series, and then promptly leapt upon the idea that he should play John Drake again! The incongruity of this theory is obvious and yet a whole sub-cult has grown up around it, influencing authors writing on the subject. In the 2007 book accompanying the Network dvd release, on page 13, there is this quotation from a prisoner club magazine titled “Escape”. This old in-Clubhouse magazine evidently quoted an interview that had been carried out with their favourite I-Witness: “… my idea was that John Drake had resigned, as Pat had resigned, as Danger man had resigned.... McGoohan loved the idea. Then he screamed, My God! John Drake! That means we will have to pay Ralph Smart Royalties! I'm not sure which part of this story is most preposterous, probably the McGoohan screaming bit, but it's all a bit of joke when you actually think it through.

Perhaps because of all the historical facts militating against the Club’s pet theory, they developed a whole Creation Theory to justify the otherwise inexplicable. To give their cult  story a superficial credibility they depended upon the initially straightforward nature of the first few episodes. In Arrival, the scenario of the Village is explicated, Chimes of Big Ben is a clever, but relatively simple escape plot, A,B&C is another immensely subtle, but still clear story. The Club Theory then leaps forward to the bizarre machinations of The Girl Who Was Death and the unusualness of the final two episodes, for a “primetime” series. The contrast between these first three episodes and the final three is held up as evidence of how the series began as a simple extension of Danger Man and was only later tweaked into an allegorical conundrum. This simplistic idea was of course blown apart by the same cult fans later discovering that the episodes were not made in the order in which they were broadcast. However, they had by then written up their opinion and the (often contradictory) stories told them by peripheral members of the cast and crew and to retreat from their statements would make a nonsense of their whole history as an organisation; and so they naturally refused to do this and instead simply ignored the very facts they had discovered themselves and stuck with their original idea that Markstein created a simple secret agent show, which McGoohan then increasingly took over and moulded it into cryptic puzzles.

This idea is even promoted in a recent attempted biography, written in 2007, of Patrick McGoohan. On page 109, the mildly insulting sentence reads,
…in the early days, there was no indication –and probably no plan on the part of the star or his team – to create as popular television material something as cryptic as The Prisoner.

Naturally, any of us can make a mistake and any of us might prefer not to admit we are hopelessly wrong. That is just human nature. However, if we return ourselves to 1980, when these fans were beginning their musings that were to hopelessly confuse future writers on the subject, what seems less forgivable is their blatant inability to notice the huge clues that the show itself carries about the creative influences behind it, and from who those influences were coming from. The fourth episode broadcast was Free For All. This episode was written  by Patrick McGoohan but although broadcast first, it was scripted simultaneously with Arrival.

Free For All is far from being as straightforward as Arrival, clearly indicating that not only was McGoohan’s new show cryptic, but it was also planned that way from the very beginning, because Free For All was not only written by the actual creator of the show but also was written at the same time as Arrival. The history of the writing of Arrival is written about quite widely and it seems often suggested that this episode was fully formed before any other work commenced, and then subsequent scripts cascaded from the vision that Arrival had created. The genesis and roots of Free For All seem shrouded in obscurity by comparison. Other than that Patrick McGoohan wrote it, there seems very little written about it's importance to the forming of the whole series. One thing that is clear from watching this episode is that all the original tropes of the series are included. The men in top hats and black mourning coats are as prevalent in Free For All as they are in Arrival.

Another very clear detail is the under-current within the show of McGoohan’s uneasiness about the futile speed of progress and the new world that seemed to be being created by an unthinking societal machine.

Read this commentary from a 1965 TV Times interview with Patrick McGoohan:

Then compare it to the speech he wrote for Number Six’s candidature in Free For All:

SIX: Far be it for me to carp, but what do you do in your spare time?
TWO: I cannot afford spare time!
SIX (to crowd): Do you hear that? He’s working to his limit! Can’t afford spare time! We’re all entitled to spare time! Leisure is our right!
TWO: In your spare time, if you get it, what will you do?
SIX: Less work… And more play !

It is very clear from the very beginning of The Prisoner that McGoohan was making his own social commentary, utilising this secret agent/prisoner allegory as his popular vehicle. The real history of the making of the show itself demonstrates this beyond any doubt and so does the content of the show too. How could any serious fan of this series imagine that it began somehow as a sequel to Danger Man and then only later morphed into what it actually was? When you further consider that Dance of the Dead, perhaps the most wilfully odd episode (outside of Fall-Out) was the fourth episode to be produced and that Once Upon A Time, containing the most wilfully odd half an hour of primetime TV ever produced, was in fact the sixth episode commisioned, then any lingering notions of George Markstein somehow initially crafting a Danger Man sequel only to be usurped by an obscurantist Actor/Producer become irrefutably absurd.

The actual structure of Free for All itself also belies any simplistic origins. The idea of a prisoner standing for election is quirky but the story quickly moves on from that initial puzzle, which seems sufficient plot for the episode, into a situation where the prisoner is bafflingly forced before a committee to justify himself. One of the principal tropes of The Prisoner is the battle of the individual against duty-bound bureaucrats and nowhere in the series is the side that McGoohan himself is on, in this battle, made any clearer than it is in Free For All. From the very beginning of the screenplay it is clear that there is no intention to write this show as some kind of inverted British version of The Fugitive. The Un-reality of the opening scene sets out the writer's stall, when Number Six is talking by telephone to Number Two, he puts the phone down and then Number Two walks immediately into the cottage. This is inexplicable by any normality and Number Six makes no attempt to resolve his evident bafflement, entitling the audience to join him in this acceptance. The ensuing conversations between the two prime numbers about the accompanying woman/maid, Number Fifty-Eight holds a mirror to the series' initial obsession with “Information”.

TWO: … She may be a mere number.... but she used to work in the records. She has a great variety of Information

The continuing breakfast discussion about international cuisine coupled with Number Fifty-Eight’s cosmopolitan language also shows that McGoohan’s script is dealing with all the same gimmicks as Arrival does, in that episode using the taxi-driver instead. The script even dares to give the viewer the solution to the “Who is Number One” question although as always, McGoohan ensured nobody would notice at the time:

TWO: Oh, you’re the boss.
SIX: Number One is the boss.
Then, seconds later,
TWO: If you win, Number One will no longer be a mystery to you – if you know what I mean…..

Part of the morphing fan-creation theory propounds that McGoohan had no idea that Number One would turn out to be Number Six until he came to write Fall-Out because he was making it all up as he went along and that at first the series was only about a secret agent in a predicament. This episode, penned at the very beginning by McGoohan himself demonstrates the none sense of such a proposition.

NumberSix makes a long speech about how the individual and society interface and how the individual relates to the demands of their society and the way individuals are persuaded to conform.

It is also fascinating to notice that, as a film Director, McGoohan also use the same film method (in this joint first episode made) that he would use in the final denouement of Fall-Out virtual-subliminal imaging. Just as the laughing face of Number One would be unmasked only momentarily, so does McGoohan use this flash image of a yellow balloon. Watch the episode and see if you can spot it’s appearance - with the dying afternoon sun of a day in 1966 clearly reflected in it - Blink and you’ll miss it.

The scene with the reporters is often reviewed as the media interpreting politicians but in reality McGoohan was evidently poking out his allegorical tongue at the celebrity media he was so familiar with by 1966 because of his world-wide fame as John Drake; he commented in interviews that what he said to journalists was rarely reproduced with the full meaning he intended. A feature of that scene also reveals McGoohan’s use of another basic Prisoner trope – the clone or twin. One of the reporters is signalled as a clone when we see the same man also selling the newspaper. Once again his first script contains a key element of the early plotting of the show, revealing how he was at the roots of all the ideas from the very beginning.

Patrick McGoohan's script also makes the fullest use of Rover (as balloon) which trope was largely his own inspiration after the original machine had failed. Given that this mechanical failure did not happen until the crew were first at Portmeirion it also demonstrates that McGoohan was writing on the spot and under his own inspiration in a place where the sometime company script editor never even set foot. McGoohan’s curious scene towards the end of Free For All when villagers are seen apparently meditating upon the white orb also demonstrates how quickly he was already riffing on his newest idea as he must heave modified his own script after the crew returned to MGM Boerham Wood, in October 1966. His other jokey use of Rover at the start of his second early authored episode, Once Upon A Time, where the balloon has to be ejected from Number Two’s chair also demonstrates his comfort zone about finding humorous ways to play with his new toy, which could never have formed part of the concepts when Rover was imagined as a wheeled vehicle. The original Rover was, it should be remembered not a piloted vehicle, but some kind of impossible technology that probably would never have been explained, any more than the balloon version was. In several other episodes commissioned to be written by standard writers, Rover plays very little part in events.

The complexity of Free For All also lends credence to McGoohan’s comments about only originally wanting to make seven programmes. Being written so early, Free For All must represent one of McGoohan's core episodes - perhaps the only one that survived the process of getting the funding from Lew Grade. McGoohan seems to cram in so many plot-lines that perhaps he was still working at a tempo of ideas intended to sustain only seven episodes. Interestingly too, the episode duplicates thematic ideas that appear in other episodes, suggesting how his initial ideas for seven episodes were expanded into another ten or so (as he explained in his first retrospective interview on the subject, in 1977).

The episode begins with the election plot, then the prisoner is delivered to the committee and thence to the “Labour Exchange”, mirroring his journey in Arrival. In between he is shadowed by Number Fifty-Eight much as the Queen would shadow Number Six in Checkmate. The way the Labour Exchange manager has the file on Number Six’s private past life is the same trope that was being written into Arrival. The scene with the Labour Exchange manager also reveals the perfect lie of one of the cult Club stories supposedly told to them by George Markstein. When the researching fans discovered one of the *unused* scripts (by Morrias Fahri) they asked Markstein why this script was rejected. Fatuously, the script editor made up some nonsense about McGoohan disliking it because the script had Number Six sweating under pressure and Markstein’s famous quote was that McGoohan complained, “Heroes don’t sweat”. However, the Labour Exchange mind control scene in Free For All leaves Number Six at the end of it, sweating profusely, and wiping his face with his handkerchief, revealing the comment to be as baseless as it was fatuous.

It was one thing for George Markstein to say what he liked; he was after all a free man. But how stupid are the writers who unchallengly and gleefully quote this and simultaneously fail to note the evidence from the show itself that so far as McGoohan was concerned heroes did sweat and Number Six was no different to any other hero.
The episode continues to grow in complexity as Number Six attempts one of his episodic escapes – in a boat this time – He is foiled by Rover and is returned mind-conditioned (as in Change of Mind) after being enveloped by the balloon. As if enough hasn’t happened in this episode already, there is one of the few occasions when the Cat & Mouse pub concept is used in the whole series, and then, just as in Dance of the Dead, the prisoner finds himself in a beach cave, this time with an apparently drunken Number Two. The cave also holds a scientist – Science and the appliance of it was always one of McGoohan themes and the show is replete with this clash of cultures. McGoohan clearly believed in science but was also aware of how science had unexpected consequences. In this particular sequence of the prisoner he has his scientist being fooled into giving his secrets away to the nefarious village masters. 
Finally drugged into compliance (as in Change of Mind), Number Six completes his election win. Oddly, there is a tiny moment when McGoohan’s jokey reason given to fans once about why he chose the number six is reflected briefly. Six becomes nine. It is the only number that when turned upside-down becomes another number...... other than Number One of course.

The brutal ending of the episode, when Number Six is heavily, deliberately and repeatedly slapped by Number Fifty-Eight and then beaten like a Christ, with arms outstretched, by her hoodlums, also demonstrates McGoohan’s deep intentions for this show. There was nothing in his script to suggest that here we had a heroic secret agent who was about to win battles with his captors in any conventional way. This episode was written side by side with Arrival and the darkness is clearer in Free For All. Perhaps it was this element of deeper darkness that Arrival originally lacked, when McGoohan rewrote it to a greater or lesser degree.

The extreme and unforgiving violence in the script written by McGoohan also belies another cliché of the prisoner club – that McGoohan was somehow almost childishly puritanical about violence. In fact the beating scene was cennsored by the British IBA watchdog. This British TV censor excised those moments in the broadcast of 1967. There is also an intriguing line in Free For All which also rubbishes the same clubbish clichés about McGoohan and sex. When Number Two is explaining about how Number Fifty Eight will assist Number Six in his electioneering, he says, in words written in McGoohan's own script:

The, err… buggy transport, the lady driver, will be at your disposal for the election period. And anything else you may desire – within reason...........

So far as I recall, Eric Portman gives McGoohan a sly smile as he says the last part – but not a nudge or a wink.

Looking for the real Number Six? He’s not hard to find. You just have watch the programmes.

Be seeing It.

Happy Holidays..


  1. Thanks for another very well written and insightful post. I enjoyed your analysis of Arrival and Free for All and the pairing of the two episodes together.

    I am always eager to read your next installment. The middle of each month finds me checking this site daily, looking for a new post.

    Merry Christmas to you and your family, and a Happy New Year to all! And please keep writing!!

  2. When McG cut out the "triumphant dance" planned for No.6 as the original ending for Dance of the Dead and left No.6 at the mercy of a chattering machine McG showed he was in firm control of his vision to have No.6 struggle for his freedom ...and not just be another TV clone performing 'winner' heroics every week like The Saint(as suggested by CBS executives).

    No.6 was a complete original clearly created from the unique mind of Mr. Patrick McGoohan.

  3. Another observation is that Mr. McGoohan uses the 'round peg in a square hole' device in his 'truth test' scene in Free For All.


    This is further evidence of Mr. McGoohan's extensive writing on Arrival where the device is first seen.

  4. You're right, Anonymous...I hadn't thought to put those two together.

  5. TWO: Oh, you’re the boss.
    SIX: Number One is the boss.
    Then, seconds later,
    TWO: If you win, Number One will no longer be a mystery to you – if you know what I mean…..

    Indeed when No.6 "wins" he finds himself shouting: "I AM IN COMMAND ! OBEY ME AND BE FREE!!" Note the "I" of No.1 is "no longer a mystery" ... if you know what "I" mean ...;-))

    Hello Jan

    I am glad you enjoyed the missing link between the two episodes.

  6. http://dr.library.brocku.ca/handle/10464/2897

  7. Many of the people writing about TV and film fail to look at the practicalities and put themselves in the position of the people making the stuff.

    The Prisoner initially follows a very well-used path by following a newcomer into an unfamiliar situation. There is a reason this is so often used; we the audience learn as the newcomer learns. The newcomer asks the questions we want answering. The newcomer can react in ways which generate conflict and visually demonstrate the world of the story without us being dryly told about it.
    If we are introduced to an unfamiliar situation where all the characters already know the ropes then the writers have to spend half their time avoiding the ghastly "As you know...." lines.

    Also, if you are going to end up in a very weird situation you are more likely to get the mainstream audience to go there with you if you start off in more familiar territory.
    Start out with what could be just a slightly off-beat spy story and people might stick with you as things get seriously stranger. Hit full insanity in episode one and you will lose many of your potential audience immediately.

    It's also good writing to cross off some of the obvious audience questions early. You wouldn't want to leave the more straightforward escape attempts until episode 14 because a) characters try the easy (from their point of view) options first and b) because you don't want the audience sitting there for weeks wondering why No 6 doesn't just steal the helicopter or a boat. As a writer you want to close off those options early.

    This is all "story writing for beginners" stuff, which would be cheerfully admitted by any honest writer.
    It's also the sort of practical craft which huge numbers of critics don't bother to find out about before coming up with unnecessary theories like The Prisoner "changing direction" as the result of a power struggle.

    1. It was not realised until after many Prisoner books had been written that "Once Upon A Time" was in fact one of the earliest scripts and one of the original six scripts to be filmed.

  8. Being a bit slow it's only just occurred to me how internally contradictory it is that the fan establishment lauds Markstein at the expense of McGoohan.
    What the fans love about The Prisoner is the surrealism, the allegory etc. If it was "merely" a Danger Man sequel in tone and style they would be as uninterested in it as they seem to be about Danger Man itself - a series few of them seem to have even watched, let alone studied.
    Yet even in his own words Markstein wanted The Prisoner to be just that - a continuation of Danger Man in all but name. Even assuming that Markstein had had anything much to do with creating The Prisoner (which I'm convinced he didn't) he was creating the type of series these fans DIDN'T want. In their terms McGoohan was desperately trying to turn it into the show they did want despite Markstein.
    As I say the fans praising Markstein and disparaging McGoohan has no internal logic at all.