Sunday, 29 May 2011

McGoohan in his own words: It was a place that is trying to destroy the individual by every means possible; trying to break his spirit, so that he accepts that he is No. 6 and will live there happily as No. 6 for ever after.

There are many websites willing to explain the origins of The Prisoner. This one of the more official and it speaks of one particular historical curiosity.
There was certainly a one-off play called "The Prisoner" starring Patrick McGoohan transmitted  in 1963, 
but it had nothing to do with the later TV series in any way.

Having dismissed this play as having no significance, the web-page does spend some time waffling about how Kenneth Griffith claimed to have been blocked from appearing in the TV play by Patrick McGoohan himself – a somewhat ridiculous-sounding statement, especially given that there is a far more interesting trivia about Griffith’s connection to this play. He actually appeared in the film version of 'The Prisoner' in 1955, as the Recorder. His credit reflects the fact that in this play/film the characters are not given names. Here he is alongside Jack Hawkins, who was playing the Interrogator: Checkmate.

Before it was ever a teleplay or a movie however, this play was in the theatre, in 1954. Anyone doing even a moments proper research on the play would have noted some thematic similarity with McGoohan’s 1967 TV project, and naturally the direct connection of it with McGoohan’s own personal portrayal of the Interrogator in 1963. 
1954 Theatre Publicity
1963 TV Publicity

Watching the 1955 film rings one bell after the other. To start with, the starkly metallic main titles have a slightly Albertus feel about them.

As the story begins we learn that the prisoner is to be broken by non-violent means. In fact, the interrogator tells the prisoner that the prisoner’s body is sacred to the interrogator, or as Leo McKerns No2 would put it: “I want him with a whole heart. Body and soul”. However the Interrogators’ superior is impatient with the process, just as Leo Mckern’s No1 would be impatient with his methods.

"A week? That's not long enough!"
Kenneth Griffith’s character – the secretary or recorder – is involved in keeping the prisoner under constant surveillance and recording his words onto tape and vinyl. He is being trained in immorality by the interrogator he works for.

The interrogator himself has to explain and justify himself constantly to his superior, just like McGoohan's No2's are constantly having to do.
"If he'll answer one single question the rest will follow." 
There are ideas of entrapment – the spider and the fly and questions like WHY? The interrogator in one crucial sequence takes his prisoner back to his childhood and indeed his school-days. The episode 'Once Upon A Time' is certainly a surrealistic and direct riff on this play, but McGoohan has a more optimistic resolutuion, with the prisoner overtly winning that time.

There are newspapers

and slogans on the walls

After the set-ups of the film, the story does indeed take quite a different course to McGoohan’s 1967 show but of course McGoohan was not copying someone-else’s tale. There is an interesting parallel to Ibsen’s Brand in that the Cardinal is finally broken in part by a revelation about his lack of love for his mother (Ibsen’s pastor allows his mother to die because she will not follow his teachings).  This prisoner breaks down and says all the things the authorities want to hear. Once they have won, they release him because he is no longer a threat to them, once he has confessed.

Like many theatre plays did back then, The Prisoner holds it’s biggest message until the very end. The Interrogator discovers to his horror that despite the fact that he won the battle of minds and persuaded the cardinal/prisoner to make a comprehensive (but false) confession, this prisoner has ultimately broken the interrogator. The consummate professional realises that he feels regret for what he has done and pity for the prisoner who is now believed by his friends to have been a traitor and collaborator. He realises he can longer trust himself because he feels sympathy and so despite the fact that he has succeeded and has proved himself to be the winner - he resigns. His boss is baffled.

He tries to explain but his boss, the General, cannot fathom what this experienced professional is talking about and clearly distrusting the interrogator now, warns him that he shall have to seek further advice and then sends him into an adjoining room, which has bars on the windows. The film ends with the suggestion that we now have a new prisoner of conscience. It's almost like the much babbled-about prequel ideas that many prisoner fans have regarding their No6 being somehow behind the creation of the village in the first place.

The interrogator becomes a prisoner too
"I was a good man. But if you get him, he will be better"

In the recent (2007) deep analysis of The Prisoner series, on page 12, this play is mentioned –once – in passing and the subject does not crop up again.

As long before as 1977, in conversation with Warner Troyer in Canada, Patrick McGoohan said,

this "Prisoner" thing ….. initially came to me on one of the locations on "Secret Agent" when we went to this place called Portmeirion, where a great deal of it was shot, and I thought it was an extraordinary place, architecturally and atmosphere-wise, and should be used for something
 and that was two years before the concept came to me.”

McGoohan completed shooting the first series of Danger Man in Portmeirion for at the end of 1960. At the beginning of 1963 he made his TV version of Bridget Boland’s play. It was two years later.

So why do the official histories of McGoohan’s 1967 show seem so dismissive of this old play, of the same title, saying,
“it had nothing to do with the later TV series in any way” ?

This is clearly absurd as I hope my blog reader will have noticed. The reason seems to be because their creation story requires George Markstein to be attributed as having come up the original ideas for the show. Anything that demonstrates how Patrick McGoohan’s own career and indeed his own life was riddled with reasons why he would have “thought it up” are necessarily diminished because these FACTS do not fit with their own neatly published and polished tracts.

W H Y  ?
Because you let them, that's why. Don't be a cabbage.


  1. Moor, your posts continue to be, not only interesting, but satisfying. I guess I will have to find that movie now.

    Also, I like your last line. Maybe I will adopt that as my new life motto.