Monday, 22 August 2011

McGoohan from his own Mouth: “Boredom was how it Began”

For a show that has apparently been researched so much, the creative origins and inspirations of The Prisoner are cloaked in a remarkable obscurity. Patrick McGoohan once said it “grew out of boredom”, implying that he had tired of an endless round of  the Danger Man that had occupied his time for a year and a half by late 1965. However, as my earlier Blog has pointed out…. the situation was not entirely one-sided. CBS had found that the Nielsen Numbers were not on the side of Secret Agent, which was being outsmarted by Get Smart on NBC, in its prime-time-slot and it became apparent that the American sale of Danger Man/Secret Agent would not be renewed for 1966. The circumstances generally described in ‘official’ Prisoner histories is that Patrick McGoohan peremptorily resigned after two episodes of a projected new colour series of Danger Man had been made. However this is patently untrue as this newspaper report from April 1966  demonstrates:

The developing decisions were evidently being made as a progression, and without the temper and ego often suggested. From that article of April 16, 1966 it is clear that there had already been discussions about “another Adventure series”. These meetings were taking place before, and whilst, the two colour episodes of Danger Man were still being made. There was no sudden resignation. The ‘official’ books would further have you believe that The Prisoner began life as some form of sequel to Danger Man/Secret Agent. This story primarily has always relied upon the comments made by George Markstein to cult fans around 1979.

[Danger Man] was a very successful series, but they were planning to go better and bigger, and they were planning to go into colour and in fact I set up the first two colour episodes.

 So, Danger Man was all set to continue, what do you make of what actually happened to Danger Man at that point?
Well, McGoohan quit! He got fed up. We all thought the series would go on. It was very successful, it had gone into colour, it was showing in America, but the pressure was enormous - a series turnaround puts an incredible strain on an actor and I can quite understand that he'd had enough - and he gave it up…………. What a lot of the people in the studio wanted was to keep their jobs! They hoped he'd go on doing a series and so I sat down at the typewriter one day - you know, any port in a storm - and typed a couple of pages. They were about a secret agent - and after all Drake had been a secret agent - who suddenly quits without any apparent reason, as McGoohan had quit without any apparent reason, and who is put away!

Whilst all this fan-babble makes for a great story to pass around the camp-fire, the actual historical facts show that narrative to be wholly inaccurate. The fact that the story is untrue might also be taken to impair the veracity of the story-tellers. By the end of that April of 1966, it was also made public that McGoohan was making one more TV series because he felt he owed it to the Medium.

What remains unclear is what exactly it was that Patrick McGoohan had been proposing to Lew Grade in the weeks prior to April 16, 1966; the ideas that would involve “a very different sort of character".  The simplistic explanation might be to suggest that what was being proposed was exactly what we eventually saw on the screen in The Prisoner. That does not seem to quite pass muster though, because if the idea was fully crystallised and all the concepts visualised at the time of conception then there would no reason for the fact that so few scripts were fully ready by September, five months later. Nor would it explain why Bernie Williams, the Production Manager, commented that the series development “was all in Pat’s head”.

Patrick McGoohan spoke of a 40 page Presentation that he took to show Lew Grade and in truth their independent comments, over the subsequent years confirm that whatever the initial ideas were comprised of, they were not some continuation of Danger Man, as Markstein’s fan club has tried to maintain over the last thirty years or so. Grade himself made this direct reference in his 1987 autobiography, confirming he was in possession of a ‘portfolio’:
I had lunch one day with William Paley…. During the lunch……. I told him I had a project called The Prisoner with Patrick McGoohan and showed them a portfolio of pictures of Portmeirion which was the location we intended to use. At the moment though, Patrick McGoohan only wants to make 17 episodes…….”

Patrick McGoohan extrapolated his description of that meeting too:
I had a whole format prepared of this "Prisoner" thing which 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. So I prepared it and went in to see Lew Grade. I had photographs of the Village or whatever and a format and he said, "I don't want to read the format," because he says he doesn't read formats, he says he can't read apart from accounts, and he sort of said, "Well, what's it about? Tell me." So I talked for ten minutes and he stopped me and said, "I don't understand one word you're talking about, but how much is it going to be?"

One quote from McGoohan’s 1977 account is intriguing: So I talked for ten minutes and he stopped me and said, "I don't understand one word you're talking about, but how much is it going to be?" Another quote he attributed to Grade was, “It’s so crazy, it just might work!”

These various accounts certainly refute the various tales of The Prisoner being intended as a sequel to Danger Man.  Given that CBS had only just declined to run Secret Agent for their 1966 Primetime season there would have been no logic for Lew Grade to seek to sell William Paley a sequel to that very same show ! Furthermore in this context, why should Grade have claimed to have “not understood one word” or thought “it’s so crazy” about a sequel to the adventures of John Drake? There can be no doubt that what McGoohan was proposing to Grade had some much deeper elements to it than even a slightly offbeat secret agent show. Lew Grade around that time was commissioning shows such as The Champions, which involved secret agents literally with super-human powers, as well as Randall & Hopkirk, which was a show about a private eye who was actually a ghost!! This indicates how Grade was no stick-in-the-mud for wacky ideas, and that whatever it was that McGoohan was proposing - was highly innovative. What is also unequivocal is that McGoohan had the village of Portmeirion at the heart of his concept from the very beginning. 

The notion that The Prisoner began life as merely an ‘Adventure Series’ and only later mutated into the surreal is also revealed as false by viewing its first sign of creative life. The very first script written – a script written by Patrick McGoohan himself is demonstrably surreal. The first script written seems to have been Free For All, and not Arrival, as is usually claimed and popularly believed. The writing of Arrival was admitted by David Tomblin to have taken as long as a month. McGoohan’s script-writing commonly occupied him for a matter of hours – between 36 and 48, day and night. Compressing the working weeks into days by his eccentrically intensive creative method, McGoohan must certainly have produced Free For All first. There is a key piece of irrefutable literary evidence available to demonstrate that this is so as well. Proof if you like. And the proof revolves around the butler.

In the early surviving pre-shooting scripts that have surfaced over the years there are several of Free for All at various stages of development. None of them include the character of any butler. In Arrival however, a butler is included. However he is not the diminutive, silent version that became second only to Rover as a trope of the series. In the first versions of Arrival, this butler is visualised as over six foot tall, verbal and somewhat debonair (he is described as the sort of man who might drive a Jaguar)  In his later fan memoirs David Tomblin recalled how McGoohan took the initial versions of Arrival and then made changes.
 When we wrote the first episode, Patrick got very excited about it and then began to add touches ? he began to stylise it ? and it took on quite a different look. He was going sort of "over there" and I was trying to keep it "over here" because my sort of experience was heavily actionised
One of the biggest changes was evidentially to the character of the butler. However, given that McGoohan’s own early scripts for Free For All include no butler at all, he plainly had not read/digested Arrival prior to his first writes of Free for All. This must inevitably mean that Free For All preceded Arrival.

All the other elements of the Free for All we eventually see on-screen are in place however, the complex word games, bizarre languages, drinking sessions with a pretending Number Two, brutal beatings at the end, and the hallucinatory visits to strange Committee hearings and Labour Exchanges. All these surrealistic and puzzling aspects remain intact to the filmed version. Many of the reasons that McGoohan’s proposed new show might have left Lew Grade “not understanding a word” are evidenced from the very beginning – the very first script. Claims that the show began with no more ambition than to be some ad-hoc continuation of the adventures of John Drake are provably false by inspecting the very evidence that the fan-clubs themselves have discovered, and then ignored. 

I should emphasise that I do not intend by my descriptions to overly denigrate the actual sequel to Danger Man, which was Man in a Suitcase. However that show’s scripts lack the wit, cleverness and depth that McGoohan was bringing to bear in The Prisoner. To be honest Man in a Suitcase never really matches the wit, cleverness and depth that had pertained during the latter 45 monochrome Danger Man shows helmed between Ralph Smart and Patrick McGoohan either, but those momochrome films were of such stature that it is almost an unfair comparison to make. There are individual episodes of Man in a Suitcase that do hold up against its illustrious predecessor and that is to the sequel's credit.

Looking at that strangely unknown and misunderstood period of time between April and September of 1966 reveals a time pregnant with ideas that were beginning to rise into more fully-formed shapes, like the birth of the Rover itself they wriggled in various deformities before emerging full and rounded - as McGoohan inspired and guided and in turn became further inspired himself by the ideas he drew in to himself like a creationist magnet.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

McGoohan in his own words: If people don't like it, there's only one person to blame - Me!

This blogpost might make most sense if read in conjunction with the one immediately preceeding.

 The opening quote to this blogpost is from an interview with Patrick McGoohan in 1967, as his new show was about to premiere in the UK. The same interviewer also noted:
"The idea is his own. He is also the executive producer. He has taken over direction of many of the sequences (but without giving himself a screen credit for this). He has buried himself in the cutting-rooms during the editing of the episodes. And he has worked on every script, irrespective of who may have written it,."
As mentioned in my previous blog-post, huge debate in prisoner fans circles swirls around the presence of Colin Gordon. One dismissive theory says that his two Number Two's are completely different persons within the fiction. Part of the rationale for this view lies in the common ITC practice of having the same actor play entirely different roles in different episodes. However most ITC shows of that time had no story arc or continual narrative. Their heroes would be introduced fully-formed and have many adventures and then the series would just be finished, with the hero vanishing in exactly the same form as he had first appeared. A relevant case in point is the sequel series ITC created to McGoohan’s very own Danger Man. Man in a Suitcase comprised 30 episodes and whilst the series did explain where McGill came from, it never gave us a cue as to his conclusion.

However, in the case of The Prisoner this reductionist rationale seems inadequate because McGoohan only intended a short limited series and could not have expected his audience to entirely fail to notice that one week’s new Number Two was later an old Number Two!! It suited his plot to overtly recognise and explain the recurrence of Leo McKern but he chose not to do so in the case of Colin Gordon. However, that they were the same person seems indicated by their both drinking milk, plus the addition of a line in the script where Number Two in The General acknowledges Number Six as being "an old friend". It is oft-claimed in Prisoner cult writing that because Colin Gordon displays abject defeat at the conclusion of A,B&C, that he was somehow doomed. However McKern failed to succeed just as much in Chimes of Big Ben, and he clearly was allowed back, so why not Gordon? Of course, I am hardly the first to stick with the intended order; once upon a time so did the 'official' promoters.
The previous experience of the pair meeting in A,B&C also deals quite neatly with the puzzle in The General that stems from the apparent unwillingness of the new old Number Two to get too involved with Number Six and also why Number Six 'sticks his nose in'. To defeat again the old but new Number Two gives a very simple motivation to the actions of Number Six in this episode. Speedlearn seemed not to be aimed at him especially and yet he goes out of his way to destroy it. Once you watch The Prisoner in harmony with the vision of it’s creator, Patrick McGoohan, then the series really does make more and more sense the moor you look at it, rather than less. Unfortunately whole generations have now been deluded into watching this show in such wilfully incorrect orders that many of the nuances have been either lost or utterly confused. Seldom can a fan-base have so debased the object of it's affections.

Perhaps the most ludicrous fan theory swirls around just one of the three appearances of Christopher Benjamin. His role as Potter in The Girl who was Death has been enough to launch a demented sub-cult about John Drake. Yet these same fans seem to entirely fail to take into account that a character called Potter appears in Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling, but is played by a different actor altogether. Benjamin’s Potter is not even real within the fiction – he simply forms part of a visualisation of a nursery story that Number Six is telling to some children. Number Six visualising Christopher Benjamin’s face is of course perfectly in harmony with the fact that Number Six experienced this man as first a Labour Exchange official in Arrival and then apparently promoted to be assistant to Number two in Chimes of Big Ben.
Strangely, fans determined to only see meaning where they want to see it and ignoring the rest of the evidence often dismiss one of the most compelling cases for a deliberate reuse of an actor. Patrick Cargill’s turn as Thorpe in Many Happy Returns perfectly sets him to be the subject of the ire of Number Six in Hammer Into Anvil. Thorpe was especially unpleasant to Number Six in Many Happy Returns. Given that Thorpe was supposed to be on the side of the confused prisoner, this seems an odd trait to impose upon the character. One common fan criticism of Hammer into Anvil is about why Number Six is so determined to break that particular Number Two. After all, in previous episodes villagers have died and in the case of Cobb, the man was a personal friend of Number Six prior to his captivity, yet Number Six becomes positively enraged about the suicide of Number 73. Why? Well, if Thorpe was indeed the Number Two in Hammer into Anvil the reason WHY? becomes much more obvious; perhaps so obvious to Patrick McGoohan that he never even felt the need to explicate to the audience that it was the same man. After all, they had seen him (Cargill was a well-known face on British TV) only three episodes before. McGoohan didn’t consider his audience to be stupid. He couldn’t allow for cultists many years later of course. It is also a fact that Hammer into Anvil was produced prior to Many Happy Returns. McGoohan would have been very conscious that Cargill would certainly be recognised as his turn as Number Two was already in the can. It seems eminently reasonable to accept that he then made Thorpe antagonistic in this way expressly so that once the episodes were placed into his (by then) visualised order, there would be a continuity apparent between these two characters that would explain their behaviour without his having to script a tedious trail of reasons.
The brief appearance of Kenneth Griffith as the last Number Two we see, prior to the return of Leo McKern seems in no particular way to contradict why he should not have been appointed The President for the village rituals taking place in Fall Out. Indeed the proximity of the two episodes seems almost to demand that the audience takes this view and it could not have failed to be an obvious inference to Patrick McGoohan.
In a similar manner, although generally discounted amongst the serious fan base the audience seems almost bound to conclude that Number 48 is the same person within the fiction as The Kid/Number 8 was, from Living in Harmony. Just as with Kenneth Griffith, there seems nothing to obviate this possibility; indeed the first time we encounter Number 48 he is strapped to the same equipment as is used to resuscitate Leo McKern’s [dead] Number Two. Number 48 also wears a top hat, just as The Kid liked to do. Would McGoohan have directed and edited these episodes and really have assumed his audience would not make connections between these actors and the characters, just a week or two apart? It seems unreasonable to assume he was not taking all of this into account. That he was juggling with ideas and themes throughout the production and post-production allowed him to do this – he was literally writing the show as he produced it, in many ways.
One recurring actor may have passed him by however, and that was Larry Taylor. He is perhaps most obvious for playing Mexican Sam in Living in Harmony but he is also the Gypsy Man in Many Happy Returns
However this could raise the possibility that if the man who was Sam was outside the village when Number Six believed himself to be escaping back to London, then the gypsies in Many Happy Returns were actually a village observation team positioned to where Number Six would come ashore, making certain he was fit and fed, to carry on his journey, reach London and have his rendezvous with Mrs. Butterworth, his dream woman.

I would be the first to say that adding further storyline complications to the already labyrinthine plots of The Prisoner might be superflous. However, it is only by fully considering these various connections that enables the viewer to see that McGoohan was taking care to ensure that (so far as he could) all his episodes linked together in a rational, as well as creatively free manner He produced an intriguing but consistent narrative arc. He had no interest in tediously filling in the back-story gaps for the viewer, but where a careful and perceptive viewer chooses to look closely, all the episode sequences can be demonstrated to have a logical form. This approach bears witness to his detailed role as Executive Producer. Because of commercial production logistics some of these character linkages were clearly not scripted (it is said that Colin Gordon for instance only stayed to make The General as a favour to McGoohan, because no other actor was available to fit the production schedule).   

McGoohan once criticised himself for not ensuring he had firm scripts and storyboards before starting filming, but the advantage this gave him was that he was able to juggle all the plot links he spotted and weave them into a complex series that still entrances the viewer all these years later. However, like any creative work, it primarily works when viewed from the eye of the man who wrote, directed and produced it.

My final point is perhaps one of the more esoteric, but it works so well, I am convinced McGoohan did it on purpose. When first scripted Dance of the Dead may well have been one of the possibly-intended second episodes un-edited by George Markstein; however some image quality issues led that episode to fall out of the show (as explicated in a memoir by Ian Rakoff). Reinstated later all the aspects of that episode that signal it to be a second episode, such as Number Six stating he is new to the village, are brilliantly and cleverly accounted for by its being placed immediately following Many Happy Returns (one of the last episodes to be produced) when Numbers Six was indeed freshly returned to the village!! By this method, McGoohan ensured all these episode dialogues still made sense when this segment ultimately was placed at number eight. McGoohan seems even to have taken one more step to cleverly draw the viewer into making sense of these  episodes sequencing one another. In Many Happy Returns, a black cat appears as a mysterious presence, at both the beginning and the end of the episode.
 In the segueing episode Dance of the Dead this oft-unremarked recurring actor reprises his role and is fully revealed to be part of the village apparatus of observation - in the light of the presence of Mary Morris, a witch's familiar could be implied. However, what the unresearched viewer would be unaware of is that the cat's involvement in Dance of the Dead was originally filmed months before Many Happy Returns was made. McGoohan seems to have spotted it as the perfect dramatic gimmick he need to ensure these episodes make perfect sense when placed next to one another, in the correct order.
Be seeing it.
Be seeing you.
Shiver my whiskers.

Larkin's Blog - Supplemental
13th September 2011
Reading a post at reminded me of another ordering continuity that McGoohan/Everyman seems to have cleverly taken into account as the episode order was finalised for broadcast. In the concluding scene of Schizoid Man, the Number Two is chatting to the apparent Number Twelve and becomes suspicious about whether Curtis/Number Twelve is the man whom he appears to be. Number Six is definitively caught out by his ignorance of the fact that Susan, Curtis’ wife, was dead.  However, immediately preceding that, they have an exchange that seems to first raise a doubt in the Number Two’s mind and leads to him to lay the Susan trap.

2: …..have you thought any more about that proposition I put to you when I arrived?
6: Sorry, I’ve had no time
2: But you must have some views?
6: I’m afraid not
2: Look old chap, we’ve been through some scrapes before, but we’ve never fallen out over them. The General’s not going to behead you !
6: We won’t know until I’ve reported to the General, will we
2: Report to the General? That’s a new one!

In the very next episode we meet The General. He is a computer. No wonder Number Two thought it a strange thing for Curtis to say, strange - if not out of order in fact! Whether this congruence of plot arose by deliberate pre-planning or was merely noticed, or inserted post-hoc, matters little. The important thing is that Everyman’s ordering of the episodes gives it the truest meaning. The devilish cleverness is often in the detail.