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.

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