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.


  1. So how come he dreams about Georgina Cookson in A. B. & C. before he's met her in Many Happy Returns?

    As for the cat, given that both episodes were written by the same person, isn't it more likely that the cat was part of Anthony Skene's vision of The Village rather than McGoohan's?

  2. Yes... You may have noticed I skirted around the Cookson Conundrum.... ;-) One thought on that one is that McGoohan judged that her role was so fleeting in A,B&C that it wouldn't get picked up on - akin to Larry Taylor, but Georgina was much more famous, so it's not such a good excuse. I do think that if she had already been *known* as a Number Two prior to A,B&C, then his *dreaming* about another Numnber Two would have been much more off-kilter insofar as it would have somewhat pre-empted the unmasking of another Number Two at the climax.

    I do have an arcane *theory* about #6's reactions to Mrs Butterworth and the possibility that he vaguely recognised her from his past, and his dreams, but this Blog didn't seem to be the right place and it is no more *evidenced* than my small aside about the gypsies being observers.

    I don't doubt that the cat was introduced by Skene to Dance of the Dead. It is the inclusion of it in Many Happy Returns that demonstrates Mcgoohan's cleverness, for the reasons given. There is no cat in Skene's other script.

  3. I've found your blog fascinating but I'm not entirely convinced by your arguments about the running order of the Colin Gordon episodes. First, in the intro to The General he introduces himself in the usual way as "the new Number Two" but in A, B & C he simply says "I am Number Two". Surely that suggests that The General should come before A, B & C. The reference to Number Six as "an old friend" in The General is pretty ambiguous by comparison.
    You say:
    "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?"
    McKern's Number Two was much more confident than Gordon's one. He argued with Number One on the phone whereas Gordon was clearly terrified of any communication from Number One, and there was a clear implication that he would be out of a job if he failed to break Number Six, just like all the Number Twos (except McKern) were.

  4. Hi Robin Davies. These ordering debates long predate my blogs. My main point is simply to point out that the Ordering McGoohan/Everyman imposed is valid and *works* when approached in a fair-minded fashion. The way the #2 behaves in 'The General' makes perfect sense in view of his *defeat* in A,B&C some episodes earlier; as does the fact that he was returned to the village not to challenge #6, but only to manage the Speedlearn process. That #2 may not have been the greatest Interrogator but he evidently had administrative skills.

    Argumentativley I would have said that the Portman, Wyngarde and Rodgers' #2's were easily as accomplished as McKern's was, so all the #2's are by no means abjectly defeated, yet still those #2s change.

    Just my opinion, but I always took the absence of *new* in Gordon's first turn as indicating his arrogance at that time. He was [the] #2 so far he was concerned back then. By the time of The General, he was a somewhat changed man, he still had all the same inside insecurities, but much less of the outward arrogance. If you place the episodes the other way around, his sudden development of overweening ego for his second turn in AB&C seems out of place, as would his reliance on computers to break his man, after he'd seen #6 blow the biggest village brain up, shortly before.