Monday, 24 October 2011

McGoohan pay his compliments:"when I was making The prisoner I found it necessary several times to leave him in total charge" and "His work on The Prisoner was superb and his contribution to the show far beyond his nominal status. He’s the tops"

In my previous Blog I mulled over the possibility that the first half of Arrival was thematically and structurally influenced by a now long-forgotten American propaganda movie called Red Nightmare. Of the three writers of Arrival I felt it was David Tomblin, with his film-making background, who was most likely to be aware of this old plot format. I was interested to note therefore, that in a 1988 exploration of the series, it was remarked that he was responsible for the first half of Arrival:  
The Arrival appears to be a fusing of two separate stories, one by Tomblin showing the arrival of McGoohan's character in a Village where he is given the Number of 6, and Markstein's more conventional thriller plot where Number 6 enlists the aid of a woman to help him flee the Village, not knowing she is a mere pawn of the Village controller, Number 2.

However it would appear the influence of David Tomblin’s experience goes even deeper. David Tomblin had long been associated with Ralph Smart and was Assistant Director on a progenitor of Danger Man in 1958. This was The Invisible Man. Several plots of this series were revamped to fit with the later exploits of secret agent John Drake, as played by Patrick McGoohan. One plot that was left behind was one called Picnic with Death. However, a little taste of it remarkably, seems to have been carried by David Tomblin into The Prisoner  
This early episode in the series opens up with Peter Brady, the invisible man, being driven by a security operative to a destination. Brady is annoyed that his government is controlling him because he wants to be busy trying to find the cure for his condition, whereas they keep using him to perform otherwise impossible missions – utilising his invisibility! With this background, the following conversation is occurring between a sour-tempered Brady and his minder. Brady is complaining that they are late and he is not allowed to drive. 
If I could drive my own car, you wouldn’t have to put up with me
No dice! You’re not allowed to drive! Chief’s Orders! You’re an official secret.
Chief’s Orders?! Security?! You people forget that I’m a human being.
I’m surprised that I haven’t been Government-stamped and filed away in a top secret file!
I’m sure that anyone familiar with The Prisoner will pick up the resonance implicit in that line of dialogue, and if you are not familiar enough to spot it, I cannot imagine why you are reading this blog at all! But, you are very welcome. Remarkably, in the further phases of the plot the existence of an invisible man is revealed to some members of the public, after a minor car accident. In order to maintain secrecy the governement 'disappears' sixteen witnessess, including two news reporters. A newspaper magnate confronts a government official who has ‘disappeared’ the sixteen witnesses, protesting:
I, the owner of two newspapers am here to ask what is it all about?!
I’m sorry Lord Brooksley; it’s Top Sceret
But fourteen men know about it already! It can’t stay top secret for long!
That’s why we’re worried. We’ve got to stop wild rumours from spreading.
This intriguing storyline is soon dropped however and knowledge of the invisible man does become public and more reporters seeking the story besiege his house (just as the reporters in the Prisoner besiege Number Six, once he has become a candidate for election in Free For All) Another scene harks to Arrival with Brady’s sister (he lives with his sister) pulling back curtains to reveal a very familiar style of window, but rather than focussing on her looking out – the camera emphasises those looking in.
Anyone who has watched this show will also have noticed that occasionally Mr. Invisible makes an exit, saying “Be Seeing You” - a singular irony from a man who could anything but be seen! David Tomblin was not by nature an academically creative author and it seems reasonable to assume he sought his ideas from his own experience, and indeed his other writing credits on The Prisoner are all noted as being due to his modifying stories, rather than originating them from his own imagination. He seems to have been a craftsman in more than one way. Patrick McGoohan certainly was his number one fan, saying this about his former partner when the pair of them were re-united on the set of Braveheart, on which movie David Tomblin was an Assistant Director.
we are very close friends, I remember him on the first television series I was in: ' Danger Man '. David was the assistant director on the hour long episodes. We have grown to be very good friends> When I was making The Prisoner I found it necessary several times to leave him in total charge because I was working all day as an actor and often as writer and director. I found it necessary to have someone to trust, that was David, since then he has done a lot of work as assistant director.
If there is a problem he is the best in the world !
Patrick McGoohan plainly admitted in interviews that his show derived from such modern classics of the time as Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four. However it would be easy for the casual researcher to also conclude that those sources were of literary influence. In the case of Nineteen Eighty-Four it seems just as likely that that influence was televisual. 1954 Britain had been transfixed by a BBC production of the novel. It incorporated televisual screens that watched the watcher, slogans that defied reason, the numbering of citizens, illicit drinking dens and even a crystal ball made a short appearance (but that was for lovers to stare into and dream).
In some ways The Prisoner was an emotional antithesis to this TV play that had transfixed a nation of TV watchers over a decade before. Whereas the tale of Winston Smith was a tale of the attempt of Love to triumph over Totalitarianism by hiding from it, the tale McGoohan was to craft involved a man avoiding all emotion except that of anger and who used a single-minded determination to power his attempts to smash the Totalitarianism of the village and escape it. The opening scenes of Nineteen Eighty-Four have the narrator remarking that what we are about to see is the vision of one man. A later line refers to the fact that, “Nobody ever sees Big brother”. This is the conundrum Number Six was to grapple with all of his series – meeting Number One – or not. Much of the second half of the 1954 TV film has Winston Smith being toyed with, by O’Brien, a veritable Number Two. Another significance is the fact that O’Brien is served by a butler. The butler is short and small in build, and whilst he is spoken to, this butler himself never speaks at all.  Remind you of anyone?
The broadcast of this play in 1954 sparked a reaction not unlike McGoohan was to achieve 13 years later, which is an odd congruence, if less of significance. 
What seems less coincidental is the effect of another TV show that has recently become re-remembered. Many archive TV enthusiasts have been comparing The Strange World of Gurney Slade to The Prisoner. This review is as good as many:
By this point if you’re thinking “The Prisoner!” you’re doing no more than I did. The unreliable central narrator is taken to massive lengths in that show’s “The Girl Who Was Death”, and large tracts of episodes four and six play out like “Once Upon A Time” and “Fall Out”. I’d be willing to bet that at least one person on the production team for The Prisoner saw this at some point. I’m not claiming for one minute that Patrick McGoohan nicked any of this – just that the idea may have percolated unconsciously in someone’s head.

Whilst this reviewer makes the point that I’m not claiming for one minute that Patrick McGoohan nicked any of this – just that the idea may have percolated unconsciously in someone’s head most do not seem to have taken account of the fact that a major influence of Anthony Newley permeates The Prisoner from the opening episode. His pop record of 1961 was evidently as popular with Patrick McGoohan as ‘All You Need is Love’ was to become in 1967. Just on the off chance that any non-fan is still reading this, I would just explain that the the tune to "Pop Goes the weasel" percolates The Prisoner as incidental music throughout many episodes.
All of these things do not mean that I imagine any of the writers of Arrival were fitting together a jigsaw of deliberate ideas – entirely the opposite. One of the things that seems to have constantly baffled fans of this show is where it all came from – how it began. This puzzle has led them, in many cases, to the idea that it began as a sequel to Danger Man: that Patrick McGoohan stopped playing John Drake so that he could once again play John Drake, an absurdity sadly encouraged and exacerbated by the attention they paid to tales George Markstein told them about the inspiration behind his novel, The Cooler, that he wrote in 1974.
One thing that is quite noticeable is that George Markstein is smugly glib about the origins of the show.
Well, the first episode's called 'Arrival' and that's all it is - his arrival in the Village. It shows the prisoner - the secret agent - resigning. He hands his resignation to me which is very apt in a way as I'm the evil genius of the whole thing ... and then it shows him being kidnapped and waking up in the Village with its way of life ... every Rover ... everything we've grown to love or hate as the case may be.

Both David Tomblin and Patrick McGoohan were always quite vague, if not deliberately so - with Tomblin professing to have no idea what series McGoohan even intended to make when he first got the financial backing from Lew Grade. Markstein's very glibness when he was interviewed actually gives away that he is back-fitting events, because as is well-known now (but was not at the time) the amorphous Rover that he clearly is referencing did not exist as a concept when the Arrival was written. Rover was originally designed as a queer looking wheeled vehicle, like an automaton police car - complete with blue flashing light on the top.
There is a fourth man man however who is curiously absent from most official accounts of the making of this intriguing show. He had experience to bring to the series that would fit directly into the style of The Prisoner. He had been the Unit Manager of a film called The Quiller Memorandum. The style of the dialogue in The Prisoner is sometimes referred to as Pinteresque. Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay for The Quiller Memorandum and there is much about that movie that could be described as prisoneresque – if such an adjective were to exist. It’s set in perhaps the archetype of a real enclosed village: West Berlin itself. You can get a small flavour of the movie here, but it needs to be watched in the whole to appreciate it's existential style being squeezed into the format of a secret agent story, just as McGoohan was doing.

This fourth man, and a man strangely absent from most official prisoner history books, is the man credited by Patrick McGoohan himself, of having been the inspiration for the Rover that we came to know and love in the series. His name can be seen in the opening credits of both the Quiller film and the Prisoner show. I have sometimes wondered if the Production Manager is normally accorded such a large credit on a TV show – the whole screen to himself.
Mr. Williams had some forthright things to say about the making of the series, but curiously you will find little mention of him in any official prisoner history. He crops up of course, but nobody mentions his experience of the Pinteresque movie he came fresh to the prisoner from, but most remarkable of all is the fact that no official sources seem to dwell upon the fact that he was a  ‘2nd assistant director’ on Danger Man, (his position did not merit inclusion on that show’s onscreen credits). His ability to influence McGoohan was due to this association; he was a professional friend of Mcgooohan just as david Tomblin was. Mr. Williams was the person who had originally introduced stuntman Frank Maher to McGoohan, another crew member who had some level of frindship with the prisoner creator. Whilst Mr. Maher is frequently and lengthily quoted in official prisoner histories, there is scarcely ever any mention of Bernard Williams, about whom Patrick McGoohan once remarked, 
“His work on The Prisoner was superb and his contribution to the show was far beyond his nominal status. He’s the tops.”

In my next Blog you will find out why the authors who have controlled the information about this show for so many years have chosen to make Mr. Bernard Williams largely an Invisible Man in archive TV history. You will be seeing him more clearly next time.

Oh... Just one more thing. As this blog has in part been pointing out how Patrick McGoohan freely gave unstinting praise to those contributors to his Prisoner project, it would be remiss of me in my small blogging project not to mention once again my friend and collaborator: the Sheriff of Harmony, without whom much of my information would perhaps have remained in the limbo of the lost past. I'm Obliged.


  1. Thank you for all the information in your blog. A very enjoyable read. I am an old Prisoner fan and now thanks to dvd's a new Danger Man fan. Seeing the Danger Man series helped tremedously with watching, again, The Prisoner. Now an even bigger McGoohan fan.
    Kind Regards

  2. Another great post! Also, I really enjoyed watching Red Nightmare from your last installment.

  3. Nice to know you're still with me Jan. Nice to be seeing you indeed.

  4. It wouldn't have been normal for a Production Manager to have their own title card.
    It also would be quite remarkable to go from 2nd Assistant Director on Danger Man to Unit Manager on a major feature, to Production Manager on The Prisoner. Mr William's abilities must have very apparent, and not just to PM. Usually one might have expected a few years at each stage(plus a few as 1st Assistant Director after being a 2nd).