“I will not make any deals with you. I’ve resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own. I resign.”
– Number Six.
The Prisoner‘s number is up, the Choob is sad to note. Patrick McGoohan, best known for his role as Number Six in the mind-bending, surreal, philosophical, psychological, existential, allegorical (in other words, totally bonkers) 1960s drama, died at his home in Los Angeles on Tuesday at the age of 80, after a short illness.
The original broadcast of The Prisoner, in 1967/68, was before The Choob’s time. I do, however, clearly remember the first time I ever saw an episode of the series. It was during one of those theme nights on the UK’s Channel 4, sometime in the early 80s. I don’t recall which episode it was,but when it was over, I remember turning to my mum (I was in my early teens at the time) and saying, “What on earth was that all about?” I knew I liked it – but I didn’t understand it.
Even for the psychedelic 60s, The Prisoner was, like, far out, man. McGoohan created the show and wrote and directed several of the 17 episodes and the show seemed to reflect his own frustrations about the subversion of individuality in an increasingly homogenised and commercial society.
The actor was always a bit of a rebel, doing things on his own terms or not at all. His big TV break was as secret agent John Drake in Danger Man (known as Secret Agent in the US). But even back then, he insisted on a number of changes to the character before accepting what would be his career-making role.
Most notably, he did not want the character to be defined, as most of his contemporaries were, as a two-dimensional action hero with a propensity for casual violence and gratuitous sexism. Drake would rely primarily on his superior intellect, not guns to defeat the bad guys. In addition, there would be no soppy, gratuitous romantic interludes with a sexy co-star-of-the-week.
Perhaps his sensibilities and idea of what made for an interesting, truly heroic character help explain why he reportedly turned down the role of James Bond – for all his popularity, a cold-blooded, cruel, misogynistic creation – in the first 007 movie Dr No.
From inauspicious beginnings, Danger Man became a massive hit and McGoohan became the highest-paid actor in the UK. But by the time season four started shooting, he was growing restless and decided to quit. Producer Lew Grade didn’t want to lose his hottest property completely, so he asked him if he had another project he wanted to work on. As it happened McGoohan already had the concept for The Prisoner in his mind, and a classic was born.
McGoohan originally planned The Prisoner as a 7-episode mini-series but Grade insisted that the concept be stretched out with additional episodes make it more attractive to overseas TV stations. The original plan they agreed on was for two seasons of 13 episodes each but, in the end, true to form, McGoohan put his foot down and insisted that 17 episodes were all he could come up with without stringing the audience along and stretching the show’s concept beyond breaking point.
The rest is TV history. The Prisoner’s struggle to outwit and endless parade of Number Twos and unmask the mysterious Number One delighted, disturbed and baffled viewers in equal measure and continues to do so to this day.
There has been a graphic novel sequel, The Prisoner: Shattered Visage (approved by McGoohan), which was published by DC Comics in the late 1980s, and the show even inspired a couple of Iron Maiden songs.
If anything, in the age of globalisation the themes that show explored have become more relevant with every passing year and it is somewhat ironic, given McGoohan’s death, that a remake (co-produced by Britain’s ITV and US cable channel AMC, home of the brillaint Mad Men) is due to air in the US this coming November. The six-episode series stars Jim Caviezel as Number Six and Sir Ian McKellen as Number Two. If you’ve never seen the original 1967 version, AMC has made all the episodes available for viewing on their website (viewing is restricted to viewers in north America, however).
It is a testament to McGoohan’s creativity and vision that even now, 42 years later, the show still provokes intense debate about what Number Six’s refusal to conform and his refusal to buckle to authority said about McGoohan’s view of the world and where society was heading.
He went on to make memorable appearances in other TV shows, winning two Emmys for roles on Peter Falk‘s detective drama Columbo, and in films such as Ice Station Zebra and A Time To Kill. His last major role was as the cruel English king Edward Longshanks in Mel Gibson’s 1995 movie Braveheart. But it as the thought-provoking, strong-willed, authority-challenging Number Six that he will always be most fondly remembered.
RIP Patrick McGoohan. “Be seeing you.”