Patrick McGoohan, RIP

Thursday, January 15, 2009 by

Patrick McGoohan, 1928-2009

Patrick McGoohan, 1928-2009

A man rows with someone very important-looking and storms out of an imposing building, but before he can even get home, unseen hands are setting the wheels in motion for his unplanned ‘retirement’. Easily summarised in one sentence, but perhaps the single most powerful and compelling sequence in television history, and capable of striking a chord with almost anyone anywhere in the world.

There’s no question that The Prisoner has overshadowed the rest of Patrick McGoohan’s long list of television credits (not to mention his extensive film work) – from, notably, his multi-award winning episodes of Columboto, somewhat less notably, interminable daytime drama serial Rafferty – and it will dominate this tribute too.

Few, though, could argue this overshadowing is anything but entirely reasonable. In a new medium that was still finding its feet, and was only a few years away from having been limited to live black and white studio-bound productions, The Prisoner was in many ways the first show to challenge both the audience and television itself.

Given that debates still rage over everything from the correct sequence of the episodes to the significance of a broken plate, it’s hardly surprising The Prisoner continues to be the subject of much discussion to this day. Few could have forseen it back in 1967, but one of the many ‘firsts’ of The Prisoner was that people just kept on wanting to see it, even in an age when much television was considered ephemeral and ‘repeats’ would have viewers moaning en masse. In a sense, it’s an archive show that’s always been around, with repeat runs seemingly cropping up somewhere every couple of years. Whether it was the ongoing relevance of its themes and obsessions, the continual puzzle over its meaning, or just that pesky broken plate, it has generated an interest and a following like few other television programmes before or since.

Though often labelled as ‘psychedelic’, The Prisoner was really more a product of the increasing adventurousness in all areas of arts and popular culture in the mid-’60s, it was simply that Patrick McGoohan was the first to really drag this openly experimental approach into primetime television drama. As his contemporary Gerry Anderson can wearily attest, ATV/ITC mainman Lew Grade was not an executive given to going out on an artistic limb, yet even so, when one of his biggest stars approached him with an idea for a series as cryptic, enigmatic and paranoid as it was action-packed and lavishly realised, he jumped at the chance and The Prisoner was pushed as one of the biggest television experiences of the year. It may have come to an abrupt end when McGoohan’s energy and Grade’s patience both began to wear thin, but not for lack of viewer interest. And it’s no surprise McGoohan wore himself out and exhausted his idea so quickly – everything about the series, from the original idea to a hefty amount of the scripting and directing, and even reportedly as far as making casting decisions and suggesting the tempo of the theme tune, and of course playing the lead role (twice over in one episode), was more or less down to him.

Throughout 17 episodes of traditional Saturday night action thrills combined with downright oddness (has anyone ever worked out out the rules of that insane game involving trampolines, boxing gloves and tanks of water?), The Prisoner broke all of the ‘rules’ of television drama by never promising answers at any point, and even when they finally did arrive, leaving it to the viewers to figure the meaning of the Beatle-soundtracked ape-masked big reveal for themselves. There was no great immediate change as a result of this, but it was a show that was talked about and remembered, and even in the decade or so that followed the goalposts shifted ever so slightly; would, say, Monty Python’s Flying Circus or Sapphire and Steel really have been realistic possibilities in an industry where The Prisoner had never happened?

You can see the clear influence of The Prisoner, whether in intentional homage or by subtle influence of its example, in the vast majority of today’s big television dramas, such as Lost, Heroes and Life On Mars and many more; all of them revealing surreal mysteries over the course of a rigidly-defined set of episodes. And even beyond that there’s so much else that took a substantial and enthusiastically acknowledged cue from the series – even just a handful of random examples would include Brazil, Watchmen, Jools Holland and Stephen Fry’s surprisingly well-remembered spoof The Laughing Prisoner, unhinged ITV children’s serial How To Be Cool and any number of music videos featuring post-punk acts running around in Portmerion – that in their own way have acquired similarly devoted and recurring followings.

“You, sir, are an example to us all” is one of the final lines spoken to Number 6 in the final episode of The Prisoner. Patrick McGoohan threw pretty much everything he could offer into the series, and while production may have been a fraught affair and didn’t even go remotely to plan, it more than paid off with the long-term popularity and without a word of exaggeration the quiet revolution it started off in the industry, by showing that you could go out on an artistic limb and still succeed. Patrick McGoohan was as much of an example to us all as his oddly-jacketed alter-ego, and long will he continue to be so.


One Response to “Patrick McGoohan, RIP”

  1. Donald James Morrissey on January 24th, 2009 11:33 am

    I was about 11 or 12 when I(though all the family sat silent before the black&white TV)when I first saw the original broadcasts and even now I am utterly in awe of such a challenging but entertaining work of art.

    The more we experience Town Hall invasions and dominance over our lives,the more the relevance of The Prisoner resonates.

    McGoohan’s performance in front of the camera is as about the most brilliant(considering the material)piece of acting ever on TV(or film).Only Brando’s Terry Malloy in On The Waterfront compares.

    Few examples of TV will have the staying power to argue and create debate and that’s a truly graet legacy. Patrick McGoohan RIP.