Thursday, January 15, 2009

RIP: Patrick McGoohan, The Prisoner

Sampled to death, trampled on, discussed, diatribed, made into an Ayn Rand-ian statment of purpose, the antithesis of the conformity digitized and made relevant and irrelevant many times over: "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."

Patrick McGoohan is dead. The Prisoner is gone.

Arguably, in the pre-HBO era, The Prisoner was one of the most ambitious, and perplexing shows ever created for television. Perplexing only, however, those who like their answers spoon fed to them in easy-to-handle doses of prepackaged blandness. McGoohan laid all his themes out there for everyone to see, even wrapped in the thin blanket of genre fiction: the effect of modern society on the individual, the loss of freedom, the oppressiveness of government, authority figures, schooling, modern psychology, the role of the individual in society. They’re all there. And as for answers, you’ll get about as many as people you ask.

The whole point was to get people asking questions, to make them think, and they could provide some extremely fascinating stories along the way. Is there a better shock than watching the dream No. 6 walk back to his body on the television monitor (an early flat screen) in A, B & C? Or his complete psychological destruction of the No. 2 in Hammer into Anvil? Perhaps complete helplessness of the protagonist himself in Free For All, a brutal condemnation of the modern electorate and electoral process?

The Prisoner was a beautiful, fascinating, infuriating idea that McGoohan droll says, “spun out of boredom”, which is his way of perhaps making light of the near nervous breakdown that he suffered trying to over-control all the different aspects of the production. The idea was brilliant. Sheer brilliance.

The show itself was of its time, and has been analyzed and dissected and picked apart from just about every single angle, but it hasn’t been assimilated. Its too open ended for that. You can dismiss it, criticize its effects or costumes or hairstyles, but the very nature of the story is that if you start to think about the questions it raises, you can’t ignore it. It has had a way of staying with a lot of people for a long time.

McGoohan himself was powerful actor who often would use elegant timing and sheer force of character to play equally memorable heroes (John Drake and No. 6) and villains ("Escape from Alcatraz", "Silver Streak"). If you’ve made it this far into this post, I’m sure that you’ve seen him. If not, you should go rent the DVDs and immerse yourself in the series.

I discovered the series back in the 1980’s on public television here in the Bay Area, concluding each episode with a “Prisoner Wrap Session” with a number of local writers who loved the series. Most of what I got out those wrap sessions in the heady pre-internet days, was that other had already scratched below the surface of the series that I was becoming sucked into, and all they found for all their digging was more questions. I was the beginning of the belief as a creator that not all questions needed answering, not everything needed to be shown, and that psychological understanding of people was more important than anything else. If you understood people you knew how to use them for good or for bad. McGoohan made a believer out of me; a believer in questions, questioning easy answers.

A brilliant man has died, one who could never escape the inevitable questions about The Prisoner for years after, so much so they must have seemed like Angelo Muscat’s butler following him back into the London flat at the end of Once Upon a Time. The irony is inescapable. Later in his life he commented, “I guess I’ll always be a number.” Which is, of course, a wry statement on the last line of the opening, “I’m not a number, I’m a free man!”

To me, you’ll always be a free man.


Freckles said...

He was a wonderful actor. Although I've heard of the Prisoner series, I never saw the program. it was before I was born.

I saw him in a Disney movie called The Three Lives of Thomasina.

Thank you for your post. I enjoyed reading your post about Patrick McGoohan.

inkdestroyedmybrush said...

thanks for reading~!

RAB said...

This one hasn't gotten any easier to take yet. At risk of sounding flippant, though I mean this absolutely seriously, I now understand a little better how people felt when Elvis Presley or John Lennon died. Obviously the circumstances were completely different and I'm not trying to compare them; it's just that sense of "this face and this voice were among the most influential and significant icons of your formative years, and now that huge part of your life is gone." I've actually felt too upset about this even to post anything about it on my own blog, so I'm glad you said such thoughtful things here.

Freckles, you can see every episode of The Prisoner here:

I was just rewatching the first episode the night before he died. He was also great in The Three Lives of Thomasina and I never saw him give a bad performance in anything else!

inkdestroyedmybrush said...

I completely know how you feel. i've not been so upset since Stevie Ray Vaughn died, a musician that had a huge effect on me. I wandered around in a daze all day that time.

I was very emotional when i wrote this, and did a lot of self editing to make sure that it wasn't an embarrassing post that i'd regret later.