Wednesday, January 14, 2009

“I am not a number…I am a free man!”

I’m not even halfway through what I will refer to as “the Maisie project” when I get an e-mail from faithful online chum and TDOY commenter Pam notifying me that actor Patrick McGoohan has passed from the scene at the age of 80.

I seriously considered abandoning Project Maisie, linking to some of my favorite blogs that have already reported the news and calling it a day…because I really can’t describe how devastating it is to hear this somber news. There will be a good many tributes—and justifiably so—to the man who created, wrote, directed and starred in one of the most cerebral and thought-provoking series in the history of the cathode ray tube—the 1960s cult classic The Prisoner.

Interestingly enough, it was Mark Evanier who mentioned The Prisoner in an earlier post (you gotta scroll down a bit) this week, pointing to a website where you can embed any of the seventeen episodes and relaying an anecdote about how he used to mess with the heads of Prisoner fans when the series was originally on in the 1960s. (Apparently a movie version of Prisoner is also in the works; when I heard about this I channeled John Laurie’s Private Fraser character from Dad’s Army: “We’re doomed…doomed!”) Some fans of the show took it very seriously, and Mark would eavesdrop on their conversations, eventually contributing to such fervent discussions facts about the show that he made up completely. I’m not quite certain as to what purpose this served, but then again, any man who made a living chronicling the adventures of an obnoxious comic strip cat in a television cartoon series probably should be scrutinized from time to time. (He also created Scrappy-Doo, so you know he’s going to be doing time in Purgatory for that little infraction.)

While I considered myself a fan of The Prisoner, I never really bothered to dissect it the way its devotees did; I just thought it was an entertaining series with a serious WTF premise: an agent resigns from his position in government service and finds himself held captive in a mysterious location known as “The Village,” destined to serve out his remaining days until he supplies his former masters with the information as to why he hung it up. In light of McGoohan’s previous small screen success with the series Danger Man/Secret Agent, fans of The Prisoner often speculated that the series was an extension, with McGoohan playing his former character John Drake as a man that they’d given a number and taken away his name.

The Prisoner, as did so many other influences (Warner Bros. cartoons, for example) during my formative years, taught me that authority should rarely be trusted and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. I admired McGoohan’s nonconformist philosophy, and the fact that he often had to mud wrestle (in a figurative sense) with television executives to maintain his artistic vision and notions as to how the show should be presented (unfortunately for the actor, he frequently fought the law but the law won). McGoohan had a long theatrical and film career in addition to his small screen success, appearing in movies as varied as The Quare Fellow (1962), The Three Lives of Thomasina (1965), Ice Station Zebra (1968), Silver Streak (1976) and Escape from Alcatraz (1979). A friend of mine once loaned me a VHS copy of The Phantom (1996) and I spent most of that cheesy movie trying to figure out where I knew the actor playing the Phantom’s pappy from…suddenly rising to my feet and shouting “Patrick McGoohan!” (He tried the same trick as the judge in 1996’s A Time to Kill…but I was ready for him that time.)

R.I.P., Patrick. Be seeing you.


Bobh said...

Very sad news, indeed, about the passing of Patrick McGoohan. At least we are fortunate to have much of his film and television work preserved on DVD, including the recently released "Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh" from Disney. It contains some comparatively recent interview snippets with Mr. McGoohan, perhaps the last time that he was recorded on film.

Scott C. said...

If I remember correctly, the PBS channel in New York ran The Prisoner in the late 80s with interstitial commentary from various TV authorities. Lots of fascinating trivia and interpretation, although the only part I clearly recall was a claim that the peculiar Village farewell was a tacit admission that Number 6 was John Drake, as the circle formed by index finger and thumb, with the remaining fingers upright (which the speaker touched to his eye as he chirped, "Be seein' you") formed the letter "d."

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

the only part I clearly recall was a claim that the peculiar Village farewell was a tacit admission that Number 6 was John Drake, as the circle formed by index finger and thumb, with the remaining fingers upright (which the speaker touched to his eye as he chirped, "Be seein' you") formed the letter "d."

My favorite interpretation of this gesture is that it has some religious connotation--that it was "the sign of the fish." (You know--the one stamped on various cars and trucks tooling along the highways of this great country of ours.) Others have argued that the photo that's X-ed out during the opening credits is the same publicity photo of McGoohan used when he was doing Secret Agent...and as such, proves he was Drake.

But I honestly never cared about any of this, I just thought Prisoner was a damn good TV show. Whenever this stuff gets hot and heavy, I fall back on William Hurt's quip in The Big Chill:

"You're so analytical! Sometimes you just have to let art...flow...over you."

Scott C. said...

Agreed. In fact, as I recall, the British critic who related the story did so in a bemused, can-you-believe-people-engage-in-this-sort-of-electron-microscopy-on-a-TV-SHOW? kind of way. The only thing I really wanted to know was where they shot the thing (and ever since I've been sorely tempted to take a vacation there, except I'm afraid I'd run into some Prisoner Con in progress, and have to listen to a bunch of obsessed fans reading their Number 6/Number 2 slash fiction aloud during High Tea).