|Everyman: The Story of Patrick McGoohan - The Prisoner|
The 1967/8 television series The Prisoner is one of the most unusual ever devised. It operates on several levels, and it's no wonder that nearly fifty years on people are still thinking about it.
The programme was the brainchild of actor Patrick McGoohan, who had made his name as John Drake, a government agent who preferred to use his brain rather than carry a gun, in the series Danger Man (known as Secret Agent in the United States of America). Collaborating with McGoohan was writer-producer David Tomblin and script editor George Markstein.
A man resigns his top secret government job and refuses to give his employers a reason, other than, "It's a matter of personal principle." At home he packs for a much needed holiday, but nerve gas is pumped through the keyhole of his front door and he is rendered unconscious. When he wakes, he finds himself held captive in a bizarre island village where no one has a name. Everyone is identified by number—He is Number Six and the Village chairman is Number Two. But who is the unseen ruler of the Village? Who is Number One?
The Prisoner is determined to find the answers, while his captors are intent on uncovering the reason for his resignation. Over 17 episodes, the series examines the plight of the individual, the non-conformist, surrounded by people who are only too happy to tow the line. They want him to accept that he is just a number, to embrace his life in the Village. He is determined to maintain his personal integrity. The show satirises a number of revered institutions, including the political arena, the education system, psychology and psychiatry, to name a few.
Behind the scenes, there were major disagreements between Patrick McGoohan and George Markstein as to what The Prisoner actually was. To Markstein, it was a continuation of Danger Man/Secret Agent. He saw the Prisoner as John Drake, and the series as an extension of the 'spy' genre. But McGoohan was much more immersed in the symbolism of it—the Prisoner was Everyman, the individual struggling with and resisting organised society and the pressure to conform.
Four episodes from the end, Markstein resigned and left McGoohan to it. Not surprisingly, at this point conventional storytelling went out the window. In the final instalment, Number Six enters the lair of Number One and finally unmasks his nemesis. Instead of finding a stereotypical Bond villain chuckling and stroking a white cat, he found first an individual wearing a monkey mask, and then beneath that a clone of himself. Number One jumps and prances round the control room, laughing and jabbering like a monkey before disappearing through a hatch in the ceiling.
The Prisoner escapes the Village with the help of other rebels and returns to London. The final shot is identical to the opening shot in the main title sequence: him driving in a sports car down a broad runway.
Most viewers who followed the series right through in the late Sixties were left frustrated and angry by the lack of a proper conclusion.
But decades later, people like me have loved it. Anyone who feels at odds with the world around them, who resents society's attempts at defining and pigeon-holing them, will love it. Fans not only enjoy analysing the different layers of the programme, but tend to be drawn to Patrick McGoohan himself, who was every bit as enigmatic and charismatic as the character he played.
I personally love the interview he granted Warner Troyer in Canada during the 1970s. It's called The Prisoner Puzzle. and you can see it here on YouTube.
Circa 1990, a pen pal of mine put me onto the series after I'd been expressing my frustration with the world and how intolerant it was of true individualists. I became obsessed with it. The symbolism appealed a lot—I could see what McGoohan was saying and I felt the same.
When I started my first job, I felt very acutely the pressure to conform. And it wasn't just my employers expecting me to work to a particular standard either—it was everyone. I had to swear every other word, laugh at vulgarities, talk about the bosses in an undignified way, be deceitful, selfish, watch violent movies, give up the preoccupations of childhood and adolescence, and embrace the so-called adult world, orrrr be an outcast. I preferred the latter. I was eighteen and rebelling. But not in the way everyone else was. I was rebelling against the rebels.
I had looked intently to the day I left school because that would mean leaving school culture behind and at last being surrounded by mature people. Or so I thought. What I'd found, though, was that school had been a template, a blueprint, coaxing me, guiding me and preparing me for the big wide world—and I hated it so much. The education system wasn't just teaching me mathematics, how to read and write, and where various countries were in the world, no—it was telling me how I should think, how I should be. The political system was backing it, the religious system was cushioning it, and the media (including newspapers, magazines and television) were drip feeding the conditioning to make sure it stuck.
Well, The Prisoner was a godsend for me. It arrived in my life at just the right moment. McGoohan's vision coupled with my own observations led to The Blueprint, a novel I planned in 1996 and eventually published in 2012. It's written in the first person from teenager Liam Creedy's point of view, as he dissects the world system and his own self in a coma state rich with symbolism. I feel it is one of my best works, and owes a lot to McGoohan and The Prisoner series.
When my business partner Theresa Cutts and I saw that writer-illustrator Brian Gorman was planning on doing a biography of McGoohan's life leading up to The Prisoner, and was going to do it as a graphic novel in which Number Two interrogates the actor about his life in the setting of The Village, we just had to invite him to publish it through us at FBS.
And we are so glad he has. Everyman: The Story of Patrick McGoohan--The Prisoner is a superb book.
We have published a limited edition hardback. If you order this, you will have it signed by Brian Gorman, and receive some exclusive giveaways too. The standard paperback will be released imminently, it will also be available to download on Kindle.
The book is as unconventional and riveting as the actor who inspired it.