Patrick McGoohan: not (just) a number

I CAME late to The Prisoner, the TV series for which Patrick McGoohan will inevitably be best remembered.

It was 1989, and a friend encouraged me to watch the whole series which he had just bought on VHS. So I did. I considered it dated, a bit pretentious, dull at times. I also thought it was utterly addictive, and I couldn’t wait to see the final episode where all the mysteries would be explained.

What a disappointment! I once read that McGoohan even received threats from fans who were enraged at the inability of the series finale to answer a single question without creating at least two new, unanswered ones. I seem to remember there was something about a man in a monkey mask and an articulated lorry carrying a cage.

The Prisoner was genius, of course, whatever the verdict on the 17th and last episode. It did what very few, if any, TV series had dared to do before or since, and explore the complexity of the relationship between the individual and society, or the individual and the state. Whatever, it was always about the individual. “I am not a number – I am a free man!” the rebellious Number Six (McGoohan) would shout at the start of each episode, just to remind the audience that his protagonists wanted to compromise, or take away completely, that individuality.

Okay, enough of the obsessive fan stuff – the real reason I felt I wanted to pay tribute to McGoohan is not, in fact, because of The Prisoner; it’s because of Columbo, and because Columbo is Carolyn’s all-time favourite TV show.

McGoohan, a good friend of Peter Falk’s, directed five episodes of the series, played the murderer four times, wrote two episodes and won two Emmys for his work on Columbo. I recall one episode where he played a retired secret agent who, in saying goodbye to Lt Columbo, tells him: “Be seeing you…”

He had many other roles, one of the most memorable being Edward I in Braveheart (1995). But as I said, it’s The Prisoner which will be his cultural legacy. There have been a number of attempts to remake it (sorry, we’re supposed to call them “reimaginings” now, aren’t we?) for both the small and the big screen, and I recall reading that a new version will find its way onto our TV screens this year.

Always a risky proposition, especially when the original is still regarded with such affection by so many people. But there’s no doubt that the themes The Prisoner explored are at least as relevant today as they were in 1967, so who knows – it could be successful if done properly.

McGoohan was one of a rare breed who had the luxury of dictating exactly the kind of roles he wanted to do. He was a successful writer and director, and as well as creating one of the most iconic fictional characters of the 20th century, was rare in Hollywood circles by enjoying a 57-year long marriage; he is survived by his actress wife, Joan Drummond McGoohan.

Number Six

McGoohan as Number Six...


... and as the murderous Nelson Brenner in the 1975 Columbo episode, "Identity Crisis"



Filed under Society, TV, United States

14 responses to “Patrick McGoohan: not (just) a number

  1. Madasafish

    Every time I see an argument for ID cards, I recall the line:”I am not a number – I am a free man!”

    I saw part of the Prisoner when first broadcast. (shows my age). A lot of the stories were imcomprehensible – especially when you missed the odd episode. But it was a series that even 40 years later still sticks in my mind.

    I saw an episode last week..the first time since I saw it live all those years ago. All the old magic – and incomprehemsion – were still there!

  2. ah yes,”dull at times” just like New Labour who are utterly addicted to the concept of turning the whole of the UK into a Portmeirion

  3. Who is Number 1?
    You are, Number 6.

  4. Jim Baxter

    Most remarkable man. I’m afraid I remember Danger Man too, to which The Prisoner seemed at the time to be a surreal sequel. And there was Duncan Macrae in it too.

    The themes for both shows were written by the wonderful Ron Grainer, of course, as were those of Steptoe and Son, Maigret, and some daft nonsense about a man in a weird police box.

    ‘But there’s no doubt that the themes The Prisoner explored are at least as relevant today as they were in 1967’

    I wonder what might come your way for that, Tom.

  5. wrinkled weasel

    A nice tribute. When I was a little kid we were amazed, scared and delighted by a movie called “Dr Syn, the Scarecrow”. It was all about 18th century smugglers. Patrick McGoohan played the title role of a Sussex clergyman who was secretly the head of a smuggling gang. It still gets good reviews and I shall try to get it on DVD, since it is scheduled for re-release.

    Patrick McGooghan never looked as though he was trying to suave and sophisticated. For an American, he was quintessentially English.

    I suppose too much has been said about The Prisoner already, but perhaps the sad thing is that there are no Lew Grades in the business with the foresight and the power to give the talent the green light for something as novel.

    The Prisoner was a product of sixties hope and sixties paranoia and it glamourised the role of “them”. It made an assumption that “they” could do anything they wanted with you and if you objected, a big weather balloon would sort you out.

    These days, they just use the police. (Sorry Tom, you knew this would get political, didn’t you?)

  6. Auntie Flo'

    “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own.” (The Prisoner)

    Although the Prisoner is about civil liberties and rebellion against brain washing, spinning, politically correct, authoritarian states, it operates on many other levels too: existentialist, even religious. For me, it’s also a sort of modern morality play, an existentialist one about the human condition and the universal dilemmas of human existence.

    Number 6 is a sort of everyman, an allegorical figure. Through the Prisoner we see ourselves as prisoners, not just of quasi-authoritarian states but also of our mortality.

    The horrendous, ideal village where choice is denied and everything is provided and controlled by the evil dictator, Number 1, holds a mirror to all of our lives. Like the brainwashed village inmates, we mostly evade our mortal fragility by hiding in a labyrinth of inauthentic and meaningless, socially and politically constructed institutions.

    Political correctness, politicians’ institutionalised spin, obsessive TV watching, controlling political parties, the ‘absurdities of much ‘elf and safety (the village’s “have a good day”, the ultimate ‘elf and safety command), drugs, delusions of greatness, fantasies of immortality (such as saviour of the world). The list of our evasions is as endless as the human imagination.

    Yet we are only really alive and human, the prisoner is saying, when we stop evading the pain of our mortality, stop creating and relying on political masters and make our existential and political choices for ourselves.

    In the last of the series, number 6 at last unmasks Number 1, the clown in the monkey mask, only to find that it’s himself. He seems to be suggesting that we’re all number 1, because we all collude with and fail to challenge the need for far too powerful political and existential masters.

  7. Auntie Flo'

    McGoohan was a bit of a genius really and quite complex character. He’s reported to have been an escapee from the Catholic priesthood and remained a puritan all his life. He apparently insisted on a ‘no kissing’ clause in his contracts with Lew Grade as soon as he had the clout to determine his own terms.

    Of the uproar over the obscurity of his final episode, McGoohan said:

    “If I could do it again, I would. As long as people feel something, that’s the great thing. It’s when they are walking around not thinking and not feeling, that’s tough. When you get a mob like that, you can turn them into the sort of gang that Hitler had.”

  8. Auntie Flo'

    But then, who would want to kiss Lew Grade? 😉

  9. Johnny Norfolk

    What Patrick wanted to show was to warn people about state control. In fact he predicted this Labour government. He also showed that there was no end to it.
    In his warning about state control. He saw it had started then and he hated it.

    He left it in the air so as to try and make people think about it for themselves . He knew that so many people want things doing for them rather than doing it themselves.

    It was a great series of only 17 episodes and it contains so many parallels of todays govenment interfearing and controling in all aspects of life.

    He was a man of high moral standards.

    He turned down the parts of James Bond and The Saint. As a very happily maried man he was not prepared to do love scenes on camera. He never regreted his decision.
    Regretably his warnings have not been heeded. YET.

    Labour could do to remember.

    We are not numbers but free men.

  10. Dave H.

    I often think of him in Ice Station Zebra (otherwise a pretty crap film).

    The wheezing malevolence of his Edward I was brilliant:

    “The problem with Scotland is that there are too many Scots in it.”

    Same problem as the Cabinet, then?

  11. Auntie Flo'

    McGoohan was way ahead of his time.

    At a time when TV and radio were broadcasting was churning out scores of pulped, poor quality spy series, McGoohan turned John Drake (Dangerman), into a high quality, cerebral and principled spook by insisting on all manner of clauses in his contract requiring that Drake stop, think and consider before he shot anyone. Just like Columbo, Drake solved mysteries with his intellect, not a gun.

    The series was also ahead of its time for its use of technological gadgets such as miniature cameras, listening devices, exploding tie pins and a Day of the Jackal rifle. McGoohan must have been influenced by the James Bond books, yet he played Drake his way, refusing to allow Drake to be a Bondalike ladies man. No kissing, let alone anything else, McGoohan told Lew Grade!

    McGoohan claimed that the Prisoner, his next series, wasn’t Drake, almost certainly to avoid royalties to the writer of Dangerman. However, even Drake’s theme song, “They’ve given you a number, and taken ‘way your name” was evocative of the Prisoner.

    McGoohan played both Drake and the Prisoner with the same, unmistakable eccentric style.

    “With his crooked smile, steely gaze and staccato line delivery, McGoohan plays Drake as an intense man amused by his own shrewdness.” (DVD Talk)

    He was so good looking too. McGoohan might not have wanted any kissing, but millions of young females dreamed of kissing him – and I was one of them of them.

  12. Auntie Flo'

    That the Prisoner became such a high quality, ground breaking series is a testimony to McGoohan’s skill, he co-authored, produced and acted in the series under a huge barrage of pressure contrived by Lew Grade.

    McGoohan had approached Grade with a format for a 6 or 7 part TV series. Grade, who is said to have made a fortune out of McGoohan, knew he could sell the series to America and the world if it was longer, so insisted on 17 parts.

    That decision had McGoohan scrambling to write, act and produce additional episodes of the series while earlier episodes were being broadcast. I believe McGoohan said he had just 36, sleep deprived, hours to write the last episode! Inevitably, the additional episodes were not of the same high quality as those McGoohan and co had originally written.

    It’s a tribute to McGoohan that a series produced under such pressure became internationally renowned and still has a cult following. One Prisoner fan club still meets in Portmeiron, the location McGoohan chose, on the same day every year.

    His role in the Prisoner haunted McGoohan throughout his life. Le Monde apparently headlined news of McGoohan’s death as “The Prisoner has escaped” and among McGoohan’s last words it’s reported that he said: ” I was always a number”. That may be so, but he was also a fine actor and author touched by eccentric genius.

  13. I meant to ask, Flo: are you a fan of The Prisoner?

  14. Quentin

    Another day, another celeb passes away.
    All my childhood heros seem to be dying on a daily basis.
    Just heard that The Robot(Bob May) from Lost in Space has passed away.

    ‘Orrible growing old isn’t it Tom

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