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