Thursday, 22 January 2009

Patrick McGoohan 1928 - 2009

Following the sad news of Patrick McGoohan's death last week, I thought I'd write a few words about the man I -and many others- considered to be a genius.

I'm miles too young to have experienced McGoohan's TV masterpiece The Prisoner contemporaneously. Instead, I saw it 25 years after it first aired; re-run on Channel 4 back in 1991.

I must've been 11 or 12, and I'd watched it entirely by accident - gripped by that surreal and indelible, now iconic, footage of a man being chased by a giant bubble/balloon/thing over a bleak, windswept beach. It struck me as being quite fun at first; cool and quirky. But then the way the man clawed at the skin of the balloon as it engulfed him - that was sinister. Real sinister...

"Watched this mental programme on C4 last night," said Eleven Year Old Me, to my school mates, next day. "The Prisoner, or something..."

"Be seeing you," smirked a pal of mine, touching his forelock in a particular way. Not only had he seen it as well it seemed, he'd remembered the show's catch-phrases too. Later on, he told me his cooler-than-mine dad had insisted he'd watched the series, making sure his lad had "studied the classics" as it were. But for now, I'd found an ally. And for the next 17 Thursday mornings, we completely pissed off the rest of our mates, autistically quoting the previous night's Prisoner episode to eachother, as we immersed ourselves further and further into Patrick McGoohan's singular, sinister, spectacular world.

HAND AT THE BACK OF THE CLASS: What's The Prisoner actually all about, then?

Well, to quote wikipedia for a moment:

The Prisoner is a British 1960s television series starring and co-created by Patrick McGoohan which combines spy fiction with elements of science fiction, allegory and psychological drama.

It follows a former British agent who, after abruptly resigning from his position, is held captive in a small seaside village by an unidentified power that wishes to establish the reason for his resignation. Episodes typically feature the unnamed prisoner, labelled "
Number Six" by his captors, unsuccessfully attempting to escape from or change the authority of "the Village". However, Number Six has numerous victories of his own, successfully thwarting the various individuals serving as the Village's chief administrator, "Number Two", in their attempts to break him or control the Village, causing a disconcertingly rapid turnover of personnel in the position. Eventually, as the series reaches its surreal climax, Number Six's indomitable resistance and mounting blows against the administration threaten the viability of the Village itself, which forces its desperate warders to take drastic action.

You see, it sounds ace even on paper, doesn't it. But what makes it so great, so rich and rewarding, is Patrick McGoohan.

Make no mistake: The Prisoner is the work of a true auteur. Insistent on using the best writers, actors, directors and designers to bring his vision to life, McGoohan turned an elegant, economical dramatic concept into a living, breathing, hermetic world - a vivid, startling, even haunting vision that demands and deserves repeated viewings. Which is why 18 years and dozens of viewings later, 29 Year Old Me is still struck by the atmosphere and luminosity The Prisoner. Still to this day, I get goosebumps from the minute I hear those thunder-claps that preceed Ron Grainger's ass-kicking, hipster theme-tune. And still to this day, my goosebumps intentisfy when those trippy vibes and guitar herald the new No.2 whilst McGoohan delivers his immortal "I am not a number..." speech. Just by themselves, those 3 minutes of footage that pre-figure each episode, are among the coolest fucking things ever made. See for yourself:

Ok, so I admit it has it's clunky moments - the pacey editing is sometimes a little too ambitious for 1966, and there's the odd set wobble here and there. But these are merely brushmarks in the oil paint. Stand back a little, and you'll see The Prisoner is nothing less than a bold, rigorous, and brutally uncompromising piece of work. I defy anyone to watch the final two episodes (penned by McGoohan himself) and not be genuinely shocked by their intensity and inventiveness. Indeed, it was these two episodes that enshrined The Prisoner in TV history - a cataclysmic flourish one could never go back to; never return to for a second series. And why not? After all, McGoohan had acheived precisely what he'd set out to do: to create a prime-time serial drama that was as intellectually satisfying as it was entertaining.

Ladies and gentlemen: Patrick McGoohan proved that popular didn't have to mean dumb; that with a little determination and imagination, the mainstream might possess the same values as art and literature. And it's for that reason that The Prisoner stands as one of the greatest creative acheivements of the 20th Century.

And it's for that reason that 11 Year Old Me and 29 Year Old Me, raise our glasses to Patrick McGoohan.

Be seeing you, mate.

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