Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Patrick McGoohan (1928-2009)

I just got the surprising and sad news that Patrick McGoohan passed away in Los Angeles yesterday after a short illness.

McGoohan—who I just learned was born in Astoria—appeared on stage and acted and directed and wrote in an assortment of movies and television programs. The reason I am stopping everything to write about him is that, in the late 1960s, McGoohan managed to combine his talents to create the brilliant television program The Prisoner.

I've written about The Prisoner before on this blog and elsewhere. In case you need a refresher, it was a short television series about a British secret agent who resigns and finds himself in a bizarre place called The Village, where everyone is known by a number and where the leadership tries to manipulate him into revealing why he resigned. Just about every episode revolves around the retired spy's efforts to outsmart and escape his captors.

The storylines of The Prisoner could have been as rudimentary as that of a simple videogame, but under McGoohan's leadership the show went in an apposite direction. The visuals for the series remain stunning: a colorful blend of 1960s pop stylings with the eccentric retro-design of the Portmeirion resort village of Wales. The soundtrack was unusually catchy and playful; the scripts were clever and puzzling and steeped in edgy satire punctuated by powerful pathos; the actors seemed to rise to the occasion and truly belong to The Prisoner's dystopian world. I'm not sure the very end of the series is a success, but I respect the experimentalism of the whole series and the many powerful moments it has to offer. The only other television series I can think of that offered the same type of risk-taking and satisfaction is Twin Peaks, though I'm sure there are other worthy candidates, including Lost. (The Singing Detective and other Dennis Potter works are works of genius, but for the moment I'll consider them as belonging to a different genre.)

I don't recall seeing The Prisoner when it originally aired (though I might've seen fragments of it); I caught up with it when it was re-aired by PBS in the late 1970s. Attracted by the advance publicity and totally riveted by the first episode, I watched the rest of the series religiously and even refused to answer the phone while it was on—something I had never done before and would rarely do afterward. I devoured the Starlog magazine that included an episode guide. I even had like-minded friends over for a Prisoner party and got into Marvin Kitman's Newsday column with a petition (co-spearheaded by The Other Dave) that, if memory serves, had to do with keeping the show on the air.

Since then, The Prisoner has become much easier to see due to video. It's been "quoted" on The Simpsons and sort of cribbed in The Truman Show. The long talked-about remakes seem to be more imminent than ever—and the messages and themes of The Prisoner remain relevant more than 40 years after its creation by Patrick McGoohan. Standards of privacy and individuality continue to erode in a global village that seems more engulfing by the minute.

So see it if you haven't already. Here's how it begins....

Source (2:24)


David said...

McGoohan was also the star of Secret Agent, most famous for the title song of the same name by Johnny Rivers. Here's the song with completely unrelated and disgusting video. But, heck, I was in a hurry.

I also enjoyed seeing him in the movie Ice Station Zebra, though I barely remember the movie today.

It's true, we had prisoner parties. We ate cakes shaped like the number 6, wore pins with a picture of an old fashioned bicycle on it, wore capes and striped shirts, and occasionally carried umbrellas. We held our fingers in a sign that might have once meant OK, but when held up to one eye, predicted the future state of total awareness we now live in. With a nod, we said 'be seeing you', before there was YouTube and Skype and virus checkers. We spoke with a creepy, passionless, lilt which meant that we too were trapped in The Village. And all this before Reagan, before Bush-squared, and even Hillary took her village.

David said...

The man who was to become the fluffy version of Number 2 himself, Ricardo Monalban died this week. His big show, Fantasy Island, had some inspiration from The Prisoner, the writing and acting and themes from the Love Boat, with plots from The Millionaire (and other wish-granting shows).

At least he redeemed himself in one big way, he single-handedly saved the whole Star Trek cannon from oblivion with his role of Kahn in the second Star Trek movie.