"I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered."


The summer I was 11 or 12, Animal World with Bill Burrud was on CBS, and of course I watched that. Immediately after was another summer replacement show, a British series called The Prisoner, created by and starring Patrick McGoohan. And now Pat tells me Patrick McGoohan has died at age 80.
From the opening credits, I was entranced, stolen away to Faery by paranoid elves. I didn't understand half the things that were being said, like a kid overhearing an argument between grown-ups, but The Prisoner crawled into my bones and became part of my soul. Orwell had an intellectual understanding of the modern state in Animal Farm and 1984, but McGoohan understood it intuitively. "If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever."
1984 caught that in prose, Animal Farm has the power of fable, but The Prisoner was poetry. And this Winston Smith was an Irishman, a combination of anger and wit that was going to be a lot harder for Them to step on.
Apparently it started with an anecdote about a village populated by retired spies, a community of people who knew too many secrets for the government to ever let them out of its sight. You could tell your more literal minded friends that The Prisoner was a sequel to McGoohan's Danger Man series (Secret Agent over here). What was that line in the Johnny Rivers theme for Secret Agent? They've given you a number, and taken 'way your name.
What if the The Village had a sinister purpose? What if John Drake was taken prisoner, who knows by what side? Whose side was anyone on? An old naturalist Andre Gregory met told him that the modern metropolis was a model for the new concentration camp, where the prisoners police themselves and are very proud of the prison they've built around themselves.

It just occurred to me how often Number Six is a trickster hero, for all the storms of anger and secret agent fisticuffs: situation hopeless, no escape, keeping one step ahead of a crooked house and a sardonic smile that he saved for himself.

Sometimes it was "Invictus" staged by Dali, and sometimes the metaphor was more obvious. A Wild West episode was banned in America because Number Six's refusal to carry a gun might be seen as a rebuke to the war in Vietnam, which tells us more about Americans than it does about The Prisoner. The last episode descended into Magical Mystery Tour indulgence, but what the hell. The damage was already done.
All I knew, God break my bones but never bend me, was which side I was going to be on whenever forced to choose between bully or underdog, between the push-button mentality and the human act. I am not a number; I am a free man. And let them laugh. As Gordon Lightfoot suggested, if we cannot beat the Devil, we can try to give him a few unpleasant memories.

2 comments:

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

I've always believed that THE PRISONER was an indirect sequel to DANGER MAN. And this was long before I knew how our own governments (US and England) easily screw us over. It just made sense, he was a spy who quit when he was fairly young, not an old man, so of course they'd find a way to stick him somewhere.

Rich Chwedyk said...

Mike, pretty much what you said... The Prisoner had a profound effect on me. PRO-FOUND! I really loved those last two episodes.

You can even entertain the notion of McGoohan as trickster in that the series leads you to a finale that, if done on American TV, would have ended up with a "Luke, I am your father..." -type dramatic twist that would be less equivocal, but also less honest. It's not just that Number 6 may be Number 1, but that Number 1 is nuttier than Chock Full o' Nuts, and Number 6 escapes -- more or less -- into a bigger prison. Take that, flower children! You don't get to escape!

And the show wouldn't have been half as good without McGoohan -- John Drake and Number 6 were parts he seemed born to play.

Good example of 6 as Trickster -- "Hammer Into Anvil," one of my favorite episodes.

Damn, I'll miss that guy!