The Prisoner: George Markstein


I first watched The Prisoner  when it was first broadcast, between 1967/8. The Granada region was the last to take the series, running one month behind the show’s ‘home’ network, ATV. Up here, it ran from late October through to early March, a period of time that encompassed my 12th birthday.
I – we, the whole family – watched it avidly, though my only recollection of that run comes from the first episode: as Number Six approached the Green Dome I said that this was the sort of place I’d expected to see a Lurch (referencing The Addams Family‘s giant, Frankensteinian butler): when little Angelo Muscat, short, rotund, impeccably grave, opened the door, my Dad roared with laughter and announced, “That’s not a Lurch, that’s a Stumble!”. And Stumble he was to us ever after. I definitely owe my sense of humour to my Dad.
But it was been and gone, as all television was, and I don’t recollect it being repeated until 1976/7: again piecemealed region by region. This time I turned 21 during the run, and it’s from here that I mark my true fascination with the series, and the urge to know more and understand more.
During that time, old certainties about the series, hundreds of details, have shifted as more information becomes available. Consensus opinion about the series, its production, its meaning, its goals, is in a constant state of slow shift.
To take one example: my understanding of the origins of the series has always been founded in the ‘fact’ that The Prisoner was co-conceived by George Markstein, the newly-appointed script editor on Danger Man, and that it was based on the true Second World War situation of Inverlair Lodge, a very comfortable, very remote building in Scotland that was home/prison to people that British Intelligence could not afford to allow to be captured.
With McGoohan chafing in, and abruptly resigning from Danger Man, the analogy is too proximate to be ignored: Markstein suggests The Prisoner as a sophisticated espionage drama, an Agent who resigns but is kidnapped to a seemingly idyllic prison, and McGoohan seizes upon the concept as a vehicle for his existing ideas about society and the direction it is taking. Markstein provides the structural basis, McGoohan the symbolism.
It’s only relatively recently that I’ve come to understand just how much that initial status has been challenged down the years. McGoohan in particular increasingly claimed that the idea was entirely his own, that he had conceived of The Prisoner alone, before his decision to leave Danger Man, that he had discussed his ideas with Lew Grade before the famous breakfast meeting at which, instead of agreeing to go back to being John Drake, McGoohan sold Grade on The Prisoner.
I never met Patrick McGoohan, nor communicated with him in any way, and I would never dream of suggesting that he was lying or self-aggrandising when he sought to increase the extent to which he was identifiable as the sole creator of The Prisoner. Indeed, many people accept and repeat his claims on the justifiable grounds that he was a very successful, very widely-respected and very much ‘in demand’ actor who had to need to inflate himself by claiming credentials he did not deserve.
But by then it was very clear that the series was the one thing that would most signify him and his life, just as the forthcoming Doctor Who, Peter Capaldi, despite the diversity of his career to date, is being only identified as Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It (it will be interesting to see if that changes after Doctor Who: I suspect it might not).
Patrick McGoohan was ‘The Prisoner’ for the remainder of his life, irrespective of whatever else he did. It defined him, and I cannot but think of Arthur Ransome, the Swallows and Amazons writer, about whom I wrote extensively in this blog. Ransome’s Swallows, the Walker children, were firmly based upon the real-life Altounyan children, yet towards the end of his life, Ransome firmly denied the connection, effectively calling the Altounyans deluded, and self-aggrandising.
Ransome had become so psychologically associated with his creations that he was unable to admit, even to himself, that he was not their sole creator. It would not seem strange to me that McGoohan, as the years passed by and his own recollections dimmed, may have come to unconsciously emphasise his contribution to the concept of the series that defined his life, and gradually reducing that of his collaborator – from whom he’d diverged so dramatically, almost immediately – almost to insignificance.
But what of Markstein himself? In his later life he was decidedly contemptuous of The Prisoner, not merely because of the comprehensive re-purposing of the series away from the ideas he had intended, but also because of the cultishness of its appeal.
To him, it was a denouncement of television itself that so much time, energy, thought and words should be expended on The Prisoner, decades after it was completed. It was nothing but a TV series, and as such should have been watched once, enjoyed and forgotten. How much of this was a genuine insistence upon television having no validity as an artform, as something made to exist and not be utterly disposable, and how much was a bitterness at having the great idea of his life taken out of his control, perverted (in his eyes) and made famous as the creation of someone else, is impossible to even suggest.
I sympathise with him fully, and in some episodes of the series, a greater leavening of Markstein’s concrete imagination would have been very useful. But ultimately it’s like the early concept of Doctor Who, in which SF stories rigidly alternated with historical ones, an uneasy mixture enforced by the BBC until viewing figures definitively demonstrated which types of story packed in the viewers.
George Markstein’s Prisoner would have been a different kettle of fish and, good as it most likely would have been, I seriously doubt I would be spending so much time writing about it now. What made the series was the crossing of the two diversive notions, the realistic and the symbolic.
In recent years, Markstein’s own conception of the fulcrum of the series has been made public, though it’s not quite the ending it’s portrayed as being. Surprisingly, just as we’ll see McGoohan doing, Markstein saw Number Six (who most certainly was John Drake!) as being ‘Number One’.
Markstein’s concept was that, some years earlier, Drake foresaw the need for an isolated, idyllic place for spies who retired to go, where they could live in comfort and security. Subsequently, he learned to his disgust that his side had indeed built a Village, but that it was being used for imprisonment and interrogation. Drake therefore resigned, knowing that this would result in his being kidnapped and taken to the Village, and once there he could work to undermine and expose it. But once he had arrived, he began to wonder if he was in his own side’s Village – or somebody else’s?
And Markstein had no difficulties in envisaging a second series outside the Village. Drake could go free, he could go wherever he chose. But wherever he went, and whatever he did, he would remain a Prisoner: of himself and his history, trapped into being what he was and doing what he did, forever manipulated by the Village, no matter how far from its walls he got.
As you can see, it’s not an end. Even McGoohan didn’t have an end when he pitched a seven episode mini-series to Grade: that episode was open and to be created, and Markstein’s ‘ending’ is not so very different in that respect.
We live in a singular Universe or, perhaps, we live in a Multiverse of alternate and parallel existences where other histories pertain, where the thing undone, the road untravelled have been done and travelled and the outcome is different in ways we could not possibly begin to estimate, only we just can’t see into any of these alternate Universes.
But if there are such things, in one such Universe (positing one alternate logically requires us to posit all) George Markstein’s ideas shaped The Prisoner. I’d love to see what he made of it all. Three series, and no-one has talked about it since 1975, maybe?

17 thoughts on “The Prisoner: George Markstein

  1. Yes, it was certainly meant to be Drake wasn’t it? They used his picture on the file in the intro, but McGoohan wanted to get away from that idea, that’s what I thought. There’s no doubt that it wouldn’t have interested me quite so much if he hadn’t taken it on to another path. The result would probably have just resembled another Dangerman, The Saint, The Man from Uncle etc. which were still great, but nowhere near as individual and multi-layered.
    I remember hearing someone describing McGoohan’s screen presence as encompassing the word danger because he could just as easily be charming as lash out and punch you, which most actors could never achieve, and that he scared any actor/stuntman he had to fight with because he always got too stuck in. The intensity that he brought on and off the camera is so evident that I wouldn’t be surprised if he claimed the idea as completely his own, but then what he brought to the series is really what defined it. Another parallel universe worth thinking about is what would’ve happened if he’d taken the role of Bond that he was repeatedly offered. That would’ve been something.
    Also, have you watched the various Columbos he was involved in? There’s that one “Identity Crisis” where he portrays an agent and pays tribute to The Prisoner in various ways.

    1. Oh, indubitably! Markstein’s been very open about Number Six being Drake whilst McGoohan, apart from the legal aspect of having had to pay Ralph Smart unaffordable royalties for the use of his character, had always seen him as someone else: I’ve read that at one point McGoohan wanted someone else to play the role, but I can’t think of anyone from the era who could have been remotely as good. It could not have been the series we still watch so avidly nearly fifty years later without him.
      Though I think he’d have been a disaster as James Bond. His rigid morality with regard towards women would have ruined the part. Again, I’ve read that he was very uncomfortable on set with anything involving getting physically close to a woman – indeed, the only one Number Six is genuinely affectionate towards (as apart from his chivalrous instincts) is Alison in The Schizoid Man – and Bond as acharacter can’t be divorced from his womanising.

      1. He was pretty rude to them as I understood it, but I like that because he seemed like such a no nonsense guy that a relaxed demeanor off set would’ve left me feeling a bit disappointed. As Bond he would’ve been interesting in my opinion, probably too explosive, but then I think that the recent and internationally successful Daniel Craig incarnation never really works on the womanizing front either. He permanently seems too withdrawn and tense to really charm the ladies like Connery, Moore or Brosnan, and in all honesty I think he’s highly overrated and miscast as Bond (Something I wrote an article about). Yet pondering on The Prisoner remake, Craig wouldn’t have made a bad number 6 I feel. He’s got the brow, seems on edge and tense, and I could see he him yelling “I am not a number, I’m a free man!” with far more conviction than his attempts at the the cool “Bond, James Bond” that he seems to utter through gritted teeth.
        Do check out the “Identity Crisis” Columbo that he did though (if you haven’t already), because it’s good to see him throwing in various odes to his number 6 role.
        Also, for me it’s great to know that him and Peter Falk got on so well. In Falk’s auto-biography he says that there was a script he had but didn’t know what to do with, so he sent it to the one man he knew could do something with it: McGoohan. He directed, wrote and starred in 5 or 6 Columbos and it’s great for me because Falk and McGoohan are two of my favourite forces of TV in the same shows. McGoohan even directed one with Billy Connelly in it; I would’ve loved to have been on that set!

      2. The more you read about The Prisoner, the more it becomes clear that McGoohan’s intensity about it only grew. Apparently he started off very professional on set, but grew more and more intense, a sign of his growing absorption into the role, his infuriation at others not being able to see what hew saw and, given that the budget had been overrun, and ATV were trying to dial everything back, his refusal to compromise. Part of me admires that intensity but, given the sloppiness that creeps into the later episodes, I wish he could have been more cool about it, more able to realise his own visions. To be honest, he does sometimes mar the original scripts, which would have made better, more effective stories if McGoohan hadn’t felt the need to intervene so often.
        I’ve seen him in one Columbo but I don’t know which it was. It was one of many series that, for a couple of decades, I associated as being aimed at my mother, not me, so I didn’t pay them the attention I now understand that they deserved. But it is great to know that he had a trustworthy friend and fellow artist in Peter Falk.
        As for James Bond, I’m old enough to have seen The Prisoner first time round, but not old enough to have appeciated it as I do on first, unrecoverable, viewing. I’ve tried in this series of posts to view it in its own time, because I truly believe it could not have been made in any other time and place, and that colours my attitude to McGoohan as Bond. He couldn’t have been what Bond was at that time, and if he had allowed himself to be cast, I think it would have either destroyed the series up front or at least set it back ten years.
        And with no Bond boom, the face of television would have been changed irrevocably.

    2. No, Number Six was never meant to be John Drake. The picture used in the opening credits was actually Patrick McGoohan’s publicity shot not John Drake. You can forget the John Drake/Ralph Smart ‘copyright’ myth too; if McGoohan had wanted to go on playing John Drake than he could have done so – Lew Grade certainly wanted him to make more episodes of Danger Man and they’d already started filming the first colour episodes when McGoohan suddenly quit. Simply going on with Danger Man would have involved far less hassle for McGoohan than setting up his own production company and later having to go off and do a movie – Ice Station Zebra – to supplement the funding for The Prisoner at a time when he was mentally and physically drained from working on the first thirteen episodes. If it was meant to be John Drake in the Village then ITC would have struck a deal for the use of the name/character.

      As for Markstein, there is no doubt that he brought a lot to The Prisoner, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that he walked off the series and was originally contemptuous of it (until it became a cult success…then things changed). If it had been left up to Markstein, then the series might well have become some dull sequel to Danger Man, but the more creative and risk-taking McGoohan wanted to tell an allegorical 1984-style tale rather than yet another spy story.

      Ultimately the world of The Prisoner is far too fantastical to be the one John Drake exists in. The robot in Westworld (the movie) may look like Chris from The Magnificent Seven but it doesn’t make them the same character – such is the case with Number Six and John Drake.

      1. Since writing my ‘Prisoner’ series, I’ve been presented with quite a few contrary opinions as to various aspects of the series. Some of these are very interesting, and some of them I find directly opposed to the ‘conventional myth’ that I’ve known for so many years.

        The confusion between Number 6 and John Drake is still a fruitful one for argument. I find it perfectly plausible, given that George Markstein was the newly-hired script Editor on ‘Danger Man’ when Patrick MacGoohan walked off, and eager to keep his job, for him to come up with the Village concept as a more sophisticated approach to Drake that would pique MacGoohan’s interest into returning. But there’s never been any suggestion that MacGoohan wanted to do ‘The Prisoner’ as a continuation of ‘Danger Man’, indeed he positively rejected the idea of his character being Drake. And he would never have had the creative freedom on ‘Danger Man’ – someone else’s character, someone else’s show – as he could have with his own set-up: Producer and star.

        But, as part of that original audience in 1967/8, I can confidently report that the public saw the two roles as a continuation and ‘The Prisoner’ certainly never overtly denied a connection. Indeed, it traded off MacGoohan’s identification with Drake to provide Number 6 with an instant background that allowed ‘The Prisoner’ to hit the ground running.

        I do say elsewhere that, on Earth-2, where Markstein’s vision prevailed, I imagine the show running for three commercially successful series and being almost completely forgotten nowadays. We got the better of the deal, for all ‘The Prisoner’s flaws.

  2. I know what you mean about the later episodes, but to me the escalating craziness excels it into another realm. It’s like it takes on a dream-like state of freedom which is truly individual to the series, and I can’t think of any other (except maybe a cartoon like The Simpsons or South Park) that reaches that level of surreal absurdity crossed with an underlying and relevant point. In my opinion (which is coming from someone who wasn’t alive when it first aired) the theme would be even more relevant today, as individuality is being further conditioned out of us with conglomerate alliances taking over all media bar the internet (so far) and hooking people into brands, fads and gizmos with an even stronger addiction to be the same as everyone else. I guess in the 60’s there were revolutions of many kinds and the fashions were different; Britain was still clawing on to our empire etc. but the core values of the program would still work. While people are tweeting about The only way is Essex (or whatever it’s called) and permanently keeping one eye on their Apple devices in the the hope that other tweeters will agree with their appreciation for some useless haircut with a tan, they may well completely miss the message behind The Prisioner, but all the more reason for a no-nonsense bastard like McGoohan to try and hit it home with as much of an impact as possible, whether it’s defiant acts of personal rebellion against the system or anarchic insane sequences that leave viewers wondering what the hell they’ve just seen, it’s at least an emotion which differs from a show doing its best to push you into becoming a number and then assassinating those who aren’t.
    I’m a little revved up because I’ve just seen The supremely overrated Avengers (The marvel movie not the TV series) and I’ve really had enough of the junk that’s being produced for both cinema and TV right now. A few of the American cable networks and straight to DVD titles are the only things keeping me at all interested in an art form that I grew up loving, and it makes me value older productions like The Prisoner even more. ITV, the BBC, none of these guys would ever make a show like that now and the highly praised drivel that I see dripping out of their channels wouldn’t even be fit for filling McGoohan’s toilet. Sherlock has been the only recent TV drama that I’ve truly enjoyed, with the first series of The Hour and a couple of others being okay, but I wish they made more shows like The Prisoner. Maybe not direct remakes, but to at least be prepared to take enough of a risk to get something like that done would be nice.
    Regarding the Columbos, I love them, I’ve got the box set and everything. It’s another one of my favourite TV shows and not only is it a great format (Committing the seemingly perfect murder etc.) but there is so much talent attached. Peter Falk, Patrick McGoohan, William Shatner, Robert Vaughn, Leonard Nemoy, Jack Cassidy, Robert Culp, Donald Pleasence, Janet Lee and the list goes on. Steven Spielberg even directs an episode. Great stuff, I’d thoroughly recommend splashing out on a second hand box-set and getting stuck in.
    And as for the idea of McGoohan as Bond, obviously neither of us will ever know, but I’m sure we’d both agree on the fact that he would’ve certainly brought something to the role that none of the other actors have so far, whether for better or worse.

    1. I understand where you’re coming from with regard to the later episodes. My own take, on which I plan to expand, is that their increasing weakness in relation to the aims of the series show the Village getting increasingly desperate, thus justifying the extreme measures in Once Upon a Time. I’m also looking at the series from behind as well as in front of the camera, and seeing the episodes as a response to their context, instead of being the pure intention of someone with the luxury of complete choice.
      I wish there was more individual and ‘crusading’ series, works by individuals with ‘ bee in their bonnet’ and the urgent desire to warn, but everywhere we turn, the corporate hold is always tighter, and we mustn’t shock or startle the people in case they wake up. We need the McGoohans even more with every day, but they’re the last people who will be allowed the television/film process.
      I also love Sherlock. I’d also love to see someone with the money to provide the production values of Game of Thrones produce an adaptation of The Book of the New Sun, just to see if it’s remotely possible. After all, it does have incest in it, if you look very carefully…
      I wish I had the time to watch all the stuff I’ve got, let alone what’s already been recommended to me before I get to Columbo, but I’m already struggling to get enough writing hours! Maybe if I’ve already won a several-week-rollover-EuroMillions…
      As for Bond, yes indeed, McGoohan would have brought things to that role no-one else could. I just don’t think, taking Fleming’s creation in the round, it would have been Bond, any more than any of the 200AD Dan Dares were ever Dan Dare in more than name.

  3. Frank Hampton’s Dan Dare was drawn so well, I was far too young to have read the Eagle when it came out but have seen quite a few over the years due to being an avid comic collector when I was younger. I never read any of the 2000 AD adaptions but I can imagine that they were obviously trying to appeal to a different generation, which eventually warmed to the grittier Dredd’s emergence in the 2nd issue (I think or maybe 3rd) rather than Dare.
    And I’d never heard of The Book of the New Sun, but I just gave it a quick google and it looks interesting. I only really “read” books in audio form now because I can listen to them whilst I draw or edit my own writing, so if there’s some out there then I’ll give them a go. I like novels written in the 1st person, and am currently working through the Dexter (book) series.
    But I think that the 1st episode of the 2nd season of Sherlock, A Scandal in Belgravia, was probably the best drama I’ve seen come out of this country in a long while. Every line was perfectly written by Steven Moffat and that episode in particular was extremely well crafted. If only other series were maintained to such a high standard, and although I haven’t been drawn to the current incarnations of Dr Who, Moffat’s involvement has left me interested in searching for the episodes he did.

    1. I’m a major Dan Dare fan and Frank Hampson is one of my personal heroes. There really isn’t space in a reply to get into what I think about the updating of certain characters, and I’ll probably write a blog about it when I do get my thoughts together. Suffice to say now that, having read so many different, modern approaches to the character, only the ‘recent’ (2007) Warren Ellis version captures anything of the essential elements. I’ll be puttig up my essay for Spaceship Away on that subject once the issue it appears in is a year old.
      As far as I know there isn’t an audiobook of The Book of the New Sun, but even if there were it would still require close listening.
      I love Sherlock to the extent that I’m patiently waiting for the complete box set before buying any of the DVDs. I had a problem with Scandal in Belgravia, however. Most of it was, as you say, absolutely brilliant, but I found its ending annoying. The point of Irene Adler was that she was the Woman, Sherlock Holmes’ female equivalent, his equal, the one who beat him. But you can’t have that in Steven Moffat’s world: the (male) hero always has to outdo the uppity female, be more important than her, be rescuer to her helpless victim. It’s the same syndrome that very nearly absolutely ruined the final Dr Who episode to date (see my blog on the programme).
      I have mixed feelings about Moffat’s Who. On the one hand, I enjoy it far more that Russell Davies’ version, and Matt Smith has (mostly) been my favourite Doctor, but the last half series was dreadfully flat, leading me to suspect that what I was really enjoying was the combination of Doctor/Amy/Rory, and for every bit of bravura Moffat produces, there are sillinesses or plot holes into which you could drive a Concorde. Roll on the 50th Anniversary special: I saw episode 1, which is going to feel weird – as will the Special if we’re lucky!

      1. That’s interesting that the episode you had problems with was Scandal in Belgravia. I guess I’m not really comparing it to the original story as such, as they’re all so well known that I quite enjoy the fact that Moffat and Gattis are altering them with that in mind. I generally look at them as how good they are as shows, and to me I’d rather see Sherlock never beaten. Throughout the story she did outsmart him on several occasions which is impressive considering his genius, and to me the characters still worked because they were intrigued and in awe of one another to the point of attraction. Plus his real equal is Moriarty, so to have him seemingly beaten in 2 out of 3 episodes in one season wouldn’t really leave him as being the greatest detective of all time.
        The main one I had issues with was the second in the first series, The Blind Banker, which I felt was overly long and didn’t maintain the caliber of dialogue within the other episodes. It was the only one that seemed a little below standard to me, but the series as a whole is great, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what’s next, which is rare of me concerning British TV these days. Incidentally I just watched the latest Star Trek movie last night, and I have to say that Benedict Cumberpatch was great in that also. I can’t imagine a better casting as Holmes for this era.

  4. Also I just remembered another thing that didn’t work about the Blind Banker was in the finale in which a gun (?) was perfectly positioned to fire at Watson’s girlfriend who was seated at the exact place to get hit, and rather than simply knocking her chair slightly off course thus rendering her safe and sound, they decided to tackle the enemies instead. That was how it happened as I recall, which to me is a plot hole that leaves me shaking my head.

    1. Oh I agree, The Blind Banker was the poorest to date, but then it was the same in both series: the middle one that Moffat doesn’t write is always the weakest. I did rather like John Watson’s short-lived girl-friend in Banker though.
      I’m not a fan of the original stories, and the whole point of Sherlock is that it re-imagines them for the 21st century, but I do take issue with the way Irene Adler had to be demeaned by being reduced to the helpless female being rescued. I get your point about her not beating him when Moriarty (such a splendidly lunatic creation) was going to, but there was room to present the two as equals and opposites, which is a fairer description of the original relationship.
      Apart from disliking it when one writer sets out to specifically overturn the carefully devised work of another, it’s the misogyny at work that I found really distasteful (though I must add that a female friend of mine was not bothered by it). It is a feature of Moffat’s work, and I do wish he didn’t give way to it. The woman simply can’t be seen to be on the man’s level.

  5. I’m not sure if it’s the fact that she’s a woman or the fact that Holmes is the hero. To me she didn’t come off as being a helpless woman, but more of a villainous vixen who would eventually bite off more than she could chew. The story may have been changed somewhat but I still felt that in a world where the majority of characters (mostly male) are morons compared to Holmes, she still stood out as a cut above the rest and worthy of the detective’s affections and interest. I certainly don’t see it as a misogynistic interpretation of her character, but more of a way to alter the story with a twist that may go unsuspected by viewers already familiar with the original.
    Anyway, I’m looking forward to seeing how he got out of that last cliffhanger. There was definitely something about him borrowing a body from the coroner, but I haven’t quite pieced it all together yet…

    1. Guess we’ll just have to accept that we’ve reacted differently to the ending (as did my friend and I).
      Yes, the cliffhanger has stumped me, but then if I had guessed howdunnit, I’d be disappointed. I see through so much on TV and in films that it is an absolute joy to be astounded. Why read/watch something if the creator isn’t smarter than you?

      1. Good point, I find with whodunnits that generally it’s the person that you’d least suspect, which has led to the right conclusion for pretty much all of the mysteries I’ve watched over the previous few years since I’ve been watching them whilst also thinking of writing my own stories. Maybe that’s part of the reason that Sherlock and Columbo appeal to me more, because it’s more of a howdunnit, or in Columbo’s case, how will Columbo prove that they did it.

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