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?