The Prisoner: Who was he, really?

Is it him?

According to one of his co-creators, he always was John Drake. The upright, moral agent, who believed in what he did. Who was committed to his job. Who devised the idea of a retirement home for aged spies, where they could live, safe and protected. Who resigned, from a job that he was the last you could imagine abandoning, because he learned that his proposal had been adopted, but perverted into an interrogation camp. Who resigned knowing that only by this route could he infiltrate this abomination and bring it down.
But his other co-creator had a diametrically opposite opinion: he was anybody in the world except John Drake. He was everyman, the ultimate individual, the one man setting himself against the overwhelming force of the establishment, a growing, cynical, authoritarian establishment requiring conformity to itself in all things. He had no name, because he needed no name, because he was symbol, not person.
Plus there was the legal position that if Number Six were John Drake, the royalty payments due to Drake’s creator, Ralph Smart, would have made the show impossible to produce.
I’ve already commented that, by deliberately blanking Number Six’s name and background, other than his being a spy, allowed Number Six to appear complete with an assumed history. As one who, however young, was there for the first broadcast, I can confirm that our entire family (with the exception of my six year old sister, whose bedtime fell before either programme started) watched the first episode believing The Prisoner to be an extension of Danger Man. To us, and to the vast majority of that first night audience, Number Six was John Drake, no question.
The lack of a ‘real name’ for Number Six created certain difficulties for the scripters, especially in those episodes in which the Prisoner succeeded in returning to London, or, in the case of The Chimes of Big Ben, met former trusted colleagues and friends in the belief that he had done so. Extraordinary contortions were required to get around the necessity that not one of these persons who had worked closely with Number Six in his previous life address him by his actual name.
Not even his fiancée, even when she is convinced that his mind has somehow been transferred into the stranger’s body of Nigel Stock, addresses him by name.
The closest any of these episodes comes to acknowledging this quandary is in Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling, when the Colonel has invaded Number Six’s old headquarters and is challenged to give his name: cleverly, ‘Number Six’ asks “code or real”, and is allowed to identify himself by his various code-names, “Duvall”, “Schmidt” and “ZM73”. Incidentally, none of these code-names have been identified as ones used by John Drake in Danger Man.
In every other scene, devices have to be resorted to, Number Six must be addressed as ‘my friend’, or ‘old man’. The most obvious moment comes in Many Happy Returns, when Number Six can call his old, old friend the Colonel, James, but the Colonel’s only personal reference to him is by the deliberately ironic ‘Number Six’.
It’s an interesting dichotomy: Number Six, the epitome of the individual, lacks that most individual of aspects: a name. Throughout the series, even to his ‘triumph’ in the final episode, when his designation is taken from him, he is nothing but Number Six, the name of a cypher. The man who asserts himself against the weight of all authority ultimately has no individual identity.
Or does he?
The Girl Who Was Death certainly sails very close to the wind of identifying Number Six as having been indeed John Drake. It’s an episode full of in-jokes, and by the very presence of these, we should treat any information in it as being tendentious, but the episode makes an immediate and strong link to McGoohan’s former role. The Agent’s first appearance sees him adopting the same cap and raincoat combination that was characteristic of John Drake.
And Christopher Benjamin, who played Drake’s self-satisfied liaison, Potter, in the two episodes of the aborted Series 4, returns playing what we are invited to assume is the same character.
It’s a very broad hint that Number Six is the former John Drake, though of course the name is never spoken. The hints, however, could not be clearer.
For many years, before the advent of video and DVD, a substantial number of viewers were insistent that Number Six was actually identified in Once Upon a Time as Drake: Leo McKern barks out a pre-advert line that sounded like “Meet me in the morning, Drake”, though the greater availability of the series has helped dispel that myth by allowing everyone to hear it correctly as “morning break”. And elsewhere in the same episode, the nursery rhyme, ‘See saw, Marjorie Daw’ is used in its oldest form, where the next line is ‘Jacky shall have a new master’ (the version I grew up on wasn’t ‘Jacky’, though I can’t tease out the memory of what it was): Jacky, or Jack, is a diminutive of John, a popular variant of the original: John who?
Like so many enigmas about this series, the answer lies in the viewer’s own mind, in what they read the runes as saying. We must, finally, come back to McGoohan’s insistence that Number Six was not Drake, and that originally, to emphasise that there was no actual connection between his former series and his new one, he wanted another actor entirely to play the part, but Grade insisted he wanted McGoohan himself. And who, in all the world, then or since, could have played Number Six in the manner that ensured the series would survive so long?
You pays your money and you takes your choice. I began by believing, in 1967, that The Prisoner was a direct, as opposed to thematic, sequel to Danger Man, and that Number Six was John Drake. No matter how much I know he isn’t, I prefer to believe in the continuity between the two, and that Number Six was always more than just a Number.

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