I don’t normally comment when famous people die – it is an odd moment, when someone who seems like part of the furniture is suddenly no longer there, or when someone who seems utterly guaranteed to have a long and prosperous career is abruptly gone – but I just found out that Patrick McGoohan has passed away, aged 80, and I’ve simply got to say something.
The Prisoner had a gigantic effect on me. It first entered my life when I was around six or seven – the series was being repeated on ITV at some absurd time like 10am on a Sunday morning, and I can remember being both utterly terrified and entranced by it. It was particularly the appearence of Rover that burned into my brain, with the first sequence in ‘Arrival’ where Rover appears and smothers the one Village member who runs in fear being a standout. I can remember ‘Arrival’, I can remember the end of ‘Living in Harmony’, where the Western backdrop falls away and Number 6 realises exactly what’s going on, and – although it took me watching it again nearly ten years later to realise it – I also remembered the utterly crazed final episode ‘Fall Out’. It stayed with me, and I was always aware of it, but it wasn’t until my teens, around the age of 16 and 17, that I finally tried to catch up with The Prisoner, and found myself gripped by one of my occasional crazes. It’s an amazing show – both fascinating and deliberately obtuse, crammed full of weird symbolism and bizarre self-indulgence along with moments of absolute genius. Just getting to grips with the levels that the show was prepared to work on was a major task, and McGoohan’s portrayal of Number 6 was part of that – sharp, charismatic, and steely, along with enough of an edge to make you suspect (as anyone who reads about the background of the show will discover), that McGoohan could be an absolute bastard to work with when he wanted to. But, it’s one of those rare occasions (the only other one I can think of right now is Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor) when an actor’s performance and identity expands outwards to almost become bigger than the show.
Much of what was great about the show was thanks to McGoohan, and much of what was head-scratching, peculiar or just plain daft was down to him as well. It’s not 17 episodes of perfection – there are ups and downs – and yet, there’s so much to discover in there, and compared to most of its contemporaries, it’s like a transmission from a strange, Kafka-esque alternate universe. My passion for the show may have cooled a little from its teenage peak, but my love of the show’s sheer experimentalism and the way it expanded my horizons hasn’t. It’s still a formative experience, part of the architecture of my mind, and always will be, and despite McGoohan’s refusal to talk much about the show in his later years (you can probably count his interviews on the fingers of one hand), I think he knew that it was what he was going to be remembered for. Like many demented artists, he had a glorious peak that he then found difficult to top, retreating to L.A. and doing plenty of work, but nothing that ever seemed to come close to the strange motherlode he tapped with The Prisoner. I can’t help wishing that his last cinematic appearences of any note were in better films (A Time To Kill and The Phantom, for heaven’s sake), but he lived to a healthy age, had more of an influence than he ever expected, and his characterisation of Number 6 will always be one of my televisual heroes. And, in my head, he’ll always be sat at the wheel of that Lotus 7 racecar, on his way to deliver that resignation and kick off the whole quest towards discovering who Number 1 really is.
R.I.P, Mr McGoohan.