The Prisoner Under A Glass: (Part One – Danger Man)
I will not be pushed. Filed. Stamped. Indexed. Briefed, debriefed, or numbered!
TV shows simply do not affect intellectual development.
It just isn’t possible unless you are under the age of two and the pretty colors you are seeing are doing something rapid growth of your recently generated neural network. TV shows in all brutal honesty are mostly for retards. They are designed that way because they have to appeal to the lowest common dominator. Especially in the 1960s when you had to rake in audiences in the tens of millions.
Yet there was one 1960s series that defied an entire system dedicated to creating aggressive mediocrity.
The Prisoner was the most mind pummeling TV series created in a decade where mind-pummeling was suddenly a serious hobby for the under twenty-five set. It was a voice of rebellion at a time where rebellion was being turned into a commodity. In other ways, it was exceptionally conventional in an age when conventions that were hundreds of years old were being thrown into the nearest ditch.
And this one is usually missed by most scribblers. The Prisoner was exceptionally Irish. It will take me a while to explain that one. It also had an underlying foundational layer of Catholicism and it will take me a lot longer to sift through that. It is a show that deeply affected the intellectual development of a generation, but not the one it was first shown to.
I first ran into The Prisoner in Starlog magazine. Don’t worry if the name means nothing to you, it’s a Gen-X thing. And if it does mean something to you then you already understand my adolescent eagerness to give this old TV series a shot when it was announced that The Prisoner would be shortly rerunning on PBS. I started scanning TV Guide, (again you have to be Gen X or older to understand that referent in fullness). I discovered it had already been broadcasting for a few weeks, but I tuned into the next episode up called Free For All.
Confusing? You bet! Which doesn’t change the fact that it is a fantastic entry point for the Prisoner and his world of The Village. The premise of that episode was that the Village was going to have an election for the office of Number 2…
And I’ve already lost those of you who’ve never seen it. In fairness to you, it’s pretty easy to get lost when have actually seen every episode of The Prisoner and you actually know what the hell is going on, let alone having some random blogger describe it to you.
We will have to go back a bit.
Patrick Joseph McGoohan was born in 1928 in New York City to Irish emigrants who picked the wrong damn year to emigrate. Since there was absolutely no work to be found in New York after the Crash his parents returned home to Ireland. When Patrick was eight his parents moved to Sheffield, England. There is a fairly substantial Irish community in Sheffield dating from the Potato Famine. Patrick attended St. Vincent’s School, De La Salle College (junior high school you’re an American), and Ratcliffe College (high school). These were all Catholic schools, and McGoohan remained devout all his life. Like any good British schoolboy in the Thirties, he was beaten severely for the slightest infraction to include being beaten for having been beaten too often. McGoohan excelled at mathematics and boxing.
When he was sixteen, he was done with education. He began working a number of odd jobs ranging from chicken farming to bank clerking. On the weekends he worked at a local theater. His job title was “stage manager” which is to say he did the shit work backstage. Naturally, he would occasionally be asked to “run lines” with actors (or given his looks more likely actresses). “No, no Patrick, put a little more feeling into it if you could please… That’s better… Project more, speak from your belly, not your throat… You know, you are rather good at this…”
Since he knew the parts anyway, when one of the actors called in sick or was too hungover McGoohan would step in. This was the start of his acting career. Like any other actor/actress of the period he would have had to have worked towards getting his equity card, meaning a union card. So, he would play in various backcountry theaters with other aspiring actors trying to get their cards. It was a decent journeyman process because to hook each other up in getting the hours you needed for equity, you would frequently trade parts for different performances and thus learn how to play a wide variety of roles.
He was in the West End in 1955 when he was discovered by Orson Welles, who immediately cast him as Starbuck in his Moby Dick-Revised. He worked with other up-and-coming British actors in that production to include Christopher Lee. He came back to the British acting community and started bouncing around various minor roles in UK films, TV, but mostly theater until he was spotted in Ibsen’s play Brand (yeah, that one is weird) by Lew Grade and would not return to the stage for another three decades.
The future Lord Lew had a man of adventure series in development and he was certain he’d found his leading man. The show was called Danger Man and it’s better known in the UK today than it is in the US. The show was about a field intelligence officer named John Drake.
Danger Man predated Doctor No by two years, so no it wasn’t a rip-off of James Bond… Mostly. The truth is that Cold War spy novels had caught on in a big way because there wasn’t a Hot War going on. The first appearance of James Bond was on CBS Climax! Theater in 1954, 007 was an American and Felix was English. So, yeah, the genre needed some time in the bottle. But the interesting thing about Danger Man is just how much Patrick McGoohan was able to influence the show since there wasn’t much in the way of tropes and cliches just yet. They were coming like an avalanche, but they hadn’t arrived yet.
Patrick McGoohan wouldn’t usually let Drake carry a gun and seduction was NOT part of the job, although some low-key romance was tolerable. Drake began to take on some demi-autobiographical characteristics of McGoohan. Drake claimed in Episode 9 to be an Irish-American and he spoke with a Mid-Atlantic accent. He was frequently at odds with his superiors over his rigid ethics during his missions. These were mostly on behalf of Britain, however, his missions also supported democracy in foreign countries and occasionally he solved murders that affected the interests of the US or NATO.
The series ran for two years before the plug was pulled although it left McGoohan the highest-paid actor in the UK at the time. This attracted the attention of producer Cubby Broccoli who approached him to play the lead in Doctor No. McGoohan turned him down flat because of Bond’s rampant immorality. He wanted no part of it.
However, two years after Doctor No exploded, Danger Man was revived due to a sale of the reruns in America.* Although in America the show was called Secret Agent. There were some mild changes. Drake was retconned from Irish-American to just British and he stopped doing missions for NATO and the US. McGoohan mulishly refused to change his accent. Interestingly the last few episodes took place in Japan, and I think they actually went there. These last few episodes were the only ones that were in color.
Drake used his wits to win the day when possible. “Agent Drake uses his intelligence, charm and quick thinking rather than force. He usually plays a role to infiltrate a situation, for example, to scout for a travel agency, naive soldier, embittered ex-convict, brainless playboy, imperious physician, opportunistic journalist, bumbling tourist, cold-blooded mercenary, bland diplomat, smarmy pop disc-jockey, precise clerk, compulsive gambler or impeccable butler.”
Drake’s actions in the completion of his missions sometimes led to good people suffering and he suffered for it himself. His run-ins with his superiors became something more than a fixture and he refused to take an assassination mission. Drakes’s tension with his superiors appears to have been a mirror to McGoohan’s tension with his own producers. They clearly wanted him to be more like James Bond and he’d already turned that job down.
After the Japan episodes, Patrick McGoohan abruptly resigned from Danger Man/Secret Agent to start a new project he’d been working on with David Tomblin called The Prisoner.
A bunch of the people that had been working on Danger Man moved over to the new production. This generated a lot of carry-over flavor and created a question that has never really had a solid answer.
Was the Prisoner, John Drake?
The answer is it depends on who you ask. Ask a lawyer and he will assure you that they are separate entities because they were owned by different production companies.** Ask David Tomblin or some of the other people involved with The Prisoner and they will declare that Drake and Number Six are the same person. Patrick McGoohan always claimed that they were separate characters.
In the end, it doesn’t matter, there would never have been one without the other. The first episode of Danger Man took place in Italy, but before the UK joined the Common Market getting foreign filming permits was difficult. So, they just shot the pilot in Portmeirion, Wales.
The location seems to have stuck with McGoohan.
End of Part One
*The first season had run on CBS but hadn’t gotten any traction.
** I couldn’t find out if this is still the case. You never know what gets rolled together in buyouts.