15 January 2009

It's Your Funeral

Then he must no longer be referred to as Number 6, or a number of any kind. He has gloriously vindicated the right of the invididual to be individual, and this assembly rises to you... sir.

The President, Fall Out

The Prisoner is the only television programme in existence which inspires me to anywhere near the same degree of fannishness as Doctor Who.

My friend Anthony and I discovered it late -- some 25 years after its first broadcast, in fact -- during what must have been September of 1992. We tuned into Channel 4's late-night repeat of Arrival one Sunday evening, and were inspired at once by the surreal imagery, the Kafkaesque worldview and the complex, demanding plotting.

That term, Ants and I pressed various of our university comtemporaries into watching the programme with us every Sunday. At one point we attended a fancy dress party as Numbers 2 and 6, employing among other props a college scarf, cunningly modified with white cloth tape. (We even performed the opening dialogue once we'd drunk enough, although unfortunately that was also enough that Number 6 -- and for discretion's sake I won't specify which of us that was -- forgot his iconic final line.)

My 21st birthday was that term, and Ants got me Alain Carrazé and Hélène Oswald's The Prisoner: A Television Masterpiece. The inscription inside reads "Dear Phil, Congratulations on reaching Number 21". I can't remember what I got him.

We both remained addicted to the repeats through Christmas and into the New Year. I remember viewing the unbearably tense and intimate penultimate episode, Once Upon a Time, at a student flat of some friends early that January, and -- after it had ended on the series' only cliffhanger ("What do you desire?" "Number One." "I'll take you.") -- revealing nonchalantly that waiting in agonised anticipation for the next episode wouldn't be necessary, because I'd rented Fall Out from a video shop on the way round. (It was somewhere around 12:30am by then, but that's students for you.)

And it was Patrick McGoohan who made me do it.

Not single-handedly, of course -- but as the series' co-creator, producer, occasional director, writer of four keystone episodes and, of course, the actor playing the near-ubiquitous central character, he naturally had rather a lot to do with it.

By all accounts he was an awkward, cantankerous sod, and a swine to work with -- a fact he was well aware of, as his adoption of the nom-de-plume "Paddy Fitz" (ie "Irish Bastard") for his scriptwriting makes perfectly clear. The contributions of other participants to The Prisoner -- especially the less obviously visible ones like George Markstein -- are often underestimated, and McGoohan's reluctance to talk about the project since it finished has certainly added to the mystique surrounding his involvement. It's clear, however, that insofar as anyone can ever be an auteur in a collaborative medium like TV, McGoohan was one.

My love for The Prisoner has never diminished. There may be only seventeen episodes, but I must have watched each of them a dozen or so times (yes, even Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling), and I’ve watched the whole thing through in one sitting on at least four separate occasions. (That's certainly more than I’ve managed with the 752 episodes of Doctor Who.)

I've also read the three 1960s tie-in novels (Thomas M Disch's very fine I Am Not a Number! is really the only one worth bothering with), the 1980s graphic novel and the first (and only, to date) of the paperback tie-in novels published by Powys Media, Jon Blum and Rupert Booth's The Prisoner's Dilemma. (Jon has his own tribute to McGoohan at his LiveJournal.)

At one point I was even in with a chance of writing one of the Powys books myself; but the series seems by all appearances to be on indefinite hold, and quite possibly as dead as a dimetrodon. Island in the Ashes would have been an uncharacteristically sombre post-apocalyptic story, taking as its starting-point a nuclear war in the outside world, which the Village survives by virtue of its remoteness. Prisoners and warders would be forced to co-operate in order to build a viable community, and Number 6 would face the choice of collaborating or depriving the survivors of his indispensable talents. It would have tried him severely.

Whether McGoohan would have liked it, I don't know. As Jon suggests, though, that's not really the point.

In many ways, McGoohan's death isn't a sad one. He was 80 years old, a great-grandfather, a talented professional whose one towering achievement, long ago though it was, remains as a lasting monument to him. His retirement from acting, and his disinclination to discuss the one part of his life people were interested in, mean that his passing will have little appreciable impact on the world beyond his family and friends.

But... well. One of The Prisoner's great strengths is that the superficial message of the episodes isn't always the true one. Take Number 6's individualism, for instance.

However much he may insist that his life is his own, that he can live isolated from the Village and the world, a true individual in survivalist style, 6 is always shown suffering in the absence of human contact. He always returns to society, to the Village. And when he finally escapes -- if indeed he ever does -- it's in the company of friends.

He may not be a number, just one indistinguishable statistic in a crowd... but he's no island either. However much he may wish otherwise, he's part of humanity, and his humanity is part of him.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
John Donne, Meditation XVII

The alternative to tyranny is not individualism: the alternative to authority is community.

The bell on the campanile's tolling now. And I'm mourning the passing of Patrick McGoohan.

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