Wednesday, January 14, 2009

'Be Seeing You'

And now the Prisoner is finally free.

Patrick McGoohan, who starred in The Prisoner, my favorite television show, died yesterday in California.
He was 80 years old.

McGoohan, who was born in Astoria, was a veteran of stage, screen and TV, winning two Emmys for his work on Columbo .

This guy was beyond cool, he was solid ice.

I remember him first from Secret Agent, a spy show that, at McGoohan's insistence, went against the Bond formula of guns, women, and mindless explosions.

His John Drake character was gritty and didn't hesitate to employ such less-than-sporting tactics as blackmail to put his opponents out of commission.

I also remember seeing him in The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, where he played a priest, Dr. Syn (oy...) in an 18th Century English farming community, who fights the king's harsh taxes in the guise of the Scarecrow, a kind of British version of Zorro.

My mother never forgave him for his behavior in The Three Lives of Thomasina, a kid's movie about the eponymous feline. I tried to explain to her that (a) it was just a movie and (b) things turned out all right in the end.

But Mom didn't want to hear it. This guy tried to bump off a kitty and he was marked for life in her book.

But my favorite McGoohan project was hands down, The Prisoner. I am one of the legion of fans of the cult TV show that debuted in 1967 as a summer replacement for the Jackie Gleason Show and retains its importance to this day.

For those of you who haven’t seen the show, McGoohan plays a spy who quits the business, only to be drugged and hauled off to this bizarre location called "The Village," where, now called "Number 6," he is held against his will until he says why he resigned.

The Village looks just like a small seaside town, but people are drugged, tortured, and treated like lab rats. Number 6 refuses to knuckle under, declaring that "I will not pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered!" as he tried in vain each week to escape.

We used to vacation in the Poconos and we used to pretend that the nearby Mount Airy Lodge was the Village. If you ever saw the place in its heyday, you know this wasn't much of a stretch.

I could easily imagine Number 6 running through your host with the most in the Poconos, while being pursed by Rover, the malevolent beach ball that used to roll right over its victims.

Everyone in the Village gives this little salute, like making the OK sign and saying "be seeing you" whenever they parted company. It was meant to appear cheery, but it could make your skin crawl.

When I was in grammar school, I got into the habit of greeting one of the brothers with that salute, to a point where he would look at me expectantly whenever he saw me in the schoolyard.

The scariest thing about the set-up is the constant message that says all you have to do is conform and everything will be fine. The Village has grown a lot bigger since then.

I loved everything about the show: the theme music, the opening credits, that funky car, our hero drove, and the weekly introduction of his latest nemesis, the new Number 2.

Each week, Number 6 would angrily declare to a dark sky "I am not a number; I am a free man!" while Number 2 responded with an evil laugh. My mom had no use for the show, but she used to say that line every now and then, having heard it so many times.

The final episode, where the identity of Number 1 is revealed and we find out who was behind all this, is a classic. I managed to miss this episode twice in my life.

The first time around the last episode was preempted by some sporting event and when the series came around again the next year, we were on a family vacation--probably in the Poconos.

I finally did catch up with the last show and it was out of control. From I'm reading, fans in England were so unhappy with the twisted climax that McGoohan had to leave the country for a time.

The show has aged incredibly well, in both its appearance and its theme. Looking around today, you could almost consider it a warning of what was to come and what now is.

Rest in peace, Number Six. Thanks for all the great work.


Brooklyn Beat said...

Yep. What a great, disturbing, dare-one-call-it Kafka-esque bit of telly. One thought it had to be someone's dream you were watching, since it was a universe from which ultimately there was no escape. Current shows with "circular" kind of closed end themes, like "Lost" (which I didnt watch often) seemed more obvious in there efforts. I guess The Prisoner was fresh, like a Twilight Zone for its time, dreamlike, paranoid and yet you wondered whether such things could exist in fact in "the free world". as we see in guantanamo, they sure can..thanks

Rob K said...

My aunt is watching the series now on DVD and she says that it still holds up. It's also a bit scary in how it seems to predict current events.

Anonymous said...

Thank God I found your site; my head was decompensating faster than the protagonist's in a Ramsey Campbell novel. The LA Times did a McGoohan obituary in which it was recited that "The Prisoner" had aired on American TV in the summer of '68, and then again in reruns in '69. I wrote in to one Dennis McClellan to correct the dates -- it was '67 and again in '68, as a summer replacement for the Jackie Gleason Show -- and was treated in reply to a list of treatises and authorities that gave the date of the initial American airing as '68. A search of the web initially revealed elements of the same conspiracy, until I found two articles: one confirming that the series had been filmed in Wales in the fall of '66 (not '67, as McClellan represented), and yours. Thanks for confirming that I haven't yet embarked on what Ronald Reagan called "the long goodbye" -- and for penning a fine and fitting tribute to character and actor alike.

Rob K said...

Hey, my pleasure. Thanks for stopping by and I'm sorry for responding so late.

Be seeing you.