March 19, 2011
It was the face: the firmly set mouth, craggy nose, gimlet eyes; most of all that wide expanse of brow. American-Irish actor PATRICK McGOOHAN (1928-2009) bestows upon Number Six, central character in the cult 1960s TV series The Prisoner, the perfect physiognomy of doomed resistance. This totemic head, tilted in calculation or suspicion, the eyes narrowed, sits precariously atop McGoohan’s blazer-clad frame as he slashes, desperate and always moving a little sideways, through the show’s topsy-turvy carceral village (actually Portmeiron, Wales). The blazers, together with the crewneck jerseys and plimsolls compulsory for the narcotized inmates of this steampunk thought-control warehouse, work to dispose various thought-criminals and threats to state order as if they were Jerome K. Jerome punting enthusiasts. You can never leave, and never learn what power put you there; meanwhile, the band plays tunes in a Gilbert and Sullivan style and your cozy cottage awaits. The Prisoner, running just 17 episodes in 1967 and ’68, was faultless paranoid-psychedelic style, edgier and weirder than spy-fi rivals like the original Avengers (1961-69), with Diana Rigg in her form-fitting jumpsuits and Patrick Macnee as mod-Edwardian dandy John Steed. Both aesthetically and politically, The Prisoner took no prisoners: the thrilling opening sequence alone, with its soundtrack of urgent menace, is a masterly miniature depiction of the cynical power the state wields over the individual. “I am not a number,” Number Six famously cries, “I am a free man.” But how can he know for sure?
PRISONER SCRIPTS HERE.
On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Josef Albers.
READ MORE about members of the Postmodernist generation (1924-33).
What do you think?
I had such a teen crush on McGoohan from the Prisoner series! Gimlet eyes…. sigh. What a gem of a show and you describe it to perfection.
Nice one, Mark.
Ziauddin Sardar and others have argued that The Prisoner perfectly expressed the themes of postmodernist theory, several years before Lyotard and others popularized such themes. All grand narratives (Truth, Reason, Morality, History) and Truth-claiming worldviews (Science, Religion, Marxism) are rejected, or put into play as relative constructs, in the Village. The idea that there is a true or ultimate Reality concealed behind appearances is subverted. Social life is regulated not by reality but by simulations, models, pure images, representations. The more that Number Six deconstructs the Village, the less he learns; there is nothing that can provide him (or the viewer) with meaning, with a sense of direction, with a scale to distinguish good and evil. All that remains are language games, word-plays, and plays with words. The final episode, which promises to reveal the identity of Number One and decode all that has gone before, dissolves into chaos, meaninglessness, a return to the beginning.
I love the show, but find it exhausting to watch more than a handful of episodes per year; it’s like reading Philip K. Dick (born the same year as McGoohan) — it’s so rich and dizzying, so hopeless (despite the message, in both The Prisoner and PKD novels, that the real heroism isn’t good or truth triumphing over evil or untruth, but merely surviving, maintaining, stubbornly refusing to go with the flow) that a little goes a long way. Having said that, this item has inspired me to get my Prisoner box set out of storage and return to Portmeiron…
PS: The Great Escape‘s Steve McQueen, James Garner, James Coburn, and David McCallum; Escape from Alcatraz‘s Clint Eastwood; The Fugitive‘s David Janssen; and The Prisoner‘s Patrick McGoohan are exact contemporaries. Why was this escape-artist meme so popular among that cohort?
The Handsome Escape Artist Matrix — there’s an article there!
Love the PoMo take, and I also find it hard to watch too many episodes at a time. In the old days, after TV but before boxed sets, they’d be shown by college clubs in little projection rooms in the basement of the student union building. Kind of miss that…
I’m working on an essay trying to ‘prove’ that The Prisoner was actually a metaphorical treatment of the initiation myth (specifically the masonic kind — filing down a rough ashlar type thing). Great show.
ENKI-2, I once read an essay in an anti-modernist, neo-pagan, semi-Nietzschean journal called TYR about how The Prisoner was a metaphorical treatment of something. What the hell was it? I’ll have to look around the attic for that issue. Here it is on Amazon, if you’re interested:
McGoohan is also fantastic in Basil Dearden’s early sixties movie All Night Long, which is a version of Othello set amongst jazz musicians. McGoohan is the Iago on drums.
I would be very interested in reading/discussing ENKI-2’s essay…
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