It was like a dream, a dream that had become fabulous reality.
Here I am in America for the very first time in 1983 on a mission to get an interview with Patrick McGoohan about his groundbreaking television series, The Prisoner.
A dream because the series had changed my life back in 1969 when it was first shown in Britain.
A dream that you almost never get to meet your heroes.
A dream because an infant Channel 4 Television in London had commissioned a documentary about its making. A dream because I knew nothing about making television programs. As a director, this would be my first…
In 1983, Chris Rodley sought to interview Patrick McGoohan for a documentary commissioned by Britain’s then new Channel 4 about The Prisoner. McGoohan, who was living in Los Angeles at that time, agreed to talk; Rodley came out from the UK with a film crew.
There were two filmed interviews, one that eventually played a part in the 1984 documentary titled Six Into One, and one not used and not seen until this, Rodley’s second documentary about Patrick McGoohan, The Prisoner, and the making of Six Into One 35 years later. Supplemented by a recent interview with McGoohan’s daughter Catherine and clips from other interviews and sources, In My Mind is a love letter to two of its subjects, but not the third.
Chris Rodley recalls Patrick McGoohan, who passed away in 2009, being elusive and somewhat capricious when they first met, leading him through a series of preliminary meetings in various locations around Los Angeles before finally settling down to their first recorded interview. This occurred in an unoccupied house in Laurel Canyon.
The interview footage shows a number of starts and stops, with retakes of McGoohan’s responses whenever he’s unhappy with his tone or phrasing. He seems nervous as he sits at a vast glass-topped table that reflects his image. He’s some distance from the camera, and looks rather remote and detached, small against a beige background. In addition, Rodley remembers that the camera crew were having technical difficulties, which didn’t help to create a more relaxed and comfortable atmosphere, nor impress the experienced actor with their professionalism.
A few days later, McGoohan asked Chris Rodley not to use this footage and even offered to pay to have it destroyed.
When Catherine McGoohan speaks of her father, she says that watching The Prisoner again as an adult has made her realize that he was playing himself. He was acting the role of No. 6, but the character’s uncompromising principles, fierce sense of individual identity, and much of the background biographical information, such as his birth-date, are McGoohan’s own.
Catherine also says that her father felt embarrassed to talk about The Prisoner; he felt it was indulgent for an actor to talk about himself, and he didn’t want to take all the credit for the show’s creation. He felt that the work spoke for itself.
After rejecting his first interview, McGoohan agreed to do another one. The Laurel Canyon footage was tucked away unseen for years.
The second interview was conducted around sunset with LA providing a smoggy background, growing darker until McGoohan appears as a dramatic silhouette against the twilight sky.
He did talk about the making of The Prisoner then. As this documentary progresses, Chris Rodley gives us more information about the show’s development. It doesn’t tell me much that I didn’t already know about The Prisoner‘s origins, but the narrative is accompanied by clips from the series as well as McGoohan’s other early film and TV work.
In addition to old footage of Patrick McGoohan, there’s a 1983 interview with Lord Grade, who was Managing Director of ITC in the ’60s and gave Patrick McGoohan approval to go ahead with his new idea for a series when he got tired of doing the more traditional spy thriller Danger Man. Chris Rodley also interviews The Prisoner‘s art director, Jack Shampan, and one of the show’s producers and writers, David Tomblin.
We get some loving shots of the Welsh hotel/village of Portmeirion, where exteriors scenes for The Prisoner were filmed–which is fine with me, since it’s a place I love too. As when I watch The Prisoner, I spent some time during these sequences thinking “I’ve been right there” while I viewed familiar sites around The Village.
Catherine McGoohan recalls that while her mother, and probably her father, enjoyed staying at Portmeirion for 2 or 3 days, they began to feel uneasy in it after a point and wanted to leave. I’ve never reached that point yet myself, but that unsettling feeling the McGoohans sensed beneath the quirkiness and Italianate charm of the place is what’s conveyed throughout The Prisoner.
Patrick McGoohan explains the use of the pennyfarthing bicycle as a symbol for The Village: It reminds him of an elegant era, of men in top hats and high boots. It symbolizes progress, but in an ironic fashion.
“Progress sometimes goes too fast and we’re not able to catch up with it.”
My favorite clips are the Super 8 footage taken by a Portmeirion tourist who was present during the filming of scenes for “Arrival,” the first Prisoner episode, in 1967.
Two episodes of the series are discussed and given close, critical examination.
One is Chris Rodley’s favorite, the penultimate episode,”Once Upon a Time.” This features more autobiographical details from Patrick McGoohan’s own life, and intense interaction between McGoohan and Leo McKern as the returned No. 2 makes one last effort to break the will of the prisoner. A lot of what sounds like improvised repartee between the two actors is in fact detailed in the script, written by McGoohan under a pseudonym. Leo had a nervous breakdown during the making of this episode.
The other is of course the controversial final show, in which No. 6 finally faces No. 1.
The answer to this mystery infuriated the original viewers in 1968; they phoned Channel 4 by the score and forced McGoohan to retreat from the UK for a while. But in 1983, he was delighted by the reaction of the viewers and said that he wanted that kind of angry response. He defends the identity of No. 1. “Who else could it be?” and adds that they weren’t “going to get Sean or Roger,” which to me is a curious remark. I never expected or even imagined that No. 1 would turn out to be anything like James Bond or a Bond-type villain. Is that what people were anticipating in 1968?
To me, the most practical answer seems to be that The Village was run by the prisoner’s own people–if it were Russia or another foreign government, wouldn’t they have at least waited to see if he was bringing whatever information they thought he had to them? Either that, or it was Angelo Muscat’s silent butler.
But these speculations are beside the point, since the show had left conventional spy stories far behind by the final episode, and moved into the realm of the prisoner’s mind. The psychological answer is that, yes, he had to be No. 1. McGoohan explains the big reveal as exposing the evil of in one’s self; the cloaked figure first shows us a bestial ape-face, then a laughing mad self. I suppose this means that No. 6’s mind has snapped as well, if not in “Once Upon a Time”, then somewhere else along the line since his resignation.
Chris Rodley: Did the prisoner escape?
Patrick McGoohan: No.
Aside from the utterly surreal situation of the final episode–bizarre even for this show–note that once the prisoner returns to his own home, the door closes behind him in an automatic, Village-like fashion. You can leave the Village, but you’re never really free.
Of the final episode, Lord Grade commented: “I wanted to know what was going to happen with the balloon.”
In the end, McGoohan rejected and repudiated Chris Rodley’s 1984 documentary. He saw it in Paris before it aired and according to Chris, “hated it so much he yelled at us throughout the day in various cafes across the city.”
He then made his own mocking film in response, with his other daughter Anne feeding him interview questions and a soundtrack of nursery rhymes and folk songs by Nana Mouskouri. He wanted this to be aired instead of Rodley’s documentary.
McGoohan’s film was not shown by Channel 4 and is now lost apart from a poor kinescope-like version recorded by a visitor’s videocamera off a hotel television when it was played on the cctv system at Portmeirion. We are shown a little bit of that here, with McGoohan drawing hangers in the wet sand and watching them be obliterated when the next wave washes over.
We also see just the opening title of Six Into One, which did air on Channel 4. While Chris Rodley’s continued love for The Prisoner and his awe and respect for Patrick McGoohan have remained from his youth, he does not look back on his fledgling film effort with pride:
“Complete with obligatory ’80s synth music and those primitive looking video effects of the time, Six Into One: The Prisoner File was as hard to watch then as it is now. So let’s not.”
I’ve never seen it, so I can’t say how good or bad or painfully ’80s it is, but apparently it’s been on the director’s mind for some time. As an older and more experienced filmmaker, he’s gone back to revisit the same settings to try and make the documentary he believes Patrick McGoohan deserves.