Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Prisoner

A few months ago my boyfriend Tom was raving about what a great TV series Secret Agent Man was, and before I knew it, he had ordered DVDs of Secret Agent Man (including its initial episodes, known as Danger Man) and its sequel (well, kind of), The Prisoner. I vaguely remember watching The Prisoner when WNET used to run it late on Sunday nights in the '90s. That probably had more to do with the fact that it was late and I was tired.
Many hours later, we have watched the entire thing- all three series. And Secret Agent Man is fascinating in some ways. It's the beginning (ca. mid-1960s) of the spy genre, and you can watch the writers try things out, discard some and keep others. It also is a look into where England saw itself in its largely post-colonial days. They may have been technically out of Africa, but there are many episodes set somewhere that look a lot like Kenya and/or Nigeria, sending in John Drake (Patrick McGoohan), master spy, to help the former colonists.
There are things about The Prisoner that are confusing, silly, seemingly arbitrary. It takes place on this island (off the coast of Lithuania or Spain, depending upon the episode) where England has sent its untrustworthy former MI6 agents. One of these is Number Six, played by Patrick McGoohan. He is relentless in his efforts to escape, but at the end of each episode, he's still there. McGoohan developed the series himself, starred in each episode, and wrote and directed many of them.
Wednesday night we saw the penultimate episode, #16: Once Upon a Time. It is Patrick McGoohan, Leo McKern (playing Number Two) and Angelo Muscat playing the butler. McGoohan directed and wrote the episode. I loved it so much, I watched it a second time that night.
The unseen Number One tells McKern he has a week to break Number 6, in a procedure they call "degree absolute." McGoohan's script puts both of them in a bunker, most of which is set up to look like an abandoned nursery room: swing, seesaw blackboard, rocking horse. There are allusions in the score to nursery rhymes (Humpty Dumpty, Pop! Goes the Weasel, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star). Jacques' "The seven ages of man" is quoted. And then comes the best hour of television acting and writing I have ever seen. It's truly amazing. I will bore all of my friends to death talking about it. McKern tries to get McGoohan to say why he resigned from MI6. That's the whole premise. At one point he tells him: "The lone wolf belongs to the wilderness. It is my duty to see that you a not a lone wolf. You must conform."
I must not be the only playwright who feels like the McGoohan character. I would write Mr. McGoohan a fan letter if he hadn't died a few years ago. It's certainly too bad that he didn't write more.

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