Minus Six

Patrick McGoohan in THE PRISONERI was saddened to read of the death of Patrick McGoohan. I discovered him in high school during the late 80s, when PBS was replaying the two groundbreaking series which he both starred in and helped to create – the surreal, libertarian-ish science-fiction drama The Prisoner (which might be summarised as “an Ayn Rand hero in a half-Orwell, half-Kafka universe,” and whose famous line “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered” is an evident echo of Proudhon’s “To Be Governed” passage) and its quasi-prequel, the clever, realistic, often bleak spy drama alternately known as Danger Man and Secret Agent (with different opening musical themes for the British and American markets), which gave the world the line “My name is Drake – John Drake” a good two years before Sean Connery was saying anything similar. (In Danger Man, McGoohan’s character was originally introduced as an American working for NATO, and later retconned into being an English – or, according to some episodes, Irish – agent of Britain’s intelligence service. Given McGoohan’s indeterminate accent – his own upbringing was partly English, partly Irish, and partly American – it didn’t make much difference; he always sounded slightly wrong but not too wrong.)

Patrick McGoohan in DANGER MANIn both series, which make compulsive viewing, McGoohan is the epitome of cool – though not quite in the suave James Bond manner, as a rough-edged sense of not quite fitting into the world is frequently visible through the usually unflappable exterior. Even McGoohan’s not-quite-either-British-or-American accent contributes to his character’s presentation as an alienated individualist. (I own all three boxed DVD sets – one for the often-forgotten first Danger Man series (1960-62), which now bills itself as the “first season”; one for the second Danger Man series (1964-1968), which misleadingly bills itself as “complete” despite not including this “first season”; and one for The Prisoner (1967-1968). Lucky I bought them when did, since a glance at Amazon tells me that items 1 and 3 have since skyrocketed in price, while item 2 appears to be out of print.)

While Danger Man obviously drew inspiration from the Bond books (and certainly resembles them more than it does the movies), McGoohan disapproved of Ian Fleming’s womanising assassin, and reportedly turned down a chance to play Bond for that reason; in any case, he had written into his Danger Man contract that his character would have no romances and would rely on his intellect rather than on fists or gun, using violence only as a last resort. (If you were to conclude from this that Danger Man must be boring, you would be mistaken.)

In 1985, as my birthday present, I saw McGoohan live on stage in Boston, in Pack of Lies with Rosemary Harris and Dana Ivey. McGoohan played a secret agent once again, although this time a slightly menacing one (“At the risk of sounding rather unfriendly, it’s my duty to draw your attention to the Official Secrets Act”) as opposed to the often-rebellious agent of Danger Man and the totally-rebellious agent of The Prisoner; I’ve since learned that Pack of Lies (which also played on Broadway) was his only venture into American live theatre, so I’m glad I had a chance to see him.

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10 Responses to Minus Six

  1. Wally Conger January 17, 2009 at 11:00 pm #

    McGoohan wrote and/or directed and/or starred in several episodes of COLUMBO with Peter Falk over a 20-year period. He won an Emmy for at least one of them. One show from the 1970s, about Columbo playing cat-and-mouse with a CIA-type operative (McGoohan), included a few clever references to both SECRET AGENT and (most noticeably) THE PRISONER; it’s worth tracking down on DVD.

  2. Roderick January 18, 2009 at 12:00 am #

    I know I’ve seen at least one of those, though the one I remember was a later one than the one you mention — the plot turned on cigarettes in an ashtray.

  3. Roderick January 18, 2009 at 12:15 am #

    This page has a nice description of Danger Man as “a Bondian character with noir sensibility.”

  4. Roderick January 18, 2009 at 12:17 am #

    Actually here’s the whole passage:

    Prior to the worldwide success of the James Bond movie franchise, most spy/PI yarns were cast in the mold of classic film noir. Enigmatic heroes shuffled among shadow-streaked backdrops, filmed through a haze of cigarette smoke. World-weary and street-smart, they bit off ragged scraps of hard-boiled dialogue in a world populated by charismatic villains and morally ambiguous femmes fatale. Classic good vs. evil conflicts took interesting side trips down dramatically murky paths. Bullets were fired, and mud was slung.

    Enter Bond…James Bond. Ian Fleming’s suave secret agent transformed the genre. The archetypical noir protagonist – the rumpled Everyman with the permanent five o’clock shadow – gave way to a groomed, pressed, spit-and-polished hero in Savile Row suits. Arch bon mots and witty epigrams replaced tough, spare dialogue. The stories abandoned the wharves and back alleys of the world for the larger than life setting of the global Cold War landscape. Whereas old-school action heroes drew their motivation from a kind of bent-but-not-broken morality, Bond and his ilk confidently swung an ideological truncheon based on unassailable East vs. West stereotypes. From a dramatic standpoint, the focus switched from resolution to triumph, from bundling up loose ends to slicing them cleanly with a high-powered laser.

    “Secret Agent” represented a middle ground between the two styles. John Drake was a Bondian character with noir sensibility. Sophisticated in appearance and outfitted with all the flashiest Cold War gadgetry, he nonetheless had the soul of an earlier PI – darker and more complex than the cardboard good guys who took on the world in the post-Bond era. More significantly, “Secret Agent” had the look of classic film noir. The program was gorgeously filmed in black and white, with atmospheric lighting and clever, evocative camera work. It was in many respects the antithesis of the new Cold War entertainments, with their flat, in-your-face color and hyper editing.

  5. Roderick January 18, 2009 at 12:26 am #

    P.S. – While I like the quoted passage (which is why I quoted it), I should add that chronologically it’s a bit off. The James Bond of the quips, spit and polish, and simplistic ideological morality was (mostly) the Bond of the movies, not the novels; and the first Danger Man series came out two years before the first Bond movie (not counting the 1950s tv-version of Casino Royale). However, after a hiatus it was renewed for a second series after the release of the first two Bond movies.

  6. Ozymandias January 18, 2009 at 12:35 am #

    I’m currently reviewing The Prisoner. I also liked McGoohan in Howard Hughes’s favourite movie “Ice Station Zebra”. Although I didn’t much like the movie, I loved McGoohan’s delivery of the last line — “Until next time”.

  7. Roderick January 18, 2009 at 3:24 am #

    See also this article, which discusses the moral ambiguity and implicit anti-authoritarianism of Danger Man (though it too, in contrasting John Drake with James Bond, seems to overemphasise the continuity between the Bond of the novels and the film Bond).

  8. Matt January 19, 2009 at 12:16 am #

    It should also be pointed out that he played the delightfully evil King Edward “Longshanks” in the movie Braveheart.

    And he was the best foil Columbo ever had. It was perfect discipline and enunciation versus Columbo’s stumbling and bumbling persona. And yet they were both razor sharp wits engaged in intellectual combat.

    • Roderick January 19, 2009 at 1:18 am #

      Interestingly, in the closing scene of the Danger Man link above, McGoohan himself reminds me a bit of Columbo.

  9. Gary Chartier January 19, 2009 at 6:00 pm #

    I like your characterization of The Prisoner as Rand + Kafka + Orwell. My own instinctual classification has been: Fleming + Kafka + Foucault.

    As we celebrate memorable McGoohan performances, let’s not forget his turn as the warden in Escape from Alcatraz.

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