Patrick McGoohan The Obsessional Prisoner

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In late September of 1967 Patrick McGoohan returned to London a compromised man. Throughout his highly successful career, the 39 year old actor had consistently and publicly maintained he would never, ever ‘sell out to Hollywood,’ and act in a meaningless blockbuster. Yet that summer that is exactly what he had done by accepting a major role in the big budget film adaptation of the Alistair MacLean novel, Ice Station Zebra.

He had done so for financial reasons.  Put simply, Everyman Films, McGoohan’s production company, was buckling under the tremendous financial strain of producing his hit TV show, The Prisoner. The sheer amount of people involved in bringing this unique series to the small screen, not to mention the numerous locations and props, was proving highly expensive. Moreover, McGoohan’s manic drive for perfection, the constant rewriting of scripts and the constant re-takes he insisted upon, significantly raised the show’s costs

 At one point, The Prisoner’s executive producer, David Tomblin, doubted if the company could financially sustain a second series. The wage bill alone was proving highly daunting. Tomblin,’ Ronald Liles the show’s production manager, recalls, ‘got very worried because everyone was on full pay and that was on Mr McGoohan’s instructions.

The sizeable amount of money McGoohan was offered to take part in Ice Station Zebra, proved highly attractive. By redirecting a significant chunk of his fee into Everyman Films, shooting of the second series of The Prisoner would be assured.

Thus McGoohan – reluctantly - accepted the Hollywood dollar. His plan was to film his part during the autumn, return to London and then start work on the second series of The Prisoner in October or November. But circumstances were against him. Lew Grade, the colourful chairman of ITC who had commissioned the series, stepped in and demanded that shooting begin in September, when McGoohan would still be filming in America.

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Furthermore, many of the original production crew had just taken on new jobs not anticipating that filming would start so soon. New production crew would have to be found at very short notice.

To add to the confusion, the one man who could sort this mess out, the series original executive producer, George Markstein, had just quit the show. He had been outraged by a series of interviews that McGoohan had recently given in which the actor seemed to take full credit for the show’s concept, that of a secret agent resigning from his job only to be transported to a secret village where he is continually interrogated as to why he resigned.

Markstein stated that the show’s original premise was his, that he had hatched the idea just after the Second World War and had been developing it ever since. It was nothing to do with McGoohan.

At a subsequent meeting to clear the air, McGoohan refuted these claims completely firmly stating that Markstein was mistaken, that it was he who had thought up the idea. The men had separated on extremely bad terms, a not unusual occurrence in McGoohan’s work related relationships.

David Tomblin was now given Markstein’s job, a poisoned chalice if ever there was one. His first job was to find a way of shooting a whole episode without the main character present.

Tomblin called in the script-writer Vincent Tillsley, whose work on the second episode of the series, The Chimes Of Big Ben, had won him many plaudits. Tomblin explained the problem. Tillsley went away and dreamt up the idea of having McGoohan’s character submitted to mind transference, a process where his brain is planted in another man’s body. In such a manner, McGoohan’s character, Number Six, was still present in the show but played by a different actor, in this case, Nigel Stock. Tomblin and McGoohan liked the idea and quickly commissioned a script from Tillsley. The only drawback was the back breaking deadline they imposed on the writer.

Tillsley rushed the job and handed in a work that he openly admitted fell quite short of the required standard.   ‘Sometimes, he explains, ‘scripts come easily. Other times, you have to grind them out and that’s what I had to do here.’

Tillsley now expected that at some point in the very near future, he would be called to account by either Tomblin or McGoohan. Yet no such call came. Instead, as he later discovered, his script had been subjected to extensive rewrites, (probably by McGoohan,) without either his knowledge or co-operation.

 ‘I don’t know why they didn’t get onto me in the first place and say, ‘This isn’t very good. Let’s sit around and turn it into something good.’ That’s the way to do things and I think if they had done that we would have come up with a much better show than the one you see.’ Tillsley had underestimated or simply forgotten McGoohan’s manic need for control over every aspect of The Prisoner.

Satisfied, McGoohan now flew to Los Angeles to start work on Ice Station Zebra. Once ensconced on set, McGoohan granted an interview to Mike Tomkies of Photoplay magazine. The interview did not get off to a good start. On meeting McGoohan, Tomkies noted his ‘bright blue eyes glaring about him in that oddly disconcerting way he has.’ The men shook hands and retired to McGoohan's dressing room. McGoohan immediately warned Tomkies they didn’t have long and not to ask him any trivial questions.

Tomkies opened up by asking why was he making this film? Because he liked John Sturges. McGoohan impatiently answered and then asked could he have a less trivial question please?

Tomkies retorted that he saw McGoohan as an idealistic man. Did he hanker after projects where commercial success was not a priority? McGoohan looked directly into Tomkies eyes. ’Yes,’ he said, ‘I am an idealistic man so I really shouldn’t be talking to a journalist. By talking on this level I am betraying that idealism.’

McGoohan glared at the floor and then suddenly clapped his hands together. ‘Look,’ he barked, ‘if you really want to ask me some intelligent questions come back another day. Right now we really don’t have time.’ The interview was over but Tonkies refused to be intimidated. The next day he returned to the set and McGoohan set aside an hour for him. He obviously admired the journalist’s chutzpah.

It was in that hour that he began to open up. On accepting the role in Ice Station Zebra, McGoohan kept the real reason for his involvement hidden. He did however offer this analysis of his approach to film acting.
‘I have been offered Hollywood parts on and off for many years but it has never worked out before because I was so busy in England. I didn’t want to pick up my roots and put them down somewhere else without very good reason. I’m not particularly ambitious to be a film star or to earn millions. Being a film star is probably one of the most confining occupations in the world. The last word I would associate with it is freedom. And freedom in my work and in my private life is something I have always wanted.’ Tomkies noted McGoohan’s heavy involvement in both the latter episodes of Dangerman and of course on The Prisoner.

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'I must have individuality in everything I do,’ McGoohan explained. 'It’s not always easy to find it. I am an actor first although I’m now going into the fields of production, directing and writing too. I find all these challenges, this total involvement in everything I do, the most exciting way to live. A man must create pressure in his working life, something to which he can respond to, and must overcome. I question everything. I don’t accept anything on face value.'
‘I argue because by arguing something, you achieve good results. I’ve sometimes been accused of being difficult and edgy and complicated but only because I want the end product to be as perfect as possible. I haven’t always endeared myself to some people perhaps. But we all worked very hard on Dangerman and it became the first British series to break into the American market. It paved the way for many other British shows that followed. In the Prisoner I tried to create a first class piece of entertainment but I hoped it had truth too because here I was also concerned with the preservation of the individual and his liberty.’

McGoohan then points to the lowering of standards brought about by pop, fashion, the concern for style over substance. ‘It’s all a kind of thought conditioning,’ he stated, ’and perhaps in some ways almost as bad as the brain washing in the East. How can a person be truly individual today? It’s a big question.’

Had fame made McGoohan a prisoner, Tomkies wondered? McGoohan laughed out aloud. Good question, he replied. ‘I don’t think so but I do have this permanent threat that constant recognition and being in demand can destroy one’s perspective. But as long as you regard what you are doing just as work and the fact of people recognising you and asking for your autograph as a social part of the business, you're all right. You have to put it all into the proper context.'

As he spoke in Los Angeles, shooting on the first episode of the second series of The Prisoner had begun. One actor pleased to find McGoohan absent from the set was Gertan Klauber. He had previously worked with McGoohan on the actor’s highly popular TV show, Dangerman, and he had not enjoyed the experience one bit.

In the Dangerman episode, Gertan played a tough guy who gets embroiled in a fist fight with McGoohan.  Rehearsals and then filming was scheduled for the afternoon. ‘When McGoohan arrived on the set it was after, shall we say, a long lunch, ’he recalled. ‘The stunt man for the show had already told me that McGoohan was great to work with, that he could do about eighteen or nineteen moves without touching anyone. Yet in rehearsal I was struck several times.’

Gertan bitterly complained to the show’s producer that he was being hit. Not wishing to offend his star, the producer tried to brush the actor off. The actor then confronted McGoohan and demanded he stop hitting him otherwise he would have to retaliate. McGoohan agreed and then physically struck him again in at least two more takes. When he saw the chance to provoke someone McGoohan could never stop himself.

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Gertan never forgot the experience. That was why when he nervously showed up for work on The Prisoner at the MGM studios in Boreham Wood, he ‘was very pleasantly surprised to find Patrick McGoohan absent …so the whole occasion was very pleasant indeed.’

As shooting commenced, producer David Tomblin retired to his office and turned his attention to a very pressing problem, the sheer lack of interesting story lines with which to fill a second series of thirteen episodes. Everyone knew that the show had won Britain over through its originality, authenticity and thought provoking nature.  Yet many avenues had already been explored in detail by the first series. It would take incredible foresight and vision to dream up new concepts and ideas to channel through Number Six’s character.

Tomblin now flew over to Los Angeles to see if he and McGoohan could write a script together during the actor’s time off. He came back empty handed although McGoohan did pledge to write an episode on his flight home. However, McGoohan failed to deliver. He had been exhausted by the rigours of Hollywood filmmaking and was simply not up to the job.   ‘When he arrived in London,’ says Liles, ‘to be quite honest he was like a wet lettuce. He had been working day and night but the first thing he did was to come straight into the production office and demand to see the episode they had shot in his absence. He watched it and then said he wanted to spend the rest of the night re-editing it and that extra shooting was also needed.’
As McGoohan worked on the episode in his usual obsessive manner, Tomblin issued an SOS from his office; if any writers, indeed if anyone connected to the show had any ideas they wanted to put forward, now was the time to do so. One man who heard the cry was Ian Rakoff.

Rakoff was a South African who had come to Britain, disgusted by his country’s apartheid system. He found himself work as an assistant editor and was brought in to work on the new Prisoner series. Rakoff also harboured serious thoughts of becoming a writer and worked on scripts in his spare time.

On hearing of Tomblin’s problem, he quickly arranged a meeting where he suggested shooting an episode as a western with McGoohan playing a cowboy prevented from leaving town. When Tomblin told McGoohan the idea, the actor became highly enthused. First off, the idea was ground breaking. No one in Britain had ever shot a Western before. Furthermore, many of the show’s ideas could be neatly encapsulated into this one episode.

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McGoohan contacted Rakoff and arranged to meet him at his huge office on the MGM lot. It would be a meeting Rakoff would never forget. Rakoff was asked to arrive at McGoohan’s office at eleven in the morning. McGoohan arrived two hours late, at two minutes past one. Straight away, it was manifestly apparent that he was in a very angry mood. He ushered Rakoff into his huge office, went over to his desk and angrily slammed his briefcase down on it. He turned, ordered Rakoff to sit on a low seated sofa and then launched into a furious personal tirade against the writer that caught Rakoff completely off guard.

He recalls, ‘Pat was circling around, absolutely incensed with me. He’s a big fellow but when you are sitting on the floor he obviously becomes very bigger. He paced around like an agitated caged tiger getting more and more angry.’ The gist of McGoohan’s furious assault was that although he believed Rakoff to be a good writer his ideas were wrong headed and stupid. He had the words but no concept to frame them in.

As his anger grew his argument turned to the surreal. At one point, McGoohan grabbed a bottle of Malvern water off his desk, waved it in Rakoff’s face and told him that this was the kind of thing he should be writing about. Bottled water. The writer stared at him in disbelief.  ‘It was totally incomprehensible to me,’ Rakoff recalled. ‘All I knew was that this man was getting angrier and angrier with me and I just wanted to get out.’
 Finally, after an hour and half of sustained anger and abuse, McGoohan told the writer to leave. Rakoff got to his feet and shakily started the long walk to McGoohan’s door. Just as he reached for the handle, he heard the actor say in an emollient tone ‘How do you fancy writing the western for me?’            

Such episodes suggest that at this point in his life, Patrick McGoohan was heading for a serious breakdown. His inability to delegate and the subsequent pouring of all his immense energy into The Prisoner had left him physically and mentally fatigued. One only had to look at his arduous daily schedule to realise how exhausting life was for McGoohan...
His day began at dawn and an early morning swim to clear the head. He would then cycle from his home in Mill Hill to the MGM Studios in Boreham Wood, a journey of some seven miles.

Once at the studio McGoohan would work obsessively until early evening, involving himself in all key aspects of production be that acting, writing scripts, re-writing scripts, holding meetings, trying to solve logistical problems, spending time in the editing room. When there was no more work to be done McGoohan would either return home or retire to the local pub. Whiskey was his favoured tipple. He would drink until closing time, usually  with a favoured ally such as the actor Alexis Kanner and then insist on taking him to play a game of squash. The game would take place at a local Mill Hill sports centre he had somehow acquired the keys to.

‘Then at one in the morning,’ Kanner recalls, ‘he would finish playing and tell me to go home and prepare myself for another day of indescribable brutality. He really was quite remarkable.’

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(c) Words - Paolo Hewitt
Read 5817 times Last modified on Friday, 08 May 2015 16:13
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