There are few television shows that, almost a half century after inception, still inspire debate and analysis; Doctor Who is one, Star Trek is another, but both of those ran in many variations through the intervening decades, while The Prisoner ran for only seventeen episodes. It was the vision of Patrick McGoohan, born in New York but raised in Ireland and Britain, who through Danger Man had become one of Britain’s highest paid actors. Eager to move beyond that role, he conceived of a secret agent seeking to escape the confines of his employment, only to find himself held in a more abstract imprisonment, that of the Village.
Magic Number Six, from Crooked Hand Productions, currently running at the Edinburgh Fringe, is a fictionalised account of the story behind The Prisoner, told in a series of meetings between McGoohan and the legendary chairman of ITC, Lew Grade, from the first proposal through the year of filming and the immediate positive response to broadcast to the final ill-received episode.
Opening in 1966, in the midst of planning a show entitled The Friendly Persuaders and taking calls from Roger Moore to discuss possible co-stars to appeal to the American market, Grade is visited by McGoohan. The current season of Danger Man – “now in color” – is selling well and Grade wishes to discuss the next, but McGoohan has an alternative plan in mind, and on a handshake, the deal is done. Grade will transfer funds to McGoohan and production partner David Tomblin’s Everyman Films, entrusting the creative process to them, his only caveat being a demand for thirteen episodes rather than six.
That McGoohan himself directed several episodes, often under a pseudonym to prevent accusations that he was too closely involved in too many aspects of the show, is well known, leading to Grade advising him “to learn to work with other people” before quoting his other famous long-term collaborator Gerry Anderson: “The good thing about working with puppets is they never answer back and they never ask for a payrise.”
Yet even for those familiar with the show, there are many other surprising background stories: that penultimate episode Once Upon A Time was actually filmed fifth and the immediately following Fall Out almost a year later; that the consciousness of prisoner Number Six was transferred to another actor in the episode Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling to accommodate McGoohan’s filming of Ice Station Zebra, his remuneration helping to fund his own overbudget show; even that McGoohan was the model for the World President in Captain Scarlet.
With heavy early dialogue establishing the background and period – the names and ages of McGoohan’s three children, mentions of Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg – the show swiftly improves, but the potential for it to become a great show rather than just an entertaining and informative one is missed.
While the concept lends itself to the format of the show, McGoohan and Grade mirroring the relationship of Number Six and the mysterious controller of the Village, Magic Number Six remains a safe and pleasing parlour drama rather than an episode of The Prisoner, missing the feeling of confrontation, of moves and countermoves planned in advance, of rug-pulls and the battle of wits between opposed forces, one of freedom and one of control.
Although the obvious parallels almost demand to be explored – McGoohan announcing his intention to retire to his superior, his actions leading him to a remote location where he had to work with some who supported him and some he found opposed his vision, Grade receiving reports on the troubled production in the manner of the ubiquitous eyes and ears of the Village carrying all to Number Two – only in one moment, as Rob Leeson strikes the desk in the manner of the opening titles, is this realised. Leeson has also chosen to speak in a smoother style than McGoohan’s distinctive clipped diction, possibly wishing to avoid accusations of parody.
While Colin Wood and Leeson are comfortable in their roles, Grade and McGoohan were both larger than life characters, huge personalities who fought for their ideas, with McGoohan in particular having a reputation for being difficult to work with and demanding excellence, yet the play confines this to a largely offstage trait, showing a mellower side to his character. Should writer Paul Gosling ever wish to expand this to a more complex metadrama, there is no doubt both leads and the excellent but underused Karen Gordon would be capable of rising to more challenging material.