Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Goodbye, Number Six

Patrick McGoohan, the brilliant actor who starred in The Prisoner, died at age 80.
I first discovered the 1960s TV show when I was in high school. It was one of those old British programs you'd see on public television like Doctor Who or EastEnders and you'd think just how wonderful and unique they were and how nothing on American TV compared with them.
The concept for The Prisoner was pure genius: a secret agent is knocked out and wakes up in a mysterious, quaint-looking village, aptly named The Village. The prisoners and even their captors are assigned numbers and go about their confined existences monitored and scrutinized. It was more than just a show about people in a prison - larger themes were explored, such as freedom, society and submission to authority.
McGoohan, who played the titular hero Number Six, made the show enjoyable. Leo McKern, a fine actor who portrayed McGoohan's nemesis in a few episodes also added to the series as a functionary who tried breaking Number Six's resolve.
The Prisoner's kooky surrealism was indicative of the 1960s, as were the main themes, yet the show was McGoohan's best acting work. One of my favorite episodes was "Hammer into Anvil" where Number Six drives his captor insane out of revenge for the death of a female prisoner. It shows a different Number Six, one that did not let the system break him, one where he manipulates the paranoia and distrust of authority to his advantage. I don't think any actor could have pulled off the role as great as McGoohan did, with a genteel class and unflappable elegance as a prisoner who knows he's being toyed with, but combats that with the English stiff-upper-lip attitude of soldiering on.
McGoohan's show was one of the best on TV; a dynamic portrayal of authority and society played against a warped Alice in Wonderland looking glass of The Village, roaring weather balloons and midget butlers.

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