When I was a child I saw a series that scared the shit out of me. It was about a minister in colonial America who disguised himself as a scarecrow to terrify the British soldiers. It was done like a weird Batman historical piece but as a kid I was just scared. During the day, the minister would look so normal and nice but at night he would put on a mask and be unrecognizable. The Scarecrow would capture soldiers and make them beleive they had died and gone to hell in order to get information from them. For years I had that theme song stuck in my head and when I told my friends about it, they just thought I was making it up.
It wasn’t till the mid 90’s when the internet told me I had watched ‘The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh’ and that the terrifying character was played by Patrick McGoohan. It made me laugh. I had fallen in love with McGoohan’s other show, ‘The Prisoner’ and here was another show where his character was fucking with the Powers who tried to suppress him.
I saw the Prisoner at a weird time in my life. I was in college, living with a jack- ass because the rent was free. I was dating the woman who would become my wife and I was already adapting to making her happy at my own expense. I had just escaped my really awful parents and in a weird way, I just swapped in other abusive figures for their place.
See, when a man escapes from a prison, he sometimes accepts different prisons because he can say “Sure it sucks, but that last place was worse.”
I learned that from watching ‘The Prisoner’. It just took me another ten years to realize it.
If you have never seen the Prisoner, it’s impossible to describe. A secret agent resigns from his agency, is kidnapped by unknown people and then taken to a surreal village where no one has names but everyone has a number. Patrick McGoohan’s character is never named, he is just simply Number Six. Every episode, a brand new Number Two tries to find out why Six resigns while Six simply tries to escape. That’s pretty much it, well except for the floating balloons that guard the place, the mind control, the fake elections, the endless betrayals and bicycle imagery.
Watching the Prisoner, I was fascinated by McGoohan’s character. Knowing that McGoohan was also a writer on the series and producer made me see the show as his personal work of art. Number Six was so damn relentless. I thought he should have given his captors something to get them off his back. I mean, what is the harm in telling them why he quit? His life would have been so much easier but Number Six refused. He flat out refused to cooperate in any way just because he didn’t want to, and he had no intention of being coerced into something he didn’t want to do. He refused because he wasn’t going to let any one take the slightest bit of freedom from him.
As a young man who had lived with a controlling step-father and traded up for a controlling girlfriend, this seemed like a radical idea. I used to laugh at him because I thought McGoohan was stubborn. I thought Number Six was just as flawed as the people who ran the Village and that all the conflict was born of their inability to cooperate. It took years for me to realize Number Six was right.
That is really the lasting legacy of ‘the Prisoner’, and Patrick McGohhan in general. His portrayal of a man who refused to submit to government, peer pressure or personal torment is so rarely reflected in our culture. Even when our culture does show a hero who stands against the Village, they are sure to show his destruction as well. That is the lesson our culture teaches: stand against public opinion and you will fall. Question government and you will be laughed at. Question the mob and Toby Keith will sing rude songs about you. Refuse to follow along quietly and you are a traitor.
Do not get me started on American Idol.
Patrick McGoohan passed away January 13th, 2009. He was 80 and quite frankly, there were times when I was surprised to here he was still alive. Interviews with him also revealed a vibrant intelligent man who never once apologized for the wackiness that would occur in ‘The Prisoner’. He was an artist and his work changes my life on a constant basis.