I previously shared with you my love of the cult British spy-fi series The Avengers. It was hip and camp and funny, all at the same time.
But it never quite measured up to another UK import a few years later: Patrick McGoohans The Prisoner, which aired in the U.S. in the summer of 1968, shortly after “The Forget-Me-Knot” episodeof The Avengers. It helped ease my Emma Peel withdrawal pains.
Before Animal House spawned all the TV clones in the late 1970s, the James Bond movies did the same thing to British and American TV in the 1960s. The first few Bond movies were true to the Ian Fleming spy books, but with the author’s death began spinning into science fiction territory with You Only Live Twice (1967).
Well before then, though, TV producers had caught onto the Bond gadgets and push-the-envelope technology. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. ran on NBC from 1964-1968, and its weak sister The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. for one season, 1966-67. My personal favorite, Mel Brooks and Buck Henry’s Get Smart, bounced from NBC to CBS for five seasons, 1965 to 1970.
Danger Man (or Secret Agent over here in the colonies) starred Patrick McGoohan as John Drake, an international agent working for NATO. The Wikipedia article linked above has interesting program notes about how Fleming, Brian Clemens from The Avengers, and McGoohan influenced the series. The theme song for Secret Agent included the memorable line “they’ve given you a number and took away your name.”
When McGoohan left the series in 1968, he picked up on that theme to create the one-season The Prisoner, which was all about identity. McGoohan played a secret agent who resigned from his (unidentified) service and awakens in The Village, a futuristic prison on a remote island. It’s impossible to tell the prisoners from the guards, and everyone has a number instead of a name.
Oh, yes, there’s also this strange salute everyone gives when they take their leave: “Be seeing you.”
The head of The Village is Number 2. He (sometimes she, there’s a new 2 from week to week) wants information. McGoohan’s character, Number 6, wants to know who Number 1 is. He also wants to escape and to tell his agency — if they don’t already know.
Does he find out? No spoilers. The series is available from several streaming services and runs only 17 episodes, so it’s worth binging. (Look for a cameo by Fleming in the episode titled “The General.”) It was originally written for a shorter season, but apparently that was too short for the American market so they had to pad the story arc.
Why am I telling you all this? Why now? Because it’s the most interesting thing I was journaling about 44 years ago:
… I figured out what to send for my deanery application, and where to pin down [a professor] for a recommendation. I called the Journal Opinion to remind them I’m alive, then tonight I visited [an editor friend], who gave me a number of job leads. … [I] added about a half page to “Wenceslas,” and took in a PBS interview with Patrick McGoohan on “The Prisoner.” It was enlightening, but didn’t tell me much I didn’t know. Be seeing you —Journal, Volume II
20 March 1979
Oh, look! I stopped hyphenating Journal Opinion after actually they published me twice.
Meanwhile, if you’re curious about the McGoohan interview, I think I tracked it down online. I’ll embed it below.
(SPOILER ALERT: Watch the series first, this interview reveals the ending.)