In 1977 Patrick McGoohan gave one of only a few interviews during his career on the subject of The Prisoner, a 1960s ITV series that already had a dedicated cult following. The interview, conducted for Canada’s TVOntario by Warner Troyer, is respectful and contemplative, with audience and host both perfectly comfortable dealing with the ideas behind the series. McGoohan as usual manages to seem like he is either about to drift into an intellectual reverie or explode with righteous anger at any moment. He is always part prophet, part priest; part curmudgeon, part playboy.
Troyer: This is a kind of banal question I guess, but if you could leave one sentence or phrase or paragraph in the head of everyone who watched The Prisoner series - the whole series - one thing for them to carry around for a while when it was over, what would it be?
McGoohan: [immediately] Be seeing you.
While keen to emphasize the collaborative and improvisatory nature of television production, he is utterly certain of the meaning behind the programme. Passive aggressive language, mechanical bureaucracy without a single, controlling administrator, and the impossibility of escape: these are constant, he is sure of that. While The Prisoner is about the struggles of an heroic individual against the system, McGoohan’s outlook is far from romantic. "Freedom is a myth", he spits.
What is interesting about this show, apart from the old fashioned assumption that the audience aren’t morons, is how it contrasts to the reified status of Cult TV today. The Prisoner is talked about in the past tense, but there is no need to insist that it is still relevant. McGoohan mentions that he had to sign-in to be allowed access to the studio as if it was a terrible imposition. That everyone reading this now gave their details for access in some form is probably not worth remarking upon today.
Sadly, the retro process was already underway in the 70s. After The Prisoner, McGoohan worked on episodes of Columbo, very much aware that he would never be given the chance to shake off his albatross. In the 90s he said of his Braveheart co-star and director that “Mel Gibson will always be Mad Max, and me, I will always be a number”. His character in one Columbo episode from 1975 constantly uses the “Be seeing you” catchphrase seemingly well beyond the point of self-parody. McGoohan’s is a CIA operative who murders his colleague – played by a pre-PoMo Leslie Nielson – after he discovers that McGoohan is a double agent. McGoohan’s character bugs Columbo’s home and has him followed, as well as other Mission: Impossible shenanigans, but Columbo is able to make McGoohan crumble with the flimsiest of evidence. It’s striking how weak this episode is and how hackneyed the stock spy tropes and in-jokes are – it’s bad precisely because of the “Be seeing you” retro call backs. The little flourish to please trainspotting fans only highlights the flimsy and unambitious pastiche of this episode.
Don’t get me wrong, Columbo was one of the finest police procedurals ever made, but this episode – before VHS and PoMo – illustrates one of the points McGoohan made in the interview. The costumes and catchphrases of The Prisoner may be very important, but they are also disposable and interchangable. Authoritarianism is not neceesarily the bleak, grey, “totalitarian” harshness of a boot stamping on a human face forever. It can be colourful and polite, full of whimsy and charm – but stray outside the accepted boundaries or ask the wrong questions and you’ll see the mask slip. McGoohan knew that not only is there is no puppetmaster controlling everything in the shadows, but that social control is most effective when internalised, that even if you managed to get to the centre of the conspiracy you would only be faced with yourself – The Self.
Every episode of The Prisoner began with Number Two obliquely replying to Number Six’s question “Who is Number One?” with the statement “You are Number Six”. Is he/she avoiding the question? Or answering it: “You are, Number Six”. McGoohan himself also knew something that Number Six never found out. In response to Number Two’s deflection/answer, Six defiantly insisted “I am not a number, I am a free man!” The opposite was true. Freedom is a myth.