Thursday, January 15, 2009

Patrick McGoohan

A little piece of me died this morning when I heard that actor Patrick McGoohan had passed away.

Like many others of my generation, I got hooked on The Prisoner when it first aired in the US in 1969. McGoohan’s character in that series was heroic for me, all the more so for his canny determination to live as a free man when he was demonstrably not going anywhere.

The Prisoner’s defiant challenge to his jailers, “I am not a number, I am a free man,” is the show’s most famous line. It was repeated during the opening sequence every week, and every week was answered with scornful laughter from that week’s “new Number 2.” Shortly after arriving in the Village the Prisoner repeats much the same thing in a lower key, telling Number 2, “I am not number. I am a person.”

This wasn’t just a sixties-era comment on the value of nonconformism in fashion or lifestyle. It was the voice of a soul battling for his life. The whole tension of the series was the hero's clinging to his spiritual freedom when, regarding almost all externals, he was demonstrably NOT free. To remind viewers of that fact, each episode but the last one closed with a graphic of prison gates clanging violently closed in McGoohan’s face. Some weeks he outsmarted Number 2, and some weeks they got the better of him.

The Prisoner was never about anything as trite as the youth rebellion of the 1960s, even if that's how some people remember it. I suppose there were a few gestures in the program to the counterculture, like the rebel youth singing “Dem Bones,” John Lennon singing "All You Need Is Love." But over the long haul, the flower children of that time who were so proud of their rebellion grew up and took over our universities and corporations, turning them into equally unfree, if less stylish, Villages. They can't tolerate rebelllion now. I find it much easier to imagine some stubborn dissenter in San Francisco getting beaten down by a mob screaming, “Unmutual! Unmutual!” than just about any place else. In fact I don’t have to imagine it. It’s going on right now.

Anyhow, I recently re-watched an episode of the Prisoner (Chimes of Big Ben?) where McGoohan's character encounters a former colleague (presumably from the espionage trade), who from the context obviously had sold out to the Reds. When the Prisoner refuses to return the traitor’s greeting, the traitor asks him if he was still placing his faith “in absolutes.” Take that dialogue for what it’s worth. No Leftist has any idea what that exchange could possibly mean.

Now I learn that McGoohan was a lifelong, devout Catholic, and that that was part of the reason his plots were not infused with gratuitous sex. Interesting man. I’m sorry he’s gone.

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