The Prisoner’s Convictions

How Patrick McGoohan’s moral code left its indelible mark on his iconic creation.

Surprising as it may seem, a number of actors over the years have turned down the role of James Bond, and for a variety of reasons: Richard Burton was too expensive, so the producers hired a milkman from Edinburgh; Timothy Dalton considered himself too young, so they went back to him in eighteen years’ time; both Burt Reynolds and Adam West felt that it was only right that the character be portrayed by a Brit, so they hired an Australian.

Patrick McGoohan, however, may be the only actor known to refuse the role – even to refuse to audition for the role – on moral grounds.

When first approached by Bond’s producers in 1961, McGoohan was already a performer with serious clout.  His starring in the spy series Danger Man had made him the highest-paid actor on television, while his ability had gained him a BAFTA and his intensity had been described by no less a figure than Orson Welles as “intimidating”.

But to McGoohan, success carried with it a responsibility.  The higher he climbed in the profession – having started as a dogsbody at the Sheffield Rep and worked his way up through set-building and prompting to the lead roles – the more dedication he demanded, of others as well as himself.  “When an actor has a leading part,” he commented during the making of Danger Man, “it is all the more necessary for him to be more disciplined.”

It was this demand for discipline which led to his casting by Orson Welles: auditioning for the legendary production Moby Dick: Rehearsed, Welles’ constant talking during McGoohan’s reading caused him to throw down his script and angrily storm off stage.  Welles immediately called him back and cast him as Starbuck.  As the intellectual and family-devoted Quaker who objects to Ahab’s quest, McGoohan could not have been given a more appropriate part.

McGoohan with Leo McKern in ‘The Prisoner’.

Inextricably linked to his personality, McGoohan’s work ethic was clearly gained by his childhood and surroundings.  He had been born in New York, but his parents returned to their native Ireland a few months later.  There, they lived and worked among the farming community of County Leitrim.  “The poorest county in Ireland,” McGoohan later said, in a rare discussion of his personal life.  “Its only proper export is people.”

McGoohan’s father had received no formal education, but had an artistic streak which was inherited by his eldest son: “My father couldn’t read or write, but he played the violin like an angel and he had total recall.  We would read to him, he’d ask us what page we were on and days later he’d refer to the material on that page number.”  After the family relocated to Sheffield in the mid-1930s, his mother took part in amateur dramatics staged by their local parish.  Both of McGoohan’s parents were extremely devout in their Catholicism, and their son – although he would sometimes refer to himself as a lapsed Catholic – would remain religious for his entire life.

During his education at Ratcliffe College – a Catholic boarding school to which he had been evacuated during the war – McGoohan was certain that his destiny lay in the priesthood.  Even as a child, he had played at giving sermons for the congregation of his four younger sisters.  His committal to the church, however, was not absolute: the fact that there was seemingly nothing an individual could do which was not considered a sin did not appeal to the thoughtful young man who was already questioning everything he encountered.  In the end, his attitude was that, “I certainly believe in a God, but I don’t go around waving a flag about it.”

The code of discipline and hard work that his upbringing had instilled in him, however, left its indelible mark.

Early in his film career, the strange politics of production also had a lasting effect.  While playing a tiny, uncredited role in 1955 Errol Flynn movie The Dark Avenger, he was struck that, “As the knight Sir Oswald, with only two lines to say, I was entitled to a Rolls Royce transport between home and studio and a place in the restaurant with the hierarchy and stars – on a peasants pay.  Another actor, as the leader of the peasants, had a huge part.  But because he was a ‘peasant’ he had to eat with the peasants and come to work under his own steam – on a knight’s salary.  The whole thing was ridiculous.”

From this point on, McGoohan made a point never to separate himself as the star from the rest of the cast.  Even when starring in The Prisoner, he went out of his way to provide encouragement and integrity to Angelo Muscat, the diminutive actor who played Number Two’s silent butler in almost every episode.“I always feel lonely,” Muscat said.  “I feel that people don’t want to know me.  Girls don’t fancy me, I’m tiny and nearly bald but I’m only in my thirties.  That’s why I’m so grateful to Patrick McGoohan.  He has given me responsibility for the first time in my life.  I am playing an important part in a big series.  I AM something, for the first time ever.”

With Angelo Muscat, the diminutive actor who played Number Two’s silent butler in almost every episode.

These were the central tenets of McGoohan’s personality and work ethic: a distinct siding with the underdog, and the unshakeable demand for utter devotion professionally.  “A man must create pressure in his working life; something to which he can respond, and must overcome.”

He was not, however, a subscriber to Stanislavski or any other highbrow approaches to acting: when asked about his method, he recalled an anecdote about Humphrey Bogart being asked the same question and his answer: “It’s easy, I just learn my lines.”

Responding to his tough guy image, he playfully responded that nothing could be further from the truth; “I’m soft-hearted, gentle and understanding.”  In another interview, however, he admitted that, “I’ve sometimes been accused of being difficult and edgy and complicated, but only because I want the end product to be as perfect as possible.”

This philosophy is best illustrated by the performance which won him his BAFTA in 1960 for Best Television Actor, in the live-broadcast play Rest in Violence.  Conceived as a play centred around two Irish brothers – one a rural family man (McGoohan), the other a fiery nationalist (Richard Harris) – director Cliff Owen was keen to give his two leads as much creative control as possible.

What followed was three weeks of intense scripting, the three men confined to a smoky committee room at Granada Studios.  Not the most accommodating man at this stage in his career, Harris gave as good as he got, with exchanges frequently becoming all-out shouting matches.  Such was the oppression in the room that they exhausted three typists, and the script editor brought in to assist left the industry to a more sedate career in architecture.

McGoohan later admitted that he and Harris could well have killed each other during that process, and that it took him three months to recover from the ordeal, but that it, “was worth every ounce of the energy, time and effort.”

Greater professional success followed when McGoohan was cast as the lead in the Henrik Ibsen play Brand.  As an uncompromising priest, single-mindedly devout to the point of obsession, he could not have been more perfectly cast.  The effect of the role was to remain with McGoohan for a long time, to the extent that he for a long time planned to produce a film adaptation.

“At times he was terrifying on the stage to be with,” recalled co-star Peter Sallis, who had also known McGoohan from the Sheffield Rep.  “I mean, you saw this look of God going right through you.”

It was soon after this production that Lew Grade decided he wanted McGoohan to play the lead in his new spy series, Danger Man.  The series had in fact been originally intended as a James Bond television series, before series creator Ralph Smart had met with Ian Fleming and discovered that the movie rights had already been sold to Eon Productions.  The character sketch of the new lead character John Drake, however, was not much of a deviation: a gun-toting, dirty-fighting, lady-bedding alpha male, prepared to do whatever was necessary to achieve his mission.

After reading the four pilot scripts, McGoohan was furious.  If he was to agree to the role, major changes would have to be made: “He is not a thick ear specialist, a puppet muscle man” said McGoohan of Drake.  “There is action – plenty of it – but no brutal violence.  If a man dies, it is not just another cherry off the tree.  When Drake fights, he fights clean, he abhors bloodshed.  He carries a gun but doesn’t use it unless absolutely necessary… he prefers to use his wits.”

In particular, however, changes would have to be made regarding the character’s entanglements with women.  Here, we see the actor’s strict moral code again manifesting: “The love-life planned for John Drake would have made me some sort of sexual crank.  Every week a different girl?  Served up piping hot for tea?  With the children and grannies watching?”

It was the influential power of television – reaching out to millions of unsuspecting homes as opposed to a paying theatrical audience – which was of particular concern to McGoohan.  “You can never guarantee that elderly people or children will not see them and not be both frightened and offended.  Since I hold these views strongly, as an individual and as a parent, I didn’t see how – as an actor – I could contribute to the very things to which I objected.”

In a separate interview, he event referred to television as, “the third parent.”  When questioned by producers as to why he refused for his character to have any involvement with women, he answered that didn’t want his daughters to ask their mother why he was kissing a strange woman.  Although the producers gave in to their star’s request, they did derive amusement from it: “As a result of this,” said producer Sidney Cole, “I used to take a certain amount of pleasure in casting what I thought were the most attractive actresses opposite Pat.”

One such actress was Adrienne Corri, who at the time had caused a stir by proudly admitting that she had had two children out of wedlock.  McGoohan, obviously, was put out by this.  During filming, she spotted him in a corridor and shouted, “Hey McGoohan, I understand you disapprove of me – well fuck you for a start!”  After this, the two became good friends.

McGoohan’s views on sexuality could be seen as inflexibly Catholic – his views on the contraceptive pill were extremely so – but yet there were other matters on which he could be surprisingly liberal.  On the 1967 decriminalisation of homosexuality, he said the bill to do so was “progressive and very humane” in light of something which was a simple “fact of society”.

The producers’ concern over McGoohan’s vision for the character, of course, was proven wrong when Danger Man was sold to 61 countries and became a massive hit.  Gaining worldwide fame, however, did not lessen his intensity.  Forever full of ideas and making notes on potential projects, McGoohan also came to rely heavily on alcohol – in 1964, at the height of his Danger Man fame, he was arrested for drink-driving and imprisoned for six days.  It says a lot of the changed nature of the media that this was barely reported at the time.

It was in 1961, however, that he was approached by Cubby Broccoli to star in Dr. No.  McGoohan refused outright, citing Bond as having, “an insidious and powerful influence on children.  Would you like your son to grow up like James Bond?”  Young men, he stressed, should not be encouraged to believe that the Bond way of life is the right one.

“I have two guiding lights before me,” he concluded, “every second of my working day.  The first is my daughters.  The second, my religion.  You know, every hero since Jesus Christ has been moral…  Like John Drake, he fought his battles fiercely but honourably.”

His fervent strive for greater challenges continuing without abatement, McGoohan shocked everyone by suddenly resigning ‘Danger Man’ just two episodes into the fourth series.  With script editor George Markstein, he began to conceive of a new project.

It was his prior success as Brand, according to Markstein, which was the driving force behind what was to become ‘The Prisoner’: the series on which McGoohan would finally have the ultimate control over every aspect, his true ambition in the industry.  “Brand personifies everything I think McGoohan would like to be: God!  He was very good as God.”

It would be The Prisoner which would showcase McGoohan’s vision at its purest: solid, moral, rejecting the diktat of society, and striving for personal freedom.  It was also, of course, to be the most enduring platform for his intense and aggressive style of acting – never a movement wasted, eyes constantly giving light to a mind coursing with ideas.  As the 50th anniversary of the series’ first broadcast approaches, ‘The Prisoner’ remains a masterpiece of television, and of its creator.

According to friend Peter Falk, Patrick McGoohan was “the most underrated, under-appreciated talent on the face of the globe.  I have never played a scene with another actor who commanded my attention the way Pat did.”  Like The Prisoner, its star is remembered now as a brilliant enigma.


Stephen Graham cannot be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered.  But he can be followed on Twitter at @PlopGazette

❉ For more on ‘The Prisoner’, Rob Fairclough, author of The Prisoner: The Official Companion, looks at how the classic cult series became an integral part of the countercultural zeitgeist in The Prisoner: drugs, Vietnam, The Bomb and The Beatles

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