❉ Twenty years on, film & TV expert Robert Fairclough reflects on his first book, and how it changed his life.
“The definitive, and certainly the most authoritative, study of what many regard as the greatest TV series of all time.” Tony Sloman, ‘The Prisoner’ production team member, on Robert Fairclough’s ‘The Prisoner: The Official Companion to the Classic TV Series.’
Incredible though it may seem, it’s twenty years – more or less to the month – that I was contracted to write my first book, The Prisoner: The Official Companion to the Classic TV Series. I’d never had anything published professionally before, although I’d written for a lot of Doctor Who fanzines. Looking back from this far ahead, it’s amazing that it happened at all. I’m eternally grateful that it did, because it changed my life.
I’d been in love with Patrick McGoohan’s primal-scream-as-TV-show ever since watching The Girl Who Was Death, late one night on ITV in the early 1980s. The pop art mixture of fantasy, action, mystery, mod design and psychology fascinated me. When I looked around at the books available on the series, however, I felt that none of them really got to the heart of why the series was so important culturally or as a television production. It might have been youthful arrogance – I was 36 – but I thought I could do better.
There was a precedent. In 1998, myself, Mike Kenwood and George Williams had collaborated on the self-published book, Fags, Slags, Blags and Jags: The Sweeney; Mike and George wrote it and I designed it and did some of the editing (even though I had no professional qualifications for doing so). The limited-run title about everyone’s favourite 1970s cop show was a hit in the cult TV community, and that’s what started it for me. I thought, “If we can do something as good as this on our own, imagine what we could do with a publisher!”
At that time, the Carlton company owned the rights to The Prisoner. I’d been a graphic designer for their publishing arm, Carlton Books, but there was no guarantee that would get me a commission (quite the opposite, perhaps, considering the circumstances I’d left under). What I did know was that the 35th anniversary of The Prisoner was coming up in 2002, and if there was one marketing opportunity Carlton Books loved, it was an anniversary.
This was 1999. Inspired by the success of Fags, Slags… I just got on with it. I figured the more research, interviews and prep I did before I approached Carlton, the more persuasive my pitch would be. I spent hours and hours of my own time on the book, and was starting to find out the amount of work a writer puts into one never really balances out with what he or she is paid for it. It’s often said that ‘real’ writers don’t care about that. I didn’t, so to my delight I realised that I must be a real writer! My life was already changing.
Initially titled Fall Out: The Prisoner Companion, my Prisoner book called on all the skills that I had learned up to that point working in the media and publishing, and a few that I hadn’t. As far as I was concerned, it was a given that I was going to design Fall Out as well – I wanted the book to reflect the series’ primary coloured, modish style, and it was a deal breaker that I would use the customised Albertus typeface seen in the show for titling (much to my surprise, none of the Prisoner books released thus far had featured this iconic font).
Of course, to my slightly manic mindset, doing the design as well meant that I was turning into a mini-McGoohan. He’d famously done as much as he could on The Prisoner – acting, writing, directing, executive producer – and here I was apparently following in his footsteps: writing, designing, interviewing and picture researching (although I had help from ITC expert Jaz Wiseman on the latter). As long as I didn’t turn into Number 1, everything would be OK…
The whole process was one of the most enjoyable times of my life. Through my friendship with Helweun Vaughan-Hatcher, who at that time worked in The Prisoner Shop in Portmeirion, I was able to contact the other local people who been extras in the series, when the main location scenes were filmed there in 1966 and 1967. In May 2000, I invited twelve of them to a gathering at the Town Hall in Portmeirion and I interviewed them all. I felt that their story was important as it had never really been heard before. (They were also good enough to provide me with photographs from their personal collections, even though some other fans had borrowed memorabilia and not returned it.) And that was my remit for the whole book: as much first-hand testimony as possible from as many people involved as possible, something that that had been notably lacking in all the other Prisoner books I’d read.
At no point did I consider that this might all fall off a cliff and the book might not get the green light. I just didn’t accept that it wouldn’t. And, in early, 2001, it did.
With the book finally commissioned, I wanted the actor Kenneth Griffith to write the foreword. I’d always loved his hilarious turn as the Napoleon-obsessed villain Dr. Schnipps in The Girl Who Was Death, and as that was the episode that had turned me into a Prisoner fan, it seemed only fitting. He’d also been friends with McGoohan, which was even more of a reason to ask him to do it. He agreed to see me and I met at his home, the Michael Collins House, in Islington. By 2001, Kenneth was a respected documentary maker, as well as a scourge of the British establishment, as his documentaries shone a light on aspects of British history the state found uncomfortable. In short, he was a rebel, and that seemed only fitting too.
He was very funny. During our interview, the phone went. His reply was short and to the point: “Yes, still alive.” Kenneth put the phone down then looked at me, deadpan. “That was O’Toole,” he said, referring to his great friend Peter. “We take it in turns to ring each other up to check if we’re still alive. We say we’re in God’s departure lounge.” Kenneth said he’d be delighted to write the foreword, on the one condition that I didn’t change a word (I didn’t). He wrote it in shaky pencil on a piece of lined, A4 paper. I wish I still had it.
When the book came out – with a launch at Portmeirion, which I made sure all the extras attended – there was a flurry of publicity, press and interview spots, the latter mostly on the radio. That was all very enjoyable, and it’s always an ego-boost to sign autographs but, looking back, it wasn’t really the point. I’d proved to myself that a person with recurring mental health issues could produce a commercially successful book. Last time I checked – and it was several years ago – The Prisoner: The Official Companion to the Classic TV Series had sold 11,000 copies worldwide.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t on a royalty – the contract stipulated a buy-out – but it was another lesson learned: with every book I’ve written since, I’ve made sure I have been. I was so delighted to be contracted that I didn’t think about the commercial implications. Besides, the amount of writing work …The Official Companion has either directly or indirectly generated for me in the years since, has more than made up for that financial faux pas.
This book, commissioned twenty years ago, was the start of my continuing journey as a professional writer. True, there have been some very low lows in that time, but writing was what I always wanted to do with my life, and it remains a great comfort when things aren’t good.
So here I am, still doing it. If there’s one piece of advice I can pass on from this formative experience, it is, to paraphrase Eddie and the Hot Rods, that you can do anything you wanna do. It’s appropriate that I learned that writing a book about the ultimate TV rebel.
❉ ‘The Prisoner: The Official Companion To The TV Series’ by Robert Fairclough was published by Carlton Books, 2 April 2002. ISBN 10: 1842224344. The book is currently out of print but you can read an abridged excerpt from the original book HERE: The Prisoner: drugs, Vietnam, The Bomb and The Beatles
❉ Robert Fairclough writes on a variety of subjects, including mental health and popular culture (sometimes both at once). He has written six books, contributes to magazines and websites, and writes regular blogs about projects he’s involved in for The Restoration Trust. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org, and his website can be viewed at www.robfairclough.co.uk