Patrick McGoohan and The Prisoner in France

How TV's most individualist character made a communitarian country swoon


"Patrick McGoohan finally escaped," a reader of the French newspaper Le Monde noted with loving tenderness yesterday in an online forum dedicated to the late visionary behind the cult TV series The Prisoner. The sentiment came just short of asserting that the actor, writer, and director was better off dead, but then, the French have had a distinctly existential relationship with their revered secret agent man for 40 years now.

The Prisoner was arguably the most popular vehicle of libertarian ideas in socialist France over the past half-century. Ask a Parisian to name an Ayn Rand book and he'll give you a blank stare; mention The Prisoner and you'll likely hear back the French version of the series' catch-phrase, "Be seeing you"–Bonjour chez vous! Unveiled just months before the May '68 riots, this philosophical and rebellious series struck a nerve in an overwhelmingly Catholic country at a time when its long-haired youth were loudly questioning authority.

As the inevitably self-flattering French story goes, upon its 1967 premier in the U.K., The Prisoner was immediately misunderstood by the "Rosbeefs," who were expecting McGoohan to reprise his hugely popular role as the James Bond-style secret agent John Drake in Danger Man. Instead, The Prisoner felt like a collective hallucination induced by Cold War paranoia. A British intelligence officer with an uncanny resemblance to Drake is kidnapped and held captive in a bucolic seaside village that turns out to be a nightmarish surveillance society where people are stamped with a number and enslaved by an omniscient bureaucracy armed with artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and a terrifying blob called the "Rover." By the time the final (and most confusing and controversial) episode of the series aired, Brits jammed the switchboard of ITV with complaints.

With total artistic freedom granted by legendary TV producer Lew Grade, McGoohan was the creator, executive producer, star, and frequent director of the show, playing the obsessive and resourceful Number 6. He spent 17 episodes (watch them all here) plotting to escape and trying to identify the ruler in charge of the Village, Number 1, who turns out (in that final episode) to be none other than himself. McGoohan, an Irish-American and self-described "devout Roman Catholic," certainly believed that evil exists in man, but also that freedom could be achieved through inner sovereignty.

Which turned out to be a potent combo for communitarian France. For young French people to watch the Village community hound and almost lynch Number 6 in this episode for the sin of being "unmutual" (that is, for insisting on his privacy instead of happily joining the collective), was to turn a cherished French ideal on its head. In the episode, those who refuse to conform are subjected to "instant social conversion" via frontal lobotomy. When French fans felt outrage at this brain-deadening cure to "individualism"—a word almost always used as a pejorative in France—they were unwittingly swallowing a libertarian message without ever having heard the word.

The Prisoner traveled around the world as a cult classic, but aired in France again and again over the years. It was debated frequently in French media and in 1989 even became the object of an expensive art book Le Prisonnier: chef d'oeuvre télévisionnaire (later translated into English as The Prisoner: a Television Masterpiece), filled with appreciations by various artists and intellectuals. In a rare interview for the book, McGoohan mused about why the French could relate to the wisecracking yet severe Number 6: "Addressing ridiculousness with humor is a survival tool," he said, "but there comes a time when revolt is necessary: In the last episode…there was no room for niceness anymore. There were machine guns, and people died. It was time for the Revolution. The French know that: 'Allons z' enfants…'"

Still, when McGoohan left England after The Prisoner flopped in 1968, he didn't take refuge in collectivist France, but instead paused in Switzerland briefly and then lit out for Hollywood. There he played mostly villains in movies (Ice Station Zebra, Escape from Alcatraz, Braveheart, Silver Streak), acted on the stage, and worked with his friend Peter Falk on Columbo.

But as his French fans loudly lamented, McGoohan became "a prisoner of The Prisoner." The creative force and controlling hand of one of the most distinctive and revered TV series ever would never release another project of his own. He said he was always asked to come up with new ideas, presumably set in Los Angeles, where he lived in relative obscurity: "I have written a series called Oasis that is another take of the thesis in The Prisoner, but on a different theme and in a very different style," he told Alain Carrazé for the Television Masterpiece book. "When I show it, people are interested but they always ask: 'Can we change this a little bit here? And there?' They don't want to give me the final cut…freedom."

That irony never escaped the French. As Philippe Meyer wrote, "The Village has caught up with its rebel." But if nothing else, on the few occasions when he spoke with the media, McGoohan expressed satisfaction for having produced a fully realized piece of art, a "concept that was completely expressed during its television run." For 17 weird and wonderful episodes, McGoohan was not a number, he was a man.

According to a producer of the upcoming AMC remake of The Prisoner, McGoohan had agreed on making a cameo appearance but dropped out recently because he "couldn't travel." Fans are sure to be intrigued by this seeming endorsement of the project from a man who lived as he saw fit, turning down interviews and lucrative roles such as Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings franchise. As McGoohan once told New Video magazine about his alter-ego Number 6: "He shouldn't have to answer to anyone. It's entirely his prerogative, his God-given right as an individual, to proceed in any way he sees fit. That's the whole point of it all."

Emmanuelle Richard was a longtime member of Le Rôdeur, the official French Prisoner fan club.