Sunday, 7 August 2011

Not A Number: Patrick McGoohan - A Life by Rupert Booth

You have to applaud the bravery of anyone attempting a biography of Patrick McGoohan. Leaving aside the impossibility of interviewing him for the book - he died just over two years before this was published - he preferred not make to many interviews, and to make as few public appearances as possible. It's thin material to attempt to fashion a biography from, inevitably reliant as it will be on research and interviewing those who worked with him who are still alive and happy to go on record.

First off, a declaration - I've known the author for ten years or so, to the extent that I had a cameo in what was planned to be the first in a line of Prisoner novels. On the plus side it means I can declare he's got an exceptional knowledge of The Prisoner, not only that he's highly eloquent on the themes and ideas of the show. And he's also well versed in archive television, having a large and wide ranging collection of shows. In terms of knowledge of the context in which McGoohan's star rose in the late 50s and early 60s, he's well suited to the task in hand. And McGoohan's career is excellently researched, from his time on a farm, through rep in Sheffield, through career highlights Danger Man and The Prisoner to his subsequent flight to Hollywood. It's only natural that the largest section of the book is dedicated to The Prisoner. Booth captures McGoohan's obsessive nature here very well. It's a theme that runs through the book but is most evident here where he's got almost carte blanche from Lew Grade.

Where it falls down a little is the speculation Booth's often forced to make to explain McGoohan's decisions. It's informed by extrapolations of what we know about McGoohan, and other career choices, but it's still speculation nonetheless. Although it might be said to be in keeping with the themes of The Prisoner, with the way society imposes perceptions on the individual...

Booth though is scrupulously fair in his portrayal of his subject. Whilst it's always evident that he's an admirer of McGoohan, he doesn't shy away from mentioning the flaws that obsession brought on. Whilst there's no womanising or 'my drugs hell' secrets to come out, the penalties of having drive and obsession aren't shirked from, nor is McGoohan's propensity for heavy drinking.

There was a remake of The Prisoner a couple of years ago. They even got a lot right, updating some themes to reflect today's society and maintaining relevant ones. Where they went wrong was that as good an actor as Jim Calviezel might be, he's got nothing of McGoohan's cryptic intensity; nothing of the driven investiture McGoohan had in his own project. It's almost inconceivable that anyone in modern times would give the freedom to McGoohan that Grade did - that's why The Prisoner ended up an idiosyncratic, compelling modern fairy tale; an allegory for McGoohan's view of society. The modern version smoothed the edges that made the original so fascinating away and lacked the engine McGoohan provided to the original. What this biography gets so right is to show what a fascinating, complex character McGoohan was. In the end that's probably all you can ask of any biography.

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