Review: Patrick McGoohan: Danger Man or Prisoner?

Early in his acting career, Patrick McGoohan left Yorkshire, where he grew up, and joined a Midlands theatre company whose touring circuit included Loughborough, Coventry and Nuneaton.

One evening in 1952, during a performance of TS Eliot's The Cocktail Party (a brave choice of play), the theatre lights failed and the show looked set to be abandoned.

Fortuitously, the audience included a party of miners. They marched down to the stage, switched on their helmet lamps, shone them on the actors like spotlights, and the show duly continued, lit as only coal-faces are normally lit.

This homely cameo seems at odds with the usual austere image of Patrick McGoohan, one of the great acting enigmas, whose

two cult television series, Danger Man and The Prisoner, became the epitome of Sixties style and made him Britain's highest-paid TV actor.

But then, as this first biography (from the Sheffield-based Tomahawk Press) reveals, McGoohan, now 80 and living in Los Angeles, has always been unpredictable.

Brought up a Catholic, with a strong moral streak, he studiously kept sex out of the Danger Man scripts and turned down the parts of both James Bond and Simon Templar (The Saint). Bond, he said, was immoral, with

"a different woman every night"; Templar was "a rogue, a rat, a wicked influence

on anyone who tries to live decently".

The roles – taken up by Sean Connery and Roger Moore – could have made him a superstar, but that in itself would have been out of character. As a very private man, self-contained and single-minded, he seems to have drawn on his own personality for his most successful performances.

Michael Meyer, whose translation of Ibsen's powerful Brand gave McGoohan one of his great stage roles in 1959, summarised his intense, edgy, sometimes intimidating style: "He wasn't good at acting relationships. He was very much like Laurence Olivier in that respect; he couldn't act convincingly a son, a husband or a father. But what Pat was good at was acting loners or people who can't make contact." It was an ideal starting point for John Drake, his character in Danger Man, the spy adventure series which ran for 86 episodes from 1960.

McGoohan, "a six-ft two-inch lance of a man with electric blue eyes" according to one US journalist, gave the part urbane detachment and a whiff of cool danger. The series became a home-grown Man from UNCLE, but with a difference – violence was only a last resort after all reasonable solutions had been exhausted, and the

hero went out of his way not to get the girl.

Danger Man was simplicity itself alongside The Prisoner, transmitted in 1967 and 1968. This cryptic charade, filmed at Portmeirion, the fantasy village in North Wales, was written and produced by McGoohan, who also starred, in a fetching braded blazer.

Its atmosphere of paranoia puzzled its audience. Was it a devastating analysis of a totalitarian state, or just a load of hokum? McGoohan offered a clue in 1982: "I had in mind (Orwell's) 1984 when it was made."

He said this in the course of a telephone conversation with his biographer, Roger Langley, who carefully reproduces his typed transcript of the call on page 223, right down to "Hi, how are you?…I'm fine… It's great to hear from you again."

If this sets the odd alarm bell ringing, it's as well to know that Langley is a leading light in the Prisoner Appreciation Society. His very first paragraph gives warning that the biography may turn into a fan's handbook, to be touted round Prisoner conventions.

It quotes a catchphrase from the series ("Six of one, half a dozen of the other") and dutifully adds a footnote listing the episodes in which it appears. The footnotes go on. If you need to know which episode mentions wartime sweet coupons, see page 16, footnote 20.

Langley soon gets into his stride, however. He has interviewed both the actor and, apparently, everyone who has ever worked with him. The story, with 450 fine, evocative photographs, is fascinating enough to carry you through.

From a theatre point of view, it starts in Sheffield, where McGoohan's family moved from Ireland in 1938, when he was 10 years old. As a teenager, he joined St Vincent's Youth Centre, which ran a drama group. He made a triumphant debut heaving two buckets of coal across the stage, but was soon playing Mr Darcy in an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. He moved on to the Sheffield Playhouse, a fondly remembered repertory company, and within seven years was acting alongside Orson Welles in a dazzling London staging of Moby Dick which won him rave reviews from Kenneth Tynan. Even with Welles on stage, Tynan reckoned "McGoohan's is the best performance of the evening."

This early career is engagingly covered, but the post-Prisoner years offer more detail than arching analysis. Despite plenty of film and TV work, the actor's unpredictability and dislike of publicity lowered his profile, so that three of his five stage appearances in the 80s and 90s are shrouded in mystery – vague rumours of one show, details of another somehow missing, McGoohan withdrawing from a third. Perhaps The Prisoner's paranoia was justified after all.

Roger Langley, Tomahawk Press, 19.99