Lew Grade, Patrick McGoohan and bizarre cult TV series “The Prisoner”

Rupert Booth’s book about Patrick McGoohan

Booth tried to unmask McGoohan

In this blog recently, I have been slagging-off ITV’s misbegotten attempted revival of Sunday Night at The London Palladium. I have a feeling it was made by people attempting to create a populist show based on some highly-researched viewer ‘demographic’ and that the producers are making a programme which they would not themselves watch – a virtual definition of dumbing down shows and looking down on audiences.

The original Sunday Night at The London Palladium was made by ATV under its mega showman boss Lew Grade. Lew was seen as Mr Downmarket Populist Entertainment Showbiz but, in fact, opera and ballet and all sorts of odd stuff would crop up amid the jugglers and dancing showgirls on Sunday Night at The London Palladium.

This came to mind because, last night, the admirably quirky Sohemian Society had a meeting about Patrick McGoohan and his cult series The Prisoner.

The speaker was Rupert Booth, who was plugging his 2011 book Not a Number: Patrick McGoohan, a Life but who, in an admirable demonstration of individuality, did not bring any copies to sell.

Lew Grade commissioned The Prisoner for ATV/ITV through his ITC Films company.


Lew Grade with Fozzy from his ATV series The Muppet Show

“I think it’s a misconception that Lew Grade was simply Mr Entertainment,” said Rupert Booth last night. “He made his money out of shows like Sunday Night at The London Palladium, but he would put an awful lot of money into pet projects, plays, operas – I think ATV broadcast the first colour live opera in Britain. He made Jesus of Nazareth. He always said: I should do something about the Bible; I’m Jewish!

“When The Prisoner was first pitched to him, with McGoohan waving his arms about and showing pictures of Portmeirion, Lew Grade ended up saying: I have no idea what you’re talking about, but here’s the money. Go away and make it. That may seem incredibly brave but, in a way, it wasn’t: McGoohan was a very bankable star. He had been Danger Man (another ITC/ATV series) and was, I think, at that point the highest-paid actor on British television. I don’t think Lew Grade saw Fall Out (The Prisoners’ final controversial episode) coming. But I don’t think Patrick McGoohan saw Fall Out coming.”

The way McGoohan remembered getting the OK from Lew Grade for The Prisoner was: “He got up, puffed on his cigar, marched around a little bit, then turned and said: Pat, you know, it’s so crazy it might work.

There is a YouTube clip in which McGoohan talks about Grade.

In the audience at the Sohemian Society last night was someone who had worked at ATV at that time (but not on The Prisoner).

“You could argue,” he said, “that there can sometimes be too much creative freedom. I was told The Prisoner was a chaotic programme to work on, particularly towards the end. The people who worked on the last episode said they didn’t know what was happening from one day to the next. There was no schedule, there were no scripts, no lines, it was chaos. It’s a very interesting way to make a television programme, but it’s probably not the best way.”

“Well,” said Rupert Booth, “to my mind, The Prisoner was the absolute finishing of him as McGoohan: The TV Star. It was a bit self-destructive. This is when he’s getting through about two bottles of whiskey and day and he’s been through, I think, his third nervous breakdown. He was taking so much of it on his own shoulders and taking it so seriously and would not compromise ever.”

According to Lew Grade, at the time The Prisoner was in production, the President of CBS asked him: “Do you have problems with Patrick McGoohan?” Lew told him: “I never have any problem at all with Patrick McGoohan. He’s wonderful”… “Well how do you do it?” asked the CBS President. Lew replied: “I always give in to what he wants.”

Part of the title sequence from The Prisoner

Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner‘s opening title sequence

“There were stories,” Rupert Booth said last night, “that McGoohan would not even have the word ‘television’ said on set. the word ‘film’ had to be used, because he thought people working on a television programme would potentially compromise their standards. It’s indicative, I think, of how much he was putting into it. Most of the stories about the filming of Fall Out are that it was either terrible chaos or glorious chaos, depending on what your role in it was. If you were an actor and were able to fall over chairs and dance around and sing Dry Bones: magnificent! If had to try to light and follow that with a camera: slightly more irritating. So, out of the chaos…”

After The Prisoner ended, McGoohan went to Lew Grade with other ideas.

“There’s one story which may be apocryphal,” said Rupert Booth, “that McGoohan took some ideas all nicely typed-up into Lew Grade and Lew basically said: No. Sorry. You’ve lost it. You’re too much of a risk and McGoohan absolutely spat the dummy out, stood on the table, kicked all the stuff off and stormed out and effectively destroyed his TV career in this country. Which (if true) was stupid and ungrateful, because Lew Grade had been tremendous to him. He had given him an awful lot of money. He had entrusted him. I think McGoohan was very unfair to Lew Grade in that way. It does seem from reports of that era that McGoohan was pissed off his face and spitting his dummy out and throwing all the toys out of his pram if he didn’t get his own way.”

According to Patrick McGoohan, talking about Lew Grade years later: “from the very moment he said Go (on production of The Prisoner) and shook my hand – we never had a contract – he never interfered in anything that I did. Never bothered me. It was marvellous. I can’t conceive of anybody else in the world, then or now, giving me that amount of freedom with a subject which, in many respects, I suppose you might say was outrageous. He has an instinct.”

Perhaps ITV could do with that now. People who take decisions – and responsibility – on instinct not on research figures from uncreative people. I oft quote the William Goldman sentence from his book Adventures in The Screen Trade: “Nobody knows anything.”

It means that creating TV programmes (and films) is an art involving gut instinct, not a science where you create ‘sure-fire winners’ from research intended to cover your ass if the show or the film fails.

There are some clips from Fall Out, the final episode of The Prisoner, on YouTube.


Filed under Television

5 responses to “Lew Grade, Patrick McGoohan and bizarre cult TV series “The Prisoner”

  1. There appears a little more freedom in “TV” art in the U.K. compared to the states which is full of the wrecks of pilots that never went ahead.My view is that we need to bring back local T.V. and local talent.The law needs to change so that we have a channel of local youtube film making..but……Would anyone watch ?

  2. keith martin

    I was often in the very front row (with many thanks to the Stage Doorman) during the early weekends of SNatLP, and at a time when Tommy Trinder took charge. So, it was so early that the London region was the only area that could watch Independent Television. One Sunday nigh,t the one and only ITA transmitter broke down just after Sunday Night at the … began. The programme was halted, and then it was upto Tommy Trinder to keep all of us entertained until the transmitter was mended. The Sunday Night show began again from the very beginning with its Overture and beginners please!

  3. One of the best “personal profiles” of McGoohan was written by US writer, Jeannie Sakol who tracked him down in Scandinavia in 1969. Far from being the out-of-control semi-alcoholic portrayed by the Prisoner Fan industry nowadays, he evidently charmed her cotton socks off and she clearly fell in virtual love with him, quothing about him at the end of her piece, that he was not so much the chance a girl missed as the chance a girl would never have. I’d take a large pinch of salt with the stories about his temper in real life. Most Prisoner folks think he was No6, and see him through that filter.

    • Well Said ! People easily confuse characters with the person playing them. Mr McGoohan poured his heart and everything that he had into the production of The Prisoner. He was quoted as saying that he WORKED his way through 3 nervous breakdowns. If one thinks about what he said about the original premise for The Prisoner being a limited episode series of SEVEN episodes…and that he was pressed for more so that Lew Grade could sell the show to the U.S.. ..then one might figure out that McGoohan didn’t have but 6 scripts written. ( He wrote Fall Out in a 36 hour period just before the final episode was filmed, so that one was definitely NOT written.)
      He was taking a chance with almost every aspect of the show…and was evidently determined that HIS vision for the show would be put on film to the highest standards he could achieve within the limits of the production schedule, scripts, props and directing. Sounds like some of the crew were working 16 hours 7 days a week…and McGoohan was reportedly getting as few as 2 hours of sleep a night. That pace would kill a bull elephant!!! It’s no wonder that he might have been short tempered and inclined to have a drink to relax…perhaps letting the drinking get out of control.
      But there were also reports of fun times on the set, but as it started to wind down, with McGoohan having gone to Hollywood to do Ice Station Zebra to raise funds to put into The Prisoner…and the fact that a lot of the crew went off to do other work …that also left McGoohan with a crew unfamiliar with him and his way of doing things.
      I for one see the genius that it took to get The Prisoner on film…and will be forever appreciative of Mr McGoohan and the entire cast and crew that put it together. But it was the driving force behind the creation of The Prisoner that has made it a show that is still being discussed almost 50 years since it’s debut on television… and unlike Number 6….Patrick McGoohan will never be just a number to me. Happy St Patrick’s Day Paddy!!!
      GOD Speed Sir !!!

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