Tag Archives: The Prisoner

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.

LewGrade_FozzyBear

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.

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The very highly talented and now slightly forgotten Anthony Newley

(A slightly revised version of this blog was published in the Huffington Post)

When I got back from the Edinburgh Fringe at the start of last week, the newly-released DVD collection of The Strange World of Gurney Slade was waiting for me – a TV series by the immensly talented Anthony Newley so obscure that even the word ‘cult’ cannot be attached to it, although its style allegedly influenced the young David Bowie.

When originally transmitted on ITV’s sole channel in 1960, the first two episodes were screened to general apathy at 8.35pm on (from memory) Friday nights, but were then quickly moved to the graveyard slot of 11.10pm.

The Strange World of Gurney Slade was far too strange and avant garde for the mass audience and did not quite have the right ingredients to be a cult for Guardian-reading trendies.

But strange and quirky it certainly is.

The Prisoner – which, when first transmitted in 1967/1968, received high levels not of apathy but of active dislike, became a lasting cult success – I suspect, partly because it was screened in the US so had a wider fan base… and partly because it was transmitted on ITV at 7.30pm peaktime on Sundays

But, The Strange World of Gurney Slade is weird even for a surreal neo-Brechtian fantasy. Even so, it was but a mild trial run for Tony Newley’s 1969 all-stops-pulled-out feature film jaw-dropper of a Fellini-esque fantasy Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Merchant Humppe and Find True Happiness?   

Newley – a creative all-rounder – singer, songwriter, actor, director, fantasist – will be remembered, if at all, as an idiosyncratic performer and writer of mainstream songs. But he should also be rated as a considerable experimental creator of visual fantasies.

I have blogged previously about my only encounter with Tony Newley – and it was a very favourable encounter. He impressed me as a person.

TV producer Danny Greenstone knew Newley peripherally through theatrical agent Jeremy Hicks, who had been the company stage manager for Newley’s West End musical The Good Old Bad Old Days and spent a year working with Newley at the Prince of Wales theatre in London.

In The Good Old Bad Old Days, Newley played the Devil and wore horns and a tail, the edge of which he used in the show to peel an apple. Before going on stage, he always took a swig from his ‘honey flask’. Danny Greenstone says:

“Lord only knows what formula was in there but it did contain honey as well. After taking a swig, he would stomp on stage, perform and stomp off again on cue. As he came off stage, he would reach for the honey flask again and, referring to the the bit of business or gag or song he had just performed, would mutter under his breath: ‘Masterly…. Masterly….’.

“During the interval, his favourite thing to do, with various members of the cast – but notably with Bill Kerr – would be to sit and watch videos of The Bilko Show, one of his very favourites.

“For the 50th performance of The Good Old Bad Old Days, he and his writing partner Leslie Bricusse wrote parody lyrics to fit all sixteen of the show’s songs for a celebration party held in the circle bar of the Prince of Wales for all the cast and crew. I have that recording. I also have a whole recording of the show from start to finish and it’s a crime that the original cast recording (once available on cassette and LP) has never been made available on CD.

“When my daughter Katy was about eight years old I took her to see Newley perform at the Dominion Theatre in London, where he was appearing as Ebeneezer in Bricusse’s musical adaptation of Scrooge!. I had rung him beforehand to say we were coming (we had front row seats) and asked if we could come round and see him after the show. It was New Year’s Eve.

“In typical Newley fashion he said: ‘No! Come round before… and then come round after…‘.

“We met him in his dressing room, which was lovingly adorned with posters from the films he’d appeared in and we spent a good half hour just chatting happily. He laughed his way through at least 28 of those 30 minutes while removing the scalp latex that covered his own hair during the show in which he had a long grey wig as Ebeneezer Scrooge. We both watched, transfixed, as he removed the makeup and prosthetics.

“He took Katy’s hand, kissed it, took her programme and wrote on it – with a silver gel pen – To Katy – you are very beautiful. I still have it. I don’t think it meant very much to an eight year old, but it meant the world to me.

“He told us of his plans to create a musical based on the life and career of Charles Chaplin. We wished him a very Happy New Year ahead and much success with everything.

“The Chaplin musical (co-written with Stanley Ralph Ross, an American who also wrote for the Batman series and the Monkees series on US TV, was doomed to never get onto Broadway or anywhere near the UK.

“The Chaplin estate denied Newley rights to portray the image of the Little Tramp character for reasons we can only guess at.

“And  three years later, after a fleeting appearance in BBC TV’s EastEnders and far more sumptuous but likewise fleeting appearances as The Bishop in BBC TV’s The Lakes, Tony Newley was dead.”

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