THE UNMUTUAL PRISONER ARTICLE ARCHIVE
"PRISONER", By Kenn Thomas
Eminem’s plan to remake Richard Boone’s 1957-1963 television series, Have Gun Will Travel, seems like another misguided show biz attempt to repaint the Mona Lisa. Boone, reportedly a descendant of Daniel Boone, got that show so right for his six years on CBS that previous plans to redo it have never gone anywhere. The character of Paladin, of course, still resonates in almost all good TV westerns, as well as in the films of Sam Peckinpah, who really had the final say on the movie western. Hopefully the impossibility of “remaking” Have Gun also will cut short whatever Marshall Mathers has in mind as well. Besides, Paladin clearly separated from Bob Dylan at birth, as evidenced by photos of the latter on his new CD, Modern Times.
Content producers apparently also have plans to develop two new versions of the 1968 television series, The Prisoner, another tube chef d’oevre probably best left alone. One of the projects would come out as a theatrically released motion picture and the other as a television mini-series retitled Number Six to help avoid confusion. “Number Six”, of course, was the designation of the secret agent in Patrick McGoohan’s classic series who attempts to quit the covert service but instead finds himself imprisoned in the Village, filmed at a real place called Portmeirion on the Snowdonia coast of North Wales, where annual Prisoner fan conventions still convene.
McGoohan’s work over time has lived up to a compliment paid to him once by the singer Donovan, that he’s a modern Orson Welles (1). This comes less from his work on The Prisoner than from two previous series he starred in entitled Danger Man, better known by its retitling in the US as Secret Agent. Everyone knows the Johnny Rivers song that served as the theme for the US version of the show: “They've given you a number and taken away your name,” it goes, and is often paired with a catch phrase from the later series, “I am not a number, I am a free man.”
Although the connection has often been denied, it seems clear that Danger Man—without a doubt a better spy program than even the Bond movies—and The Prisoner form a continuity of perception about the covert world in popular consciousness. For one thing, the very first episode of the original series (a half hour program wherein McGoohan worked for NATO and spoke in an obviously forced American accent) was filmed at Portmeirion. Two episodes of the second Danger Man series, entitled “Colony III” and “The Ubiquitous Dr. Lovegrove” contain elements that clearly foreshadow Prisoner, including a shared suggestion that fighting against the intelligence world is akin to fighting against oneself.
The shows had many writers, of course, and were developed by others, but viewers can come away from the series (both Danger Man series can be bought as DVD sets and The Prisoner has been repackaged on DVD a couple of times) with a sense that McGoohan’s interests, if not obsessions, inform the body of work. McGoohanology is not quite the science that Dylanology has become, but the same resistance to reducing his art to simplism should apply.
What separates Danger Man from Prisoner, however, is the popular culture perception of the secret agent. In Danger Man (2) John Drake never failed (3). He was the super hero secret agent--the kind of operative that Chuck Barris imagines himself in his silly autobio--a super-intelligent, smart, strong and tireless defender of western sensibility. By 1968, Drake the Prisoner (4) never succeeds. Until the final episode, he makes attempt after attempt to flee the Village but every time winds up right back there. He has, in fact, been imprisoned because of his disillusionment with secret agency. His captors tell him he can leave if he just tells them why he really left the covert service, and even keeping that secret is no success since his tormentors already know his official reason for quitting.
This has real-life correlations. A year after the first broadcast of the Prisoner series, agent Victor Marchetti quit the CIA after becoming disillusioned in his job as a specialist in Soviet and Cuban affairs and expected to produce a tell-all book. He eventually co-authored (with John Marks) The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, but it became so famously censored by the agency that it led to the congressional investigations of the intelligence services in the mid 1970s.
During that period, the CIA lost the highest ranking officer ever to quit, John Stockwell. Stockwell’s book, In Search of Enemies, met a successful CIA lawsuit that prevents him from making any money from it.
Phillip Agee’s resignation from the CIA—in 1968, the same year as Prisoner--while done more with official Soviet and Cuban involvement, nevertheless remains the one with continuing impact on current affairs. Agee sued Barbara Bush for suggesting that he had outed the CIA station chief in Greece who subsequently was assassinated. Mrs. Bush had to retreat from the claim, but under her husband’s tenure as US vice president, Congress passed the Intelligence Identities Protection Act to make illegal any such outing in the future.
The image of the secret agent moved from super hero to indignant renegade as Patrick McGoohan’s television career progressed, the image of the agency went from one of beneficence to malevolence. The full contours of domestic brainwashing programs like MKULTRA became revealed with the 70s congressional hearings, as did the CIA’s secret assassination programs and support operations for the world’s worst dictatorships. It took 9/11 to update that image to one of an utterly bloated and totally incompetent and corrupt police bureaucracy, one that failed to protect its charge from the worst assault it has ever endured.
While many leftist critics stood four square behind the actions and literary careers of Marchetti, Stockwell and Agee, today they champion the Intelligence Identities Protection Act because of its potential to strike at the heart at Dubya Bush’s political architecture. Karl Rove and Scooter Libby remain under indictment for their role in revealing the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame. Most recently, however, Bush administration toadie Richard Armitage confessed that he was the one who “inadvertently” exposed Plame’s name to columnist Robert Novak. Quotation marks must accompany almost any descriptor of Armitage’s actions. In 1986 Bo Gritz videotaped a statement from a southeast Asian drug lord who identified Armitage as his contact within the American government. Also in the 1980s Senate investigators looking into the Iran-contra conspiracy identified Armitage as a chief participant in the cover-up of that dirty deal.
The Armitage wing of Dubya Bush’s early administration, the one that included his boss Colin Powell, opposed the Iraq War, as do Dubya’s critics. His confession of violating the Identities Protection Act came after prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald issued indictments against Rove and Libby (over related charges, not the actual violation of the act) began whatever damage they eventually may do to the Bush administration, and Armitage is not likely ever to be prosecuted for it.
All of that belies the post 9/11 image of the covert world. Everyday people always have had a tough time peeling back the layers that obscure the kind of protection their tax dollars purchase. Singularly brilliant talents like Patrick McGoohan can sometimes see it clearly. Good luck to these new producers who want to take on that mantle in these times.
NOVAK: ARMITAGE DID NOT TELL ALL
Wed Sep 13 2006 08:37:07 ET
"When Richard Armitage finally acknowledged last week he was my source three years ago in revealing Valerie Plame Wilson as a CIA employee, the former deputy secretary of state's interviews obscured what he really did," Bob Novak claims in a column set for Thursday release.
Novak, attempting to set the record straight, writes: "First, Armitage did not, as he now indicates, merely pass on something he had heard and that he 'thought' might be so. Rather, he identified to me the CIA division where Mrs. Wilson worked, and said flatly that she recommended the mission to Niger by her husband, former Amb. Joseph Wilson. Second, Armitage did not slip me this information as idle chitchat, as he now suggests. He made clear he considered it especially suited for my column."
Novak slams Armitage for holding back all this time.
Armitage's silence for "two and one-half years caused intense pain for his colleagues in government and enabled partisan Democrats in Congress to falsely accuse Rove of being my primary source," Novak explains.
"When Armitage now says he was mute because of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's request, that does not explain his silent three months between his claimed first realization that he was the source and Fitzgerald's appointment on Dec. 30. Armitage's tardy self-disclosure is tainted because it is deceptive."
1. That one movie starring Patrick McGoohan, Ice Station Zebra—which has the same relationship to Danger Man that the Twilight Zone has to the Planet of the Apes movie—became Howard Hughes’ favorite film makes this an eerie compliment, considering Hughes’ relation to Welles.
2. Another weird fact: the conspiracy writer Danny Casolaro nicknamed Michael Riconosciuto, the main informant of his investigation into the Octopus cabal, “Danger Man”.
3. Well, in one episode he failed to save his prisoner, a Nazi eugenicist, from an Israeli assassin’s bullet--but the rat deserved it and this served to underscore the moral complexity of politics in the middle east.
4. Again, critics and McGoohan deny that the Prisoner is Drake, but it is a difference that makes no difference.
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