10 April 2018

The Prisoner - from Patrick McGoohan to Sergei Viktorovich Skripal

Be Seeing you!






S smiles to himself.  He is a free man, not a number.  He ushers his daughter out of his modern suburban house, pulls the door to, and helps her into his car.  Together they have a drink and a pizza in the city centre, smiling as the waiter takes their photo.  Then as they stroll away a fog overcomes him.  He struggles to breathe, as if he is being smothered by a great balloon...... He collapses, on a bench.....


When he regains consciousness he is disorientated.  His head hurts.  His mouth is dry. He pulls himself up to raise the blinds and looks out of the window.....






He is confused.  The phone on the side table rings.  S lifts the receiver.  Good morning to you.  A suave, cultivated voice speaks.  I hope you slept well?  Come and join me for breakfast.  Number 2.  The Green Dome.







Boris Lavrov offers S tea. With lemon or polonium?  Sergey Johnson smiles.  Now please, he oozes.  It's my job to check your motives.

I've been checked....

Of course, but when a man knows as much as you do a double check does no harm.....  A few details may have been missed.....







I wake in the village.  The sun is up; the tide is out. In my head I hear the voice of Patrick McGoohanI will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered.....  My life is my own.


Is it?








Thanks to my younger brother, Tim, I have just re watched all seventeen episodes of The Prisoner.  I first saw it fresh in the sixties, when it was a sensation.  Ever since then the clipped tones and sharp image of McGoohan have been in my head.  Every so often I have run across sands and shouted, I am not a number:  I am a free man!  







And I have gloriously vindicated the right of the individual to be individual.  I used to wear striped socks at school, for example....  I was Unmutual....

And I am surely not alone in this?







Patrick McGoohan first visited Portmeirion, an Italianate village in North Wales designed and built by architect Clough Williams-Ellis, in 1960 to film an episode of Danger Man.  So when he 'retired' from that series and wanted to produce something different he returned here to be imprisoned by unknown authorities.







The series was highly successful, with over eleven million viewers for most of the first showings, but it perplexed many and the final episode was not what everyone wanted. McGoohan's character, Number 6, is told that he is free to go, having survived a bewildering succession of examinations and tests.  

The ultimate revelation, however, is that we are prisoners of ourselves, which McGoohan defines as: about the most evil human essence.









The central theme of The Prisoner is, in McGoohan's words, the freedom of the individual.  I want to yell back, 'That's our right.  The loss of one's own individuality is a nightmare.'  

But there is a more concrete, more sinister, essence.....

What do you do with an ex- secret agent?







The Prisoner still has a large following. From April 20th to 22nd this year The Prisoner Appreciation Society (http://www.sixofone.co/)  will be holding PortmeiriCon 2018 celebrating 50+ years of The Prisoner.  

On June 23rd at Elstree Studios, Borehamwood, The Unmutual Website (& Quoit Media Limited) will be presenting NOT A NUMBER, A Patrick McGoohan Retrospective..... (see http://www.theunmutual.co.uk/)

If you haven't ever seen it, The Prisoner might now seem a curiosity.  It isn't perfect, for sure, and some of the costumes and hairstyles, special effects and sets are very sixties, but despite these and other drawbacks it still intrigues and surprises. McGoohan himself is an impressive presence and many of the supporting actors keep up with him, though Leo McKern temporarily broke down with the strain.  It was ground-breaking in many ways; it challenged the TV industry and the viewing public; it was unusual in that its 'hero' kept failing to get away and that there was no arch villain to blame it all on in the end....






And it was worryingly prescient.  Whose side are you on?  How many times have you been captured on CCTV today?  Are you a number?  Or a free person?





I am a privileged visitor at a Catholic boarding school.  On one side of the corridor there are evenly spaced wooden doors, set into the block stone walls with ogival arches over each frame.  On the other side there is a cloistered square, monastic in architecture. It is by no means a prison, though to an imaginative child some of its features might seem just a little enclosing.....

A framed article mounted on the corridor wall catches my eye. The heading is: Patrick McGoohan, 19th March 1928 - 13th January 2009, Old Ratcliffian 1940 - 1944, Actor.  


Apparently he excelled at maths and boxing.....





Patrick McGoohan was born in Queens, New York City, but was brought up in Ireland and then London.  With the blitz came evacuation to Loughborough, and school at Ratcliffe College.  In twenty years he was Danger Man, and then, 86 episodes later, the highest paid TV actor in the country, he resigned..... 

And he became The Prisoner.....





After the last episode of The Prisoner (Fall Out) aired on February 2nd 1968 there was such an outcry that McGoohan had to escape with his family to a remote place in Wales until the furore had died down. He subsequently moved to Switzerland, and then to California.  In the 70's he wrote, directed and appeared in episodes of Columbo, and in 1995 played Edward I in Braveheart


On January 13th 2009, aged eighty, he died.....






Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time
It's easy
All you need is love
All you need is love



Be seeing you!






1 April 2018

Looking Back in Umbrage....

We all need to escape.....






Angry Young Man John Osborne never stayed in the Grand Hotel Amrâth Amsterdam as, at the time of his death in 1994, it was the headquarters of the city's public transport company (GVB). It had been created just before the First World War as the Scheepvaarthuis (Dutch for House of Shipping), the joint head office for six shipping companies. Architect Jo Van der Mey combined Art Nouveau with contemporary Dutch and nautical ideas to form the key work of the Amsterdam School.







In The Hotel in Amsterdam, six friends from London, whose lives and work are overshadowed by K.L., a demanding film producer, flee the country for a weekend to escape his influence. In a hotel in Amsterdam, the uneasy equilibrium that has existed between them begins to unravel as the alcohol starts to flow. John Osborne's account of these relationships won the Evening Standard Best Play of the Year Award in 1968. 






The play was revived at the Donmar Warehouse starring Tom Hollander (a happily coincidental name) in September 2003, but is rarely performed these days, though it is not without current relevance.   They are escaping the clutches of K.L, who is described as, the biggest, most poisonous, voracious, Machiavellian dinosaur in the movies.... And we all know what that means......  Indeed, I think we do, Mr Weinstein?







In the Grand Hotel Amrâth we are not escaping anyone.  We have come to see old friends, as well as Rembrandt, Van Gogh et al.  We have come to revive ourselves with the delights of foreign travel, while we still can.  The hotel itself is an extraordinary building and we marvel at the way architect Ray Kentie and his team of artists renovated the office building.  It took a year and a half of demolition and clearance, starting in 2003, and then a further two and half to complete the restoration.





With a glance over my shoulder at Osborne, however, we feel just a little oppressed by the city, and by the hotel.  It is shadowy, and the heavy woods and thick wallpapers dull our spirits.  The irony is that, as tourists, we are ever trying to escape ourselves.  Amanda and I first visited the Rembrandthuis over twenty years ago, and were welcomed in through the front door into a relatively quiet, dark seventeenth century town house.  It seemed as if the owner had just stepped out for a stroll, and we made ourselves at home in anticipation of his return.  Now you enter through a glass, steel and concrete atrium, and jostle with hundreds of others, all intently glued to audio guides.  There were 265,000 such visitors last year and I am told that they anticipate 300,000 this year.




The Van Gogh museum only takes online bookings. There are queues for the Rijksmuseum.  The Red Light district is now swamped by tour groups. There's hardly a sailor in sight. No chance of privacy.....




What can we do?  We are tourists too.




We escape. Again.  To Haarlem.  Seventeen minutes on a train from Amsterdam Centraal, and a totally different atmosphere.  The Grote Kerk, dedicated to St Bavo, is an oasis of peace, despite the monumental organ once deftly played by the ten-year-old Mozart. 






We pay our respects to Frans Hals, though the Laughing Cavalier is resting in the Groot Heiligland, the Alms House for old men where he ended his days, in anticipation of celebrations later in the day.....






A fact endorsed by excited locals, who seem to be bursting pink and turquoise balloons in our honour....





The pedestrian streets are quiet, their quaint, wonky houses immaculate (apart from the occasional reference to South Park).....





And the windmill waves at us across the Grebe-infested river.







Back in Amsterdam we have a beer at Café Papeneiland, a bruine kroeg from 1642,





then find an old fashioned restaurant in Jordaan and eat stamppot andijvie met lamsbout, which is mighty fine. After this we have a de Koninck and oude genever at the Café Karpershoek before retiring to the Amrâth, feeling full, and a little wobbly, and not quite so jaded.





We look back.  But not in anger.  I met John Osborne in Rome once, not that long before he died.  The man who changed British theatre was no longer an angry young man.  He was more an avuncular old boy with the husky Fulham tones of the late John Hurt playing Jeffrey Barnard.  I asked him whether he ever regretted writing Look Back in Anger?  He smiled, perhaps at my naivety.  It pays the rent, he said,with a chuckle. 





I didn't ask him about The Hotel in Amsterdam.....







In actual fact, I look back, whenever I look back, with great affection, whether to Amsterdam or not......  Perhaps looking forward is not so easy nowadays? 













26 March 2018

The Beauties of Bath - Without thinking of Jane Austen....

Sometimes I wonder what I'm-a gonna do

But there ain't no cure
For the summertime blues....





British Summertime....  It's snowing in Bath.  Mine host wishes me well, and I check out of my temporary lodgings on the hill.  The town lyes Low in a bottom, as Celia Fiennes recorded in 1688.  The baths in my opinon, she wrote, makes the town unpleasant, the air so low, encompassed with high hills and woods....



Not everyone shared Celia's view.  The origin of the town is attributed in legend to Bladud, son of Rud Hud Hudibras, who was cured of leprosy (which he caught in Athens) by bathing in the muddy swamps of the district.  His son later became King Leir (or Lear as some would have it).






Several centuries later, in the time of Agricola, the fiendish Romans got themselves into hot water here (between 37 and 47 degrees Celsius) and founded Aquae Sulis, after Sul, patroness of deep-seated mineral springs. 





Much later on, Royal visitors such as Mrs James I (Anne of Denmark) dipped her toes here, and then, in 1663, Mrs Charles II, Catherine of Braganza, was brought to try and cure her sterility.  Sadly, she had three miscarriages and did not produce an heir to the throne.





In 1702 Queen Anne made the place fashionable, and in her voluminous wake 'Beau' Nash produced a set of rules to follow if you wished to be accepted. As recorded by Oliver Goldsmith, these regulations included No.5 That no gentleman give his ticket for the balls to any but gentlewomen - N.B. Unless he has none of his acquaintance..... No.8 That the elder ladies and children be content with a second bench at the ball, as being past or not come to perfection.... and No.10 That all whisperers of lies and scandals be taken for their authors.....






This was also the time of the Johns Wood (Elder and Younger), Ralph Allen, and Robert Adam who, between them, raided the notebooks of Andrea Palladio to create the bridge in Prior Park (as well as the school behind it) and indeed Pulteney Bridge over the River Avon, 






Which betrays much more of its Italianate design from behind.... (think Florence, Ponte Vecchio...)







Wood the Younger was also responsible for the Royal Crescent, but actually only for its facade and overall design.  Individual householders had to find their own architects for their homes, so all is not necessarily what it seems....








In the meantime, Bath, along with Wells,  had grown itself a Bishop and a fine Abbey to go with it.  Despite Henery VIII's best efforts, the church survived, and, with quite a lot of more recent restoration, it's got some lovely fans....







As has my snowy busker friend outside.....









While, back in the Pump Room, the jolly burghers of Bath and tourists of the world are munching their buns and slurping the waters....









As refreshment after their tour of the remarkable Roman bathing establishment below....








Probably one of the top spots on a world tour for a selfie, though who am I to judge? (and when is a selfie not a selfie....?)








It is a wonderful show. Eerie Romans whisper lies and scandals to each other, while the mobile generation seem electronically absorbed....








And Calpurnia bares all.....









I blush and shy away, and turn to admire the simple pleasures of the city....









And that is without even thinking of Jane Austen, up at Sham Castle....





Summertime....  Who said the living was easy?  And there ain't no cure for the summertime blues....

It was at 4.10 pm on Sunday, 17th April 1960 that 21 year old Eddie Cochran died in St Martin's Hospital, Bath.  He suffered severe head injuries in Chippenham at 11.50 the night before.  A tyre blew out on his speeding taxi and Eddie tried to shield his girlfriend from the impact but was flung out as the door smashed open.

Gene Vincent survived.  The driver, who was called George Martin, was fined £50 and disqualified from driving for fifteen years.  






By Knytshall - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15992986




The Beauties of Bath.  Completely without thinking of Jane Austen.....