Tuesday, 13 August 2013

BFI Southbank: Patrick McGoohan

The BFI's August season on maverick talent Patrick McGoohan is well worth a visit, as it shows there was much more to the man than giant balloons and penny-farthings.

McGoohan as Brand (Image: BBC)

The BFI’s careful selection of McGoohan's films and TV programmes shows how he built a career to the point where, by 1966, he had enough influence with one of the UK’s leading showbiz impresarios to get his pet project The Prisoner made. Funded to the tune of £75,000 an episode, McGoohan had absolutely no editorial constraints from the company financing him. Not only that, but he installed himself as executive producer, writer, director and star – a unique position in television production that’s still to be bettered. 

These highlights show how he got there:

Hell Drivers (1957)

McGoohan was contracted to the Rank film company in the 1950s and Hell Drivers is one of his best outings for them. He plays the bullying Red, the pace setter and foreman for a team of itinerant lorry drivers and his performance shows how well suited he was to slightly larger than life, confrontational figures. What’s also striking, and enjoyable, about this particular film is the ensemble cast. Virtually all the male actors in it when on to become famous in the 1960s – Sean Connery (James Bond), William Hartnell (Dr Who), Sid James (Carry On), Herbert Lom (Inspector Dreyfuss in The Pink Panther films) and David McCallum (The Man from UNCLE). Gordon Jackson’s time would come at the turn of the 1970s, when he was in charge of CI5 in The Professionals. Future star spotting aside, Hell Drivers is a gritty, tense and funny thriller in its own right. The dialogue still sounds contemporary and it’s easy to imagine the film being remade today.

Brand (1959)
Henrik Ibsen’s play about an uncompromising priest made McGoohan famous when it was staged at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith. The World Theatre BBC version of the play uses most of the same cast from that production so it’s as close as we’re ever going to get to seeing McGoohan’s iconoclastic stage performance. He was perfect casting as a priest who demands ‘all or nothing’ from those around him, a high price that sees him lose his son, wife and eventually the trust of the villagers he tries to minister. It’s a huge, exhausting part of King Lear proportions, but McGoohan’s power in the role never flags, the fanatical gleam in his eyes totally convincing of the demeanour of a religious zealot. With the benefit of hindsight, from this it’s easy to see how perfect McGoohan was for outsider parts in conflict with the status quo, particularly when one character shouts ‘drive him out of the village!’ On the strength of this role alone, McGoohan really should have been playing Lear for the RSC in his autumnal years.

The Quare Fellow (1963)
An adaptation of Brendan Behan’s first play, about the evils of capital punishment, as practised at an unnamed prison in Dublin. By this time McGoohan had become a skilled film actor, and he was obviously cast for the ability to say a lot through looks alone, as his dialogue as Thomas Crimmin, the new prison officer, is minimal. Witnessing the build-up to an execution, including the antics of a drunken hangman and the distraught behaviour of the condemned man’s wife (Sylvia Sims), McGoohan communicates through remarkably subtle facial expressions the disgust, distress and righteous indignation of a man exposed to a barbaric system.

There are more gems still to come:

Danger Man The film TV series that made McGoohan an international star. Showing on Friday 16 are two examples of the series, ‘The Lonely Chair’ from the 1960 half-hour series and ‘A Date with Doris’ from the show’s hour-long, mid-1960s incarnation.

Ice Station Zebra McGoohan plays another secret agent in a stirring adaptation of Alistair MacLean’s 1968 Cold War thriller, directed by John Sturges. Showing in a new print, it’s worth watching to see McGoohan act Rock Hudson and Ernest Borgnine off the screen.

The Best of Friends A fine late entry in McGoohan’s TV career from 1991 has him playing George Bernard Shaw opposite John Gielgud as Sir Sydney Cockerell and Wendy Hiller as Dame Laurentia MacLachlan, three friends who enjoyed a 25-year correspondence.

Check the BFI website for full details: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk

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