GEORGE MARKSTEIN
interviewed by
Chris Rodley

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George Markstein was a writer of mystery novels, a script writer for both television and radio and had been script editor on the "Danger Man" series. Markstein transfered to the Prisoner production, devising and writing the background and setting for the series, writing the script for "Arrival" and acting as script editor for the first twelve episodes. It's the well-known answer to a regular trivia question, but Markstein appeared in most of the early episodes as the bald man with glasses to whom the McGoohan character tenders his resignation.

The following is a transcript of an interview given by George Markstein during the making of a documentary called "The Prisoner File" which was shown directly after the screening of "Fallout" on the UK Channel Four in 1984. It's probably the only extensive interview on the subject of THE PRISONER he ever gave and he died not too long afterwards.

His words are strong, he makes no secret of his animosity towards Patrick McGoohan and his views on the development of the programme will not please many Prisoner fans. However, it's difficult to argue with one of the co-creators of THE PRISONER.

Patrick McGoohan was also interviewed for the programme. His attitude was "If Markstein's in it, I'm out!" Again an indication that the two men had not parted friends. McGoohan was eventually persuaded to film his sequences and these were brought back to London and edited in, but he withdrew his permission just before the programme was ready to go on air. Chris Rodley, the producer, took a brave decision to go ahead and screen it anyway.

McGoohan had seen the rough cuts, disliked the whole thing and had produced his own pseudo-documentary to replace it, mainly comprising of an hour of him facing a video camera answering self-penned questions about The Prisoner, his philosophies and his views on life in general. Some of this rough footage was edited into action scenes filmed on the beach near his home. The result was the infamous ten minute "LA Tape", so called because although Chris Rodley had received the tape far too late to use it in the programme, he included a reference to it right at the end as the narrator refers to "that tape from LA we received this morning".

The programme included interviews with many of the people involved in THE PRISONER but perhaps George Markstein's segments were the most revealing and controversial. The entire interview is reproduced here, although only a small portion actually appeared in the programme.


Q. Can you tell us how you became involved with Patrick McGoohan and Danger Man?

A. Well, they needed a story editor on Danger Man and they asked me to take it over and that's when I met McGoohan.

Q. What was Danger Man like when you joined it?

A. A very successful series, but they were planning to go better and bigger, and they were planning to go into colour and in fact I set up the first two colour episodes.

Q. So, Danger Man was all set to continue, what do you make of what actually happened to Danger Man at that point?

A. Well, McGoohan quit! He got fed up. We all thought the series would go on. It was very successful, it had gone into colour, it was showing in America, but the pressure was enormous - a series turnaround puts an incredible strain on an actor and I can quite understand that he'd had enough - and he gave it up.

Q. What were the first discussions about a possible next series...THE PRISONER or whatever it might have been called at that time?

A. Well my feeling is that McGoohan wasn't really very keen on doing any other series. What he really wanted to do I think was to play Brand. He'd had an enormous success some years previously on the stage with Ibsen's 'Brand' and Brand personifies everything I think McGoohan would like to be: God! He was very good as God, so he wanted to play Brand ... again. He was very very keen to set up 'Brand' as a film and I think that was really what he wanted to do. What a lot of the people in the studio wanted was to keep their jobs! They hoped he'd go on doing a series and so I sat down at the typewriter one day - you know, any port in a storm - and typed a couple of pages. They were about a secret agent - and after all Drake had been a secret agent - who suddenly quits without any apparent reason, as McGoohan had quit without any apparent reason, and who is put away!

"I had come across a curious establishment that existed in Scotland"

George Markstein I had been doing some research into the Special Operations Executive and I had come across a curious establishment that existed in Scotland during the War into which they put recalcitrant agents - and who was more recalcitrant than McGoohan! - I thought it was an excellent idea to play around with. One of the things I didn't know was what to call it, so I ended up calling it THE PRISONER. Simple! The man was a prisoner - call it THE PRISONER. And McGoohan went for it. He was very curious about the historical or shall we say the factual side of it. For instance, could a secret agent disappear ... you know, how could someone disappear in our society and be put away somewhere? And so I waffled on about "D" notices, how the authorities can ask the news media not to reveal something, as indeed happens in our time. He was very interested, he'd never heard of "D" notices in his life and that convinced him that this fantasy horror story had - as it does in fact have - a certain foundation in fact.

Q. How did you go about setting the story in the first episode?

A. Well, the first episode's called 'Arrival' and that's all it is - his arrival in the Village. It shows the prisoner - the secret agent - resigning. He hands his resignation to me which is very apt in a way as I'm the evil genius of the whole thing ... and then it shows him being kidnapped and waking up in the Village with its way of life ... every Rover ... everything we've grown to love or hate as the case may be.

Q. Can you say something about your job as Script Editor - the difference between script editing and script writing?

A. I wasn't a script editor, I was a story editor really ... pedantic point but it's important. Script editor suggests someone who blue-pencils scripts, a story editor's a man who creates and thinks up stories. A story editor is the key man in any series, he is the man in whose hands is the ethos of the series, the spirit of the series, and it is his job to cast the writers and the authors the way a director casts the actors and the stars. It is his job to convey the meaning of the series to those writers and to, hopefully, make sure they write the kind of scripts that are required - to ride shotgun on the whole thing. He is the series on the writing side, just as the star - just as McGoohan - is the series on the acting side.

Q. How did you brief the writers - what kind of information did you give them?

A. It isn't a question of information, it's a question of sitting down and talking, of knowing your writer in the first place, of getting on his wavelength and trying to help him get on your wavelength, bulling about ideas, guiding the writer, listening to what the writer feels, it's a partnership.

"Who was No.6? was no mystery."

Q. Did any of the writers ever ask you for information about things that were never clear in any of the episodes, like "Who was No.6?" "Who is running the Village"? Did they actually want to know those solutions?

A. Well, 'Who is No.6?" is no mystery - he was a secret agent called Drake who quit. They asked who No.l might be, of course they asked who Number One might be - and I said Number One is the villain in charge, which is absolutely true.

Q. What did you think of the first scripts as they were coming in?

A. Oh, it was very exciting. Obviously one waits in keen anticipation, and one has nightmares thinking they won't work out and then one is full of euphoria at the thought that they will work out, and then they come in. And I thought they were pretty good, I thought the writers did a marvellous job, they were talented writers and they did a marvellous job! You see, I had always known, unlike other people who didn't understand it quite so well perhaps ... I'd always known that the series would work ... I'm not talking about what happened later, but I'd always known that basically the series was viable and the scripts proved it - the initial scripts, that is, I'm not talking about the rubbish that happened later on!

Q. Was it necessary, or your job, at any one point to then go over rewrites of scripts with writers or were they left ...?

A. No. No script was every totally rewritten but most were edited, rather like a film is edited - you don't show everything.

Q. How important do you think scripts are to the success of any series?

A. Naturally as a writer I feel that scripts are the most important part of any series and I think most people in the business will agree that the script is the key factor. Without a good script you're in trouble. But of course the actor is important, the director is very important - everyone contributes. A show is a team effort. It's like building a house ... the interior decorations are very important, the carpets are important, the curtains, the furniture ... but basically if the architect has done a bad job and the whole bloody thing falls down you're in trouble! And the same thing applies with a script - the script is the basis of all drama.

Q. What was your idea of how the series might continue beyond the first season and how you saw the idea of THE PRISONER developing?

A. Well, I think this goes into the philosophy of THE PRISONER - which wasn't some crazed pantomime! ... but was a very serious philosophical point, although I don't want to raise THE PRISONER to any more than it was, just a bit of television entertainment, but if it has a deeper meaning it is the fact that we are all prisoners. You know, the thin man is a prisoner because he's thin, a fat man can't go and buy the thin man's clothes, a very famous person can't go to the pub and have a drink because everyone recognises them. The Queen can't go shopping in a department store whenever she wants to, she's a prisoner in that sense. People are prisoners of their health, their religion, their wealth, their poverty, and that's an interesting theme to explore. The Prisoner was going to leave the Village and he was going to have adventures in many parts of the world, but ultimately he would always be a prisoner. By that I don't mean he would always go back to the Village. He would always be a prisoner of his circumstances, his situation, his secret, his background ... and THEY would always be there to ensure that his captivity continues.

Q. The way you saw it, it could have gone on, presuming people still watched it?

A. I think it could have gone on. No series is eternal, thank God, and the idea of eighty nine episodes of THE PRISONER apalls me! ... I think seventeen are more than enough and it would have been better if there hadn't been seventeen - if there'd been fewer than that - but yes, it could have gone on.

Q. At what point did you decide that you wanted to leave the production as it was?

A. When egomania took over! You know, when McGoohan was everything! When McGoohan was writing, was conceiving, was directing ... and didn't know where he was going. My presence was superfluous - and we've seen the result after my departure.

Q. What did you make of the conclusion or non-conclusion in the last episode?

A. Well, I think you've said it - the non-conclusion. I think it was an absurd pantomime ... you tell me what it means. I think it was a bit of gross self indulgence by someone who was fed up with the whole thing and wanted to get out of it and wanted to go out in a blaze of ... something or other.

Q. Were you surprised at the ending?

A. Yes, I was surprised because I thought something much better would emerge. After all, when one has conceived something one wants it to die a reasonable death, not some horrific joke!

Q. What do you think about the fact that it was later discussed in universities?

A. Mmmm. ... yes ... amazing and ridiculous and a sad commentary on our day and age I would have thought, that a television series has been elevated apparently - by some people into a cult. What a pathetic thing. I mean, one is delighted that it amuses people, and one is delighted that it entertains people and it's a very satisfying thing to have originated something which has left such a mark and I'm very humble and very pleased about that. But having said that, when I hear that some benighted university in Canada is holding some sort of course for its students about the significance of THE PRISONER and when I hear people pontificating about its meaning ... the thing is a bizarre and unusual television series, no more, no less. It had some good things in it. It had some ridiculous things in it. It's fun! But the PRISONER "cult" is a terrific case of The Emperor's New Clothes quite honestly and if it gives people pleasure then so be it ... but it is the Emperor's clothes ... I mean ... how do cults grow? They're frightening, I think - they are really frightening. It shows how poverty-sicken people must be to have to cling to this kind of absurdity.

I think that in many ways THE PRISONER is a tragedy ... because McGoohan became a prisoner of the series and it's never nice to see that happen to a human being, the combination of ambition, frusation, wanting to be writer, director, actor - you name it. It was sad, it was very sad I think. It did something to him that wasn't very good and it was reflected in the series and that's why the series ended like that and that's why people have said "I don't understand the end". Of course they don't understand the end, because there is no end ... I don't think even McGoohan understood the end, or if he does, well, perhaps he does, but that is the biggest tragedy of THE PRISONER that Patrick McGoohan became a Prisoner himself.

THE PRISONER is really the sum total of the work and devotion of a magnificent team and they were all towers of strength. David Tomblin, I mean, there couldn't have been a PRISONER without David, Jack Shampan, the art director - what he contributed! He was way ahead of television design. And of course the writers, naturally I'm prejudiced about the writers who played the absolute key role ... people like Tony Skene, Louis Greifer, Gerald Kelsey and others. You know, it's not the McGoohan opera, it really isn't.

McGoohan is a brilliant actor - was a brilliant actor - and without McGoohan there would have been no PRISONER, but without the art director there wouldn't have been a PRISONER, without David Tomblin there wouldn't have been a PRISONER without the scripts there wouldn't have been a PRISONER. It's not a one man show, any more than it should be a cult of deep meaning to our day and age. It is not a solo effort, it was a team effort and I was very lucky to be a member of that team and, by God, McGoohan was very lucky to have that team round him.

Q. Do you think of all the rescreenings? Were these things in your mind at that time?

A. Of course not! If anybody had told me in, when was it ? 1966? ? that the show would be repeated constantly I wouldn't have believed them and I think it's nothing to cheer about. I think it's very sad, it's a sad commentary on the state of television that we have to revive something like this. Sure, it's a nice curiosity and why not? But I certainly didn't imagine for one moment that it would have this longevity, but there we are - it just goes to show.

Q. When you say that, do you think that the series does have things in it which do seem to last, which seem to survive the ravages of time?

A. Well, does it? Does it? I think the series is very old hat. When we first did the series there were things in it which were way ahead of their time, but most of it now ? closed circuit surveillance, credit cards, brain washing, all these kinds of things are now terribly commonplace. It's a pity perhaps that the world has progressed like that but there it is. I don't think there's any special message in THE PRISONER today, perhaps it just took an intelligent and educated guess about what the world would be like because it's getting far more like The Village, isn't it? A lot more people belong to moulds, have plastic cards with numbers embossed, have to look through television screens to enter buildings. In America now if you go into an hotel and pay by cash they look at you very suspiciously, but if you produce a piece of plastic you're an honoured guest. I think that's strictly PRISONER territory ... a bit frightening!

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