PETER WYNGARDE: ‘Checkmate’ Interview

On Saturday, June 17th, 1989, Steven Ricks of TR 7 Productions interviewed PETER at the Thatched Barn (The Elstree Moat House) in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire (England), for his film, ‘The Prisoner Investigated.

Sadly, the interview was never used in any form by TR 7 Productions, and was hidden away on file until Mr. Ricks gave permission for the Hellfire Club to publish the complete transcript.


Steven Ricks: How did you first become involved with The Prisoner series itself?

PETER: I think it was Pat (McGoohan) who asked me to play Number 2. I think it came about because a long time ago I did a series called ‘Epilogue To Capricorn’, which was probably one of the best titles for any series in the world, but which probably had one of the worst scripts in the world! So the actors got together with the director, who was wild and crazy and was eager to do things, and he said: “What do you want to do then? I said, “Throw away the script – throw it in the bin, and we’ll just ad-lib. We more or less know what the characters are, and we could take it from there.” It became the top TV series of the time, because nobody knew what was happening. Does that echo something that happened with The Prisoner?

Steven Ricks: Yes.

PETER: And I think that’s how it came about. Pat said: “Would you like to do it?” And I said, “Of course I would! I love doing things like that.” I mean, the marvellous thing about filming – I don’t want to sound like that character I told you about who did that interview with all the clips of different actors on ‘Wogan’ [1], and sound like one of them, because actors talking about acting is one of the most boring things in the world – I must warn you of that to begin with. The great thing about this is that if you can do something that is off the cuff, which is what movies are about for me – it’s much more exciting. If it’s right off the cuff, then it works. If you’ve got the time and the money to do a David Lean film, which you can take time with and work on it – he has worked on a film for fifteen years. But of course, Patrick didn’t have that time, you see. He was the only guy who had a script. He knew what he was going for and I think it had a lot to do with that kind of excitement of creating something out of an idea, really.

Steven Ricks: What did you think of the script when you actually read it?

PETER: I don’t think I did.

Steven Ricks: You didn’t have a script?

PETER: I never read scripts anyway. If I can avoid it. I don’t think there’s any point in reading most of them. I’ll tell you another little secret about film scripts. If you pick up a film script and in the first ten pages there is dialogue, the best thing to do is throw it in the bin, if you can, because they are called moving pictures, and moving pictures have to move. You have to have action. If they do, then that’s great, but if there is all yap-yap-yap-yap-yap, page after page after page, you are into a radio play, or a theatre play.

Steven Ricks: Radio with pictures.

PETER: Yes, radio with pictures, or film plays – which they did for a very long time.

Steven Ricks: So, were you originally going to be going up to Portmierion village when they started out?

PETER: As far as I know – I was looking forward to that. I was rather disappointed that I never saw it, really. The studio had the operations room. I remember running round on the MGM lot, which was supposed to be a cut of the location thing. I remember running about a bit, because I remember those terrible blue Dunlop shoes that we all had to wear. I think he (McGoohan) must’ve had a deal with Dunlop or something – I thought they were hideous! But everyone wears them now, don’t they? Now they are popular. I just thought they were hideous. They were alright on a yacht, I thought, but I wasn’t mad about them on land.

Steven Ricks: When it came to do some of the studio stuff, where you’ve got the desk and all the control panels etc….

PETER: I was looking up, I think. At the big screen.

Steven Ricks: Did that cause problems sometimes?

PETER: Sometimes the angles were tricky, I think. And also the stuff they used on it – it was film in those days, not video.

Steven Ricks: Yes, it was film.

PETER: So the film had to be pushed onto screen. It had to match the second screen andPRIS1 the third screen and the fourth screen. So there was always a tiny bit of technical hitch going on there; there was always a bit of hold-up while they did those sorts of things. Waiting for the thing to do – it was a bit like watching a television, or a video now where you go (imitates a voice running backwards) it all goes back and you’ve got everybody going like that, and you come back on it. So there was a lot of technical things to do. I remember a fight that I had on a platform while these things were going on and I suddenly thought – we all stopped, because we thought ‘Oh my God! It means that every time we throw a punch we’ve got to match it up with the thing over there!’So Patrick very sensibly shot it at a different angle so we didn’t have to do all that. He was very good, you know, as a director. He should’ve directed a great deal more, I think.

Steven Ricks: Don Chaffey was the director on that particular episode.

PETER: Patrick did a lot.

Steven Ricks: Patrick did a lot?

PETER: Oh yes. He was the over-all boss on the thing; he watched every single thing. It was his baby, you know. He did ‘Danger Man’ to begin with, and he didn’t have a great say on the whole series – it was just one of those things, and as a result of that he said: “What would you like to do?” And he said: “As a matter of fact, I’ve got this idea”, and he went forward and presented it. This old hat to you?

Steven Ricks: Well, no.

PETER: But you’ve heard it all?

Steven Ricks: But I haven’t got it on film.

PETER: The thing that happened, I think. First, he did ‘Danger Man’ – huge success. Then he was asked what he’d like to do next, and I think he said I would like to do a series of my own. And Lew Grade said he could. Lew Grade didn’t know what was going on – he hadn’t a clue. And when it (The Prisoner) came out, I don’t think he was overjoyed by the idea, was he? There was a great deal of publicity saying ‘What the hell is going on?’ He’s a very honest man, in a way, Lew Grade. I did a series called Department S, which was very, very successful, and I was summoned to his office – this just gives you an indication of how I think Patrick had to deal with him, as I’m sure that the same thing applied. When he said, “Listen. I’ve got to tell you something. I don’t have my heroes like you. My heroes are blond; they’ve got blue eyes, and they are good looking. You come along here with a Viva Zapata moustache and you have this long black hair down to your shoulders, and you wear these funny clothes with your cuffs turned back. That’s not my idea of a hero. But, he said, I must tell you – my wife loves you, so we’ll do another series, OK!” And that’s how we did the second series, and I’m sure the same happened with Pat. He probably said ‘I don’t know what the hell’s going on, but some people like it. Let’s go on.’ You know you only usually do thirteen to begin with – or whatever it is, and if they work, they carry on. If they don’t work… There’s a lot of money involved, especially in those days. Especially for an English series, because there wasn’t all that much money floating about for that sort of thing. It was a feather in (Grade’s) cap; he allowed Patrick to do it, and it was huge – and it still has a phenomenal cult following.

Steven Ricks: What was Patrick like as a director.

PETER: Very helpful. Very, very helpful indeed. I think that he has got an outer sort-of surface, hasn’t he? One gets the feeling of it – and especially of the character he was playing. But beneath it he has got a very wicked sense of humour. I believe so. There was an instance when one of the actors said: “I don’t understand what this means.” And I caught Pat’s eye, and he looked at me and sort of went (he winks). And so the actor didn’t see that, and he said: “Well, I think that he means…”. Patrick had written it, remember, and he was directing it. And the actor said: “I think he’s a bit thick, isn’t he?”, and Patrick said: “Yes. That’s a very good idea to play him thick.” And this fellow said: “Do you really think so, Pat? Do you think that’s a good way of doing it?” “Yes,” he said. “Play him as thick as you can.” So that sort of thing worked.

Steven Ricks: Now, there was a particular sequence in ‘The Prisoner’ series where you were sitting meditating and you do a karate chop at the end of the scene.

PETER: Did I?

Steven Ricks: Do you remember doing that?

PETER: I don’t. Uh! I was meditating? Oh, yes. Of course. Of course. That’s right – now that was something. I remember now. You’re bringing it all back. Isn’t that amazing? That was something I think I was into at the time. I was into yoga, and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to do it here.’ And I think that’s how it came about. Yes, that’s how it came about. I don’t think it was in the script; may’ve been. There may’ve been an indication of it, and one took it from there. You only need an idea to go schoom with it, really. I think that’s what happened there.

Steven Ricks: Was it the original intention for you to play Number 2 once, or were you going to play it more than once?

PETER: I think the original idea was to go all the way through, and then whatever happened – whoever played the… was I the first one, or was someone else the first one? I think Leo (McKern) was the first one.

Steven Ricks: You were third.

PETER: Somebody was the first one when it was shown. Was that Christopher Lee?

Steven Ricks: No. It was Guy Doleman who was the very first one.

PETER: That’s right! He was going to go all the way through. I think he was the one who was going to go all the way through, and then they decided to change them, which I thought was more interesting for everyone, really. No, I don’t think that the original idea was to have a different Number 2; one each episode. There was an idea of having a guest star, because they did that with ‘Danger Man’, didn’t they? And all the series of that time.

PRIS2You remember, you said you thought that I had shot some of the ‘Jason King’ thing over here at the Thatched Barn; I don’t think we did. I think we shot ‘The Saint’ (The Man Who Liked Lions) here. I have a feeling. I remember an orgy scene by a pool (laughs), and we were all supposed to dress up in Roman costumes. That was the time that Roger (Moore) and I were supposed to fence at the end of it, or sword fight – not fence. A sword fight. I pretended to Roger that I’d never picked up a sword in my life, and that I didn’t know what to do. In fact, I’d fenced at the Green Club (London) – you know, the whole thing – and I love it, absolutely love it. So I thought it would be a little game with Roger, and we had to do this fight thing, you see, and every time he came along to see how the doubles were doing with me, I would go: “Oh! Oh! Oh, God!” And I said: “Roger, do you think it would be better if you did it with a double?” He said: PETER, we must see your face!” “So,” I said, “Can’t we just do it like they do in the Errol Flynn movies, you know, and have my face looking fierce like that?” He said: “Come on, have a go! We have one big take, OK?” It was ‘The Man Who Liked Lions’, that’s what it was called, and I had to knock him – bang, bang, bang, bang, and he gets hold of me and sticks the sword in me, and I fall into the lion’s den, which is the end of the movie – marvellous big moment. So he said to the stunt boys: “He’s a bit tricky about the fighting, isn’t he? Never mind, I’ll make him look tough; don’t worry. Then we can do the cuts and that sort of thing”. So I just went and really let him have it. And I went bang, bang, bang, bang, and I got Roger. He fell into the lion’s den! That was the episode that was filmed here.

Steven Ricks: There was also an actor called George Coularis….

PETER: Oh, yes! Yes!

Steven Ricks: …He was in ‘Citizen Kane’.

PETER: And the other one – ‘The Magnificent Andersons’. He was in what they called The Mercury Players. Mad as a hatter!

Steven Ricks: What was he like?

PETER: Wonderful. Eccentric. Crazy. Volatile. Terrific. Lovely. A very good actor; loved life and loved acting, which was shown, and everything was larger than life – off screen as well as on screen. I loved George; he was lovely. Super. It was a very happy series you know. Nobody knew what was going on, but it didn’t seem to matter.

Steven Ricks: Did you try to ask anybody? Did you ask Pat?

PETER: Everybody asked everybody, and then there was always a kind of – you know it was rather like the George Orwell thing, ‘1984’, which has parallels with this, hasn’t it? It’s a bit like that where you know something interesting is happening, but feels that you might be put away if you make too many inquiries! You know what I mean? And I don’t think that feeling was always around – people were sort of doing that occasionally, you know – you weren’t quite sure. It had a great atmosphere for the series, not just chummy-chummy actors together. It had this extraordinary atmosphere, I remember that. I mean, America has never done anything like that. It shows the kind of innovation that we are still capable of. Not recently, but ‘The Young One’s’ is an example of comedy which I love. I think it’s terrific – absolutely terrific. But not a great deal of television is new, is it? Do you know what I mean? You can hardly call ‘Dallas’ new, can you? Or ‘Coronation Street’ for that matter. It’s just getting into its 100th year or something!

Steven Ricks: It seems like it. Have you seen the episode you are in of ‘The Prisoner’?

PETER: I think I saw it at the time. I think I was terribly vain and watched myself relentlessly. I thought I was the most beautiful that had ever happened on the screen. Now you have to drag me to see myself in anything! I’ve just done a film and won’t go near the bloody thing, and I’m told it’s alright.

Steven Ricks: What did you think of your actual performance – of how the whole thing fitted together?

PETER: I really have no idea. I think that actors go through various kinds of phases. When I was an even less experienced actor – and that was pretty inexperienced – I went through a phase of being all the heroes I had seen on the screen. One day I would give you a performance of Errol Flynn; another day I was Noel Coward, and another day I was Ronald Coleman. They were the kind of movie and stage actors of the time – I was John Gielgud all over the place. It was awful! The series I did helped me more than any other thing I can think of to learn how to act on screen, but I think that if you’re lucky, if you are very, very lucky, the camera might pick up something that belongs to you – that is you; that is real; that is absolutely real. And you can’t lose that, you see. You don’t want to learn too much, because if you learn too much, you become aware of it. It becomes very boring. And we know lots of actors don’t we, who we think ‘Oh, he’s going to do the same old thing again. Isn’t he sick of it!’ He must have to see himself occasionally. One of them is appearing tonight. He’s probably your hero, so I’ll leave you to guess who that is.

Steven Ricks: Can you tell me. You said earlier that you saw Leo McKern. Whilst you were doing your one?

PETER: Well, Leo and I were up at rep in Nottingham. He played the father in ‘The Winslow Boy’ when I played the QC, I remember. We were both in rep with the lovely Maxine Audley and the guy who did a television series about a very seedy detective. Do you know who I mean?

Steven Ricks: When was that?

PETER: About 20 years ago. He wore terrible clothes – a raincoat.

Steven Ricks: You mean Peter Falk?

PETER: No. An English one. He was terrific. He was up there – Alfie Buerk. Do you remember Alfie Buerk?

Steven Ricks: Yes, I do.

PETER: You must’ve seen the series [2].PRIS4

Steven Ricks: I don’t think I have.

PETER: You were what – 12?

Steven Ricks: You said you had seen Leo McKern whilst you were shooting.

PETER: Yes, while we were shooting. But you see we were doing things back-to-back, so he was in another studio, and I was where we were. And of course because we knew each other, I watched some of his and he came and watched some of mine. He hadn’t done a lot of movies – we were all fairly newish. So I think that had a lot to do with it.

Steven Ricks: What sort of things was he shooting? Was he just shooting on the same set you were doing?

PETER: Yes. You had the big set, you know. So he would come and do it in the afternoon, or whatever it was – maybe with Patrick directing, you see. Don (Chaffey) would be doing one bit, and he (McGoohan) would be doing the other.

Steven Ricks: Well, I think that I’ve asked just about asked you everything I wanted to ask you. Really?

PETER: You’re done with me? Well, that wasn’t very painful, was it?

Steven Ricks: I can’t think of much else to ask you. Except, what do you think of the way the series has received such a following. 

PETER: Why do I think it has?

Steven Ricks: Yes.

PETER: I think for the reason I gave earlier on – that people weren’t quite sure what was going to happen next. Also, that they weren’t quite sure what it was about, and I think people like puzzles. If you have a murder like in the ‘Colombo’ thing, which have been wildly popular for a long time; all those sorts of things – Agatha Christie is another perfect example. Who did it. It’s a puzzle, isn’t it. And you want to watch the puzzle come out. Now, with ‘The Prisoner’, you knew there was something behind it, and it infuriated you because you couldn’t what it was, and the only way you could find out was by tuning in each week. It’s the extension of the cliff-hanger, isn’t it? Of the hero or the heroine going down a pit and clinging onto the end of the plane or train or whatever it is, and whether she falls down into the pit or not. You have got to know, haven’t you? That’s what it’s about. I thought that what had happened was that it had different levels; there was the Fascism – underlying Fascism there. The thing of terrorist governments. The Communism of the time, if you remember the Stalin attitudes. China had become Communist. It had all those layers underneath as well, which I don’t think were conscious, but they evolved consciously as a result of it. I think that was one of the main things.

Also, Patrick had a very strong, extremely stylised personality. He had an extraordinary delivery, for a start. It was very staccato, and an interesting delivery which I believed developed as a result of ‘Danger Man’, but it was carried forward into this. It was much more pronounced, because he as a person didn’t have that staccato, which I think he introduced for himself. And I think rightly for himself.12998625_1321739501186136_6236127385164476133_n.jpg

⇐ Original ‘Call Sheet’  from ‘Checkmate’

I would’ve liked him to have stayed in this country and made a contribution here instead of going off to America. I really think he could’ve made a contribution here, which in America is more difficult to do. People like Mickey Rourke, they like showing their psychological mishaps on screen, don’t they? They like to show that there is something psychologically wrong with them, and they love to expose themselves. I know that actors can’t help exposing themselves. The moment that you are in front of a camera you are exposing yourself, aren’t you, really? You are on stage and you are naked – really, no matter what you make. You can have armour plating on, but you are still naked on that stage. And every creak of their armour plating shows, you know; you can’t hide it. But the American’s take it one degree further. They do it psychologically and mentally as well. They show you all their awful behaviour. They behave badly I think sometimes on screen. I find that unforgivable. I don’t think that you should behave badly on screen. You can be nasty by implication – I don’t think you have to show it, really. It’s bad enough to be naked all over the place without having to show the wounds as well, don’t you agree?

© TR 7 Productions

[1]: BBC chat show hosted by Terry Wogan – 1982-1992

[2]:  ITV Detective series, ‘Public Eye’ 1965-1975


The Hellfire Club: The OFFICIAL PETER WYNGARDE Appreciation Society: https://www.facebook.com/groups/813997125389790/

 

 

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