If I ever make it as a professional footballer, which is increasingly unlikely, my first-choice squad number would be 13. As I’m not superstitious, I’ll gladly take that No.13 shirt to bypass any bun fight over the traditionally coveted No.7 or No.10 shirts. To me, superstition is a medieval ailment, antique fear born from an inability to rationalise. If you believe in bad luck from walking under ladders, cracking a mirror or flapping open an umbrella indoors, then you must also accept that pixies prance in forests, crocks of gold are buried at the foot of rainbows and dragons soar above steam locomotives in Wales. Thirteen is just a number, a necessary bridge between 12 and 14. I’d obviously be miffed if I was handed the 666 shirt, especially if there were only 30 players in the squad, but if I had to, I’d accept that number and put in a shift.
One of the most prolific net bulgers in the history of the game was the West German forward Gerd Müller, who scored 68 goals in 62 international appearances between 1966-74. His shirt number of choice for – as Stan Boardman referred to them – the “Jirmins”, was 13. “Der Bomber”, as Müller was known, simply shifted the onus of unluckiness onto the opposition. In Mexico ’70, the greatest World Cup in history, Müller scored ten times including a cruel extra-time winner against reigning world champions England. Eusebio of Portugal also opted for number 13 and it never did him any harm. In England ’66, the not imaginatively titled “Black Pearl” – because he’s black – scored nine goals, including four against a battling North Korea at Goodison Park. (FYI, Boardman played for Tranmere Rovers in his teens; this was obviously decades before his career-crushing racist stand-up routine at a Leeds United function in 2002.)
While BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme was gasping, “Some people are on the pitch! They think it’s all over! It is now! It’s four!” in 1966, Patrick McGoohan had already started scribbling notes about an exceedingly stylish ITV spy series, to be called The Prisoner. McGoohan would play a man who’d lost the right to a name and was titled, simply, “No.6”.
Now, I know what you’re thinking – that football quote doesn’t sound right! Wolstenholme recorded a revised commentary for Goal! The World Cup (1967), the official FIFA film of the England World Cup, where he spoke, “Some of the crowd are on the pitch! They think it’s all over! It is now!”, which was used on EnglandNewOrder’s No.1 smash “World In Motion” in 1990. It’s far more succinct, I think you’ll agree, but it isn’t the original commentary.
Anyway, I first came across The Prisoner in 1991, when a Southern college pal with a raver’s ponytail, who had a wide-ranging knowledge of avant-garde telly and films, sat me down and made me watch the entire series on video. In 1991, we had hectares of spare time, and I was instantly hooked on The Prisoner’s bizarre premise. Well, I was for the first six episodes. The other eleven flew over my head. But its stylishness, from the “Village” font seen on street signage (a derivative of the Albertus font family, apparently) to the crackingly cool outfits worn by the Village’s inhabitants, struck a deep chord. I’ve just bought the series on Amazon, so I’m going to give it another go over the coming weeks. We were drunk a lot in 1991, on beer, vodka and whatever else was on special offer, so maybe those frequent roaring hangovers did little to assist my comprehension of McGoohan’s later episodes. McGoohan was 39 when he filmed The Prisoner. He looked more like 51, but then again, men were men back then, rather than lagered-up Noddy-type figures. McGoohan was asked to be James Bond but turned it down – another stylish move.
I can’t fathom why No.6 was so keen to leave the Village. He had a flat with incredible views, a cleaner, great clothes and plenty of time to play chess down by the estuary. Plus, there were no kids ruining the day! If No.6 was so angry at having his freedom removed, imagine what he’d be like with the enforced slavery of becoming a parent! He’s got a pretty good deal from what I can see. Maybe he was missing his Lotus Seven.
My renewed interest in the exploits of McGoohan’s retired secret agent stems from Festival No.6, a Prisoner-themed music and literary jamboree held at Portmeirion in north Wales. It’s the actual location where The Prisoner was filmed and it’s a bonkers place, like nowhere else on the planet. You’re never at ease when you’re in Portmeirion, what with heads used as architectural embellishments and houses built on rocky promontories, which is why it works so well in the series. Festival No.6 is now in its second year. September is obviously Wales’ rainy season. In 2012, New Order played, dressed in Prisoner uniform. We slip-slapped along the mud’s glistening surface like Harold Lloyd just to reach the main stage.
This year, I returned as an artist (H-hmm, that’s right! – said in the style of No.6), having convinced FN6 organiser Luke Bainbridge, the former editor of Observer Music Monthly, that I ought to interview Declan Lowney, the director of Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa and Father Ted, live, on-stage, in front of a real audience. I have to say, I prefer wearing wristbands that say “Artist” on them rather than “VIP”, “Press” or “No Frills”. Now, a Q&A in front of a crowd, leaning into a microphone, hearing your own voice blasting out, is a whole different ballgame to relaxing in a pub with a voice recorder running. Even before you’ve asked the first question onstage, you’ve waged war with yourself just to keep a lid on everything. On Sunday at Festival No.6, the day of the interview, we were hit by a storm that almost matched the intensity of the persistent anticyclonic Great Red Spot on Jupiter. As a result, our 2pm kick-off was put back to 6.30pm.
Those hours of delay were agony. You’re in a landing craft waiting to attack a beach on D-Day, but they won’t let the bloody ramp down. We didn’t even know if the Q&A was going to take place as the afternoon dragged on, because there was a knock-on effect with the later acts, but they managed to find alternative stages for that Cath Kidston ragdoll Caitlin Moran and Stuart Maconie, who, it was suggested to me, is starting to resemble Widow Twankey. Me, Declan, our wives and entourage filled the chasm of time drinking wine, which, as you know, slips past the clacker with incredible ease in the daytime. You’ve got to be really careful with wine. It’ll consume you if you drink it like ale. Three glasses is already taking you to your booze limit – any more than that and you’re booking a hangover. I had a few glasses, but once I’d drank a pail of water and walked around outside to test if my legs were still operating, I felt alright. As the clouds raced towards the Snowdonia National Park, leaving us with bright evening sunshine, Bainbridge arrived to say, “Fix bayonets, it’s show time!”
It’s a long walk to the stage – well it was on this occasion because the grass was wet and it was a gradually rising gradient. Declan’s missus Jenny insisted I wear her own, homemade Prisoner jacket, which matched her husband’s get-up. And so it was that I interviewed the Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa and Father Ted director in a woman’s Jigsaw jacket, size 12. The wife says the talk went down well and that we both looked pretty confident up on stage, so you’ll have to take her word for it. The full transcript will appear on GQ.co.uk very soon. Once it was over, I fancied doing another live Q&A, but I’m happy to wait for a year. I have to say, I enjoyed it. I might have to interview Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert from New Order next time – the band should have a fresh collection of tracks by then.
Of course, the Q&A was just one nail-biting aspect of that rain-lashed weekend. Before the festival, Bainbridge emailed and said, “I’ve been wondering whether I’ll get you and Ché to DJ the VIP bar.” Now, Ché’s half Mancunian, half Argentinian, and as a result is a hairier version of 10cc’s Kevin Godley. Ché’s existence is an epic cartoon, full of calamitous injury, Granadaland dialogue and Hanna-Barbera posturing. He wouldn’t look out of place on a Salford remake of Top Cat or Captain Caveman. So we turned up, separately, on Friday evening, got the tents up, went down to the VIP bar to see what was going on, and were told, “Right lads, you’re on tonight, have you got your music ready?” I’d barely sipped my first beer. At the moment, Ché’s only got one working eye because he keeps sleeping with his contact lenses in, so he’s unable to judge distances or see any detail. Although he found the general act of DJing troublesome, between the two of us, we put on a belting show for three hours and even had Widow Twankey dancing.
We don’t mix tracks together; we’re masters of the merge. I’ve never seen the point of all that knob twiddling, and even if I did, I don’t know how to do it. The musicians and engineers have already given us a decent track. Surely that’s their skill and expertise. DJs should let the track do the talking. It doesn’t need further faffing. My playlist was something along the lines of this…
“Lose Yourself To Dance” – Daft Punk; “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” – Saint Etienne; “Acceptable In The 80’s” – Calvin Harris; “Finest Dreams (Richard X Remix)” – Kelis; “Remember Me” – Blueboy; “Voodoo Ray” – A Guy Called Gerald; “NY Excuse” – Soulwax; “Get Up, I Feel Like Being A Sex Machine” – James Brown; “Think (It Takes Two)” – A.Skillz feat Lyn Collins; “Perfect (Exceeder)” – Mason vs Princess Superstar; “Blue Monday” – New Order; “Do Ya Wanna Funk” – Sylvester; “Hey Boy Hey Girl” – The Chemical Brothers; “Everybody Needs A 303” – Fatboy Slim; “Move Your Body” – Marshall Jefferson; “I Feel Love (Radio Edit)” – Donna Summer; “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” – Stevie Wonder; “Tainted Love” – Gloria Jones; “Can’t See Me (Bacon & Quarmby Remix)” – Ian Brown; “Step On” – Happy Mondays; “Bigmouth Strikes Again” – The Smiths; “Let’s Wade In The Water” – Marlena Shaw; “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” – Wayne McGhie; “Back By Dope Demand (Funky Bass Mix)” – King Bee; “Apache” – Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band; “I Want To Know” – Sugar Simone; “Do Your Stuff” – Sono Rhizmo; “The Only One I Know” – The Charlatans; “Over And Over” – Hot Chip; “Fools Gold” – The Stone Roses.
Ché came out his blurry blocks with “My Old Piano” by Diana Ross, a statement of intent and a solid dance track that was still echoing round my head during a severe hangover the following morning. He also played “Get Lucky (Michael Jackson Mix)” – Daft Punk (feat Pharrell Williams), which I’d never heard before, and caused much curiosity among the jiving throng. Interestingly, it was Friday 13th when we performed. Nothing unlucky for us, but then again, I don’t believe in all that mumbo jumbo.
When the National Lottery started in the Nineties, my stepfather Keith kept an on-going record of the numbers and would explain, with biro clasped in hand, how he’d recognised a pattern and could now accurately predict the following week’s Lottery. I said, “If that’s the case, how come you’re still here in one of Doncaster’s poorer districts and not hanging out with Tom Cruise in Malibu?” He replied, “Well, that’s the thing, I’m always one or two numbers out – look, I’ll show you.” He’d often tell me that he was on the verge of “cracking the code”.
These insightful sessions would last an hour, and I have to say, if Keith had gone for 41 and not 40, and 15 instead of 16, and 35 instead of 34, he might now be discussing the future of Scientology with a group of notable Hollywood actors. “This is just nonsense, Keith,” I reasoned. “You’re attempting to unravel the mysteries of Chaos Theory. There’s no order to the Lottery numbers. You’re as likely to get 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 coming out as the numbers your system is telling you to choose.”
Keith was convinced he was onto something and continued his Bletchley Park studies for a further two years before running out of patience. He remains estranged from Cruise et al, but there was a moment where, at the back of my mind, I wondered if Keith might end up as famous as Albert Einstein. Keith used to work at the plant works in Doncaster, making trains for British Rail, and once revealed how he’d lost his favourite screwdriver by sticking it in the back of sandwich-stealing rat. The rat then scampered off squealing with the screwdriver still upright in its hump, like a bizarre gear stick. I’ll bet Einstein never lost his favourite screwdriver that way!
Three years after I’d first watched The Prisoner, my Southern college pal visited me in my small London flat just off Fulham Road. Instead of sitting in watching videos, we went boozing round Covent Garden, supping “rock stars” – JD & Coke! We got a taxi back, like the rock stars we were, and when we opened the cab’s door, my college mate spilled into the road like that runny-metal shapeshifting robot from Terminator 2; Judgment Day. To be fair, this wasn’t like him – he could usually hold his liquor. I thought: "I'm more powerful than you now." My flat was on the third floor of a town house, and as we ascended, for some unknown reason, rather than navigate the final bend of the stairs to reach my door, my visitor continued in a straight line and marched straight through a large glass pane, falling headfirst into the night. Now, my flat was 250 feet above the ground, and it took some guts for me to peer through the jagged shards to see what had become of my sozzled companion. Incredibly, he was laid prostrate just six feet below the window ledge, on a small plastic roof shelter – the only one on the entire exterior of the building.
By rights, my mate's number should have been up. His biggest injury was a cut finger, which required four stitches at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. Talk about spectacularly lucky – he did more than win the Lottery that night. The way I see it, life's too short for superstition and there are no ghouls, God or Herly Gherst either. There are people, animals, kids, toys, clothes, house-cleaning implements, MOTs, wine, work, telly, texts and great weekends away, like Festival No.6, with fantastic company. That should suffice. It does for me. You don't need foolish religious reverence. If you want magic, miracles and comedy occurrences caused by walking under ladders, just watch the Sooty Show. That's what I do.