As the author of BE SEEING YOU: DECODING THE PRISONER I was naturally very interested to read recently that demonstrators against the proposals to introduce a national identity card in Britain had been heard chanting the series’ most conspicuous slogan ‘I Am Not A Number, I Am A Free Man!’ Having done some Google searches I have also discovered the existence of an organisation called ‘Number 2 ID’ (www.no2id.net) (again presumably named after The Prisoner’s ever-changing nemesis) dedicated to fighting the proposals. Another organisation, JNV (www.j-n-v.org) devoted to fighting the proposals, also uses ‘I Am Not A Number’ as its slogan.
I must say that I’m pleased that elements from The Prisoner are finally being used in a meaningful political context. The series itself was a satirical vision of a future totalitarian society (‘the whole world as the village’ as Leo McKern’s Number 2 gleefully boasts to our hero Number 6 in the episode ‘Checkmate’) which has proved to be more prescient and accurate a prediction of the future than Orwell’s bleak vision in 1984. Indeed, watching the series today one is continually struck by the similarities between the ‘braindead’ microcosmic society depicted in The Village and the present day culture of twenty first century Britain, with its ubiquitous CCTV surveillance, its ever more repressive laws, its subversion of the political process into a meaningless ritual where the main political groups have come to resemble each other exactly. Tony Blair, with his smooth, casual, ‘chummy’ self-presentation is rather chillingly reminiscent of one of those Number 2s. As soon as he goes, we’ll see Gordon Brown, or quite possibly David Cameron, taking his place as ‘The New Number 2’ . Can’t you just see any one of them sitting in that swivel chair, dressed in black rollneck pullovers and college scarves? (And incidentally, doesn’t Jack Straw look just like the guy in the Village control centre who is always ordering Rover to hunt down Number Six?) Whoever comes to power, there’ll be little change of policy. The onward march of ‘smiling totaliarianism’ will continue. Of course, all that casual ‘call me Tony’ stuff is just as much a sham as that of the leaders of The Village. In reality Blair, Brown, Cameron or whatever smooth-talking goon succeeds them will continue to actively support the murderous madness of their Big Brothers over The Atlantic while avidly salivating over their latest totalitarian fantasies. The essence of the so-called ‘New Labour Project’ has been to create a right wing, techno-authoritarian national culture, in which even the Glastonbury Festival uses CCTV cameras. Of course, as they say so soothingly in ‘The Prisoner’, “It’s for your own good…” Britain, or as they’ve rebranded it, ‘New Britain’ as The Village.
THE OLD NUMBER TWO???
In 1987, just as New Labour came to power, I wrote the article ‘The Prisoner and New Britain’, which appears on my website (link). I must say I’m shocked and appalled by just how right I was! The recent proposals for the National Identity Cards, with their ‘biometric data’ and the plan to replace those nice homely little Road Tax discs with a satellite tracking system which will record every single car journey made by every one of us, go further than I myself could have imagined at the time. Hopefully all these plans will eventually crumble under the weight of the bureaucratic insanity they will generate. We can only hope…. Of course, they tell us, all this will be useful for apprehending ‘terrorists’ and that no ‘law abiding citizen’ shoulds have anything to fear. After all, if you obery the law you should have nothing to hide… Why should the state not be able to access our every move, be able to summon up our microscopic biological data at the simple swipe of a card? Anyone opposing all this is surely nothing less than ‘UNMUTUAL!!!’
Still, not all is doom and gloom. It’s very heartening to see how phrases from ‘The Prisoner’ come so naturally to mind as organised resistance to the ‘Village State’ begins to stir amidst the torpor of modern Britain. From my own point of view I’m highly pleased to see McGoohan’s visionary creation being used in this way. ‘The Prisoner’ certainly needs to be rescued from the cult nerd-dom that has plagued it for so long. I must say that, in the wake of the publication of BE SEEING YOU: DECODING THE PRISONER I had some strange, and rather disillusioning experiences in the world of Prisoner fandom. In order to attempt to publicise the book I attended one of the Prisoner fan club Six of One’s annual conventions at Portmeirion, the site where the series was filmed. Whilst being at Portmeirion itself was – for someone so familiar with the series – rather unnerving, the activities of the Six of One Society seemed to epitomise a kind of rather sad state of mind. There were pathetically staged and acted ‘reenactments’ of scenes from the series, plenty of people in hooped shirts and black blazers… even a large white bouncing balloon. They all seemed to takle it extremely seriously. Yet nowhere, in any of this organisation’s literature, was even the tiniest speck of any kind of political consciousness. At another Six Of One meeting I attended (during which I did conspicuously badly in a Prisoner trivia quiz) I actually read the ‘Prisoner and New Britain’ article to the assembled company, to be met by stony silence. The Six Of One society didn’t like my book at all, as I’d made one or two very mildly scathing comments about their activities. I think they greatly preferred the other publications on the series with trheir emphasis on nerdish trivia. Later it occured to me that many members of Six of One would actually have liked nothing better than to live in The Village itself!
So hopefully ‘The Prisoner’ has finally been liberated from this tiny group who have laid claim to it for so long. It belongs not to them but to ALL OF US!! It should be seen not as a ‘cult phenomenon’ but a great work of twentieth century art which stands up with the works of Orwell, Huxley and Kafka. McGoohan deserves to be seen in the ranks of these great distopian prophets. The series is a devastatingly accurate and visionary prediction of the future, achieved with a single-minded fanatical determination by McGoohan himself which mirrors that of his great everyman character Number Six. Only by taking such a bloody-minded attitude can the culture of ‘New Britain’ be opposed. Years ago, on my first ever visit to Portmeirion, I purchased I purchased a sweat shirt bearing the iconic image of McGoohan as Number Six, under which was the slogan ‘I WILL NOT BE PUSHED, FILED, BRIEFED, DEBRIEFED OR NUMBERED’. It still sits in my draw, rather tatty now from years of wear. I think it’s time to take it out of mothballs. Never has there been a time when such absolute defiance has been more needed. We have to tell ourselves that the future is in our own hands.
BE SEEING YOU: DECODING THE PRISONER can be puchased at: http://www.chrisgregory.org/main/order.htm
All copies signed by the author!
For articles on the Prisoner on my website, check out