BOB DYLAN’S TELL TALE SIGNS TRACK 1 : Mississippi (Part 2)



In the first verse Dylan begins with a simple statement of his intention to pursue his faith in his muse, combined with clear intimations of mortality which seem to motivate him. From the beginning the use of the pronoun ‘we’ involves the listener intimately in this process. …Every step of the way, we walk the line… he sings, echoing Johnny Cash’s I Walk The Line, that powerful statement of the intention to remain faithful which is so pronounced in its intensity to be ‘true’ that we begin to doubt whether the singer can truly remain on this path. The effect here is similar, especially as we are instantly cast into the arena of self-doubt: …your days are numbered/And so are mine…. This line, with its admission of the effect of the ageing process, echoes Dylan’s own …every hair is numbered/ like every grain of sand… , with its fatalistic overtones. The next few, wonderfully compressed, lines add to the effect – the singer is telling us that we are trapped by fate, our spirits confined by the constraints of time and age: …Time is piling up/We struggle and we scrape/All boxed in/Nowhere to escape… These lines eloquently express what so many people feel when they reach middle age. Our past histories ‘pile up’ on us, creating a kind of prison of the mind for ourselves. The line ‘struggle and scrape’ uses the ‘s’ alliteration that recurs throughout the song, most notably in the ‘hissing’ sound of the title word itself. The next lines begin to explore the classic blues dichotomy between city and countryside, which here takes on a symbolic dimension. The city is seen as a ‘jungle’ in which both singer and audience are trapped, continually trying to escape from. The ‘country’ which the singer was ‘raised’ seems in comparison to be a place of freedom, of inspiration and the singer tells us, in a wonderfully resonant phrase (again using the ‘s’ alliteration) that his problems have come from him becoming trapped in the ‘city’: …I’ve been in trouble since I set my suitcase down…

The nature of the spiritual and inspirational crisis that Dylan describes is deepened in the next lines, which again resonate powerfully with some of his own previous lyrics: ..Ain’t got nothin’ for you/ Had nothin’ before/ Don’t even have anything for myself anymore… Again the expression is clipped, terse, and very world-weary. In Like A Rolling Stone the cry of …When you ain’t got nothin’, You got nothin’ to lose… had been triumphant, symbolising how young people were shaking off the shackles of older kinds of morality. In contrast, in the later Too Much Of Nothing Dylan warns of the dangers of throwing off received wisdom, suggesting that such actions lead to…the waters of oblivion….

Here Dylan seems – as he will suggest in more detail later in the song – that he is drowning in those waters. The next lines intensify this effect – sliding from the poetic into the colloquial with a resigned grace: …Sky full of fire/pain falling down… is another skilfully compressed couplet. It is ‘pain’ that is ‘falling down’ from the sky, not ‘rain’- though of course, the sky itself is on fire. The singer’s suppressed, fiery anger turns into the cynicism of …There’s nothing you can sell me/I’ll see you around… the cursory brush-off of ‘I’ll see you around’ suggesting that he is trapped in an inspirational void. This sense of a lack of inspiration is made explicit in the following …My powers of expression and thoughts so sublime/ Could never do you justice/ In reason or rhyme… Here the singer decries his own poetic abilities before leading us into the first refrain of …Only one thing I did wrong/ Stayed in Mississippi a day too long… Clearly ‘Mississippi’ is the place where he feels trapped. The suggestion seems to be that his inspirational crisis has been caused by hesitancy, a fear of ‘moving on’ from one ‘state’ to another, perhaps in this case from youth to middle age, or from one mindset to another. In any case, a great ‘rolling river’ seems to yawn between the narrator and the freedom to be inspired that he so desires. Here the ‘state of Mississippi’ symbolises ‘the state of the blues’ that the singer finds himself in. The Mississippi Delta is generally referred to as ‘the cradle of the blues’. So the singer regrets that he has let himself ‘drown in his own tears’ for just a little too long.

In the second verse the singer seems to fade away from us, as if he is a kind of ghost. Again symbolism is contrasted with rather cynically colloquial phrases. We begin with some quintessential blues imagery indicating the singer’s mind set: …The devil’s in the alley/ Mule’s in the stall… he mutters, before further indicating his world-weariness: …Say anything you wanna/ I have heard it all… He seems distracted now, making a few mysterious references to wishing he was …in Rosie’s bed… He tells us he feels like an invisble ‘stranger’ and sounds lost, dejected… So many things we never may undo… and, rather pitifully, …you say you’re sorry, I’m sorry too… He seems lost in a kind of existential despair. …I need something strong… he darkly hints …to distract my mind… hinting at some potential plunge into ‘substance abuse’. He declares that he was guided towards the subject of the song by some cosmic or heavenly force, stating that …I got here following that Southern Star/ I crossed that river just to be where you are… In Version One, Dylan performs this verse with a kind of resigned your somehow courageous tone, making it perhaps the most moving section of the performance. This is the blues in all its nakedness, a soul crying out in the wilderness. The singer has followed his muse across the wide river and now he seems stranded, looking back regretfully on the past mistakes.

Yet as Dylan has always known, the true magic of the blues lies in the way it can posit hope through adversity. In the song’s climactic final verse he depicts himself as broken, yet strangely carefree. He is still ‘stuck in Mississippi’ and, having absorbed the pain fully, he has plumbed the deepest emotional depths. Here he graphically depicts the feeling of being ‘beyond pain’, when the soul has suffered so much that nothing else can touch it or make things worse. The metaphor he follows here is that of being drowned in this pain, as if he has reached that point of near-death semi blissfulness where the pain has finally begun to ebb away. Employing more alliteration he memorably begins: …My ship’s been split to splinters/ I’m sinking fast… He tells us he’s sunk into a kind of timeless void. ….I’m drowning in the poison/ Got no future, got no past…. And now, as the waters of the great river overcome him, his transcendence begins. The pain is numbed. He feels calm, reflective. …My heart is not weary… he whispers, …it’s light and it’s free… And, neatly completing the nautical analogy: …I got nothing but affection for those who sail with me… In this transcendent moment the narrator’s ‘heavy’ self pity and anguish is replaced by ‘light’ compassion. He surveys the frantic stressfulness of modern life from a distance of calm detachment: … Everybody’s movin if they ain’t already there/ Everybody’s got to move somewhere…. Ceasing to struggle, he begins to float to the surface. Now he reaches out his hand, to his lover or to his audience: …Stick with me, baby/ Stick with me anyhow… Then, in another dramatically ironic juxtaposition of the colloquial with the metaphorical, he declares, with beautifully measured understatement: …things should start to get interesting right about now… so drawing us into the present moment he’s experiencing.

The next lines again delicately set metaphor against self-effacing wit: …My clothes are wet/Tight on my skin/ Not as tight as the corner I’ve painted myself in… Dylan’s use of the classic blues technique of using self-deprecating wit to counterpose and fight despair has rarely been so refined. The sense of emotional ambiguity here reflects the classic lines from Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right (1963) : …thinking and wonderin’/Walkin’ down the road/I once loved a woman/ A child I’m told/ I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul… Here again the singer deploys ironic humour to con us into thinking that he’s really OK. But we know better. Now he attempts to resort to romantic cliché, clutching out to his lover’s hands in the hope of rescue: …I know that fortune is waiting to be kind/ So give me your hand and say you’ll be mine….  But just as he appeals to his lover, or perhaps his saviour, for rescue, we know that he cannot be saved from drowning. The song’s last lines confront death head on: …the emptiness is endless/cold as the clay… followed by the deliciously enigmatic …you can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way…  before the final ‘stayed in Mississippi’ kicks in. These lines seem to sum up the emotional price of the turmoil that the singer depicts. As he sings in Shelter From The Storm (1975) …something there’s been lost…

Perhaps Bob Dylan’s greatest quality as a performer is his willingness, even as he grows old, to continue to search for some elusive notion of perfection. In concert he continually remodels and rephrases the expression and emotion in his songs, as if continually grasping for the perfect way of using the words and music he has conjured to express what is in his heart. In the first version of Mississippi on Tell Tale Signs he comes as close as he ever has. Yet it’s quite possible that this version was merely the first complete performance of a song which he later rerecorded for Love And Theft and then reworked in concert many times over. Over the years there are many instances where a version of a song he has appeared to pass over for official release has, in retrospect, become virtually definitive. Here, as with the version of Blind Willie McTell released on The Bootleg Series 1-3, the simplicity of the musical arrangement throws the nuances of Dylan’s vocal expression into the sharpest relief. As he sang in 1964’s Restless Farewell: ….. it’s not to stand naked under unknowin’ eyes/ It’s for myself and my friends my stories are sung….

The version of Mississippi on Disc Two adds bass and drums, attempting to  build the song towards a series of musical climaxes at the end of each verse. The vocal is more restrained and controlled, tinged with a more consistent sense of regret. The players seem a little hesitant and the song never achieves the sense of uplift of the Love And Theft version, though its musical structure clearly presages the final recorded version. It loses the sense of vulnerability that characterises the first version, though it is interesting as a ‘work in progress’.

The third version is quite different. A number of lines are omitted and others substituted. Some are rearranged. Of course, this may actually be an earlier version of the song. But its use of fuller instrumentation (though the rhythm section is more restrained here) suggests that this was an alternative development of the ‘naked’ original. The rhythm is slightly jauntier, almost veering towards a reggae beat, and organ is prominent featured. Dylan’s vocal is more expansive here – he stretches out phrases confidently. There seems to be an attempt to make the song less obviously ‘poetic’ and more direct in the manner of other Time Out Of Mind songs like  Standing In The Doorway and Not Dark Yet. The tone of this version is more obviously confessional: I’m standing in the shadows with an aching heart/ I’m looking at the world tear itself apart…  he begins. In the alternate second verse he begins …. Well I been loving you too long, I know you ain’t no good/It don’t make a bit of difference to me, don’t see why it should… The first line here echoes an Otis Redding song and there’s a more direct reference to the ‘woman done me wrong’ theme than occurs elsewhere. The most memorable change of lyric is in the final verse, where the singer depicts himself as so spiritually bereft as to be ‘invisible’:  ….Winter goes into summer, summer goes into fall/I look into the mirror, don’t see anything at all…  The third version is the one closest to the general tone of Time Out Of Mind, yet it still somehow does not fit with that album’s overall sombreness and intention to communicate by stripping back metaphor. Mississippi is ultimately too ‘poetic’ for that collection of songs and fits more neatly into the playful ambiguities of Love And Theft, although even there it seems to stand alone from the other material.

What makes Mississippi such a triumph is its universality, its emotional openness and honesty. Here Dylan bares his soul for all the world to see, yet he carries it off with supremely graceful aplomb. His dilemmas and despair are those which all of us in the ‘jungle’ of modern life all share. The song is a metaphorical summation of the struggle which Tell Tale Signs dramatises, summing up the plight of the outsider poet: ‘a stranger nobody sees’. The poet weighs the burdens of the earthly life and sees himself drowning in it all. He foresees the inevitability of his death, mourns the death of his youth, yet despite it all he is determined to carry on. Mississippi is perhaps his most eloquent summation of the aesthetic of the blues – that of the transmutation of suffering into a means of spiritual survival. And in the version which begins Tell Tale Signs we are allowed in to experience that process in a way that is sometimes painful, sometimes beautiful, but always expressively and uncompromisingly intimate.


This series will continue very soon. Naturally I will be devoting more space to the album’s ‘original’ songs rather than the live versions.

Check out the great Dylan website VISIONS OF DYLAN 

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I am now working on a book on Bob Dylan which will be called DETERMINED TO STAND. Thought I’d mention that before someone else nicks the title! The book concentrates on Dylan’s work of the 1990s and 200s.





Despite his difficult relationship with the recording process and his focus on live performance, Bob Dylan has always conceived his albums as expressive units – groups of songs arranged in a particular order for specific effects. This is obvious in the case of albums as diverse as Blood On The Tracks, Nashville Skyline or Slow Train Coming, each of which has a clear thematic unity. But even in his early acoustic days Dylan’s albums were also arranged, to some extent, as continuous narratives. The Times They Are A-Changin’, for example, is a kind of Whitmanesque socio-political manifesto, beginning with the poet fervidly extolling the virtues and power of youth (in the title track) and ending with the defiant exhaustion of a much older narrator in Restless Farewell. During this period of his life Dylan was outpouring large numbers of songs, many of which never found his way onto their records. Listening to the Times They Are A-Changin’ outtakes on the first part of The Bootleg Series (and the earlier Biograph), one is struck by the difference in tone of those ‘rejected’ songs. Pieces like Eternal Circle, Percy’s Song, Lay Down Your Weary Tune, Seven Curses and Moonshiner present a more relaxed artist, whose singing is less harsh and who seems to be seeking a kind of elusive lyrical vision of beauty which, on the official album, is sublimated to the harsh irony of the politicised individual stories of Hattie Carroll, Hollis Brown and Medgar Evars. In 1967 Dylan threw away an entire collection of the wildly brilliant songs of The Basement Tapes because none of them would have fit in with the surreal quasi-Biblical moralism of John Wesley Harding. Throughout his career he has rejected many songs which – however good they might be on their own terms – have not seemed to him to fit in with the tone of a particular album. Thus Blind Willie McTell was omitted from Infidels and Caribbean Wind from Shot Of Love, even though their ‘replacements’ were arguably vastly inferior.

The Bootleg Series has scooped up much of this material, along with many widely differing alternate takes of the songs from the original albums. Since its first volumes were released in 1993, it built up into an impressive corpus, presenting an alternative picture of Dylan’s work which is often looser, softer and more expressively emotional – more ‘musical’ – than the harsher, less uncompromising tone of much of his ‘official canon’. Tell Tale Signs – which concentrates heavily on the outtakes from Oh Mercy and Time Out Of Mind – breaks from the pattern of previous releases by abandoning a chronological approach and thus takes on the challenge of becoming a ‘proper’ Bob Dylan album – one with its own story, its own approach to the way it presents the material. As one familiar with Dylan’s more obscure work of the last few years I could bemoan the exclusion of a number of brilliant cover versions such as the lip smacking precision of his version of A Red Cadillac And A Black Mustache (from a Sun Records tribute) or the taut irony of his reading of I Can’t Get You Off My Mind from a Hank Williams tribute album or his extravagantly tongue in cheek updating of Dean Martin’s Return To Me from the Sopranos soundtrack . There are also only brief tasters here of the hundreds of live covers of folk and blues material he performed throughout the earlier periods of the ‘Never Ending Tour. And of course the many widely different variants on Dylan’s own songs performed during this period. But Tell Tale Signs has its own agenda – an exploration of Dylan’s creative journey to bring his songs to realisation. And the three album set certainly has a story (in fact, a number of ‘parallel’ stories) to tell – that of Dylan’s creative renaissance from Oh Mercy onwards, of his newly intense immersion in and fascination with the blues in all its diverse forms, and of the way he treats each song as a malleable, ever-changing entity.


Without prelude, we are launched into the heart of this creative process. The stunning, heart-stopping version of Mississippi (a Time Out Of Mind outtake) that kicks off the album is one of Dylan’s greatest performances, ranking with the 1983 rendition of Blind Willie McTell as perhaps his most moving and captivating expression of the transformative power of the blues. The accompaniment is similarly spartan – just a lone, echoey guitar – as Dylan uses shifting geographical and historical metaphors to express what appears to be regret over a lost love while simultaneously tracing an exploration of the artist’s struggles with his own creative processes. This struggle is itself the story that Tell Tale Signs relates. Dylan’s vocal modulates between pained harshness and whispered transcendence. The recording is so intimate that you can hear the singer’s breath between the lines, catch his moments of hesitation. The combination of all this produces spine-tingling moments of great intensity as Dylan takes us on a roller coaster ride through different emotional states. It’s a near-perfect fulfillment of Dylan’s long-stated ambition to be able to use the form of the blues to uplift both himself and the listener from despair towards joy, just as the old blues masters he so admires were able to do. Many commentators have been puzzled as to why Mississippi was omitted from Time Out Of Mind when lesser songs (like Million Miles or Dirt Road Blues) were included. But Time Out Of Mind is conceived as – to use an earlier Dylan phrase – a ‘journey through dark heat’, an artist confronting both his own mortality and the darkest depths of his psyche. It is an album which begins with the burnt out cynicism of Love Sick, progresses through the hellish despair of songs like Cold Irons Bound and Can’t Wait, toys with a kind of surrender of spiritual struggle in Standing In The Doorway, Tryin’ To Get To Heaven and Not Dark Yet until it ends in the bizarre moment of existential release that concludes the extraordinary closer Highlands. Time Out Of Mind tells the story of an artist’s struggle to release his own inner creative energies after years of under-achievement. Mississippi does not belong on that album, because in terms of spiritual and creative freedom (which, for Dylan, are very much the same thing), it’s already there.

In many ways Tell Tale Signs presents an alternative picture of Time Out Of Mind, including as it does various outtakes from the album, alternate versions and live performances of its songs. It tells a similar story on a broader canvas, dipping into and out of Dylan’s history of the past two decades, hinting at some of the major influences on his latter 9and, of course, earlier) years – Ralph Stanley, Robert Johnson, Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family – pioneers of the distinctively pre-rock and roll American art that Dylan has come to embrace as his ‘prayer book’. There are a few alternate versions of the spiritually wracked Oh Mercy songs, a couple of very different variants of the recent Modern Times tracks and some of his diverse work for film soundtracks. Then there are three quite different Time Out Of Mind versions of Mississippi holding the whole thing together, each one taking the song to a different place with variations in instrumentation, phrasing and expression. There have been complaints about the album repeating itself with so many versions of the songs being present, but the purpose of the presence of the variants is to show how, in Dylan’s hands, a song is forever malleable; that no two performances are exactly the same, as anyone who has been to more than one Bob Dylan concert will testify. In the fullness of time it may emerge that this need for endless variation has been Dylan’s most profound contribution to song craft and performance art. Through this method of presentation of his songs, which relies on spontenaiety, on filtering the emotion of a song through how the artist is feeling at that precise instant – in giving the illusion of ‘stopping time’, if only for a fleeting ‘stolen moment’ – Dylan ensures that his work can never become mere ‘background music’, the stuff of empty nostalgia.

At an age where many artists of his generation are content to bask in the reflected glory of their youth in hugely lucrative ‘comeback tours’, Dylan continues to reinvent his song catalogue every time he opens his mouth to sing. Sometimes the results are a long way from ‘perfection’ – the sound that comes out of his mouth may be an ugly croak, a disgusted wheeze. Sometimes a completely new arrangement of a song will meander into a dissatisfyingly discordant mess. At other times he will suddenly throw up a way of expressing a line which gives a song he may have sung thousands of times an entirely new slant. Such moments are those which his most devoted fans treasure. They may occur in concert, in the studio or in rehearsal – in front of tens of thousands of listeners or just a handful. Sadly, they rarely find their way onto official releases. Tell Tale Signs goes a little way towards redressing the balance.

Volume One features Mississippi as a stark country blues, while Volume Two uses a slow back beat and some swirling keyboard passages to build the song towards several crescendos. This is the take that most resembles the version finally released on Love And Theft in 2001. Volume Three features a completely different first verse and a number of lyrical variations. Though the lyrics are less poetic than the released track, its more personal and ‘confessional’ focus takes it close to the overall tone of Time Out Of Mind. One line in particular …Winter goes into summer/Summer goes into fall/I look into the mirror/ Don’t see anything at all… recalls the spiritual ‘hollowness’ of songs like Not Dark Yet and Standing In The Doorway. I would venture a guess that this version of the song was recorded later than those on Volumes One and Two in an abortive attempt to mould the song’s emotional textures to bring it more into line with the emotional resonances of the album.

Ultimately, though, Dylan shelved the song and it found a more appropriate home on the zestfully energetic and playful Love and Theft. The version on that album features a full band and indulges in the musical virtuosity and intensity that characterises the album’s ‘freewheeling’ sensibility. But on Tell Tale Signs Volume One we are privileged to witness a performance that, though one could regard it as a basic run through of the song, is incredibly rich with nuance, subtle shades of feeling and – most powerfully of all – a sense of personal liberation. It is a performance that at times makes you want to cry and at others to weep. Sometimes it makes you want to do both at the same time. In its sense of spontaneity, its complete immersion in its subject matter and with Dylan’s mastery of vocal phrasing, it captures the absolute essence of what the blues can be made into as a medium for the most heartfelt, playful and meaningful poetic expression.

It is not surprising that – if my earlier assumption is correct – Dylan returned to the original lyric of Mississippi. The words of the song are already fine tuned to near perfection, each line rich in signification, combining richly suggestive poetic intensity with colloquial aphorism in a mysterious alchemy that Dylan has made his own. The song concerns a typical ‘lost love’ situation and the lyrics focus on the singer’s regretfulness regarding his own ‘bad timing’ in ‘blowing his chances’ with the woman he is addressing. Yet, as in so many other Dylan songs, this scenario merely sets up a structure for wider observations and concerns, both personal and universal. Central to the whole piece is the use of American geography as a metaphor for both the failed relationship and – on a deeper level – for the artist’s personal struggle to achieve a new kind of creative freedom. In using the Mississippi river as a motif, Dylan grounds the geographical elements of the song in the mythology of the blues, just as he did with Highway 61 in Highway 61 Revisited and East Texas in Blind Willie McTell. In American literature, film and popular song the ‘sense of place’ has always been a dominant motif, from the Long Island of The Great Gatsby to the highways of On The Road to the dustbowl of The Grapes Of Wrath to the landscapes of Monument Valley in John Ford’s westerns to the delicious roll call of American place names in Bobby Troup’s joyous anthem Route 66 and Dylan’s own wonderfully tongue-in-cheek Wanted Man. The Mississippi is the largest river in the United States, running from Dylan’s home state of Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, literally ‘dividing the country in two’. It naturally figures large in American history, culture and mythology. Mark Twain’s brilliantly mischievous Huckleberry Finn, echoes of which permeate Dylan’s song, features a contrary journey downriver by its boy hero and a runaway slave, so turning the river itself into a metaphor for America itself, in all its mad variety, extreme prejudice and rich colour. The Mississippi Delta is also famously the ‘home of the blues’ and its relevant place names feature heavily in the expansive canon of blues material on which Dylan so often draws.

What makes Mississippi so especially effective is its use of a kind of language in which natural speech patterns slide with apparently effortless ease into poetic metaphor and alliteration. Throughout his career Dylan’s work has attempted to fuse the vernacular – especially the characteristic patterns of certain forms of colloquial American speech – with the consciously poetic. Certain songs like Gates Of Eden or Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands or Changing Of The Guards seem to inhabit the deliberately ‘poetic’ mode whereas others (like Lay Lady Lay, Is Your Love In Vain or I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight) use a deliberate kind of ‘plainspeak’. But Mississippi belongs to the group of songs such as Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright or You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere or You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go which seem to utilise both modes simultaneously. When Dylan is working like this, even the simplest lines can take on a considerable wealth of potential meanings. Mississippi is full of poetic imagery, but its most effective moments occur when Dylan slips into a more conversational tone. This is especially fitting as Mississippi is in some ways a song about songwriting, about how the process of inspiration itself occurs, about the artist’s troubles in ‘loving’ his poetic muse. In another sense Mississippi is addressed to Dylan’s audience, a ‘lover’ to whom he declares his undying devotion. Here Dylan addresses the crisis of inspiration – which, to him, was a spiritual crisis – which bedevilled him in his post-‘conversion’ years. To Dylan, the ‘state’ of Mississippi (to use a Whitmanesque metaphor) represents a state of immersion in the imagery and mentality of the blues itself. Dylan has always drawn on this as a source of inspiration but here his over reliance on it is seen a kind of prison for him (although ironically the song, like most of Dylan’s work, is clearly focused through the form of the blues). So it is surely not accidental that Mississippi begins Tell Tale Signs and that we find a version of it on each of the three albums, as the story it relates is the story of the album itself, and by implication of the last two decades of Dylan’s creative life – the story of personal reinvention and re-engagement with his original muse, the ‘Tambourine Man’ himself.


Well hello again! It’s been some time since I’ve had the time to continue these pieces but I hope to be going pretty much full steam for a while now!

Part Two of this should be following extremely soon. Some of the songs on TTS have already been covered in the ‘Soundtrack Songs’ Section, which this series seems to have superseded

As ever, I’m happy to receive any thoughts or comments in the box below or directly to me at



The recent death of the creator of The Prisoner Patrick McGoohan was given surprisingly little publicity. One of those items towards the end of the news where the newsreader adopts an appropriately nostalgic, slightly reverential tone. Some fairly muted obituaries in the newspapers, with the standard shots of McGoohan in his iconic striped blazer as No. 6. … Front page news this was not. The death of John Mortimer, creator of ‘much loved’ courtroom drama Rumpole Of The Bailey seemed to attract more attention. By an odd coincidence the star of Rumpole was the brilliantly garrulous Australian actor Leo McKern, perhaps McGoohan’s most prominent collaborator in The Prisoner. Yet while Rumpole was an intelligently written, entertaining and occasionally challenging series, The Prisoner was much more. It was it a ground breaking, iconoclastic and revolutionary use of the medium of television which managed to hold onto a mass audience even as it became increasingly ‘weird’, morphing from what seemed to be a rather ‘offbeat’ take on the then-prominent Cold War spy genre into a piece of Orwellian, Kafkaesque prophecy and cold-eyed, dark social satire; culminating in the bizarre theatricality and surrealism of its visionary final episodes Once Upon A Time and Fall Out.

In some ways, however, the relative lack of comment is unsurprising. In terms of his public persona and his impact on popular culture, McGoohan was very much a figure of the past. For the past forty years or so he had remained mostly in seclusion in Los Angeles, directing and making guest appearances in a few episodes of Columbo in the late ’70s and making the occasional film appearance – most notably in David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1980) and Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1996)). Only the rather obscure independent film Kings and Desperate Men, made in collusion with his Prisoner cohort Alexis Kanner in 1981, featured the talents as a writer which had been so clearly showcased in the key episodes of The Prisoner. Over the years, as interest in the seventeen-episode series grew through continual re-runs, widely available DVD box sets and the activities of its own ‘Appreciation Society’, The Prisoner has become established as a televisual classic which now stands out prominently from much of the forgotten morass of 1960s television. Yet sadly there was no significant ‘follow up’ to the series from McGoohan, who found his subsequent ideas for scripts and film projects would be rejected by major film and TV producers as too avant-garde or ‘uncommercial’ for a mass audience. In this way McGoohan can be said to resemble Orson Welles. Like Welles’ Citizen Kane McGoohan’s The Prisoner managed to ‘buck the system’ of the major mass entertainment medium of his day to produce a work that was an extremely quirky, highly challenging, brilliantly realised and highly individual vision. And, as with Citizen Kane, the full impact of The Prisoner only emerged in posterity while its creator languished in increasing obscurity. Just as Citizen Kane influenced generations of film makers around the world by demonstrating the immense artistic possibilities of popular film as medium, so The Prisoner – which marries action/adventure with a philosophical fable for our times – became seen by subsequent TV ‘auteurs’ as a model for what a TV series could achieve. The makers of sophisticated modern series such as Lost have paid explicit tributes to The Prisoner, citing it as a key influence.

McGoohan was an Irish-American who, with his clipped, upper class accent and suavely cynical persona nevertheless seemed quintessentially English. It was in England that he made it as an actor, firstly in the theatre and then in the long-running and increasingly quirky British ‘secret agent’ series Danger Man which ran from 1963-1968, making him a household name in Britain. From here on McGoohan could easily have gone on, like his contemporary Sean Connery, to a long and ‘glittering’ Hollywood film career playing edgy,’intelligent’ action heroes. Despite how tempting this must have been, McGoohan had his own agenda, and his own, highly uncompromising, intransigent and often downright belligerent attitude to popular culture in TV and film. He had principles. Principles which must have rather baffled his paymasters, TV moguls such as Lew Grade who viewed TV shows merely as popular entertainment. Towards the end of Danger Man‘s run, McGoohan exerted more and more influence on its production, writing a number of scripts himself and continually insisting that his character John Drake (the basis for the persona he later took into The Prisoner as No. 6) remain ‘the spy with no guns and no girls’, who would succeed through wit and intelligence alone. McGoohan was scathing about the use of what he called ‘sex and all that rubbish’ in popular genre dramas and argued that John Drake should not be seen to be having casual relationships with women as to do so would be irresponsible given the level of danger in his job. Such a comment may have seemed rather bizarre in the midst of the ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1960s but in retrospect both Danger Man and The Prisoner now seem very sensibly respectful towards women while the contemporary James Bond series looks rather nastily (if sometimes laughably) misogynistic.

Sticking to these principles, McGoohan twice turned down the extremely lucrative offer of playing the role of James Bond. Instead he preferred to move on from Danger Man to create a series in The Prisoner in which he could express his own specific concerns about what he saw as the squeezing out of individuality and a growing culture of mindless conformity in contemporary society, cleverly disguised as a ‘spy thriller’. The series centres around a British spy who (after his resignation from the service) is kidnapped by an unknown organisation and held captive in a bizarre location known only as ‘The Village’ populated by former spies and officials from around the world. In the early episodes the eponymous hero tries various unsuccessful attempts to escape before eventually putting his efforts into subverting The Village itself. As in Orwell’s 1984, The Village is a society in which every citizen is under constant surveillance by cameras – the TV watches you rather than you watching it. Yet while Orwell’s vision of the future is grey, monotonous, impoverished and bleak – what Orwell’s hero Winston Smith refers to as’ a boot stamping on a human face forever’ – the residents of The Village are well fed, well dressed in smart, colourful, informal ‘uniforms’ and superficially happy with their lot, left to enjoy innocent pleasures as long as they conform. Residents are known only by their alloted numbers, not their names, which have been ‘forgotten’ in this supposed utopia. In reality The Village maintains control over all its residents by a regime of mind-control involving brainwashing, torture and the use of new computer technologies and psychotropic drugs. The system is one of totalitarianism with a smiling face, characterised by the Village’s cheery public address system which markedly resembles the mindlessly superficial blandness of similar systems used in Butlins and other holiday camps of the day. Throughout the series our hero – who we know only as ‘Number 6’ – has to resist the many attempts which The Village makes to ‘break’ him, to make him like the other citizens, whom Number 6 contemptuously refers to as ‘a row of cabbages’. As Number 6, McGoohan radiates anger and defiance. His refusal to explain the reasons for his resignation to his captors becomes symbolic of the individual’s defiance of society’s strenuous attempts to make him conform.

The Prisoner is thus an allegorical story and one which has many resonances with contemporary society and political culture. Much of its appeal to contemporary audiences today lies in its prophetic satirical vision of a future Britain which has – particularly under the rule of ‘New Labour’ in the last decade – come to pass. The chatty, informal , self-deprecating personal style of the ever-changing ‘Number 2s’ who rule The Village bears an uncanny resemblance to that of ‘call me Tony’ Blair and his acolytes and successors. Under ‘New Labour’ Britons have become subject to a regime of surveillance which covers virtually all its public spaces – town centres, roads, railway and bus stations, shops, libraries, cinemas, concert halls… the list is almost endless. Signs outside shops tell us we must ‘remove hats and headgear’ before entering (as if the wearing of hats is now illegal!). Everywhere we go the cameras watch us. Crazed New Labour bureaucrats dream up schemes whereby every car journey we make is monitored so that the authorities know exactly where we are going at all times. Announcers on trains blandly repeat that ‘CCTV cameras are in place for your security’. Britain, in short, has become The Village. Just as in The Village, our ‘masters’ have become extremely keen to use every form of new technology they can to control and monitor us. There are plans to monitor every phone call, every email… not to mention the centralization of data implied by the creation of New Labour’s ultimate totalitarian fantasy, the National Identity Card. Significantly, the activist organisation opposing the Identity Card is known as NO 2 ID, a direct reference to The Prisoner.

Two incidents I witnessed recently brought home to me just how prophetically accurate McGoohan’s vision was. One was when I attempted to buy a ‘family ticket’ at the entrance to, of all places, Blackpool Tower. I was asked first not for my name, but for my postcode, as if my postcode was indeed ‘my number’. Another time I was standing in a railway station in London. A man was standing on the stairs next to me, rather idly staring into space, when a disembodied voice from above suddenly ordered him to move, as he was ‘blocking the steps’. At first the man ignored the order, before it was barked back at him. Then he looked up, startled, as if suddenly realising that the voice was directed at him. Of course, after that, he moved immediately. The scene was eerily reminiscent of several in McGoohan’s series. In one episode of The Prisoner our hero suddenly finds himself shunned by his fellow residents who keep calling him ‘Unmutual!’. Today he’d probably be arbitrarily given an Anti Social Behaviour Order.

The most shocking thing about all this is the way in which the British population has so quietly acquiesced to this intense level of surveillance and social control. Indeed, you could almost argue that we have brought it on ourselves by our passivity and natural acquiescence. These days, the training starts early…This is a country in which almost every child in the country is forced into a school uniform at the age of four. Until a few years ago school uniforms were only usually imposed in secondary schools. Now even primary schools adopt them as a corporate badge of identity. The change swept through the country unheralded. Who complained? The ease with which the British Government introduced its smoking ban and measures by which anyone ‘seeming to be under 25’ is likely to be ‘IDed’ when attempting to buy alcohol (when the relevant legal age is all of seven years younger) are further examples of the British public’s cowed acceptance of whatever its masters declare is ‘necessary’. Indeed, we seem to actively fetishise surveillance and control – witness the huge popularity of the reversed Orwelllianism of Big Brother and other so-called ‘Reality TV’ shows, where the act of surveillance becomes a national pastime (you can even watch the contestants in these shows as they sleep, just as if you are No. 2 himself!). Then we can take pleasure in controlling the inhabitants by a ‘democratic’ eviction process until only one stupefied ‘victim’ remains. As No. 2 tells No. 6 on his helicopter ride over The Village ‘ we have our own Town Council here. Democratically elected, of course….’ Thus The Prisoner, though it was made over forty years ago now, stands as a brilliantly caustic, funny and very scary picture of our modern life and culture. Though he was influenced by Orwell, McGoohan’s vision is more accurate as a prediction of the future. What McGoohan got especially right was the essential nature of passivity in British culture which he saw as inevitably leading us towards the kind of ‘soft totalitarianism’ which dominates our culture today. ‘A row of cabbages’ indeed…

Soon a new production of The Prisoner is to hit our screens. This will apparently be a six part mini series and has been filmed in, of all places, Namibia. It features an American actor, Jim Caveziel as No. 6 and Ian McKellan as No. 2. Initial reports are promising. For years a Prisoner sequel was mooted and various disparate rumours of film and TV versions abounded. Many of the proposed remakes were quashed by McGoohan, who was naturally protective of the work he will always be remembered for. It is sad that he will not be around to see this new version. Maybe the new production will add further contemporary relevance to the story and even open up the possibility of future Prisoners. Or maybe it will be a mere footnote to McGoohan’s masterpiece. Despite his failure to follow the series with anything equally substantial, The Prisoner will – whatever its contemporary relevance to future generations- always stand as a landmark in television; the first time the medium of the TV series was used to express a clear authorial vision and a personal philosophy. Its imagery, set design and use of locations – particularly the Portmeirion Hotel in North Wales – have become iconic. And some of its key phrases have survived as still-powerful statements of defiance against the attacks on personal liberty which ‘our masters’ have seen fit to impose upon us. In particular, No. 6’s most famous declarations are ones we might well repeat as we cast those National Identity Cards into the flames where they belong. They also stand as a testament to McGoohan’s own defiant individuality and his refusal to be cowed by ‘the system’. ‘I am not a number’ he tells us, ‘I am a free man!’ And ‘I will not be pushed, filed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own!’


CHRIS GREGORY is the author of BE SEEING YOU: DECODING THE PRISONER, the only full scale analytical work as yet published on THE PRISONER. It can be obtained directly  HERE
or through HERE

Every copy is personally signed and dedicated by the author.

Chris’ new series of blogs THE PRISONER EPISODE BY EPISODE will be appearing here very soon.

Watch this space!!!!