...from the 'pen' of CHRIS GREGORY  



by Chris Gregory

new brit pic

"We have our own Town Council. Democratically elected, of course."
Number Two to the Prisoner in 'Arrival'

...The Prisoner is often thought of as a distinctive product of the 1960s. In terms of its origins, its visual style and its place as a 'spy genre' product it has a great number of distinctive features which identify it clearly as a product of the decade it was made. To many people only casually acquainted with the series, its imagery and its ideas seem to be part of the canned 60's nostalgia industry - a rather less popular but equally quirky equivalent of The Avengers, perhaps. Yet those of us who are more familiar with McGoohan's subversive masterpiece are likely to see it as a prophetic work, one which points towards a future distopian society - one in which social control is accomplished smoothly and largely silently, in which protest has been so stifled that it is hardly able to summon up the appropriate vocabulary to express itself in. One in which the appearance of democracy conceals a bland but ultimately vicious totalitarianism. Like Brave New World and 1984 before it, The Prisoner is a warning about how far certain identifiable trends of the day might go if allowed to develop unchecked. Huxley's world of genetic engineering and human 'streamlining' was given nightmare proportions by the actions just a few years later of the Nazis. Orwell's world of soulless political control found its counterpart in Stalin's Russia and Mao's China. Yet The Prisoner, informed by the knowledge of new technologies that were just emerging in the 60s, predicted a world in which individuals were apparently cossetted and 'protected'; brainwashed into bland acceptance by drugs, conditioning and subtle propaganda...

...Of course, whilst Brave New World and 1984 are clearly and obviously social allegories, The Prisoner's social, ethical and political messages are concealed beneath layers of suterfuge. Firstly, The Prisoner is, of course, a TV series - a form which even today is rarely thought of as a serious art form. The TV series is a form which is constrained by its need to continually achieve mass popularity, and thus is often thought to represent a 'lowest common denominator' when trying to appeal to the public. Secondly, The Prisoner is set within the conventions of a number of popular generic forms -most specifically the 'spy thriller' and science fiction. Thus, almost every episode includes chase sequences and fight scenes. The overall plot is given considerable credibility in terms of the secret agent genre, in a way that teases the public mercilessly. It is hardly surprising that Danger Man fans identified The Prisoner himself with the figure of 'cool spy' John Drake from Patrick McGoohan's previous (and hugely successful) series. The spy genre was the quintessential genre of the 60s, with heroes like James Bond leading players in the secretive world of the Cold War which dominated world politics of the time. It was possible for viewers to watch The Prisoner as an example of the spy genre and thus to expect a conventional 'Bondian' resolution - a resolution which, as we know, never came. The Prisoner also shares elements of the SF tradition with Huxley and Orwell's earlier work - the idea of science enslaving humanity is prominent.

...Underneath this series of diguises, McGoohan - with a degree of authorial control over the series unprecedented in television terms - unleashed an allegory of the human condition which has grown more and more relevant with each passing year. The spy genre itself, along with the Cold War, is more or less extinct. But McGoohan's use of the spy genre is really a smokescreen, a conventional setting into which he introduces his concerns about individual freedom and responsibility and the mutability of human destiny. The Prisoner himself never gets a name, and the 'secret information' he was carrying in his head is never specified. Nor are any details ever given about his supposed career as an agent. In A, B and C he is subjected to the first in a series of experiments to secure the knowledge he keeps in his head for the Village. Yet the 'party scene' in the episode becomes increasingly a send up of James Bond-type manners and conventions. We never get any inkling of what his real 'secrets' are. In Many Happy Returns he is allowed to escape to England and confronts his old bosses, who are portrayed with great moral ambivalence by famous old-stagers Donald Sinden and Patrick Cargill. The Prisoner is not at all convinced that his British bosses are unconnected with the Village itself. …It is different here, isn't it?…he screams in frustration.

behind bars

...Whilst moral parameters in James Bond stories and films are pretty firmly fixed, The Prisoner's sense of moral disorientation; which recalls John Le Carre's series of unglamorous psychological 'spy stories' such as The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and The Looking-Glass War; allows McGoohan to move beyond the confines of the spy genre to produce an allegory which transcends its 60s origins to attain a certain universality and timelessness. The Prisoner challenges us to work out our own morality, but cautions us that morality itself is being subverted. Drugs and social conditioning feature heavily in the series. In The General experiments are being conducted with mass brainwashing. In The Schizoid Man the authorities almost succeed in convincing the Prisoner that he is 'someone else'. In Dance Of The Dead a sadistic Number 2 attempts to 'wipe out' the Prisoner's 'official existence' forever. In A Change Of Mind the Prisoner is nearly persuaded that he has been given a lobotomy to control his rebellious urges. In Once Upon A Time he is regressed through childhood in a desperate attempt to ascertain what it is that 'makes him tick'. In each case the viewer is presented with moral ambiguities which reflect on the real nature of social control in western society in the late twentieth century. Whilst Orwell's famous summation of his future-distopian regime as 'a boot stamping on a human face, forever' was adequate for describing the brutalism of Hitler and Stalin's regimes, it is less relevant to the modern age; in which social control is achieved in far more subtle ways.

...It must be remembered that the majority of the 'citizens' of the Village are content with their lot. The Prisoner, as an extreme individualist, has to be subjected to intense sessions of brainwashing and drugging in order for him to be coerced (and even these never work in the long run). But for the passive majority of the Village 'social conversion' has apparently been accepted easily. They respond like programmed robots, or as the Prisoner himself says …a row of cabbages…to every command. In Arrival, at the first appearance of the Village 'guardian' Rover, the entire crowd 'freezes' at a command from Number 2. In Dance Of The Dead they are instantly transformed into a murderous mob. In The General they accept 'educational' brainwashing without a murmur. In A Change Of Mind they howl 'Unmutual!' at any 'social deviants'. The key to the Village's success appears to lie partly in its manipulation of mysterious futuristic technologies, like the 'dream reading machine' in A, B and C or the 'mind swap machine' in Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling; (not to mention innumerable surveillance devices throughout the series); and partly in its mastery of the techniques of political and social persuasion. In Free For All we see how an entire 'electorate' is manipulated into taking part in a mock 'election' in which any real change of policy by the candidates is in fact impossible. As soon as the Prisoner has been 'sucked into' running for the post of Number 2, his initially radical rhetoric becomes subverted. Number 2 patronisingly encourages him with his first 'revolutionary' speech, saying …that's the stuff to give 'em… When the Prisoner is interviewed by the press the answers he gives are immediately 'translated' into ones that are acceptable to the Village hierarchy. Finally, drugged and brainwashed, he ends up giving virtually identical speeches to Number 2 in terms of actual content. His addresses become full of empty platitudes. An apparently 'oppositional' politician has been transformed by 'the system' into another potential operator of the system itself.

In Free For All's 'blandest' speech of all, the Prisoner declares:

"The Community can rest assured that their interests are very much my own and that anything I can do to maintain the security of the citizens will be my primary objective."

Does that ring any bells?

...The Britain that was the initial audience for The Prisoner was a very different place to Britain today. In the 1960s Britain was still in a period of post-war affluence partly due to the prolongued application of policies which reflected a national consensus about the value of a mixed economy, a free national health service and education service, by both Labour and Tory Governments in the previous two decades since Atlee's landslide Labour victory in 1945 had ushered in the new welfare state. There was virtually full employment, and many relatively well paid jobs existed for young people. Despite the disappointments for true radicals with Harold Wilson's Labour government of 1964-70, this was still a period of increasing liberalisation; in which capital punishment was abolished and homosexual acts and abortion made legal. The election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 heralded the smashing of the post-war consensus, a rapid dismantling of the mixed economy and an equally rapid advancement of the supposed promotion of 'the individual' in society. Thatcher's policies, which kept the Tories in power for eighteen years, redistributed income in favour of rich 'individuals' in a way that was symbolised most potently by what is likely to be her successor John Major's most lasting contribution to 'British culture' - the National Lottery. The Lottery is a ritualised celebration of greed, of Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest in a harsh capitalist world. It presents in microcosm a representation of everything Thatcher has inflicted on this country: a tax on the poor for the purpse of making a tiny proportion of people rich. Thatcherism has turned money into an object of worship, with Mystic Meg as the nation's spiritual adviser and guru.Of course, the Lottery would go down a storm in the Village.


...The Thatcher era also saw new 'advances' in the art of political manipulation, as new technologies and ever-more-sophisticated codes of presentation came to dominate the political process. Politics became the art of the soundbite. As advertising entered its post-modern, ironic era and adverts for politicians and soap powder became virtually inseparable, it became harder and harder to discern what politicians' real policies were, just as in Free For All. The collapse of world communism and the ending of the Cold War during this period was the greatest propaganda boost that the Thatcherite ethos could have received. Here, apparently, was the inevitable result of 'socialist' policies. In a statement made in an unguarded moment, Thatcher's most famous 'soundbite' came to define her and, in some ways, to destroy her. …There is no such thing…she confided, …as society…In the years that have followed, the notion of 'socialism' itself has visibly shrunk. Political leader after political leader has told us we must adjust to the 'new realities'. In the bland and meaningless mantra of our current 'Number Two' (who shall, of course, remain nameless throughout this essay) we must 'modernise'. In other words we must accept the Thatcherite 'consensus' with its low-wage culture, its mass unemployment, its beggars and speculators, and its socially manipulated, 'brainwashed' population. And cameras, of course, everywhere. In any modern British town centre, someone is constantly monitoring video surveillance of entire pedestrianised areas. Property, of course, must be protected. But it is not Big Brother who is watching you. It is some bland official, who can easily be replaced - by some other Number. It could be you...

It's becoming increasingly difficult to tell who are the Prisoners and who are the Warders!

...Instead of opposing Major with anti-Thatcherite policies, the current 'Number Two' has come to power by openly embracing a new 'modernised' (and supposedly 'caring, giving') version of them. Coming to power on a wave of overwhelming desire from the electorate for change, he offers us only another version of a series of pre-programmed changes. The end of free education. The end of free health care. The final squeezing dry of the post-war consensus. Under 'New Labour' (whose very image is modelled on one of the oldest of advertising tricks; turning a product which hasn't really changed at all into a 'new' product through image manipulation) we see new enthusiasm for Thatcherite ideals - and New Labour ministers blandly churn out proposals that even Thatcher herself would have thought too risky: curfews (just as in Dance Of The Dead), computerised education (as in The General); forcing the unemployed out to work merely to get the equivalent of dole money. Of course, there is 'such a thing as society' now. But there will be no redistribution of wealth. The poor will remain poor and the rich, as ever, will get richer. Meanwhile, our current Number Two kneels at the funeral service for a dead princess, worshipping an icon of 'caringness', bathing in reflected glory. This is 'New Britain', he proclaims, extending the advertising metaphor even further. We are all sold. This particular Number Two is here to stay...

...In 'New Britain' there will be no more politics. There will be no need. Proportional representation is likely to create a permanent Labour-Liberal hegemony, as the cackling old Tories gradually dwindle and die; the sun finally setting on their twisted lost dreams of Empire. Politics will be superceded by advertising of our leaders' virtues. We will all freeze, voluntarily, in the street, to listen to Number Two's words as he announces the great celebration of the coming Millenium. We will act like socially converted Villagers, dutifully collecting Work Units. We will install computers in every orifice. Above all, we will MODERNISE!! And then we will return to our comfortable homes, each a replica of one in another world we have left behind. Before curfew we will dutifully drink our regulation cup of cocoa, laced with legal depressants.

And then we will sleep, dreaming of terrifying white balloons which will rise from the deep and carry us away, away from the comforting world, the seductively inviting world of New Britain, in which we are all Prisoners!




Digital Generation