PRISONER AND NEW BRITAIN
have our own Town Council. Democratically elected, of course."
Two to the Prisoner in 'Arrival'
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...
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.
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
It is different here, isn't it?
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.
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
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
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."
that ring any bells?
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.
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.
is no such thing
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!
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...
'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.
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!