Thursday, 16 September 2010

McGoohan and his Literature: "I've never read a Kafka" "Jung? I haven't read a word"

When, in 1991, Patrick McGoohan was quizzed by a member of the prisoner fan clubs he was specifically asked if there was anything in literature that had influenced him. His reply was uncompromisingly short:
No, not really. 
The brave interviewer did not give up however and asked him about all the possible influences fans had discerned within their studies of The Prisoner. The list included many of the usual suspects; Franz Kafka, Hermann Hesse, Carl Jung, John Fowles.... My main blog title gives you a flavour of the general tenor of his responses. Anyone reading the many magazines, books or internet articles about The Prisoner will soon come across writers/philosphers as diverse as Ayn Rand, Jeremy Bentham, Michel Foucalt, Marshall McLuhan as being cited as influences upon The Prisoner. I would hazhard a guess that if any of these had also been proposed to McGoohan in that interview, then his response woould have not changed much.

McGoohan's evident disinterest in the philosophical heroes of the youngsters of the 1980's and 1990's seems to have consolidated the line of thought that McGoohan had little to do with the creativeness of the writing within The Prisoner and the consequent and enthusiastic desire they had to transfer credit for this to either the Script Editor or just at random, to individual script-writers. There is no doubt that the script-writers could individually have brought influences of the likes of Kafka to the script table and indeed this was plainly something McGoohan wanted to happen. His global approach to the assembling of the many scripts demonstrates he was open to each of his collaborators making a contribution. However, it is also clear that the entire series is coherent in its style, humour and narrative direction and that much of that coherence is only attributable to Patrick McGoohan. As Jack Lowin (chief cameraman) put it

The whole concept was Pat's. The whole idea was Pat's and only Pat really knew how it was all going to turn out in the end and as the series went on it did tend to get more and more way out as Pat got the bit between his teeth a bit. But they were not all shot in the order in which they were eventually shown; and I think Pat ... did not want to produce any one complete episode really, until the very end. He had a certain amount of trouble with the top brass...... but Pat was quite deliberately making sure that no one episode ever really got finished... I think he wanted to keep them so that they would all be finally put together at the last minute so that nobody could....... criticise...... he would get one partially edited and then it would get left, and he would go onto another one.........

It was 1991 when McGoohan was directly asked by a fan interviewer about his literary influences, but if the fans had actually taken as much interest in him as they did the show he created for them, they would soon have realised that naturally he had literary influences, as any well-educated man of his generation would do. However his influences were not so much the darlings of those educated in the 1970's or 1980's but the literary notables of the earlier part of the 20th century. McGoohan frequently referred to his obsession with Brand and it can be inferred that he would have been a great reader of Henrik Ibsen. Like any repertory actor of his generation he would have been very aware of Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw and the many other literary men whose art touched the world of Theatre. In terms of The Prisoner however he himself mentioned the two obvious candidates of a world where the individual counts for nothing. Those two literary works are Brave New World, written in 1932, and Nineteen Eighty-Four, written in 1949. McGoohan was an uncomplicated fellow intellectually it seems and naturally it was these two fairly obvious books he himself mentions as being influential upon his mind, when writing The Prisoner.

In 1983 he was quoted,
"I wrote it with 1984 in mind and we're getting closer to the world of those numbers all the time"

However, back in 1969 he was quoted in the American press,
"It's Brave New World stuff. Nobody has a name, everyone wears a number. It's a reflection of the pressure on all of us to be numbered, to give up our individualism."

Margaret Atwood has recently remarked that those two books both cast a shadow over the post-WW2 world. However it was Orwell's vision of a brutal mind-controlling totalitarian state that is probably by far the most well-known nowadays. The book has been filmed for TV and the movies several times and so it has been re-ingrained in the modern minds, plus of course for the Western world until 1989 it was descriptive of a world to be feared: the world of Communist despotism. However, whilst some elements of Nineteen Eighty-Four strike chords of consciousness that lie within The Prisoner, the overall tone of the brutalism of the 1949 novel seems miles away from the lighter jollities of McGoohan's village. For this reason perhaps, many admiriers of The Prisoner have seen a disconnect with the darkness of Orwell's 1949 book.

By contrast Brave New World has only been filmed twice, both times only for TV productions in the USA. Whereas Nineteen Eighty-Four has been a common school text, Brave New World rarely features in the curriculum. The reason for the gradual slippage from the modern consciousness of Brave New World is, ironically, probably because of the same angst that often bothered McGoohan himself, in his Sixties years of TV fame. Whereas Nineteen Eighty Four is largely based around the threat of violence as a means of control, Brave New World is centred around the idea that sex and pleasure keeps the population from challenging the status quo.

In fact, a little study of Brave New World reveals it to have many commonalities with The Prisoner and there seems little doubt that it featured greatly in the issues that McGoohan was interested in exploring in his secret agent allegory of the modern world of 1965 and explains why he mentions it specifically nearest that time - in 1969 - whereas perhaps 1984 is only referred to as that portentous year itself drew nearer, in 1983. Aspects of Brave New World pop up in several different episodes. The fabric of the book itself is predicated on there being five grades of persons in Society: Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons. Each grade is genetically modified and conditioned to perform certain functions and be content with their position in the heirarchy. Epsilons are practical morons.

Speedlearn (from The General) is not dissimilar to the concept of Hypnopaedia, that is a knowledge system in Brave New World where sleeping children have *facts* whispered into their sleeping minds. One passage is mirrored by the sequence in The General when Number Six answers a question ambiguously.
A child called Tommy has been subjected to the hypnopaedic fact that, "The Nile is the longest river in Africa and the second in length of all the rivers of the globe.
"Tommy" someone says, "Do you know which is the longest river in Africa?"
Tommy shakes his head.
Tommy is encouraged to recites his Hypnopaedia and does so, word-perfect.
Tommy is asked again, "Then which river is the longest in Africa?"
Tommy bursts into tears, crying "I don't know... "

In Chimes of Big Ben, Nadia is subjected to a conditioing process involving an electrified floor. In possibly the most disturbingly violent passage of Brave new World, small babies are conditioned to react as their society expects their grade of citizen to react, by electrification on a grid-like metal floor.

One of the main characters is an Alpha named Bernard, who becomes increasingly unhappy with his existence, feeling his life has no meaning, even though he is in the uppermost level of the system. He is by no means a hero, but keeps complaining to Lenina, a  willing girlfriend who cannot understand why he is not enjoying his privileged lifestyle. He has a conversation with her not unlike those Number Six would have with one of his maids and at one point says,
"I'd rather be myself. Myself and nasty. Not somebody else, however jolly!"
Later he complains to her, "Don't you wish you were free Lenina?"
She replies, "I don't know what you mean. I am free. Free to have the most wonderful time. Everybody's happy nowadays."
Bernard laughs and and asks, "But wouldn't you like to be free in some other way Lenina? Your own way, for example, not in everybody elses way."
Lenina responds, "Bernard, I don't know what you mean."

Bernard inevitably comes to the attention of the Directors. These are senior Alphas, who monitor and control their sections of Society. Bernard's Controller says to him at one stage,
"Consider the matter dispassionately and you will see that no offence is so heinous as unorthodoxy of behaviour. Murder kills only the individual - and after all, what is an individual? we can make a new one with the greatest of ease - as many as we like. Unorthodoxy strikes at society itself"
By the end of the book Bernard is exiled to an island where other non-conformist Alphas are sent.

Although written in 1932 when TV was barely invented, Brave New World has televisions at the heart of life and death (dying patients have a TV at the foot of their bed, "left on like a running tap, from morning until night"). The screens monitor the watchers as well as entertaining them. Another gadget found both indoors and outdoors is the Synthetic Music Device from which the Voice of Reason will sometimes speak calmingly, not unlike Fenella Fieldings voice does in The Prisoner.

Another key character in the book is John, who is an outsider to the normal society, having been brought up by a lost Alpha female, in a human reservation where some people have been preserved to live as "savages". John however has had access to Shakespeare so has a foot in both forms of society. Once he has been made part of the brave new world he is infuriated by the conditioned responses of the Deltas in particular and at one point he attempts to make them rise up against the happy, drugged lifestyle they exist within. His speech is redolent of Number Six's speech in Free for All,
"I come to bring you freedom... But do you like being slaves? Do you like being babies? Yes! Babies! Mewling and puking. Don't you want to be free and men? Don't you seem to understand what manhood and freedom are? Very well then! I'll teach you; I'll make you be free whether you want to or not !!"
John then destroys the happy pills the deltas are queuing for, and shouts,
 "You're free!!" 
The Deltas let out a furious scream of anger and attack John.

It may be pure coincidence but one of the most senior Alpha Directors is served by a Gamma butler.

In the book consumerism and waste is encouraged because this stimulates demand for new things. Some comments about this touch themes evident in The Prisoner about progress and the value of newness. One conversation leads to a passage redolent of that between Number Six and the Arts Committee in Chimes of Big Ben. John is debating with one of the Controllers that Othello is far superior to the modern stories that are written to entertain the society and he complains about these shoddy new works,
"But they don't mean anything"
To which the Controller replies,
"They mean themselves".

One of the themes throughout The Prisoner is that of twins or identical people and early episodes of the show include glimpses of identical faces - the gardener/electrician for instance. One of the aspects of Brave New World is that the lower orders are budded from one embryo, resulting in identical people. near the end of the book, John is thinking about the mob of Deltas who had attacked him,
"But need it be quite so bad as those twins? He passed his hand over his eyes... remembered images of those long rows of identical midgets..... those human maggots... the endlessly repeated face of his assailants"

In another conversation, John and the Controller debate:
John: But I like inconveniences
Control: We don't. We prefer to do things comfortably
John: But I don't want comfort. I want God. I want poetry. I want real danger. I want freedom. I want goodness. I want sin.
Control: In fact, you're claiming the right to be unhappy
John: Alright then. I'm claiming the right to be unhappy !
Control: You're welcome.

I mentioned earlier that the discontented Alpha, Bernard is banished to an island for the crime of wanting to be an idividual. So is his friend, Hemholtz Watson, an Alpha writer of meaningless stories, who decides he wants to write books that have some meaning. The Controller explains to him about his fate and says,
"... it's lucky that there are such a lot of islands in the world. I don't know what we should do without them. Put you all in a lethal chamber I suppose. By the way Mr. Watson, would you like a tropical climate? ... Or something more bracing?"

As I read that passage I could only wish Aldous Huxley had added. "in the Baltic off the coast of Lithuania perhaps" But Huxley wrote no such thing. History is never quite that simple. Or, as one of the motto's of the Brave New World recited by Lenina, would have it:

"When the individual feels, the community reels"