Wednesday, 9 March 2011

McGoohan in his own words: "I had the chance to do something nutty, so I did."

The twelfth episode of The Prisoner to be broadcast was Change of Mind, although it was the ninth to be started in the production schedule – after It’s Your Funeral. The credited scriptwriter was Roger Parkes, and in common with some of the individual episode writers, this was one of his earliest significant jobs. He recalled being paid a one-off fee of £1,000. This would be equivalent to over £12,000 nowadays. In interview in 2007, he recalled that his initial script was passed back via Patrick McGoohan on the basis that it was too gory and too confusing, and that it was “a creaky old script”. Not withstanding that commentary, Mr. Parkes recalled that “otherwise he changed the script very little”, also adding that as “it was my first-ever script” that, “obviously I was hyper-sensitive”. Another interview had him recalling a script meeting at which David Tomblin demanded a lot of changes. As always with these recounted, often third-party memoirs about this show, you reads your interviews and takes your choices.

It seems fair to assume however that the gory comment referred to would have been the lobotomy sequence, which occupies considerable screen-time and special effects in the finished episode. The episode Change of Mind is often referenced to the Sixties chiller, The Manchurian Candidate or viewed as an allegory of McCarthyite America, or even Red China's Cultural Revolution; but in truth - watching the episode seems to reveal it to have little in common with book, film or politics. In fact, Change of Mind resembles nothing more than a cynical study of the the science of Psychiatry as sometimes practised. This science had been increasingly impinging upon the world since Freud became a worldwide figure. He had died in 1939 and his science had become somewhat perverted by some in the Forties and after WW2. The most disreputable activity undertaken was the Lobotomy. This methodology had been largely discarded after 1955 and the use of it by the Village was evidently intended to show how brutal the regime was. Roger Parkes said that his brother was a psychiatrist, but it can only be hoped that the brother was no fan of Lobotomy by 1967! Hypersonic lobotomy was actually experimented with in 1962/63, so it certainly was still around. Whereas The Manchurian Candidate was all about “Brain-washing” and programming a man’s mind to a certain function, Change of Mind is simply designed to remove the aggressive qualities in Number Six’s psyche. Lobotomies were well known to leave their subjects listless and easy to manage within Institutions. Remarkably, the Soviet Union had outlawed lobotomy whilst the procedure still remained permissible in the freedom-claiming Western democracies. The Soviets were a little devious in that they had actually found other ways to crack their nuts open, of which more in my next Blog.

Patrick McGoohan seems to have recognised that this episode would be used to picture the Village, not just as a prison of itself, but also as containing it's own Lunatic Asylum – an Institution within which people who would not obey the norms of Society would be made to toe the line. The Village is of course a pretty mad place at any time, but it is Change of Mind that most emphasises the allegory of an establishment that is focussed on controlling the minds of it’s ........ patients?

This episode is dismissed in some analyses of the show and that dismissal often seems simply to be due to the later production scheduling of the episode at number 9. There is an implicit assumption in Cult-fan lore that says all the important episodes were the earliest in the production process (except for the final one naturally), as if the series was a tadpole with a huge head of ideas and then a diminishing tail. One key reason not to dismiss this episode is the identity of the Director.

In potted histories of the production of The Prisoner, a favourite story of the researchers is that Patrick McGoohan fired the originally-planned director of this episode at lunch-time on the first day of shooting. For years there was confusion over who this director even was, but it seems confirmed now that he was, like Roger Parkes, getting one of his first big breaks in the 'business'. Sadly for this guy, things did not work out. Often, the only reason ascribed for McGoohan taking over direction of this episode under his Joeserf alias is a short temper and an over-weening ego. If it was indeed his ego, it seems surprising that Patrick McGoohan did not label the episode as Directed by Patrick McGoohan. A moments thought demonstrates that ego had little to do with it, but Cult fans are often revealed as thinking too little. 

A more reasoned explanation is that Patrick McGoohan, as Executive Producer viewed this episode as a very important one and his own instinct, added to his broad career experience, led him to quickly realise that the young Director he had initially tried to give a chance to, was simply not up to the job. Bear in mind that McGoohan had had to make some tough decisions at the time of the episode made immediately prior to this one, as I explained in this Blog:  
Change of Mind certainly contains many elements that seem close to McGoohan's thematic heart; the removal of the aggressive determination within Number Six would have led to a very different man and this is the whole point of the 'plot' in this episode. The story arcs on an incident when Number Six beats up two would-be thugs, who then complain about his violent behaviour to the Authorities. When called to account for his actions, Number Six is as uncompromising as always. He is sent to appear before what resembles a mental health board, rather than a McCarthyite Committee. Number Six continues to defy them and employs his most fearsome weapon: Sarcasm. Offered a further chance to comply with the demands of his village society, he witheringly demonstrates the same contempt for the Poetry group. He is declared Incorrigible and sent to the courthouse. Involuntary commitment into British asylums required an appearance before a legal court. The individuals at the courthouse all seem a little mad or is the purpose of the court to drive them mad ? It seems it might be six of one and half a dozen of the other.

Number Six is even introduced to the ultimate village solution, but he still refuses to join in.

Number Six is clearly in need of treatment and treatment is what his village society will make sure he has. All the treatment he needs. The delivery of Number Six to the mental ward is no coincidence. People in the Heathcare State of post-war Britain were not picked out of society at random to be placed into Insane Asylums. Their own families and associates often were instrumental in having them committed to the local asylum. By the mid-Sixties it was being recognised that many people in these institutions were as sane as the next individual. In Number Six’s case, there was an authority at the back of things, but Number Two was constantly telling Number Six that he did not control the Committee or the mutually minded villagers. Number Two even warned Number Six that if he did not comply with his Village Society he would be subject to their declaring him Unmutual and there would be nothing Number Two could do about it. The bureaucrat was in bondage to his own Bureaucracy. By the end of the episode, the lunatics would take over the asylum as Number two found to his consternation, but were they any less mad than they were before? Less Mutual?

The most salient point about the psychiatry overtones of this episode however is that of course Number Six is NOT lobotomised. His tissue is too valuable. Instead his whole terrorising treatment is simply designed to persuade him of the fact that he has been altered. This takes the treatment to a deeper level – perhaps touching upon the brain-washing idea that Roger Parkes felt he was dealing with. If a man believes something to be true, then for him, it becomes true.

Whilst Lobotomy was widely regarded as barbaric by 1967, it’s chemical successor was considered acceptable. The principal drug of this new technology was Thorazine. This drug was described in 1958, in Modern Clinical Psychiatry: "If the patient responds well to the drug, he develops an attitude of indifference both to his surroundings and to his symptoms". Mitol was the version adopted in the Village.

Drugs have become the standard treatment method to this day of managing mental health. Even the strange journey of Number 86 is a small comment on the growing drugs culture of 20th century drug democracies, “I’m higher! I’m higher than Number Two!” Indeed she was very high. In her own mind, she evidently felt like Number One. Whilst Change of Mind is explicit, it was by no means the first episode to suggest that the village was neither a prison nor a holiday camp for resigned spies. It was in fact, a place to crack nuts open – a Lunatic Asylum. The institutionalised nature of these places led to them at the time being termed colloquially in Britain as Looney Bins. Dustbins for people indeed. Another common phrase was that the men in white coats would come to take you away. This is exactly what happens to Number Six. At what point does a person become so not normal that they become deemed to be abnormal enough to be locked up? How individual can you be, before you stand out too much and frighten others? How many cuckoos can fly out of the nest? Can you get by without a little help from your friends?

Moor next time on the state-run Lunatic Asylums of Britain and their possible inspirational place in the mind of McGoohan; and their prevailing presence throughout many of The Prisoner episodes.


  1. Times don't change much. Now they give kids Ritalin so they can fit into public school institutions without standing out as different or difficult to manage. I don't like institutionalizing kids in the first place, but drugging them to insure conformaty is really too Village-like for my taste. Another good piece, Moor.

  2. Very nice piece. Modern life becomes more and more similar to existence in The Village with every passing year, I do believe. "The Prisoner" still stands as one of rhose visionary classics which become more, rather than less relevant with the passage of time.

  3. Another excellent piece, looking forward to moor!