Wednesday, 23 March 2011

McGoohan's show, in other peoples words: "..some people had found the obsession with medical experiments on Number Six verged on the sick or sadistic..."

In 1963 Kirk Douglas attempted to mount a Broadway run of a play based upon what is now a very famous work of fiction. It was to be another twelve years before this work of fiction became famous throughout the world. In 1963, Kirk Douglas was interviewed about the play he had returned to the stage after 17 years to appear in – so committed was he to the project. He remarked:

The conviction is that man must show that he can struggle for his own individual freedom, that he can reach the full dignity of man………. A man must be free to be himself against the pressures of society, the torments of his environment, the fates of his life. The moment he no longer will fight for that, that moment he is a walking dead man.”

Kirk’s production folded after a few weeks. However, over a decade later his son, Michael Douglas was to bring his father’s vision of a Ken Kesey creation to the silver screen, in the movie, One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest. In 1966. just like Kirk Douglas, Patrick McGoohan was to use  some of the social politics of the lunatic asylum of those times to illustrate his own allegorical series: The Prisoner.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was a direct product of Kesey's time working as an orderly at a mental health facility. The novel constantly refers to different authorities that control individuals through subtle and coercive methods.  The authority of Nurse Ratched controls the inhabitants through a combination of rewards and subtle shame.  Although she does not normally resort to conventionally harsh discipline, her actions are portrayed as more insidious because the subtlety of her actions prevents her prisoners from understanding that they are being controlled at all.'s_Nest_(novel)
The Lunatic Asylum has long been a staple of theatre and movies and TV. Bedlam, the name of the first formal hospital for insane people, in London, has become a synonym in the English language for chaos, confusion and noise. Nonetheless, as industrialised society became concentrated into cities the need to remove people from those societies led to a nationwide government requirement in 1845 for every county to maintain an asylum. This centralisation of function led to huge establishments becoming the norm and they became self-contained communities. They would be laid out in neat little maps:

Ironically, the redeveloped site of an old County Asylum outside Sheffield is now called: Wadsley Park Village. These old establishments were villages all along. Only the status of the residents has changed. McGoohan’s project was rife with direct and allegorical references to the internal politics of the Lunatic Asylum. Here are some examples from the first six episodes to enter production:

Around the halfway point of the first episode, Number Six is subdued by Rover and wakes suddenly (for the second time in this episode). This time he finds himself to be in a hospital, but when approached by an attendant he says, as any self-respecting madman would,
There’s nothing the matter with me
Perhaps not. But I’d like a check-up to make sure
I’m alright. I want to leave
There’s nothing to worry about…….
The attendant leads Number Six past a room full of passive patients, remarking,
Group Therapy. Counteracts obsessional guilt complexes producing neurosis
Then, Number Six sees a patient walk past him. The patient doesn’t look the way people look, outside the village.

The second episode produced has a curiously similar structure to the first, and likewise has a schizoid break about halfway through, as Number Six is propelled into the Labour Exchange, where he is subjected to a mind test of squares and circles and after another failed escape, he once again wakes in a hospital and soon is undergoing care in the community, at Home.

The third episode to enter production has psychiatrists firstly performing corrective treatment on the Rook character, by performing Pavlovian experiments upon him.

Later on, the Village psychiatrists become involved in conditioning the Queen character. It is described thus:
A development on research carried out on dolphins… Of course we haven’t got that far with humans.
The viewer is left sensing it is only a matter of time.

The fourth episode to enter production begins with men in white coats and a clearly unbalanced Psychiatrist who enjoys his experiments a little more than seems healthy in a clinician.

Later in the episode, the new Number Two meets Number Six at a high viewpoint and is clearly concerned about his mental health. After some bickering she warns,
Don’t force me to take steps……. We indulge…… for a time. Then we take steps
Yes I know. I’ve been to the hospital. I’ve seen.
You’re not thinking of jumping?
It's become noticeable that "the hospital" is appearing in every single episode but nobody in the wards seems to be suffering from any physical ailment.

Subsection 6, paragraph 4. Add, on the other hand, persecution complex amounting to mania. Paranoid delusions of grandeur.
So quothes Number Two, after routinely observing and questioning Number Six. Is Number Two a gaoler? Or a diagnostic psychiatrist? The roles seem to be blurred. Later in the episode he also controls some kind of test upon Nadia, the new Number Eight.

What was in your mind? Were you attempting suicide? Suicide? Suicide? Suicide? What was in your mind? Looks like a suicidal tendency, doesn’t it? But one must be sure……..
Like the bespectacled man in the white coat, from Dance of the Dead, Number Two seems to be enjoying the therapy a little too personally.
The sixth episode, and planned penultimate one, evidences the continual importance of issues of mental health in The Prisoner. The “Personal Therapy” of the Degree Absolute is nothing less than a riff on the then relatively new psychiatric concept of Cognitive Therapy
Treatment is based on collaboration between patient and therapist and on testing beliefs. Therapy may consist of testing the assumptions which one makes and identifying how certain of one's usually-unquestioned thoughts are distorted, unrealistic and unhelpful. Once those thoughts have been challenged, one's feelings about the subject matter of those thoughts are more easily subject to change.
The Degree Absolute was plainly intended to be an invasive form of this therapy, as Number Two commences: “I’m your father. Do I ever say anything that makes you want to hate me? I always speak well of your mother don’t I?

Like many things at this particular time in history, new ideas were being sparked by one of the icons of the period. A family that had committed their own daughter/sister to the Psychiatric Village was none other than the Kennedys. Rosemary Kennedy had been lobotomised in 1941. In 1963 her brother had tried to make some sense of the madness his family had known so personally, and perpetrated so tragically..

Whilst Cognitive Therapy was relatively new in 1966, there were other changes in the thinking of the people of the western world in the 1960’s. Was the whole world an asylum? A place of safety? Or a place of Imprisonment? Who were the prisoners and who were the warders? Who decided who was mad, and why?

An investigative article in British newspaper, The Guardian, published on 19th March 1965, identified that perhaps one-quarter of the staff in a mental hospital could also be expected to suffer from major psychiatric disorders. Their investigation was soon revealed to be based upon Friern Hospital. Friern Hospital at this time accommodated 899 male and 1037 female patients; 116 male and 113 female nurses IIn July 1965 Lord Strabolgi in the House of Lords criticized 'a psychiatric hospital' concerning the extent to which patients were in the hospital merely because they were old. The hospital was later identified as Friern, and a Committee of Enquiry was held in 1966.

Friern Hospital was formerly known as Colney Hatch Asylum. It lay just a few miles across open countryside from where Patrick McGoohan had his home, in Mill Hill, a suburb of London. From Sheffield to Mill Hill, the Asylum system of Britain was ubiquitous. How influenced was Patrick McGoohan by this British tradition? His mind was his own, but every single episode seems to concern itself to one degree or another with the controversial science. It is also worth noting, within the parameters of my overarching polemic in these blogs, that the prevailing presence of Psychiatry in episodes of The Prisoner is some evidence of McGoohan’s editing role on the series. It is plain that whilst each scriptwriter wrote as an individual, they all included similar elements of the control of people’s minds by the medical profession, and indeed a constant suggestion that Scientists, whilst admirable in their knowledge, are also to be feared in their personal motivations. In interview in 1990 McGoohan himself commented,

“When I used to get a script that came in from somebody else, I would make my suggestions as to how it was turning, and always, if something was becoming too pedestrian… as soon as it got like that, and I was reading it, I would say…. Give it a bend somewhere, so there is another slant on it, and there is something else to think about. And DID he mean that? Or he COULD have meant this?

What did he mean? How did he mean it. What does seem remarkable to me is that in all the many *authorised* scribblings I have read I cannot immediately recall any reflections upon the frequent inclusion of the same dramatic device in episode after episode. Moor lunacy next time...
Just one more thing.......
Having begun with Kirk Douglas, may I close with him too, in a reference from 1957.
I Am Spartacus!

It takes a man of true will, to change history.


  1. Thank you, Moor, for another thoughtful entry. I think you are quite right in your analysis, and if you have more to say on this topic, I would be happy to read it.

    I was commenting to my husband the other day, wondering when American society had gone from "medicine" to "medications" to "meds". I think this was after I had been watching TV for a couple of hours and every other commercial was for the diagnosis and treatment of some ailment that is apparently plaguing American society. It would seem that there is a purple pill for everything, and most of the people I know are continually seeing their doctor for some test or another. And I mentioned my annoyance in my response to your last entry about children in schools who are drugged so they can be controlled more easily by inept teachers and administrators.

    You are hitting close to home with this topic, and I am glad to see you pursue it.

  2. This is the most thougthful look at The Prisoner series I have seen. I am just recently looking at different sites and continue to be more impressed by this one. It will take me a while to get caught up on all the articles.

    The constant use of medications did not get by the writers of The Simpsons. They have an episode that McGoohan appears in as No. 6. One scene shows Homer being given a icecream sundae with needles sticking out all over like sprinkles. A good laugh and the episode can be viewed online.