That story explained how Khruschev had eschewed the gulags of Stalin, but Khruschev had merely replaced them by the more subtle approach of declaring dissidents to be insane and in need of treatment and therefore isolation from society. Khruschev had learned there was more than one way to crack a nut. In fact, stories linking the use of Insane Asylums by the Soviet governance to control and silence it’s troublesome citizens were nothing new.
Many of these various stories often emanated from Europe and especially the UK. They were not part of some ‘Red Scare’ campaign waged from the USA, as is popularly imagined nowadays by revisionist history. These stories were routinely being reported and discussed by the media in Europe and frequently featured first in that continent's newspapers and magazines, and from an American perspective it was often the reports in British newspapers that would be syndicated, because of the common language: English.
And daily newspapers were just uncomplicated in their clarity
All of this Cold War rhetoric and intrigue are endemic within the episodes of The Prisoner. Almost every episode contains elements of village medics attempting to use various psychological techniques to affect, influence and bend their prisoner to their will. McGoohan himself was driving this line of the narrative as is exemplified by the very first script he wrote (and almost certainly the very first script to be written). Free for All is replete and riddled with overtones of psychiatric breakdown and enforced treatments, especially notable in the red tunnel sequence, after No6 has been taken to explain himself before the Committee.
Whilst in 1965, the Cold War was producing the real-life evidence of the misuse of psychiatry in the Communist bloc, the real-life evidence of the errors of the British Mental Hospital system were also in the news at the same time, as my two earlier blogs dwell upon. Which side was worse? Was there in fact a side to be on any more? McGoohan’s own drama career had impinged directly into this background in 1963 when he played the Interrogator in a TV version of The Prisoner - a play by Brigid Boland that had become a 1955 film starring Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins. This play was clearly very influential upon McGoohan’s own creation:
In form, this is a psychological drama—a picture of the conflict of two minds, that of the cardinal and that of his interrogator, whom Mr. Hawkins plays. And it is in the marking of the slow deterioration of the cardinal's spirit and will under the relentless and calculated pressure of questions and physical distress that the cold, almost morbid fascination and tension of the drama reside……………... And when the interrogator rips his secret from him, with the skill of a psychoanalyst………… much is hinted about mental and spiritual things.
However, Patrick McGoohan was not just replicating some prior performance, any more than he was making a sequel to his popular Danger Man series. He was seeking to make something of his own, something original that he formed for himself and the Cold War intrigues were just one side of the story. He had lived through the ‘Angry Young Man’ theatrical period and just as that movement had raised many questions about traditional normalcy so another outsider was raising questions about the nature of insanity. One particular psychiatrist, RD Laing had become a media darling around 1963, just as the tales of Soviet duplicity were becoming publicised. I’ll leave any reader of this blog to investigate Laing for themselves but one of his key tenets was the view that people’s mental health was in big part the result of a tussle between their own individuality and the demands of their family members upon their behaviour. In this way he ran very counter to the traditional notion that mentally ill people were somehow faulty, but rather promoted the idea that they were unreconciled to their environment in some way. During a time of global Cold war his opinions had an especial resonance to many in western society. In 1969 (long after McGoohan's Prisoner show) Laing wrote a phrase that in many ways illustrates the parallel lines upon which those challenging minds were meeting, in those years of changing attitudes, of the mid-1960’s:
One of the most intriguing cases of the misdeeds of the Soviets from any study of The Prisoner and the internal thinking of the man "who thought it up" however, might have been this one (mentioned in both a cutting above and TIME magazine):