Monday, 2 May 2011

McGoohan in his own words: "The people in this village are supported by the government and given everything necessary except one thing – freedom."

In my two earlier blogs in this trilogy, of which this blog is the third and final: 
I illustrated how the layout, treatment and behaviour of the village and it's villagers resembled a traditional British Insane Asylum of those days. This also fitted with the village being a place of imprisonment but not a place of punishment. I also pointed out how the Asylum system was a ubiquitous feature of the British social society by the 1960's, with at least one in every county and each Asylum was always well-known in the locality it served - and yet at the same scarcely anyone knew what went on inside them, or who was inside. However, I would not want my reader to assume I am predicating that Patrick McGoohan was making a TV show allegorising the Insane Asylum system of Great Britain in 1966. Rather that he was necessarily aware of the Insane Asylums  and would naturally incline to use them as an allegory of society - it was a common dramatic device at the time (and throughout history as we shall see later), as my earlier blogs also served to illustrate.

The prevalence of elements of psychiatry in episodes of the show carry direct relevance from the Cold War / Secret Agent milieu that McGoohan set his fable within. As I have mentioned earlier, Soviet Russia had long banned the use of lobotomy (used in Change of Mind) and sought to highlight this fact to demonstrate how it’s enlightened socialism was more humanitarian than the capitalist democracies it constantly denounced (from behind it’s protective Iron Curtain). However, it was also becoming clear that the science of psychiatry was being fully embraced  for more subtly nefarious ends, by that same governance, which claimed to eschew psychiatry's more physically brutal aspects. This article stems from 1954.

The treatment of Nadia in Chimes of Big Ben were referred to as Pavlovian, as was the treatment of the Rook in Checkmate. As the 1960’s had progressed the references to the actual use by the authoritarian regimes behind the iron Curtain of Insane Asylums to detain and imprison dissident citizens became even more focussed. This article is from 1963

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.

By 1965, the gloves were off completely; and the picture was being drawn large and plain of what had been going on - with the fuller background that had by then emerged from defectors and elements of the same Cold War tales that were inspiring Danger Man stories themselves. As a TIME magazine of that year explained:
When Nikita Khrushchev opened the gates of Stalin's concentration camps and set free hordes of political prisoners, he proudly boasted that "only lunatics" could object to life in Russia. So it seemed only logical for Nikita to deal with the intellectual critics of his own regime by locking them up not in harsh prisons—but in lunatic asylums. As men in white coats largely replaced the policemen, hundreds of writers, artists and other outspoken objectors to Communism vanished from the Moscow scene, to reappear in psychiatric hospitals as "mental cases.",9171,901695,00.html#ixzz1LC0RH7bO

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:
“As long as we cannot up-level our thinking beyond US and THEM, the goodies and the baddies. It will go on and on. The only possible end will be when all the goodies have killed all the baddies…… which does not seem so difficult……since to us…. WE are the goodies.”
I often like to imagine it was something like this that No6 was explaining to the policeman in the closing moments of Fall Out, much good that it did him, in the end.

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):

 Ward 7 was entitled such by Tarsis, the author - a modern Russian writer, because he was paying literary tribute to the classiccal 19th century Russian writer, Anton Tchekhov. Tchekhov’s plays were a staple of 1950’s theatre in Britain and whilst  Patrick McGoohan confessed in interviews to never having read Kafka, he certainly knew his Tchekhov. Tchekhov was not just a playwright however, he was also a short story writer.

The story is a short one, but as is often the case, the best things come in small parcels:
But Ward No.6 is more than a setting for moral conversion, it is also a microcosm of Russian society. The porter monitors his inmates like a prison warden; ……………. It thus comes as no surprise to see the author challenging society's dehumanization of criminals and lunatics in Ward No. 6. In particular, he questions the abuses committed by officials whose authority is upheld by the state. However, Chekhov does not use his story to force a personal or political philosophy onto his readers. Ultimately, we are left to make up our own minds on the issue of state control and institutional corruption. Ward No.6 is a work that raises important issues regarding the relationships between citizens and state, and between people in positions of power and those whom they incapacitate.

It might of course be that I getting myself into sixes and sevens over just another coincidence of numbers. Perhaps I’m mad and should be given asylum. But as always in, my polemical state, I'm just trying to establish who are the writers and who are the authors. I am the blogger and you are the reader. Think for yourself and be free. Be seeing you.

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