Just a year or two after he had left The Prisoner behind, Jeanne Sakol went on the trail of Patrick McGoohan and found him in Norway, already on the quest of filming Brand, his lifetime’s McGuffin. In the course of the interview he said to her:
“I have a virile hope for the future. That’s why I did The Prisoner …. an allegory … a fable … a protest against regimentation and loss of individuality. We must not become puppets ………………... Ultimately, each of us must live within ourselves, and I’m just an idiot like the rest of the crowd.”
An allegory? In these modern times the allegorical nature of The Prisoner is often referred to. Allegories have frequently been used to represent political and historical situations and are popular vehicles for satire. They are often written as fables, wherein particular characters are representative of any one of us, perhaps in differing ways. Their perceived message can often vary between individuals, even though the fable is addressing a universal aspect.
In McGoohan’s own lifetime he had seen the Cold War heat up after WW2, flare into flames in the 1950’s, burn with frightening ferocity at the start of the 1960’s, as the Cuban Missile Crisis made both sides of the conflict realise what this war might lead to – then, in response to that universal fear – cool down. McGoohan’s own career was shaped by that same Cold War. His increasing popularity with the public throughout the world, as Danger Man, had made him a huge asset to Lew Grade and so McGoohan garnered a power. What was he to do with it? Patrick McGoohan used the world of secret agency to describe his own real world. He sought to allegorise the Cold War.
The biggest effect of the Cold War was the increasing fragmentation of the human world. Politics were split: People were Communist or Capitalist. Countries became split by those very politics. The cumulative knowledge of the Cold War far exceeds any notions I may have of it, but this table crops up on one website to neatly sum up some key differences. These are the some of the same issues The Prisoner grapples with. However rather than make a partisan show, McGoohan began to blur which side was which and question whether some of the attributes were in fact mutual ? Was it really so simple as the chart would have us believe?
West Berlin became like a velvet prison for its inhabitants. They were free, but how far could they go in any one direction? Less than 20 miles. The East Berliners were perceived by the West as being in a Police State but they could leave their Berlin and travel. There were no walls to keep them in. The paradoxes of Berlin exercised the mind of the whole world and then in 1963 the American President stood in the centre of Berlin, the village in the centre of the DDR and spoke the words that captured the imagination of the whole Western world at the time:
Five months later John Kennedy was assassinated and the attitudes of the western world began to change. Conspiracy Theories began to escalate. Who was to be trusted? How could you know who to trust? Whose side were “They” really on?
Q ... Was there a feeling of vulnerability living in Berlin then, as it went on?
A…. I think we got quickly used to it, we West Berliners. What I noticed, talking to West Germans - they were paranoiac, you know, they expected that everyone in Berlin was a sort of spy. I remember once going to the theatre, and I was sitting next to a student who came from Stuttgart, and we had a quite nice chat about this play, and suddenly he said to me, "I mustn't talk to you - you might be a spy for the East!" And I just sort of stared at him - I thought, "They are very ignorant." And there was this distinct "them and us". http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/coldwar/interviews/episode-9/hosseni3.html
The initials DDR stood for Deutsche Demokratische Republik. Democratic. It was a world of rigged elections and slogans:
Stories of the true nature of the DDR were always leaking out to those in the west of course, as TIME noted in 1961:
Under a new decree, hundreds of East Germans were being snatched up and "resettled" in small isolated towns in the interior for "work education." Reason: they were suspected of planning to escape to the West or of encouraging others to do so. Hordes of uniformed "Free German Youth" youngsters were sent out to inspect every East German's rooftop television and F.M. aerial, tear down those that were pointed toward the stations of West Berlin or West Germany. "Anyone listening to Western radio or television broadcasts is a traitor!" cried an editorial in Leipzig's Sächsische Zeitung.
Calling for greater factory production last week, the regime announced a new slogan:
"More production in the same time for the same money."
At dinner in a private home, a wife anxiously discussed the letter she got that morning from Communist Party headquarters, inviting her to attend a lecture on world politics. Should she go? The debate occupied the entire meal. "If you do not attend, we'll have a party official here tomorrow morning asking why. and it will get us in trouble'' decided her husband.
So, I can feel my reader asking, is Moor Larkin saying that Patrick McGoohan made a show about Berlin? Not exactly is my answer; but he was making a show about the world as he saw it then, the world as he feared it developing. People had made Berlin, just as it was People who were making his country of Britain, just as it was People who had created the Cuban Crisis and People who had assassinated Kennedy.
Patrick McGoohan demonstrated a certain contempt for party politics in his first solo script written for The Prisoner (Free for All). Interestingly this episode was one of the four not shown in W. Germany in 1969. It seems obvious that what Patrick McGoohan would take from the strange predicament of Berlin was not the capital-P Politics but instead the small-p politics of the people in the predicament. Was The Prisoner about Berlin? Obviously not, or he would have simply said so. Was Aesop writing about hares and toroises? Obviously not. Like Aesop, Patrick McGoohan was allegorising the way human beings behaved throughout history via a Fable - a Cold war mystery. The notions of Butlins Holiday camps in Wales, Commando war training camps in Scotland, or Spy Towns in Russia all pale into insignificance compared to the predicament of Everyman in Berlin. Nobody in 1960's Britain or America could fail to see the parallels and McGoohan was noted in biographical articles at the time as being an admirer of President Kennedy - as almost every man, and woman, was, in the western world, at the time.
The reductionism of fans picking and choosing about this origin and that origin and claiming that the minutest obscure detail somehow makes the true meaning of the Series clearer, or explained, is to entirely negate and overlook the bigger, over-arching narrative that McGoohan attempted with his story. It was a narrative that only he grasped from the beginning and even unto the end a narrative only he knew how to pursue; a narrative that left the inexperienced or the inept floundering. It was a narrative that was all about the cleverest detail and subtle nuance of double meaning but simultaneously about the epic scale of human folly. It was about how helpless the individual is in the grip of that folly. After all, if the almost super-human Number Six could not alone set himself free, how should any one of us presume to that ambition? His cleverness was to tell us this story in such a way however, that as individuals we are encouraged to believe that if each individual looks to himself, maybe it is possible somehow, if we never give up, if we never give in, if we look ourselves in the eye and rather than despairing of our futility in the face of Authority, we resolve instead to choose never to surrender ourself to it, then, perhaps, we are free after all.
It was 1960’s Berlin, which gave him this epic template for his allegory of Human Society. He lived to see 1990's Berlin prove his implicit faith and optimism in the human spirit. They came together. They escaped. They celebrated.
But also, just as he pointed out at the very end of his own series - the struggle began all over again. However he left us with the abiding image that it is the individual who is in the driving seat !!
Für Kiffer, Kalte Krieger und konspirativ Veranlagte: Arte zeigt die britische Spionage-Serie "The Prisoner" aus den Sechzigern. Mit seiner systemkritischen Haltung, seiner verrätselten Story und seinem kompromisslosen Erzählstil gilt das Werk zu Recht als Meilenstein der Fernsehgeschichte.
Wir Sehen Uns!