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.

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.