Saturday, 30 June 2012

McGoohan from his own mouth: From the beginning of the series, the character called No1 was responsible for death, torture, war. So the worst enemy of man is surely himself; the evil in him the worst thing on earth.

In 1968, in an interview shortly after the prisoner project was complete, Patrick McGoohan made the comment heading this blog to an interviewer, during the course of a conversation about his thoughts on "the permissive society"..

In first of the two biographies written about Patrick McGoohan since 2007, there is this quote on page 109:
However, in the early days, there was...probably no plan on the part of the star or his team to create...something as cryptic as The Prisoner.

The notion that the development of The Prisoner was more or less accidental ties in with the perception of it as being some epitome of a Sixties Happening. Yet, right from the beginning Patrick McGoohan had plainly stated that the programme he was making was intended to be something out of the ordinary, and shortly after production ended, he was re-emphasising that. Whilst The Prisoner might nowadays be seen as somehow typical of the Sixties, the contradiction is that Patrick McGoohan was by no means a typical man of the Sixties. His conservative views about the world around him were expressed by him in the real world of 1968 in such comments as these:

The object of the television series, The Prisoner was to create a feeling of unrest about life today. It was an abstract impression of the world we are living in and a warning of what would happen to us when gadgetry and gimmickry take over from creative people.

...scientific knowledge and massive impulses are pouring in on us from all directions. And whether it’s cinema, TV, radio, the noises that are in the air, the cars tearing by, the bright lights around us – these impulses are frightening. There’s no time to stop. Even to live. I think we are going too fast but I don’t think we have any choice

We are our own worst enemy. We want more goods, more wages, bigger motor cars, faster motor cars, bigger washing machines, bigger refrigerators. As long as there is that demand, then the society we are living in, and its legislators, must keep up with it… When this can occur, it’s democracy, but democracy actively strangling itself

Whenever you get massive material development, you get a breakdown in morality. The Roman Empire was at the height of its material power when its destruction was caused by moral breakdown. Every human being has a responsibility to society and to himself. I think one should be aware of what is happening, that every responsible person should try to resist it.

One of the reasons that the production of  The Prisoner gets portrayed as some crazy, wacky accident is because Patrick McGoohan's world-view does not fit with the modern interpretation of his show as encouraging revolution against conformity and the fight for the right of the individual to be individualistic. It's as if No6 was wholly intent on breaking the chains of a previous conformity. Perhaps the very the modern view of the Fifties as being some corsetted time of repression to be revolted against is responsible for this. In many ways this is actually a reversal of what was actually on McGoohan's mind and it has long seemed to me that this misinterpretation lies at the heart of the fan ideas that McGoohan had no idea what he was intending to do at the outset of the production. The notion that McGoohan was making a plea for freedom is completely wrong in one way. What he was also doing was shouting about the freedom he perceived was being lost in the new Consumer Boom society of the Sixties!! He made that a little clearer in 1977, when he made various comments to Warner Troyer a decade later:

I think progress is the biggest enemy on earth, apart from oneself, and that goes with oneself, a two-handed pair with oneself and progress. 

we're run by the Pentagon, we're run by Madison Avenue, we're run by television, and as long as we accept those things and don't revolt we'll have to go along with the stream to the eventual avalanche. 

As long as we go out and buy stuff, we're at their mercy. We're at the mercy of the advertiser and of course there are certain things that we need, but a lot of the stuff that is bought is not needed.

Because McGoohan's anti-Consumer Society attitudes are so at odds with our modern perception of the freedom that material gains made for western civilisation in the 1960's, his evident angst can be portrayed as evidence of some kind of personal paranoia of his own, but this is because the modern viewer actually has lost all grasp of what it is that this man of the Fifties felt was being lost to the Sixties world of "anything goes" and material excess. Patrick McGoohan was of course just an actor and best expressed himself through his drama and allegory, not through reasoned, academic political philosophy. So it was that I was intrigued to recently come across a 'philosophical' treatise that seems to exactly mirror some of McGoohans blues about the modern society he was living through by the mid-1960's.
 This article was written not in 1967, but in 1957. Some of the quotes from it seem to exactly mirror those of McGoohan ten years later, as he mused over what his show had been about, behind the superficial telling of an off-beat spy story. Friedrich Sieburg was a  full generation older than McGoohan, and in fact died in 1964. It is not my suggestion that Patrick Mcgoohan ever read this article, but my only intent is to show that the notions of the modern man of 1967 being his own worst enemy was nothing revolutionary, but rather a worry of the Fifties generation about those youngsters of the Sixties. Patrick Mcgoohan reached 40 in 1968; he was not the young man of Alexis Kanner's age, but rather the younger brother of Leo McKern's older member of regular society.

Anyhow, if you have the will to listen to a man from the past, these are some the things Friedrich Sieburg wrote, back in 1957, as translated from his native German by Eric Mosbacher, for the US magazine Atlantic.
It has been demonstrated that the overcoming of the problems of the modern age is inconsistent with an unrestricted measure of freedom… the Western world has become deeply pessimistic, and in the long run that is inconsistent with the democratic organisation of society. It is possible that man may be good, but we had better not put that to the test...Since 1914 so many new tasks in the economic and social field have accrued to the state that it has been forced to change its essential nature to be able to perform them. Thus it has become second nature for it to want to think and act for the individual… The state acts continually under an impulse, which brings it into ever closer contact with the individual and positively forces it to encroach upon the private field. Whatever the impulse may be, even if it is a belief in liberty, in the hands of the ruling authorities it is bound always to assume the form of power...Bit by bit we are abandoning what used to constitute the sovereignty of Western man. The private sphere, which was once surrounded by a certain sanctity, is dwindling. Man evacuates one field after another, and the state cannot be expected not to move into the empty space, which we are unable to fill.

If I do not know what to do with my spare time, I call in the state. If I am incapable of looking after the produce of my field, or educating my children, the authorities are immediately at hand to act in the public interest.
Thus our tyrants are involuntary tyrants of our own creation. Our subjection to mass rule is not in the least inconsistent with this. For the masses are a tyrannical fiction. The human beings of whom the masses allegedly consist play only a small part in them. Never was a more hypocritical instrument for the disarmament and diminution of the free personality than this concept of “the masses”…

The more selfishly and inhumanly this struggle for power is conducted, the more necessary it is to keep referring to the masses, for whose interests each group claims to stand. Whether sympathy for the masses is prompted by a genuine interest in the lot of mankind or whether it is only an excuse, obeisance to the masses must be made. The securing of justice for the masses, which should be a worthy object of public concern turns into a form of idolatry, the cult of a tyrant who has completely forgotten that he is dealing with living human beings. It is a form of demagoguery without which nowadays no one dares make a public utterance.
            Mass needs are called into being out of which much money is earned and power acquired. But in reality, perhaps, these needs have no real existence. The precipitous driving down of the level of taste, the unrestricted competition in offering more and more banal illusions and more and more stupid entertainments with less and less intellectual content, take place as an apparent service to the “broad masses”, about whose impulses the boldest theories are put forward…

Man is now digging his own grave; the evil is the individual’s participation in what he takes to be civilisation. All ideas of progress and improvement in living centre around buying the things which are dreamt about by those who believe themselves to be on the ladder of progress.
            What ranks as the civilisation to which everyone has a right is the possession of certain objects and gadgets, access to certain forms of stimulus and entertainment, use of all the goods, commodities, and amenities characteristic of modern life. Tremendous industries and elaborate organisations exist to satisfy needs that they have themselves created – needs for materials, pictures, scents, new luxuries, drugs and games; in short, all the things which are recommended to the individual on the ground that the masses want them. In relation to these needs no man is free, unless he feels capable of living the life of an outcast…

How can one suggest to him the dreadful truth that he is continually declining, that his inner being is shrinking, and that with every new refinement in his way of living he is sinking deeper into the condition of a new barbarism, the chaotic crudity of which cannot be conjured away by any pharmaceutical product, or increase in speed, or improvement in the means of communication? It would certainly be idle to try to dissuade one’s fellow from the use of narcotics or television sets, but perhaps it may still be worthwhile to call on him not to let himself be the slave of a civilisation of which he is called the master.
            Once upon a time savages were identifiable by their terror of blunderbusses and belief in the power of the medicine man. Today the place of these things has been taken by the number of tubes, the cubic capacity of cylinders, and the effectiveness of sleep-inducing drugs; in other words, things intended to drive away fear at the passage of time and the certainty of death…

That final line reminded me very much of the lines in probably the first episode of The Prisoner to be written, Free For All

Labour Exchange Manager:... That shows you're afraid.
No6: What!?
Labour Exchange Manager: You are afraid of death.
No6: I'm afraid of NOTHING!

Indeed, it is Free For All that completely disproves the notion that, 
there was...probably no plan on the part of the star...something as cryptic as The Prisoner  
This episode from the pen of "the star" and written even before Arrival was finished serves to demonstrate how cryptic McGoohan was planning to be, and like Sieburg how frustrated and despairing of the masses he had become, and how his allegory about the contemporary human condition was wrapped within the shell of an exciting Spy v Spy tale. The fact that such a pre-eminent 'fan' as a biographer can can have been so deceived about McGoohan and The Prisoner by all the cultish fan babble that denies the man any credit for knowing what he was doing from the very beginning... speaks volumes.

I am not a number. I am a person
In some place, at some time, all of you... held positions of a secret nature and had knowledge that was invaluable... to an enemy. Like me, you are here to have that knowledge protected...or extracted. Unlike me, many of you have accepted the situation of your imprisonment and will die here like ROTTEN CABBAGES

It is also in this very first script of the series that you can see the proof of what McGoohan said in that interview in 1968 that heads up this blog, that from the very beginning he was writing cryptically but knew who exactly Number One was, from the very beginning.
Number Two:
If you win, Number One will no longer be a mystery to you, if you know what I mean...

In Fall Out, No6 had 'won', and No1 was revealed to him. If you see what I mean, and what the script-writer meant.

Of course the cultish biographer was inevitably influenced by the prisoner-cult contention that McGoohan did not think the show up himself, and that he only wrested control of it from someone who the masses of fans had decided was the true instigator of their favourite show. Like rotting cabages they had accepted the imprisonment of their own beliefs, which were largely the result of the deceits and errors of the leaders they listened to, about how the show was first thought up, and why and who by. Someone should make a TV show about how cults have their own agendas. In some ways that may be exactly what Patrick Joseph McGoohan, in 1967, did do. Such a splendid irony. Someone else should write a book about it, but who would want to read that?

You cannot really expect to understand the creative nuances of The Prisoner unless you have some grasp of the nuances of the times that lay behind it. Those times were the 1950's and although nowadays those years are painted to us as being as monochrome and grainy as their old TV pictures showing a world of austere conformity, to those who lived the transition there seemed to be the loss of a certain type of personal freedom, which was  being replaced by an enslavement of a colourful and exciting kind, but an enslavement nonetheless, and the curious thing was that the people were doing it for themselves. They were their own worst enemy. They had a thirst for Progress.