The oc­cult world of Pa­trick McGoohan

First screened in the wake of the ‘sum­mer of love’ in 1967, Pa­trick McGoohan’s The Pris­oner is as rel­e­vant now as it was 50 years ago. Packed with al­lu­sions to the Il­lu­mi­nati, the po­lice state, brain­wash­ing, and hid­den in­flu­ences on so­ci­ety, it is a text

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Given that Pa­trick McGoohan’s short-lived 1967 Bri­tish television series The Pris­oner re­mains as weird and offthe-wall when viewed to­day as when it was first broad­cast 50 years ago, it can clearly hold its own against off­beat con­tem­po­rary de­lights such as the re­vived Twin Peaks and the su­per­hero show Le­gion. De­bate con­tin­ues as to what it all meant. View­ers were fu­ri­ous with a fi­nal episode, ‘Fall Out’ (broad­cast in Fe­bru­ary 1968), that point­edly re­fused to an­swer ques­tions that had been build­ing across the series’s 17 episodes. In­stead, the fi­nale – pro­duced quickly and un­der pres­sure by McGoohan – pre­sented a whole new set of enig­mas that 1960s au­di­ences sim­ply weren’t ready for.

The pri­mary source for The Pris­oner was the mind of co-cre­ator and star Pa­trick McGoohan. His unique view of the world and how it works in­formed the sto­ries he wanted to tell and the style in which he wanted to tell them, pack­ing the episodes with fortean no­tions. Born in New York in March 1928, McGoohan was largely raised in Ire­land and Sh­effield. An evac­uee dur­ing the war, he quit school at the age of 16, be­com­ing a stage man­ager at Sh­effield Reper­tory The­atre af­ter try­ing his hand at a va­ri­ety of jobs. When an ac­tor fell ill, he stepped into the va­cant role and by the mid-1950s was pur­su­ing an act­ing ca­reer in his own right.

McGoohan’s screen life be­gan when he was a con­tract player for the in­flu­en­tial Rank Or­gan­i­sa­tion, play­ing ‘bad boy’ char­ac­ters in 1950s films like Hell Driv­ers and The Gypsy and the Gen­tle­men. In a sign of things to come, McGoohan clashed with Rank ex­ec­u­tives and his con­tract was soon torn up. Television of­fered both reg­u­lar em­ploy­ment and a rel­a­tively fresh medium in which he could flex his cre­ative mus­cles. Hired by mogul Lew Grade, he took on the lead role in

Dan­ger Man, a spy series ini­tially made up of 30-minute episodes in which his char­ac­ter of John Drake used brains rather than brawn to solve prob­lems. Raised a Catholic (at one point, he was on course to train as a priest) and rather pu­ri­tan­i­cal, McGoohan in­sisted on there be­ing no ‘ro­mance of the week’ for Drake; th­ese con­cerns would also lead McGoohan to turn down the role of James Bond in Dr No (1962) on ‘moral’ grounds.

Cre­ated by Aus­tralian writer and pro­ducer Ralph Smart, Dan­ger Man was unashamedly de­signed for ex­port to the US (as most of Lew Grade’s ITC shows were) and had an in­ter­na­tion­al­ist out­look, with sto­ries tak­ing place all around the world, of­ten in fic­ti­tious, vaguely ‘for­eign’ states. The first episode, ‘A View from a Villa’, was set partly in an Ital­ian vil­lage, so sec­ond unit di­rec­tor John Sch­lesinger ( Mid­night Cow­boy, Sun­day Bloody Sun­day) shot in Port­meirion, a pic­turesque, Ital­ianate Welsh lo­ca­tion that stuck in McGoohan’s mind. A fur­ther five episodes of the series’s first year ei­ther filmed in Port­merion or fea­tured brief footage of the dis­tinc­tive ‘vil­lage’.

Al­though fairly suc­cess­ful, the ini­tial in­car­na­tion of Dan­ger Man lasted just one sea­son. It was re­vived, again with McGoohan in the lead, two years later af­ter the suc­cess of the first Bond movie had cre­ated a vogue for all things

The short-lived series re­mains as weird and off-the­wall as when it was first broad­cast 50 years ago

es­pi­onage. Also in the cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal back­ground were the ten­sions of the Cuban Mis­sile Cri­sis, the assassination of JFK, and the ar­rival of other pop cul­ture spy television series like The Saint, The Avengers,

and The Man From UN­CLE. The re­vived Dan­ger Man, now with hour-long episodes, was a hit, run­ning for four sea­sons (with the fi­nal two episodes in colour). McGoohan, al­ways rest­less, felt the for­mat had been played out and he quit the show, forc­ing its can­cel­la­tion. He had a new series in mind, one about a se­cret agent who mys­te­ri­ously re­signs and finds him­self trapped in a strange prison…


Pa­trick McGoohan at­trib­uted the ori­gins of The Pris­oner to “bore­dom… bore­dom with television”. Tired of the grind on Dan­ger

Man, he went to Lew Grade with a new con­cept about a se­cret agent im­pris­oned against his will in a mys­te­ri­ous Vil­lage, to be shot in Port­meirion. Grade heard a ver­bal pitch from McGoohan, and pro­fessed not to un­der­stand a word of it. How­ever, recog­nis­ing his star’s hard-won sta­tus, Grade agreed to fi­nance what was ini­tially in­tended to be a short-run of just seven episodes.

Along with pro­ducer David Tomblin and script ed­i­tor (and for­mer spy) Ge­orge Mark­stein, McGoohan crafted a series that would by turns en­gage and then en­rage the ITV au­di­ence who first viewed it from Septem­ber 1967 to Fe­bru­ary 1968, for a to­tal of 17 episodes (af­ter Grade put pres­sure on McGoohan to ex­tend the series to a more tra­di­tional length).

What­ever else it might have been, the show was dis­tinctly McGoohan’s: he wrote three episodes (one un­der the name ‘Paddy Fitz’) and di­rected five (two un­der the telling name ‘Joseph Serf’). He was a hard taskmas­ter, by all ac­counts, dur­ing the fraught pro­duc­tion, in­sist­ing on hav­ing things pre­cisely as he en­vi­sioned them and part­ing ways with col­lab­o­ra­tors who weren’t on board with his dis­tinc­tive vi­sion. With

The Pris­oner, McGoohan had a mes­sage he wanted the world to hear: the ques­tion was, would any­one watch­ing un­der­stand it?

From its very open­ing, The Pris­oner raises ques­tions of iden­tity. The ti­tle se­quence sees McGoohan’s char­ac­ter an­grily re­sign­ing, his im­age deleted with a series of Xs across a pho­to­graph, be­fore a hearse pulls up out­side his house and de­bil­i­tat­ing gas is pumped in. McGoohan’s char­ac­ter sym­bol­i­cally ‘dies’, only to ‘awaken’ in the new world of the Vil­lage, a very Gnos­tic no­tion.

Is McGoohan’s new char­ac­ter – re­ferred to through­out only as Num­ber 6 – re­ally John Drake of Dan­ger Man? There is ev­i­dence in the series to back this up: in the episode ‘The Girl Who Was Death’ (a sto­ry­line planned for Dan­ger Man), Num­ber 6 meets Pot­ter, who’d pre­vi­ously been Drake’s con­tact and was played by Christo­pher Ben­jamin in both shows. De­spite this, in a 1985 in­ter­view McGoohan de­nied Num­ber 6 and John Drake were one and the same – but he would say that, wouldn’t he?

Cen­tral to The Pris­oner are ques­tions of free will, in­di­vid­ual free­dom, and state con­trol. The Vil­lage de­picts a world very sim­i­lar to that we live in to­day, where those in charge (Num­ber 2 and his staff) have ac­cess to files cov­er­ing ev­ery as­pect of their cit­i­zen’s lives, where con­stant sur­veil­lance is main­tained, where the pop­u­la­tion is con­trolled through ma­nip­u­la­tion of the me­dia, and dis­sent is sup­pressed. One of the mot­tos of the Vil­lage is ‘Ques­tions are a bur­den for oth­ers; an­swers a prison for one­self’. Each episode opened with Num­ber 6 declar­ing “I am not a num­ber, I am a free man”, de­spite all the ev­i­dence to the con­trary.


So, where did all this come from? McGoohan was clearly an in­di­vid­u­al­ist with a strong moral code, a man who stuck to his prin­ci­ples even when it dam­aged his ca­reer; that much is clear. The story he wanted to tell in The Pris­oner sprang di­rectly from his own con­cerns with the world he saw de­vel­op­ing in the mid-20th cen­tury. In an

in­ter­view, he ex­plained: “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 all live in a lit­tle “Vil­lage”. Your Vil­lage may be dif­fer­ent from other peo­ple’s Vil­lages, but we are all pris­on­ers.”

This state, of be­ing im­pris­oned while liv­ing in an ap­par­ent democ­racy, was at the heart of The Pris­oner. It is also cen­tral to much oc­cult think­ing, es­pe­cially Gnos­ti­cism. Pre-Chris­tian Gno­sis is taken to mean gain­ing (of­ten se­cret) knowl­edge through per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence or per­cep­tion of the ‘divine spark’ lo­cated within the hu­man mind. The series is packed with Gnos­tic no­tions, hid­den mean­ings, se­cret mes­sages, and other oc­cult sym­bol­ism that can be de­coded by a per­cep­tive viewer who has the time and pa­tience to tease out the es­o­teric mean­ings of the text. There are sim­ply too many in­ter­pre­ta­tions to itemise here, but here are some cen­tral con­cepts:

CON­FORM­ITY: The cen­tral thread of The Pris­oner is the at­tempt by a series of ‘new’ Num­ber 2s to break Num­ber 6, to get him to re­veal the rea­son he re­signed and to have him sub­mit to the so­ci­ety of the Vil­lage and the con­trol of Num­ber 1. This is a model of so­ci­ety as a whole, as per­ceived by McGoohan: so­ci­ety de­mands (and re­wards) con­form­ity on its own terms; any­thing else is seen counter to ‘the way things are’ (the dom­i­nant ide­ol­ogy) and is deemed il­le­gal or un­ortho­dox. Any­one who re­sists this con­form­ity is de­clared ‘un­mu­tual’ and de­nied par­tic­i­pa­tion in the re­wards of so­ci­ety. Dishar­mony will not be tol­er­ated.

IN­DI­VID­U­AL­ISM: Ar­riv­ing in the Vil­lage, McGoohan’s char­ac­ter is stripped of all in­di­vid­ual iden­tity: his name is taken away, and he is given the same ‘uni­form’ as the other in­hab­i­tants. This break­ing down of iden­tity is the first step to en­forc­ing con­form­ity, and is used in state-sup­ported tor­ture. In the episode ‘Once Upon a Time’, Num­ber 6 re­peat­edly de­nies be­ing a ‘unit’ of the Vil­lage and so of so­ci­ety. He is ‘not a num­ber’ but a ‘free man’. The series fol­lows Num­ber 6’s on­go­ing strug­gle to re­tain his own iden­tity in the face of over­whelm­ing op­po­si­tion and at­tempts to re­make him be­come as the Vil­lage con­trollers want him to be.

SE­CRET RULERS: In the con­text of The Pris­oner, the ‘se­cret rulers’ of the world might be thought of in mod­ern par­lance as the New World Or­der. The Vil­lage as a mi­cro­cosm of New World Or­der so­ci­ety is re­flected in the never-seen Num­ber 1 and the con­stantly changing Num­ber 2. While Num­ber 2 is nom­i­nally in charge (like the var­i­ous pres­i­dents and prime min­is­ters of in­di­vid­ual coun­tries), they are all con­trolled in turn by the seem­ingly ab­sent or in­vis­i­ble Num­ber 1, the true power be­hind the scenes (take your pick: Bilder­berg­ers, the Il­lu­mi­nati, the Freema­sons, or the aliens). While Num­ber 1 re­mains con­stant, the face of Num­ber 2 changes (played var­i­ously in the series by Pa­trick Cargill, Ken­neth Grif­fith, Leo McKern, and Mary Mor­ris, among sev­eral oth­ers). The real power re­mains hid­den.

CON­TROL: The series con­cerned it­self with brain­wash­ing and mind con­trol; sev­eral episodes fea­tured drugs as a mea­sure of men­tal con­trol (‘A Change of Mind’; ‘A,B, & C’). The Vil­lage is a sim­u­lacrum of re­al­ity, a ‘test tube’ in which be­havioural con­di­tion­ing can be tried out (pri­mar­ily to break Num­ber 6) and psy­cho­log­i­cal war­fare op­er­a­tions can be prac­tised be­fore be­ing utilised on a wider stage. Even the pri­vate dream world of Num­ber 6 is not safe from state sur­veil­lance, as in the episode ‘A,B, & C’ where he is placed in a drug-in­duced dream state in the hope that it can be dis­cov­ered if he sold state se­crets to a for­eign power prior to his res­ig­na­tion.

SUR­VEIL­LANCE: Ev­ery­one in the Vil­lage is un­der con­stant ob­ser­va­tion. The ‘all see­ing eye’ ap­pears in var­i­ous places through­out the series, but is most no­table in the Con­trol Room, where an eye-shaped camera roams across the set, which is di­vided be­tween a map of the world and a map of the stars re­flect­ing the two pil­lars of the Ma­sonic lodge: the Earth and the Sky. The show de­picts a Panop­ti­con-like so­ci­ety, a po­lice state driven by con­stant sur­veil­lance and con­trolled through mar­tial force (the ‘Rover’ bal­loon that cap­tures run­aways).

The series is packed with Gnos­tic no­tions and hid­den mean­ings

DEMOC­RACY: Elec­tions are spoofed in the episode ‘Free for All’ in which Num­ber 6 stands against Num­ber 2 in the an­nual Vil­lage elec­tion. Made and broad­cast in a UK elec­tion year, the episode saw McGoohan ques­tion­ing the le­git­i­macy of the demo­cratic process. Is it all noth­ing more than a game to keep the pop­u­lace feel­ing in­volved in wider events? Af­ter all, no mat­ter how you vote, the politi­cians al­ways win. Vil­lage democ­racy is re­vealed to be a stage-man­aged pre­tence, with a ma­nip­u­lated elec­torate, and even when Num­ber 6 ul­ti­mately wins, he also loses. This was the first of sev­eral scripts McGoohan him­self wrote, re­veal­ing his pre­oc­cu­pa­tions.

SE­CRETS: The Pris­oner is full of se­crets, as is Num­ber 6 him­self. Is he re­ally John Drake? Is he, as the ex­change played at the open­ing of each episode seem­ingly re­veals, re­ally the elu­sive Num­ber 1? (“Who is Num­ber 1?” “You are, Num­ber 6’”) Just why did he re­sign? Who op­er­ates the Vil­lage – ‘our’ side, or ‘theirs’? Se­crecy is the power gained through con­trol over in­for­ma­tion. Again, the open­ing re­veals the series’s main con­cern: “What do you want?” “In­for­ma­tion!” “You won’t get it!” McGoohan’s series is a com­men­tary on the cor­ro­sive na­ture of se­crets, es­pe­cially at state level, and its detri­men­tal ef­fects on hu­man re­la­tion­ships, both per­sonal and so­cial.

FALSE FLAG OP­ER­A­TIONS: As with the rigged elec­tion in ‘Free for All’, the assassination plot of ‘It’s Your Funeral’, in which Num­ber 6 is im­pli­cated, is an in­ter­nal op­er­a­tion in­tended to re­place Num­ber 2 with a younger man. The po­lit­i­cal as­sas­si­na­tions of the early-1960s, es­pe­cially that of JFK, in­spired McGoohan to look be­hind the cur­tain, to ask the ques­tion Cui

Bono: Who Ben­e­fits? Con­spir­acy is to the fore here, and in sev­eral episodes ei­ther Num­ber 2 or the Vil­lage ‘sys­tem’ are shown to have been ma­nip­u­lat­ing events (as in ‘Ham­mer into Anvil’, for ex­am­ple), putting them­selves in a ‘never lose’ sit­u­a­tion. In the episode ‘The Chimes of Big Ben’, Num­ber 2 and Num­ber 6 dis­cuss con­trol sys­tem par­a­digms, while other episodes ex­plore the na­ture of re­al­ity. Is ‘The Girl Who Was Death’ re­ally just a chil­dren’s fairy story? Are the Western-set events of ‘Liv­ing in Har­mony’ re­ally the re­sult of a hal­lu­cino­genic trip? Or are both forms of al­ter­na­tive or vir­tual re­al­ity?

CLASS: A very Bri­tish pre­oc­cu­pa­tion, ques­tions of class per­me­ate The Pris­oner, from the up­per-class reg­is­ter of the speech of many of the ‘in­hab­i­tants’ of the Vil­lage, to the re­def­i­ni­tion of the sources of power from up­per class and work­ing class to jailer and pris­oner. De­spite be­ing part of the Es­tab­lish­ment, as a for­mer se­cret agent, Num­ber 6 seems to come from a work­ing class back­ground: he is sim­ply not ‘one of the chaps’. They are the ones who run things, the Num­ber 2s of the Vil­lage. The new lo­ca­tion Num­ber 6 in­hab­its is sim­ply a dis­torted, even satir­i­cal, ver­sion of the class­rid­den world he at­tempted to leave be­hind.

DRUGS: Al­though much of The Pris­oner seems to em­body el­e­ments of the 1960s counter-cul­tural move­ments that sur­rounded its cre­ation, McGoohan’s up­bring­ing gave him a hard­line view on drugs: they are not a

“With an ex­cess of free­dom we will ul­ti­mately de­stroy our­selves”

In the episode ‘Free for All’, democ­racy is re­vealed as a stage-man­aged de­cep­tion.

McGoohan’s Num­ber 6 is stripped of in­di­vid­ual iden­tity and re­peat­edly co­erced into ac­cept­ing the norms of so­ci­ety rep­re­sented by The Vil­lage.

Pa­trick McGoohan as se­cret agent John Drake in Dan­ger Man. FAC­ING PAGE: McGoohan in The Pris­oner.

Sir Clough Wil­iam-El­lis’s Ital­ianate folly on the Welsh coast, built be­tween 1925 and 1975, proved the per­fect set­ting for the ‘The Vil­lage’: bizarre, her­metic and strangely post-mod­ern.

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