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
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…
BECOMING NUMBER 6
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.
WE ARE ALL PRISONERS
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.