Last week, for some reason, I was compelled to revisit the Village, even if I’m not entirely certain how long it is since I last watched ‘The Prisoner’; I’d estimate around five years. Prior to purchasing Patrick McGoohan’s seminal 60s series on DVD, I think I’d last seen it on its most recent Channel 4 rerun in the early 90s; and that viewing itself had been a decade on from when the same channel had introduced me to it in 1984 (I doubt the year of that particular broadcast was accidental). Seeing it as a 16-year-old meant McGoohan’s antihero naturally appealed to my adolescent rebellion phase; yet now I’ve started watching it once more and that particular phase is extremely distant, the appeal of No.6’s battle against the seductive oppression of the Village is still speaking to me – and it says something different to me every time I return to it. Not only does ‘The Prisoner’ have a remarkable ability to appeal to every stage of my life I pass through, it also possesses the power to always relate to events taking place out there in the contemporary landscape.
Books have long had the ability to do this, and certain movies have also managed it; but television rarely does. We can appreciate a vintage series and what it says about the time in which it was made, but it’s not often we can translate its central theme to the present day. ‘The Prisoner’ is quite unique in the way its relevance never appears to wane, however far we travel from 1967. It probably helps that it still looks so cinematic, being shot on 35mm colour film when so many 60s shows remain frozen in murky monochrome; but even the fact it displays all the gaudy visual hallmarks of kitsch associated with the period, there’s an Alice in Wonderland quality to the design of the series that almost places it out of time; it’s almost too strange to belong solely to the 60s. The depths of ‘The Prisoner’ can be so hidden they’re practically labyrinthine; but it’s a revelation when we encounter them.
I sometimes think the creative forces that gave us the enduring visions of Dystopian fiction set in near-futures or parallel presents – ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, ‘A Clockwork Orange’, ‘The Year of the Sex Olympics’, and ‘The Prisoner’ – were able to anticipate so much of what has come to pass and what we can still see coming because they’d lived through the 1930s. They’d seen with their own eyes how complicit the masses can be in their own suppression and ultimate destruction, how the individual voice can be submerged in a cacophonous chorus of mob hysteria. They never looked back over their shoulders and asked the obvious question posed by succeeding generations, i.e. ‘How could all those people have been taken in by Hitler?’ They didn’t need to. The more senior of them – Orwell, specifically – had already witnessed the denial of Stalin’s barbarous actions by the Left in the West even before the Austrian painter abandoned his watercolours. They all knew what can happen and they could all see it happening again by taking on a different shape for each era.
There are probably far more people in 2020 who can relate to ‘The Prisoner’ and No.6 than there were in 1967, yet it still made a huge cultural impact at the time of its original broadcast, perhaps because many viewers then also had wartime memories and got the references. In 1967, the inability of McGoohan’s character to trust anyone he meets and near-guarantee that every misplaced whisper will be reported to the authorities would undoubtedly have provoked recollections of villages in Nazi-occupied France peppered with informants, or even the ‘loose lips sink ships’ compulsion to keep tabs on neighbours and strangers alike that applied on the home front. Today, of course, one cannot help but think of lockdown fundamentalists dialling 999 when they spy more than three or four people gathered in next-door’s garden.
The advanced technology of Village surveillance, something which was in its infancy in 1967 – certainly outside of East Germany, anyway – has obviously become such a part of contemporary life since then that we often barely notice it anymore. Whether speed cameras, CCTV on street corners, online profiling, or ‘track & trace’ apps, it sometimes seems that dissenting voices questioning the wisdom of allowing the state or multinationals to spy on us with increasing impunity are diminishing with each development as reluctant acceptance morphs seamlessly into resigned indifference. ID and credit cards also helped No.2 monitor No.6’s movements, as the real-world equivalents do ours. And each imposition on his individualism and freedom is served with a smile; the Village isn’t modelled on a Soviet Gulag; it resembles a cross between Butlin’s and the Henley Regatta most of the time.
One episode I watched the other night dealt with what was called ‘speed-learning’ as the Village community absorbed a history course by staring at the TV screen for three minutes. Afterwards, villagers could automatically ask another villager a question related to the course and they’d receive the same reply, parrot-like, word-for-word; the information was implanted in every person who’d sat the course, but they only had the set reply; their knowledge went no deeper than that and was ultimately as useless as memorising the answers to expected questions on an exam paper. Hard not to think of some present-day degrees – gender studies, perhaps – that neither enrich the intellect nor guarantee a career but simply proffer useless information that has no more worth or value than being able to recite a shopping-list.
Another memorable episode in which it was impossible not to sense a theme echoing down the decades concerned a Village election. No.6 is persuaded to run for No.2’s office and instantly has his cynical honesty reported completely differently by what passes for a press. His words from the heart are translated as vacuous platitudes that could have emerged from the mouth of every politician of the last forty years; but in the Village, there is no independence of thought, so it doesn’t matter. He’s saying what all politicians say and are expected to say in the land of collectivist groupthink. That crossed my mind when I heard Matt Hancock opportunistically toss the token buzzword ‘Black Lives Matter’ into one of his briefings a couple of days ago. He is laughably pathetic, a man utterly bereft of principles and personality, not to mention one single original thought or a single utterance that doesn’t sound like a pre-prepared sound-bite for ‘Question Time’; but he would make a wonderful No.2.
I’m only halfway through my current viewing of ‘The Prisoner’, so I fully expect plenty more episodes that say something to me in 2020 that they didn’t say in the 2010s, 1990s or 1980s. I’m not the same person now that I might have been in those decades, and the programme now is not the programme it was then either. As for the world…well, what can one say? Please excuse me for the moment; I see a black man approaching, so I need to fall to my knees and acknowledge my privilege by begging my oppressed pet to forgive me for the imagined crimes of my slave-owning ancestors. He, of course, is a number whilst I am a free man.
© The Editor
PS After writing this post, I watched an episode in which No.6 is effectively ‘cancelled’ by the community, ostracised as a pariah by shouty students and hectoring harridans. It’s almost as if he’s been no-platformed by social media or something…