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We are all prisoners of groupthink Patrick McGoohan's 1960s cult curiosity turns out to be a parable for our intolerant times

It’s always Pride Month of a kind in the Village. Credit: YouTube

It’s always Pride Month of a kind in the Village. Credit: YouTube


July 6, 2020   5 mins

It’s a place with no history and no identity of its own. It has no nationality. It could be anywhere. Its citizens repeat cheery slogans to each other instead of having conversations. They’re forever staging oddly joyless ‘celebrations’, parading in circles through the streets waving rainbow-striped flags, cheering and clapping. They live in fear of saying the wrong thing, not joining in, and being declared ‘unmutual’ by a mysterious, unaccountable committee.

But this isn’t Britain in 2020. It’s the Village, the very unusual prison that a secret agent played by Patrick McGoohan is banged up in (and forever trying to bust out of) in the 1967 ITV adventure series The Prisoner. The Village is portrayed on screen by Portmeirion, the quite beautiful and grand architectural folly in North Wales created by eccentric millionaire Clough Williams-Ellis, and still doing very nicely as a tourist attraction and hotel. It’s an amazing place, on screen and off.

In the decades following its original transmission, The Prisoner seemed a gaudy curiosity, and very, very much of its time. It’s got the clashing brightness of much early colour TV; a jarring half-jazz, half-guitar pop score; and a jumpy, psychedelic mise-en-scene. It clearly belonged to a very particular paranoid Cold War moment; a colossally expensive remake in 2009 starring Ian McKellen seemed totally irrelevant to the modern world, and died a death. The original lived on only as a cult series, remembered more for the nostalgia value of its vivid iconography than anything else.

McGoohan’s character (known as ‘Number Six’) is permanently angry, or at least tensed up — there’s nobody he can relax or speak normally with. This gives the show an intense, unrelenting atmosphere that makes it heavy going for some viewers. There are many things The Prisoner shares with The Good Place, but chirpy, flirty banter isn’t one of them. The thing most people know about the show is ‘Rover’, the giant white balloon which patrols the Village, roaring and heavy-breathing, and which often smothers McGoohan back into line to the accompaniment of frantic bongos and detuned electric guitars.

You’re never quite sure whether Rover is meant to be funny, frightening, a bit of both or neither. It’s a quality that sums The Prisoner up. To most people it seems, or seemed, a typically naff bit of meandering, a product of the time that also served up the Beatles’ rambling, almost unwatchable, TV film Magical Mystery Tour.

But over the last few years, as the public sphere of Western society has taken a very odd and unexpected turn, I couldn’t help thinking more and more of The Prisoner, and specifically the Village. While The Prisoner shares many concerns with Nineteen Eight-Four, it now seems that McGoohan (who co-created it, and wrote and directed many of the episodes) got it more right than Orwell — and did so in a Sunday night mainstream TV show with ad breaks, punch-ups and dolly birds.

The Village is just the backdrop to thriller stories that are inventive and unusual, though they’re recognisably of the same genre as Ian Fleming or Len Deighton. There’s a whole futuristic underground base beneath the Village of the kind Sean Connery is always blowing up. And on its surface level The Prisoner works as a spy story with a unique twist, Bond transplanted into a totally oppositional setting. But that backdrop now seems by far the most striking and relevant thing about it.

Unlike the shoddy goods and deprivation of Airstrip One in Nineteen Eight-Four, the Village is an affluent society, an apparently quite attractive place to be. It’s certainly not a communist hellhole; no cage was ever more gilded. Consumer goods are plentiful, all branded with the Village’s meaningless penny farthing logo. People are punctiliously polite and convivial until the very moment somebody (and it’s almost always McGoohan) starts asking questions or strikes a sour note. Then they either evade, pretend not to hear, get nervous, or run away. “A still tongue makes a happy life” and “Questions are a burden to others” are two of the Village’s often-parroted slogans at these moments. Inquiries about the location or history of the Village are particularly unwelcome — it’s just ‘very cosmopolitan’ and ‘international’.

There are regular applause sessions for “valued members of the community” — “they do a marvellous job!” Art is there merely to reproduce Village symbols, and has no value as beautiful or diverting in and of itself. Even sport and play are ideological: there’s ‘kosho’, a bizarre hybrid involving baseball gloves, helmets and trampolines, or human chess, which is monitored in case anybody makes a suspiciously individualistic move.

The parades and festivities are never-ending. It’s always Pride Month of a kind in the Village. A particularly good example is ‘Appreciation Day’, the climax of which is the unveiling — to much hooraying — of a stone monument that says simply ‘Achievement’.

And the Village is nothing if not progressive — at one point, during the election campaign, Chief Administrator Number 2 ends a stump speech by calling, “We know what we must do! What must we do?” A lackey holds up a board reading “PROGRESS” and the crowd dutifully chants it back. The recent ‘Progress Pride’ flag — updated to be even more inclusive, and displayed on the Twitter profile of the House Of Commons, for heaven’s sake — features a large red umbrella that’s so Village it’s hard to believe it wasn’t intentional.

Definitely the most eyebrow-raising episode in our current times is ‘A Change Of Mind’, in which McGoohan’s character is cancelled by a mob of ‘public-minded citizens’. A particularly heinous anti-social misdemeanour sparks this cancellation: he builds his own gym equipment and refuses to use the Village sports facilities. But this offence is merely a pretext. He’s taken before a ‘committee of social affairs’ and makes the very unwise move of mocking it.

Other miscreants who comply with the committee are made to give tearful public apologies (written for them) to the mob, including lines like “They’re right, of course, I’m inadequate!” The next stage is to attend a young people’s denouncing session, a kind of HR sensitivity course, which McGoohan sends up — at which point he is officially posted as ‘unmutual’, has his social credit removed, is officially shunned and marched up to the hospital to be ‘cured’ by a lobotomy.

The recent sight of Peter Hitchens being pursued down the street by placard-waving, slogan-chanting students was uncannily similar to the pursuit of McGoohan the unmutual by the marching mob. All it needed was the balloon to set the whole thing off.

I get the feeling the Village is very much where the elite institutions of our society want us to end up — a progressive, international community with no past and no sense of place, where we celebrate continually, avoid debate and difficult facts with mantras, reward non-conformity with ‘re-training’, and punish ‘Unmutuals’ with mobs. There is a large, and growing, blob of pure Village throughout our public life, and it’s seeping into our private lives too. Can you trust everybody in your DMs?

As Number 2 says of the Village in the episode ‘The Chimes Of Big Ben’: “What, in fact, has been created? An international community! A perfect blueprint for world order … this is the pattern for the future.” I remember when that line sounded a bit on-the-nose and quaint.

Can The Prisoner go back to being dated and irrelevant? Please?


Gareth Roberts is a screenwriter and novelist, best known for his work on Doctor Who.

OldRoberts953

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D Glover
D Glover
4 years ago

There is a maths lecturer who is being investigated by Plymouth University for the offence of ‘liking’ a tweet that said ‘All lives matter’
We have arrived in a Maoist state where any dissent is punished.

James Bradley
James Bradley
4 years ago
Reply to  D Glover

I wonder if “Lives Matter” would be acceptable to the CCPCP Central Propaganda Department?

D Glover
D Glover
4 years ago
Reply to  James Bradley

Dr Priyamvada Gopal tweeted ‘white lives don’t matter’ and was rewarded by Cambridge with promotion to professor.
Dr David Starkey was not so lucky.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago
Reply to  D Glover

David not Richard.

D Glover
D Glover
4 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Apologies. Corrected

bryantpianos
bryantpianos
4 years ago
Reply to  D Glover

Should we expect the 24 people who upvoted DG’s remark here to also be investigated? Strange times indeed…..

Joss Wynne Evans
Joss Wynne Evans
4 years ago
Reply to  D Glover

Well, my Bald Lives Matter mask has been well received I’m delighted to say…

annescarlett
annescarlett
4 years ago

I loved the prisoner but until now never thought for a second I would be existing through it, thankyou

Andrew D
Andrew D
4 years ago

It would be nice to think that the BBC might air that episode at peak time, and follow it with a discussion as to its relevance today. Let’s say they’ll invite Douglas Murray, Peter Hitchens, Jonathan Freedland and Mary Beard. It would be a courteous but open discussion, perhaps chaired by our own Freddie Sayers. What chance of that happening today? Since the BBC is no longer an arena for civilised and intelligent debate, perhaps unherd could step into the breach?

Roger Sponge
Roger Sponge
4 years ago

Interested that Pride is mentioned. I know that I’m supposed to be an enthusiastic supporter and clap like mad at my town’s annual march.

But to me, it’s just tacky exhibitionism, also used by Big Businesses to “draw a line under” their unethical behaviour.

Have also wondered if there’s any link between the Pride colours also used to show our appreciation for the NHS. Am certainly very grateful for the care, skill and kindness recently shown me by my GP, consultant and staff. But the NHS isn’t above constructive comment and criticism.

So can the clapping stop now, please?

davidsumeray
davidsumeray
4 years ago

The Prisoner was a far-sighted piece of art, always enthralling, mysterious, confounding and, I use this word deliberately…captivating. It’s so dense and multi-layered and relevant that it is still being analysed and discussed in books and websites today. It’s wonderfully powerful, disturbing, surreal and ultimately celebratory ending also suggested there’s no easy escape without profound self-awareness and commitment. Visionary and revolutionary then…and, perhaps, even more so today!

Bernhard Meister
Bernhard Meister
4 years ago
Reply to  davidsumeray

So very well said sir.

Pierre Brute
Pierre Brute
4 years ago

Good article, well observed. How true, how true: Hitchens being followed by those morons could have been straight out of The Prisoner.

Paul Ridley-Smith
Paul Ridley-Smith
4 years ago

Great essay. I’ve heard of The Prisoner, but never seen it. Must try and find it online – unless it has been disappeared!

Geoff Cox
Geoff Cox
4 years ago

Yes, it was a great series, though they ran out of ideas fairly quickly and the episodes became more and more bizarre. But the into is a classic. You’ll find it on YouTube and I hope it stays there forever.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago
Reply to  Geoff Cox

I remember it well, and as you say it quickly became rather confusing and eventually downright boring, with a most unsatisfactory ending.The opening and closing scenes however, remain a classic.
It never matched up to its prequel,’Danger Man’, despite Patrick McGoohan’s sterling performance, in both.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
4 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Try it again, it reveals more and more

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

Thanks, I will.

Geoff Cox
Geoff Cox
4 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Hi Mark – As I recall the ending was the crazy “dem bones” episode wasn’t it? Number 6 v Number 2. It is one of my favourite episodes for the music and dancing. I don’t want to give away anything to Paul above, but I liked that episode.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago
Reply to  Geoff Cox

Thanks, will do. Off course the other epics from those halcyon days were “A Clockwork Orange” and “If”.
All rather prophetic as it turns out.

Geoff Cox
Geoff Cox
4 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

A Clockwork Orange is an excellent film – all the more so because it is a good adaptation of the book, which is a masterpiece.

“What’s it going to be then, eh? There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter b*****d though dry.”

And on it goes – fantastic writing.

Bernhard Meister
Bernhard Meister
4 years ago
Reply to  Geoff Cox

Geoff, the Number 6 v Number 2 happened in the next-to-last episode. “Fall Out”, the last episode, showed the prize #6 got for besting #2: to see #1.
Seeing #6 discover that he is really #1, was, and remains, a mind-altering moment. A classic.

Thinking back, I’d suggest the episode “The General” foreshadows on-line learning. Revisiting The Prisoner will turn up gems of insight.

CYRIL NAMMOCK
CYRIL NAMMOCK
4 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

The meaning of the ending was perfectly clear.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago
Reply to  CYRIL NAMMOCK

OK,I’ll take the bait. Tell me about it, in say, less than thirteen lines.
Thanks, in anticipation.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
4 years ago

The shop at Portmerion had DVDs of it a couple of years, plus The Prisoner sweatshirts for making those subtle points

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago

Very interesting. Yes, that sounds a lot like modern Britain as controlled by the BBC. I have not clapped for anyone except Louie Sibley when he scored a great hat-trick against Millwall a couple of weeks ago.

andy thompson
andy thompson
4 years ago

Remember the series very well even though I was very young. Loved it too, fancy the fact though that we all ended up living in it though eh? Of course the white balloon being today’s PC thought police

Robert Sieger
Robert Sieger
4 years ago
Reply to  andy thompson

Sad but true.

David Waring
David Waring
4 years ago

I remember the TV program from the 1960’s. The mantra give a Clap for Carers makes me smile when it is mentioned as Clap for Carers.
I immediately think what have they been up to to contract it?

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago
Reply to  David Waring

Yes, I have been asking myself the same question. Surely the health system is overburdened as it is. The last thing it needs is for all the carers to have the clap.

johntshea2
johntshea2
4 years ago

Interesting, but Mr. Roberts is over-eager to paint “The Prisoner” as dated. He mainly succeeds in telling us how much he dislikes 1960s culture, an odd stance for a writer whose Unherd byline always mentions his “Dr. Who” work.

nick harman
nick harman
3 years ago
Reply to  johntshea2

I hope he wasn’t responsible for for turning Dr Who into the awful woke propaganda it is today. If so I have a resting place for the sonic screwdriver

David Brown
David Brown
3 years ago
Reply to  nick harman

I think you’ll find that Mr Roberts has been cancelled, as a Doctor Who writer, for being decidedly un-woke.

Robert Sieger
Robert Sieger
4 years ago

“The recent sight of Peter Hitchens being pursued down the street by placard-waving, slogan-chanting students was uncannily similar to the pursuit of McGoohan the unmutual by the marching mob.” — SURELY there is a word that needs to be in quotes in that very long sentence. That word is “students”.

Clive Cox
Clive Cox
4 years ago

I seem to recall in the 80s, when McGoohan was asked what would be most comparable to the Prisoner today, he cited Ken Livingstone’s GLC.

Robert Sieger
Robert Sieger
4 years ago
Reply to  Clive Cox

Livingstone is a hypocritical power-hungry left-wing thug.

Joss Wynne Evans
Joss Wynne Evans
4 years ago

Great article. But we are not of course – yet – all prisoners of groupthink, either the Port Portmeirion or Gulag variety. That is part of the very real war in which we are now, whether we like it or not, engaged. It is up to every individual to understand the importance of their own sovereign duty to think and discriminate. There’s enormous pressure to undermine that from those who have already sold out, like the BLM supporters and so many of the young who have been corrupted by identity politics, but also the media promotion of so-called “experts” on everything they wish to hype. And of course the cohorts of the globalist natural disaster movie script.

James
James
3 years ago

Wonderfully insightful and thought-provoking, hope to read more from you in the future, Sir!

Michael Upton
Michael Upton
4 years ago

Perceptive and cogent; thank you.

Forgive me for just one question: what are “DMs”?

Michael Upton

James
James
3 years ago
Reply to  Michael Upton

‘Direct Messages’ I think, the way twitter users can message each other privately (I don’t have it, myself). That or Dr. Martens (probably achieving a similar effect) 😉

Liam O Conlochs
Liam O Conlochs
4 years ago

Man is basically good, institutions make him bad

wesley101043
wesley101043
4 years ago

Hmm. If that were true, why would the institutions created by ‘good people’ always be bad?

Robert Sieger
Robert Sieger
4 years ago
Reply to  wesley101043

Good one. Spot on.