‘Be Seeing You’: The Prisoner, Cancel Culture and the Father of Lies

ANALYSIS: ‘I am not a number. I am a free man.’

(photo: YouTube screenshot)

The film and television star Patrick McGoohan was a faithful Catholic who refused to do love scenes onscreen. By the 1960s, he was critical of the then so-called progressive agenda in society. But he was equally critical of the growth of state power and its resultant heavy-handed bureaucracies.

Ultimately, his take on evil was that its greatest threat came from within each soul — from what he termed “the greatest enemy that we have.” All of these themes play into his most celebrated creation, The Prisoner.

In 1967, at the peak of his career, McGoohan created the television series The Prisoner. McGoohan starred in it as Number Six, an unnamed British secret agent who, in the opening sequence, appears to resign from his agency on some never-explained ethical grounds. Then we watch as he is sedated and removed to a pretty seaside village (set in the real-life Portmeirion on the Welsh coast).

In the series we learn this location is called The Village, and while it may look picturesque, it is little more than a prison camp, even if one cannot see the bounds that circumscribe its inmates or identify who the real inmates are.

Over the 17 episodes that ran from Sept. 29, 1967, to Feb. 1, 1968, the British television-watching population, which was used to light entertainment, was baffled by this claustrophobic surreal series. Even by today’s standards, the plot could be described only as avant-garde.

In addition, The Prisoner came at a time when the myth of Swinging London was in full swing. Faux surrealism, in the form of the Beatles’ shambolic Magical Mystery Tour screened by the BBC in December 1967, proved more palatable to audiences than The Prisoner. Whereas the former may have been an artistic mess, it was a recognizable one.

In contrast, there was something altogether unnerving about The Prisoner. Yet, when looked at today, the series appears like a warning for our times.

McGoohan was born in New York City of Irish Catholic parents in 1928. From the late 1950s onward he became a star in British cinema. He was even more prominent, however, on British television, especially in an immensely popular spy series called Danger Man (which for U.S. television was renamed Secret Agent).

In 1961, he came to the attention of the producers of a new film, Dr. No, based on Ian Fleming’s character James Bond. McGoohan ruled himself out for the role, and would do so again when approached a second time in the 1970s. On both occasions his objections were on moral grounds. The world and the ethos of Bond were not McGoohan’s.

Looking at recent exchanges about what you can and can’t say, what is acceptable and what brings swift condemnation, the image of the modishly dressed McGoohan comes to mind frequently. To a lesser or greater extent, we have all entered our very own Village — a place in which you wake up one day to find that you exist somewhere without history, nationality or identity.

It is somewhere, but like so much of the modern world, especially in so many modern metropolises, it could be anywhere. What passes for civic life in the Village consists of repeating cheery slogans as meaningful communication. Celebrations may have lots of cheers but they are cheerless, reminiscent of the ‘celebrations’ of totalitarian regimes rather than those of free peoples.

Presciently, the Village’s inhabitants are forever parading through the streets waving flags with rainbow colors, whooping and clapping. Yet they also live in dread of not saying the right thing, of being seen not to be celebrating enough, of being individuals rather than part of the herd.

The recent pandemic may have required collective action for health reasons, but in the media and politics it has allowed some to harden already existing agendas in British society — agendas that demand adherence to a fixed worldview.

It is to such a rigid world as this that Number Six is confined — one where he has no freedom of expression. And no matter how much he tries, escape is futile. But his sufferings prove more existential than physical. For, as he is the only person who thinks differently, the stifling conformity of the Village is a lonely place, with the noise of jollity from the inhabitants of the Village constantly jarring to him. Soon, the architectural beauty of the Village fades to reveal what that place really is — namely, a madhouse.

Interpretation of The Prisoner since it was screened has been myriad. Perhaps, in light of recent events, the series can be viewed as a strange prophecy for our times, a world of “Cancel Culture” and attempts to limit intellectual discourse.

So perhaps, in the end the Village is simply a microcosm of the world in which we live. Original Sin is present in the Village. So, too, no matter how smiling, is the presence of the accuser, Satan. One suspects the Father of Lies enjoys a party, the noisier, more meaningless and the more insidious the better. The Village is one non-stop, exhausting and ultimately demented jamboree — and all one big lie.

Over the 17 episodes The Prisoner moves from the absurdity of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot to the deadening despair of George Orwell’s 1984. Ultimately, the world in which the Prisoner is trapped may have a bright, shiny Technicolor smile but a brooding Big Brother is watching over it nonetheless. McGoohan’s Number Six is an angry man. It is the anger of a man who knows he is being lied to.

“I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own!”

This is Number Six’s constant cri de coeur, and today it sounds refreshingly human.