Most people of my generation will reminisce about hiding behind the sofa frightened when watching Dr. Who back in the 1960s. For me I cannot say the same because I was unaware of Dr. Who until the early 1970s, only began watching it on a semi-regular basis from 1974 onwards so never hid from the good Doctor during those formative years of the Sixties.
However, Patrick McGoohan running along a beach, being chased by a big white ball that eventually caught up to him, suffocating him was a different matter entirely. I was of pre-school age but this was my earliest memories of The Prisoner.
Since those pre-school days in the latter half of the 1960s, I have seen the numerous re-runs of the Series, in the 1970s, 1980s and more recently in the new Millennium. Like most people I never really caught on to what the series was about, until I watched an episode with a five year child. What amazed me was how transfixed Child M was throughout the entire episode and that was when I learned what the key to watching The Prisoner was. You just watch it and take it as it comes. It was surreal but was it real? To this day we don’t really know. One explanation (and I think it came with the final episode,) was Number One (who we never saw,) was actually Number Six. Six was the Prisoner of his Own Mind. Interesting conclusion. But to many the Series is just as enigmatic and surreal as it ever was. Even today.
2010 has seen a new television updating of a classic. This time Jim Caviezel is the professional (not a spy this time,) who has resigned from a security company. He finds himself, coming out of unconsciousness in a mountainous terrain and as far as the eye could see there is no sign of civilisation. All he can see for miles into infinity is desert and mountains. He meets an elderly man who dies in his arms and he buries him. Eventually he makes his way or finds his way to a town/community called The Village. Number Two (played by Sir Ian McKellen,) is a constant. Unlike the Original Series, Number Two does not change each week. He lives in a big white house which is on the bus tour route. He has a son and a wife who is comatose and bed-ridden. He dispenses her medication but whether this is for her health and well-being or whether he merely wants to keep her comatose is not entirely clear. The population (the overwhelming majority it would seem,) have no concept of the world beyond their community. It seems most of them were born there. This may not be the case as Number Six and others have managed to make it to a coastline but on returning to the exact location, they cannot locate the beach/coastline. It may be there is some kind of mind control going on whereby the people of The Village are conditioned to be in a state where they can only perceive the environment around them so far. We learn also there is no Number One. Everyone has to serve someone higher than themselves, even Number Two is not exempt from this concept/philosophy.
For me the new version is not a bad update but having seen the first few episodes, I can only give my view of what I have perceived thus far. It could be Number Six has always lived in The Village, strayed too far from it via trying to escape, slipped, fell, hit his head and lost his memory. Thus far Number Two, the shrinks have tried to persuade him that he is has always lived there was raised there – Evidence in the form of photographic evidence has been produced to convince him of that. His ‘Brother’ admitted until the Big White Ball got him in the water,) that he was not his Brother. Nothing is as it seems and that is what make this new version compelling but not as compelling as the original. But this update of a classic series of the 1960s serves a purpose now, just as the original served a purpose back in the day.
The original was made during the cold war era and has some basis in reality. Someone who should not have told me this story related a tale from World War Two of two soldiers who were being trained for a ultra top secret mission. Shortly before they were due to be shipped out they were given some leave. One of the soldiers went crazy and did something drastic to a lady he had met that evening. I don’t recall what he did but it was serious enough for the powers to be to question his fitness and state of mind, making it impossible to send him on the mission in question. What could they do? They could not return him to normal duties or anything else. He knew too much. He was compromised. They would be compromised. Something had to be done. A decision was reached to house and settle him on a remote farm somewhere in Wales. The people who would guard him and look after him would be army personnel but there would be no rank among any of them. Apparently this was the basis for the original series. And from what the person who related the story to me, this was not the only ‘Village’ that was set up for such purposes. Whether this went on beyond the Second World War, I have no idea. The story I was told occurred supposedly during that period (WW2).
The New Version deals with and questions how much control do we actually exercise in our everyday lives? In the UK (despite my and many other’s support for their politics,) we had for thirteen years, a Government of the Labour Party (/New Labour,) who trampled over civil liberties in terms of extending the powers and time of detention of terrorist/criminal suspects without charge from seven to twenty-eight days. Then there was (and has continued ever since,) the expansion of Close Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras to virtually every aspect of our daily lives in the UK. Apparently there is a CCTV camera for every fourteen people in the UK and those figures were from last year so what that ratio is now is anyone’s guess.
Then there was until the recent General Election, the Labour Government’s insistence on the whole population having ID cards. This was something that occurred during the Second World War and I believe some countries in mainland Europe (France for one,) have had ID cards for many years. The cost of implementing such a system in the UK would be grossly expensive and possibly unworkable. In fact, the Government of the day actually created the need for ID Cards by introducing the requirement to supply your passport and/or a birth certificate when you attend a job interview. The first time I experienced this was back in 2002 when I attended an Interview for an administrative/data entry post at the BBC White City complex. I will admit I did find it somewhat surprising. Even more so as I didn’t get the job that my details were stored on a database within the Beeb somewhere. This is an example from personal experience but there have over the past thirty years been many infringements on our personal and collective freedoms, liberties if you will. The Thatcher Government was very effective at using the Official Secrets Act, the Prevention of Terrorism Act to curtail civil liberties. Clause 28/Section 28 was a Law the Government introduced to prevent the promotion of Homosexuality but was also used to curtail the civil liberties of people whose only crime was their sexuality but then reading Quentin Crisp’s ‘The Naked Civil Servant’ and watching the television drama/film of the same name will tell anyone that curtailing the civil liberties of people because of their sexual orientation is and was nothing new in Britain – In fact, Homosexuality was seen as a mental illness and those unfortunate enough to be homosexual, were sectioned and treated for mental illness. Watching the ‘The Naked Civil Servant’ as a fourteen year old teenager, I was struck by how the only person who didn’t have a problem with who he was or his identity was Quentin Crisp (played by the excellent John Hurt), it was everyone who came into contact with him! He was being himself and true to who is was. And if it didn’t gel with the norms of the day then too bad. Anyone with a far better history and knowledge of Civil Liberties and the violation of them can list many more than I ever could.
My reason for this discussion is given in the Title: ‘Being Number Six’. And in many ways we are all in our own way ‘Number Six’. We are so busy getting on with our lives, working all the hours God sends (if we are fortunate enough be working and earning,) to pay the bills and if we are lucky have a two week holiday somewhere in the Sun. Not all of us are that fortunate and are more entrenched and trapped than Number Six ever was. Are we living or merely existing? I think for most people with zero net worth the latter is exactly what they are doing – Merely existing. What income they derive from the work they do or via welfare benefits, will just about pay the bills and leave very little for anything else so every hour, every day, every week, every month is a constant struggle. One year passes into another and there is no distinction between the years except a change in number. And this is the lives and existence for many people until they retire, suffer and die. This depressing ritual gets passed down and on to one generation after another, more so if one is from a lower social class. And the one thing I hate most about British Society is the Class System. No matter how much effort a young man from a working class background makes, he is disadvantaged from the start because of his background. Today in Britain it is a fact that if you don’t have a privately funded education you are pretty much done before you have even started. Sad, depressing but true. Despite this one should never give up but we seem to be going backwards instead of forwards. Still we should never give up or sell ourselves short. We know what the deal is and what it entails to be dealt a good hand and the hard work and sacrifice it will take to design and make (carve out even,) a life for ourselves.
Like Number Six, (and depending how far down the food chain you are,) the system is against you. And no matter how much you fight it, every struggle is an uphill one. Like Number Six we are going to be tried, tested, probed, and questioned. There will be many things going against us: our social background, family, education – Which school did you go to? It is all about the schools, colleges and universities. I have lost count of the number of times I am sitting waiting to called into an audition and you hear these young actors or those mature actors who have entered the profession late, asking each other what schools they went to. I couldn’t give a XXXX really because it not where you are coming from that is important but where you are going to that is important. Unlike those in The Village, Six knew who he was or at the very least had some inkling who he was, what his life was and he wanted it back. For most of the denizens of The Village their life was and had reached a destination and that destination was The Village. They knew nothing else, probably had been born there, lived their whole life there and knew nothing else. I have known people who live in say East London and hardly ever venture into Central London or out of London. For myself, I live in Central London, know Central London very well but only really travel around Greater London only when I have to. I have to admit, I seldom travel outside of London unless it is for work purposes. So in some ways, I am very much like Number Six in that even though I have limited myself to a certain location of London, I am aware of this shortcoming and because of this, I am working the problem but travelling around London is not as easy as some may think.
One of the reasons most people don’t travel around the length and breadth of London and the surrounding regions is due to money. Public transport in London is notoriously expensive and we pay for a service we don’t always get. In other words, we don’t get value for money. Each year (January,) the Mayor increases the cost of tube, rail and bus travel throughout London. And if as (I currently am,) a struggling Thespian on a limited budget then the pleasure of travelling around London is limited by the size of one’s pocket and this is not a unique experience. And there seems no end in sight to this pantomime approach to public transport. No doubt the fares will rise again come January 2011 as it always does and everyone will complain but will eventually go away and behave like sheep.
It is probably no surprise that The Prisoner is and has always been a British idea, concept and production, though I am not sure about the current production. The British have always had a strong and to my mind an unhelpful approach to secrecy which can be of the type that has no accountability to any oversight commitment or Select Committee for security matters. This has to change and like Number Six we need to fight for what we know is right and what we believe should be a farer deal for those who don’t have a voice. Overcoming the current system we have is no easy task and probably won’t happen for years to come but at least a start has been made. Until that time comes, we continue on, being Number Six.