Oct 14, 2012

The Prisoner: We Want Information

When I was a little kid, we had only 3 stations, but sometime in the early 1970s, we got PBS -- the Public Broadcasting System -- and with it, a British invasion.  Suddenly I could see Doctor Who, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyMonty Python's Flying Circus, The Tomorrow People, and even fluffy comedies like Father Dear Father and No, Honestly.  I guess they figured that anything British was bound to be educational. They were certainly easier to find subtexts in.

Take The Prisoner, which appeared in Britain in 1966-67, and on PBS in the mid-1970s.

The plot: a British secret agent (Patrick McGoohan) resigns, angrily, then goes home and packs for a trip.  He is gassed, and awakens in a scenic, well-scrubbed Village, where everyone has a number rather than a name ("You are Number Six.").  The Villagers are mostly kidnapped secret agents, from a variety of countries, more or less brainwashed and docile.

The mysterious Number Two, who is in charge of the Village, wants "information."  Number Six wants to escape, or, failing that, to find out who his keepers are.  But plots soon moved beyond the "Why did you resign?" maguffin to explore questions of conformity and individuality.  In order to live together in a community, we must require certain behaviors and banish others, but at what point does the need for conformity impinge upon the rights of the individual to think and feel what he pleases?

It was heady viewing for teenagers in the 1970s, on the par with Animal Farm and Brave New World.  And it was especially evocative for gay teenagers, who were told, day after day, hour after hour, "You must conform. You must desire the opposite sex, date, have sex, marry."

The gay symbolism made up for a decided lack of beefcake -- handsome Patrick McGoohan never so much as unbuttoned a button, not even to work out.  And a lack of bonding -- though there might be a homoerotic subtext in the cat-and-mouse game played by Number Six and the current Number Two (the Village leader changed in almost every episode).

However, there was one plus: virtually no heterosexual content.  Sometimes Number Six got a girlfriend, or pretended to in order to harass Number Two, but they never kissed.  McGoohan had it written in his contract -- no kissing girls (but not because he was gay; he wanted to stay faithful to his wife).

McGoohan starred in many other movies during the 1970s and 1980s.  He is perhaps most famous for playing King Edward in Braveheart  (1995), and eliciting homophobic audience cheers by pushing his gay son's lover out a window.  Not that I believe McGoohan, who died in 2009, actually condoned throwing gay people out of windows.