The Prisoner is both timeless and very much a product of its time. When historians look back on the 20th century, they may well see the mid-1960s as a golden age of hope and optimism, the like of which we are unlikely ever to experience again. In a thought-provoking and controversial glance backwards, Howard Foy reflects on those times as he views the series from a new and startling perspective.


The Sixties were heady times. It was the decade when spectacular economic growth throughout the Western World created a boom of unprecedented proportions in almost all fields of endeavour. By 1966, Britain had thrown off the last vestiges of the dour austere conservative 1950s and embraced with open arms the brave new world of Harold Wilson's "white-hot technological revolution". In the wake of The Beatles and the breath of fresh air introduced by Wilson's progressive Labour administration, Britain - or rather London - was acknowledged as the centre of the universe, a cradle of innovation and liberalism which spread right across the spectrum from the most esoteric art to the most hard-nosed aggressive commercialism.

It was a time of pop art and arty pop, of mini-skirts and maximum hype, of so-called "free" love and expensive consumer artefacts which - with the explosion in spending power - became available to more and more people. More money, more leisure time and many more goods and services on the market meant a transformation in everyone's lifestyles. Old attitudes and outmoded traditions were swept away as rampant consumerism encouraged a sense of experimentation in morals, fashions, art, music and entertainment generally.

Into this ferment stepped LSD - the most powerful hallucinogenic drug ever created. Through the patronage of philosophers, psychiatrists, psychologists and writers, LSD by the mid-1960s had already gained something of a reputation as a wonder drug with quasi-religous and mystical overtones linked to other hallucinogens like mescalin, hashish and psilocybin ("magic mushrooms"). Odourless, colourless, tasteless and incredibly potent - 100 microgrammes is enough to provide an "experience" or "trip" lasting up to eight hours - LSD became as much a part of the scene in "Swinging London" as Carnaby Street or the Speakeasy disco.
The pop idols of the day took to the drug in a big way, and, because of its mind-expanding properties, were soon championing its use in song. A whole new music and culture grew up around LSD, and was swiftly tagged "the psychedelic revolution". (The term "psychedelic" - meaning, literally, "mind-manifesting" - was coined by an early LSD experimenter in the U.S. to describe the drug's effects).

The drug was seen by many as an escape, a doorway leading to new experiences of the most fantastic kind. But LSD produced more than merely brigt colours and wierd visions. For many people, it triggered a quest for enlightenment, for answers to the myriad puzzles about the outer world and the inner self - answers that it seemed the drug itself could help provide.

Into this world, and on to our TV screens, in 1967 was manifested a series which in retrospect seems absolutely perfect for the questing spirit of the times. Drugs, of course, play a major role in "The Prisoner". Our hero is subjected to overt drug-induced manipulation of his persona in several different ways in different episodes. One episode, "Living in Harmony", involves the direct use of a hallucinatory drug to induce a fantasy world in which, No.2 and the Kid believe, their victim will finally crack. The story has many of the hallmarks of an LSD "trip" - distortion of reality, familiar faces in unfamiliar settings, and abrupt changes in perception - particularly when No.6 suddenly wakes up back in Village garb to find that living people have suddenly become cardboard cutouts, and that, all along, the Village has been within earshot of the Western fantasy town.

But perhaps LSD had a greater influence on "The Prisoner" than might at first be thought. It is sometimes argued that the whole series - No.6's entire experience in the Village and outside from "Arrival" to "Fall Out" - is a dream. Looked at from a "psychedelic" perspective, however, "The Prisoner" seems much more likely to be a televised re-enactment of an LSD "trip", or series of "trips". A little bit of history is necessary at this point to elaborate. Drugs, of the illegal variety, generally fall into two categories: narcotics, such as heroin, which act primarily on the senses, and hallucinogens, such as LSD, mescalin and psilocybin, which act directly on the brain. LSD, or dextro-lysergic acid diethylamide tartrate 25, to give it is full name, has been in existence since 1938, when it was developed by Dr Albert Hoffman from ergot, a mould formed on diseased grains of rye. For 20 years it was used experimentally by psychiatrists and psychologists for research on the human mind, but was outlawed worldwide in the early 1960s, although it has been manufactured illegally ever since.

Mind-expanding drugs of one sort or another have been known for hundreds of years, however. You can still go down to the woods today (if you know where to look) and pick your own "magic mushrooms", while Mexican Indians have been chewing a root plant called peyotl since before Montezuma's conquest. The active ingredient of peyotl is mescalin, one of the most potent naturally occurring substances known to man.
Shortly after the war, scientists in the U.S. began research on mescalin, and they found that, administered in small doses, the drug acts like LSD in causing profound changes in consciousness - it literally "bends" the mind. Soon philosophers and writers were queueing up to volunteer as "guinea pigs" in the experiments in the hope that mescalin could throw some light on the ancient riddles that have perplexed mankind such as the place of the mind in nature and the relationship between the brain and consciousness. It soon became apparent from their experiences that LSD and mescalin seemed to be leading the "guinea pigs" to contemplation of the most basic questions at the heart of all mysticism and religion - who am I? and what is my place in the world? Or to put it another way: what exactly is the individual? And what is the precise relationship between an individual and the environment in which he or she lives? This is, of course, a subject dear to almost every Prisoner aficianado's heart.

The writer Aldous Huxley took part in these experiments and later wrote about his experiences in the essays "The Doors of Perception" and "Heaven and Hell". Huxley saw the individual as an "island universe" - interacting with other individuals in day-to-day life but essentially an isolated entity. As he put it:

We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves ... By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies - all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes.

He believed that mescalin might help strip away the layers that shrouded his consciousness to find the true individual, the self, the No.1 if you like, within. Huxley and other early experimenters with hallucinogens found that a "trip" often took on the form of a quest, a journey through the mind searching for the one true reality. There are clear parallels between such a "trip" and the great quests of mythology for the Holy Grail or the Golden Fleece. In such tales, and in such drug experiences, many obstacles have to be overcome as the path unfolds, many enemies have to be fought and conquered, before the seeker reaches a state of enlighten-ment. Is not "The Prisoner", from "Arrival" to "Fall Out", just such a journey? Doesn't No.6 in the end, after many trials and tribulations, find his own Holy Grail?

But getting back to mind-expanding drugs, the very first impressions a user receives in a hallucinogenic experience have uncanny echoes in The Prisoner. This is how Huxley described it:

The typical mescalin or lysergic acid experience begins with perceptions of coloured, moving, living geometrical forms. In time, pure geometry becomes concrete, and the vsionary perceives, not patterns, but patterned things, such as carpets, carvings, mosaics. These give place to vast and complicated buildings, in the midst of landscapes, which change continuously, passing from richness to more intensely coloured richness, from grandeur to deepening grandeur ... Everything is novel and amazing. Almost never does the visionary see anything that reminds him of his own past. He is not remembering scenes, persons or objects, and he is not inventing them; he is looking on at a new creation.

Another early experimenter, quoted by Huxley, spoke of "delicate floating films of colour" and an "abrupt rush of countless points of white light". He went on:

Next there were zigzag lines of very bright colours, which somehow turned into swelling clouds of still more brilliant hues. Buildings now made their appearance, and then landscapes. There was a Gothic tower of elaborate design with worn statues in the doorways 'or on stone brackets.

Does that sound vaguely familiar? In "Arrival", No.6 steps from his home from home into a fantasy world of strange buildings and bright colours, of changing landscapes and vivid patterns, of ornate carvings and wierd statues. And recall what Huxley said about "coloured, moving, living geometrical forms" and an "abrupt rush of countless points of white light". What can be seen on the huge screen in the Green Dome as No.6 makes his initial acquaintance with No.2? A swirling kaleidoscope of lights. What do we first encounter during No.6's guided tour of the Village? A large amorphous blob of white light called Rover. And what does our hero find back in his cottage? Two Astrolights, or lava lamps, casting their wierd patterns across the room. So two elements which are almost universal in the first stages of a hallucinogenic drug experience - surreal landscapes and swirling kaleidoscopic patterns of light - are introduced in the opening minutes of the first episode of "The Prisoner".

One of the great problems in attempting to discuss the programme from a "psychedelic" perspective, however, is the sheer impossibility of attempting to explain adequately in simple words just what an LSD "trip" is like. The so-called "guru" of the LSD culture, Dr Timothy Leary, whose book "The Politics of Ecstacy", advocated that the whole world should "turn on, tune in and drop out!", was well aware of the difficulties in portraying a hallucinogenic experience in what appears to be a very flimsy language. But he said:

We don't have a better experimental language. If God were to permit you a brief voyage into the devine process, let you whirl for a second into the atomic nucleus or spin you out on a light-year trip through the galaxies, how on earth would you describe what you saw when you got back, breathless, to your office? This metaphor may sound far-fetched or irrelevant, but just ask someone who has taken a heavy dose of LSD.

How do you describe double-decker buses that dissolve, notes of music that materialise in the air, or snow that smiles? Yet these are just a few instances of the fantastical experience encountered in a typical "trip". The most famous LSD song of all, the Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds", mentions newspaper taxis and marmalade skies, plasticine porters with looking glass ties. What is this all about? Leary attempted to summarise the drug's effects in basic terms by explaining that it heightened the senses and broke down the "doors to perception" (in Huxley's phrase). Colours glow brightly, sounds linger and resonate, and one stimulus often provokes quite unexpected responses - music translates into pictures, sounds turn into colours. At the same time, the senses can become quite eerily distorted - vision blurs and perspectives alter, walls "breathe", what you "hear" becomes totally detached from what is happening around you.

Huxley felt that the drug experience shook him "out of the ruts of ordinary perception" and showed him "for a few timeless hours the outer and the inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with survival or to a human being obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended, directly and unconditionally, by the Mind at Large." While it might be pretentious, at the very least, to suggest that a mere television programme could give viewers such an insight into "the outer and the inner world" one thing "The Prisoner" surely achieved was to shake us "out of the ruts of ordinary perception". It was like nothing on television before or since, and, like it or note, it has led thousands of viewers to open their minds to contemplation of the meaning of life, the individual, No.1, call it what you will.

Looked at in this way, of course, "The Prisoner" is full of riddles. But perhaps these mysteries begin to unravel when the programme is looked at from a "psychedelic" viewpoint. It is not the intention here to suggest that the total LSD experience is recreated on the screen - by the very nature of drug's "mind-bending" process that would be impossible - but an examination of individual scenes and episodes throws up many apparently clear LSD references. "Arrival" and "Living in Harmony" have already been mentioned for their echoes of a "trip", but almost every other adventure, every other experience that befalls No.6 during his sojourn in the Village could be interpreted as a drug-induced hallucination.

Certainly, "A,B & C", "Do Not Forsake Me..." and "The Schizoid Man" spring immediately to mind (no pun intended) as direct allusions to a mind escaping from the confines of the body in circumstances which appear to be beyond the victim's control. The first two are self-evident, but "Schizoid Man" also gives No.6 the illusion that he is occupying someone else's body - that his appearance, his actions, his responses are not as he expects them to be. This is a common theme in LSD "trips" - seeing oneself from without; the feeling that someone else has taken control of your destiny.

"The Chimes of Big Ben", "Many Happy Returns" and "Hammer into Anvil" are all straightforward narratives (if any aspect of "The Prisoner" can be described as straightforward!) with no overt drug overtones. The first two are failed escape attempts, illustrating the all-embracing power of the Village, the fact that "inmates" who attempt to break free of its bonds are doomed to return. In the early stages of a "trip", before the drug has taken a proper hold, the user can experience moments of surprising lucidity between the most fantastic visions. It is not uncommon for a feeling of panic to set in, a desire to "switch off" the drug before it is too late. But once a hallucinogen has been ingested into the bloodstream, there is no escape until the drug's potency has run its course. The user is trapped in his hallucinogenic Village, and must stay there, come what may, until his own "Fall Out."

"Hammer into Anvil" is an odd episode in some respects, in that No.6 is totally rational throughout (he is not drugged or otherwise manipulated), yet he makes no attempt to escape from the Village. Instead, he exerts the power of his mind to manipulate and ultimately to destroy No.2. One word sums up No.2's state of mind here - paranoia. And interestingly, a side effect of "mind-bending" drugs is that they can induce a state of paranoia - the "bad trip".

"It's Your Funeral" is another extra-ordinary episode, and one that demands the closest scrutiny, but not in the context of drugs. In this respect, it is very much the Odd Man Out. "The General", "Checkmate" and "A Change of Mind" all involve brainwashing, or mind-control, and all touch on drug-induced distortions of reality. "The General" is a conventional narrative, and can be accepted and enjoyed on the most superficial level, yet it has dark undertones which cannot be easily explained away. What is the significance of the "board meeting" - the zombies in dark glasses, all dressed in identical costumes, thinking exactly the same way, who gather in their heavily-guarded room? A parody on academia or the state's blind control of education, perhaps, but the scene stands out incongruously from the rest of the episode.

"Checkmate" features one of the most vivid fantasy sequences in "The Prisoner" in the human chess-game, as well as "rehabilitation" of the Rook to conform with the rules of "the game". "Checkmate" is central to the ultimate theme of the series and the LSD inferences seem quite clear. "A Change of Mind" conjures up another rich strand running through LSD experiences - the feelings of inadequacy, of guilt, of a lack of fulfilment in life,- which are to be confessed so the recalcitrant can be "treated" and become "mutual". The Village attempts to convert No.6, but he fights the conversion and turns the system round to suit his own ends. In LSD terms, he fends off the self-examination, the self-humiliation, for the time being, at least. But it is a facet of his Village "trip" which he will perforce return to in due course.

We return to the question of "guilt" in "Dance of the Dead", perhaps the most complex episode of all with its mythological overtones and its colourful masquerade. No.6 is put on trial, and what a bizarre trial it is with Napoleon and Caesar sitting in judgment and Little Bo-Peep as the prosecutor. In the context of the fancy dress ball, it is perfectly in order for such figures to put in an appearance, but it is also almost a commonplace in recorded drug experiences for historical or fictional characters - particularly from nursery rhymes or fairy stories - to manifest themselves in one guise or another.

That leaves just four episodes, but they are the four episodes that seem to clinch the hallucinogenic connection. In the "fairy story" of "The Girl Who Was Death", many elements of an LSD experience interact and overlap - fantasy figures, bizarre locations, the pantomime duel between the main protagonists (although a pantomime with sinister overtones involving machine guns, cyanide candles and other death traps). Certain scenes, particularly the fairground sequence and the marvellously surreal car chase, appear to be unerringly recreated instances of LSD-distorted perception. Few scenes on TV have portrayed a "trip" sensation so closely as the moment when the speeding car – and the road itself - begins to spin round. A close parallel is the scene in "A,B & C" when, in the third "dream", No.6 re-enters the party and the room begins to sway. It is a marvellous visual joke, but also a surreal and "psychedelic" moment, when he straightens up the mirror to straighten out the room.

But the most telling episode of all to establish a link between "The Prisoner" and the LSD experience is undoubtedly "Free For All". On a basic level it is of course a satire on democracy and the election process, but in no way can "Free For All" bear close examination as a straightforward narrative. Whichever way you look at this episode, from the most superficial level to the most in-deptch dissection, it makes no sense whatsoever. Writer Paddy Fitz (who he?) has our hero inveigled into running for office as No.2, subjected to the Village's election hysteria, brainwashed and set up as a dupe, to be manipulated this time by his fellow Villagers, the voters. Of course, Mr Fitz also throws in a crazy escape attempt, and a crazed bid by the election victor to set himself and his fellow Villagers free.

But examine the structure of "Free For All" and try to find a coherent framework. There just isn't one. In only one way can "Free For All" be understood, in one way alone does it show any semblance of order. And that is from the LSD perspective. Consider the sequence of events. No.6 agrees to run for office, but in making his acceptance speech he shouts his defiance at the crowd gathered below the Gloriette balcony. He is summoned to a meeting of the "outgoing" council, where he again speaks out of turn, as it were, and is condemned by No.2 for his "serious breach of etiquette". Then he suddenly finds himself whirling round, spinning into a dark red tunnel before emerging, green-faced and aghast, into a circular chamber occupied by the most bizarre person he encounters in all his time in the Village. Here he undergoes the nonsensical "truth test", not to mention a form of electric-shock torture, before emerging, suitably chastened, to resume his election campaign.

From this point, the episode becomes increasingly abstruse - especially when No.6 enters the amazing "therapy zone" - before he wins the election and is led in triumph to No.2's chamber. Here he is mesmerised by the clearly "psychedelic" screen display and loses his tenuous hold on his sanity, resulting in the arrival of the Village guards and a particularly vicious, if unjustified, beating. Adding to the hallucinatory flavour of "Free For All" are the carnival atmosphere of the election parades, the curious maid gabbling away in an incomprehensible language, and, most bizarre of all, the strange straw-floored cavern adjacent to No.2's chamber in which four figures appear to lie worshipping a Rover. Now what exactly is that supposed to signify? If there is any cogent pattern to these scenes, it is buried far too deeply for even the most attentive viewer.

And so we come eventually to the final two episodes. If, as we saw earlier, an LSD "trip" can constitute a journey, a quest through the mind, and if "The Prisoner" can be looked at in such a way, then "Once Upon A Time" and "Fall Out" surely represent the ultimate echoes of the ultimate hallucinogenic experience. "Once Upon A Time" takes on the form of a "trial", an examination of No.6's past life. From cradle to resignation, his whole character undergoes a rigorous re-assessment as each stage of his life is recreated. Throughout, our hero is in a hypnotic trance as he is led uncomplainingly back down the years. Of course, as in every previous episode, he regains his wits sufficiently to reassert control and, in this case, to finally defeat his adversary. But we are witness to a No.6 whose persona has been finally stripped bare. With echoes of "A Change of Mind" and "Dance of the Dead", the individual, the inner self, the soul perhaps, has been on trial. But this time there is no "guilty" verdict, indeed there is no verdict at all. There is no need for one. No.6 has come through the ordeal, the ultimate test, and shown himself - in triumphing over No.2 - ready, willing and able to come face to face at last with No.1.

People who have sampled the LSD experience have often spoken of finding themselves "on trial" inside their own heads, feeling their whole lives undergoing a searching cross-examination from within. One student who faced such an experience found himself "sitting in a huge throne-like chair being questioned by a figure in a white cloak with a huge hood". He went on:

Inside the hood there was no face, just an inky blackness, and as the figure asked me questions I realised that the voice was coming from inside my head. All around me in the room were objects from my past - my old school desk, the cot in which I used to sleep, and my old toys. My old electric train set was going round in circles at my feet. The figure was holding a big book and each page seemed like a different chapter of my life. He started to turn through the pages and he seemed to be asking questions about everything I had ever done. He was saying things like "Why did you do it this way?" and "Why didn't you do that?" and he was telling me that all through my life I had made stupid mistakes, made the wrong decisions, and he was showing me that if I'd taken another course of action, how my life would have turned out.

Talk of faceless hooded figures in white cloaks brings us neatly round to "Fall Out". Here we come to the climax of No.6's Village "trip" as he gets the chance to meet No.1 and is given the clear choice to "stay or go". In hallucinogenic terms, No.6, having survived the ultimate test of baring his soul, is now ready to acknowledge to himself that he is what he is, that he is ready to accept the hidden face of his own persona that is his No.1. What's more, in opting to leave the Village for the outside world, he is saying that he is ready to accept reality, the end of his "trip". There really is no alternative. For in LSD terms, to reject a return to reality is to opt for the finality of death. By ensuring the Village's destruction, No.6 seems to be saying: "This is my last trip. It is finished". He takes with him back to the outside world the two halves of his personality - No.48, alias youth, his wandering spirit, the side of himself that is firmly in the past but can never be tamed, and No.2, alias authority, maturity, the establishment. In returning him to the House of Lords, the seat of power, No.6 seems to be acknowledging his place in the system.

Like "Free For All", the unfolding drama of "Fall Out" up to the point at which No.1 is unmasked makes no rational sense. Indeed, the final episode of "The Prisoner" is the very height of surrealism, a "psychedelic" experience par excellence. You cannot rationally explain the hooded figures, the tubes of steam, the "eye" of No.1, the armed guards, or the treatment meted out to the resurrected No.2. But there is no need to. All the viewer needs to understand is that No.6 meets No.1, and that No.1 was No.6 all along ... and that at last the adventure is all over. To the strains of the Beatles' "psychedelic" masterpiece, "All You Need Is Love", we are "coming down" from our "trip", our journey to the centre of the mind, and reaching our hallucinogenic and physical "Fall Out" back to reality.

Whether or not "The Prisoner" was directly drug-inspired, it is certainly the work of a visionary. Mind-expanding substances are merely one route towards a state of enlightenment, and down through the ages Man has trodden many pathways to spiritual fulfilment and the answer to the eternal questions. It can be argued - indeed it frequently is argued - that visions created by chemicals are not true visions, in the spiritual sense, at all. Yet hallucinogens work in the same way on the body's chemistry as the age-old methods - meditation, fasting, chanting, sensory deprivation, flagellation. Mystics would starve themselves into vitamin deficiency and low blood sugar levels, beat themselves into intoxication on overdoses of adrenalin, chant their way through interminable dirges to depress the amount of oxygen and increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream, closet themselves away in silent contemplation for long periods, cultivating insomnia and creating the psychological and physical symptoms of stress. All these methods depressed the control of the conscious mind, creating the conditions in which the subconscious, the true self, was laid bare. It is no surprise that in such states of mind, holy men, whether Christian saints or Eastern spiritualists, have seen visions of the divine.

Whatever path is chosen, visionaries have often been denigrated by their peers, just as Patrick McGoohan's wonderful creation was denigrated by the media many years ago. Interestingly, Aldous Huxley speculates on the use of pageantry and theatrical spectacle down through the ages as a means of inducing vision-like effects that can be appreciated en masse. Passion plays, medieval tournaments, Jacobean masques, firework displays and grand State occasions are all cited as examples of the "visionary arts". The development of the "magic lantern" 200 years ago revolutionised the public concept of spectacle and created a much clearer visionary stimulus. To the minds of the day, a device which shone white light through a coloured glass to produce an image on a screen - seemingly out of the ether - was mesmerising. Technology and screen entertainment have come a long way since then, and television is so much a part of our lives today that we rarely give it a moment's serious thought. Yet used seriously and imaginatively as with "The Prisoner", TV can still seem utterly magical. In amongst all the commercials and sitcoms, it still has the power to induce a visionary experience to the questing mind.

A viewer's journey through the Village with our hero can be a magical trip through Huxley's "doors of perception" that can change your outlook on life forever. You may not reach a state of enlightenment, may not come face to face with your No.1, but at least you'll be a better individual for undergoing such an experience. As Huxley said:

The man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out. He will be wiser but less cocksure, happier but less self-satisfied, humbler in acknowledging his ignorance yet better eequipped to understand the relationship of words to things, of systematic reasoning to the unfathomable Mystery which he tries, forever vainly, to comprehend.

Be seeing you.

This article has been carefully researched and is drawn almost entirely from published sources. Neither the author nor The Unmutual Website advocates experimentation with hallucinogenic substances of any kind whatsoever. The use of hallucinogens - and indeed any restricted drug - is not only illegal, but very dangerous.

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