I am a recent convert to being a ‘Prisoner’ fan and I still haven’t seen all the episodes. A visit to Portmeirion is a joy I still have to come: people at a London Prisoner Meeting were surprised to find I was a ‘Portmeirion virgin’. In the meantime, I have read Stephen Gallacher’s work "THE PRISONER VS THE PANOPTICON". I was inspired to write a piece of my own.

When I first watched ‘A Change Of Mind’, I was struck by how the episode was imbued with the psychology of R. D. Laing. This is a look at why that is.

Background 1: The Freudian Tradition

R. D. Laing’s work appeared in the mid-twentieth century, in the context of a tradition of psychology and psychopathology. This tradition had a history stretching back at least 2500 years, to Plato and before. In the late nineteenth century, in Continental Europe, Breuer and the neuropathologist Charcot made some important advances in this tradition. These advances acknowledged the scientific developments of their time, including hypnosis. Charcot and Breuer’s work paved the way for Freud and later Jung, who are rightly credited with being the creators of modern psychology. They developed the ‘speaking cures’ which still form the basis of clinical psychology today.

Freud initiated the practice of psychoanalysis; he was a clinical psychologist, a trainer of other psychoanalysts, and a theoretical psychologist all at once. In the earlier part of his career as a practitioner, he used hypnosis. He later abandoned hypnosis: he believed it removed the barriers to an understanding of an individual’s mind, but it was often necessary to see what these barriers in the mind consisted of and where they were placed. He declared ordinary speech could ultimately reveal everything hypnosis could.

Freud and Jung’s contribution to the world of psychology was of course vital. They were part of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Western medical world, in which the practitioner is an expert. The patient places him/herself in the practitioner’s hands to be made well.

Background 2: Existentialism and 1960s Psychology

Existentialist Philosophy was extremely important in mid-twentieth century Western culture. It influenced many other areas of Western thought and endeavour. Jean-Paul Sartre was the most significant Existentialist writer. His book ‘Being and Nothingness’ was probably the most influential book of Existentialist Philosophy. He was also a novelist and playwright: his works of literary and dramatic art clearly articulate his philosophy. The various aspects of his work are consistent. Other major existentialist writers include Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and Maurice Merlot-Ponty. Existentialism was focussed on a group of writers in post-war Paris, but it is important to stress it was never a monolith. Each of those four had a different version of Existentialism.

Existentialism influenced the theatre in twentieth century Europe. The phrase ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ was often used to link playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Fernando Arrabal and (arguably) Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter and others. Martin Esslin, the literary and dramatic critic, wrote a book with that title which had considerable success in theatrical and other circles.

The playwrights never identified themselves as the Theatre of the Absurd; it was a label the dramatic critics used about the playwrights, not one the playwrights used about themselves. For me, it represents a commonality of dramatic technique rather than a shared vision. Although there is some relationship between this style of theatre and that movement in philosophy, I think that phrase lumps together a lot of very diverse writers.

The early plays of Beckett and Ionesco fall into this category. They are often characterized by disjointed dialogue and a problematical view of human personality and identity. The characters often exchange lines without apparently communicating, as for example the couples who are the protagonists in Beckett’s ‘Happy Days’ and Ionesco’s ‘The Chairs’. There is also a theme of one person appearing as two people and vice versa. Different characters say the same lines and the same character can appear to be two people, a sort of schizophrenia, as for example the boy in Beckett’s ‘Waiting For Godot’ and the old woman in ‘The Chairs’.

This style of writing is echoed in the opening sequence of ‘The Prisoner’. When Number 6 asks:

‘Who is Number One?’

Number 2 ignores the question and replies by saying:

‘You are Number Six.’

Number 2 is played by different actors in different episodes. Different voices speak the same lines at different times. There is the same disquieting view of human personality here as in the Theatre of the Absurd.

R. D. Laing is usually seen as one of a group of psychologists grouped under the heading ‘The Anti-Psychiatry Movement.’ This group also included, amongst others, Thomas Szasz, Michel Foucault and David Cooper. Abraham Maslow was also a major psychologist of that era, but is not usually considered a member of that group.

This group was most active in the late 1960s and early 1970s and can accurately be described as part of the ‘counter-culture’ of the time, because of its rejection of received hierarchical ideas.

At this point, I want to issue the same warning about the Anti-Psychiatry Movement as I did about the Theatre of the Absurd. I think that label lumps together a lot of very diverse psychologists. In fact, only David Cooper used the term ‘Anti-Psychiatry’ about his work. They were never a completely homogenous, compact group. Laing and Szasz did not admire each other’s work.

Having said that, some common ground is discernable in the psychology of all these writers. Although they never denied their indebtedness to the Freudian tradition, they were all unsatisfied with the stage that tradition had reached in its form of analysis of psychosis. They all thought a profound change was due in the world of psychoanalysis. They all noted definitions of sanity and madness are, at least partly, culturally relative. What is considered sane in one cultural and social context is considered insane in another. They all rejected the traditional view of mental illness as simple defeat or failure. Laing thought psychosis was sometimes an appropriate response to the world we live in.

Contemporary with ‘The Prisoner’ was the appearance of two major books of psychology: ‘The Divided Self’ by Laing and ‘Toward a Psychology of Being’ by Maslow. Even the titles of these two books clearly show the influence of Sartre’s Existentialism. In fact, the full title is ‘The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness’. For Laing, the ‘Divided Self’ refers to an individual who is divided into mind and body or whose mind is divided into separate sections. The phrase designates a psychological condition in which a person fails to integrate the parts of the self.

The Freudian and Existentialist background to this view of the individual elucidates it to some extent. Freud thought the human mind was divided into the conscious and subconscious. There were metaphorical guards at the entrance to the conscious, only letting in thoughts that were acceptable. All other thoughts were located in the subconscious part of the mind, where they existed in isolation from one another. The subconscious remained hidden from view.

Although Sartre acknowledged Freud as an important influence, he rejected this element in Freud’s work. Elsewhere, he makes a fairly similar comment himself! He thought some ideas were closer in and others further out in an individual’s mind. Sartre didn’t believe in the conscious and the subconscious; he thought there was a whole spectrum or continuum of consciousness. In a nutshell, where Freud has black and white, Sartre has shades of grey.

‘Bad Faith’ is a major concept in Sartre’s philosophy. It is a complex and difficult concept; I won’t attempt a full explanation here. Broadly, bad faith means self-deception; it denotes a state in which an individual fails to face unpalatable facts and lies to him/herself. Laing’s divided self describes a psychological state in which the individual is in bad faith.

He thought psychosis is often caused by a failure to integrate and evaluate sense experience. In Laing’s view, if you encounter something unpalatable and you just close your eyes and pretend it’s not there, you have taken the first step towards losing your sanity.


Maslow’s work features a schematic view of the individual’s needs which he presents as a hierarchy of needs. He lists five categories of needs, which he represents as layers in a triangle. These are, from bottom to top:

1. Physiological needs, such as the biological requirements for food, water, air, and sleep.
2. Safety and security needs, such as the needs for structure, order, security, and predictability.
3. The need for love and belonging, such as the needs for friends and companions, a supportive family, identification with a group, and an intimate relationship.
4. Esteem needs. This group of needs requires both recognition from other people that results in feelings of prestige, acceptance, and status, and self-esteem that results in feelings of adequacy, competence, and confidence.
5. The need for self-actualization.

The lower the need is in the pyramid, the more powerful it is. Lower needs have to be satisfied before higher needs.

Maslow actually produced more than one version of his triangle of needs. In some he added other needs, such as the cognitive needs, which involve acquiring knowledge and understanding, and the aesthetic needs (the needs for beauty, balance, structure, etc.). Elsewhere, he outlined neurotic needs, too.

Maslow seems to me to be influenced also by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Romantic Movement of eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe. He seems to have taken on board that movement’s idea of human nature as inherently good and naturally wise. An innately good individual can get corrupted by external influences and become bad.

I find ‘Toward A Psychology Of Being’ reluctant to observe the ugly side of human behaviour. Maslow seems to offer his triangle as a schema to represent the human condition. There is little acknowledgement in Maslow’s triangle of sadism, cruelty and wickedness.


The titles of two of Szasz’s books: ‘The Myth Of Mental Illness’ and ‘The Myth Of Psychotherapy’ are as revealing as those of Maslow and Laing. In my opinion, he takes the most extreme position in his rejection of the Freudian/Jungian tradition. He argues that sanity and madness are entirely social and cultural constructs. He believes our definitions of sanity and madness are purely conventional and don’t represent anything inherent in the human mind.

I am reminded of Quentin Crisp’s witty remark, that mental health consists of having the same disease as one’s neighbours.

Szasz also rejects existentialism as ‘unscientific’. This of course sets him apart from Maslow and Laing.

I disagree with the general philosophy of these two books and the conclusions Szasz comes to at the end of them. But, along the way I think he does make some very shrewd and interesting observations about psychology.

For example, he notes the relevance of the social and economic status of the analysts such as Freud and Charcot and the contrasting status of their patients. Szasz observes in what way and to what extent the practitioners and their patients were integrated into the society around them and how this impacts on the clinical psychology they produced.


In ‘Discipline and Punish’ and ‘Madness and Civilization’, Foucault writes at some length about power relationships. This is where someone exercises power over someone else in roles which are defined, sanctioned and maintained by the surrounding society. The influence of Sartre and of Sade is detectable there. He describes how these power relationships appear in society, sometimes in an obvious form, other times in a more subtle, insidious form. He identifies one of these power relationships in the medical profession. He believes the relationship between doctor and patient is, in some sense, equivalent to the relationship between master and slave, judge and accused, boss and worker, teacher and child, prison warder and inmate.

As noted by Stephen Gallacher in his essay, the Panopticon is an instrument whereby this power relationship is maintained. Foucault quotes Bentham’s plan for an ideal prison, where the inmates can all be seen by the warders. One participant in this relationship has power over the other participant. The person with no power is displayed for the interest and delectation of the person with power, like a specimen on a microscope slide. As Ramsbotham notes in his book ‘Prisongate’, the Panopticon is still used as a model for prisons in the West Indies.

Laing’s Psychology and Perception

In the view of psychology expressed in ‘The Divided Self’, Laing never doubts the existence of psychosis. But his ideas on psychosis departed from the perceived wisdom of the mid-twentieth century psychoanalytical establishment. The book formed part of the radical ‘counter-culture’ movement of his time.

He stated some individuals who are regarded as ‘sane’ have minds which are far more unsound than many others who are classified as psychotics. He brings up the question of the minds of people who create and have at their disposal nuclear weapons capable of killing enormous numbers of people. He asks if such people can be considered sane. ‘The Cold War’ and nuclear weapons were of course very much on the agenda of the 1960s Britain in which the book was written.

He further states that not only psychotic individuals but psychotic societies exist. He says schizophrenia is sometimes caused by a sane individual’s inability to adjust to a psychotic society.

Questions of perception are of great importance in the book. He shows a diagram of an equivocal or ambiguous figure, which can be seen as a vase or as two men’s faces facing each other. He says some people see the vase and others the two faces. But they are all looking at the same picture: there is only one diagram on the page. So we have to give up the idea of perceptions which are objectively verifiable.

Questions of perception also appear in the view of psychosis articulated in the book. Laing says he has no hesitation in diagnosing a man as schizophrenic if he says he is Napoleon and Laing’s perception of him is he is not Napoleon and he is not joking when he says it. At that point, Laing acknowledges the subjective nature of his own perception of psychosis. This is in contrast to the Freudian view, which is the patient simply is psychotic because he believes he is Napoleon.

Perception in ‘A Change Of Mind’

The theme of perception is as pivotal in ‘A Change Of Mind’ as it is in ‘The Divided Self’. At the beginning of the episode, Number 6 wants privacy. He does exercises on his own. Two men from the Village’s establishment arrive and urge him to use the Village gym instead. His refusal to do so leads to the accusation of being ‘anti-social’ and the accompanying violent confrontation. We are shown the sky as he does his summersaults and other exercises. The camera shows the audience what Number 6 sees, as if the screen replaced his eyes, as if the audience were looking through Number 6’s eyes.

Number 6 is forced to have an operation in a room in the Village Hospital. He sees the room upside-down. Again, the programme shows what Number 6 can see, to give the audience the impression of looking through his eyes, of sharing his vision.

Perception and sight are emphasized time and again in the episode. We are shown the light on Number 86’s eyes as she prepares to perform the operation on Number 6. The closed circuit television displays the operation for the delectation of the medical profession. Number 86 comments on where light does or does not penetrate. Number 6 looks across the room to see Number 86 drugging his tea. There are the puns on ‘see’ and ‘watch’ as Number 6 hypnotizes Number 86 and again the camera focuses on her eyes as being of the utmost importance to the episode’s meaning. Number 2 and his accomplices view Number 6’s cottage through a screen, as an instrument of their attempt to control him. This is of course an echo of the viewer at home watching the programme. It is challenging: are we partaking of the same ‘power trip’ in watching the programme as Number 2 does in watching Number 6?

Power Relationships

The episode exposes the power relationships in the apparatus of the sate and the way it relates to the individual. Number 6 is labelled as ‘unmutual’. He declares himself to be a free man, not a number. The attempt to condition and socialize Number 6 is an attempt to deprive him of his power. A similar attempt is successful with Number 93.

The media and other forms of communication are at the disposal of the Village authorities. They are used to influence people’s minds: the radio, the newspaper, the television and the telephone are all controlled by the Village authorities. This is evidenced by a line Number 86 says to Number 6:

‘The hearings are televised. That is why your behaviour is so important.’

The department that tries to control Number 6 and forces him to go to hospital is called ‘The Welfare Committee.’ The name-givers are in a position of power: language is another instrument of state control, like the media.

Number 93 is told what to say by the authorities, as another example of language used to create and maintain a power relationship. It is reminiscent of a later television series, ‘Karaoke’ by Dennis Potter. The line is spoken over the public address system:

‘We will tell you what to say.’

There is violence used on Number 6 when he is arrested for the operation to make him social. This shows the violence hidden beneath the surface of state control. It is reminiscent of Foucault’s assertion that the government makes war on the criminal.

The psychiatric profession is another instrument of state control. The men in white coats who appear several times in the episode are there to give this state control an air of legitimacy. The dialogue shows the way the Village authorities deprive the people of their power. The appeals subcommittee says:

‘They are socially conscious citizens who are provoked by the loathsome presence of an unmutual.'

Number 6 replies:

‘They are sheep.’

After the operation, Number 2 is waiting in Number 6’s house. He greets Number 6 with the words:

‘Welcome, Number 6. Welcome. The lamb returns to his fold, eh?’

He implies Number 6 has now been reduced to the status of a sheep, an animal that blindly follows where it is led.

Number 6 eventually addresses the population of the Village and exposes the Welfare Committee for what it is:

‘A tool of those who wish to possess your minds.’

One of the tactics Number 6 uses to combat the attack from the state is irreverent humour. The pun on the word ‘watch’ when he hypnotizes Number 86 is an example of this. He turns the word ‘complaints’ against the Welfare Committee and tears their questionnaire to pieces and scatters them.

The Cold War

Laing’s book and ‘The Prisoner’ are inevitably influenced by their background and the environment in which they appeared. This environment had cultural, social, scientific, economic and military aspects. A major element in this environment was the Cold War.

I have mentioned Laing’s exposure of the paradox of ‘sane’ people who are prepared to use nuclear weapons, as opposed to ‘insane’ individuals who seem harmless. This paradox also appears in Stanley Kubrick’s film ‘Dr. Strangelove’, which was a contemporary cultural manifestation. As I don’t intend to write a political essay, I won’t offer a political analysis of the Cold War, except where it impacts on ‘The Prisoner’.

In the democratic West, we were normally informed the Communist East was immensely powerful, dangerous, organized, implacable and ruthless. People in the egalitarian East were of course given the same message about the Capitalist West. The machinery of state was used to spread this idea.

A major theme of the series was the mystery surrounding the question: who was running the Village? Some group set up the charade to obtain information about why Number 6 resigned and other things. Was it our own or the other side in the Cold War? Were the Communists or the British responsible?

In the opening sequence, when Number 6 asks:

‘Whose side are you on?'

Number 2 replies:

‘That would be telling.’

When the Social Group threaten Number 6 in an attempt to force him to conform to the Village society, they shout a number of insults at him. These insults alternate: ‘rebel’ and ‘reactionary’. This gives the signal, the Social Group and the Village authority it represents could be right-wing or left-wing.

In another episode, ‘The Chimes Of Big Ben’, Number 6 plays chess with a retired General, who mentions his old regiment. It is an echo of a moment in an earlier episode, ‘Arrival’, where a retired admiral plays chess. Number 6 asks the General which regiment and which army it was. There is of course no answer. Number 6 meets Nadia, a beautiful double agent who pretends to help him to escape, whilst actually luring him into a trap. She seems to be Russian, but the episode never reveals which side in the Cold War she is working for.

Relevant to ‘The Prisoner’ is one particular view of the Cold War. The U.S.S.R. and its allies on one side and the U.S.A. and its allies on the other side produced enormous rhetoric of conflict. According to this view, this rhetoric was a complete sham. The vocabulary one chose showed one’s political attitude, of course. The Cold War could be called dictatorship versus freedom or equality versus capitalism. According to this view, the Cold War was never really about this conflict. It was a cosy agreement between the two superpowers which allowed them to keep their respective spheres of influence in check. Isaac Deutscher and Noam Chomsky were amongst those who espoused this view.

There were a number of conferences attended by the premieres of the two superpowers during the last stages of, and immediately following the end of, World War 2. They were held at Yalta, Potsdam, Teheran and Casablanca. They defined spheres of influence in Europe. It was agreed, the U.S.A. would allow the Soviet Union a free hand in Eastern Europe, whilst the Soviet Union would reciprocate in Western Europe. They ensured that sympathetic governments came to power. For example, by 1945, the Communist parties in France and Italy had no less popular support than in all the Eastern European countries. The U.S. government sponsored other parties (such as the Christian Democrats in Italy), so that the Communist parties never came to power at national level. They remained important at local level in France and Italy for some decades after that.

The two superpowers seemed to have no problems co-operating when it suited them. They had done so as allies during the latter part of World War 2. They continued to do so with regard to a number of international organizations, such as the U.N., the Civil Aviation Authority etc.

The example of Yugoslavia was important to this theory. It was a Communist dictatorship, which did all the things supposedly anathema to the democratic West: it controlled all the media, completely banned any political opposition, and used - as implements of control - show trials, internal exile and so on. After Tito quarrelled with the U.S.S.R., Yugoslavia moved into the Western sphere of influence. People from other East European countries faced the same barriers to go to Yugoslavia as they did to go to Western Europe.

The West Berlin airlift is problematical for this view, as it does seem to be an example of conflict, not co-operation, between the superpowers. It should be remembered that this conflict was confined to a very small area of Central Europe and lasted only a very short time. The Cuban Missile crisis also seems to be counter-evidence for this view, for the same reason. It is difficult to see that incident as purely cosmetic or superficial.

Central to the cold war phenomenon was the Iron Curtain, which divided the two different worlds. When I was growing up in the U.K. in the 1970s, the Iron Curtain was a significant entity in my consciousness. I thought I was living in the free, democratic West. As far as I was concerned, Italy, Austria, Sweden, and even Finland were all part of the same democratic West. Czechoslovakia and Poland were located behind the Iron Curtain, in the Communist East. Because they were part of another world politically to me, I somehow expected them to be distant geographically, too. I was sure the capitals of the Communist dictatorships were going to be further from London than those of our allies. I remember my surprise, looking at a school atlas at the age of 11 or 12, and discovering the relative locations of Rome, Vienna, Stockholm and Prague, and of Helsinki and Warsaw.

Conclusion: Influence and Writing

When I first watched ‘A Change of Mind’, I was struck by how articulately it expressed Laing’s psychology. It clearly presents a sane individual surrounded by a psychotic society. The psychologists and psychiatrists, who are invited to watch Number 6’s social conversion, form part of this psychotic society, as if the lunatics were running the asylum. The episode clearly exposes the power relationships in an apparently peaceful society and how those power relationships involve the watcher and the watched. It clearly shows perception as a subjective thing. These are echoes of Foucault and Szasz as well as of Laing.

This all begs questions about the nature of influence and how it appears. Had the writers of the episode read Laing’s work before? Not necessarily. But ideas filter through. Laing’s work formed part of the cultural environment in which the episode was written. It would have been impossible to avoid the influence of that environment.

Other examples of influence of this type come to mind. When I was at University a quarter of a century ago, ‘doing’ existentialism, there was a pop group at the time called ‘Supertramp’, who had a song out with these lyrics:

‘I know it sounds absurd. Please tell me who I am, who I am.’

I remember thinking at the time, it was unlikely Supertramp had ever read any books by Sartre, Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty or Camus. But I thought Supertramp could never have written that song if the existentialists hadn’t first written their books. If there had never been existentialist philosophers, those ideas would not have been available to Supertramp in the context in which they recorded their music.

Similarly, the first episode of ‘Star Trek’ (the one before Captain Kirk took over the Starship Enterprise) seemed to me to be deeply influenced by Descartes’ philosophy. I am not convinced the writer of Star Trek had ever read Descartes.

I am getting on with watching the rest of ‘The Prisoner’. I have also written some other pieces that involve television series from the 1960s onwards:

* The Look: Sade, Sartre, Foucault, and British Television
* Heroes and Villains of British Comedy
* The Monkees, Ronald Reagan, Existentialism and Plato

If you would like to read these other works (or any of my other writing), please contact me through The Unmutual Website by clicking HERE.

Tony Woodrow

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