The Prisoner in the Asylum: It's Your Funeral Part 1

The introduction and master post to this series of posts about The Prisoner can be found 
here. Edited 30/5/22 to make the original post less unwieldy.

Medication time! It is an indicator of how posh a clinic The Village is that the staff haven't been round to wake you to give you a sleeping tablet yet, but we've finally hit some medication.

I am going to pick up on one apparently insignificant comment in the episode and give it a disproportionate importance because the subject was of disproportionate importance to mental health after the Second World War: it is the point at which Number 2 refers to Number 50 as being given one of the new super-strength meprobamates.

Meprobamate is actually the name of a specific drug so this plural use is a little confusing,  unless it is intended to mean the catch-all group of anxiolytic drugs which do not belong to the other chemical groups of benzodiazepines and barbiturates. Meprobamate was a significant part of psycho-pharmacology in the fifties and because The Prisoner is partly a commentary on psychiatry it is significant that it is named here. At one point one third of ALL prescriptions in the US in the 1950s were for meprobamate!

The sheer cultural signifcance of the drug cannot be underestimated:

'More than a medical phenomenon, the little white pill shaped an era. For millions of Americans, Miltown was a new and seemingly harmless drug to be experienced, experimented with, and enjoyed. Miltown inspired new beverages and jewelry. It was discussed and joked about in manazines, on radio, on Braodway, and on television. Salvador Dali paid artistic tribute to Miltown's capacity to rid the mind of troubling distractions and free it for genius; Aldous Huxley proclaimed that Miltown would inaugurate an era of great fun. So far-reaching was its cultural import, so seamless was its integration into America's social and linguistic fabric, that by the late 1950s, Miltown needed no explicit explanation. The word had become shorthand for a cultural phenomenon people intuitively understood.' Andrea Tone: The Age of Anxiety: A History of America's Turbulent Affair with Tranquilizers. Basic Books, New York, 2009, p. 28.

I think the idea of a super-strength meprobamate may be fictional although the drug was available in various forms and even mixed with other things including hormones for HRT. I also believe the delayed action to be science fiction: you can get medications which are slow release but they start releasing as soon as any other medication. Even if you gave it in some sort of pill that only dissolved a day later, the patient would certainly be aware of that and it couldn't be chewed or dissolved, and I don't think you could ever be guaranteed the exact moment of action we see in the show.

In fact I am in some difficulty to decide how to proceed at this point because I am aware that the social matters referred to about psychiatric drugs are quite different in the US from what they are in the UK and am not sure what is intended here, but it's best to mention both. I have tended to consider the show as commentary from a UK perspective but the mention of meprobamate brings in a speicifially American issue here; obviously I have no way of knowing whether McGoohan intended this to sound the way it would to UK or US ears.

The issue is this, and it has literally just made me realize what Americans mean when they refer to Big Pharma. In the UK as you know, we have a universal healthcare system so if you get an NHS prescription you don't usually get a trademarked brand name drug, you get a generic medication which could be made by one of a number of manufacturers whose products are prescribable on the NHS. If you want a brand name you have to go private. In many insurance or payment-based health care systems drugs are prescribed by the brand name. You will readily see that this automatically changes the advertising, competition and business implications of pharmacology on either side of the Atlantic, and the significance here is that meprobamate got caught up in a massive conflict about its marketing:

'In fact, prescription drug makers jumped so enthusiastically into the postwar commercial boom that they drew the attention of more than just their potential customers. A series of price-fixing and collusion scandals hit the industry in the 1950s, helping provoke what would turn out to be a half-century worth of nearly constant congressional investigations. These began as early as the 1958, when the House of Representatives convened hearings into the advertising of Miltown and its competitors. More serious hearings began in the senate the following year, when Senator Estes Kefauver, already famed for his televised investigation of organised crime, turned his attention to an industry that, he claimed, earned outrageous profits by hawking medications like soap.' David Herzberg: Happy Pills in America. The John S Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2009, p. 24.

The point is that the apparently insignifcant mention of meprobamate will mean significantly different things to US and UK viewers, and while made in the UK the show was intended for broadcast in the US as well. The show is clearly a social commentary but it isn't clear exactly which society it is commenting on here and helpfully McGoohan is always described as being Irish-American-English, so understand it how you will with my blessing. The fact that Smith/Number 6 picks up on the fact that Number 50 has been medicated and his comment that she has been force-fed it would suggest, though, that the intention was more about control and hidden coercion. I have avoided them so far but there were further controversies in the US over meprobamate and its use in children, to promote conformity in women and to emasculate men, so it is truly a huge subject mentioned in one throw away phrase.

As I stated in the introduction to this series of posts, I don't think that a specifically psychiatric explanation of the show was intended, although I do think that it is a valid one because I believe psychiatry relates to the themes of society, control, power, relationships and life which I believe were the intended themes of the show. I think the more specific interpretation was deliberately left by McGoohan to the viewer, and that is why it is open to so many interpretations. The show does not therefore specifically address the obvious broader issue of the role of drugs in society beyond how they are used in the show, in a specific closed community. Meprobamate as I said above, was heavily used to help in such diverse conditions as stressed businessmen, menopausal women and even bed wetting children - these are certainly within the remit of the show's themes but may have been too specific if brought in explicitly. What I love absolutely best about The Prisoner is the way you have to go away and make up your own mind about whether to take the Miltown or undergo psychotherapy, because it wouldn't be characteristic of the show to tell you. It's not like you're incarcerated in The Village!

So around 1,500 words into this blog post we have only got five minutes into the episode, and all I can say is it's lucky nobody comes here expecting normal TV blogging. In the second part of this post I will consider the implications from an institutional point of view of a bomb plot.

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