Saturday, 8 November 2014

Funeral in Maidenhead

“He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”
George Orwell, 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'.

As a child, I loved Gerry Anderson's puppet shows. They were part of an optimistic, science-led vision of life in the 21st century that drew on the Jet Age, the Atomic Age and the Space Age; Concorde, the Moon landings, and a future where power would be "too cheap to meter". I loved the various planes and rockets of International Rescue in Thunderbirds, bankrolled by billionaire philanthropist Jeff Tracey from his secret Pacific volcano island (a set-up which under other circumstances could easily have been a Bond villain headquarters). I loved the slightly dark and sinister world of Captain Scarlet, missing as I did at the time all of the 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' undertones and focusing instead on the cool cars and planes, the flying aircraft carrier of Cloudbase. I had a model of an Angel Interceptor on my windowsill. And I especially loved Joe 90, as it seemed (as it was no doubt supposed to) to be almost within reach even of a slightly nerdy kid in the West Midlands - a boy (in NHS glasses!) who gets to be a real secret agent courtesy of his professor father's strange machine, which can implant any knowledge in his mind from a bank of magnetic cassette tapes (hey, it was the 60s, okay?)

I hadn't seen an episode of Joe 90 for more than 30 years, but YouTube brings all our yesteryears back to life, and so in a slight 'gin and tonic just before bed' kind of mood, I found myself watching the first episode last night, and, bringing my adult knowledge and range of cultural references to it, it was a very different experience from the one I had had as a child. As a young boy, I hadn't appreciated Anderson's future set-up, with its World Government and World Intelligence Network, or that, as is revealed in the closing scene, that the USSR is now (the programme is set in what was then the distant future of 2013) allied with the West against an insidious threat from the East (ie China). But most of all, I hadn't realised just what a rip-off of the Ipcress File it all was! It seems blindingly obvious now; an agent with dorky NHS glasses and an east London accent is brainwashed by a massive, psychedelic machine. The ground-breaking film of the Ipcress File, Len Deighton's downmarket jab at James Bond, had been released in 1965, just three years before the first episode of Joe 90 hit the screens. Joe is, essentially, Harry Palmer Junior, and the BIG RAT (Brain Impulse Galvanoscope Record And Transfer) is just a slightly more benign rendering of the IPCRESS (Induction of Psycho-neuroses by Conditioned Reflex under strESS) process. The clincher is that the original book mentions secrets about the first Soviet atom bomb test, codenamed 'Joe 1' by the West - 'Joe' there being Josef Stalin, of course. The leap from Joe 1 to Joe 90 is not a large one. The Harry Palmer films continued with more conventional plotlines like Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain, and Gerry Anderson's Maidenhead-based Century 21 Productions turned instead to alien abductions with his live action 'UFO', but for a moment at the end of the 60s there was a strange crossover between spy fiction, sci-fi and psychedelia.

Because of course Gerry Anderson, like Len Deighton, were both just tapping into a wider zeitgeist about 'brainwashing' that had occupied the late 50s and early 60s. Its origins go back much further, as the quote from Orwell at the top indicates. Nineteen Eighty-Four was written in 1948, but Winston Smith's conditioning in the Ministry of Love is based on a kind of Pavlovian training whose research goes back to the Soviet Union of the 1920s. The idea burst into popular western consciousness during the Korean War, when some US prisoners of war were found to have cooperated with their Chinese captors, and some even defected. China at the time believed wholeheartedly in the kind of 're-education' that Orwell described just a couple of years earlier, and they described it in Mandarin as xi nao, which translates as 'mind cleansing'... or of course, 'brainwashing'.

The fear that China had stumbled across the way to 're-programme' human beings to behave as obedient automata seemed, to western governments of the time, to explain the success of an ideology like communism in infecting even the minds of dutiful US G.I.s. The idea reached its logical conclusion in 1961's The Manchurian Candidate, where a US prisoner of war from Korea is brainwashed into assassinating the US president. The fact that Lee Harvey Oswald had spent time in Russia seemed to confirm how prophetic the film had been when two years later he shot JFK. The only twist that Joe 90 makes is to try and imagine how brainwashing might be used for good, rather than evil. The psychedelic nature of the sounds and images of IPCRESS and the BIG RAT are also a nod towards the explosion of use of LSD that had occurred in the 60s, and the use of LSD as part of brainwashing experiments became very much a trope of the time, and even seriously experimented with for a while by the CIA as part of their MK-ULTRA programme.

And this is where the story turns dark, because although the psychological research behind it has been comprehensively discredited, and although LSD proved to be useless for pretty much anything other than appreciating early Pink Floyd and making you stare at the patterns in your jeans for 12 hours, brainwashing never quite went away. The allure of being able to turn your enemies into your own assets is so appealing that it is still a carrot dangled in front of intelligence agencies and military special operations groups to this day. There is, as Jon Ronson discovered in The Men Who Stare at Goats, a thread running from Big Sur and the Esalen Institute through MK-ULTRA and the bizarre psychic theories of Lt Col Jim Channon's First Earth Battalion all the way to Abu Ghraib and  Guantanemo Bay, interrogation by "disorientation techniques" like sleep deprivation, loud, repetative sounds and waterboarding. What is Homeland, if not a latter-day Manchurian Candidate, where Al Qaeda captive Brody is turned from a US Marine into a deadly terrorist?


  1. Joe 90 was inspired by Harry Palmer? Or was it cultural osmosis permeating into all areas?

    Captain Scarlet was very strange. What was all that about? Alien body snatchers?

    1. A little of both, I suspect, Nick, but Joe 90 is definitely 'inspired by' The Ipcress File. Joe wears a light coloured mac and thick-framed specs and talks with a London accent. He is regularly brainwashed by a strange psychedelic machine. And as I say, Deighton's original book of The Ipcress File sees Palmer trying to get access to Soviet atom bomb test data, codenamed 'Joe 1'.

      Captain Scarlet was Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but with the twist that they had to completely destroy something before they could duplicate it, leading to lots of huge Derek Meddings explosions. By the way, it never occurred to me at the time, but the Mysterons are actually AIs belonging to a forerunner/Ancients type species.