A million acts of reportage, programming and documentation have left the BBC with the planet’s most complete video archive of the twentieth century. BBC writer and documentarian Adam Curtis’s technique is to obsessively sift through these uncountable hours of footage looking for connections. He shuffles through the BBC’s memories like its regretful conscience, imbuing each with a paranoid significance. Minor snippets of old news broadcasts take on symbolic force when placed in Curtis’s counter-historical narratives. Thus in The Power of Nightmares, Curtis’s series on the concurrent rise of neo-conservatism and radical Islam, we see President Reagan dedicating the space shuttle Columbia to the Afghan mujahedeen. A young Ayman Al-Zawahiri chants hoarsely at journalists through the bars of his cage. American children play Bible Adventures for Nintendo (“Look out! He’s the Antichrist!”). Each snippet would have been unremarkable when broadcast. Individually, they are fascinating historical documents. They flesh out Curtis’s Pynchon-esque vision of the twentieth century, full of improbable characters and laced with a creeping paranoia.
Curtis’s films explore the power of ideas, and their tendency to mutate in unanticipated ways. Every Curtis documentary has a soothingly predictable rhythm. It begins with old news footage over which Curtis’s authoritative British voice describes two phenomena. Their differences are emphasized. They appear to have nothing whatsoever in common.
But, curiously, they do.
A tortured metaphor illustrates the profound interrelation of these phenomena. The creators of one of the phenomena never anticipated the effects that their phenomenon would have on the other phenomenon. The first phenomenon acted on the other phenomenon, and in the process, both phenomena became an entirely new phenomenon.
“And we are still suffering from the effects of that phenomenon today,” says Curtis. Cue quickly intercut shots of flowers blooming in stop-motion, a snake charmer in a Bollywood movie, the smiling face of Tony Blair, factories spewing pollution, and newsreel footage of people buying shoes in Weimar Germany, followed by the name of the documentary in all-caps Helvetica over grainy footage of a swan.
Many find Curtis’s style insufferable, and understandably so; it can seem better-suited to a music video than to purportedly serious explorations of twentieth-century political ideology. This grating superficiality extends, at times, to the substance of the films, as Curtis massages historical narratives to fit his neatly paradoxical framing devices. This Curtis parody sums up all that is infuriating about his work; Curtis’s work is described as “the televisual equivalent of a late-night drunken Wikipedia binge with pretensions to narrative coherence.” Yet such criticisms fail to capture both what is valuable about Curtis, and what his work says about the eroding authority of the BBC.
The BBC was once the subject of a broad liberal consensus. Founded as the world’s first public service broadcaster, its motto, “nation shall speak peace unto nation,” implicitly posited the broadcaster as the national voice, addressed not just to its citizens but to the world. While governments challenged its editorial independence, the BBC as institution remained uncontroversial, its civilizing, educative mission accepted uncritically by both ends of the political spectrum.
Its reception was to change under Margaret Thatcher, who saw the BBC as wasteful, politically suspect, and a ripe target for privatization. Her unprecedented attacks on the legitimacy of the broadcaster were amplified by a right-wing press that Rupert Murdoch was rendering increasingly virulent. In 1989, Murdoch delivered the MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, where he dismissed the BBC’s public service mission and argued for its privatization. Twenty years later, his now-disgraced son James delivered his own MacTaggart Lecture, in which he likened the existence of a government-owned BBC to the world of 1984, a comparison that might have startled George Orwell, who was a prolific contributor to the broadcaster. Today, the BBC remains an institution under siege. Once the authoritative voice of England itself, it must now fend off constant accusations of bias, irrelevance, and anti-competitive behaviour. Powerful forces agitate for its destruction. These challenges to its survival and legitimacy have forced the broadcaster into a defensive and self-critical poise. The broadcaster now interrogates itself and its role in the world in a way that would have been unthinkable 40 years ago, and Curtis’s work is a manifestation of this trend.
Perhaps the best place to appreciate Curtis’s work is on his BBC blog, The Medium and the Message, where one can enjoy his research and curation without having to endure his style. This fascinating post begins with a typically glib comparison (the cultural stagnation of late communism versus the cultural stagnation of late capitalism) before moving into a profound, extensively researched exploration of Soviet popular culture during the 1970s and 1980s. Of particular interest is the tragic story of Dean Reed, the American pop idol who defected to the USSR, where he became a state-endorsed “Comrade Rockstar,” before dying under mysterious circumstances. The blog features similarly fascinating, extensively researched posts on the history of yoga, the cruise ship industry, and the steady-state theory of the universe. In a way, Curtis is like the archaeologist who reconstructs the garish paintwork on classical statuary. You might find the aesthetics offensive and the handiwork sloppy, but you will never see the original in the same light again.
This power of Curtis’s work is particularly evident when he turns his gaze on the BBC itself. This short film for the BBC’s Newswipe program argues that following the Cold War, television journalists could no longer appeal to political authority or present their work as a truth-seeking crusade; instead, they looked to the perceived authority of the viewing public, which accounts for the rise of “citizen journalism,” and the attendant and constant undignified pleas of broadcasters to “send us your videos.” Curtis’s own career in fact has much in common with the rise of the citizen journalist. Both owe their existence, at least in part, to the fact that the BBC and other major broadcasters can no longer take their own authority for granted. They must find something more to offer, whether in the cellphone footage of their viewers, or in Curtis’s slanted visions, the eccentric institutional memory of the BBC.