Adam Curtis began his career working on BBC1’s That’s Life! with Esther Rantzen, kind of a forerunner of Watchdog. A strange place to start, but as anyone working in TV knows it’s all about getting your foot in the door. His first documentary was released in 1984, and since then he has become known for […]

Adam Curtis began his career working on BBC1’s That’s Life! with Esther Rantzen, kind of a forerunner of Watchdog. A strange place to start, but as anyone working in TV knows it’s all about getting your foot in the door. His first documentary was released in 1984, and since then he has become known for his outspoken demeanour and oblique narrative methods. His technique intersperses archive footage with a very definite, journalistic storyline, leaving the viewer with a refreshing new angle on politics, psychoanalysis, economics and just about anything else of importance.

I spoke to Adam on the day of the royal wedding about his upcoming three-part BBC series All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace.

What are your thoughts on the Royal Wedding and the national hysteria surrounding it?

But is there a national hysteria surrounding it? I think one of the really interesting things of our time is the behaviour of journalism – not so much TV journalism, but printed journalism. It is desperate to try and find things that will create mass topics. Journalists keep on looking for simple stories that will somehow bring back a simpler world, but what they produce is so boring. We are not dealing with the really interesting things in our society – how power really does work these days. I also think the coverage of the wedding has been rather hollow. I don’t mean it’s fake, but the people doing it don’t really believe it and there isn’t an audience for it. There’s a sort of general indifference.

Why do you prefer to be known as a journalist and not a documentary maker?

This is unfair but I’m going to generalise. Journalism is about going out into the chaos and complexity of the real world, finding stories which inevitably simplify that world but in their simplification make you look at things in a different way. That involves an act of finding stuff out and storytelling. You’re proactive as a journalist. I think the real problem with documentary makers – especially in this country, which goes back to a sort of gentlemanly farmer-style tradition of the 1930s – is that somehow you just go out and film what’s out there. You don’t – to quote them (I would never use this word) – ‘mediate’ the footage with commentary. Somehow that is seen as more radical than grubby little journalists who go out and tell stories and use words.

Of course, the documentary lot hate me because I slather my stuff with commentary and I say what I think. If I was going to be rude about documentary making I would say that more often than not, in its attempt to be aesthetic and somehow experiential, it ends up, far from offering you a new view, reinforcing myths and clichés about the world. I think most of these are gone actually – but documentaries that say, “God, aren’t human beings inhuman to each other? Isn’t it terrible?” It’s what I call ‘Oh Dearism’. They go out and they film harrowing images which are often inappropriately aestheticised and then expect you to go, “Oh dear!” Well I’m sorry, but that’s not enough. Journalism is about finding things that may be horrible and may make you say “Oh dear”, but then saying, “Have you thought about looking at it this way?”

What inspired the name of your new series, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace?

Back in 1967 there was a young poet who later became a famous novelist called Richard Brautigan. He was part of the hippy movement, but a really interesting group who were fascinated by new computer technologies and how machines could fuse with nature. In 1967 he walked through San Francisco one day handing out a sort of manifesto-poem as a free sheet, called All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace. The vision it portrayed is of a future world where networks of machines and networks of nature will fuse into one great web. Politics and power will die away and it will be what he called a cybernetic paradise. I thought about it and decided that that’s where we’re going anyway. At that point I realised that maybe it is an ideology – machines, the web and new kinds of social networking.

Was that poem the main departure point for the series?

No, I had lots of things lurking in my brain. This is the way I tend to do it. I have lots of stories I pick up on. For example, I’d already read in some dry history books that the origins of the idea of an ecosystem lie as much in cybernetic theories of computer control systems as they do in nature itself. I was fascinated by the fact that in the early 90s, the hippies had come together with the right-wing libertarians, who wanted to use computers to regenerate Capitalism, in Silicon Valley and come up with these utopian ideas about computers. When I saw that poem, I thought it had a sort of dream-like root – it was a vision and an idea. I like ideas and how they play out in the real world. You have lots of things in your brain and then they coalesce into a story or argument. Also, it’s about time I looked at computers. You can’t look at them and think of them as neutral.

I’m assuming Twitter and social media will play a part in the series…

No, I’m not falling into the trap of attacking these things in the way that they’ve been attacked before. Twitter and Facebook are there by implication, because what I’m dealing with is the roots of the idea that we can be connected in systems, which can stabilise and balance themselves as an alternative to old hierarchies. I’m much more interested in the things you don’t know, which is where it all comes from. It isn’t an innocent idea that we can all be connected together. It actually goes back to the hippy communes, and the idea of distributive networks and no hierarchy, and way back into the British Empire and the idea of ecosystems that can balance themselves.

But yes, I am critical of the naivety behind the idea that a self-organising system can change the world. What I argue is that that’s actually a machine theory of organisation. Social networking can help to organise rebellions, as we’ve seen in Egypt, but actually they will not tell you what comes next. There are no ideas. There are no actual visions of the future, just systems of organisation. At the end of the second film I look at what happened to the early ‘internet revolutions’ in Ukraine, Georgia and Kurdistan. They all failed. They were held up as examples and I am not decrying them in any way, because they were noble attempts to throw off dictators and oppressive systems, but actually in Ukraine the guy they threw out is back in power and dismantling democracy as we speak. What I’m saying is we’re confusing systems of social organisation with ideas of how to change the world. Machine ideas can’t envisage another world – they can only reorganise the world as it is.

If I was brutal, a lot of the ‘visionary’ nature of internet utopianism really boils down to you and me and lots of other people, sitting up late at night relabeling our photos on Flickr, as far as I can see. It tends to turn us into librarians or, to be even more brutal, management theorists, because that’s really what we’re dealing with – that our aim now is not to try and change the world, because we distrust politics, but to simply manage the world and keep it stable.

The idea of the internet as democratic and open is interesting. Since most people use it to reinforce their own ideas, they’ll only read what they want to read, and they’ll be dismissing any dissent or debate and end up in a comfortable bubble.

That’s absolutely right, and again it’s about organisation. I don’t go into it too much, but it’s absolutely true. Marketeers will tell you that it’s reinforcing – “If you like this, then you’ll like that”. The normal curve of people’s choices when they buy things online is much narrower than it is when they used to go to record shops, for example. It’s an echo chamber of other people like you, which simplifies the world. It doesn’t change it. I have to deal with a lot of online utopians at the BBC. I challenge them to name something beyond three minutes long that is genuinely an original piece of work, that isn’t just copied from TV, film or radio. They never can.

On the topic of social media, what I find interesting is the chasm between the real person and their online persona, how delicately that is sculpted.

The question that you have to ask people is: would they write about their real feelings when they’re feeling really down? No, because half of your ‘friends’ or ‘followers’ would give you up. They don’t want to know that you’re lonely, shit and depressed, because it would be like meeting you dribbling at a party. They wouldn’t want to talk to you. So what you do is you create a public persona, and actually there is an argument that what you’re really bringing back is the old division between public and private persona which dominated the West until the 1950s, from the 18th Century onwards. The public and private ‘you’ were separate, and maybe we are working our way back to that. It’s very formal and somewhat hierarchical, but it’s fun(!)

The new series is going to be three episodes. Do you prefer to present your pieces in chunks?

Yeah, but that’s also the nature of the medium. Episodes are good because you can build. You can’t assume anyone will watch all of them, but it’s a very good way of tackling quite a broad area which has pervaded lots of aspects of our lives from different angles. The first episode is about economics and ideas of a stable world, the second one is about hippies and nature, self-organising systems and revolution, and the third is about genetics. I’ve never been interested in doing feature-length documentaries really, because that’s where they farm out the posh gits who don’t like having commentary. TV is great for episodic storytelling.

Last month we interviewed Ken Loach, and he said that conscientious TV is “stifled by managers and executives” and that “there’s got to be a different attitude at the top” for this to change. Do you agree?

I think it’s the most powerful medium there is at the moment. If you have a very powerful medium, there are going to be a lot of gatekeepers. You just have to accept that. If you want to get stuff on TV, you’ve got to find ways round that. Sometimes you manoeuvre, sometimes you change, but what do you expect? Them to say, “Oh yeah! Come on and say whatever you want!” No. You are always going to get executives who are very careful, very aware of how they are judged. All sorts of things come into play. You deal with it or you don’t.

People say, “Oh, television’s going really bad.” It’s always been shit, but every now and then there is something good on. It’s run by people who want to be sure it doesn’t go wrong. You can’t blame them for that, especially at a state broadcasting organisation like the BBC. I know I’m speaking from a position of privilege, but I don’t think people at the top in TV are much worse than they used to be.

The other thing I would say in their defence is that when I get wannabe producers coming to me saying they can’t get something really radical on TV, what they say is clichéd. “Bankers are bad” – I know that, Hollywood tells me that. Or that “the Afghanistan war is really wrong” – yes…? I have a suspicion that a lot of the producer class, especially the unthinking left, haven’t really got anything new to say about the world. That’s the real problem. That is also the problem in politics at the moment. Look at Labour – it doesn’t really have anything new to say.

Have you experienced limitations like that at the BBC ?

Yes, of course, but you’re aware of them. Your job is to negotiate these people. I’m not going to tell you specifically what I’ve done, because that’s the politics of how you get stuff on TV.

I was very proud that I got The Power of Nightmares on TV, but actually in fairness to the BBC I had no problems with it. It went through all sorts of levels of lawyers and senior executives, but they backed me, and I think that shows it is possible. The time was right, because they knew that a lot of reporting of terrorism was simplified, distorted and naive. I’m not in any way trying to make it seem easy, but you don’t go into powerful places without having to face that sort of opposition.

Do you think the internet can offer any real solution for filmmakers who feel they cannot get on TV ?

I’m waiting to see it. I love Youtube. I love sneezing pandas, and I think one of the interesting cultural changes the internet has produced is a changing relationship with animals. But I’m surprised by how little original stuff there is on the internet. Beyond three and a half minutes, I haven’t seen a film or programme that genuinely couldn’t have been put on television. They’ve tried multiple endings and the audience choosing the plots. They’re tried those ‘go and find something out in the real world’ games, but none of them really worked.

One interesting area is BBC iPlayer, because if you can watch stuff again, filmmakers can make stuff for iPlayer that could be 20 hours long, just one great long thing that people could stop and rewatch, just like a novel. That’s one thing you can’t do on television.

I was reading your website the other day, specifically your extended piece about the war in Biafra in the 60s. Are web posts like this something you will move towards more in the future? They feel like mini films.

I’ve sort of stumbled on something there. The focus is the BBC archive films themselves, so you’re not doing what newspapers do, which is break up an online news story with a chunk of video which is annoying and irrelevant. I’m doing the opposite by presenting videos with little explanations in between. The BBC love it. Once I’ve got these new films out of the way I’m hoping to do more. It’s like a form of essay writing. I can play videos for longer. I can take unedited rushes, and viewers really like this. I’ve been given all the footage the BBC has shot in Afghanistan in the last 30 years – it occupies vast numbers of drives – and now I’m thinking how best to use that…

Do you have a specific process with regards to collecting archive footage?

I am quite dull, but I don’t on my day off go and sit in the dark and watch footage. But there are other things I have discovered too, like news comp reels, which were originally two-inch tapes that the BBC used to dump everything that was put out on the news over satellite on to. One of the most fascinating things is just to watch through, usually on fast forward. If I come across an image I like, I take a copy. If I feel a particular part of a story has an emotional resonance, often I will remember an image I have and assume that most people will get the connection, even if it makes no logical sense.

Do you have free rein of the BBC archive?

I’m allowed to look at whatever I want. Basically the only real restrictions are legal. Drama I can’t really use, because there are all sorts of contracts with actors, but I don’t really want to use. But the BBC knows full well that the public paid for all this stuff, and therefore it should be available completely online. But the trouble with that is that it would be too much, so having people like me going in there and using it in new ways is part of the public service. There is a very strong argument that everything we do should be available forever.

Have you got any advice for people trying to make original films for TV ?

If you find a story that you think is fascinating, the chances are other people will as well. You may think that saying bankers are bad is a good area to look at, but you’ve then got to find details that really surprise people. Do something original online. I know everyone says the internet is mayhem and full of stuff, but as I said before there is very little that is original. It’s full of homogenising groups who mumble to each other that Barack Obama is not American, or whatever, but if you can find a really good story and publicise it online, it’s a very good calling card for you.

Don’t get obsessed with buying the latest camera that can do some fantastic, high-definition recordings and then make lots of videos where only a tiny bit of the frame is in focus, which is the mode of the moment. That’s so boring. What I want is someone who tells me a really interesting story. South Park do it every week. The people who run TV are actually desperate for good stuff.

Adam Curtis will discuss All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace and the inspiration behind its creation at the Lyceum Theatre on Friday 10th June, 2.15pm as part of Doc/Fest 2011.

The documentary will be shown on 11th June, 10am at the Showroom Cinema, as well as on BBC Two.

bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis

Interview by Sam Walby.