Adam Curtis: the medium and the message


Frame still from 1935 home movie footage by Group Captain Lister showing the bombing of Warziristan villages in Afghanistan in 1935, from a 1980 BBC documentary

Television is changing. This change is not simply in the modes of delivery (essentially the broadband and broadcast trend demonstrated by iPlayer, Hulu, SeeSaw, Project Canvas and such like) but in forms of television productions themselves. We are familiar with television programmes having offshoots such as books, DVD releases, websites, forums, and so on. Now we are starting to see programmes which have an organic life across several platforms, and whose development we can track, comment upon, and maybe influence.

The BBC’s ‘open source’ series on the history of the Internet, Virtual Revolution, though a relatively conventional set of programmes once it made it to air, went to town with the idea of sharing its ideas with a knowledgeable audience. The programme blog brought us into the decisioning-making process, arguing ideas, explaining trains of thought, testing hypotheses, exchanging information.

However, the truly ground-breaking work is being done by Adam Curtis. The director of the uber-cultish The Trap, Power of Nightmares and Century of the Self has established a blog, Adam Curtis – The Medium and the Message, to show projects in embryos and the fruits of his research, which may end up as programmes, events, installations, or maybe nowhere at all. He has used it to preview It Felt Like a Kiss, a programme (yet to be broadcast on TV) which was also part of a shock art event at the Manchester International Festival in 2009, and to cover subjects ranging from the British art of heckling to the strange relationship between anthropological filmmakers and Brazilian tribes.

However, the major use of The Medium and the Message has been the series Kabul: City Number One. Curtis outlined his ideas at the start of the series in September 2009:

I am researching the extraordinary history of the West’s relationship to Afghanistan over the past 200 years. It is a very complex, and sometimes weird, story. These are notes on some of the characters and episodes involved.

What he writes are notes, though rather more artfully composed than the random jottings this might suggest. Curtis’s trademark is unearthing hidden histories in which remarkable and seemingly disparate elements come together to relate a history of our times that is unknown to most, yet which Curtis persuasively argues has come to shape the way our perception of the world is managed. It is borderline conspiracy theory, but it also makes us rethink our assumptions. Curtis also makes bravura use of archive footage, both for its mocking commentary on the times and for the special evidence it provides on the past.

Kabul: City Number One is now eight blog posts old, and weaves an extraordinary tale of past and present British and American involvement in Afghanistan, of opposing the opposing forces of modernism and traditionalism, of conflicting ideologies and the triumphs, tragedies and idiosyncracies of some remarkable (and often little-known) individuals who have played their part on a history that becomes ever more fascinating complex the more Curtis delves into motives and connections.

Especially engrossing is the use of archive film. Curtis is making available clips from the BBC archive (to UK users only, owing to copyright restrictions) which illustrate his theme, but which go far beyond the conventional use of clips in a programme, both because he is able to show more and because they allow him to explore tagents to his theme, encouraging us to explore the subject(s) further for ourselves. For example, in episode no. 1 he included clips from a 1972 BBC series British Empire: Echoes of Britainnia’s Rule including an horrific recreation of the execution by British soldiers of Indians during the Mutiny who were strapped to cannons. Curtis tells us that the sequence was edited out after broadcast, and that special permission is required to show it. He has evidently obtained such permission.

Other clips have included such disparate material as spirited Afghan pop music, a haunting memoir by mountaineer Peter Boardman from the 1978 BBC series The Light of Experience, quirky clips from children’s programme Blue Peter, Soviet propaganda films, BBC news reports, and – in the most recent episode The Weird World of Warizistan – astonishing home movie footage of the British aerial bombing of Afghanistan in 1935 (made all the more extraordinary by the cool tone of the pilot/cameraman being interviewed in 1980).

All of this makes for great television. It’s not conventional television, of course, since it is presented in the form of a blog with video clips, but Curtis has broken down the barrier between production process and exhibition to create something that is television in a new form. The commentary is there; the thesis is established; there are images, video clips and audio files, but these illustrations – like the argument in general – show far greater licence than television allows. Curtis rambles wherever his mind leads him, and the clips are far longer than television would ever allow as illustration. We see the archive video in its fuller extent, and we can choose whether to see some, all or none of it (it needs to be noted that Curtis is rather poor when it comes to the provenance and dating of his discoveries in the archives). We would never see any of these clips on the usual TV archive sites or catch-up services. It takes a television producer with an oblique eye to unearth such material and to see how it contributes to the thesis. It requires a belief in the documentary value of video – not as decoration, but as a medium that records life in a profoundly illuminating way. Curtis praises the filmmakers whose work he has unearthed again and again, with evident respect for their skills and what the medium can reveal.

How this is all paid for is not made clear. Curtis can find the clips and broadcast them, but is he working to a standard TV production budget? Is this material going to end up as the next Curtis TV series, or has it moved from work-in-progress to the work itself? Whatever the method, and whatever the result, do watch/read The Medium and the Message, and think not just about Curtis’s agenda but about what extraordinary material lies in our broadcast archives, how many are the different ways in which such material can be used to inform, educate and entertain, and how important it is that we keep on demanding for ever greater access to those archives. And this is not just access to the programme as broadcast, but equally to its composite parts, which have lives of their own. There are many millions of different histories there, still waiting to be told.

Note: Originally published on the British Library’s Moving Image blog, 6 April 2010, and reproduced here with some small emendations.


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