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ADAM CURTIS: The BBC Q&A session

A SKETCH:Adam Curtis (Adam Curtis)


Janice Hadlow (Controller of BBC One)


Warning: contains opinion! // Jane E. McConnell at #sheffdocfest // 

IN THE BELLY OF the spectacular Lyceum Theatre, just a few paces away from Sheffield train station, Adam Curtis and Janice Hadlow began a conversation – and a thoroughly challenging debate for both parties (which is how it should be: when you feel that little bit of awkwardness and wonder if they are genuinely arguing) – that everybody wishes they had surreptitiously recorded. I sat right at the front, as if osmosis of genius would occur. Hmmm. Needless to say, it didn’t, but at least this piece got written about it.

Janice introduced the Q&A session. “A narrative of bold proposition…starling, sometimes controversial,” she read, as Adam Curtis looked rather composed, quietly gathering his thoughts and probably trying not to appear nervous when faced with half a bunch of media wannabes, and half a bunch of media wannabes (self included.)

On the initial inspiration behind his unique cut/contrast/fuse/cut-even-more! style of edit and direction, Curtis remarked that it wasn’t entirely deliberate.

“I just started playing around,” he said. “It was merely a way out…”

…of the cutting room. Indeed, the blush-evoking topic for Curtis was timing. Specifically: how long it takes for him to write and direct a new documentary for the BBC. (Read: YEARS. IT TAKES YEARS.) He was incredibly bashful about it all, glowing red when Janice mentioned it: “let’s not go there!” he exclaimed.

It was quite a sweet and extremely rare moment – for us as the audience –  of Curtis to have been completely opened up like that. Suggesting Mr Curtis to hurry TFU is pretty much like telling Michelangelo that he’s taking ages, and that my supper is getting well cold as I wait for him, and no, no, hell no I don’t care about your back Michelangelo; just paint me some deity thingies!


For a cerebral sprint of about twenty minutes (but was actually an hour and a half), Adam Curtis gave a packed-out audience a rare insight into for what, how and why he is motivated to create films.

(c) BBC

We were shown a clip of Pandora’s Box before he was grilled further by Janice Hadlow on the muses behind the series. “It was born out of desperation – as a lot of television is.” Interestingly enough, the need to tell a story was not necessarily born, for Curtis, out of a need to match his peers (this is arguably a trait of many filmmakers pushed in an environment where fast turnover and prestige become tantamount in importance.)

“Everything I’ve got, I’ve got from novels,” he said. “Documentaries are often very boring, very general.” Janice as chair of the discussion asked about technique; Curtis as an artist. He breezily replied that he does, in fact, take on elements from “trash telly. And [then I] bolt it onto posh pretentious stuff.” Oops. See, most documentary-makers probably aren’t the biggest fans of Curtis. I’d imagine so anyway – he has an opinion, for starters, and certainly isn’t neutral. He is both the narrator and the director when traditionally, the two roles are separated. Finally – he likes the jump cut. All. The. Bloody. Time.

When the Q&A session was opened up to the floor, he was invited to comment on his ‘Britishness’ in terms of the tone used in the shaping of voice and presentation of his documentaries. For example, the choice in soundtrack and edits are, in his own view, more ‘American-styled’.  But if there was one thing that I personally wanted to ask Curtis – which was covered easily by the BBC Q&A – was the Brooker link. Surprisingly, this sparked a whole new theme in the discussion: media 3.0/transmedia/EVERYTHING. For Curtis, one of his peers is seemingly, too, one of his heroes. A stalwart of the Guardian who began his writing career in TV reviewing, before moving onto pithy opinion writing, his sharp, clever, critical (but always with a heart) articles have won him hundreds of thousands of readers across the world.

Curtis allowed the mention of Charlie Brooker as a springboard for this: “The New Journalism.”

“The missing link these days is between what we feel, and big world events… Charlie Brooker: he reports himself and his reaction to things,” he said.

(c) It Felt Like A Kiss/BBC/Curtis

Yet if there was one recurring theme throughout his enviously articulate stream of consciousness, it was the idea of “The Rat of Individualism”. Not, like, this massive and mischievous Rat who has crowned himself the King of the ideological concept itself, but rather, the ruling ideology that keeps us trapped in our habits – and to a greater extent, I guess, our machines, our computers, our Twitter accounts. This is a theme that Curtis hits on a lot in his documentaries, and especially his latest series, All Watched over By Machines of Loving Grace.

From a session that was meant to allow us all a window into the vision of a great documentary maker, the audience instead found that best of all, Curtis is still a great teacher. And rather honest, too: a reviver of sociology and a fearless explicator of the power structures which he understands are the driving forces behind our lives and often, our thoughts and feelings. Curtis explored this in depth in his second series, The Century of the Self.

“There are powerful forces, powerful interest groups – not conspiracies,” he said. These are surely the words of someone who is a journalist at heart. But not once did he refer to himself as one. Or as an artist, or a director, or even a filmmaker.

Perhaps a lot of the mystery that belies the enigma of Adam Curtis is that none of us know ‘what’ he is. He just happens to be many things: a director, filmmaker and journalist…

Or maybe – just maybe, someone who is telling a story. 

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